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REST 1 Kings 19:4-8; John 6:35, 41-51

Many of you will know I go on pilgrimage from time to time. Some of you are pilgrims yourselves! I prefer to go on a walking pilgrimage, and in recent years I’ve been on the Camino de Santiago. The latest pilgrimage was on one of the lesser known routes that weave their way through northern Spain: the Camino Primitivo and I went with my son Rob, starting in the university and cathedral town of Oviedo in Asturias. We walked about half way to Santiago as we didn’t have any more time and we hope to return one day to complete the distance. If you are a pilgrim or go on longer treks you will know what it is like to arrive at the next hostel at the end of your day’s walking. It’s lovely to take your rucksack off, your boots and socks, find your bed and then jump in the shower! Of course, you stop at various points during the day, but finding a place to rest overnight is a wonderful feeling. As it is the holiday season and because the story about Elijah suggests it, I want to talk about rest this morning.

Tired to death
Elijah was a great prophet. He was fierce in his criticism of Jezebel who had subverted the kingdom of Israel from worshipping their one, true God and created all sorts of injustices in the land. The climax of Elijah’s ministry was the contest on Mt Carmel when Israel’s true God sent down fire from heaven on the sacrifice that Elijah had prepared in the proper way. The contest was a very public demonstration that the one, true God was the only one who has power to answer prayer. We may disapprove of the way that the losers were dealt with following that great victory – the prophets of the false god Baal were executed. It could be explained by saying that they were found guilty of treason. They had supported Jezebel and tried to persuade the Israelites that Baal was the one who sent rain to make the crops grow. Elijah had prayed to God to keep it from raining for three years, as a way of demonstrating God’s sovereignty. So we can see the scene on Mt Carmel as the last stage of a long struggle for Elijah to uphold faithfulness to Israel’s true God. After this contest it began to rain heavily but Jezebel was now after Elijah’s blood and so he ran for his life. He went a long way south, far out of Jezebel’s reach into another territory. But here he finally stopped and out of sheer exhaustion collapsed and wanted to die. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” In other words, “I’ve had enough! I’ve done all I can and I might as well go and join my ancestors. Let me die!” You can feel for poor Elijah, can’t you? He’s exhausted, he’s had enough, he’s depressed and got to breaking point. It often happens when people have been carrying a heavy responsibility or coping with stressful situations for a sustained period. They eventually crack and they suffer a breakdown or worse, perhaps try to end it all.

Need for a rest
Holidays, weekends, and days off are a more modern invention. In former times people relaxed on religious feast days (which is where we get our word “holy day” from). In the Ten Commandments God requires his people to keep a Sabbath day for rest and this is because God himself rested on the seventh day after he had spent the previous 6 days creating the universe. We ignore the need for a regular rhythm of work and rest at our peril. Recently the mayor of a Spanish town, Ador in Valencia, passed a local law that may seem strange to us. He wanted to ensure that everyone had the right to an afternoon nap, so he decreed that the siesta was compulsory for all residents and businesses in the town. Between 2 and 5pm shops were to close, noise is to be kept to a minimum and children are not allowed to play in the street. The town’s main industry is orange growing and the agricultural workers can’t be expected to keep going through high temperatures. Here in MK we may be concerned and aware of the reason for recent fatal accidents on the M1: a truck ran into a line of cars waiting to exit at Junction 14. The driver was overtired and no doubt working to a deadline which meant he hadn’t been able to rest properly. Our tendency to ignore how vital it is to stop our activity at regular intervals is driving us to breaking point. If even God rested on the seventh day, who are we to think we can go on without pausing? We know it makes sense. The concept of rest in the Bible takes different forms and I want to look at these a little now.

Rest for awhile

There are many places in the Bible where people stop to take a break. Jesus urges his disciples to come away for some quiet time with him. They have been working hard proclaiming the gospel and responding to peoples’ needs. They need to stop and recuperate. This is the kind of rest we’ve been thinking about so far: the story of the compulsory siesta, the overnight hostel for the weary pilgrim, the weekly day off that God commanded. There is also a strong concept of allowing the land to rest from time to time. Those who garden or farm crops know that the ground needs time to recover from producing the plants that feed us. That’s what the seasons help us with, and techniques like crop rotation which allow the land to rest. In the OT every fifty years was the Jubilee when the fields were supposed to be left uncultivated for their own good. Resting for awhile is built into the very fabric of life. If you exercise, working your body to gain strength is more effective if you stop and rest your muscles before starting again. We all need sleep for good health. Winter is nature’s way of building in time to recover. We also need to rest spiritually from time to time. Perhaps part of Elijah’s breakdown was that he was exhausted spiritually, as well as physically and emotionally. It had been a terrible and long struggle. God knew that what Elijah most needed was time to recover. So he let him sleep awhile, sent an angel to provide some food and drink, and then Elijah continued on his way where he would be able to discover God had more for him to do when he met God on Mt Horeb.

Rest upon
A second meaning of rest is in the sense of a place where something may lie or stop. We usually employ the words “rest upon” to indicate this. An armrest is somewhere to place your arm. There are two ways in the Bible that this concept is used. One is to do with relying: God invites us to rely on him, to rest upon his promises. You may know that famous prayer of St Augustine: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. God is entirely dependable, a reliable base on whom to place the weight of our lives. But there is also another use of “resting upon” and it is most often used of the Spirit of God. The Spirit came to rest on Jesus like a dove alighting on him. God promises at various times in the Bible that he will send his spirit to rest upon his servants: whether they are rulers, kings, or messengers or prophets. God endows or sends his Spirit to go with someone and assist them to fulfil the task he has given them. In the Anglican rite of confirmation the bishop prays over the candidate: “Let your Spirit rest upon them.” It is a reminder of the way the Spirit first came at Pentecost in the form of a flame resting upon each believer’s head. We might use the word “alight” in this context: the Spirit alights on each believer. Christians believe God sends his spirit to rest on each of us for the remainder of our lives.

Permanent rest
Some more senior people hope that retirement might mean resting from a lifetime’s work only to discover they are busier than ever! The third idea about rest in the Bible is that of permanent rest. The children of Israel wandered around the desert for forty years before they entered the Promised Land. No wonder the idea appealed to them that God was going to give them a place to rest! In Hebrews, those who rebel against God are told that they will “not enter their promised rest”. St Augustine’s prayer also reflects this in spiritual terms. He was aware that he wasn’t really happy in all his searching for the meaning of life. He tried all sorts of beliefs and lifestyles, but realised in the end that only coming to God in and through Jesus Christ gave him that feeling of having arrived where he was meant to be. “our hearts are restless (go about never finding anywhere satisfying to stay), until they find their rest in God.” Of course, this leads on to a final important idea about rest in the Bible and that is eternal rest. We commonly use the initials RIP, don’t we? By that we mean our prayer for someone who has died, that their souls will have found a permanent and peaceful place to remain for ever. Elijah, in his state of exhaustion thought that was his wish. God was to show him at that stage, all he needed was temporary rest and his eternal rest would come at the right time. It is this combination of being revived from time to time on the way to a final rest that Jesus meant when he said he was the bread of life. We draw on him at regular intervals, so that one day we will be at home with him because we’re familiar with the taste of him. So let our holiday times and daily rest remind us of these three kinds of Bible resting: regular rest; resting upon and permanent rest!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.