Sunday, April 12, 2009
(texts: Mark 16:1-8; and John 19-20. Please open your bibles to Mark 16 and bookmark John 19 so you can turn to it when necessary)
Very early in the morning in Jerusalem “on the first day of the week, just, Mark says, as the sun peaked over the horizon (John tells us it was still dark...which means he must not have been a morning person). Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, a woman named Salome and, Luke suggests, perhaps a number of other women, made their way to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where on Friday afternoon they saw Jesus' laid to rest. They brought spices with them with which they planned, in keeping with Jewish custom, to anoint his dead body. You might think this strange first because this is the third day since Jesus died, so his body may not be in the best shape, and second John tells us (19:39-40) that Nicodemus and Joseph had already anointed Jesus and wrapped him in white linen cloth. Why are these women up so early going back to the tomb to anoint a three day old dead body that's already been anointed?
Anointing the dead was a task usually reserved for women. Joseph and Nicodemus were Pharisees, among the few followers of Jesus on the Sanhedrin, and they'd almost certainly never prepared a body for burial. The dramatic events of the crucifixion, however—perhaps the three hours of darkness and torn curtain—compelled them to step out of the shadows where they'd become secretly, for fear of their colleagues, persuaded that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Joseph, John tells us (19:38-42), approached Pilate “boldly” and received permission to take Jesus' dead body, which would've normally been left to rot or thrown into a shallow unmarked grave, and bury him properly his own stone tomb. And while Joseph appealed to Pilate, his friend Nicodemus, John tells us, went to the market and bought 75 pounds of spiced oil for the anointing. And in the hurried hours between 3pm when Jesus died and sundown at around 6pm, when all work stopped for the Sabbath, Joseph and Nicodemus together they performed the delicate and loving task of preparing Jesus' body, a task that as men, in all likelihood, they had no idea how to do. Jesus' mother and Mary Magdalen and the other women who'd been with Jesus at the cross watched and perhaps cringed as these kind but inept men fumbled around, and decided quietly between themselves that as soon as Sabbath was over they would go back and do it right (Lk:23:56).
And that's precisely what they set out to do as the sun rose Sunday morning. Anointed and wrapped, Jesus' body would've held out, but even if it wasn't in the best condition, love drove these women, as it had Nicodemus and Joseph, to do all that they could do.
There was still one problem...the tomb entrance was sealed by a one ton round stone door. And so on the way (v3) “they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" A group of strong men could do it but not the women by themselves. The disciples would've been strong enough to move the stone. Where were they? John tells us in 20:19 that “the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews”. They were hiding. They were afraid. They were no help
The women may or may not have known that on the Sabbath day leaders of the Sanhedrin, fearing a plot by Jesus' disciples to steal the body (Matt 27:62-66), had asked Pilate to assign a unit of 16 (probably 4 groups of 4) Roman soldiers to guard the tomb. If they knew maybe they hoped to appeal to the sympathy of the soldiers—but most likely they didn't know about the guard and hoped to find grave workers or gardeners to help. So the women set out that morning not knowing how they were going to do what they planned to do.
But as they emerged from the city walls and descended into the old shallow stone quarry out of which wealthy Jews had begun to carve family tombs, their earlier anxieties fled suddenly away, replaced by a stab of horror and fear as in the growing light their eyes rested on Joseph's tomb.
“When they looked up,” Mark says, “they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.”
Mark's is the briefest and the most understated of the gospels. He moves directly from the womens' recognition that the door had been removed to their entrance into the tomb and encounter with the man in white. But John tells us in 20:2 that they probably didn't go immediately into the tomb. Instead—and I think this is perfectly understandable because at this point they were probably thinking grave robbery or some kind of desecration—either all of the woman or Mary Magdalene alone ran back to the city to roust the men out of bed.
Turn to John 20 and read along with me in verse 3. “So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple,” John writes in the third person, but he's “the other disciple” that's how he refers to himself. He never mentions himself by name, “and said, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!' This report was enough to overcome Peter and John's fear. They were not thinking resurrection (verse 9). They were afraid, like the women, that something terrible had happened to Jesus body...“So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” (4)
From v.5 on we have John's first hand, eyewitness, personal account of what he saw when he arrived at tomb. This a primary source document, very valuable. “He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen” this is the same linen Joseph used to wrap Jesus' body. He saw it “lying there but did not go in.” Why didn't he go in? If I had to speculate I'd say “dismay.”
Because the strips of linen were stark clear evidence that we're not dealing with grave robbers. Why not? What grave robber would take the time to unwrap a dead body. Who would want to unwrap a dead body. Some suggest that instead of robbers, the Pharisees took his body to rebury it in a desecrated place. I don't think so. The last people who'd unwrap and handle a dead body were a group of Pharisees, concerned as they were about ritual cleanliness.
So John sees the strips of linen and he stops dumbfounded. And then Peter catches up and Peter, being Peter, doesn't hesitate at the door, but barges in and John tells us in verse 6 that he also “saw the strips of linen lying there.” But he saw something else that maybe John initially missed, the burial cloth that'd been wrapped around Jesus' head “was folded up by itself, separate from the linen”(7). This kind of care wouldn't be the work of robbers. It wouldn't be the work of people meaning to desecrate Jesus' body. Someone took time to fold the linen with care and leave it as sign for whoever would enter the tomb. I've read, and I'm still trying to confirm this, but I've read that there was a Jewish dinner table custom at the time that might shed some light on the folded head cloth. When the head of the household had finished his meal, he would leave his face-cloth/napkin crumpled in his place, this would tell the servants or his children “I'm done” you can clear the plates. But if he did not crumple his face-cloth—if he folded it instead—it stood as a sign to the servant that he was not finished... that he was coming back.
In any case, John gets over his dismay. He “went inside. He saw and believed.” But what did he believe? In verse 9 we're told that they “still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead...” so what did he believe? At this point at the very least he believed something remarkable and good, something other than robbery or desecration, had happened to the body. At that point, John writes, they decided to go back most likely to let the other disciples know what had happened. But (v11) “Mary stood outside the tomb crying” and the other gospels tell us that the other women were still with her.
Now turn back to Mark 16 and pick up his account in verse 5. The men had gone and it was just the women left. They were distraught. They could no longer give the last gift they'd planned to give to Jesus. He was gone. Now that the men had come and gone, they decided, at the very least, to enter and see the place where he had been.
Here's how Mark describes what happened next: “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.”(5) I love Mark's understatement. They were “alarmed”. Yes. I'll bet they were. The men had gone. They'd said nothing about someone inside the tomb and here, suddenly, is this man. Mark is interested in brevity and simplicity so he just tells us about the spokesman. The other gospels tell us there two men dressed in white clothes. Luke (24:4) says they were dazzling white and Matthew and John say that they were angels—but no mention magic wings or harps or halos—just young men in dazzling white seated on the slab of stone where Jesus' body once lay.
(v6) “"Don't be alarmed," the spokesman says. “You're looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.”
The angel knows who they are and why they've come. He knows the anguish and fear, the tumult and chaos and deep dreadful sorrow that has set into their hearts since Friday when they watched Jesus die.
Perhaps, in the years afterwards as the women dwelt on their memories of this day, the angel's next three words stood out like the dawn—the first light, after a terrible and what had seemed to be permanent darkness
He's not stolen,
He's not been desecrated
He's not been assumed into heaven.
He's not been carried away.
He is risen.
“He is not here. See where he once lay.” The stone slab is bare where his body once lay. He is risen—not as a ghost or a spirit or a metaphor—he's physically, bodily, alive. In Luke the angel asks: “Why do you seek the living among the dead” (24:5)
While they are still reeling, still trying to comprehend this news, the spokesman gives them a command (7) “go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you'll see him, just as he told you.' " And then, “Trembling and bewildered,” Mark says, “the women went out and fled from the tomb.
Your bible may have a little note right after verse 8 telling you that the earliest manuscripts do not include what comes afterwards and that's true. Most likely the rest of Mark not written by Mark. But I don't believe Mark intended to leave us hanging in verse 8. I think, and there are a lot of smart people who think this, that Matthew, whose gospel incorporates almost all of Mark, has preserved the bulk of Mark's original ending so let's turn there, Matthew 28, to see what happened next.
While you're doing that, notice that Mark says in verse 8 that the women “said nothing to anyone,” They didn't shout this thing from the rooftops yet. It would have been odd for them to do so. They were still shaking. They've just had an encounter with two holy angels who delivered news that was beyond even their wildest expectations or hopes—they've just received news of God's mightiest act in all human history so, rightly, they were afraid and bewildered and confused...we've had 2000 years, these women had had about two minutes to process emotionally and intellectually the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
But Matthew, as you can see, tells us they were also “filled with joy”. The blackness and despair, despite their confusion, was giving way—but their minds and emotions were still confused—“he is risen” what does that mean? Where is he? As the women emerged from the empty tomb and began to run back to the disciples to tell them what they had seen, suddenly Jesus meets them. "Greetings," he says. “Hello”.
At first, John tells us, they did not recognize him. Mary thought he was a gardener and asks about Jesus' body...then the veil is lifted, the scales fall away and they recognize him.
They fall down and worship and grasp his feet.
"Do not be afraid” he says.
Fear is shot through all four gospel accounts of the Resurrection. Nobody knows what is going on. Nothing is as it should be. Everything that accords with normal circumstances and usual expectations conflicts with the actual data coming in through eyes and ears. Everyone is confused. Darkness, despair, and dread has held sway since Friday but now everything is turned on its head. Eyes are bearing witness to facts that minds cannot fathom and realities that are still beyond comprehension.
And so when the angels meet the women, the first words are “Don't be alarmed”
And here as the women clutch His feet, feet still scarred, and they touch with their hands Jesus' living body, and they tremble in fear and sob for joy at the same time—Jesus says, “Don't be afraid”
Don't be afraid for me Mary, I am here. I am not dead.
Don't be afraid of me Mary—you know me, I am your Lord and your friend.
Don't be afraid of any power in this world Mary; not the Romans, not the Sanhedrin, not the crowds, not the cross, not those who will want to take your life or your property. I've overcome world.
Don't be afraid on account of your sins no matter how dark or terrible—the fact that I am standing before you means that they are gone, forgiven, cleansed, removed from you as far as the east is from the west.
Don't be afraid of your future, what will happen to you, where you will be—I am your future. You are clutching your future in your hands. Where I am you will be.
Don't be afraid of death Mary—I've destroyed death—crushed it under my heal—it's sting is gone and its power has broken.
Application and prayer