April 2: The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”– John 11:1-16

The gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday (read in thousands of churches, literally all over the world) is the story of the raising of Lazarus, John 11:1-45. That’s a relatively long passage. Most commonly when it is preached, the focus is on roughly the last half of the passage with the dramatic conversation that culminates in Lazarus being raised from the dead. Preachers often read, but do not spend much time on, these opening 16 verses. This is not merely introductory material. John cared about and recorded all kinds of valuable things in them.

The Lord does not play games with us. Still, when you look at what Jesus says and does, it is clear that His ways are not our ways. After all, when Jesus finds out that Lazarus is ill, through a cry for help, He doesn’t offer help for two days. He offered no comfort or hope, but left Mary and Martha to do hospice care until Lazarus died right there in front of them. The disciples are not used to assisting and no preparations are made to go to Bethany. He speaks of death as sleep and even says that Lazarus died “and for your sake I am glad that I was not there.”

What went on for those two days while Jesus delayed going to Bethany? From the rest of the story, we learn that He was praying. Praying? Really? That’s it? It’s important to look at the larger story. Chapter 11 starts out with the disciples warning Jesus about Judea: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” The chapter ends with the High Priest declaring that one man must die for the people. Just before that, Jesus thanks the Father for hearing His prayer (vv.41-42). What prayer? The prayer prayed these two days while Lazarus was dying.

What was Jesus praying about? He was likely praying for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, but apparently also praying for wisdom and guidance for His own movements and plans. That means everything with the Lazarus episode is strategic and exactly what it needed to be. The raising of Lazarus is the principal reason the Temple authorities would want to get Jesus out of the picture. It is the most powerful sign Jesus has performed, but that moves everything much more intentionally toward the climactic events.

These two days of waiting were vital. Yes, this story is about Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, but even more about Jesus. He is obedient and relying on His Father for even the timing of His movements. All of Jesus’ actions are symbolic pictures of His work. We see here that waiting on the Lord leads to resurrection and life. Death will not win, and unexpected endings are not a game but the glorious way in which God works. That’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. 

After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. 

Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. –Mark 16:9-20

The human race today possesses an astonishing number of very early copies of the New Testament documents. From all over the world across many centuries, there is more evidence for the veracity of the copies we have archived (about 24,000) than there is for unquestioned documents such as the works of Plato (just 7). Between the original writing and the earliest surviving copies is 1,200 years for Plato, but only 40-70 years for the New Testament books! We have more solid evidence for the NT documents than we do even for recent authors such as William Shakespeare.

With all these copies, if there is any difference from one to the other, it will be very slight (e.g., the inclusion of “the” before a noun in one copy but not in another) and never makes a substantive difference in meaning. Since there are so many copies to compare, and knowing when the copies were produced (earlier is usually better) it is fairly easy to determine what the original text was. When it comes to the ending of Mark, alarm bells start going off. First, there are two extra endings (the most popular—and longer—one is copied above). Second, neither one sounds like Mark at all.

What is not in question is verses 1-8 in chapter 16. This is where the women discover Jesus is not in the tomb, and the “young man” angel in white commissions them to go tell the disciples “and Peter” that Jesus has risen. The women “fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” I find it too unbelievable that this is his ending. Trembling, astonishment, and silence? It was much easier for me to believe that was the original ending before studying Mark in such depth, but with everything that has gone before, this would be incredible. I think the last page was simply lost, probably due to being the most physically vulnerable page.

It would seem that pious copyists, feeling the loss of the missing final column or page, decided to add what they thought would be a suitable conclusion based on their knowledge of Matthew and perhaps Luke. While we don’t afford these endings the authority of scripture, they are curious and help us with some insight into how the early Christians (late second, early third centuries?) saw the events of Easter and their significance. Perhaps most of all, they placed emphasis upon the initial unbelief of the disciples in spite of the evidence of other witnesses. Initial unbelief should not put us off as we tell the gospel story today. Even the disciples who heard Jesus Himself speak of these things were slow to accept!

These Christians were also as curious about miraculous signs as we are. This too may indicate a slowness to believe. Jesus performed signs for a time and empowered the disciples to do them for a time, but we find that even that wasn’t enough. Now, here Jesus is ascended into heaven, and there is still misguided hope in signs. One thing they didn’t miss is that preaching is the primary way the gospel story was spread in their day (quite amazingly if you look at history!), and that it true for us today. The preaching of “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is the story of the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth where we will reign as a royal priesthood as we were created to do. That’s the gospel. Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. –Mark 16:1-8

In Jesus’ day, the typical burial practice was a two-stage process. First, the body was wrapped up and covered with spices to help with the smell of decomposition, and it was laid on a shelf in a small cave. The cave was often dug out, or man-made. There might be several shelves in the cave for several bodies simultaneously. After a year or two the flesh would have decomposed, and the bones were gathered and placed in an ossuary, which was stored on another shelf, sometimes in the same cave.

In Mark’s story, both from last week and in the passage above, we see the first part of the process of laying out Jesus’ wrapped body for decomposition. Our brother, Joseph of Arimathea, had wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth and laid him in the tomb, presumably to be returned to a year or two later so the bones could be placed in an ossuary. Two of the three women mentioned above had seen this. Perhaps because the beginning of Sabbath was looming, there wasn’t time to cover the body with spices.

Mark indicates that they bought spices “when the Sabbath was past,” which would have been after sundown Saturday evening. They have come now, early on Sunday morning, the first day of the work week, to apply those spices. They know about the massive stone, and you can tell that they are worried about moving it. Mark says, “And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’” It was big—maybe too big for them to move. Still, they pressed on.

And then, surprise, it was already rolled back! Mark’s description of the angel as “a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe” is curiously similar to the “young man with nothing but a linen cloth about his body” from the Garden of Gethsemane. Whatever that might mean, there is no doubt that it was alarming to the women. The angel even says, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.” 

If this book were a piece of pious fiction that early Christians had made up, it is likely that the women would have been anxiously hurrying to find the empty tomb, but Mark leaves no doubt that they fully expected to find the tomb quite occupied by Jesus’ body. This was the first of the two stages of preparing the body for decomposition. But let the good news go forth: there was no opportunity for the second stage of collecting Jesus’ bones. He was no longer there. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. –Mark 15:40-47

Mark’s section here on the burial of Jesus is not simply an account of how it happened. It is a thorough certification that Jesus really was dead. Joseph of Arimathea is an eye-witness of powerful social standing, and he not only obtained Jesus’ body, but wrapped Jesus himself and laid Him in the tomb. But wait, there’s more: Joseph himself rolled the stone against the entrance of the tomb! And then there is the Roman centurion sent to verify that Jesus is dead (and this fellow had expert experience on whether someone had died on a cross yet or not). Even Pilate serves as a testator since he wouldn’t have let the body be taken down if he weren’t absolutely sure Jesus was dead. Finally, the women had observed it all from the first to the last, including the tomb itself.

Mark includes in his gospel more than one incident of women “getting it” when the men did not. He throws in that “there were also many other women” who had been ministering to Jesus. We don’t know much about them. It might be thought that Mark isn’t commending the named women here since they look “on from a distance” and presumably do not assist Joseph in taking Jesus down, wrapping him, or laying Him in the tomb. Are they merely eye-witnesses to it all, but not much more? Most likely Mark is introducing us to them because they become shockingly prominent—key players—in the story very soon afterward. What is certain is that these women, both the Marys and Salome, were there and the disciples were not!

Joseph is in a time crunch to deal with the body. It must be done before sunset because that’s when Sabbath will begin. He has a lot to deal with as well: anxiety, begging, waiting, taking down the body, wrapping it, laying it, and sealing the tomb with a giant stone. The heat is on in terms of logistics, but there is something much more that the original audience would have known that we are likely to miss if we move too quickly: this action will make Joseph ceremonially unclean. He will be cut out of the usual Sabbath practices that evening and the next day. He is a Pharisee and knows what a political, social, and religious risk this is, both with the Romans and the Jews.

If Joseph will receive certain uncleanness and suspicion at best, and at worst, charges from both the Romans and the Sanhedrin, then why would he do it? Luke tells us he didn’t agree with the Sanhedrin’s decision, but Mark does not. Even if he didn’t agree, that still would not warrant all this risk. Who would do such a thing? Only a family member. If you had a member of your family up there, you’d make yourself unclean for the Sabbath, but family would be the only ones to do this. We can only conclude that Joseph was treating Jesus as if he were a close member of the family, and he is doing his love-filled duty.

Mark says that Joseph was “himself looking for the kingdom of God.” There is no doubt that he has found it. He found it in a man, sent from God, announced by the prophet Elijah in John the Baptizer, confirmed by miracles, who shepherded the flock, warred against the Evil One, being rejected by the Temple, crucified by Jews and Gentiles, abandoned by His friends outside the camp, forsaken by God, and now dead. This brings the story to the Sabbath, and everything must rest, including the body of Jesus Himself. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” –Mark 15:33-39  

Back in Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abram in which animals are cut in two. This is followed by an unnatural and purposeful darkness. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” (v. 12) Then God swears an oath to Abraham while passing between the pieces of the animals. He is taking a covenant oath upon Himself that He may be cursed like those animals if He does keep His promise. We can truly say that no “god” in the history of the world has done anything like that. It is gracious indeed!

Let’s jump forward about 19 centuries to Jesus’ crucifixion. Again we find a dreadful and great darkness, which fell upon Him for three hours. He is receiving the curse of the covenant in order that His people will escape judgement for their covenant unfaithfulness. Still, there is a big difference here. You might expect that Jesus would be torn apart, but instead, it is the veil of the Temple “torn in two, from top to bottom”!

With that beautiful thought in mind, we can now read Hebrews 10 with new eyes:

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (10:19-22)

The covenant curse does not destroy Jesus, but rather tears in half the barrier that separated the people from God because of their sins. Our hearts are now baptized clean from an evil conscience and our bodies baptized too. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Because Jesus was forsaken, nothing, nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ.

Jesus came to Israel and fulfilled Israel’s vocation, thus opening the way into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The curtain was the barrier between heaven and earth, but now there is no need for a priestly nation that differs from other nations. The dividing wall is broken down by the suffering and death of the Son of God and the dreadful and great darkness has become life-giving and wonderful light by our covenant-keeping God. Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.