Come to a Desolate Place and Rest
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“And [Jesus] said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31).
“And [Jesus] said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our text begins with the apostles returning to Jesus and telling Him all that they had done and taught during their recent two-by-two mission tour. But something important happens during this brief “vicarage.” We dare not pass over it or we’ll miss the full impact of this passage. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, has just been executed thanks to birthday boy Herod and his hasty oath. John’s head is served on a platter, a gruesome party favor for Herodias and her daughter the dancer. John’s disciples claim his body and lay it in a tomb.
The beheading of a prophet like John is big news. But Jesus isn’t surprised. That’s the way it goes with God’s prophets. How much more it is with Jesus, the Christ Himself! He is rejected by His hometown of Nazareth. He has become the object of Herod’s superstitious fear. As the reports of Jesus’ teaching and miracles reach him, the paranoid king worries that John has returned from the dead in the person of Jesus. Fear and guilt have a way of making one’s imagination run wild.
Oh, no; Jesus is not surprised by the report of John’s death one bit. But that doesn’t mean He is unaffected. So when the Twelve return from their mission tour, Jesus says to them: “‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. So they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves” (Mark 6:31-32).
Before we really get into our text, I’d like to draw your attention to one other thing. At this point in the Gospel, there’s a subtle difference in Mark’s writing style. Most of Mark’s accounts begin with action words: “immediately,” “now when,” “while he was still speaking.” Here, the evangelist slows things down a bit.
It seems that Jesus intends to give His apostles and Himself a breather. Perhaps it is a chance to mourn John’s death… and to contemplate His own death. As I was reminded once again this week, the death of a loved one or close friend has a way of making us think of our own mortality. And fully God, Jesus knows where His ministry is leading. It’s taking Him to the cross. Betrayal. Denial. Brutal suffering. A horrible death. Fully human, Jesus understands the need for rest and reflection, instruction and prayer. And so Jesus bids His apostles: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.”
A desolate place. Look up that phrase and you’ll find a definition like this: “A wilderness; an uninhabited place which offers no shelter or sustenance, especially one which is located in a remote area.” And certainly by that definition, the other side of the Sea of Galilee is (or was) a desolate place. But Jesus and His apostles aren’t there alone for long. Crowds from the cities are already waiting for Jesus when He gets ashore. So much for the little time of rest—at least rest in the sense that we generally understand it. Perhaps Jesus offers another kind of rest?
As usual, Jesus has compassion on the crowd. After all, He’s not here for Himself. He comes as the Christ for all people. The people are sheep without a shepherd. In their synagogues, they are not given the spiritual food they need and are not being directed to the Messiah, but pointed to their own works of the Law. Christ, the Good Shepherd, who can provide them what they need, cannot withhold the food they so desperately desire—the very Bread of Life, Himself.
Our Lord cannot resist meeting the greatest needs of the crowd and He is soon in its midst preaching and teaching and healing. The day passes quickly. The apostles find it necessary to remind the Lord about their other, more practical, everyday needs. “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” It’s a reasonable and rational request… but totally wrong.
Jesus’ answer is short and sweet and totally ludicrous: “You give them something to eat.” The apostles can hardly believe their ears. What can they do? Why, even eight months of wages wouldn’t begin to fill the rumbling stomachs of this crowd! Nevertheless, Jesus tells them to take an inventory of their resources. They scrounge up five loaves of breads and two small fish that, according to John 6:9, belonged to a young boy. A barley loaf was flat and small, hardly enough for two people. And the fish—pickled or smoked—was usually served as a relish or garnish and eaten with the bread. It isn’t much, but at least this boy (or his mother) had enough sense and foresight to pack a lunch when nobody else did.
The disciples seem to finally catch on that something special is in the wind, for when Jesus asks them to seat the people they do so without asking any more questions or raising any other objections. The sight must have been stunning—a large crowd grouped by hundreds and fifties, seated on the green grass for an impromptu picnic. The word group in Greek is even more picturesque, as it is the word used for beds in a garden, for orderly rows of vegetables. All sit there on the green grass, lined up row-by-row, waiting to be fed by their Good Shepherd, but totally unaware of what is about to happen in this desolate place.
Jesus begins this meal as He begins every meal—by looking up to heaven and giving thanks. Perhaps He uses the meal prayer of the Small Catechism and Old Testament psalter: “The eyes of all look to You, O Lord, and You give them their food in due season. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (145:15-16). It is the usual blessing but an unusual meal. Jesus breaks the bread and divides the fish, giving it to the disciples, who then pass it on to the people. Without saying a word, Jesus simply continues to multiply the bread and fish so that there is enough for all and even more left over—twelve baskets, one for each of the doubting disciples. And don’t forget that more than five thousand are fed; Mark counts the men but not the women and children.
Now, if we’re not careful we can get the wrong idea about what’s happening here. We could fall into the Joel Osteen, prosperity preacher ditch, and this notion that if you just play your cards right, your bread and fish will never run out, your wine and milk will overflow, your IRA and stock portfolio will grow and grow. The lure of money for nothing is what keeps the casinos running, and the idea that God is an infinite vending machine of favors to the favored isn’t far behind. St. John emphasizes that danger in his account. The people want to make Jesus king on the spot. A chicken (or fish) in every pot. Bread on every table.
But Mark emphasizes the desolate place. Three times within the space of five verses, this phrase is repeated: “a desolate place.” Jesus intentionally brings His apostles to a desolate place for rest and recovery, instruction and prayer. It’s an unusual place for a retreat perhaps; but not really if you think about it. The Lord does much of His best work when He brings His people to a desolate place.
Remember Israel’s wilderness wandering after being “exodused” out of Egypt? Forty years’ worth of testing and trial and time for personal reflection and spiritual growth. Forty years of desolation to learn to trust in the Lord and His provision of daily bread. Forty years to drive home the lesson that “man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Forty years in a desolate place to properly prepare them for the abundance that awaited them in the Promised Land.
And then there was the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry. Baptized by John, with His heavenly Father’s declaration of well-pleasing Sonship still echoing near the Jordan, Jesus is immediately driven by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness, to a desolate place, to be tempted by the devil. Though hungry after forty days of fasting, Jesus forgoes the temptation to use His divine power to feed His own human need, relying upon God’s Word alone for His sustenance and strength. The angels minister to Him, bringing rest, even in the midst of trial and desolation.
In bringing His disciples to a desolate place, Jesus is having them replicate His own activity. Their entire lives are coming to be conformed to His. Jesus is preparing His disciples to carry on His mission after His exodus. Like their Master each one would have to deny himself and take up his own cross. Only the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake and the Gospel’s will save it. Only those who strive to enter God’s rest through daily repentance and by trusting God’s mercy in Christ, will enter the eternal rest of the heavenly Promised Land.
And so it goes yet still today. The Lord bids you to come to a desolate place and to rest in Him, to trust in Him. Your desolate place? There are as many desolate places as there as disciples. Yours could be a healthcare emergency or chronic pain. Mourning the death of a loved one. Marital and other relationship problems. Unemployment or financial frustrations. Loss of confidence or an identity crisis. A guilty conscience. The consequences of sin (yours or someone else’s) that weigh you down. Actually, a desolate place could be anything difficult or disturbing enough that it makes you come to a point where you realize you cannot count on your own resources, your own resourcefulness, that you must come to Jesus empty-handed, as a beggar, asking Him to fill your need. Such desolate times and places are used by God to prepare you for the blessings of the Promised Land, your eternal inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.
Along the pilgrim way, the Lord bids you to come to another desolate place, a place where you may lay down your burdens and find rest in Him. He bids you to leave behind your own resources and to trust in Him alone. The disciples thought they needed to tell Jesus how to handle their situation. And when Jesus offered to help, they found it difficult to trust Him with five loaves and two fish. How about you? What is it in your life that seems so immense that you won’t bother Jesus? What problem is so huge that you can’t tell Jesus? What sin is so shameful that you won’t trust it with Jesus?
Can you trust a Jesus who bids you come to a desolate place to rest? Can you trust a Jesus with only five loaves and two fish? Can you? Yes. And with anything else. In fact, with everything! Especially the most troubling problems of all, the most desolate of places: sin, death, and hell.
For that there’s Calvary, for a few hours of eternity the most desolate place on earth, a place totally forsaken by God, a Son totally forsaken by His heavenly Father for your sins and the sins of this world. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is also your Good Shepherd! Salvation is achieved. Jesus lived for you. Christ died for you. Your sin is His. His righteousness is yours. Jesus takes your desolate place so that you might find eternal rest in Him.
Now you sit here in rows listening to Jesus’ instruction and praying with your fellow saints. Not near enough people to have to organize in hundreds and fifties, but hungry, weary pilgrims in need of the Lord’s compassion nonetheless. So from time to time, He invites you to come forward. Take a little bit of bread and a little bit of wine from the hands of His called and ordained servant. What is that in the midst of your desolate place? In the midst of all your enormous problems and sins? It’s the Lord’s Supper. Jesus has prepared a Table for you in the presence of your enemies. He has led you to the green pastures His grace. He feeds you. His Body. His Blood. Connected to His promise. Eat and drink it for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith unto life everlasting.
Jesus’ compassion for you knows no bounds. No desolate place, no problem, no sin, no guilt, no sickness, no death, is too big for Jesus. You can trust Him with anything and everything! With Jesus there’s always more. More than meets the eye. More than you ever expected, certainly more than you ever deserved—eternal life, salvation, and forgiveness that know no bounds. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.