Sabbath, March 26, 2016
It was a very dark day. The best man the world had ever known was dead. Not just dead, killed. And not killed by just some random lunatic, executed. Put to death by the formal vote of the supreme court of the land, a judgment ratified by the chief executive.
How could a people go so wrong? It had happened before. It would happen again. But this time seemed like the worst.
For three and a half years Jesus had toured Palestine, enthralling crowds with his preaching, healing every kind of malady, even raising the dead. It was one of the most magical moments in human history.
But he rebuked the arrogance of the religious and moneyed elites. He echoed the words of the ancient prophets, insisting that those with privilege—the privileges of money, political power, religious and social status—those with privilege were charged by God to use their advantages for the benefit of others.
Maybe the privileged could have ignored his rebukes if he had been less popular. They could have dismissed Jesus as a harmless, crazy dreamer. But the crowds, the thousands of people who instantly gathered every time Jesus stopped moving, the masses who adored Jesus made him dangerous. At least in the minds of the rich and powerful. They were sure Jesus would use his power over the masses to stir a revolution to benefit his friends. After all, that’s how the elite had been using their power for centuries. They could not imagine Jesus was any different from them.
So they had him killed. Accused him of thinking like they did. Framed him for ideas he did not have. Convicted him of making the kind of plots they would have made if they had possessed his power. And they killed him.
And it was dark.
For Jesus’ friends–the people who had been enthralled by his preaching, the people had begun to imagine there was another path besides the will to power–the death of Jesus was the death of hope. If Jesus couldn’t change things, change wasn’t possible. If Jesus couldn’t advance the cause of righteousness, maybe righteousness itself was a mere fantasy.
It was a very dark day.
Jesus was crucified. Executed.
Ordinarily, when a person was crucified, their bodies were not buried. If they were evil enough to deserve crucifixion, they were too evil for the dignity of burial. Their bodies were thrown onto a garbage heap outside of town.
But Jesus had friends and admirers even among the powerful people. A few devout, wealthy people had heard the glory in Jesus’ preaching. They shared his vision of a world where the lowly were lifted, a world where wealth circulated widely and generously, and righteousness was normal.
One of these righteous, good people was a man named Joseph. He went to the governor and asked for the body of Jesus. The governor was used to saying yes to wealthy, well-connected people, so he said yes to Joseph, and Joseph buried Jesus in a new tomb Joseph had just completed constructing.
The tomb was a room carved into a limestone outcrop in the neighborhood of Jerusalem. Joseph, with the help of servants or some of Jesus’ disciples—the Gospel doesn’t tell us—wrapped Jesus body in a burial shroud along with a huge amount of spices and herbs traditionally used for burials there. Then just at sundown, they closed the tomb by rolling a huge stone over the entrance.
Then they went home for the worst Sabbath of their lives.
Hope died. They were left with numbness and pain. Blackness. Screaming silence.
Death collides with love. When we love someone, there is never enough time. No matter how long our time together, we are never ready to say, “That’s enough.” Thousands of people loved Jesus. His execution blighted their souls. His death created an aching, withering emptiness.
But it was even worse than that. Because Jesus was also their hope. How do we live without hope?
Maybe they didn’t eat supper Friday night. Or if they ate, maybe it was merely nibbling, playing with food because it was in front of them, but they had no appetite. Sabbath morning, they had a hard time getting out of bed. Why bother? What was there to get up for. What was there to live for? The world was not getting better. The best and brightest hope for humanity had just been killed, executed.
The sun rose. But it didn’t make things brighter. Maybe they didn’t eat much for breakfast. Maybe not much for lunch. It was hard to breathe. Hard to be awake and impossible to sleep. That was Sabbath. The bleakest Sabbath ever. The most miserable day in the universe.
Saturday night, the ladies talked. The women who had traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem with Jesus. The death had been so sudden, the reversal from the enthusiasm of the week so violent they had not been able to respond appropriately.
Joseph had buried Jesus with traditional spices—a ton of them. But the women had not had time to do anything. They had failed to do the necessary things for their own goodbye. So Saturday night they made their own plans to honor Jesus with the proper attentions a dead loved one deserved.
Sunday at first light they were headed to the tomb.
Arriving, something was wrong! Were they at the right place?
The grave was open. The stone was rolled back from the entrance. They stooped and went inside. Empty!
While they were jabbering to each other, wondering what on earth could have happened, a couple of men suddenly appeared. Angels.
The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.”
Right! He had said this. He had said this very thing. Why didn’t they think of it before? He’s not in the tomb. He must be resurrected! They raced off to tell the guys.
The men, the famous disciples whose names we know—Peter, James and John, Andrew and Matthew—the guys didn’t believe the women. What do you mean the grave is empty? How could it possibly be that he is risen?
The women told them again what they had seen and what the men in shining clothes had said. The women reminded the men of the words Jesus himself had spoken. But it was too much. The guys couldn’t believe it.
But neither could they deny it. Jesus had said something about dying and rising. It hadn’t made sense. It still didn’t make sense. But the words were there, floating at the edge of their memories. So Peter and John raced off to check it out. An hour and a half later they were back. They had seen no men in shining clothes. But they had seen the tomb. They had gone inside. It was empty. Jesus was gone.
The rest of the day passed in confusion. Jesus had died. They had seen it. Love had been crushed. Hope had been killed. The pictures were seared into their minds. And the tomb was empty. The women had seen men in shining clothes and heard them announce that Jesus was risen. They gradually remembered together words Jesus had spoken, words that had made no sense, and so had made no impression. He was going to be killed. He was going to rise. He had said those things, but they hadn’t heard them because they couldn’t make sense of them. Not then.
But now, the tomb was empty.
Well after sundown, there was pounding on the door. They looked at each other. Who? What now? Someone peaked through the crack, or called through the door, “Who is it?”
It was friends. They opened the door and two friends from a hamlet outside Jerusalem practically jumped through the door shouting.
“We have seen him. We have seen him.” The story tumbled out.
They had been walking home from Jerusalem that afternoon.
Some stranger joined them. He seemed friendly enough. They thought nothing of it. He asked about the latest news. He seemed utterly clueless, like some redneck from Galilee—excuse me Peter. From his questions it appeared he had heard nothing about Jesus, nothing about the triumphal ride last Sunday, nothing about Jesus chasing out the money changers and merchants, nothing about the crucifixion. Nothing.
“So we told him everything. Then he explained everything. He seemed like a brilliant scholar. He ran through dozens of prophecies, basically saying that the whole thing had been planned. It had all been prophesied.
“By the time we got to our place in Emmaeus it was getting dark, so naturally we invited him to join us for supper and stay the night.
“We put some bread and wine on the table and sat down to eat. He picked up the bread and said the blessing. And BOOM! It was him! How many times have we watched him bless the bread? How could we have missed it? It was him. It was his voice. It was his hands. It was him. He is alive!”
“So where is he? Everyone shouted at once.”
“We don’t know. The instant we recognized him and started from our chairs, he disappeared. Poof! Just like that! But we saw him. We heard him. We felt him. He is alive!”
And for two thousand years this has been the song of the church. He is risen. He is alive.
Some of us have heard his voice, have felt his presence. Others like the disciples in that upper room that evening have only the testimony of our friends.
Still, we come together in worship and with one voice shout against the darkness of death, He is risen.
Some of us have had our children stolen from us. Still we sing, “He is risen. Death will one day die.”
We have seen our hopes crushed. We have felt the insuperable weight of despair. Still we come together and declare, morning is coming. Righteousness, justice, God and love will triumph. And we, too, will be victors. Because . . . He is risen.
One Wednesday I had lunch with three college students. At one point, one of them asked me, “Do you think Christians make too much of heaven? Do you think Christians use talk about heaven as a substitute for actually doing something to make the world better?”
The question put a long pause in our conversation. What to say?
Finally, I said, “For people like you and me whose lives still include all kinds of opportunities to choose, to decide, to change things, to make things better, heaven can be a lazy-making idea. If we tell ourselves, God’s going to fix things so I don’t need to bother. Heaven can be a bad idea.
But if heaven is the ideal that shapes our choices and our drives, we cannot give it too much attention.
And some time, you will reach places in life where all of your strength and beauty and intelligence and luck and privilege stand helpless in the face if unalterable grief and injustice. And then you will need heaven.
And even if you don’t personally reach that impasse, most people in the world live there every day. They are not sitting around in cafes wrestling with the questions, “What career should I pursue? What city shall I live in? How will I spend my money? What fund should I invest my retirement funds in?
For most people, the promise of justice and even life itself lives only in the reality of heaven. So let’s be careful—we who live in privilege and comfort, we who have health and money and youth—let’s be careful not to make light of the truth that makes life worth living for millions who know nothing of our privilege. If not for ourselves, then at least for our brothers and sisters who live in difficult places let’s keep alive the glorious, shining faith: He is risen. He is alive. He will save us.