Into the Wilderness

Into the Wilderness | Mark 6:30-34

“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to Him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while.” For many people were coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they went away in the boat by themselves to a remote place, but many saw them leaving and recognized them. People ran there by land from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. So as He stepped ashore, He saw a huge crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then He began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:30-34 HCSB)

Accidental ministry: to wander or stumble into a situation or circumstance where ministry is needed but not expected or planned. It happens far more than you might think. In my experience, it might happen even more than intentional, planned ministry. Admittedly, my experience is shaped and impacted by the fact that I work and serve in a bi-vocational setting. For those who might not know what that means, I am the pastor of this church but I have a full time job where I work and make the bulk of my income to support myself and my family. Bi-vocational simply means that I have two vocations – one in ministry and another which serves as my primary source of my family’s income.

That also means that there are many occasions when Jesus’ advice to the disciples in this passage make a lot of sense – let’s get away from everything for a little bit and rest. In fact, my wife and I have a week planned in October to do just that. We will take a week of vacation and go to a remote location in Wyoming to just relax, get away from everything and rest. We all need to take time to do the same. We often forget that “Sabbath” is intended to be a day of rest. It is supposed to be a day when we stop working, striving and, yes, competing with each other and just focus on God and enjoy rest (Shabbat) and peace (Shalom) in His presence.

This story is the second half and culmination of the story we began three weeks ago. Jesus had sent the disciples out in pairs to preach, teach and minister to people in the villages and towns in the area (see vv. 6b-13). If you’ll recall, they were to go but were not permitted to take anything with them except a walking stick and their sandals. They were not allowed to take food, traveling bag or even an extra tunic with them and they were to depend on God and the gratitude of the people for their needs. If the people rejected them and their message, they were to leave and “shake the dust off” their sandals on their way out of town as a witness against them and their rejection of God’s kingdom.

But you’ll recall that, once again, Mark sandwiches the story regarding John the Baptizer and his beheading in between Jesus sending out the disciples in pairs and their return to report the results of that work. Why would Mark put such an odd and disturbing story in the middle of this discipleship training exercise? Because following Jesus isn’t a simple walk in the park on a beautiful and quiet Sunday morning. For many years, the church in America enjoyed a position of cultural favor and we saw phenomenal attendance growth, political power and financial wealth. Somehow we mistook those things as God’s favor and blessing. I’m not convinced they are or ever were.

There’s a huge difference between God’s favor or blessings and cultural acceptance, attendance growth, political power and financial wealth. You can draw big crowds, gain political favor, cultural acceptance and develop financial independence and wealth without God’s presence and God’s favor. Just ask the Pharisees. The evidence of God’s presence is seen in an insatiable love for God and others. It is evidenced in humble obedience, developing spiritual fruit and transformed lives. Do you remember this from several weeks back: “They came to Jesus and saw the man who had been demon-possessed by the legion, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.” (Mark 5:15 HCSB) Do we see those kinds of changes in our own lives and in the lives of those who claim to have encountered Jesus? We should…

“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28-29 HCSB)

So, the disciples had been sent out to preach, teach, drive out demons and heal in the name of and, thus, through the power of Jesus. Now they return and begin telling Jesus all about what happened and Mark prepares us by reminding us about John. John’s obedience to God and preaching of truth in the midst of political pressure and cultural resistance didn’t turn out well. It is important to note, an emissary is acting in the power and authority of the one who sent him. In doing so, he is to be bound by the will, desire and intent of his Lord – the one who sent him. The apostles (sent ones – emissaries) gathered around Jesus and gave their report – what they had done and taught.

As I’ve mentioned before, I work for an organization as their primary technology officer. As a part of my job, I meet with the CEO on a regular basis to brief him on the status of projects or issues and discuss future goals, plans and direction. As a part of that meeting, he regularly asks me, “Do you have what you need and what roadblocks can I remove to make certain we achieve these goals?” Not long ago, I asked for permission to do something. He admonished me, “You don’t need to ask my permission. That’s why I hired you. Do what needs to be done.” This level of trust is not the result of two years of working for the company, it is the result of over thirty years of working together. I suspect that if I was much younger and our history of working together wasn’t so long, his response might have been a little different. When I make decisions, I am acting under his authority and the intimate knowledge of those desires as well as our corporate purpose, mission, values and planning.

The disciples are being sent as emissaries on behalf of the King. To be effective, they need to be able to act under His authority. But, to do so, they need to have an intimate knowledge of His desires. They need to act in accordance with the purpose, mission, values and direction of God’s kingdom. They’re new to this work. They don’t have decades of knowledge and relationship with Jesus. They’re still learning. They’re still in training. They’re still in boot camp with years of work ahead of them. For you and I to be effective members of His kingdom, we need to do the same. We need an intimate knowledge of His desires. We need training, knowledge of His will and His Word and not just authority to act. We need to be willing to act in accordance with the Kingdom’s purpose, mission, values and direction. This is not about us, this is about Him!

After listening to the apostles’ report, Jesus decides they need some time away – “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while.” While relaxation and rest is likely the intended focus of Jesus’ and the apostle’s trip into the remote place (wilderness), things change at the last minute. I would remind you, time in the wilderness is not time wasted. It is time invested in the presence of God. It is time invested in learning the ways of God, in experiencing the mind of God, in following the leadership of God. It is time invested in the discipline of the wilderness.

Next, notice that Mark says, “many people were coming and going, and they did not have time to eat.” Let me pose a question, who didn’t have time to eat? When I initially read this story I assumed it meant the disciples, but does it? Who’s hungry in this story and needs to be fed? Keep that Exodus theme in mind. Jesus said He wants to lead the disciples into the wilderness in search of rest. I think we assume He’s taking the disciples to a remote place to rest, eat and have a time of relaxation. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe He’s leading them into the wilderness to encounter and experience the provision of God. Maybe He’s leading them to discover that the “rest” of God is to cease from their own labors while allowing God to work in their midst.

I’ve suggested before that Mark’s gospel seems to carry a very strong “second Exodus” theme. Jesus has retreated into the wilderness on several occasions and now He takes the disciples into the wilderness to “rest for a while.” With that Exodus theme in mind, does this idea of going into the wilderness (remote place) change what we might expect? The Exodus was a time of preparation, training and learning to have faith and trust in God. To follow God the people had to learn to trust Him, to rely upon Him and His love and provision for them. The Hebrews continually argued with Moses and wanted to return to their old lives as slaves because they somehow felt that being slaves and knowing what to expect, no matter how hard it was, was better than following God, trusting Him and relying on Him without knowing what to expect. It was easier to deal with their really HARD known existence than it was to live in a state of trust and reliance on an unseen God.

Do we trust God and are we willing to follow Him into the desert or do we trust our own instincts, knowledge and understanding of our (cultural) landscape? Are we willing to walk in pursuit of Him leaving our past behind or will we fall into old habits and build golden calves to fall before and worship? Do we believe His word, His promises and His commandments or do we believe the lies of the people around us, our culture? Will we trust His care and provision and step out in faithful obedience or will we shrink back in fear and trembling? That’s a question I think every believer, every church must ask itself.

Finally, I want you to notice what happens when they arrive in that remote place, the wilderness. The crowd saw them leave, followed them, anticipated where they were going and arrived ahead of them. When Jesus and the disciples stepped out of the boat the huge crowd was there waiting for them. Catch this, Jesus had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Notice what they were like and how He responded, two things: they were like sheep without a shepherd and He had compassion on them. Sheep will put their heads down and begin grazing and they simply follow the path of available grass. Eat a bit, take a step forward. Eat more. They aren’t looking out for predators or threats, they are filling their bellies. Jesus had compassion on them because they had no one to watch out for them, no one to care for them, no one to protect them and no one to guide them into rest, to greener pastures and alongside the still waters. They were wandering in the wilderness without God.

Jesus had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He always does. That’s His nature. He’s the good shepherd (see John 10). He doesn’t run away when danger appears, that’s what a hired hand does but not the shepherd. Notice how He responds, “He began to teach them many things.” We often make the mistake of misidentifying the source of our struggle and, thus, the solution. You could assume that because this story culminates in a miraculous meal that eating is their primary need. Nope. That’s what they think (see John 6), but that’s not how Jesus initially responds. He responds first by teaching them. Teaching them what? Well, based on Mark’s apparent emphasis on the Exodus theme I think He is teaching them about life in the wilderness and the kingdom of God – learning to walk with and trust God throughout this wilderness journey.

Can you imagine trying to survive in the wilderness? You would either need some really, really good survival skills or you would need someone who could watch out for you, protect you, provide for you and guide you. Jesus has already walked this trail. In fact, He established this trail through the wilderness. To survive in the wilderness, you have to know what dangers to watch for and how to avoid them. You have to be able to identify signs of predators and ways to protect and defend yourself. In the wilderness, you have to stay safe and remain healthy because one simple mistake or accident can cost your life. It is best to never attempt to survive in the wilderness alone. Jesus says, “You’re not alone. Once you start walking with me, I will never leave or forsake you (see Deut. 31:6, Heb. 13:5, Jn. 10:1-18).”

Let me close by simply emphasizing, Jesus had compassion on the crowd. He was deeply moved by their plight, their enslavement, their sense of abandonment and need. Scripture says, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elemental forces of the world. When the time came to completion (at just the right time), God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:3-5 HCSB) When the time came to completion or at just the right time, God sent His Son to break the bonds of slavery and lead us into the wilderness to learn to walk with and trust God.

But here’s the problem, until you realize you are enslaved you won’t look for or ask for God’s help. You won’t allow Him to lead you into the wilderness where you discover His provision for you and His compassion over you. Let that settle into your heart. We won’t seek freedom if we never realize we are enslaved. We won’t seek guidance if we never know we’re lost. We won’t follow God unless we recognize His path is the best path for us. We won’t rest in His work until we realize our work is getting us nowhere. The wilderness is not a place of abandonment, it is the place of discovery. It is where we truly learn about ourselves and about God. It is either where we learn to trust Him or where we turn away from Him. Which will it be for you?

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