Too late?

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all again for coming here today.

It’s two weeks after Easter, and I think that most people have moved on from the holiday. It’s back to work, it’s put away the decorations, it’s let’s get back to normal again.

The thing is, we never really get over Easter. We always say that Easter is the biggest thing ever, the biggest thing of all time.

But a lot of people, even most Christians, are just way too quick to get it over with.

That’s not right. As I said last week, in many Christian churches, the six weeks after Easter is a whole special season, called Eastertide.

It’s kind of like Advent, the 4-week season before Christmas. There is so much to learn about Easter, so much to remember, so much to celebrate. We couldn’t possibly squeeze it all in to just one Sunday out of the year.

So, we’re going to go back, and learn a little more. There’s a part of the Easter story that we usually skip over. But it’s really interesting, and it’s really important.

Let’s go back, to the evening of Good Friday. We usually skip past this, because we’re in a hurry to get to Easter morning. But let’s read the story together.

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, Joseph came and took the body away.

He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.

Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

John 19:38-42

How many people remember, or even think about, Joseph of Arimathea? As I said, we’re in such a hurry, that we usually forget all about him.

But he’s mentioned in all four gospels. He’s one of the very few people who we actually know by name. You have to kind of piece his life together from the four gospels. But the whole picture is really interesting.

Joseph of Arimathea was a rabbi, which means that he was a respected teacher. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council.

The Roman government dealt with taxes and armies, with major criminal cases. The Sanhedrin dealt with all religious questions, with Jewish traditions, with taxes to the Temple. The Sanhedrin settled divorces and disputes. They could hand out fines and corporal punishment.

The Sanhedrin could not impose the death penalty. Only the Romans could do that. That’s why the Sanhedrin demanded that the Romans execute Jesus. They didn’t have the authority to do it themselves.

The demand to execute Jesus wasn’t a unanimous decision. Joseph of Arimathea voted against it. It was a brave and courageous thing to do – to vote no, when almost 70 other members of the group voted yes.

One of the gospels call Joseph “a good and righteous man”. It says that he was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”

Another gospel says that he was a rich man, and that he was actually a disciple of Jesus. It kind of makes me wonder if he was the rich young man, who came to Jesus and asked Jesus what he ought to do in order to get to heaven.

Jesus said, “You tell me. What does it say in the Law of Moses?

The rich young man said, “I’ve followed all the commandments, ever since I was young.”

Jesus said, “You only need to do one more thing – give everything to the poor, and come, follow Me!”

And it says that the young man “went away unhappy, because he had so many possessions.” (Mark 10:17-31, Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30).

Maybe Joseph was that rich young man. We don’t know.

The gospel we read today says that he was “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because of his fear of the Jewish leaders”.

In any case, after Jesus was dead, Joseph came and collected the body. That was an extraordinary thing for him to do.

All of Jesus’ other friends had run away. They were hiding, because they thought that they might be arrested next. Standing up was incredibly dangerous. Joseph of Arimathea was an incredibly brave person.

The other person who helped to bury Jesus, and we only meet him in John’s gospel, is a guy named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was another member of the Sanhedrin, and he was an older man.

Back in John chapter 3, we read that Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the middle of the night. He was afraid to be seen with Jesus.

He said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said, “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can anyone re-enter their mother’s womb and be born a second time?

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Nicodemus said, “How can these things be?

Jesus said, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand these things? God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.

And then Jesus said, “God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.

I’m sure this is all familiar to you. So, Nicodemus knew Jesus. He believed what Jesus said, but he was afraid for himself. He didn’t come out in public and support Jesus.

The only time that Nicodemus stuck his neck out, was early on, when the priests and the Pharisees tried to arrest Jesus.

Nicodemus said, “Our law doesn’t judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing.”

But the others all shouted him down.

So anyway, on Good Friday, Jesus died on a cross, which was the Roman method of public execution. He was stripped and executed between two criminals.

They hung a sign over Jesus’ head that read, “King of the Jews“. All of Jesus’ enemies came by and mocked him. They shouted out, “He saved others – he can’t save himself!

Soldiers stood guard, to keep anyone from trying to rescue Jesus. To pass the time, they gambled and threw dice to see who would get Jesus’ clothes. It took Jesus six hours to die.

One of the things most people don’t know about Jewish tradition, is that when a person dies, they’re usually buried the same day. It’s considered wrong to let anyone, even a convicted criminal, go unburied for any length of time.

This was especially true on the Sabbath, and even more so at Passover. It was unthinkable to let a person go unburied.

To this day, it’s considered a righteous act of charity for Jews to help when someone dies and they have no family, or when the family can’t afford a funeral.

There are Jewish organizations with web sites and 24-hour hotlines, with people standing by to help immediately, not just with the cost of burial, but also with volunteers who will come and wash the body and prepare it for burying, to say the prayers and see that everything is taken care of.

It’s one of many Jewish charities, that the rest of us don’t know about. It’s worth learning about what people from other religious groups do. We should all be so generous.

The Romans didn’t care about any of that. The Roman practice, throughout the Empire, was to leave the bodies of executed criminals hanging out in public, as a warning to everyone else. The body was left outdoors to be eaten by crows and vultures and wild animals.

But in Israel, the Romans usually went along with Jewish customs. So when Joseph of Arimathea came to the Roman governor and asked for the body of Jesus, Pilate gave his permission.

And Nicodemus came, too, and brought spices to wrap together with Jesus’ body. It actually says that he brought 100 pounds of spices, which was an extravagant amount, much more than for an ordinary person’s burial.

You may remember, a few weeks before Easter, we read the story of a woman who came to a supper gathering when Jesus was there. She brought a alabaster container filled with expensive perfume or ointment, worth almost $30,000 in today’s money.

She broke it open and poured it on Jesus’ head. Everyone scolded her for being so wasteful, but Jesus understood. He told them to leave her alone. He knew she did it to prepare him for the terrible things that were about to happen.

In the same way, Nicodemus was doing the same thing. He was giving Jesus a royal burial, the burial of a king or a savior.

One more detail, which is a part of this story. Most of the gospels say that Joseph laid Jesus’ body in a tomb, a kind of an artificial cave that had been excavated into the rock.

We all know that the tomb was closed with a huge rock against the entrance, and we all know that on Easter morning, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty.

Two of the gospels say that it was a brand-new tomb, where no one else was buried.

But one of the gospels, Matthew, tells us that it was a tomb that Joseph of Arimathea had made for himself. It was his own tomb, that he gave to Jesus. Like Nicodemus, he gave the greatest gift that he could.

OK, it’s time to wrap this up.

I’ve read a lot of people who say that it’s too bad that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did this. People say it was too little, too late.

They should have stood up for Jesus while he was still alive. They shouldn’t have come to see Jesus in the middle of the night. They should have come out in public, and not kept their faith secret.

It’s easy to judge people. And it’s easy to be brave in hindsight. The truth is, that Joseph and Nicodemus were incredibly brave. In many parts of the church, they’re considered to be saints and heroes.

They did what no one else dared to do, not even Jesus’ closest friends.

And one last thought. If, as Matthew says, Joseph laid Jesus’ body in his own tomb, then that means that on Easter morning, Jesus rose from Joseph’s own grave.

How do you think Joseph felt, when he heard that incredible good news?

Joseph and Nicodemus did what they did, out of love and respect. But when Jesus rose on Easter morning, what did that say to them?

What would it mean for us? What if we laid Jesus in our own graves, in our own places of deepest loss and failure?

What if we laid Jesus in the places where our hopes have died, in the places where we believe there’s nothing more that can be done, where life is over?

And what if Jesus rises from the grave – not just any old grave. What if Jesus rises from our own grave, just like Joseph’s?

What if Easter isn’t just a universal event, but a personal event? What if Easter is real, for us, personally?

I think that Joseph of Arimathea was never the same person again. That’s why he’s remembered in all four gospels.

I think that Nicodemus had a life-changing, Easter experience. He was never the same person again.

Easter isn’t just something that happened long ago. Easter is about Jesus dying. But it’s also about Jesus rising from our own graves. It’s about a miracle in our own hearts.
And that’s why we’re still celebrating it, all this time later.

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