Saturday, April 20, 2019
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.
When you’ve been up for twenty-four hours with the flu; with your body completely wiped out from a night’s worth of vomiting; and you’re reduced to a weak and helpless shell of a person; it can be a very purifying experience. All you want at that point is to feel better. You don’t really care if your hair is scruffy. You don’t bother with niceties or small talk about the weather. When you really feel like garbage, it has a powerful way of making you thankful for the simple things in life. You would enjoy the ability to just eat a piece of bread or sitting in a chair without being in pain. It makes life much simpler and pure. It’s the darkest of times.
Tonight’s lesson takes us to the darkest time of Jesus’ time on earth. We’re on this side of the cross and when we look back at the burial of Christ. This had to be the darkest point, because there was no hope left at this point, at least not from a human point of view. No matter how sick someone is, as long as they’re breathing there’s always some hope of recovery. Jesus had performed unbelievable miracles up to this point, even raised the dead. But now Jesus was dead. The skies had turned black. Everything seemed lost.
There was no hope of Him coming down from the cross. They couldn’t take back what they’d done. For Him to raise Himself from the dead, despite what He predicted, it simply didn’t seem impossible. What especially was disheartening was that those who you’d expect to remain strong in this time, the disciples, had deserted Jesus and run away. All that was left were a few crying women and they sat at a distance.
If you look at this from a human point of view, who in their right mind would want to join this religion at this point? Imagine if you were thinking about visiting a Church, you’d already seen their website; talked to their pastor; liked what they had to say; and then finally decided to go to the worship service. Imagine if you then came to the worship, and when you arrived, they had a casket up front with a dead body in it. Imagine if there were a bunch of women sitting in the back of the church crying. What would you do if you walked into such a worship service?
The greeters would come to you and say, we’re sorry to tell you this, but our Savior has died. The leaders of our congregation weren’t able to handle this, so they left. If you’d like to stay, our order of worship for today is a mixture of weeping, crying, and then mourning. Following the sorrowful time and prayer we would like you to purchase a gravesite, and then take the body from the casket and place our dead Savior in the grave.
How would you respond? I'm almost positive that you’d say whoa, this wasn’t what I was expecting. I was looking for something a little cheerier; more optimistic. I thought this was a livelier religion. Maybe I’ll come back later. Even if you told the visitor that this wasn’t a "normal" worship service, how many would come back? The point I’m trying to make is that the death of Christ is the most offensive portion of the Christian religion. With Jesus having given His last breath, from all intent and purposes He appears to have lost. This is the darkest hour. It’s at this darkest hour that something completely unexpected happens. This was when Joseph from Arimathea shows up. Joseph was a rich man who was an apostle of Jesus. He was most likely not present during the trial of the evening. The Sanhedrin only called those whom they knew would vote against Jesus.
What this text doesn’t say is who Joseph exactly was. Luke says this Joseph, was a member of the Council, a good and upright man. John adds that Joseph’s discipleship was a secret one, because he was "afraid of the Jews."
Since the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were putting people out of the synagogue if they showed any connection towards Jesus, everyone was hesitant to let anyone know they were followers. Joseph had gained the reputation of an upright and righteous man and a member of the much distinguished 70 member Sanhedrin. At this point in his discipleship, he had remained in the dark. He was afraid of being thrown out of the synagogue if he came out of the closet. So, he remained quiet, and followed Jesus from a distance, in the dark, until Jesus’ darkest moment, when He was dead.
It’s at this point, when all seems to be lost, that Joseph comes out. Joseph went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. He wasn’t the only one to come out of his shell either. John says, he was accompanied by Nicodemus.
They recognized that if they didn’t act up now, Jesus’ body would be thrown in a pit with the other criminals. Nicodemus, if you remember, came in the middle of the night to talk with Jesus. During that time Jesus told him about what it meant to be "born again", of water and the Spirit. Like Joseph he also showed fear at being associated with Jesus. However now, in Jesus darkest hour, Nicodemus also decided to come out of the closet.
The response of these men in the darkest hour is something that we all have to admire. Instead of running away from Jesus, instead of kicking themselves for believing in Jesus, they boldly proclaimed their faith by taking care of His burial. What was it that set them apart from the disciples, that they were bold enough to be associated with this dead Savior at His darkest hour? We’d have to say that they showed more faith than the disciples. The disciples kept on waiting and expecting Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom, denying the possibility of His death, but these two members of the Sanhedrin must have expected Jesus to die. Remember, these were men who knew their Scriptures. They had listened to and read books such as Isaiah and the Psalms. Maybe they even heard Jesus refer to these texts in reference to Himself, texts that said things like Isaiah 53:3-6,
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely, he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Therefore, instead of basing their faith on the power of Jesus, their faith was based on the weakness of Christ, or dare I say, the death of the Christ. When Jesus did what He said He would do, they felt compelled to let their light shine. Instead of killing their faith, they saw Jesus fulfill His promise of love and it flickered into a strong flame. I'm sure they also read the very prediction as to what would happen to the Christ in Isaiah 53:9, He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. I can’t help but think that faith in these predictions encouraged them to take a part in the gospel, especially since the disciples had taken off.
Joseph and Nicodemus offer hope to all of us who have spent our share of time in the "Christian closet" so to speak. From the eyes of the world and even the disciples he and Nicodemus may have been tagged as either just plain enemies or at least cowards in the faith.
As we are confronted with our own cowardice, God wants us to do exactly what Joseph and Nicodemus did. Instead of running away from the cross, look to the cross and death of Jesus. Stare at it in faith. Cling to Jesus in His darkest hour. Grasp His dead body in your arms. Recognize that Jesus’ crucifixion and death was not just a sign of weakness, it was also a sign of God’s love and mercy. Cling to the message of that cross, know that Jesus died for people just like you, the kind of people that aren’t as brave as they should be; the kind of people that put more importance on their reputations and their positions of authority. You are people that Jesus died for as well! So, look at the cross and cling to it with your arms of faith.
When we look at what happens with Joseph and Nicodemus, it should encourage us to a new confidence in the gospel. A pure look at the love of the dead and watching God die did wonders for the faith of Joseph and Nicodemus. When they saw how Jesus faced death, with His hope in the resurrection, it encourage them and motivate them and motivate them to put aside their fears. They were willing to do the dirtiest job there was, to place their hands on their dead God, make themselves ceremonially unclean, risk their own ridicule and death and bury Him in the rich man’s tomb.
Jesus was willing to give up everything, even His relationship with the Father for a time in hell, to make you holy. There may come a time in life where you’re faced with a similar situation as Joseph and Nicodemus. Perhaps the people you expect to step up will go running. Perhaps identity with Christ will be a disgraceful and dangerous thing, where you can lose your reputation and even your life. You may expect yourself to be a coward at such a point. At such a time, don’t underestimate the power of the Gospel. Seeing Jesus die on the cross and die for you is a powerful statement of God’s love and dedication to you. Instead of bringing out the coward in you, it may bring out the courage. It may make you step it up a level, to let your light shine when it’s needed most. If God could do it with Joseph and Nicodemus, He can do it with you.
As we witnessed events occur this evening, remember that not everything is as it appears. God, in His death, isn’t showing His weakness but His strength. The disciples, though running scared, have not lost their faith. The women though weeping and helpless are still following. Joseph and Nicodemus who seem to be so silent, end up showing great strength and honoring Jesus in His death. God is working behind the scenes with unlikely candidates and through unlikely scenarios to accomplish His purpose. God’s works are the most powerful when they work through the weakest scenarios.
Sometimes you may play the role of the disciples and run at the time you are needed most. Other times, you may play the role of Joseph and Nicodemus, and step it up when you are needed. Regardless of which role you end up in, remember the true power of this story. It’s not in Joseph or Nicodemus, but in the power of the Gospel, the power of God. It’s amazing how the death of God as the substitute of the world could bring about anything strong in anyone. It’s amazing how our FAITHFUL God is able to work through weakness and death to bring about strength in this hour of despair. Believe that God’s power works in weakness. In the midst of death and burial, see God’s strength and see life. Amen.