Jesus’ empty tomb sends people running on that first Easter Sunday. Everyone is dashing through the cemetery, but why? They’re running to find answers to their questions and help with their confusion. They don’t know why Jesus’ body is not where they had put it the day before. The confusion is understandable. If I were to go to the gravesite of my parents, and I saw nothing but a big hole in the ground with no vaults or caskets, I’d be asking questions, too.
So, the disciples are running around confused. Most of them are slow to believe in the resurrection—despite the fact that Jesus had said repeatedly it would happen. But here is the good news for them (and us): every time the risen Christ meets people after the resurrection, he helps them to believe in him. That’s amazing because the last time Jesus saw these guys in action, they were blowing it big time. They were denying and deserting him. But when Jesus finally appears to them face-to-face, there’s not a word of rebuke on his lips. Correction, yes, but not rebuke. Quite the opposite. He helps them believe.
In fact, the risen Christ deals with all of his followers personally and uniquely—according to their own needs, experiences, weaknesses, and hard-wiring. The attentiveness of Jesus to everyone in this story is remarkable. And what was true 2,000 years ago is still true today: Jesus gives people time and space to wrestle with—and then plenty of reasons to rest in—his resurrection from the dead. Consider the figures mentioned in John 20, and how Jesus interacts with them—both before and after his resurrection:
JOHN is the portrait of an EASY-COMING faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need significance in my life.” And John discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new identity and purpose. PETER is the portrait of a GUILT-RIDDEN faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need forgiveness for my sins.” And Peter discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new freedom and power.
MARY MAGDALENE is the portrait of a GRIEF-STRICKEN faith. Her personal struggle seems to be, “I need comfort for my despair.” And Mary discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new intimacy and hope. THOMAS is the portrait of a SHOW-ME faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need irrefutable evidence to believe.” And Thomas discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new assurance and confidence.
Because of his humility, Jesus does not coerce faith, but because of his authority, he deserves it. The risen Christ still gives open-minded and tender-hearted people what they need to believe in him. What is it that you still need to believe?
“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
It’s always an honor to participate in a funeral for a veteran of the armed services. This morning I had the privilege of laying to rest at the Indiantown Gap National Cemetery (Lebanon County, PA) a member of the United States Air Force who served his country during the Vietnam War.
A United States flag draped his casket—the blue union field at the head end over his left shoulder—to honor the memory of his service to our country. After “Taps” was played, the Honor Guard carefully folded the flag into a triangle such that no red or white stripes were evident, leaving visible only the blue field with stars. (The flag is never lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.)
Kneeling before the next of kin, with the straight edge of the folded flag facing the recipient, one member of the Honor Guard stated solemnly, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
These words are poignant and appreciated. Nevertheless, I always get to deliver the best lines at these events. They’re the most comforting and triumphant lines one could offer at a time like this, and I’m thankful I get to speak them:
“Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, we commend to your eternal care our friend and brother, and we commit his body to the ground—earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And now, Lord, sadly but with confidence, we let your servant depart in peace, for his eyes have seen your salvation, the glory of your covenant people. We trust that your angels have led him in paradise, that the martyrs have come to welcome him and take her to the Holy City, and that Christ, who is his life, has appeared to say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter ye into my rest.’ Amen.”
We planted a seed today. We look forward to the harvest at the end of the age.
American Psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Depression is the inability to construct a future.” In other words, the person who lives in a constant state of darkness and despair has experienced the death of hope. It’s a feeling many of us can relate to because depression is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s been known and studied for more than 3,000 years.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 125 million people around the world are clinically depressed each year. Twenty-five million of those people live right here in the United States. That includes entertainers, musicians, athletes, politicians, scientists, white collar workers, blue collar workers, the clergy, and more. In fact, more Americans suffer from depression each year than heart disease, cancer, and AIDS combined.
Depression is both common and complicated. It’s a condition with many causes, many expressions, and therefore many definitions. Some have called it “a howling tempest in the brain.” Others have called it “the common cold of mental illness.” And just like the common cold, there’s no immediate cure, but everybody seems to have a remedy for us. Especially Christians.
Sometimes our prescriptions sound callous or even cruel, coming across as if we’re saying, “Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning.” But that doesn’t work. And it’s not even an issue of faith most of the time. In fact, depression affects believers and unbelievers alike. The great Reformer Martin Luther lived with depression. So did:
The Puritan author John Bunyan
The Baptist teacher Charles Spurgeon
The Bible translator J. B. Phillips, and
The hymn writer William Cowper
We can add to the list Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, President Lincoln once wrote in his journal: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
Even Presidents are not immune to depression. Neither are God’s people. Consider Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Peter—all of them, at one point or another, were depressed. Moreover, the book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
But almost every time it plummets, it comes back up again. The writers always seem to come around to some sort of resolution—some sort of peace, hope, joy, contentment, or confidence that God is at work. Only two of the biblical psalms have no expressed hope in them at all—Psalm 39 and Psalm 88. The latter composition is the great lament of Heman (not to be confused with “Haman” in the book of Esther; the Hebrew spellings are different).
In Psalm 88, the word “dark” or “darkness” is used three times (vv. 6, 12, 18). Heman feels like he’s surrounded by darkness, and there’s not a single ray of light to be found anywhere. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “darkness” is the very last word of the prayer. That doesn’t come through in English, but that’s how the original reads. So, we have to ask, what’s a prayer like this doing in the Bible? Why did they include it?
The book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
Heman is not exactly a household name—even for students of the Bible—but he played a vital role during the reign of King David and King Solomon. He was a well-respected prophet and worship leader in Israel during the glory days of the monarchy. He served at the temple by royal appointment, and Scripture tells us that Asaph was Heman’s right hand man. Asaph is better known to us than Heman, mostly because Asaph’s name is on 11 of the psalms, while Heman’s name is attached to just one. (After reading Psalm 88, we might conclude that one is enough from the hand of Heman!)
Psalm 88 is there to teach us that while suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith. On the contrary, the weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light. Heman thought his darkness was both absolute and permanent, but it wasn’t. God hadn’t abandoned him. How do we know that? And do we know he won’t abandon us?
While suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith.
The end of Psalm 39 contains a heartbreaking appeal: “Turn your face away from me, God.” The end of Psalm 88 likewise contains a devastating assertion: “Darkness is my closest friend.” What these two writers expressed poetically one man experienced literally. Matthew 27:45 says, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ ”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is, why have you turned your face from me? Jesus experienced the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he had gotten form God (but didn’t). Jesus on the cross got the real darkness. Willingly. For us. And he knows how it feels to go as low as one can go.
But the Jesus Story doesn’t end on the cross. Or in the tomb. As Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). If ever it looked as if hope had died forever, the cross of Christ was it. But the death of Christ was not the end of Christ. That’s why Peter speaks here of: “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A living hope, as opposed to a dying hope or a fading hope. Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
The weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light.
Somebody once said, “Hope is the ability to hear God’s music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it now.” Indeed, real hope is essential to dancing through our present struggles. How can we do that? We get help from trusted sources. We get a qualified therapist if we need one. We take meds if they’re properly prescribed. We take care of ourselves—physically and spiritually—as best as we can. We look at the trials of life and remind ourselves, “It’s nothing a resurrection can’t cure in time.” So, we press through the darkness with God’s help, and others’ help, and we wait for the clouds to lift.
Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
Despite his horrible circumstances—and the severe depression it caused him—Heman demonstrates the beauty of a melancholy believer who will cling to God in faith even while swirling down the vortex of misery. We salute him for what he can teach us today. “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5b). So, hasten the morning, Lord. For all of us.
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Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he did. John 11:44 says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” This well-known story is primarily a revelation of who Jesus is. In the Gospel that bears his name, John calls Jesus the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Light, the Word, the Son of God, and many other titles conveying his divinity. It’s all about him. But is there anything in this story for us mortals—before our own resurrection at the end of the age? Indeed, there is.
The dead in Israel would be wrapped in long strips of cloth. The strips were placed in such a way as to bind the limbs and keep them straight. Even the head was wrapped to keep the mouth closed. Such a tight encasement would have made it hard for a living person to walk, let alone a dead person whose consciousness had just been restored.
Given these constraints, how did Lazarus even stand up when Jesus ordered him to? How did he make it over to the entrance of the tomb for all to see? Nothing but the power of God can explain such a miracle.
But could not the Savior who had just set a man free from the grip of death also set him free from the garments of death? If the restoration of life was no problem, could the removal of linens be a challenge? Obviously not. So, why the command? Apparently, Jesus delights in letting his followers participate in a miracle.
“Take me to the tomb!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he find it himself?)
“Take away the stone!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)
“Take off the linens!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)
Jesus could have done all those things himself, but once again he allows his followers to participate in a miracle. It seems to be his pattern—and his Father’s. In the Old Testament, creation is supernaturally spoken into existence by God, but human beings have to take care of it. Manna is supernaturally rained down from heaven by God, but the Israelites have to go out and collect it. The Promised Land is supernaturally given by God, but the covenant people have to go in and take possession of it.
Like Father, like Son: Jairus’ daughter is supernaturally raised to life, but the family has to feed her. The bread and fish are supernaturally multiplied, but the disciples have to distribute the food and pick up the leftovers. Eternal salvation is supernaturally accomplished on Calvary, but believers have to proclaim it for the world to hear the good news and respond in faith. Jesus acts like his Father in every respect.
The God of the Bible never needs our help, but he often allows himself to be “helped.” Remember the Palm Sunday donkey? “The Lord has need of it,” says Jesus (Luke 19:31). That’s an odd thing to say if you’re the Son of God.
What kind of a Savior admits to having a need? What kind of an all-powerful God is this? One who is meek. One who is kind. One who invites his people to join him in his work of restoration. It’s the same humble God we meet in the manger. And again in the upper room washing dirty feet. The beauty of Jesus’ meekness here in John 11 is that the people who wrapped Lazarus in sorrow now get to unwrap him in joy! Jesus made him alive, but they get to set him free!
This is the mission of the church—to help set at liberty those who are in bondage and living under the sentence of death. But it’s also a mission that applies to believers, too—those who have been resurrected by Jesus in the new birth but still may not be completely free. Can you relate?
All of us come into the kingdom of God with some sort of hang-up—a habit, an attitude, an addiction, a trauma, a psychological struggle, or some sort of besetting sin. Oh, we’re trusting Christ for salvation all right—and we’re spiritually alive in him—but we’re still not completely free. We’re wrapped up tight in a collection of character flaws and spiritual deficiencies. Theologians call it “remaining corruption.” And some of that corruption seems to remain for a long time. But it’s not who we really are anymore (cf. Rom 7:17, 20).
Our fellow disciples are commissioned to help unwrap us from that which still binds us, even as they themselves are being unwrapped. That’s why, according to the New Testament, we do this for each other in a relationship of radical grace and non-judgmental accountability. We’re all in the same battered boat, so capsizing other people’s ships is rank hypocrisy.
Sometimes the unbinding process is messy and complicated (“But, Lord . . . by this time there is a bad odor,” v. 39). Sometimes it’s glorious and exhilarating (“Many . . . put their faith in him,” v. 45). Either way, when we join Christ in his work of restoration, we get to see the love-power of God in action—up close and in person.
We get to see Lazarus face to face, and we get to unwrap a miracle.
Thank you, Father, for your amazing love-power that can do all things. Send forth your Word again in our day to heal, forgive, restore, and provide. Open my eyes to the opportunities around me where I can participate in your divine work of restoration and be a conduit of your grace. Help me to be gentle and meek like Jesus, using my gifts, abilities, and resources to serve others and advance your kingdom. Use me as you see fit to help set others free from their bondage. And help me, Lord, to allow my fellow disciples to gently pull off my own grave clothes, too. Amen.
Image Credits: Jesus of Nazareth ITC; lightoftheworldgarden.com.
Human beings have a rendezvous with death. The Grim Reaper is coming for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live, how much money they make, or what they believe. As one writer put it, if death were a preacher, “every tombstone is his pulpit, every newspaper prints his text, and someday every one of you will be his sermon.” That’s a creative way to say what Charles Dickens said bluntly a couple of centuries ago, “We are all fellow pilgrims to the grave.” It’s a cold fact of life, and no one likes to dwell on it. Thankfully, the followers of Christ have something glorious to look forward to despite the unavoidability of death. The reason for that hope is the theme of this series.
Covenant partners become functionally one—as symbolized in their exchange of weapons, outer garments, token possessions, names, blood, and places between the slaughtered animal sacrifice. What’s true of one covenant partner is true of the other. Jesus died, but he rose again. Therefore, those who are in covenant with him will die and rise again, too. When Jesus was raised, he got a new and glorified body. Therefore, those who are in covenant with him will get a new and glorified body, too. Indeed, the Body of Christ will get new bodies from Christ. It’s the final exchange of the New Covenant, and it will lead to everlasting joy, not to mention the final humiliation of death.
As such, Paul can taunt the Grim Reaper by saying, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). He can also celebrate with fellow believers, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55).
You have kept track of my every toss and turn; You have collected my tears in your wineskin. You have recorded each one in your ledger. Psalm 56:8
Many more tears will wash my face,
But each one a promise that God is mine;
For only the breakable heart can break,
And show forth the gold of image divine.
Love is exalted in grief-stained loss,
And hope brought near to vanquish the pain;
In weakness a Lamb has led the assault
On darkness of soul to Paradise gained.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must kneel at the Savior’s throne.
Heroes indeed are my wisest friends
Who embrace their wounds as sovereignty’s call;
Fighting for courage when the mind is bent
By bitter trials where God seems small.
Yet true faith is strong, a resilient force,
Which anguish of soul lacks power to kill;
On earth, even now, every scar and thorn
Is scoffed by a Tomb lying empty still.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must grieve at the Savior’s throne.
Soon we’ll see Him face to face.
Soon we’ll we understand the grace
That led us on a path of loss—
A path that vindicates our cross.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must die at the Savior’s throne.
Many more tears will wash my face,
But numbered tears only can have their place.
Numbered tears only can have their place.
An Exegetical Note
Psalm 56:8 presents a translational challenge in the original Hebrew. My own resolution to the difficulty is as follows:
“You have kept count of my tossings (nôḏ)” = (1) moving back and forth, wandering, as of an aimless fugitive; or (2) lamenting, mourning. The first sense yields the translation “my tossings” (ESV, NRSV) and “my wanderings” (NASB); the second sense yields the translation “my sorrows” (JB, NLT) or “my lament” (NIV). Both senses can fit the larger context of Psalm 56, though the first seems more likely
“List (śîm) my tears on your scroll (nōʾḏ)” = set, put, place, install; set down, arrange. But where are the tears “placed” or “set down”? The word nōʾḏ usually refers to a leather bottle (i.e., a wineskin or waterskin), hence the NIV footnote and other translations: “Put (śîm) my tears in your wineskin (nōʾḏ).” But some have suggested that in this occurrence, nōʾḏ should be translated “scroll” or “leather scroll” because: (1) there is a documentation/record keeping motif in the three lines of this verse, with the word “scroll” being a corresponding element to the word “book” in the next line of the parallelism; and (2) there is no record from the ancient biblical world of a practice of keeping tears in a bottle.
To these objections one could reply: (1) the word nōʾḏ is translated as “scroll” nowhere else in the Old Testament; (2) there is a poetic quality to the image of “tears in a bottle” that would need no literal attestation for it to be valid; (3) recording tears on a scroll would be just as poetic as putting tears in a bottle—“tears” being a metonymy for all kinds of negative personal thoughts and feelings that God records; indeed, tears are poetically “in the book/record” in the next line of the parallelism; and (4) HALOT cites a later use of “the little vase for tears mentioned in fairy-stories, Meuli Romanica Helvetica 20 (1943):763ff.”
The psalmist is asking God to transform his situation in the first verse of the center section of the chiasm (i.e., v. 7). Might he not also be asking God to transform his thoughts and/or emotions in the second verse of the center section (i.e., v. 8)—just as liquid is transformed into wine inside a wineskin? Various translations go in this direction:
“Put my tears in your bottle.” (ESV)
“Put my tears in Your bottle.” (NASB)
“You have collected all my tears in your bottle.” (NLT)
“Collect my tears in your wineskin.” (JB)
The JB captures it well, I think, and the implications are devotionally rich. Not only does God notice his people tears, he collects them and transforms them (over time) into new wine. By trusting in God, then, life can go from salty to sweet, from fear to freedom, from anxiety to joy. David experienced these transformations firsthand. So can we.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
There’s something pitiable about the person who lives in exile. To be in a faraway place when your heart is back home can be a severe discouragement. We can’t help feeling sorry for people who’ve been evicted or evacuated against their will. To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.
Have you ever felt like an exile? It’s a miserable sensation. The child going away for summer camp, or the teenager going away to college for the first time might have a sense of exile. So might the missionary who heads off to a strange and hostile land after years of being cloistered in a Christian subculture.
To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.
Indeed, exiles come in many forms—the military spouse who gets dragged all over the globe; the chronically ill patient who’s confined to a hospital bed; the success-driven businessperson who gets strapped into a plane seat yet again; the incarcerated man who can do nothing but hang his wrists on the iron bars all day long.
Then there are those who may be physically in their homes, but they, too, feel like exiles: the widow separated from her beloved husband, now living in a quiet house with echoes of poignant memories flooding her soul; the teen athlete who desperately wants to compete but has to stay cloistered in her house while a pandemic runs its course; the child whose parents are emotionally absent and unavailable to provide support and affirmation in those critical, formative years.
All of them can feel like exiles, and all of them desperately want to go “home.”
The people of Isaiah’s day knew that feeling well. Theirs was the plight of the exile. They’re a long way from home, and they have “miles to go before they sleep.” But Isaiah 25 is a song of liberation—an Old Testament Magnificat that anticipates real hope for a bright and glorious future. The hymn breaks into the text unexpected, celebrating the end of the tyranny and shame that have befallen the Jews for so long. God is clearly on the move, having subdued the enemies of Israel and having promised to restore them to a place of peace and prominence once again.
With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. Verses 6-8 in particular celebrate the end of darkness and death for the covenant people. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.
As is often the case with Old Testament prophecies, the divine Author could see more than the earthly author (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). It’s not difficult to capture glimpses of a greater resurrection in this passage—the bodily resurrection that awaits all believers at the end of the age.
With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.
In fact, when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54 that “death is swallowed up in victory,” he’s citing Isaiah 25:8. When John writes in Revelation 7:17 that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” and again in 21:4 that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,” he’s surely alluding to the same prophecy. Isaiah’s original vision exceeds all expectations.
Indeed, humanity’s exile to this sin-scarred planet of crime, cruelty, injustice, and death will one day come to an end. Like Israel of old, the church may continue to fail God in many ways, but God is still God, and he will keep his promises:
• He will prepare an eschatological feast for his people (6).
• He will destroy the corpse’s shroud that enfolds us all (7).
• He will swallow up death forever (8a).
• He will wipe away the tears from our faces (8b).
• And he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth (8c).
In other words, death itself will be exiled forever, and the people of God will finally be home. And the authority for such a great hope is that the Lord himself has said it will happen (8d).
Thank you, God, for your power over death and the hope that it brings. As we journey through this life—sometimes feeling like strangers and exiles—encourage our spirits by helping us to remember that you will keep your resurrection promises. In the midst of our many failures, disappointments, disillusionments, and inadequacies, help us to stay focused on the glorious future that awaits the people of God. We’re eager to see you, Lord, and have you dry our tears. Until then, help us to hope. Amen.