Three Days

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This is the second in a three-part series, “The Genius of Three.” The first message is “Three Crosses.”

Larry L. Eubanks, First Baptist Church, Frederick, Maryland, March 20, 2016

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.                                                            

Matthew 27:57-66

The first question we need to consider is why three days? Why not one? One day dead serves the purpose of the resurrection, right? To demonstrate that God has the power of sin and death by raising Jesus from the dead is accomplished by one full day, wouldn’t you agree?

We’ve heard stories of people being dead for a few minutes and being resuscitated. The longest seems to be with people who have been dead but their bodies have been in extremely cold conditions, and they’ve been resuscitated after about an hour. But you wonder if they were truly dead. ‘

And that’s the point. You may wonder if a person was truly dead if they were resuscitated after a few minutes, even an hour. After 24 hours, you can be pretty sure they aren’t alive.

So one day would have been sufficient for resurrection purposes.

We have modern means to determine if a person is no longer alive, but there have been occasions where they were wrong and the person was actually still alive.

In the late 16th century in England, the body of Matthew Wall was being carried to his grave when one of the pallbearers tripped and they dropped his coffin. The jolt y revived him, and he went on to live for several more years, dying in 1595. He celebrated his “resurrection day” every year.

On Iona, in the sixth century, a monk named Oran died and was buried, but for some reason they dug his body up the next day—and he was alive! According to legend, he said that he had seen heaven and hell, and so they killed him as a heretic.

I don’t know, maybe you’re allowed to see one or the other but seeing both is against the catechism or something.

The point is, there were some times back in the day when they thought someone was dead only to find out that they weren’t, but that doesn’t seem to be at play here. The religious leaders want the Romans to guard the tomb not because they’re afraid Jesus might wake up and walk about but because they don’t want the disciples to steal his body and then claim resurrection.

But the other thing to note is that Jesus didn’t really say what the chief priests and Pharisees told Pilate that he had said. “After three days I will rise again.” You can search through Matthew’s gospel and not find that statement.

The closest you will find is in Matthew 12:38-41.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!

Matthew 12:38-41

So Jesus is connecting his three days in the tomb with the story of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, and to understand the connection we need to take a quick look at the book of Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet of Israel, and one day God calls him to go to Ninevah and declare God’s judgment on the city because of its evil. At that time Ninevah was the royal city of the Assyrian empire, Israel’s persecutors and conquerors.

For some reason that we’re not initially told Jonah bolts, boarding a ship heading in the opposite direction, so God throws a huge storm that threatens to sink the ship, and Jonah cops to his crime and tells them to throw him overboard, which they do and the storm calms.

Jonah is swallowed by a great fish who carries him to shore and spits him out. Jonah decides to go to Ninevah, because wouldn’t you? He goes through the city yelling, “In forty days Ninevah will be destroyed!” You think that would have gotten him killed, but instead the king repents of his evil and calls on the entire city to go into mourning, hoping that God will forgive them and withhold the punishment.

Which he does.

Which makes Jonah mad.

You can read the rest of the story, but for now, here’s what we need to note:

· First, as we’ve already noted, Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days.

· The story tells us that Ninevah was a city that was a three-day’s journey across.

Now, that’s either a really large city, or you’re a really slow walker.

For comparison’s sake Los Angeles is known for its sprawl, and it’s about 25 miles across. Average walking speed for a person is 3-4 miles an hour, so you can walk 25 miles is 7-8 hours.

So saying Ninevah was three days’ journey is about more than distance. I did my dissertation on the book of Jonah and found a source that indicated the ancient people believed that it took a person who had died three days to make the journey to Sheol, the place of the dead.

And in the second chapter of Jonah, when he prays while in the belly of the fish, he says that he had gone down to the gates of Sheol and it was from there that God rescued him. He was three days in the belly of the fish when it rescued him from Sheol..

So when God calls Jonah to announce the destruction of Ninevah, he’s sure he’s going to die. It’s a city of death, three days’ journey, same as the journey to Sheol.

And yet the people of Ninevah repent after just one day. Darkness descended, and they repented.

And that’s Jesus’ point in Matthew 12. What he was predicting was not so much his resurrection as the need for Jerusalem to repent. The Son of Man would be killed in Jerusalem and for three days be buried in Jerusalem because the religious leaders of the Jews would not repent.

The evil city of Ninevah would prove more righteous than the “righteous” city of Jerusalem.

The three days from Good Friday and Easter Sunday are dark days, a journey to death, a journey to Sheol. This Saturday is called Holy Saturday, although most Evangelical expressions of Christianity do not recognize or celebrate Holy Saturday, which I’m not sure is a good thing.

But even if you skip the observance of Holy Saturday, no one skips the reality of it in real life. It is that time between tragedy and death but before we reach resurrection. It’s the in-between time, where what was is no longer, but what will be is unseen and even unanticipated. It’s a time of darkness that feels that there is nowhere we can go and nothing we can do to escape.

Grief comes to us in many ways but it always involves death: the death of Jesus, the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship, the death of hopes and dreams. On the calendar Holy Saturday is one day a year, but those of you have suffered the death of a loved one know that you do not move from Good Friday to Easter Sunday in just one day.

It takes at least three days, and those three days can last months, years, even a lifetime.

And what do you do during this time?

A Time to Wait.

The time between the cross and the empty tomb is a time to wait. There is not much to do except be present to the reality of what is, to sit opposite the tomb, like the two Mary’s.

You can’t rush the time of grieving. It goes at its own pace. It can’t ever be rushed, but it can be prolonged. The quickest way through it is literally through it. Avoiding the grieving, trying to go around it, only guarantees that it will be prolonged.

A lot of people struggle with what to say to a grieving person, how to offer them words of comfort, as if there are words of comfort. If by words of comfort you mean something that will ease the grief or shorten the time of grieving, understand that there are no words that can do that, nor should there be.

It will take the full three days, however long that may be. You can’t really ease their grief, but what you can do is assure them that they won’t have to make the journey alone.

Can you imagine how hard it would have been if the two Mary’s had to sit outside the tomb alone, without each other? But because they waited, they were the first people Jesus greets on Easter Sunday.

So trust the silence and the waiting. Be still.

A Time for Repentance

The time between the cross and the empty tomb is a time to repent.

In Matthew 12 Jesus warns the Scribes and Pharisees that there is a time to repent, but their hearts were hardened. On Saturday they show how hard their hearts are by demanding that the tomb be guarded. They lost their chance. They were worse than Ninevah.

The time between the cross and the empty tomb is a time to reflect on your sins and repent and be transformed.

Some think that Easter Sunday is the time of repentance. I mean, resurrection proves who Jesus is, right? It proves that he is the Son of God, and Savior of the world. If anything will cause an unbeliever to repent and accept Christ it will be ther resurrection.

But remember the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? When the rich man is suffering in Hades he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers, and Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31 NRSV)

The people of Ninevah didn’t wait for some miracle, and no miracle would have worked anyway. If God dying on a cross doesn’t prove his love to you, a man rising from the dead won’t either.

A Time for Transformation

But the silence and suffering of Saturday is not just for repenting of sin. At its root repentance is about a change of direction, and that can be a change from bad to good, but it can also be a change from good to better.

Or from despair to hope.

For those of you going through your own personal darkness, I offer you these words from James:

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

(James 1:2-4 NRS)

No one wants to go through darkness—even Jesus asked that the cup of suffering be removed from him. But when suffering and grief come James tells us that it’s an opportunity for growth and transformation.

We don’t usually get stronger during times of ease. Those are actually the times we get fat and complacent. If it’s growth that you want, if its transformation you need, theirs is almost always difficulty and even pain involved.

You can’t avoid the Cross and get to Easter. The only way to get to Easter is through the cross. The only way to get to resurrection is to suffer death.

It takes all three days.

So wait. Repent. Endure. And let endurance have its full effect.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / mkistryn

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