Series: The Rest of Life – Part 1 Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Matthew 11:28-30 Listen to it HERE
Intro to Series
This morning we begin a sermon series where we will address several topics we don’t normally talk about in church. We are calling it The Rest of Life, a title we borrowed from a book by Ben Witherington. Certain aspects of our lives we expect to talk about in church those part we have deemed “spiritual” – the things we have convinced ourselves God is concerned with, as if there are parts of our lives Jesus just ignores.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. God is concerned with the entirety of our lives. In this series we will consider what God wants us to do with the rest of our lives, our “outside of church and work” lives, things like play, eating, studying, and sex. This morning I will begin The Rest of Life by looking at the biblical concept of rest. We start with a video clip. Take a look at this [we played an edited version of this plate-spinning act]:[youtube:=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zhoos1oY404]
Can you relate?
That clip is of an “artist” named Erich Breen on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969 demonstrating the ancient art of plate-spinning. We don’t hear much about plate-spinning anymore, maybe because the days of the variety show have passed. Or because we aren’t very impressed with plate-spinning today since we are all so very good at it ourselves.
You might not have a stack of Corelle plates and flexible pointy sticks, but I would guess you do some plate-spinning everyday. Some of the plates you try to keep spinning are groceries to buy, kids to get to practice, vehicles to maintain, a lawn and garden that need tender loving care, a parent who needs us, vacations to plan, side projects you would like to accomplish, volunteer work, grandkids you would like to visit, a committee or two here at the church, worship, laundry, pets, homework, and I haven’t even mentioned work or school yet, each of which comes with an entire pile of plates of its own.
We have lots to do, and a limited amount of time to get it done. People are counting on us. We have responsibilities and obligations.
Plate-spinning is a good metaphor for our busyness. If you were to watch the entirety of Breen’s Ed Sullivan appearance, you would see him running from one end of the table to the other for about 3 minutes. Since we don’t see many plate-spinners anymore, this is not the metaphor but we typically use today. We talk about trying to keep all of those “balls in the air,” alluding to juggling. The analogy is simple.
I can keep one ball up without much thought. Two takes a little more practice, but is still pretty easy. As a youth, I learned to do three, and every once in a while I still practice – this is not a skill I want to lose. Yes, I use my time wisely. I know how to juggle four, but cannot do it, and five I cannot even conceive of how to keep going, though I have seen others do it. Three is my limit. That’s all I can handle.
If someone were to throw me a fourth or fifth ball, I would lose control and drop them all, even the original three. In the real world, we call this a crisis, or a breakdown. With too much to juggle, we find ourselves irritable, emotional, and downright exhausted.
This week I stumbled across a post on The Washington Post’s website with a great title for us, “Exhaustion Is Not a Status Symbol.” The article is an interview with Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston who did a TED talk a couple of years ago called “The Power of Vulnerability.” She talks about our plate-spinning, our juggling, our need to stay busy this way:
‘Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us.
I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now (Cunningham).
Ouch! That sounds all too familiar. Idleness would give us time to question, time to be afraid, time to wonder who we are without all of this, whether what we are doing really matters. It would give us time to reflect on our relationships, which we might be afraid are not all they could be. It would free our minds up to examine who we are, whether we are loved, and more. To avoid all of that, we stay busy.
In her TED talk, Brown says our busyness is like a drug we use to numb inner feelings of inadequacy, our inability to measure up. We don’t want to feel vulnerability, grief, shame, fear, or disappointment. So we stay busy. Our busyness, she argues, numbs us to those feelings.
Brown then goes on to say though, we “cannot selectively numb emotion… You can’t say, ‘Here’s the bad stuff… I don’t want to feel these,’ without numbing the other affects or emotions… So when we numb these [bad feelings] we [also] numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness” (Brown). Another author put it this way, “The busy-ness is a drug to keep me numb and a defense to keep me safe. And it works. But numb and safe aren’t key words for the life I want to live. I want so much more than numb and safe” (Niequist).
And Jesus wants so much more for us than numb and safe for us.
Jesus put it this way in the Gospel of John, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). “Abundant life” doesn’t sound like numb or safe. Jesus calls us not to just get through life, but to live it. To live a life worth living. Jesus doesn’t just want to give us life after death, he wants to give us an abundant, meaningful life before death.
Irenaeus, an early Christian thinker and writer put it this way, “‘The glory of God is humanity fully alive’ (Irenaeus, late second century)” (The Wesley Study Bible comment on John 17:2-3, p. 1360). God’s glory is for us to live, to really live.
Too often though, we settle for busy, exhausted, safe, and numb rather than abundance. We choose to get through life rather than being fully alive. To do this, to really live, we’ve got to give up the drug of busyness, and move toward times of peace and rest.
Old Testament Lesson from Ecclesiastes 3
In our first lesson this morning, we read about the rhythm of life. Ecclesiastes 3 has been important to people, not just because the Byrds set it to music in 1965 (“Turn, Turn, Turn”), but because it rings so true to our experience. We need to learn to live into the rhythm, the times and season of life – a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest; a time to cry and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance in the words of Ecclesiastes. And there is a time for work and a time for rest.
We know the other side of this, when life gets, as we would put it, “out of balance.” We get out of sync with the seasons – too much planting and not enough harvest; too much mourning and not enough dancing; too many tears and not enough laughter; too much busy and not enough rest. As Witherington writes, “The normal life cycle requires more than work and sleep. It also requires rest” (Witherington 24).
Solomon, writing Ecclesiastes under the pseudonym Qoheleth, didn’t come up with this on his own. Neither did Brown or Witherington. This isn’t a new teaching. This rhythm has its roots “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).
In the Beginning, God
When you open the Bible to the first page, and begin to read the creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:3), you hear a pattern emerge. After report on the creation work done by God each day the author concludes with the line, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first [or whichever] day” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 11, 19, 23, 31). Each time it is said exactly the same way.
This is such an important aspect of the creation story, the very first thing God creates is light, notably before creating the sun or moon – those don’t come until day 4. Some have joked this is so God could see what he was doing for the rest of creation, but a much larger purpose is served. By speaking light into being God separates day from night, creating the passage of days, in a sense creating time itself. On day one, God starts the pattern of days and nights, and God himself enters into that pattern as he continues his work.
There is another repeated phrase (with a couple of small variations) in the creation story: “God saw that it was good,” which occurs during each day (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Then at the end of day six we are told, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). There is a sense of God stepping back from the activity of creating to enjoy what he has made. It is as if God, at the end of the day, kicks off his work-boots, sits back in his recliner, and admires his work.
God rests, not because God needs rest the same way we do – to restore our bodies and minds for further functioning. God could certainly have worked through the night. Instead, God chooses to rest, using the time to reflect on the work he has accomplished. As creatures formed in his image, as we are told during day six’s account (Genesis 1:27), this pattern of work and rest is one we are to emulate.
The creation story then concludes with these words, “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3). God’s habit of rest is extended beyond the daily to the weekly, and the rest is extended into the daylight hours. We need times of rest.
Our tendency to forego rest is to our own detriment. It is true, we could physically work seven days a week, stopping only for a couple of hours of sleep each night. We could fill every waking hour with busyness, and accomplish much in the process. But we are missing out on the life to which we were created. We are instead settling for life that is safe and numb, rather than abundant and fully alive.
Over the past several years, you have heard Bob and I talk quite a bit about resurrection, the day to come when God’s Kingdom will be fully on earth as it is in heaven. This means we live in-between the Resurrection of Jesus we celebrated last Sunday, and the Resurrection to come. So we long for the rest that is to come on the day of resurrection, but as with all else in God’s Kingdom, rest is not only out there on the horizon. We can begin to live into it today.
Ben Witherington puts it this way, “The idea of a day of rest is then seen as yet another type on earth of God’s ultimate rest – which means not so much an absence of activity, though that is a component, but the presence of joy, a sense of fulfillment and completion” (Witherington 27f). God’s rest is not simply a stopping. It is an active rest filled with time of reflection on what we have accomplished, enjoying it, and allowing ourselves to be fulfilled by what has been done.
[In our busyness] there’s no stopping and celebrating or acknowledging the accomplishment of anything. Instead of feeling pride or recognition, what everyone is instead made to feel is, “Thank God, I can get to the next thing on my list” …
One thing that I think really makes a difference is simply to stop, recognize and offer feedback. Imagine someone who says, “Hey, I got the proposal done, I left it on Tom’s desk.” And the response is: “Great, the next thing we need to do is…” That conversation needs to stop, and the boss needs to say, “Sit down, let’s talk about it. I’d love to see a copy and go over it together. Tell me what you think works about it” (Cunningham).
We hear from ourselves, and our bosses – both formal and informal – “Great, you’ve got that plate spinning, now what about the other seven slowing down at the other end of the table?” And so we are immediately off to the next thing, to keep that plate up, that ball in the air, to keep it all from crashing down.
Yet at the end of every day God took the time to rest, to admire and enjoy his work. Then, at the end of the week, he celebrated all of it.
A Demanding God
Many of us have this image of a demanding God we can never please, a God who wants us busy, busy, busy 24/7 working for his approval. I say this because despite all my theological training, my study, and understanding of who God is in scripture, I still find myself operating out of this image from time to time. It happened this week.
Ironically, in a week where I am writing devotions and a sermon on rest, I was feeling swamped. This resulted in long days, late nights, and early mornings. On Friday morning, I wrote this in my journal:
My prayer life…has been a bit rushed this week. So I go through this whole thing where I worry God [is disappointed in me and won’t come through for me]. No matter how much I try to shake that idea of God, I just can’t seem to. My default always seems to be of a petulant God who throws tantrums when I’m not falling in line.
I seem to be hard-wired to perform for God. I know this is wrong, but I still sometimes find myself trying to do for God, so God will do for me.
Then I bump up against this morning’s Gospel Lesson. Those of you who have been in church for some time know these verses well. I read them from The Message this morning to help us hear them anew. In the more traditional versions we hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV).
When Jesus says this to his disciples he is telling us to give up this idea for performing for God. God is not looking for us to enter into a Godfather-like relationship with us where every favor comes with strings attached. I will do this favor for you, but someday I may need a favor in return.
Instead Jesus says, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.” Or as The Message renders it, “Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. … Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Witherington reminds us, “God, however, has a rest…not as a resting place or resting time, but as a state of being, living by faith, with the peace of Christ in our hearts, looking forward without anxiety about the future, because the future is as bright as God’s promises and dawning Kingdom” (Witherington 37). In Christ – in following him, knowing him, walking with him, and working with him – we find real rest. And our busyness isn’t needed to keep us safe and numb. We can enter into the abundant life. We can fully live.
The author who talked about our busyness keeping us numb and safe, concludes her blog post with this:
Today, I’m dropping the drug and the defense, and I’ll do my best to do the same tomorrow.
Today, I’m shooting for higher than numb and safe and protected by excuses. I want to be present and whole and have nothing to hide, no excuses to be made, because I did my best, and because that’s enough.
Today, I want to communicate to my kids, through my words and my actions, that we don’t always have to be hustling, plates don’t always have to be spinning, balls don’t always have to be in the air. (Niequist)
Some of us have gotten quite good at keeping plates spinning, and balls in the air. And we’re tired. We’re really tired. Jesus simply says this, “Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.” Let us choose his way today. Amen.
Brown, Brené. “Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability.” TED: Ideas worth Spreading. TED: Ideas worth Spreading, Dec. 2010. Web. 05 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html>.
Cunningham, Lillian. “Exhaustion Is Not a Status Symbol.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 08 Oct. 2012. Web. 05 Apr. 2013. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/exhaustion-is-not-a-status-symbol/2012/10/02/19d27aa8-0cba-11e2-bb5e-492c0d30bff6_story.html>.
Niequist, Shauna. “Is Busy-ness a Drug?” Storyline Blog. Storyline, 05 Apr. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2013. <http://storylineblog.com/2013/04/05/my-drug-my-defense/>.
The Wesley Study Bible: Common English Bible : A Fresh Translation to Touch the Heart and Mind. Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2012. Print.
Witherington, Ben. The Rest of Life: Rest, Play, Eating, Studying, Sex from a Kingdom Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2012. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.