A sermon preached at the evening service on 18 July 2021 by Graham Low.

There is a sign outside a well-known restaurant in Oxford which simply states that it will be closed for the first two weeks in August, because of the need for respite. Respite. The passage we heard from Mark’s gospel is about respite.

It is very well known that being a Christian disciple, whether lay or ordained, can easily lead to both exhaustion and guilt. This has been particularly so in the last year and a half. A root cause of this is about our expectations. We can so easily think that we are not doing enough for God. We can see that the task seems endless. There are so many challenges everywhere. Can we ever do enough to satisfy God? So a story like today’s about Jesus seeking time off with his disciples, because they are very tired, seems like a wonderful reversal of our assumptions about what God seeks of us.

One commentator on today’s gospel said that we need to hear Jesus say to us “come away for a while by yourself”. Yes. Firstly, this is a matter for us alone. It is a call to be with ourselves. For many it is a challenge to have space and solitude, partly because we have allowed busyness to become a central part of our lives, and partly because we find being alone with ourselves uncomfortable and even disturbing.

The story of Jesus taking the disciples aside for a rest and peace can be seen as a story about the rhythm of Christian life. The Christian life can be seen as a time when we go consciously into the presence of God, and partly as a time when we are consciously among people and doing our absorbing daily tasks. It is a rhythm like that of sleep and work. We cannot work without sleep, and sleep will not come without having worked.

It is sometimes said that there are two dangers in life. There is danger in too constant, or too much activity. We cannot work without rest. But the Christian life calls us to spend time with God. Without that time with God we are unable to sense what God is calling us to do. For so many of us this is about learning and re-learning how to be still and listening. And it is in that time of stillness and listening that we can be spiritually renewed, or energised. It is the time in which we can find a new equilibrium or a new balance to face the realities of our lives.

For some people there can be a danger in having too little activity. Even those who dedicate their lives to long periods of prayer find that times of other activity are absolutely essential for their wellbeing. To seek God rather than other people can be a difficulty for some.

Mark tells us that the rest that Jesus sought was not to be. People could follow him on the land faster than he could cross the lake in a boat. And so they waited for him again. Many would have been annoyed by this. Instead, Jesus showed compassion. He sensed that they were sheep without a shepherd. What did he mean by this?

Sheep without a shepherd cannot find the way to go. Neither can we. I remember once walking in a large forest in Eastern Europe and suddenly being aware that I had no idea how to leave it. I had completely lost my sense of direction. It was only because a guide was nearby that I was able to find my way out. We can stand at a cross roads and not know which way to go.

A sheep without a shepherd cannot find its pasture and thus its sustenance. |It becomes hungry. When we are hungry we too need sustenance to keep us going both physically and spiritually. Our hunger is only satisfied with the strength, stimulation and freedom from restlessness which God alone can give us.

A sheep without a shepherd is defenceless against the dangers surrounding it. We too cannot live alone. In today’s world it is difficult to avoid using the internet for an increasing number of tasks. And yet it is increasingly dangerous as anyone who has to transfer money, or sensitive data, knows all too well.  None of us can avoid all the dangers around us, however hard we may try. We increasingly become aware of how much we need the protection of a shepherd. And so we are called once again to turn to Jesus, the good shepherd who knows all about danger, but who never abandons us, whatever we may face.

And lastly, today’s passage reminds us once again that we need spaces where we stop, where we rest, and where we catch up with ourselves, and where we catch up with God.