After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.
40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
I find myself grieved by this passage more than by his betrayal, his death or the denial by Peter. Here he is abandoned by his disciples. Ditto his followers: all those people he healed and taught have vanished. Some are just sad and scared. Others are busy getting ready for the Passover. Jesus’ close disciples, as far as we can tell, have all taken off to navel gaze. Peter is likely beating himself up in some quiet corner. Meanwhile, they left their savior and master dead upon the cross.
But then there is a miracle – an easy one to overlook: two of Jesus most cowardly followers come forward with boldness and purpose to bury Jesus.
During Jesus’ ministry, when he was the talk of the town, the disciples were highly visible. When his messianic message seemed to marry their dreams of a conqueror who would route the Romans, they went everywhere with him. They shooed little children away from him; they passed around loaves and fishes that kept multiplying; they even joined him in Gethsemane, if only to have a good nap.
So who takes the body? First Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man and possibly a member of the Sanhedrin, comes forth and claims the body. Where his fear of the Jewish leadership had once kept his admiration for Christ hidden, now he boldly approaches the Roman governor to claim Jesus’ body. He must surely have adopted Jesus as a family member, for there were laws about who could claim the body and there were laws about putting bodies in the tombs of strangers.
So, here was a man once frightened to be seen with Jesus, putting him in his own family tomb, which was conveniently close.
And who helps him other than Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin who had once come to see Jesus at night to seek more instruction. These two men must have known each other and planned together. For one bought the linens to wrap Jesus and the other brought 100 pounds of embalming supplies.
It is sad, but apt, that the strict laws of Judaism caused the men to bury him quickly, for Jesus had regularly attempted to put heart back in Judaic law. After sundown, on the day set aside for preparing the Passover feast, no work could be done. So, these once-secretive men worked openly, boldly and quickly to see that Jesus was given a proper burial. Otherwise, disposing of Jesus’ body would have fallen to the Romans.
Down through the course of history, God has used ordinary and often unpromising people to fulfill his ministries. God does not require a CV that kicks the competition out of the arena. God knows that a convicted heart, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can do far more than one simply charged with human tenacity and good character.
When God calls us to do something, he also calls us to trust him for the courage when it is needed.
12 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” 15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ 16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ 19They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ 20He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread* into the bowl* with me. 21For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’
22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ 23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.
24He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the* covenant, which is poured out for many. 25Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’
Our Christian concept of Passover is somber.
We are stepping off the path of Lent and onto the uphill climb to Golgotha. We associate Passover with Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the institution of the Eucharist, the end of his earthly ministry, his betrayal in Gethsemane and the hours leading up to his death.
In liturgy, we wash each other’s feet and strip the altar.
However, before it was linked to Jesus’ death, Passover was a celebration, and still is for the Jewish people. It commemorates Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt – it was kind of the ancient form of Fourth of July.
So, Jesus sent his disciples off to prepare the Passover meal. It was a much simpler meal back then but, still, for the men to be preparing it and to be sharing it with each other separate from their families seems momentous. They definitely understood this journey to Jerusalem was key to building the kingdom. Their minds would still have been on Jesus’ triumphal entry, not his death.
Only Jesus knew what was in each heart and in each future. A few decades back, I was thinking about this particular day in our journey to Easter and tried to think about how he must have struggled with his thoughts and emotions as he prepared to release his ministry on a heavenly level into his father’s hands, and on an earthly one into those of his disciples.
1 Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.10 Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’[a]?”
Humans have been about stealing Eden ever since they first cashed in on their sin nature. Our spiritual greed is only a reflection of our grasping natures that make us take more than is our due.
Imagine having a lovely winery in the Napa Valley in California or the Niagara Region in Ontario. All you have to do is pay the rent and make the wine. The person who owns the land has already established the winery, right down to the equipment needed to press the grapes. Possibly even the bottles and labels were provided.
But that’s not enough. We don’t want to pay the rent. We want the owner and creator to purchase the land, do the work and then give it to us.
As this scripture says so well in allegorical form, as we did with the prophets and preachers, so we did with God-made-man himself. We want Heaven without the belief; we are constantly seeking an Eden that comes without sweat.
The current phrase for this is: sense of entitlement. We usually apply it to others as if we’ve invented the concept. Entitlement is just vineyard stealing in some form or other. Someone gets beaten, another killed as we seek to reap harvests on land for which we have not paid.
Physically, this applies on so many levels: from our focus on investments through to our clamor to have beach resorts at the lowest price possible with no thought to the people who live there. This nature crosses all economic and political boundaries.
Yes, we are all garden crashers.
The spiritual world simply echoes that. In our churches, we demand service without serving; programs without tithing; preaching without listening and leadership without following. We visit generosity on the homeless from the safety of our sheltered and gated communities and we give to organizations from which we directly benefit and call it charity. There is no end to our ability to steal what isn’t ours, including accolades and honor.
The foundation of our world is not in Washington, the Pentagon or in the World Bank. It is in our creator and guider of our soul. The very one we treat like a cardboard figure from a Sunday school lesson, is the founding leader of the eternal world.
27 They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28 “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”
31 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)
33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Fearing the people is a frightful thing if you want to be a true leader.
Of course, the chief priests, instillers of the law and the elders were not at all concerned about being true. They were concerned about maintaining their power. Jesus, as a discerner of hearts, knew exactly how to throw a curve ball that would take out the religious leaders at home plate.
John the Baptist was a conundrum for this power group. For, regardless of what they personally believed about the origins of his baptism, to the Jewish people, he was a prophet. On this subject, they could not pull rank or spew forth justification.
Conviction does not let popular opinion deter it. If these leaders had been convinced that they had to caution the people about John’s teaching, they would have spoken out. The Apostle Paul, as Saul the Christian slayer, wrong as he was, was convicted that he had to stop Christianity. He understood its power. When he was converted, he was equally driven to share the gospel.
Conviction is the bulldozer to any conundrums.
Throughout the history of the church, its leaders have faced choices about whether something is of God or not. Often, popular opinion or the higher-ups have silenced them.
I have in my ancestry (along with many unsavory characters, I’m sure) one moderate nonconformist Anglican priest named Richard Baxter. As priest at Kidderminster, England, he was driven to save lost souls and redeem the ignorance of his parishioners.
Throughout his ministry, he never turned down the opportunity to speak what he believed, and was twice imprisoned for it. Yet a church that was empty when he arrived, was overflowing when he left; a town that was lucky to have one Christian on each street at his arrival, had whole streets of Christians when he left. He wrote:
“I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”
If I inherited anything down this long chain of inheritance, I would want it to be his conviction. I would like to believe that should I need to choose between my heart and what is politically expedient, I would act on faith.
For no matter how we try to protect our life, in the end it is not ours to preserve.
1[a]How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
2 Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.
6 All the splendor has departed
from Daughter Zion.
Her princes are like deer
that find no pasture;
in weakness they have fled
before the pursuer.
7 In the days of her affliction and wandering
Jerusalem remembers all the treasures
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her.
Her enemies looked at her
and laughed at her destruction.
8 Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
and turns away.
9 Her filthiness clung to her skirts;
she did not consider her future.
Her fall was astounding;
there was none to comfort her.
“Look, LORD, on my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed.”
10 The enemy laid hands
on all her treasures;
she saw pagan nations
enter her sanctuary—
those you had forbidden
to enter your assembly.
11 All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they barter their treasures for food
to keep themselves alive.
“Look, LORD, and consider,
for I am despised.”
12 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the LORD brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger?
I recently heard a character on a TV program say that quantum physics is like seeing the universe naked. Physicists and astronomers alike love to probe beneath the skin of the universe and study its organs, its structure and its personality.
A city is designed like we are. Under the dermis of the city lie the arteries that draw life to and from its core. Humans, like busy corpuscles, rush around in its veins, while the city’s solid architecture supports us, its bones deeply hidden. When wrecking balls fly, when weather comes with teeth, all this changes. The humans retract and the city suffers, exposed.
In Lamentations, the writer mourns that the once queenly city of Jerusalem has been seen naked. Her bones are showing, her dress soiled, her veins empty of their thriving population.
Personifying a city, generally, is projecting the pain and suffering of its people. When it is raped and pillaged, it is because the people have also suffered such things. If her skirts are soiled, it is because her walls have been assaulted and broken down. Empty streets mean lost people, displaced people. Hearts are walking around on legs, belonging somewhere else.
As we enter into the last week of Lent and the beginning of Easter, we will go to Gethsemane with Jesus. There we will see the Son of God, naked, abandoned, betrayed and killed. When Jesus is assaulted, so is Jerusalem, so is her temple.
For the whole purpose of the Jewish nation, of Jerusalem, was to bring forth, at the right time, a Messiah.
Now that Messiah is about to be abandoned by the princes, just like Jerusalem. His followers will temporarily flee for their lives. On Thursday of this week, in liturgical churches, the altar will be stripped, people will wash each other’s feet and all will walk through the dark time of Jesus’ nakedness with him. In the process, they will examine their own nakedness and see what of it is good and what of it is corrupted.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us-
9 he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
The author of this Psalm is in an emotional hurt locker – a place of pain. Sadly and ironically, he is writing about Babylon, the powerful nation that became modern-day Iraq. Somewhere in this country that sits between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – perhaps in the very spot where Eden once existed, as some speculate – the Israelites wept for the memory of their own Eden: Jerusalem.
The city had been sacked by the Babylonians and many of the Israelites had been taken captive or forced into exile. While their captors, cruelly, asked for songs and merriment, the Israelites mourned their beloved city, their political entity, their monarchy, their history and the true God.
Whether symbolically or actually, the depressed exiles hung their harps on willow trees at the water’s edge. How could they sing their sacred songs, full of their history and the hand of God, while being held captive?
The psalm has a melancholy and vengeful note – downright ugly, actually, when it talks about babies being destroyed – as it observes or predicts the inevitability of those who triumph by the sword also being vanquished by it. We can look back over history and easily see that. History, however, was newer then. It was not analyzed, packaged and presented on the History channel. Israel had its own bloody history, so this was not a worldview being expressed; it was a desire for the perpetrator to be punished.
Sometimes, we are in a desolate inner place that steals our music. Sometimes we struggle with anger and bitterness. Like the Israelites, we must hold onto what we know, waiting for restoration and renewal. We need each other in those dark times, to bring hope and comfort.
When we are in despair and cannot play the music, may we have the faith and resourcefulness to hang our harps in the willows. Willow trees are anchored in the silt of the river’s edge and draw life from the water. When the rains are tardy and all else is suffering, the willows will thrive.
There, the winds that dry the fields will blow through the branches and play the music for us. There, our hearts will soar and the ugly thoughts brought on by depression, lifted.
32They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
35Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39“We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The disciples are a bit of a slow study. The first time Jesus mentioned that he was to be put to death (in a previous chapter), the disciples’ thoughts meandered like their feet on the way to Capernaum. They discussed – heatedly, I’m sure – who was the greatest among them.
Jesus grabbed the teachable moment to explain that being a nabob in God’s kingdom meant serving others. They, apparently, didn’t absorb this.
So, in today’s reading, he once again broached the subject of his impending death and resurrection. Perhaps the disciples had gotten a little jaded by all the miracles, because this didn’t seem to impress them. That Jesus was to be betrayed, mocked, flogged and killed did not seem to come across as unusual – not even to Judas. One might expect Judas to be shocked when he realized Jesus knew he would be betrayed.
It was like they were thinking, “You walk on water; you raise people from the dead; you feed thousands. So far, so good: let us know when it is the final episode of this reality show.”
So, rather than absorb the idea that being around a master who was about to be treated badly might be dangerous, two disciples, who were brothers (runs in the family), boldly asked Jesus if they could sit on each side of him when he ascended to glory. They got the glory part. They felt quite up to holding these prominent positions in court. There had to be some kind of payback for all this itinerant discipleship.
Once again, Jesus had to point out that advancing in this new spiritual order was not political. It didn’t work like the secular world where you clambered to the top and ordered others around. In the kingdom, you climb to the top on your knees by serving others.
His use of the slavery image ran against the grain of the Israelite character. The nation celebrated its deliverance from slavery in Egypt and, later, exile and servitude in Babylon. Celebration of freedom was at the heart of their liturgy.
Serving others is pivotal to Christianity and yet it is still the hardest thing to do. We tend to serve in areas and ways that interest or advance us. Volunteering and serving are not synonymous. Giving of our time in an area that interests us is not as sacrificial as we like to think it is. Are we, like the disciples, deliberately sidestepping the cost of being a believer?