Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hope Without Hope


April 15, 2015 – Holy Saturday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

It’s hard to know which one was heavier—the hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes that Nicodemus brought to the tomb or the lifeless body of Jesus that Joseph carried to its resting place. I have carried a fifty-pound sack of seed corn over my shoulder, and I may have attempted to carry two at once back when I was younger and more foolish, but I don’t know whether I could manage it now. I suppose a hundred pounds might be brought in a wheelbarrow or a another sort of cart, but the devotion that these two men had for their Lord, which John goes out of his way to mention, seems more fully expressed if the men could feel the full weight of the load as they approached the tomb.

The day was nearly over by then, and the crowd had left since the spectacle of the three bandits’ gruesome deaths was finished. The people had gone back to their homes to light the Shabbat candles and say the appropriate blessing before the sun set and the sabbath began. Except, perhaps, for a few faithful onlookers who watched from the shadows, hardly anyone noticed Joseph stumbling awkwardly beneath his imbalanced load. The Torah described as cursed anyone who died while hanging on a tree, but it also commanded that the dead body be taken down and given a proper burial before sunset. Perhaps that dignity didn’t seem important to the religious leaders who had called for the radical rabbi’s execution, but it was important to Joseph, a secret disciple. Although his request may have raised some eyebrows among them, the scriptural mandate gave him an excuse to take his master’s body down and place it in a tomb.

Nicodemus, too, had kept his devotion to Jesus a secret. At first, he had gone to Jesus at night, seeking an answer to his heart’s deepest longing. Later on, he had spoken up in defense of the controversial teacher, reminding his fellow leaders of the importance of giving the accused a fair hearing. His colleagues scoffed, saying, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” But Nicodemus wasn’t sure. Maybe the scriptures didn’t foretell a Galilean prophet, but in Jesus he had found what he had been missing. Still, it wasn’t enough to convince him to speak out when the time came. Instead, he had stood silently while the accused was condemned to death, and, only now, as night approached, when the coast was clear, did he come and show true devotion to this son of a Galilean carpenter.

I like to imagine that the two men did their work quickly but reverently, only speaking when necessary. There were ritual acts to perform and prayers to recite, but they needed to finish before the sabbath began and before anyone really noticed what was going on. The sun slipping below the horizon as they rolled the stone in place, the two secret disciples completed their act of reverence and then slipped into the night. Like their ancestors, who had waited through the night to see whether salvation would find them, Nicodemus and Joseph retired to their homes to wait and wonder.

We, too, must begin in the dark. Before the light of a new day can reach us, we must dwell in the shadows of night. Our true devotion is not revealed in the brightness of hope but in the darkness of despair. Our discipleship takes shape when we have forgotten what hope is. Our character as followers of Jesus is fashioned only when we have nothing else to lose. Then, when the silent darkness that seems to have no end comes upon us, will we wait even though we do not know what tomorrow will bring? Will we keep watch even when we cannot see whether dawn will find us? In those shadows, God’s abiding presence is revealed, and true hope is found.

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