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The Spice Of Death

Which Way to Jesus?
Sermons For Lent and Easter, Cycle B
Good Friday draws us to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ that we might concentrate and meditate on our Lord's suffering. We dwell on each of those words that we hear from out of the darkness that we might wring the fullest meaning we can from that awe-filled scene where heaven and hell, judgment and salvation, God and man meet. What cannot be overlooked is the manner in which our Lord was buried. We do take note with considerable concern and care the manner in which friends and dear ones are buried. It is rather striking that, with the wave of criticism that was aimed at the practices of the undertaking profession a number of years ago, people continue to spend as much as they ever have for the burial of their dear ones. The reason, of course, is that people want to pay the highest respect they can for loved ones. Or sometimes it is guilt that prompts relatives to become lavish in doing the best they can for the deceased.

Whatever the motives of the living are for sending the dead to their graves in style, we do take note of the results. We draw our own conclusions about how the dead are buried. Most generally, our real estimate of what has been done for the deceased is how much love has been poured into the arrangements. The dollars do not make all the difference. It is the love that mounts up in what is accomplished. For that reason it is important for us to note that the evangelists took the pains to report our Lord's burial in some detail. We do have accounts of how members of the inner circle of Jesus' followers attended to the proper funeral rites for the corpse of our Lord. What they did is worth examination.

A Virtuous Act

To begin with, the two secret disciples of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, were the ones who performed what was regarded as a virtuous act in the Hebrew community. The Hebrew people were very considerate about the burial of their dead. They did not go to the extent of the burial rituals their forebears may have witnessed in Egypt. The Hebrews did not embalm the dead in mummified form as did the Egyptians. Nor did the Hebrews place the dead body into a sarcophagus or coffin.

However, the Hebrews did bury their dead the same day of the person's death. Friends and family did process to the burial grounds. Attention was given to embalming the body with spices of various sorts. Respect was maintained for the burial ground. Not to have a decent burial was considered a disgrace. Special times were allotted for mourning. Periods of mourning for as long as thirty days were prescribed for notable figures. Mourning also took different forms. There was allowance for the emotional release at suffering loss. There were eulogies that bespoke only the good for the dead. There were also compositions of comfort and there were laments for great tragedies. In the case of our Lord's death, much of all this had to be omitted because of the lack of time.

A Confessional Act

While the burial of our Lord was all too brief and too private, we cannot emphasize enough how bold an act it was. The ones who took charge of the burial certainly knew that Hebrew tradition allowed that the worst of criminals and poorest of citizens should have a decent burial. However, they attended to Jesus at great risk. Joseph of Arimathea is described as "a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews." Nicodemus is remembered as the one "who at first had come to Jesus by night." Nicodemus is remembered elsewhere by the evangelist John as a leader of the Jews (3:1-15) and one who guardedly did ask for a fair trial of Jesus (7:50-52). However, Joseph now threw all caution to the winds and sought out the permission from Pilate to bury the body of Jesus.

People might explain that as a do-gooder condescending to do something on behalf of a down-and-outer to make himself feel good. However, Joseph was not handling this matter in a potter's field or something donated by the township trustee. Joseph took the body of Jesus to a garden and placed his body in a fresh tomb in which no one had been laid. That was a bold gesture that could cost Joseph the loss of a job and his prestige in the community. Likewise, Nicodemus may have been disgraced in the ruling order of the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin for participating in this right. That did not matter now. Joseph and Nicodemus did what the disciples did not hang around to do. The disciples had fled for their lives. Joseph and Nicodemus had remained that they might make their bold confession of faith and trust in the rabbi they now acknowledged as their teacher and master.

A Supreme Act

Not only did Joseph and Nicodemus act boldly, but they also acted out of the conviction that they were doing the last and the best that they could for the Lord Jesus. That may have been prompted somewhat by that guilt for not having done more before. However, most often when families do something for their dead loved one out of guilt, they can or do go on living their selfish ways as before the funeral.

For Joseph and Nicodemus life would never be the same now that they had boldly taken things into their hands. Not only were they renouncing their stations in life, but also they were taking new positions. At the moment they undoubtedly had no idea where this act would take them. Like the disciples and all other followers of Jesus, they did not anticipate the resurrection of our Lord at this time. That was not important at the moment. They knew they had to do these things for Jesus, who had taught them to live life differently than they had learned to live. They also knew that the life they had been living was the kind of lifestyle that led people to do the kind of thing they did to Jesus in the name of the law, righteousness, and God. They were acting with a newfound freedom that enabled them to do this good thing for Jesus. If this appeared to be the sign of a lost cause, it was the opposite for them. They had lost an old way of life and found a new freedom in Christ.

A Beautiful Act

One would also have to regard this act of Joseph and Nicodemus as a beautiful act. Nicodemus brought a "mixture of myrrh and aloes," according to John, "weighing about a hundred pounds," which would be about 75 pounds, according to our measurements. They then "took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews." One gets the impression that this was an act of beauty that went beyond normal requirements. Seventy-five pounds was a large amount to be used for this rite that was intended to soften the onset of the deterioration of the body. Little did Joseph and Nicodemus believe that the body of our Lord would not experience what we must all experience in death. What Joseph and Nicodemus did served to be purely aromatic and refreshing in the closed spaces of that new tomb. The new tomb would not have been contaminated with the stench of other decaying bodies. The new tomb must have been filled with the pleasant odors coming from the spices in which the ravaged and still body of our Lord was packed. This was not wasted on our Lord.

Matthew reported that when Jesus was still an infant wise men from the East came to worship the Holy Child with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We can well imagine that Mary and Joseph may have repeated the story for the boy as he was growing up as comfort and encouragement. Jesus had received a good many kudos during his life and ministry. However, the evangelists mention several times that he was anointed by women on his feet as expressions of their gratitude for forgiveness and as expressions of devotion. It is difficult to separate these several anointings with the possibility of one or two being versions of the same one. However, it is important to note that at Bethany when Mary anointed Jesus, Judas protested the gesture as a waste of money. Jesus, however, replied, "Leave her alone. She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial." If in good grace Jesus accepted that gift as an act of love, angels must have been rejoicing as these two brave men anointed our Lord for his burial.

An Irrelevant Act

At the same time that we acknowledge how meaningful, how beautiful, and how confessional this act was from the Nicodemus and Joseph side of things, it was irrelevant to doing anything for Jesus or contributing to what had to be done to finish or complete his work. We should not be surprised. In that sense it is highly symbolic of the fact that there is nothing, absolutely nothing we can do for God. We cannot contribute anything to God's needs.

As helpless as the dead Christ was, Jesus had already accomplished what had to be done for the salvation of the world. The spices were not even necessary for a body that would not see decay. The linen shroud would not be able to contain a living and resurrected Christ. The spices would leave their aroma for all who would come to see. All that says to us that there is nothing we can do for our salvation either. No matter how beautiful the act, how large the contribution, how serious the motives, nothing adds to the eternal gift won and given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

An Act of Certainty

If the act of the burial of our Lord with the costly spices in a beautiful new tomb in Joseph's lovely garden was irrelevant as far as contributing to our salvation, it was nonetheless very important from another point of view. It was an act certainly. It was all legal. Joseph had obtained an official permit for the burial rite. Mark mentions that Pilate did not grant this permit until he had been assured by an officer that Jesus was truly dead. Once that permit was granted, Joseph and Nicodemus proceeded with funeral arrangements which they had to hurry, because the Jewish Sabbath began at six o'clock Friday evening. No work could be done from that hour until the Sabbath was finished at six o'clock the next evening. When Joseph and Nicodemus did complete their work of removing the body from the cross, transporting it to the empty tomb, and embalming it in the linen with the special spices, they could leave the tomb with the assurance that Jesus was dead. John did not mention it, but each of the other three evangelists reported that some women followed the procession to the tomb and saw where the body was laid.

There was no doubt about it. Jesus was dead and buried. There were sufficient witnesses to make the fact stand up in court. If later there would be those who would steal the body of Jesus and say something had happened to him to simply list him among the missing, they could testify otherwise. Jesus had been properly carried as a corpse and his body had been laid to rest. Jesus did die for sure. Strangely enough, later on, the enemies of our Lord were the ones to accuse the disciples of doing this very thing. However, as the enemies tried to create rumors to that effect, the evidence Joseph, Nicodemus, and the women could produce could drown out the unsubstantiated with the evidence we all now confess, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried."

A Redeemed Act

The certainty of the burial of Jesus was also redeemed and made all the more sure and valuable by our Lord himself. On the morning of the third day it was Mary Magdalene, according to John, who went to the tomb first and found it empty. She ran to the disciples, Peter and John, to report that someone had stolen the body of Jesus. However, when the disciples ran to the tomb, they were stunned by what they found. To be sure, the tomb was empty as Mary had said. However, they found the linen wrappings lying there. The cloth that had been placed on Jesus's head was on a separate pile, rolled up by itself.

At that moment we are not sure what Peter and John thought. John wrote, "The other disciples ... saw and believed." But we do not know what he believed, because John adds, "For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes." The evidence they found was that Jesus was gone, but his burial cloths were empty and neatly left behind. What they could not yet know nor imagine is even difficult for us to picture. Jesus rose from the dead that morning, as we know, to demonstrate the fullness of his victory over sin, death, and hell. We do not know how he appeared, but it is nice to imagine that he just might have taken the time not only to arrange neatly the burial cloths but also take time to smell the wonderful spices with which Joseph and Nicodemus had embalmed him.

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