April 4, 2021 Sermon
“When the Sabbath Was Over”
1st Scripture Reading – Isaiah 25:6-9
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
2nd Scripture Reading – Mark 16:1-8
16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
“When the Sabbath was Over”
Susan and I entered seminary in the fall of 1999. That was a time when – in this denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – it felt like what became known as the “worship wars” were really heating up. If you’re not familiar with the term “worship wars”, it was about the emergence of a worship style that has been called “Contemporary Worship” or “Praise Worship” and the impact this seemingly new worship style would have on the predominantly traditional worship of Disciples congregations.
As I entered seminary amidst the struggle of this “worship wars” phenomenon, I found myself having favorable views toward contemporary worship. I had begun worshipping in a contemporary congregation almost a decade previous, and the format appealed to me: a worship service that began with about 30 minutes of music that felt as much like a concert as a worship service, followed by a prayer, a sermon, and communion. The contemporary services I had attended were very much like the kind of thing I would have – and did – pay money to attend out in the world beyond church walls.
But then, in my second semester of seminary, I entered into a class taught by Disciples pastor Dan Moseley. My remembrance of something Dan said has stuck with me for a long time, even to this day. I recall Dan telling us that worship was supposed to be about creating something called “liminal space”, a kind of transitional space that is so different from our everyday experience that it pushes us outside our comfort zone just enough to open us worshippers to being changed in that space, changed in our encounter with God in that space. Which means, one of the PRIMARY purposes of the elements and ambience of worship is to be DIFFERENT from what we encounter in the outside world, different enough to help us be changed by God whom we encounter in worship.
As I thought about what Dan said, I discovered that contemporary worship COULD be a good thing, could help people connect with God, BUT, if it was done in such a way as to make the worship space and even the bulk of the worship experience little more than a reflection of what people encountered in everyday in the world out there, it would diminish something critical about the role of worship. And as I thought about it even more, I realized that God had been in the habit of creating and offering these kinds of liminal spaces to God’s people throughout time. God had been in the habit of creating spaces outside of the comfort zone of God’s people to help them more readily accept God’s transforming new ways…just when they needed transforming new ways the most. A few examples include:
- The Israelites’ 40 year wilderness wandering on the road to the Promised Land. Y’all, that 40-year journey was DIFFERENT from what the Israelites were used to..and the point of that difference was to CHANGE the Israelites, to help make them more accepting of God’s desires.
- The Israelites’ time in Babylonian exile. Even more so than the Israelites’ wilderness wandering was different from what they were used to, their time in Babylonian exile approximately 700 years later was different. No more Promised Land. No more autonomy under God. Even fears of no more God with them. That was quite a departure from their comfort zone.
- The hundreds year long period of time we refer to as “the Advent”, the time after God began to foretell the coming of a Messiah and God’s actual sending/giving of the Messiah. Through prophecies, like the prophecy we read from Isaiah this morning, God placed God’s people in a transitional space, a space in which things were not quite the way they had always been and also not quite the way things would become.
- In the New Testament, we recall Jesus preaching to people in the desert places, the wilderness places. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus chose to preach and teach to people predominantly in the wilderness places instead of in their homes, their synagogues, or even the temple? I think this was God’s way of creating liminal space for those who listened to Jesus…so they would be open to being CHANGED by what Jesus said.
Since today is Easter, I want to focus on one more time God chose to utilize transitional space. Before I do, I’ll dive into the meaning this “liminal” thing just a little more for you. In this case, the definition is important. The word “liminal” comes from a Latin root, “limen”, which means “threshold”. So..a liminal space is a crossing over space – not quite where you’ve been and not quite where you’re going…which means, it is in these liminal spaces where CHANGE happens, where GROWTH happens. On this day of all days, we followers of Jesus should recognize that the big thing God offers us through Jesus – new life – requires some change, some growth (“new” requires change, after all), which means we should pay special attention to what God was doing with transitional spaces, with liminal spaces, and apply what God did and taught about these spaces to our own lives.
OK. Back to one more important example of God offering God’s people a transitional space, a liminal space. It comes from our gospel reading this morning.
Typically, when we get to Easter Sunday, we jump from crucifixion to the empty tomb. In our tradition, there is no day set aside to talk about what happened in between. But our gospel reading reveals there WAS an in-between. Chapter 15 of Mark’s gospel ended with Jesus’ burial. And chapter 16 of Mark’s gospel, which we read a little while ago, begins with the words, “When the sabbath was over…”
Y’all, there’s something INCREDIBLY important in those four words. God CHOSE to wait until AFTER the Sabbath to work the miracle of resurrection…which means God provided the transitional space of a Sabbath to help the Disciples PREPARE for the amazing thing God was about to do next.
And Sabbath was one of those transitional spaces God had been providing all along. Consider what the Sabbath day is about…by remembering the Sabbath commandment from Exodus 20:
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The Sabbath was DIFFERENT from every other day. The Sabbath was a liminal space, you could even call it a liminal time. The Sabbath allowed, even promoted, the growth of God’s people toward God. So it is absolutely fitting that God provided one of these sabbath transitional days to help prepare Jesus’ disciples for…resurrection. Rather than jumping IMMEDIATELY from crucifixion to resurrection, which, let’s face it, God could have done, God intentionally placed a SABBATH day of liminal space between crucifixion and resurrection.
Which brings me to the modern Church…to today…and, more specifically…to First Christian Church, Grand Junction on THIS Easter Sunday of 2021. Today is my last day to guide you as Senior Pastor. You know this. You’ve been preparing for it. Your leadership has been preparing for it. The Regional Office and Regional Minister have been assisting your leadership in preparing for it. But all the preparations in the world can’t change what’s going to happen tomorrow: you will enter into a transition space.
More than likely, you are ready to move directly to Easter, directly to new life, directly to a new settled pastor who will guide you into all the amazing things I know – and I hope YOU know – God has in store for you. But, you can’t go directly to new life. God has this way of providing transitional space to help people change…even when the people want to jump right to new life, right to Easter, right to the good stuff. (It turns out, people aren’t so good at jumping right to new life without some transitional space, and God KNOWS IT!) As you enter into this transitional space, I’ll use the Easter story and its reliance on liminal space to offer some advice that might help you in the transition.
Liminal Space Advice #1 & #2 are connected – The connection is in the statement: be sure to include some Sabbath in this transitional time.
Piece of Advice #1 concerns one element of Sabbath: be sure to rest. I’m guessing on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion Jesus’ disciples WANTED to DO SOMETHING, wanted to act. I know: by the evening of the first Easter, we find them locked away out of fear…but that doesn’t mean they didn’t WANT to act. Maybe they even WOULD HAVE acted, would have done something impulsive, something rash, something that would have gotten them into trouble or, worse, something that would have stopped the Church from even getting started. But, God gave them a Sabbath day, a day of rest, a day when out of respect and reverence for the One they followed, they couldn’t DO anything. If that was the case, God gave them exactly what they needed to be transformed by God to wait…that they might be ready to be changed – and still be alive – when Easter Sunday came around.
I’m guessing many of you want to act. Maybe you want to change some of the things that have happened in the past almost-9 years, to get things back to the way they were before or to whatever you consider the good ole days. Maybe you want to step in and make changes for the future. Maybe you want to step in and start a new ministry that you’ve been hankering to start for quite a while but you’ve perceived that the leadership, guided by me, might get in your way. I’m not necessarily saying you shouldn’t do any of these things if you feel compelled to do them. Rather, I’m suggesting you take some time to rest…first…for reasons that will be described in piece of Advice #2.
Piece of Advice #2 concerns the PURPOSE of the rest…to get yourself and your desires aligned with God and God’s desires. I said a little while ago that YOU might be inclined to DO something. But the purpose of the liminal space of Sabbath is to align your desires with God’s desires – not the other way around – so that when you DO act, you will be doing what God wants you to do and not what you want you to do. Remember what I said about those disciples long ago? More than likely, they wanted to do some things. But they took a Sabbath rest and, guided by God, decided to WAIT. And in their waiting, they encountered the risen Christ and received their instructions for what God wanted them to do. That’s what I encourage you to do…as individuals and as congregation. Before you do something, be sure you have waited long enough to be changed in this liminal space so that your desires are in line with God’s desires.
Piece of Advice #3 concerns what happened “when the Sabbath was over.” Y’all, even though the disciples likely SHOULD have known what was coming next, should have expected resurrection – since Jesus told them – they did not expect it. So, my third piece of advice to you is this: expect the unexpected!
- Mark tells us the women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body; they were NOT expecting an empty tomb.
- Mark tells us the women EXPECTED to have to roll away the large stone in front of Jesus’ tomb; they were not expecting the stone had already been rolled away.
- Mark tells us the women encountered a young man dressed in a white robe when they entered Jesus’ tomb. They “were alarmed”…which means they were NOT expecting a young man in a white robe.
- Mark tells us those women left the tomb seized by “terror and amazement”; they were not expecting to find ANYTHING they found on that first Easter Sunday, and they did not find anything they HAD expected to find.
My point is this. As you enter into this transitional space, this amazing place God is preparing for you in order to help you become transformed in the way God desires you to be transformed, as you enter into the place of this threshold, where nothing will be like it was before and nothing will be like it is going to be in the future, LET YOUR EXPECTATIONS GO. Another way to say it is: expect the unexpected. Be looking for God to do something amazing that you never dreamed possible or plausible. Look to God, and allow God to guide you. If you do THAT, you will emerge from your transitional space into an amazing Easter place, an amazing new life place.
I started the sermon by telling the story of the “worship wars” that were taking place within our denomination when I entered seminary. For me, in so many ways and with regard to so many issues, seminary was a liminal space, a transitional space, a threshold. When I went into seminary, I thought I KNEW what was going to happen. I even thought I KNEW which type of worship was best for a changing and emerging Church amidst a changing and emerging culture. I entered seminary expecting to be reinforced in what I already KNEW.
I’m sure you can guess what happened. God caused some absolutely AMAZING things to happen. And, other than my emerging from the other side as an ordained pastor in our denomination, I’m pretty sure NONE of those amazing things had much of anything to do with my expectations. But those amazing things WERE – still ARE – Easter to me, were (still are) new life to me. I desire the same for you. So embrace this soon-to-be liminal space. Embrace the change that is coming. Don’t have SPECIFIC expectations, but do expect God to do amazing things for you and through you. Because we are not a people of death; we are a people of new life. For Christ is risen. (Christ is risen, indeed!)