Equipped to Serve: Learning from Holy Saturday
March 26, 2017
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
That’s it. We have the death and then burial of Jesus on Friday, and then we have…Saturday. Let’s be honest - we normally don’t give Holy Saturday a thought, do we? You could easily overlook it. We actually WANT to overlook it. We all like to move very, very quickly from Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday. We don’t want to stay too long in the darkness, the confusion, the agony, or the numbness of the aftermath of the crucifixion because it’s too painful, and anyway, we don’t have to, do we? Not really? Because after all, we know what is going to happen, and we want to get to the joy and light and celebration of Easter as fast as we can.
But that’s Sunday. There is this awkward and uncomfortable day between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday to get through before that. No one wants it to be there. We all wish it wasn’t there. But it stubbornly is there. The first disciples couldn’t skip it and neither can we. If you want to get from Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday, there is no other way than through Holy Saturday.
But we can easily miss it when we read the gospels, or when we journey each year through Holy Week. And what we do when we read the gospels, or journey through Holy Week we also do in our lives. We want to bypass Holy Saturday. We want to move too quickly from the cross to the resurrection.
Here’s what I mean by that. I think all of us will have seen folks - and maybe even been the folks - who feel that as Christians we have to hide the struggle, to move very quickly to ‘I’m OK, you’re OK, it’s all OK, because of Jesus,’ whether that’s death, or a major illness, or when you lose your job with absolutely zero prospect of anything else on the horizon, or…. well, you fill in the blank with any number of situations that make you feel as though the bottom has just dropped out of your life.
On the one hand there is a sense in which ‘I’m OK, you’re OK, everything’s OK’ is deeply true - Jesus has won the ultimate victory for us. But trying to reach that place faster than we are ready, or faster than the situation warrants, can place terrible burdens on us, as if somehow we are not allowed to see and name before God and before others the awful reality of things for us right now.
But as we’ll see, the day we all prefer to avoid - Holy Saturday, the day between cross and resurrection - is one of the places in scripture that particularly resonates with exactly those kinds of situations. It’s a kind of holy space in the scriptural story for those times when we have a very, very difficult road to walk, and when we struggle to see any kind of human hope, or when we are called to travel alongside someone else who has to walk that kind of road. Holy Saturday can open up a space for our hardest stories. It’s not a place we want to be. No one wants their story to have to include Holy Saturday. But God’s story does, it’s right there, in Holy Week, and there is grace for us even here, just in the fact that a day like this is there for us in the story.
But have you ever stopped to really think and imagine your way into this part of the story? I wonder, have you ever thought about what that first Holy Saturday must have been like for those first followers of Jesus?
We don’t have much information in scripture about what happened on that day, but we have enough to put some pieces together. So, think about how Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection - hiding together in a locked room, terrified; or the desolation and confusion of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus - we thought he had been the one…. but it seems like he wasn’t; or the women desperate to get to the tomb on Sunday morning. We can put some pieces together about how they experienced that first Holy Saturday.
And I think it actually helps us to understand the depths of the scriptural narrative much better if we are able to think our way into Holy Saturday in stereo, if you like - yes, knowing how it will all turn out the next day, but also entering into what it must have been like for those first disciples for whom it looked like the Holy Saturday experience would never end. It’s true that Jesus had taught them that he would be raised from the dead, but it’s also very clear that they didn’t get it, and they weren’t expecting anything in particular to happen on Sunday. For them, it seemed like it was all over with Jesus. There was nothing further to look forward to. This Holy Saturday situation would be the new normal for the rest of their lives.
Later today, take some time to imagine your way into the situation of those first followers of Jesus. What might you have thought and felt and why? I’ll throw out a few ideas now, to get you started, and also to start making some connections between that first Holy Saturday and some of the experiences you might have had in your life, or maybe that you are going through now, or that you have seen as you have walked alongside others.
First, and this is a tricky one for us, there is no inherent promise in Holy Saturday. We know how it all turns out, but it’s important to really realize that the resurrection does not follow automatically from the cross. Jesus is dead, dead, dead. The situation on Holy Saturday is humanly hopeless. The resurrection is a mighty, inbreaking, miraculous act of God that transforms everything, and turns the whole situation around. There was no human solution to what happened on Friday. Only God could turn that situation around. And on that Saturday, it seemed as though he wasn’t going to do that. For the disciples at the time, Saturday seemed to point to an endless future of no more hopes and no more dreams.
What had happened also meant that Jesus had lost his identity for them. Who they thought he was, it seemed he wasn’t; or at least it seems that he isn’t any more. And with Jesus seemingly losing his identity, that shatters their own sense of identity too. They had dedicated their lives to him. They had defined who they were as those who followed Jesus. That’s how everyone else saw them too. And now it seems like as his identity has disintegrated, theirs has been lost with his.
And I bet there was guilt too - for having abandoned and denied him. For things they wished they had said and done, or hadn’t said and done, but now it was too late to do anything about that.
And resentment - they had dedicated their whole lives to Jesus, and given up a lot for him, and thought they would have a future with him. And now it looks like they have absolutely nothing to show for it.
And fear. That’s why they locked themselves in the upper room. They were terrified that what they had just seen happen to Jesus might happen to them too.
You’ve been there, haven’t you? In that Holy Saturday place. Or you’ve seen people you love there. Or you have been called to walk alongside someone who is there. Or maybe you are there right now.
You lose your job. And you have no idea where the next one might come from. And the money has almost run out. And the house is on the line. And if anyone gets seriously sick, well, just don’t even let your thoughts go there.
When someone you love so much dies, and it feels like at least 2/3 of you has died with them.
When the dark clouds of depression loom up on the horizon of your life and start rolling relentlessly towards you.
When you get the diagnosis, and now you’re dealing with a condition or a disease in yourself or someone you love, that will totally change your life and the lives of everyone who loves you, and rob you, maybe fearfully slowly, maybe fearfully quickly, of the kind of life you wanted, and the dreams you had.
When you see someone you love so much, but don’t know how to help any more, returning to the addiction that is destroying them.
There are many kinds of Holy Saturday places, but in all of them, the situation seems hopeless. If anything is going to turn this around, it’s going to have to be from God, because every direction you look is a dead end. It seems like there’s no way things can get better, only worse and worse, and all you can think about is what you have lost. What has happened has shattered your sense of who you are. You don’t see yourself in the same way any more. Everyone else sees you differently too. The future you had planned out, and that you were so confident that *God* had planned for you, has crumbled before your eyes. And wave after wave of resentment and guilt and fear and frustration and confusion is crashing over you.
Yes, you KNOW with your head that Jesus is risen. You know with your head that he has won the ultimate victory, and that in him we are more than conquerors.
You know that with your head. But your heart and your guts are not there.
And… where is the space for you in all of that? Because it sometimes seems like there IS no space for you. Because it seems like everyone wants you to move as fast as possible from Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday. Everyone wants you to say - you want to be able to say, hand on heart - ‘Yes, it’s rough, but I’m OK, it’s all OK because of Jesus.’ But right now you just aren’t there, and it is NOT OK.
There is a space in the story for you. It isn’t the place we are called to stay for always. But we need to acknowledge that that place in the story is there. And we need to give each other permission to be in that Holy Saturday place. Sometimes there are whole, long Holy Saturday seasons in our lives, where all those kinds of thoughts and feelings we named for those first disciples on that first Holy Saturday are someone’s daily reality.
When we walk with and love and serve those who are in an extended Holy Saturday, that is sometimes the greatest gift we can give. To honor the fact that they are in the Holy Saturday place in the story. To be the safe space for someone to honestly tell you what it is like, without moving too quickly to attempted solutions and reassurances. Holy Saturday is a holy space in the story for lament, and confusion, and desolation and what seems like a dead end, and not being sure what to be or do or think or feel any more.
But here’s something else to hold onto about that first Holy Saturday. It is there in our text today, and it is the only thing our text directly says about this difficult day. They kept Sabbath. Holy Saturday is also a day - a season - to be faithful. Doggedly faithful. Even when they were feeling their most hopeless and desolate those first followers of Jesus were faithful. They kept Sabbath.
They must have been wondering if they could believe in God any more, because their faith and trust in God had been totally bound up with believing that Jesus was the one that God had sent. And now Jesus was dead. Maybe they kept Sabbath on autopilot, totally numb and hardly knowing what they were doing. Maybe they did it with hearts that were angry and resentful towards God. Maybe they did it because there was comfort in the routine. Maybe they did it because they wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing and they'd be in trouble if they didn’t. Maybe they did it because they clung to faith in spite of everything, and they still loved God and they still loved Jesus. Whatever the reasons why, they were faithful. They did it.
Does that sound familiar, anyone? I’m pretty sure it does. This ‘being faithful’ aspect of Holy Saturday, is so important, not just for those who are living through a Holy Saturday time, but for all of us who walk alongside folks who are there. Even when we are hurting so much, and even when we don't understand, and don’t see a hopeful way forward, just like those disciples on that first Holy Saturday, still, there is the call to be faithful; to discern what that means in whatever the situation is, and in the strength of the Lord and the upholding of the Spirit, to walk on, one foot in front of the other, even when you can’t see very far at all on the road ahead. It’s the Holy Saturday call to be faithful, no matter what you are feeling or not feeling, whatever that looks like on any given day.
To everyone who keeps on seeking the grace and the strength and the wisdom to discern and do the faithful thing, whatever that might be, day in day out, going through the motions even when you don’t feel very much any more, because it is the right thing to do; or doing the faithful thing, even when you feel heartbroken or volcanically angry about the whole situation; or doing the faithful thing, not understanding, but still loving and trusting - Holy Saturday is your day.
But there’s one more thing too. Yes, those disciples keeping sabbath *is* a call to us to discern what it means to be faithful in our Holy Saturday situations…. but it’s also a call to stop, and to rest in the Lord. They rested on the Sabbath, according to the commandment. Sabbath is much more than simply a command: ‘do not do any work’. It is a call to rest in the Lord, and to surrender our illusions of control, and to trust in him. That is the original intent of sabbath… and that, I think, is one of the huge messages to the disciples that first Holy Saturday.
They were at the end of their rope. Jesus was dead, they were terrified, everything seemed hopeless, and nothing they could do could change anything about the situation. And then the day after their whole world collapsed around them, they had to keep Sabbath. In all their grief and fear and panic and confusion, they HAD to just wait on the Lord, because that was what this Sabbath day required of them. There might well have been a million things that they wanted to do on that Saturday - and we know that the women were so desperate to do the last loving things for Jesus that they set off for the tomb as soon as they possible could on Sunday morning - but on Saturday they made themselves rest in and rest on the Lord.
Part of being faithful that Holy Saturday was that they had to take the focus off themselves and their situation, and what was making them feel desolate and desperate, and they had to focus, as the Sabbath day required of them, on God - the creator and sustainer of all things; the one who set his people free. The focus is on his faithfulness, on the great things he has done, on his steadfast love. Even when the situation they were in made them doubt all of that and wonder where this faithful God who did amazing things was supposed to be right now.
Sometimes in our Holy Saturdays, and as we walk with others in their Holy Saturdays, we also need to stop and take Sabbath. Take Sabbath from doing doing doing, from trying to manufacture solutions to the presenting problems, from revolving in our heads all the what ifs and whys and what nexts. We need to make ourselves pause and refocus on who God is, and what God has done - in our lives, and also in the whole sweep of the scriptural story. We need to remind ourselves of the steadfast love and mercy and faithfulness of God, even when our Holy Saturday situations make us doubt all of that - even if the cancer doesn’t go into remission; even if we still have no idea what our next steps should be or even could be. We need to remind ourselves that it really is true that nothing in life or in death or in all of creation - nothing - can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And we KNOW that is true because God has given us the ultimate testimony of that, and the ultimate guarantee of that, in raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
And that brings us at last to the obvious and decisive difference that sets our Holy Saturday experiences apart from that first Holy Saturday. In all of our Holy Saturday experiences, we do know what happens on Easter Sunday. So as well as allowing Holy Saturday to be a holy space in the story for the pain of those of us who are enduring a hard, hard season, we also want to make sure that we say that yes, even in the midst of all of this, there are glimpses of resurrection joy - glimpses of the promises and faithfulness of God. So as part of our Holy Saturdays let’s also gently help one another to see those glimpses of God’s goodness and faithfulness and love and care.
We do need to be able to be honest about the dark emptiness of our Holy Saturday times. And that is why there is grace for us just in the fact that Holy Saturday is there, in the gospel story. Just like the order of the scriptures, we need to let ourselves have permission, and especially give others permission, to have the time to dwell with the darkness and the pain rather than trying to push too quickly to resurrection light and joy. But we ARE always going to hold the whole picture together - the cross is not the end, Holy Saturday does not last forever, and in Jesus’ resurrection we do have the ultimate promise that sin and death and everything that holds us back from fullness of life will not have the last word. Holy Saturday is the place in the Easter story that allows us all to give full vent to the pain and confusion and desolation that is still very real in our stories, even as it encourages us to wait with sure and certain hope for what the Lord will do -
8.30 - as we will sing in a moment, God *will* take our hand, guide our feet, through the storm, through the night and lead us on to the light.
10.00 - as we will sing in a moment, even as we labor through the storm, until the midnight meets the morning.
Thanks be to God, Amen.