Joseph and Courage
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This morning is Palm Sunday. It is appropriate to have a sermon on Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as he enters the last week of his life. But I am going to skip ahead for us. I am going to skip ahead past his death on the cross to something that often receives little attention in the story of Jesus. It is when Jesus is buried.
One of the most overlooked people who has an encounter with Jesus in the final days of Jesus’ life is Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was the one who took responsibility for the burial of Jesus Christ. And part of the account of Jesus that we probably don’t think about too much is that he was buried.
Jesus was betrayed. He was arrested. He was tortured and executed on a Roman cross. And he was buried. The fact that he was buried cannot be overlooked. The burial of Jesus is often skipped over. Some of the books I studied to prepare this sermon didn’t always say much, if anything, about the significance of Jesus’ burial.
But that Jesus’ dead body was laid in a tomb which was closed tight is essential to the events of the most crucial three days in the history of the world.
In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to the Christians in that city about what he calls is of “first importance.” He says of first importance is “…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day…” Paul doesn’t just go from death to resurrection, but notes that Jesus died, then was buried, and then was raised.
There is an event in the book of Acts where Paul speaks in a synagogue in Antioch what he calls “the message of this salvation.” He tells part of the story of Jesus like this: “Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.”
It is easy to skip over this but Jesus’ burial is important. Jesus’ burial is important because it shows that he was truly dead, put away, and done.
In the Apostle’s Creed Christians affirm that Jesus Christ was “crucified, dead and buried.”
All four Gospel writer’s give account of Jesus’ burial which shows the importance of this event. One major reason for the emphasis on the burial of Jesus’ was to note that the body was not lost somewhere. Opponents of the resurrection might say that Jesus’ body had just gotten misplaced.
Matthew makes the most about Jesus’ body being secured in the tomb. He says that Joseph “rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb.” He wants readers to know that. And he writes that the Jewish religious authorities went to Pilate asking for an order for the tomb to be made secure so that Jesus’ disciples don’t come and steal the body and claim Jesus had been raised.
There was no doubt. Jesus was dead and buried.
It was not uncommon for crucified criminals in the Roman Empire to be denied burial. The Romans would leave victims on their crosses where they were left to slowly deteriorate and be food for the birds. Their exposed carcasses also served as a message to all citizens to take note of what happens to those who commit major crimes against Caesar. There are some accounts of bodies just thrown into ditches and covered.
But Jesus gets a burial. A pretty good burial.
All four gospels agree that is was Joseph of Arimathea who buried Jesus. No Gospel just goes from Jesus’ death to Easter morning.
We actually have a fairly detailed account of Jesus’ burial considering the Gospel writers had to pick and choose what they would include and omit in their writing. They were limited by space and length on the papyrus scrolls on which they wrote.
Each of the four Gospels gives us a little more info about Joseph of Arimathea and here is what we know about him. We know that Joseph was a rich man. Mark tells us that he was a prominent and respected member of the Sanhedrin. Remember the Sanhedrin was the Jewish high court comprised of 70 Pharisees, priests, and scribes. It was led by the high priest who was Caiaphas. The Sanhedrin condemned Jesus and sent him to Pilate. Joseph was a leader in Judaism and was part of this high court.
Luke tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a good and righteous man, and that he did not go along with the Sanhedrin’s plan and action to hand Jesus over to be crucified. Joseph was a dissenter, at least secretly. Whether the rest of the Sanhedrin knew his opinion we don’t know for sure.
We are told that Joseph was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. He knew the promises of the Old Testament of God. He knew One was coming who would bring God’s kingdom.
Matthew says that Joseph had become a disciple of Jesus. Jesus had the inner circle of twelve disciples who were also called apostles. But there were many others who believed in and followed Jesus. They were considered disciples. Joseph was a follower.
What must it have been like to be a prominent Jewish leader and yet believe Jesus was the Messiah sent from God? To be in the minority?
After Jesus had died Joseph went to Pontius Pilate himself and asked for the body of Jesus.
It was a disciple who betrayed Jesus. Another disciple who denied him. The high priest and the Jewish council condemned him. The Roman government executed him. All the apostles have all run and hid. When John the Baptist died, he got better treatment from his disciples for his burial than Jesus’ disciples gave to him. John the Baptist’s disciples didn’t ditch him but took care of his body themselves. They saw to his burial.
But it was a member of the Jewish council, the very legal body who had condemned Jesus, a member who became a follower of Jesus, who took responsibility for Jesus’ body. How ironic.
It says that Joseph took down the bloodied and decimated body of Jesus. John tells us in his gospel, and he is the only Gospel writer who gives this to us, that Nicodemus helped Joseph. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and had come to Jesus at night when no one was watching and wanted to know more about what Jesus was all about. He was the one to whom Jesus said, “you must be born again.” Let me just point out here that two devout Jewish leaders bury Jesus. So when you see the phrase in the New Testament about “all the Jews” and they harass Jesus or don’t believe in him, it doesn’t mean all Jews were against Jesus.
In the Jewish law in the book of Deuteronomy it says that the body of a person who was put to death because of some capital offense cannot be left out overnight. The body has to be buried the same day. Because, it says, “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” Maybe this is why Joseph, and Nicodemus concern themselves with the burial of Jesus’ body. They were following Jewish law.
Matthew gives great detail to Joseph’s actions: that he wrapped the body in a clean linen cloth and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. Then he rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.
Tombs at this time were often caves dug out of the sides of a hill. They were large enough for a person or two to walk in or stoop low and move around. When Nancy and I visited one of the places that is considered a possible site of Jesus burial and resurrection we were able to walk into the tomb and almost stand up completely. In the tombs shelves were cut into the walls and the bodies were laid on these. A tomb would be for an entire family and could hold several bodies depending on the size of the tomb.
The body would decompose for about a year. Then the tomb would be reopened, the family would gather the bones of the loved one and place it in an ossuary which is a small stone box. The ossuary would be then left in the tomb.
For Jews, dead bodies needed to be buried before the Sabbath which begins at sundown on Friday. The warm climate also necessitated fast burials as the odor would grow strong very quickly. In Jewish burials, the body of a dead person would be washed, anointed with spices to neutralize the odor of decay, and buried in the person’s own cloak or a specially prepared wrap.
This is what Joseph did for Jesus.
It is the Gospel writer Mark who tells us that Joseph went boldly and with courage to Pilate asking for the body of Jesus. It took boldness and courage for Joseph to do this. Why?
Pilate didn’t really like the Jews to begin with. He wasn’t thrilled about the Jewish council bringing Jesus to him in the first place. Pilate was noted for his violent temper. He might decide to put Joseph on trial for caring about this dead Jesus. Pilate had felt that he had enough trouble from the Jews.
Another reason it took courage for Joseph to go to Pilate is that people who were crucified were the worst of the worst. To show interest and care for Jesus would put Joseph in a suspect light. It would suggest association with Christ. And why would he be associated with someone who had been tried and charged as a criminal?
What would others on the Sanhedrin say? What if Caiaphas gets wind of this? Someone might ask “What, are you one of them?” like they asked Peter, who denied knowing Christ.
Joseph needed courage because he had to stand alone. With the possible exception of Nicodemus, Joseph takes full responsibility for this and seems to act alone. We can only imagine the cost to him in terms of position, reputation and even life if his devotion to Jesus comes to light. It’s a risk. But there is something about his belief and conviction about the Lord that compels Joseph.
Someone once said that courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared. Right? It takes courage to be the only one when the tide of opinion is the other way. Of all the people who encounter Jesus in these final days Joseph stands out for his courage.
And it wasn’t in what he said. Joseph says nothing in the Gospels. His courage is in what he does and who he does it for.
There was a test conducted by a university where 10 students were placed in a room. This test was done with people from grade school all the way up through high school. Three lines all of different lengths were drawn on a card. The students were told to raise their hands when the instructor pointed to the longest line. But 9 of the students had been instructed beforehand to raise their hands when the instructor pointed to the second longest line. One student was not told about this. The usual reaction of the student who was the stooge was to put his hand up when the instructor pointed to the longest line, look around, and realizing he was all alone, pull his hand back down. Then he or she would raise their hand and go along with the rest of the group. This happened 75% of the time. The researchers concluded that many people would rather be popular and stay with the crowd than be right.
It takes courage to stand alone, to be the only one to raise our hand for the Lord. Joseph raised his hand.
Joseph of Arimathea was so convicted of the life and truth of Jesus Christ that even danger could not stop him from standing for the Lord.
That is the story of a lot of Christianity. It is the story of the early church which went through tremendous persecution and adversity for worshipping Jesus. When their faith was called into question they raised their hand. It is the story of the martyrs, those who have died for their faith in Christ. It is the story of every Christian and church through the centuries who have gathered, worshipped and lifted up the name of Jesus in the face of danger, cost and death.
This morning it is dangerous to be a follower of Jesus in Nigeria, in Egypt, in China.
There is a pastor in Russia named Reverend Ioann Burdin. He is rector of Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Church in a little village in Russia. He has spoken out against his government’s invasion of Ukraine. He said, “I don’t consider it possible to remain silent on this situation. It wasn’t about politics. It was about the Bible. If I remain silent, I am not a priest.” Last month Russian authorities had fined Rev. Burdin for his dissent. He had written a letter in February opposing how Vladimir Putin called this a “special military operation.”
Rev. Burdin said, “The duty of all Christians is not to support the power in this … aggressive war.” People in his church have recently called and told him police were coming around and asking questions about his sermons. He has been fined and pressure has been put on him to stop speaking against Russia’s invasion. Leaders in the Russian Orthodox church have hinted that he could be banned if he continues.
When Putin recently used words from the Bible to justify the war, saying “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s soul for one’s friends,” which is a quote of Christ, Rev. Burdin spoke out on social media. He said, “I don’t know what was more — illiteracy or blasphemy — in the speech of the President, who tried with the gospel words … to justify the bloody madness that the whole world has been watching for the second month already.”
This Russian Orthodox priest sees his actions as a requirement of his Christian faith. He wrote, “Your job is not to change, but to testify.”
He stood firm when asked if he was concerned Russian authorities would find him and punish him for his posts on social media. He invoked the words of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my enlightenment and my Savior — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life — whom shall I fear?”
It can take courage to be a Christian. It can take courage to speak our faith. In some given situation we may need courage to admit our association with Jesus. It takes courage to speak the truth. It takes courage these days to say there is even something called truth.
It can take courage to say we are a Christian. We may want to cringe from calling ourselves Christian because the name of “Christian” is being claimed today by people who don’t seem to look anything like our Lord.
It takes courage to say the Bible is reliable. It takes courage to say “no” to certain ways of living. It can take courage to love. It may take courage to associate with people some don’t approve of. It can take courage to be a follower of Jesus where we work, in our neighborhood, or even in our own family.
It can take courage to give a hug, to pray out loud, to go into a hospital and pray for someone.
Joseph did what no one else seemed willing to do. He went to Pilate, asked for the body, knowing in his heart that what was done to Jesus was wrong, and he buried his Lord. He risked what people would say. He risked perhaps losing his status as a prime leader. Burying his Lord was his act of discipleship.
When Joseph puts his Lord in that tomb Matthew ends by saying, “he went away”.
And that is the last we hear of Joseph of Arimathea. He exits the stage. It is like his whole life has been preparation for this one event. To bury Jesus. And he did it well.
But not everyone went away. There are still the women. It says, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.” These women watch as Joseph of Arimathea buries the body of the Lord. These same women stood at the cross and watched the execution of Jesus. And now, they watch the burial, knowing where the tomb is located, seeing where the body of Jesus is laid.
And this will be wildly important for what comes next.
Prayer: Lord, it is holy week when we follow your path to the cross.
We have seen how various people who encountered you responded to you as you walked this path. Like Joseph, make us courageous for you. Give us faith to live our faith so that our lives point to you and show you.
Open our hearts to you as we remember all Christ did for us this week. Bless our Lenten Prayer Gathering on Wednesday, and the worship services on Thursday, Friday, and next Sunday with your presence. May each be a stepping stone of following you on the way to the tomb.
 1 Corinthians 15:3-4  Acts 18:28-29  Matthew 14:12  Deut. 21:22-23  Chuck Swindoll. Found on www.bible.org/illustrations. Under “courage”  “For Russian priest protesting Ukraine invasion, a mixture of defiance and concern.” https://religionnews.com/2022/04/05/for-russian-priest-protesting-ukraine-invasion-a-mixture-of-defiance-and-concern/  Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 2, p.1069