As a student of Modern Hebrew, I particularly enjoy moments when a new vocabulary word connects unexpectedly to a Bible story and a lightbulb lights up. So it was a few years ago when I encountered the Hebrew word for rest: “nu’ach” (NOO-ach). “Wait a minute! Is that like…Noah? The name?” Sure enough, it is! The name Noah, I learned, means “rest” (and a Google search adds “repose”).
Time out. Can we pause to consider the fact that the hero of probably the most chaotic, cataclysmic, and stressful time in earth’s history was named “rest?” The entire continent was in upheaval, humankind was being wiped out, one family was locked in a floating barn having no idea for how long, and yet the man at the center of God’s plan was named “rest, repose.” Ironic, yes, and contradictory on the surface, but in the end, revealing of God’s trustworthiness and what He asks of us in earth’s darkest hours.
As we approach the Sabbath, a “day of rest,” the picture of Noah entering the ark is a fitting one. The Sabbath is like a weekly ark into which we can enter, asking God to shut us in (Genesis 7:16), even while the storm rages. Entering the Sabbath ark takes faith, it takes effort, but this Ark of Divine Rest is available to our physical bodies on a weekly basis (as it is to our souls every day in Jesus). [Side note: some parents will appreciate the double connection here as, like Noah, the Sabbath means a shutting in with noisy, restless creatures who still need our care! We can relate to Noah on so many levels!]
Another image I have been considering is that of the bluebird pair who discovered the bird box by our house this week. They have been busily building their home in that box, and sightings each day have brought us much joy. You know, you can’t see much when you take up refuge in a bird box. This is no eagle’s aerie, with 360-degree view by which to survey and consider all possible dangers with hawkish eye. Instead, you’re shut in, with one little hole facing one direction, blind to all else. That hole–intentionally placed by me to suit their preference–faces east, toward the rising sun. That box is an ark for those bluebirds, their place of rest.
By analogy, when we enter the Sabbath Ark, one rest-promoting strategy is to limit our view of the danger and suffering on all sides, and look toward the eastern horizon: the hope of what is coming! Without hope it is difficult to rest; hopelessness allows us to cease, maybe, but not to rest. But with HOPE, our rest can be deep and genuine. And hope comes from pointing our bird box in the right direction. To be shut in to a Sabbath ark with Rest and Hope as companions is a happy prospect!
Most of us have found ourselves shut in to a different kind of ark the past three weeks, one of isolation, social distancing, unemployment maybe, and a steady diet of bleak but sensational news headlines. At a time like this one may wonder, “What makes rest or hope in the Sabbath ark even possible, with such palpable suffering and fear around us? Is Sabbath rest a pretty game of make-believe in which we pretend there isn’t a storm raging? Are rest and hope byproducts of putting our heads in the sand?”
I propose that the palpable suffering and fear are the sand, and pulling our heads out and focusing on greater Truth is what will invite the rest and the hope. Two of these greater Truths in particular make this Divine Rest possible.
1) Emmanuel. God is with us. Peter Kreeft says* that God’s answer to suffering is Someone–Jesus–who came to be with us in our suffering, for “Love seeks above all intimacy, presence, togetherness.” As Love incarnate, He is sitting beside us, even now. Jesus is in the boat with us, and with those suffering during this pandemic. He is knocking, and all who open the door (Rev. 3:20) are met with His abiding presence. He can calm the storm, but even if He doesn’t, knowing He can, and that He is here, is enough. Ignoring the storm does not bring rest; what does is paying full attention to the greater truth: Emmanuel, God with us.
2) Resurrection. At this moment in Holy Week, we are remembering our Lord Jesus in a different kind of ark, the dark and gloomy Ark of Hell and Death. But He entered that ark to destroy it, so we need never go there! The ark we enter instead is the Ark of Resurrection Hope and Rest, which we celebrate in full on Sunday.
A favorite song in my family’s house for a few months now has been Andrew Peterson’s “His Heart Beats,”** which vividly captures the exact moment when Jesus’ heart started beating again and everything changed. The entire context of our human existence was transformed by the resurrection, when death was conquered on our behalf. At that moment, death became not the end, but the gateway to eternity with God. How radically that shifts our perspective on our lifetime on earth and all it contains! Present suffering becomes a shadow that disappears in the light of eternity, which for us is full of the greatness and lovingkindness of our God. The truth of the resurrection shrinks every storm, fear, and grief (including the coronavirus) to the blink of an eye, overcoming them with Hope: hope based on His promise–and our faith-filled expectation–of also being resurrected, and living forever joyful in the presence of God.
I wish you all could hear my 4-year-old bellow these lines from “His Heart Beats” (with questionable pitch but accurate rhythm),
“He took one breath! And put death to death!
Where is your sting, oh grave, how grave is your defeat!”
That right there summarizes why the Ark we enter on the Sabbath can be filled with both Rest and Hope. Jesus is Risen! The last enemy to be destroyed is death, and it has been! What is left to rob us of Rest?
Whatever your worries are this week–staying healthy, disrupted finances, loneliness, the suffering of the elderly–may you find Divine Hope and Rest in the Sabbath Ark, and lift your head out of the sand to consider God’s Emmanuel presence and the radical, transforming hope that is ours because Jesus is risen.
P.S. As we enter the Sabbath “bird box” and limit what we allow in, let us remember there need be no limit to what flows out, namely, intercession. The prayer on my heart for weeks now has been “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison,” meaning, “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy.” It’s a simple intercession for the undeserved mercy of God, used (loosely) in several stories in Matthew where people entreated Jesus for healing. Often I feel at a loss of what to pray, unsure what God is doing during this pandemic, but I feel confident it is right to ask our merciful God for mercy. I pray it in English, but I also remember it often in Greek, as it is an ancient prayer, with those exact words prayed by saints across Christian traditions for 2,000 years, during all the storms (and quiet places) of history. Will you join with me in asking our Lord for his mercy on our world this Sabbath?