Rest and Repent

Isaiah 11:1–10; Matthew 3:1–12, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on December 04, 2022

My brother said, “Go up Cutting Hill Lane. It climbs steeply then turns and cuts across Pinnacle Hill.You’ll come out at Highbridge Road. Take a right on Highbridge, go a short distance, and take a left on Hardscrabble Lane. If you go far enough on Hardscrabble it will turn into a hiking path  that takes you to Trout Pond. It’s a long way to the pond, though . . . you might not want to go that far.” He had told me already about the Pond—a small, tranquil, clear lake nestled deep in the woods, accessible only by footpath. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I was on vacation. The day was unseasonably warm and sunny with deep blue skies.Mosses gleamed on boulders and in the cracks of hand-built stone walls. Thick layers of dry leaves rustled under my feet. In other words, the woods were irresistibly inviting. Of course I was going all the way to Trout Pond!

This experience helps me think about rest. After a two-hour ramble in the woods, I was physically tired—sweaty, chilly, hungry. My leg muscles were aching and my knees complaining. And yet, having the time and freedom to savor the beauty of the day was also renewing and deeply restful. I certainly like to curl up on the couch as much as the next person. And yet, I find that I also crave the sort of rest that requires exertion, rest that comes especially from wandering at my own pace fully immersed in the gifts of the world. The point is, there are many different ways to rest. The way I rest is probably not the way you rest. And yet we all need to rest. And I think it’s fair to assume that most of us don’t get enough rest. Let’s take a moment to reflect. What is restful for you? Feel free to share a word or phrase- just speak it out or type it in the chat.

The prophet Isaiah offers a vision of rest for all creation. The prophet himself did not live in a peaceful time. He preached to a traumatized people recovering from war and exile. The stump of Jesse represents the leaders whose corruption and weakness allowed the nation to be conquered and scattered. Isaiah imagines that even in this dead-end situation, God will send forth a fresh shoot of possibility. Amid everyone’s cynicism about the political future of the nation, the prophet makes room for surprise. He envisions a leader who will not operate by conventional wisdom, but who will listen deeply and look beyond appearances. This ruler will not prioritize profit or productivity, fame or influence. Instead this new leader will share in God’s spirit and value what God values—justice, equity, right relationship, care for the vulnerable.

The prophet’s description of this divinely inspired leader seems like it could be grounded in reality. Many interpreters think Isaiah had an actual person in mind—King Hezekiah. Still, after introducing the one who governs with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and respect for all that is holy, the prophet undeniably takes a giant poetic leap. The prophet imagines that this Spirit-led rule will set in motion a cosmic transformation. All predatory behavior will cease. Enemies will live together in peace and cooperation: wolf and lamb, calf and lion, cow and bear. Every creature will be filled with the intimate knowledge of God that is innate in the earth itself. And again, fresh models of leadership will emerge.Instead of a mighty King, a vulnerable child will lead the way.

What strikes me about this vision is that it not only leaves room for us to rest, it requires us to rest. God provides the fresh possibility, the new shoot from the dead stump. God gives the Spirit that settles into the souls of those who lead. God instills the values and practices that bring abundant life to the community. Humankind certainly has work to do but it is work we cannot do without the essential reframing that comes with rest. When God acts, it is rarely in obvious ways. God did not save Israel’s monarchy. God did not cause the mighty tree to tower again. Instead, God nurtured a skinny little shoot that was easy to overlook. The lesson I receive from this ancient prophecy is that if we are exhausted and depleted, overwhelmed and overworked, bound by constant demands and imprisoned by unrelenting stress we will surely miss what God is up to. Rest gives us the powers of insight we need to perceive the small, humble, and utterly surprising gestures of the divine. Rest allows us to appreciate the mighty potential embedded in the subtle, quiet actions of our God.

All around us, all the time, God is doing God’s thing, which is to cause little green shoots to sprout from apparently dead stumps. None of us can really say exactly when, and how, and through whom God is at work. And yet, when fresh possibilities emerge that before seemed impossible, when, amid all our hard work, there is a restful moment of receiving—a shifting, an easing, an opening . . . I have to think that God is somehow involved. When a difficult conversation unexpectedly unfolds with trust and grace. When a friend enters treatment at last. When a child who has been struggling with a learning disability is suddenly reading for fun. When, in place of a polluting mine, someone brings forth the idea of a green manufacturing hub. When marriage equality gains bi-partisan support. When here in Minnesota we find ourselves with the opportunity to pass paid family leave and 100% clean energy.

Well, perhaps you are thinking that Isaiah’s vision of peace is one thing and John the Baptist is something entirely different. Fair. Certainly John’s tone is very agitational. And yet, even amid his fiery, fierce rhetoric, I hear a call to rest. The repentance he demands is radical change, life-sustaining transformation, like the metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly. And rest is the tool we need to access repentance, the pregnant pause that reframes everything. I would venture to guess that the frustration John expresses with the religious leaders has something to do with the fact that they aren’t refreshed and receptive. They are unable or unwilling to notice God’s skinny little green shoots. They don’t perceive the Spirit resting on creation, guiding us in surprising ways through surprising people—such as this camel’s-hair-wearing, honey-and locust-eating wilderness hermit named John.

In the articles we sent you for reflection this past week, Barbara Brown Taylor emphasizes that rest is a form liberation. She says: “The key, for me [in Sabbath rest] was freedom from compulsion. One day a week, ‘should,’ ‘ought’ and ‘must’ had no power over me.” And Tricia Hersey, whose work we will look at this coming week, observes that we are all enmeshed in systems that are bent on exhausting and exploiting us. She defines rest as resistance to the “violent” and “evil” systems of white supremacy and capitalism.[1] Our ancient texts and traditions are literally life-saving medicine when they give us permission to rest, even command us to rest. Barbara Brown Taylor describes how Sabbath rest changed her life, saying: 

Its effect was immediate. Relationships became more spacious. Prayer became more spacious. Time itself became more spacious. Instead of charging out of the gate on Monday mornings, I found myself sauntering instead, still relishing the freedom of the day before. There was never enough time to get everything done, but I finally understood there never would be. There would only be enough time to live, with as much gratitude as I could muster.[2]

Let us hear the voice our prophets: their words of relief and grace, their call to repentance and reframing. Let us trust in the one who brings forth fresh green shoots of possibility. Let us, as Wendell Berry puts it, “rest in the grace of the world and be free.” Amen.