This is the 17th contribution to His Grace’s emergency team ministry during the coronavirus pestilence. The author wishes to be known that he is a feckless waster saved by grace.
On a map it’s called the A83 Trunk Road. You might not be inspired to visit, but if you did, it would take you up the Trossachs in a most satisfying and scenic manner. Unimpressed as I generally am by the midge-infested wastelands of the North, the views are exceptional. At the head of Glen Croe, there is a stopping place where you can gaze back over your journey and contemplate what is yet to come. A stone stands there, Bethel-like, with an inscription from which the road takes its common name: the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’.
From creation, God has gone to extraordinary lengths to emphasise to mankind the importance of rest. In Leviticus 23 the principle of the Sabbath Day is expanded to a Sabbath Year. Every seventh year, fields were to lie fallow, animals and people to rest. Then in Leviticus 25 the Year of Jubilee is introduced: every 50th year (seven Sabbath Years) slaves were to be set free and land returned to its ancestral owners.
So Jesus’ meaning was well understood when he took the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”, saying: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:18-21).
Human nature being what it is, Jesus’ offer of “Come to me and I will give you rest” was not well received. Mankind prefers the terrible lie “Arbeit Macht Frei”, a phrase which appeared on a march against lockdown in Illinois last week.
Equally, it seems that no Sabbath or Jubilee year was ever held in Israel. However, God has a way of working his purposes out. 2 Chronicles 36 records that Nebuchadnezzar “carried into exile to Babylon the remnant… The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfilment of the word of the Lord” (vv 20-21). Like the captives, we now find ourselves in an enforced sabbatical. Were it not imposed upon us, we might never have paused in life’s frenetic journey to take in the view, to rest and be thankful. Nor might such compassion have been provoked in society for the poor, the elderly, the sick and the homeless. Nor might family ties have been strengthened and re-valued, or a new appreciation have been discovered for those in the caring professions and hairdressers, yea and even church buildings. Nor would travel and pollution have been drastically cut, life’s priorities realigned or a host of other benefits been realised. These benefits could have been ours without the suffering, but we would never have chosen them.
Psalm 137 records the Israelite exiles’ misery: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Harps were hung on trees as they refused to sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land. But at the same time Ezekiel records this: “..while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezek 1:1). Our experience in lockdown will be both negative and positive, but we have a choice either to be downcast or to look up. To refuse to sing or to search for God.
This time will end, perhaps soon. By Whitsun life will begin to return to normal, or to whatever the new normal becomes. The timing interests me, because the disciples were in Jerusalem lockdown between Easter and Pentecost, under clear instructions from Jesus to go nowhere. Why the wait? What were they doing?
“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:45). And: “he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:2-3).
These were days of joy, of learning, of meeting with the risen Christ as he taught them and prepared them for all that lay ahead. They were fallow days of rest and preparation. The disciples were not downcast; their hearts burned. These were unique days which they would look back on and perhaps long for, but when they were over, they were gone forever. On the 50th day, there suddenly came a rushing wind and tongues of fire and the promised age of Jubilee began. Our lockdown will also end suddenly. It will have been a once-in-fifty-years event and we’re unlikely to experience anything similar in our lifetimes. So we will do well to make sure that we are taking the high road: meeting with Christ, asking what he has to say to us, resting in him and being thankful.
In 1831 William Wordsworth climbed the A83 Trunk Road and wrote this:
At the Head of Glencroe
Doubling and doubling with laborious walk,
Who that has gained at length the wished-for height,
This brief, this simple wayside call can slight,
And rests not thankful? Whether cheered by talk
With some loved friend, or by the unseen hawk
Whistling to clouds and sky-born streams, that shine
At the sun’s outbreak, as with light divine,
Ere they descend to nourish root and stalk
Of valley flowers. Nor, while the limbs repose,
Will we forget that, as the fowl can keep
Absolute stillness, poised aloft in air,
And fishes front, unmoved, the torrent’s sweep,
So may the soul, through powers that faith bestows,
Win rest and ease and peace, with bliss that angels share.