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HUMANITY DOOMED TO FAILURE
It seems like the human race is doomed to failure.
The message we’ve been hearing for the last 200 odd years is that we are constantly improving. That we are going somewhere, that things are getting better, that each generation has a better hope than the last. But in that time we’ve seen two World Wars that killed millions. We’ve seen countless other wars. There’ve been brutal dictatorships, genocides, famines caused by greed. We’re starting seeing the effects of climate change caused by our failure to use our natural resources well. Thanks to technological advances, we’re more connected than ever before, but we now have more ways to bully and intimidate and cause divisions. We have more ways to feel isolated.
Right now we are the most technologically advanced we ever have been, we have more ways of communication and more medical knowledge than ever before, yet our society has been completely shut down by a microscopic virus.
It seems like humanity is doomed to failure.
Maybe there have been times when you’ve been weighed down by your own failures. Failed relationships, or disappointed hopes. Times when you haven’t lived up to your own standards. When you’ve known the right thing to do but just didn’t do it. Maybe you’re weighed down by your failure to treat God as he deserves.
This final part of the Gospel of Mark has good news for us today, so lets pray and get started.
THE QUEST FOR A PROPER BURIAL
From the point of view of the characters in Mark’s story, their world has just collapsed into failure. Their leader and teacher is dead on a Roman cross. Their world has collapsed because the Messiah has died. God’s promised king hangs lifeless in the air.
And so our story today starts with their attempt to find some sort of closure in the mess before they move on in their lives. They seek to give their beloved teacher a proper, honourable burial before facing up to the bleak reality of life on this earth, where the Roman empire rules, where there is little hope for the future.
It’s a natural human desire to want to give a loved one a proper send off. To properly say goodbye. One of the great tragedies to come out of this pandemic is that saying goodbye like this won’t be possible. Funerals are restricted to a handful of people. And I know that for some people watching, this is a real issue, and they’re really feeling the pain. It’s normal to want to properly say good bye. And that’s how some of Jesus’ followers were feeling.
A trustworthy story
As Mark tells the story, there are some clues that help us to believe that it’s a true story, that this is a trustworthy record of what happened.
First, there are things that you wouldn’t make up. If a follower of Jesus was making up this story, why would he make a member of the Jewish council the one who buried Jesus? Or why would he make women the first witnesses to the empty tomb? If you wanted Jewish and Roman readers 2000 years ago to believe a story, you wouldn’t make women the first eyewitnesses. In those days, the testimony of women was not admissible in court. In a trial, the prosecution would never have called a woman to the stand as a witness, because people simply wouldn’t have believed her. It’s sexist, but it was how the society was. So if you were making up a lie about Jesus coming back from the dead, you would never make women the star witnesses.
Secondly, Mark shows us that Jesus was really dead. He didn’t just pass out and wake up in the tomb. In verse 44, Pilate sends a centurion, a senior soldier, to make sure that Jesus is dead. If you want to check if someone is alive, you send a doctor. If you want to make sure someone is dead, you send a soldier. On top of that, Mark names 3 people who actually came in contact with the body – Joseph and the two Marys. Mark even changes how he talks about the body. In verse 43, Joseph asks for the body. In verse 45, Pilate gives Joseph the corpse. Jesus was really dead.
Lastly, Marks makes sure we know that the women were at the right tomb. They didn’t get mixed up. It was the tomb of a well-known man. People knew which tomb Jesus was buried in. When the women came out with news of an empty tomb it would have been easy to prove them wrong. On top of that, Mark repeats the names of the women to make a point. It was the same Marys who “saw where he was laid” were the ones who discovered the empty tomb.
What we’re reading is a true story. We can trust what the gospels say about Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Joseph of Arimathea
So let’s start at verse 42 with the quest for a proper burial.
42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.
It’s late in the afternoon on the day before the Sabbath, before the Jew’s holy day where they were not allowed to work. Jesus’ body is still hanging there on the cross. In all likelihood, that’s where it would have stayed.
But we meet a man, Joseph, who wants to do the honourable thing.
He’s quite a surprising character. He’s a member of the Jewish council. That means he’s part of the same group that agreed to put Jesus to death, though it was not something he supported. He’s a prominent member of the Council. He’s a well known figure, in good standing with the people. He was noble and probably rich. But most surprising, he’s a secret disciple. He’s waiting for the kingdom of God, ready for it to arrive, and he probably had high hopes that Jesus was God’s king who would bring in that perfect kingdom.
But now, with his hopes deflated, he sets out to do the proper thing. In the Old Testament law, in Deuteronomy 21:22 it says,
Deut. 21:22 If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
And so, upright man that he is, and with the other disciples in hiding, he goes and asks Pilate for Jesus’ body. We’ve already noted that Pilate double-checks that Jesus is actually dead. A crucified person could suffer for days if left on a cross.
Joseph, presumably with his servants, takes the body down and puts it in his own, newly-cut family tomb that hadn’t been used yet.
In first century Israel they didn’t bury people in coffins in the ground. Instead, tomb were often manmade caves cut into the rock. Rooms were added as a family needed more burial spaces. The bodies were laid to rest on a stone bench or alcove, and then later on the bones were collected into a bone-box.
In the video you can see an illustration of what Jesus’ tomb may have been like. It’s a new tomb, so it only has one chamber. You can also see a photo of a tomb about 30km from Jerusalem that dates to the Roman times.
Tombs like this would take a lot of time and money to make, so most of them probably belonged to the rich members of society. Joseph was probably trying to show Jesus great respect by laying him to rest here. After he buried Jesus, Joseph rolled a huge stone across the entrance to keep out scavengers and grave robbers. So that’s Joseph.
Next in the story we meet the women:
47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
Mark, as a rule, does not name many people in his gospel. So when we meet a named character, we sit up and take notice. These are the same women who were watching the cross from a distance in verse 40. They looked after Jesus in life, and now they’re going to honour him in death.
As soon as they can after the Sabbath, they set out to bring the customary perfumes to pour them on Jesus’ body. The idea wasn’t so much as to preserve the body or make it into a mummy, but more to show honour and respect. It’s probably a bit like how we would leave a large arrangement of flowers at a graveside.
As we read this attempt to give Jesus a decent burial, it’s hard not to admire the devotion that Joseph and the women show. There was a large amount of risk and expense involved in what they did. Joseph took a risk asking for Jesus’ body. The governor Pilate was known for his brutality, and here was Joseph asking for the body of a man executed for treason. The tomb Joseph gave up was an expensive one. So were the perfumes the women brought.
But in all of this, you kind of get the idea that they’ve failed to understand Jesus. They’ve failed to believe his promises that he would rise again. They haven’t understood why he had to die.
They go through the normal burial customs of their time. Joseph buries him in a proper, formal tomb, sealed with a stone. He didn’t take Jesus’ body home and put it on the couch, knowing he’d rise again in a couple of days. Joseph and the women were not expecting to see Jesus again.
And on top of this, where are the rest of the disciples? They’re another picture of failure and weakness. They’re off hiding somewhere, afraid of what the Jewish leaders might do to them.
THE QUEST TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
Now it’s at this point that the women’s quest to give Jesus a proper goodbye gets turned upside down. Have a look at verse 2:
2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
I bet they were! Who sits in tombs? Where is Jesus’ body? Who rolled the stone away? Who moved the body? What happened here?
It’s pretty clear that the young man dressed in glowing white that they encounter is an angel, a supernatural messenger from God.
He gives them the most earth-shattering news anyone has ever heard. But what do they do? Verse 8:
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
It’s hard to escape the idea that we humans, in all our weakness and sinfulness, seem to be doomed to failure.
THE UNFAILING PROMISE.
But there’s something in the story that hasn’t failed. It’s Jesus’ word. It’s his promise.
He is risen
The angel utters those wonderful words:
6 “He has risen! He is not here.”
Those six words mean so much.
He is not here – that means that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. The body of Jesus of Nazareth, the same one who was crucified, is not here. No, he’s walking his way up to Galilee. The place where his body was is empty!
Christians don’t believe in a vague spiritual resurrection. We don’t believe that Jesus rose again in the hearts of the disciples and inspired them on to do great things. No, we believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.
He is risen! That means that God has accepted the sacrifice Jesus offered on our behalf. That means our sin has been taken away. That means God’s wrath has been exhausted, that means God can declare us not guilty.
He is risen! That means that death, our great enemy that keeps us in such fear, has been defeated.
He is risen! We have a guarantee for our own resurrection, if we have put our trust in his life and death.
He is risen – such wonderful words, but Mark doesn’t draw these connections for us. That’s not what Mark focusses on.
No, Mark focusses on Jesus’ words. We don’t get to meet the resurrected Jesus in the story. Mark leaves us with an empty tomb and a full promise.
The angel gives the women a message to pass on, verse 7:
‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’
This is almost word for word what Jesus promised to his disciples back in 14:28. And the fact that we’re reading these words mean that the message did eventually get through. The women did tell the disciples, and we know the disciples did meet Jesus in Galilee, and he sent them out with the good news that has spread across the whole world.
In the face of human weakness, Jesus’ promises stand strong. Jesus triumphs where humans fail.
The resurrection means that Jesus is strong enough to keep all of his promises. He will be with us to the end of the age. He is in control of all things. The gospel will be preached to all nations. We will see him sitting at God’s right hand, coming on the clouds of heaven with all power and glory. Jesus is unstoppable. The gospel of Jesus is unstoppable. The words of Jesus, the mission of Jesus will not fail.
But notice, where does this good news go to first? To his disciples, the ones who abandoned him. To Peter, the one who denied him. Failure is not the end of discipleship. Following Jesus is not about being perfect. Christianity is not about lifting ourselves up.
The message of Easter is that Jesus triumphs where humans fail.
So when you’re weighed down by what you see in the world, or what you see in your own heart, remember:
Jesus triumphed for us. Jesus was victorious for us. Jesus is strong for us. Let’s put our hope and trust in him.