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the restless rest of the infinite abyss

April 18th, 2005 by isaac · 3 Comments

This past Sunday I had to honor of preaching again at my church. The best part of preaching at my church is that during the service we have space to talk back to one another (i.e. “discern”) about the message we just heard. I like those times the best because they help me to see what was really communicated—if the gospel was really preached. A lot of times i am surprised to hear what the congregation heard, and didn’t hear. So, all that to say, I am sorry you couldn’t be at my church so we could discern the Word together. If you are ever in Durham, please stop by Chapel Hill Mennonite. In the meantime, here is a sermon for your exploration.


Title: restless rest in an infinite abyss
Date: April 17th, 2005
Lectionary Texts: Acts 2:42-47; Ps. 23; 1 Pet. 2:19-25; Jn. 10:1-10

“My heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” That’s Augustine’s consistent prayer in his Confessions, and I think that prayer captures the longing expressed in Psalm 23—“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Desire is basic to our nature. “To be alive is to desire” (Crucified Jesus, 80). We do things because we want stuff. I stay up late and wake up early because I want to be prepared for my classes. I eat because I want to fulfill my desire for food—I want to live.

Some think the way our desires shape all our activity is a plague, that it’s a disease in need of a cure. They think our desires war against each other and against us thus causing suffering. This is the case with Gautama who became the Buddha. He thought “eliminate desire and you will come to peace” (ibid). I can definitely see the truth in that claim. I think about it in terms of a friend of mine who walks through a sort of Valley, overshadowed with the threat of death and destruction. His desires brought him to the point of alcoholism. In his darkest moments he had to drink a 6-pack of beer everyday when he got home from work to keep from shaking. Then he couldn’t fall to sleep unless he drank a bottle of wine. And sometimes he woke in the middle of the night shaking in a cold sweat and had to down some sort of liquor in order to sleep through the night. He felt a war against his desire every time he woke up in the morning and had to stumble to the shower still drunk from the night before. Part of him wanted to stop, he didn’t want to have another drink before going to work, he didn’t want to go on with life enslaved to this desire, but for some reason he couldn’t eliminate that want.

Buddha was right. My friend’s desire caused so much suffering; it had to be eliminated. But does that mean that all desire must be eliminated in order for us to live in peace? Another way to approach Buddha’s dilemma is to ask what’s the force of the shall not in the first line of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I don’t think that statement is a command—“Thou must eliminate all desire!” The sense of the passage doesn’t say that our job is to free ourselves from all desire so we can enter the peaceful existence that God wants for us. Rather, we are like sheep who no longer need to struggle to satisfy our desires because the Shepherd will supply all our needs.

Desiring is not bad in itself; the danger comes when we link desire to fear and worry. And this is where we see that Buddha got it only sorta right—the only desire he knew was desire mixed with fear. Desire in and of itself does not make us suffer. Desire names our restless hearts that Augustine confessed—“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Desire is that part of us that penetrates into the depths of our existence, permeating every fiber of our being. How about this analogy: “Desire is the horse; fear [is] the rider that has gotten onto its back. The horse is a good horse, and, liberated from this dark rider, will bound for the heart of the sun” (ibid). Our desire is bound up by the shackles of fear—fear of losing what we got, and fear of not finding our satisfaction. But if we come to see Jesus as the Savior, the liberator of our desire from fear, then we can follow our desire into the Sun—then the longing of our restless hearts will show us the way to the abundant life offered to us in Christ.

Listen to Jesus again: The Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them. He goes on ahead of them, and the sheep follow him. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture… I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10). Jesus shows us the way to pastures of peace, those green pastures and quiet waters of the Psalmist, a space where the desires of our soul find the salvation of abundant life—the fulfillment of our restless longings.

In order to hear the hope of the abundant life Jesus offers to us, I think we have to listen to whom Jesus is speaking in John 10—we have to wonder who we are in the story. The words of Jesus we read in John 10 are addressed to the religious leaders (i.e. the Pharisees) who accused Jesus of demonic activity because he healed a blind man on the Sabbath—it’s that wonderful story where Jesus spit on the ground to make mud and rubbed it all over the guy’s face. (I love to think of this story of Jesus when I think about who Jesus is. It’s just so creative, so playful. How would anyone ever come up with using spit and dirt to make mud and use that for a miracle!)

I don’t want to blame the religious leaders too quickly. If we dismiss them without trying to understand them then I think we miss all the ways we may fall into their camp a lot of times. These Jewish folks were very concerned with fidelity to their religion; they were sincere, pious people. They were suspicious of Jesus because they thought Jesus broke one of the commandments of Moses—“Keep the Sabbath.” They saw how this once blind man could now see. But they could not really see him; they did not want to recognize this restorative abundant life that transgressed their well-policed boundaries of what it means to follow God’s commands. They tied their desire for God to a fear to hold onto their familiar conceptions of the way God relates to God’s people. To quote our friend Peter Dula, “They are devout and religious men, formed in the habits and practices of community. They speak no heresy, deny no doctrine” (Beautiful Enemies, 343).

So, what is their fault, and maybe our fault? It’s their failure to really be there—present—with this healed blind man, “to put themselves in his presence” (ibid). They didn’t really know what this blind man felt when he saw light after years of darkness. They didn’t think they had anything to learn about their God; they had God all figured out. They had already put to rest their restless hearts; closed off their desire for abundant life. They found the satisfaction of their desire in a stagnant understanding of their community. No need to continue to search for God’s generous gifts of abundant life made new every morning.

Instead of considering Jesus’ offer of new, abundant life—new wine that calls for new wineskins—they told the blind man that he was blind because he was conceived in sin, and blamed Jesus for breaking the Sabbath. They couldn’t hear their Shepherd’s voice because they didn’t think he spoke anymore, or at least they could only hear what was familiar—no room for old words spoken in new accents. They liked the pasture they fenced-off for themselves; they had their own gate and didn’t want to give up the keys. They didn’t have ears to hear the good newness of Christ’s abundant life.

We may be like these religious leaders who don’t know how to hear the voice of the Shepherd. We may not be interested in this blind man and this Jesus who may break through our community and familiar rules—who overturns tables and our ideas of what it means to sacrifice. The danger is the temptation to desperately hold onto the ways we guard our gifts, instead of seeing the ways Jesus offers us abundant life in new places. I remember last week’s sermon where Jen was able to see how Jesus showed up in a (sort of Eucharistic) meal of French fries.

In our passage from Acts 2 we find a church that seems to have embraced the precarious sort of living where fear to keep hold of the familiar didn’t constrict Christ’s new, abundant life poured out by the Holy Spirit. They did not guard their gifts from others, but offered them to one another and found the joy of the Spirit. Can you imagine the chaos and danger they invited into their midst when they welcomed new people everyday into their homes and shared meals with them? At my house we have strangers over every once-in-a-while and that is enough chaos for me. But the scripture says, “the Lord added to their number daily.” And they seemed to live-it-up with praises and joy.

I am not about to say that I think I know how we should hear how these passages might make concrete differences in our church, or for your lives—I’m not that presumptuous. But I do want to say that I think the good news of these texts for us is that Christ has freed us to live abundantly. We have to learn how to free our desire from the fear of losing control. We must not allow our fears and worries to cloud our minds to the point where we may miss where the Spirit is working in our midst.

My hope for us is that we may decide to be the sorts of friends to one another who risk losing control, who risk losing our independence—a “precarious living” that joins an other in this restless journey called discipleship (New Language, 77). Christ urges his followers to become completely alive to themselves, to abandon themselves to God, and in that abandonment to find the invisible God made visible in the face of our companion—our fellow traveler on the way to still waters and peaceable pastures. Then we may discover that Christ already came, that he may already be here, that his pastures are already here waiting for us to learn how to rest in them—but it is a restless rest that never ceases enjoying God’s surprising gifts of life that come to us with strangers who may turn out to be friends.

Jesus tells us, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” There is evidence of this life here, evidence of Christ’s continued habitation on earth. “Christ is present to us in so far as we are present to each other” (People of God, xi). The eternal life made available for us in Jesus Christ is the joy of wandering further into the reality of God’s redemptive activity all around us. We come here to worship the living God and continue in our “unceasing exploration of the infinite abyss of the Godhead” (xiv).

The trick is to figure out what the Shepherd’s voice sounds like here, in this place. And that’s the corporate work of those who come togther and listen for the voice of their Shepherd. Our conviction that the Shepherd still speaks is an invitation of which my sermon may only be the beginning.

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Tags: sermons

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ephen // Dec 1, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    disnt read bu looking for rest in a restless world

  • 2 KJ // Mar 24, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Great message.. I read this whenever my heart becomes restless.. God bless

  • 3 isaac // Mar 30, 2010 at 9:21 am

    KJ, it’s encouraging that you found my words helpful.

    peace to you,