(Originally posted at Our Words Collaborative on July 8, 2016)
One of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard was at a Christmas Eve service a few years ago, delivered by the lead pastor of the large community church we attend. He always nails the Advent story, bringing new life and different angles to it year after year, but this particular year took the prize for me, because it wasn’t really about Advent. It was about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Referencing prophetic scripture and addressing the dark, dark times that make up so much of the Old Testament, my pastor–we’ll call him Bob because, well, his name is Bob–pieced together what he calls the greatest love story ever told: how God promised us a light, a lamb, a savior, and how he made good on that promise through the ultimate sacrifice. Bob reasoned that Jesus’s birth was not the miracle mankind had been waiting for, it was his death and resurrection–that our God is a God of the “third day,” and just when you do not think you can go on, the proverbial Third Day comes and God executes a plan you never could have imagined for yourself back on days one and two. The metaphor resonated with me. Day 1 is everyday life screeching to a halt because the phone rings, or the money runs out, or the treatment stops working. Day 2 is the pain, the loss, the suffering, the agonizing unknown, the in-between, and it can go on for a long time. And then there is Day 3, and this is the redemption, the resolution, the finish line, the miracle moment.
I started thinking of every part of my life in context of Bob’s 3-day formula after that Christmas Eve. Most of his examples were of a tragic nature, involving suffering and turmoil, but other scenarios fit nicely into the format. Starting college (Day 1) lead to years of hard work and preparation (Day 2), culminating in a degree and a skillset (Day 3). Same for meeting a potential mate (Day 1), building a relationship (Day 2), and getting married (Day 3), or getting pregnant (Day 1), being pregnant (Day 2), and giving birth (Day 3). In an Easter sermon a few years later, Bob addressed Day 2 specifically, and it gave weight to my “third day” formula. Day 2–Saturday, the day between crucifixion and resurrection–is when God works on us, prepares us for whatever He has in store. Sometimes it is a period of suffering, and sometimes it’s just a period of waiting; either way, God uses Day 2 to mold and shape us somehow. In his illustration Bob spoke of the desperation Jesus’s friends and followers must have been feeling that Saturday, the long, dark day after He died and before He rose. I took so much comfort from this story, and from the life application it provided me. I found myself paying closer attention during the “Day 2” periods, mindful of my small role in a larger production. And then Bob struck again.
A few months ago in a post-Easter sermon, Bob shed some light on what I have begun referring to as “the fourth day,” and it has radically altered my three-day life metaphor. In the days after Jesus’s resurrection, during that brief few days when He returned to them, His followers were exhaling one huge sigh of relief. “Whew,” they must have thought. “He WAS for real. NOW we can relax.” And then, just like He said he would, He departed again, permanently this time, and told Peter and the gang to wait. Just wait. “You’re not ready,” Jesus said. “My father has a gift for you,” He explained. Just wait. What were they thinking as they waited, I wonder. Because for the past three years they had been following this guy around, and now He was gone for real, and they were probably feeling pretty clueless despite the time they had spent in his presence. Did they sit around in someone’s living room and stare at each other, at the blank walls, out into the dusty Jerusalem afternoon? Did they speculate on the nature of this gift they were supposed to receive? Did they have a pool on when “the dates and times not for them to know” might occur? This is the nature of the fourth day.
Day 4 is what transpires after the miracle. Day 4 is everything that happens when the goal has been attained. Day 4 is a lot of head-scratching and “now what?” and staring into space. Day 4 is filled with questions, and a lot of uncertainty, and it is particularly frustrating because of Day 3–assuming that like me, you have allowed yourself to think of the third day as some sort of finish line. But the reality is that there isn’t really a finish line. There is some wait time, and there is some work time, and the cycle repeats indefinitely. Even without the tidy labels of my three-day metaphor, there are a number of Day 3 or “finish line” milestones: graduation, landing a job, getting married, having a child. We see these events as pinnacles: if I can just get there, if I can just make it to that spot. It is our human nature to look at life as a series of goals, or resolutions, or even miracles, but when we fail to recognize that they are not the end of our story, that’s when we become overwhelmed, burdened by our lack of understanding and at risk blowing the whole thing. Because here is what I’ve learned after every Day 3, and what the followers of Jesus were on their way to learning even as they watched Jesus vanish in a cloud of light: Day 4 is heavy with responsibility, and we mostly have no idea what we are doing.
And perhaps that is the greatest lesson of the Fourth Day: there is a lot of work to do, and we don’t ever really know what we are doing–but God does. God asks us to wait for Him, and we don’t want to, but He has some things in mind we don’t know about yet. God gives us a tiny human to raise, and we find ourselves lying awake night after night making sure this miniature person is breathing, fretting over food and sunscreen and vaccines and the common cold, desperately trying to control the well-being of this little miracle–and God says, hey, I appreciate your input, but chill out and enjoy the way that tiny body feels against your chest, and the rest will come. God allows us to meet and marry Mr. Right, and then we discover he is actually as flawed and frustrating as we are, and we start to wonder if we made a huge mistake–and God reminds us that marriage is not the end of the tale, it’s just the beginning, and we–God and my husband and I–are going to work on that story together, one page at a time.
I used to wonder as a kid how terrifying it must have been for Jonah to be consumed by a whale, how he must have felt during his three-day stint inside of a giant aquatic mammal, how relieved he must have been when the fish ejected him on the third day. He was so overjoyed to be free that he immediately obeyed God, and then when his preaching proved effective after three days (I’m not making this up)–when the people of Ninevah repented and God had mercy on every single soul there–Jonah chose to sit down in the sand and pout. The fourth day found Jonah furious with God’s compassionate decision, sulking and suggesting he should just die already. The fourth day is hard, people. In many cases, harder than days one and two, because when day four rolls around we often feel so lost, so let down, so unsure of what to do next, that we consider throwing in the towel. The Bible does not tell us what happened to Jonah, but I like to think he put on his big boy pants and moved on, realizing that, as always, God is bigger than we are and His plans are quite frequently a cloudy haze of uncertainty to us. Even if he didn’t–even if he sat there next to his dead tree and withered away–he can serve as a reminder to us that we have a choice as the third day fades and the sometimes long, elusive fourth day begins: we can pout and fret, rail against God, worry ourselves sick, plant ourselves and become immobilized by uncertainty. Or we can just keep walking, right past what we thought was the finish line, and trust God to reveal His plan to us when it’s time for us to receive it.
“The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.” –Acts 1:7 NLT
“Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day….And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from Heaven.” –Luke 24: 46, 49