Church of the Living God

The Days We Wait (Easter 2017)

I mentioned last week that the Bible is full of ‘three day stories”[1]: Jonah in the big fish; Joseph’s brothers in jail in Egypt; the plague of darkness in Egypt; Rahab hid the spies for three days. Jesus was in the tomb for three days. On the third day is when the bad stuff ends. That’s the day we celebrate, and rightly so. But Third Day stories aren’t clear until the Third Day. On Day One and Day Two, it’s not yet clear how the story will end. The First day of Third Day story is often a brutal one.

Crucifixion Friday was the First Day of a Three Day story.  We talked last week about how Jesus understands our First Days. His entrance into the human condition showed that God is not a distant, uncaring and cold God. God understands us. But there is still Saturday before Sunday. It’s not the day when the tragedy occurred; it’s not the day that Resurrection brings hope and life. It’s that troublesome (and often very long) middle day. Here’s what the Bible records the followers of Jesus were doing between Crucifixion Friday and Resurrection Sunday. (This is a combination of the details as they appear in Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20).

At the rising of the sun, after the Sabbath on the first day of the week, the two Marys and Salome came to the tomb to keep vigil. They brought sweet-smelling spices they had purchased to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Along the way, they wondered to themselves how they would roll the heavy stone away from the opening…

[They encounter the Risen Jesus]

They brought this news back to all those who had followed Him and were still mourning and weeping. They recounted for them—and others with them—everything they had experienced. The Lord’s emissaries heard their stories as fiction, a lie; they didn’t believe a word of it until Jesus appeared to them all as they sat at dinner that same evening (Resurrection Sunday).

 They were gathered together behind locked doors in fear that some of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were still searching for them. Out of nowhere, Jesus appeared in the center of the room and said, “May each one of you be at peace.”

What do we see the closest followers of Jesus doing?

  • Keeping a vigil of mourning
  • Planning how to perfume the body of the dead Messiah
  • Hiding in fear
  • Mourning and weeping
  • Refusing to believe that Jesus was alive

It’s not a great resume builder, really. You would think that the biblical writers might want to put a better spin on what happened here. “As the disciples were praying and rejoicing over Jesus’ impending Resurrection, Mary returned and told them the good news. And they said, “Of course! We knew it all along!”

No, they were mourning the death of their long awaited Messiah. They thought he was gone. They thought he had failed – and in that failure shown that he was not, after all, the promised deliverer. As far as they knew, he was never coming back.

Crucifixion Fridays are hard, but Silent Saturdays may be even harder. Funeral days are hard, but they are at least full of adrenaline and crisis management and we are surrounded by support. But then the next day, when family drifts back home, and friends go back to their routine…that’s when Silent Saturday sets in. The loneliness and the emptiness…

It’s hard enough when it involves earthly things. But what about when our relationship with God is best described as a Silent Saturday kind of relationship? What if there is a spiritual loneliness and emptiness, a sense that God is aloof at best and gone at worst. What about the times when the heavens seem empty, and our prayers just seem to drift off into a void? What about the times when God is silent?

John Ortberg tells the following story:

“From the time she was a young girl, Agnes believed. Not just believed: she was on fire. She wanted to do great things for God. She said things such as she wanted to "love Jesus as he has never been loved before." Agnes had an undeniable calling. She wrote in her journal that "my soul at present is in perfect peace and joy." She experienced a union with God that was so deep and so continual that it was to her a rapture. She left her home. She became a missionary. She gave him everything. And then he left her.

At least that's how it felt to her. "Where is my faith?" She asked. "Deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness …. My God, how painful is this unknown pain … I have no faith." She struggled to pray: "I utter words of community prayers—and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray."

She still worked, still served, still smiled. But she spoke of that smile as her mask, "a cloak that covers everything." This inner darkness continued on, year after year, with one brief respite, for nearly 50 years. God was just absent. Such was the secret pain of Agnes, who is better known as Mother Teresa.

So what do we do with the Silent Saturdays of our lives? I want to offer a number of suggestions not so that you will be immediately aware of God’s presence, but so you can be purposeful and grow from this kind of season of your life.

1. Be honest with God. The Bible gives us permission to voice our hearts during Silent Saturday. Look at a few of the Psalms:

  • Psalm 6:2–3  “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing. Heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul is greatly troubled, but you, O Lord, how long?”
  •  Psalm 13:1–2 “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”
  • Psalm 90:13–14 “Return, O Lord. How long? Have pity on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.”
  • “I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me.” (Job 30:20)

A friend sent me a psalm of lament, full of anger and frustration, that she had written as part of her process of coming to grips with why God had allowed what He did in her life. It was raw and beautiful, and it was bold. Those are good things. God knows your heart and mind; he already knows your deepest internal struggles. Voice them. God is big. He can handle it.

2. Keep the vigils

In the spite of the pain of their loss, the Marys did what they had always done, which was part of the ritual life of living in Jewish community. What Jewish people believed and what they did in almost every aspect of life were so intertwined that it’s hard to imagine that the vigil was not considered part of what God called them to do. There is something to be said for keeping the faith through an active commitment to obedience and faithfulness. I would like to offer four vigils I believe are helpful.

A. Pursue Church community. Don't forsake gathering together (Hebrews 10:25). The disciples did at least one thing right: they hung together in the midst of their grief. It’s important that we remain connected and not withdraw. In community, others came back and reported their experiences with the Risen Christ. Even in the midst of doubt, there was hope. We stay in community so that we can be challenged, encouraged, and held close. We need to feel the nearness of God’s people when God feels distant. We need the hope that lives in others when our sense of hope is gone.

B. Pray and Read Scripture. I don’t know that there is a formula for the best way to do this. There are all kinds of cool ideas about how to read through the Bible or how to pray. I don’t think they are bad; I just don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all kind of approach.

  • Listen to or read the Bible.
  • Pray alone – or get together with others.
  • Pray for a block of time – or throughout the day.
  • Sing. There are theologically rich songs that are good reminders of the hope we find in Jesus.

C. Dive Into Devotionals (podcasts, books, teachings). This is one way to experience the community of the church. It’s also a good way to find clarity about the Scriptures and to hear the testimonies of others. What did they do when they were in the First and Second days of their stories?

D. Practice Obedience. One of the greatest dangers we face is giving up and saying to God, “You know what? If I can’t feel your presence, I am going to live as if you’re not there.” We shake our fist at the heavens and begin to sow sinful things that can be forgiven and healed but will nonetheless be harvested (Galatians 6:7).

The Bible describes the way of obedience as “the path of life” (Psalm 16:11). There is something about faithful obedience that is not just healthy; it is wise and stabilizing. This, too, is sowing actions that you will one day reap – but this time it won’t be the wages of sin. It will be the fruit of righteousness.  Also, I believe obedience is one of the ways we are conformed to the image of Christ – and in that conforming – as we begin to see what it means to ‘be like Jesus’ –  we begin to appreciate the wisdom of the One who guides our life.

3. Learn to wait

  • Psalm 37:7  “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way.”
  • Psalm 27:14  “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.”

I’m not good at waiting. I want problem resolution. Give me a task! Sometimes that is what God calls us to do, but many God does not work that way. I like what Jon Bloom wrote in an article entitled, “When God Is Silent.”

Why is it that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” but “familiarity breeds contempt”? Why is water so much more refreshing when we’re really thirsty? Why am I almost never satisfied with what I have, but always longing for more? Why can the thought of being denied a desire for marriage or children or freedom or some other dream create in us a desperation we previously didn’t have?

Why is the pursuit of earthly achievement often more enjoyable than the achievement itself? Why do deprivation, adversity, scarcity, and suffering often produce the best character qualities in us while prosperity, ease, and abundance often produce the worst?

Do you see it? There is a pattern in the design of deprivation: Deprivation draws out desire. Absence heightens desire. And the more heightened the desire, the greater its satisfaction will be. It is the mourning that will know the joy of comfort (Matthew 5:4). It is the hungry and thirsty that will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Longing makes us ask, emptiness makes us seek, silence makes us knock (Luke 11:9).

Deprivation is in the design of this age. We live mainly in the age of anticipation, not gratification. We live in the dim mirror age, not the face-to-face age (1 Corinthians 13:12). The paradox is that what satisfies us most in this age is not what we receive, but what we are promised. The chase is better than the catch in this age because the Catch we’re designed to be satisfied with is in the age to come…

It’s the desert that awakens and sustains desire. It’s the desert that dries up our infatuation with worldliness. And it’s the desert that draws us to the Well of the world to come.

Sometimes, the best way to hand over the weight of the world is to wait on Christ.

4. Don't confuse what you feel from what is real

I heard a wise man say once, “You will either judge truth by your feelings, or you will judge your feelings by what it true.” What is true is that God may feel absent, but He is not. God is with us always. Why does He feel absent? I don’t know. It could be that you are in rebellious sin. It could be that you are tired. It could be that God has removed the sense of His presence as part of transforming you into the image of Christ. It could be that you are distracted. I don’t know.

But I know that God is near and faithful no matter how we feel.

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[1] I got this idea from a brilliant teaching called “Saturday: Living Between Crucifixion and Resurrection,” posted by Richmont Graduate University on youtube. I don’t know who the speaker was. You can access the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U90EKNZPKCU

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