A Time to Dance

Easter, April 16, 2017
Dr. Jeffrey A. Hosmer
North Lake Presbyterian Church
Lady Lake, FL

The early hours of the first Easter were very confusing. We know how it turns out. But all four Gospels describe the bewildered and distressed who found the tomb empty.

In Mark, for example, the three women went to anoint Jesus’ body for proper burial. They had dutifully waited, until after the Sabbath as the law required. Then at sunrise they went carrying the precious spices they would use. On the way they worried about moving the stone far enough to get into the tomb. But as they approached they saw the large stone was already rolled to the side, leaving the tomb wide open. And from the entrance of the tomb they saw a figure dressed in a white robe, seated inside to the right, who spoke these words: “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” Mark 16:6 (NRSV).

The women thought they were still in grief mode, alarmed, afraid, aghast that his body had been taken. According to John, Mary began weeping right there in the burial garden. What is going on here? What does this mean?

The poetry of Ecclesiastes says there is:

A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.            Ecclesiastes 3:4 (NRSV)

What kind of a time is this?

Let’s pray:
Risen Lord Jesus, thank you that this day of resurrection changes everything. Now, please come close and breathe your message of life and hope into all of our souls. Amen.

One of the distinctive, charming characteristics of the Villages is live music every evening at the town squares. From 5 PM until 9 PM is a time to dance, or to listen to the music and watch those who are dancing. Line dancing, jitterbug, swing, and salsa … you can see it all. I’ve even spotted persons with a cane or walker up and moving with the music. Or someone in a wheelchair rocking back and forth with a rhythm that moves them. It is a designated time and place to dance.

untitled-1077-2Sometimes the dance call and occasion is very clear. Nearly three years ago at our daughter’s wedding, I had the privilege and joy of the traditional father and bride dance. Rachel could glide and spin and take attention away from my clumsiness. Actually, once we started, I lost awareness of everyone else; I was absorbed in a sacred moment with my only daughter.

Someone (Wayne Dyer) once said, “When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way.” That’s so true isn’t it? The purpose of the dance is to relish every step and the relationship with your dance partner. That evening was clearly, happily, a time to dance. In fact, throughuntitled-1097-2
much of the evening Rachel could hardly contain herself; she was dancing, and skipping, and leaping for joy.
The words for dance in scripture are closely linked with rejoicing. That shouldn’t surprise us because true joy is more than an interior mood. Joy is the profound emotion that permeates soul and body. Joy is infectious, reaching every corpuscle, and limb, and cell. Joy spreads and spills out in the movement of the body.

In Jeremiah 31, the prophet spoke to a dejected people in exile. They were disconsolate. Jeremiah was announcing a coming new day of restoration. Here’s verse 13:

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.   Jeremiah 31:13 (NRSV)

Rejoice in the dance! Be merry! It shall be a day and occasion for joy.

Jesus also knew there was a time to dance. He often spoke of a banquet or feast – where dancing would be customary. When Jesus told about the return of the prodigal son, and the father’s joyous reaction, he described a festival celebration that included dancing. [Only the elder brother—the Presbyterian brother—did not want to get in on the joy!] When Jesus was at the wedding in Cana – and turning water into wine – it’s a good bet he was also on the dance floor!

In the bible, dance is the body language of joy and praise. Listen to this from Psalm 150:

Praise him with trumpet sound; 
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!   Psalm 150:3-4 (NRSV)

Perhaps the best biblical example of praise in motion was David dancing as they brought the Ark of the Lord into the city of Jerusalem. You can read the account in 2 Samuel, chapter 6. It was a great celebration, with a fanfare of trumpets and cheering. David, the Shepherd-King and musician, was totally into the moment as he danced before the Lord with all his might. His whirling, breathless gyrations led the way for the Ark up the road and into the city.

Renowned American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham considered dance the language of the soul. “Great dancers,” she said, “are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” The passion of David was undeniable. He was immersed in a frolicsome moment of sheer delight before the Lord. David was playfully unself-conscious, dancing and forgetting anyone else was watching.

But, ah yes, his wife Michal was watching along with the crowd.  And she thought his dance was contemptible. Here’s verse 16: “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart” (2 Samuel 6:16 NRSV). Wow, that’s harsh! Michal had grown up in the court; she knew what was proper for a king and what was not. Later she scorned David, pointing out it was foolish, frivolous, even vulgar for royalty to behave so.

Some years back a church member gave me a poem written in 1981 by Presbyterian pastor David Steele. It fits today. Let me share an excerpt of “David Danced – Michal Watched.”

David’s heart soared as he danced to the Lord
In a manner more free than refined.
And his poor little wife got the shock of her life,
So she gave him a piece of her mind:

“I don’t care one smidgen about your religion
As long as it’s solemn and chaste …
But the way you’re behaving with arms wildly waving
Is shocking and lacking in taste.

If you must raise your spirit in praise,
Be sure that it’s soothing and calm.
The Lord, I am sure, would much rather prefer
Something more like your 23rd Psalm.”

Then God’s anointed became disappointed,
He knew he had nary a chance
Of ever persuading this prim, regal maiden
That the Lord is a lover of dance.

Churches these days talk a lot about praise
And the joy that accompanies good news.
But don’t tap your feet or get out of your seat,
For Michal still lurks in the pews.

Yes, Michal lurks. And the church through the years has tended to resist or even scorn dance. In early centuries dance was condemned because of its association with pagan revelries. Others connected it with drunkenness and lewd spectacle, an amusement too worldly for the serious followers of Jesus.

But I think that misses the whole experience of our faith in the One who was dead but is risen. Our faith in Jesus contains a joy that bubbles into laughter and dance! There is a time to weep, and a time to mourn, but not on Easter!!

Eventually that’s what Mary, and Peter, and John and all the rest figured out. They could say with the psalmist:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth            [a symbol of distress and grief]
and clothed me with joy.                                   Psalm 30:11 (NRSV)

The empty tomb doesn’t just mean that we have a death-defying Lord. We see many who are daring, risky, even foolhardy, flirting with danger and death. That was not Jesus. He was not just death-defying. Nor was he death-denying. He understood death, wept in grief, experienced our mortality. He knew that every single one of us would have to come to grips with our own death.

truckTake a look at this photo on the screen. Don’t you just love the irony?  A truck, stuck under a bridge with the message emblazoned on the side: “On the road to success, there are no shortcuts.” Oops! That driver had some ‘splainin’ to do!

On the road to resurrection, there is no shortcut. The road to resurrection goes by way of death. Jesus knew that; he suffered death with us and for us. He is not death-defying. He is not death-denying. He is the death-defeating Lord who could not be found in the empty tomb … the One who was dead but has been raised. We have a death-defeating Lord.  And that makes all the difference. He turns our mourning into dancing!

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quipped: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Some may not hear the music of Easter or may not understand our joy and impulse to dance. But we hear it, and we know that dancing is not about night life; it’s about eternal life.

An English poet and songwriter fifty years ago published a hymn using a tune from the American Shakers. He used their folk tune “simple gifts” to pay tribute to their faith known for its motion. Here are three stanzas of Sidney Carter’s hymn depicting Jesus as Lord of the Dance. I imagine you’ve heard this before. (In the traditional service today we’ll sing this to finish the service.)

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I dance in the moon and the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth;
At Bethlehem I had My birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said He.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried My body and they thought I’d gone;
But I am the dance and I still go on.

They cut Me down and I leap up high;
I am the life that will never, never die;
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in Me;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said He.

Easter is a time to dance!

All right, Jeff, let me see if I’ve got this straight so far: There’s King David dancing before the Lord with all his might as he brought the Ark up to Jerusalem. And Jesus is the Lord of the Dance. And Easter, you say, is a time when God turns our mourning into dancing. So, what do you want me to do? You don’t really expect a dance to break out here in the middle of worship, do you?  I mean … after all, this is a Presbyterian Church.

Well, if you’re thinking that, you’re probably right.  We seem to prefer our worship understated. We tend to worship with our hearts and minds, hopefully with our voices, but seldom with our bodies. We’re active all week and then Sunday at church … we get a case of rigor mortis. Shouldn’t our posture, our gestures, our body language reflect the joy at the core of our faith. Ah, but we’ll leave that to someone else, that joy in motion stuff. Like Chris Endsley’s hands and feet dancing on the organ keys and pedals! Or like the Choir swaying subtly—ever so slightly—with an anthem, probably a spiritual! Like the Praise Band pulsing with energy, and trying to get us to clap. Here and there persons putting up arms and hands in an expression of praise. But on the whole our worship is not very physical!

I suppose I resist the connection of dance and worship as much as anyone. I’m certain there are excellent dancers here. I’m equally certain that I’m not one of them. Look, I am reasonably coordinated and have a fair sense of rhythm. But I am an unskilled, insecure dancer. I remember taking a few ballroom dancing lessons in junior high. That was back when my shoe size was greater than my age. I laugh now when I think back on that poor instructor … trying to teach our awkward, unruly bunch how to foxtrot. I imagine that teacher asking me to please not tell anyone where I took dancing lessons!

Maybe you watch Dancing with the Stars, and you’ve seen how grueling, exacting and competitive it can be. Some instructors and partners are better than others. And then there’s the real Lord of the Dance. Talk about dancing with a Star! Jesus is a very different kind of master dancer and instructor. “I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said He. And he leads with patience and grace. He loves to practice with us all, regardless of our ability. He wants us to learn the new steps not just for a 9th grade dance, or a high school prom, or a wedding, or on the square, or a reality tv show. Jesus is teaching us the dance steps we will use for eternity.

One of my favorite dance memories was thirteen years ago– holding the arm of my grandmother on her 100th birthday. By the time I was born she was already many times a grandmother. But her 20’s overlapped with the Roaring 20’s. In old photos I can see her spry and saucy. And to any who would listen she would testify about her salvation and how she was rescued from a path headed away from God. Because she landed in a very conservative Christian tradition, she had to put behind her many things: no card games, no theater, no dancing, and of course no alcohol or tobacco.

From her late 20’s until her death at age 102, she complied with the faith rules as she knew them. Her 100th birthday party was held appropriately at the church where she had belonged for decades. In the fellowship hall with her pastors, family, and friends surrounding her with love, she celebrated in a way that delighted us all. With a couple of us on either side to assist if she needed help, she rose and steadied herself. Then with a twinkle in her eye she flashed back to the Roaring 20’s, doing her own wonderful rendition of the Charleston. It was time to dance … even in the church!

Now she dances in the Kingdom of Heaven – where she needs no one to steady her, but is forever with the Lord of the Dance. In his presence, even those of us who think we cannot dance will be graceful—praise and joy in motion. There will be no lack of rhythm, no self-consciousness, no awkwardness, no looking down at your feet. The scripture promises that in those days the lame will leap like a deer.  There are no creaky and grumpy knees, no amputations, no arthritis, no dizziness or imbalance, no heart conditions. No crying or tears anymore. Just the pure jubilation of dancing with the Lord and with everyone else who hears the music of resurrection!

Friends, Jesus turns our mourning into dancing. It’s time to dance!


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