Monday 21 April 2014

Reflection for Easter Saturday - the Burial of Jesus

It's very hard to talk about the burial of Jesus - you hardly hear it preached about. The very nature of the event means that in some ways there's nothing to be said. The situation is beyond all words. The worst has happened and nothing we can do or say will ever be able to retrieve it.

Those who have been bereaved will recognise the appalling numbness that sets in. All the sorrow we have spent, every tear wrung out of us, has changed nothing. The terrible fact is still there, the unimaginable disaster has happened, the person who meant the world to us has gone. Other people don't know what to say to us - what words could possibly be adequate? We speak of the silence of the grave. Our hollow words drop into it and vanish without trace.

And yet this very finality reflects the vital importance of Jesus' burial. So important is it that the manner of it was prophesied 600 years beforehand by Isaiah, who said the Messiah's body would be placed in a rich man's tomb. God wasn't play acting when Jesus died for us. If there had been no space between the cross and the resurrection it would have trivialised the sacrifice of Jesus. He didn't bounce back like a jack-in-the-box. What He came back from was death in its full enormity and finality. 

The silence of the tomb would also have had an unmistakable resonance for Jewish readers of the Gospel, because of course Jesus lay in the tomb during Shabbat - Saturday, the Sabbath. This was the day when the whole of Israel went quiet, when no work was done, when no-one was about because no journey over 1,000 paces was permitted. The Jews did this because they believed that God created the world in 6 days, then rested on the seventh. It was part of a primordial pattern of the way things are, a music beating in time with the rhythm of God and his creation.

There are some remarkable links between the creation story and the last week of Jesus' life. On the first day of the week, God begins creation. On the first day of His last week - Palm Sunday - Jesus enters Jerusalem. On days two to five, according to Genesis, God continues to work, creating and then populating his creation. In the same way Jesus continues His ministry of teaching and healing in the Temple, the place that spoke most powerfully to the covenant people of God's presence on earth. On the sixth day God completes his work by creating the first Adam, the expression of his love, hope and purpose. But on His sixth day, the second Adam, Jesus, who as Son of Man is the fullest expression of God's hopes for humanity, is cut off, abandoned and destroyed. 

Finally, on the seventh day, the Sabbath, God rests from the creation. And Jesus too spends the holiest Shabbat in the calendar resting in the stillness of the tomb. His rest is not from the work of creating the world, but from the work of redeeming it. The implication is clear: it is a restatement of the primordial rhythm of work and rest. The God who created everything rested from his labours on the seventh day. the Lord who redeems everything rested from his dreadful labours on the seventh day. The world has been re-created, nothing less, through what Jesus has done.

Old Testament scholars will recall though that there are two traditions about the Shabbat rest in Scripture. The Exodus 20 version goes back to Genesis and the pattern of creation work and rest, but the Deuteronomy 5 version goes back to Exodus. It tells us that the reason for Shabbat rest is because you were once slaves in Egypt, but now you rest to demonstrate that you are no longer under slavery. The Shabbat resting of Jesus in the tomb shows us that our slavery to sin is over. Its power is broken and its hold on us has been destroyed.

The book of Hebrews teaches in chapter 4 that this Sabbath rest is something that all Christians enter into by virtue of being in Christ. True Sabbath rest is therefore found in Christ, through His death and burial, not in outward observances. The great acts of salvation which Jesus carried out for us are at work in every Christian because we belong to Him. We are probably used to thinking about the crucifixion in this way - "We have been crucified with Christ" says Galatians - and about the resurrection - "We have been raised with Him" says Ephesians. But it also appears that we should consider ourselves dead and buried with Him:
  • Romans 6:3-4 says: Don't you know that all of you who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death.
  • Colossians 3:3 says: For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
  • Romans 6 again: Count yourselves therefore dead to sin, but alive to God.
It all sounds a bit grim, doesn't it? We're supposed to be the walking dead! But there is an up side.
  • A dead person can no longer be condemned or punished. They have already paid the ultimate price. We too, as those who have died with Christ, are no longer under any condemnation.
  • A dead person no longer has worries about how they look or what people think of them. If we die with Christ we are freed from the anxieties brought on by our insecure egos.
  • A dead person has nothing left to lose because his possessions no longer mean anything to him. If we have died with Christ then we have surrendered everything into His hands. Nothing can hold us back. We are free.
  • A dead person is at peace, no longer troubled by the world.
But the best part of all in being dead with Christ is that through it we are alive to God! We can drink in His presence and His love as never before! All the things that stood between us have been done away with - they've been put to death!

The trouble is, if you're like me, you know you're supposed to be dead, but you're still kicking! Perhaps it would help us to spend some more time thinking of Jesus, and resting with Him in His quiet tomb. Let's do that for a few minutes today.

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