As evening approached, Joseph, a rich man from Arimathea who had become a follower of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. And Pilate issued an order to release it to him. Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a long sheet of clean linen cloth. He placed it in his own new tomb, which had been carved out of the rock. Then he rolled a great stone across the entrance and left. Both Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting across from the tomb and watching.
The next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.” Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. —Matt 27:57-66
There’s a scene from the the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers: the heroes are trapped inside a castle, surrounded by the bad guys. The bad guys, called the Uruk Hai, are these big, monstrous warriors, there’s an army of them, and they’re all six feet tall. They bellow and roar like wild animals, oh and they eat people. The good guys are three heroes: a man, an elf, and a dwarf, and they’re trying to help a bunch of farmers defend their castle. You gotta feel sorry for the farmers too, because they’re clearly no match for their enemies, and we the audience have spent, oh I don’t know, the past 10 hours watching the Uruk Hai slaughter and butcher them like pigs. And you know, if the bad guys break into the castle, not only will the heroes die, all the farmers’ wives and kids will also die.
So back to that scene, the heroes are trapped, they can hear the Uruk Hai breaking through the door. They’re thinking about opening the gates and charging outside to die bravely. But then something changes – the dawn comes, and one of the heroes remembers something: he has this wise, old friend called Gandalf, a powerful wizard, and the last time they met, Gandalf told him, ‘I’ll be there, on the first light of the fifth day, I’ll come from the east.’ So the heroes ride out from the castle, they get surrounded, and it looks like they’re all going to die, but then, just as he said, Gandalf rides up from the east. And he’s brought his friends, a gigantic army of knights. Then they ride down and kill all the Uruk Hai, the day is saved, all that.
Here’s the thing though, if I just showed you the Uruk Hai murdering a thousand farmers and then surrounding the castle, and then I ended it right there, you wouldn’t know that things end happily. If I didn’t show you what happens after the scene – Gandalf coming to the rescue – you’d have no hope. If I didn’t show you what happens before the scene – that Gandalf had promised he would show up on the fifth day – you’d have no hope.
So it is with this passage. By itself, it’s very bleak. God is nowhere to be seen. Jesus appears only once, as a corpse. One friend has to beg to have Jesus’ body so he can bury it, and the others can only sit there and watch in despair. The disciples have all gone into hiding, they’re terrified the soldiers will find them and crucify them too. Meanwhile, Jesus’ enemies still aren’t satisfied to see him dead. They need to show the whole world he was a stinking liar, they need to make sure he stays dead. And… that’s it. That’s where the passage cuts off.
Which is why as I’ve said before, context is very important. This passage by itself makes little sense. It’s sad, or if you want, pathetic. But when you know the context, when you know the whole Jesus story, it makes more sense. You know Jesus will come back from the dead. Fine. But you also know that he had told his friends he would come back from the dead. Now if I told you I would come back to life three days after I die, you should call the hospital so the nice men in white coats would take me away. But because it was Jesus who said it, his friends could trust him. Jesus had shown that he had the power because of all the miracles he performed. He’d shown that he was not only a prophet and a teacher, he was God.
Non-Christians, this is the hope we have today. I know it looks silly: we’ve been waiting 2000 years for a dead carpenter to come back and bring kingdom come. A lot of the New Testament authors believed Jesus would come back in their lifetime. But they died waiting. And today, Christians seem silly. We’ve been waiting 2000 years. Where is he?
Just like today’s passage: Jesus is dead. He was murdered. There’s his cold, dead body. What do you expect to happen? Or take the story of Noah: you’re building a giant boat in the middle of the desert, Noah, really? Or Moses: your people are slaves, they’re finished. You really think there’s a future for them, really?
The Uruk Hai are outside the castle. You really expect to come out of this alive?
But Christians, we have our Gandalf moment. That’s why you need to know the context of these Bible stories, and you need to know the context of our story today. Jesus, God himself in human form, promised he would die, and then come back after three days. God promised that there would be a flood, so Noah you need to build a boat to save your family. God promised Moses’ fathers that he would bring these slaves to freedom.
And Jesus came back on the third day, just as he promised. God sent a flood in Noah’s time, just as he promised. God brought his people out of Egypt, just as he promised.
Gandalf promised he would be there on the fifth day. And he showed up, just as he promised.
Christians, we’re waiting, and waiting. And it’s hard. We’re tempted to give up. Some of you face teasing and persecution. And you know what, Jesus promised this. He promised that people will hate you and say mean things about you. Because he was hated too. Just ask Christians in Syria and Iraq. But you know what, he also promised he will come back, he will bring kingdom come, he will make things new. He will wipe away your tears, you will see him as he really is. He promised all this. And he keeps his promises.
Christians, know the context of our story. You are not sitting around, trying to be sparkly, nice people. Right now you are like Jesus’ friends in this passage. You’re sitting and waiting; some of you are in despair, Hoping in him seems like madness. But he’ll be back. Because he promised he’ll be back. Christians, you are now waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. But you will see Jesus again. In the meantime, love those who hate you, help them, pray for them. Love them. Live in such a way that reminds people about Jesus. And he will come back again.