Exhaustion and Renewal


A sermon preached on February 8, 2009 based upon Isaiah 40:21 – 31 and Mark 1:29 – 39, entitled “Exhaustion and Renewal.”

The passage we heard from Mark takes place during, and after, the Sabbath, the day of rest. One of the underlying assumptions of the Old Testament, a truth we often refuse to acknowledge, is that there is this rhythm knit into creation — that there is day and there is night and the night is the time for rest to recoup from the work of the day. That the seventh day of the week is the day for rest — And that one should work hard, and then truly really rest.

And so the Jewish religion took this very seriously: when the sun sets and the Sabbath begins, you stop working. You quit fixing problems, you ponder the goodness of it all. On Saturday morning you gather in the synagogue to contemplate the gift of the Torah, and afterwards you return to your home to be with your family and friends, to enjoy a good meal together, and to relax.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus was there in the synagogue on the Sabbath joining with the community in worship. He was compelled into action, however when an unclean spirit that was tormenting a member of the congregation began to scream at Jesus. Jesus demonstrating his authority to cast out unclean spirits, acts to make the man whole.

The disciples are pretty impressed by what they have witnessed, and so following the temple services, as soon as they arrive at Simon’s house for the Sabbath meal, Jesus is immediately compelled to act once more, this time to heal Simon’s mother in law who is upstairs sick with a severe fever.

Indeed, the whole community has been impressed by Jesus’ extraordinary capacity to heal. So, when the sun sets marking the end of the Sabbath — a Sabbath that in a certain sense Jesus didn’t get to keep because twice he was compelled to do the work of healing — dozens of people line up at the door of the house with afflictions with which they want Jesus to minister. Jesus works well into the night, giving his attention, indeed his very life force, to each of these sick people.

At some point the last needy person departs, and maybe Jesus got a couple of hours of sleep, and maybe he didn’t. He left the house well before sunrise, sneaking out to spend time alone in prayer in a secluded place, telling no one where he was going. Jesus is determined that he will have some Sabbath time of his own. He is depleted, the life energy largely drained from him in all his work of healing, and he knows that he must be replenished.

Eventually though, after looking all over, his disciples locate him. They are excited by the remarkable success of Jesus‘ ministry in the past 24 hours, but also perplexed. Everybody in town wants what Jesus has to offer. “It was a great start, Jesus, but you’ve only scratched the surface of all the need that is in this town. There’s more to be done — much more.” Who knows, maybe in a couple of years of devoted work they can turn this town into perfection, with no disease or demons hanging about.

But Jesus says no.

There is a certain sense in which human life comes down to a simple choice of yes or no that each of us has to make daily, hourly, indeed, in each moment of our lives. God gives us life, and we choose whether to embrace the gift, or reject it. In a certain sense, it is as simple as that.

Whether to receive the gift in the spirit in which it has been given; gratefully, with a desire to share rather than hoard what has been given.

One way of understanding the preaching of Jesus was that he was reminding all of us of this fundamental choice, and letting us know that we are empowered to say “Yes” because in spite of everything, God had said an unabashed “Yes” to us.

In a certain sense, the relationship between the healing ministry of Jesus and his preaching ministry is obvious: It is can be tough to say “Yes” to your life — “Yes” to God’s gift of life if your body is racked with pain.

We have a family friend, a pediatrician named Dr. Charles Ray Jones, who has treated our children for years. When I first met him, Dr. Jones expressed great interest in my work. He shared with me how as a young man he had started out in seminary; he was, in fact a classmate of Martin Luther King, Jr. He told me he was moved to change his vocational path when he visited a very sick woman who was in a great deal of chronic pain, and he felt inadequate in his inability to offer any practical help for her suffering. And so he had left seminary and enrolled in medical school instead, in the hope of being able to relieve the suffering of people like the one he had visited.

It is not hard for me to understand Dr. Jones’ motivation to leave the ministry for medicine, and I don’t think it would have been hard for Jesus either. Pain in the body, as well as the bondage of poverty or injustice can make it tough to say yes to the gift of one’s life.

And yet, if Jesus had stayed in that town devoting himself to curing every disease and fixing everybody’s problems, there is no assurance that everybody would have been filled with gratitude; in fact we can assume, human nature being what it is, the people there would simply have found new ways to grumble and murmur.

There are plenty of people who live in palaces who don’t say “Yes” to the gift of their lives; and there are plenty of people living in poverty who do.

And there are lots of people who never really appreciated that their life was a gift until they were brought low by disease or disability.

Dr. Bernie Siegel quotes a cancer survivor by the name of Hans Selye. Following his diagnosis, he writes,

“I was sure I was going to die, so I said to myself, `All right now, this is about the very worst thing that could happen to you, but there are two ways you can handle this; either you can go around feeling like a miserable candidate on death row and whimper away a year, or else you can try to squeeze as much from life now as you can.’ I chose the latter because I’m a fighter, and cancer provided me with the biggest fight of my life. I took it as a natural experiment that pushed me to the ultimate test whether I was right or wrong. Then a strange thing happened. A year went by, then two, then three, and look what happened. It turned out that I was that fortunate exception.”And so it goes both ways; our bodies can affect our spirits, but our spirits can affect our bodies: The ability to say “yes” to the gift of our lives can have a profound effect on our bodies as well.


The passage we heard from the prophet Isaiah echoes themes found in the Gospel. As adults, especially the older we get, we look at the energy of children, and we say, “What wouldn’t we give to have their energy?”

But the words from Isaiah remind us that even the energy of young ones eventually runs out. Even youth run out of energy, grow weary, stumble and fall. The passage does make a promise, however, that those who wait upon the Lord shall have their strength renewed — they will mount up on wings like eagles.

I so appreciate the practical example set by Jesus. Even Jesus ran out of energy. When he gave his attention to people, acting as a channel of God’s healing, it drained him. In another story we hear him speak of power going out of him when a woman with a flow of blood touched him, seeking a healing. Jesus became depleted and knew he needed his own time of waiting upon the Lord — his own Sabbath rest, or else he, too would find life a tough gift to embrace.

And so Jesus said “No”, in order to be able to say “Yes.” If Jesus’ needed to recognize this, so much so the rest of us.

Exhaustion pays its toll. If you’re like me, it is when I am exhausted — either physically or emotionally, that the whole notion that life is a gift becomes toughest to embrace. We have to find ways to rest — truly rest, or our helping will end up harming. God didn’t make us limitless, and it is prideful to imagine that we should be. God is the one who has unlimited energy — not us. God is God and I am not.

Wait upon the Lord, and in time you will rise up one wings like eagles.

One of my all time favorite movies is “Zorba the Greek.” It involves the relationship between an intellectual, restrained young man who hires Zorba the Greek to work for him. Zorba is everything the young man is not; he is uneducated, passionate, a man of action, a dancer and a lover. In the course of the story, Zorba teaches the young man how to embrace the gift of life.

The young man has inherited some mountainous timberland on the coast, and together they set out to construct a conveyor system for transporting the timber logs down the mountain to the sea. It had been a very ambitious and difficult undertaking, and in the final scene it is ready for testing.

But when the first log comes whizzing down the mountain, the whole conveyor system of cables comes crashing down. The project is a disaster.

The two men lie defeated on the beach, surrounded by broken cables and logs. Eventually though, Zorba rises to his feet and slowly begins to dance on the beach. There is nothing to do but dance, he says, as the joy of life wells up within him. And the young man joins him.

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