Driving through the Colorado mountains in our minivan last month, our family got a great kick out of holding our breath as we drove through the tunnels that drill their way through the mountain. After a suspenseful moment of darkness, the light would appear up ahead, and a few seconds later we would be laughing with relief and joy in the surprising new scenery on the other side. I don’t know the origins of this practice of holding your breath inside a tunnel but I think there’s a rich spiritual metaphor in it.
Are you familiar with the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado? Have you drive through it? The tunnel carries Interstate 70 under the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains at over 11,000 feet of elevation, making it one of the highest vehicular tunnels in the world. The tunnel is almost 2 miles long, making it the longest mountain tunnel in the United States.
The weather added to our Eisenhower Tunnel experience. We were getting pelted with a rain and snow mix as we entered into the mountain. We held our breath in the relative darkness as long as we could, and then when we came out the other side we saw the sun splitting the clouds, no more rain and snow, and blue sky overhead! If this isn’t a picture of Easter, I don’t know what is!
Two thousand years ago, all of creation held its breath during that long Saturday between the dark storm of Good Friday and the sunshine of Easter Sunday. That Saturday was a kind of tunnel Christ had to pass through, leading him from suffering, through death, and out into the bright new dawn of Easter.
This morning I want to invite us all to take this journey from one side of the Mountain, where the cross of Good Friday stands, over to the other side of the mountain where Resurrection Life awaits! But the path requires that we pass through the mountain, through the dark tomb-like tunnel of Holy Saturday.
That was how I began my Easter sermon yesterday. My sermon then looked at the importance of experiencing and participating in each part of the Easter Story, from the suffering of Good Friday to the new life and power of Resurrection Sunday. I stressed the importance of the much neglected Holy Saturday in our Holy Week observance, and likened the “tomb” experience to a tunnel leading from one side of Easter’s mountain to the other. Like the children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, I stressed how “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it; we have to go through it!”
I spent some time talking about the tendency of both individuals and churches to get camp out on either Good Friday or Easter Sunday — preaching either a message of the cross that can overemphasize the one-time transaction, or offering a message of Spirit-powered “Victorious Living” that ignores the cross-bearing aspect of personal discipleship. Mostly I invited us to hold in view a fuller story of a long, slow process of soul transformation inside the narrow tunnel of” sanctification.”
Here’s another excerpt:
Today I want to suggest that we need to follow this Holy Saturday tunnel if we are to fully grasp the meaning of Easter. We need to being working Holy Saturday into our Holy Week observance. Why? Because we are a people so prone to wanting the payoff before the investment. We want instant results, and to bypass the painful process needed to bring them about. So, for example, we want to lose weight without the discipline of a healthier diet. We want to pick up an instrument on a Friday and perform a solo on Sunday without bothering to rehearse the Saturday between. We want to finish Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace course on a Friday and have Dave Ramsey’s wealth on Monday—skipping the day (or years of saving) between. We want a resurrected marriage without burying the old ways that drove us apart.
Likewise, with Easter, many would prefer to walk out of the Good Friday service, go home and fall asleep and have it be Easter the next morning. But there it is, every year, staring us in the face: Holy Saturday. The day between just kind of sits there awkwardly; it doesn’t know what to do with us, and we don’t know what to do with it. Like the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game, it allows us to stretch our legs and sing a corny song, but really just prolonging an already intolerably long game. Can we just get to the 9th inning? Can we please just get to the Resurrection?
But I think Holy Saturday—the time between—is what’s missing in many of our visions of the Christian faith. We make a faith decision or pray the sinner’s prayer on a Friday, desiring to leave the Valley of Sin behind by helicoptering over the Mount of Sanctification, hoping to enter immediately into Resurrection Living. But the transformation God desires for us leads us through the tunnel, through the mountain. Friday’s death to our Old Life gives way to Easter’s New kind of Life only by passing through Holy Saturday—by giving a decent burial to certain things.”
Here’s a visual I created that help capture the heart of the message.
After the service, my friend Danny helpfully reminded me of the line in the long version of the Serenity Prayer (which I wrote about recently) that captured the “tunnel experience” of faith:
“Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace…”
That pretty much sums it up. We want Resurrection Life to invade our bodies and souls instantaneously, and for God to wave a magic wand over our broken lives, transforming us into New Creation’s in the blink of an eye. However, the truth of Scripture and Easter itself requires we accept hardship (or daily surrender and the cultivating of new habits) as the sacred pathway to Easter’s peace.
Another conversation after the service was with a friend definitely feeling like they are wandering through a dark tunnel experience. They mentioned keeping their eyes focused on the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. An important word of comfort for him, which I didn’t stress in my sermon, was that we don’t have to stumble in the darkness all the way until we reach the light at the END of the tunnel. The Light of Easter is a person, Jesus himself, who comes running back toward us from the other side, to meet us in the middle of the darkness and to guides us by his Light to the end. Of course, Jesus’ light is often being carried by other brothers and sisters we get to journey with, and take the form of Scriptural truths and biblical wisdom.
Here’s another excerpt from my sermon:
We are living in a society trying to avoid suffering and death at all costs and trying to extend life by all means.Meanwhile, the followers of Jesus really seemed to take to heart the strange wisdom their teacher taught and the strange road he paved when he said, “If you want to gain your life you have to lay it down.” That is, if you want to get to the other side of the mountain and dance with joy on Easter Sunday, you may need to experience a kind of death on Good Friday. And after that moment of surrender, you may need to bury some old behaviors and give a funeral for some old beliefs.
But we seem more prone to do exactly what Jesus warned against when he said, “Those who strive to preserve and cling to their life, will end up losing it” (Luke 17:33). If you insist on preserving your current life on the wrong side of the mountain, you will never experience the joys and riches of the new life God has waiting on the other side. But the pathway from here to there, from our present pain or greatest longings, will often take us deeper and darker into the earth before we can find a new Life on the other side.
Elsewhere Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). Again, Easter is not the celebration of life alone or Eternal Life in the hereafter. Easter is the celebration of the kind of life that springs forth out of death and burial. Jesus practiced what he preached. He died and was buried in the earth as the seed of the New Creation, and out of his death has come many seeds — you and I — who now are ourselves invited to plant our lives in Kingdom soil, pressing ourselves deep into New Creation initiatives, so that from our lives can grow a beautiful garden of Kingdom fruit!
Christians are called to set aside the empty lie of our current consumer culture that says “You can have it your way now” or, the Christian version, “Just say a quick prayer, or attend church, or read your Bible once a day—and God will magically wave a wand over your life and things will get instantly better.”
My sermon ended on a personal note, sharing our tendency to think that new growth or productive “sowing/planting” happens during the “good times” when we’re feeling strong and confident, motivated and disciplined. I shared about a dark and dry season of depression/anxiety when I felt empty and unable to offer anything (i.e., inspiring sermons/seed to my church). Then God gave me the gift of Psalm 126 that reassured me that even when I was feeling down and out, I could still “sow in tears and reap with songs of joy.”
What does this psalm mean? I think we often want to plant seeds and start new things when life is all good and we’re feeling great. We think the greatest blessings of our lives are going to come in the high times when the sun is shining and our health is strong and the economy is great and our confidence is high. So we wait for ideal weather to plant; we step out in faith when the circumstances seem favorable. In other words, we want to plant seeds in laughter and in joy, not in tears. We want to plant in our own strength, and when we feel empty, we stop hoping and conclude nothing good will come from this dry soil.
But Holy Saturday, or the tomb/tunnel experience of Jesus, also teaches us this supernatural lesson: Sometimes we just need to lie still like a corpse in a tomb long enough to remember that God is God, and obey the Scripture that says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Holy Saturday invites us to cease our activity and trust in God’s power that is able to invade us at any moment, bringing a surge of divine electricity to bring us new life in His power. Do you need to hear that word today? “Just be still for a moment…stop striving for a minute. Remember He is God.”
So, take a look at these visuals (including some key scripture that help us embrace the “tunnel experience” of Holy Saturday), and ask yourself: Where am I camping out in my faith these days? What might it look like for you to journey through the tunnel of Easter mountain in the coming days?