In Between Despair and Joy
by John Ortberg from Who Is This Man?
So far as we know, there has only been one day in the last two thousand years when literally not one person in the world believed Jesus was alive.
On Saturday morning after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples wake after not having slept for two days. The city that was screaming for blood the day before is quiet. Crowds have disbanded. Jesus is dead.
What do they do on Saturday?
It’s strange that the two days on either side of Saturday are so heavily discussed. Some of the brightest minds in the world have devoted themselves primarily to those two days; they have been across the centuries maybe the two most studied days in history. The Bible is full of what happened the day before, the day Jesus was killed. And the next day, Sunday, is the day believers say gave birth to the most death-defying, grave-defeating, fear-destroying, hope-inspiring, transcendent joy in the history of the world. Pentecostals still shout about it. Charismatics still dance because of it. Baptists still say Amen! over it. Presbyterians still study it. Episcopalians still toast it with sherry. Some people think of Sunday in mellower terms, as a metaphor for hope. And others think of it as a dangerous enemy of logic, reason, and mortality.
Let’s just leave Sunday alone for now.
This isn’t Sunday. This isn’t Friday. This is Saturday. The day after this but the day before that. The day after a prayer gets prayed but there is no answer on the way. The day after a soul gets crushed way down but there’s no promise of ever getting up off the mat.
It’s a strange day, this in-between day. In between despair and joy. In between confusion and clarity. In between bad news and good news. In between darkness and light.
Even in the Bible - outside of one detail about guards being posted to watch the tomb - we’re told nothing about Saturday. Saturday is the day with no name, the day when nothing happened.
Now only a handful of followers remain. Friday was a nightmare day; Friday was the kind of day that is pure terror, the kind when you run on adrenaline. On Saturday when Jesus’ followers wake up, the terror is past, at least for the moment; the adrenaline is gone.
Those who believe in Jesus gather, quietly maybe. They remember. It’s what people do. Things He said. What He taught. Things He did. People He touched or healed. They remember what it felt like when this Jesus wanted them. They remember their hopes and dreams. They were going to change the world.
Now it’s Saturday.
Maybe they talk about what went wrong. What in God’s name happened? None of them wants to say this, but in their hearts, they’re trying to come to grips with this unfathomable thought: Jesus failed. Jesus ended up a failure. Noble attempt, but He couldn’t get enough followers.
He couldn’t convince the chief priests. He couldn’t win over Rome to make peace. He couldn’t get enough ordinary people to understand His message. He couldn’t even train His disciples to be courageous at the moment of great crisis.
Everybody knows Saturday.
Saturday is the day your dream died. You wake up and you’re still alive. You have to go on, but you don’t know how. Worse, you don’t know why.
This odd day raises a question: Why is there a Saturday? It doesn’t seem to further the story line at all. We might expect that if Jesus was going to be crucified then resurrected, God would just get on with it. It seems strange for God to spread two events over three days.
In its own way, perhaps Saturday should mark the world as much as Friday and Sunday.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday lie at the heart of the ancient calendar. They attributed great significance to the notion that this event was a three-day story.
The apostle Paul wrote, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day [Paul adds again] according to the Scriptures.” The Old Testament Scriptures are filled with what might be called “third-day stories.” When Abraham is afraid he’s going to have to sacrifice Isaac, he sees the sacrifice that will save his son’s life on the third day. Joseph’s brothers get put in prison, and they’re released on the third day. Israelite spies are told by Rahab to hide from their enemies, and then they’ll be safe on the third day. When Esther hears that her people are going to be slaughtered, she goes away to fast and pray. On the third day, the king receives her favorably.
It’s such a recurring pattern that the prophet Hosea says, “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces… After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will restore us, that we may live in His presence.” All three-day stories share a structure. On the first day there is trouble, and on the third day there is deliverance. On the second day, there is nothing - just the continuation of trouble.
The problem with third-day stories is, you don’t know it’s a third-day story until the third day.
When it’s Friday, when it’s Saturday, as far as you know, deliverance is never going to come. It may just be a one-day story, and that one day of trouble may last the rest of your life.
* * *
I said before that Saturday is the day when nothing happens. That’s not quite right. Silence happens on Saturday. After trouble hits you, after the agony of Friday, you call out to God. “Hear me! Listen to me! Respond to me! Do something! Say something! Rescue!”
On Saturday, in addition to the pain of Friday, there is the pain of silence and absence of God.
What do you do on Saturday?
You can choose despair. Paul writes about this: “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” In other words, apparently some people said, “There is never going to be a Sunday. It’s Friday. Get used to it. Do disappointment management, because that’s as good as it’s going to get.” Some people - silently, secretly - live here. You can choose denial - simplistic explanations, impatience, easy answers, artificial pleasantness. Hydroplane over authentic humanity, forced optimism, clichéd formulas, false triumphalism.
Paul wrote to Timothy that some “say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.” In other words, apparently some said, “It’s already Sunday. The resurrection has already happened for all of us, so if you’re having any problems, if you’re still sick, if your prayers aren’t being answered, you just don’t have enough faith. Get with the program.” Or there is this third option:
You can wait. Work with God even when He feels far away. Rest. Ask. Whine. Complain. Trust.
Oddly, the most common psalm is the psalm of complaint. The Saturday psalm. God, why aren’t you listening?
* * *
An ancient homily spoke of this strange day: What happened today on earth? There is a great silence - a great silence and stillness. A great silence because the king sleeps. God has died in the flesh, and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent as for a lost sheep.
The Apostles’ Creed says Jesus descended into hell.
Somehow no suffering you go through is suffering Jesus will not endure in order to save you.
From a human standpoint, we think of the miraculous day as Sunday, the day the man Jesus is risen from the dead. I wonder if, from Heaven’s standpoint, the great miracle isn’t on Saturday. When Jesus is born, the skies are filled with the heavenly hosts praising God because that baby is Emmanuel, God with us. Somehow God in a manger, somehow God in a stable, somehow God on earth. Now on Saturday the angels look down and see what? God in a tomb.
The miracle of Sunday is that a dead man lives. The miracle of Saturday is that the eternal Son of God lies dead.
So Jesus Christ defeats our great enemy death not by proclaiming His invincibility over it but by submitting Himself to it. If you can find this Jesus in a grave, if you can find Him in death, if you can find Him in hell, where can you not find Him? Where will He not turn up?
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