“So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:42).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It is important to note that despite speaking throughout the verses of our Gospel as “the body” of Jesus, at the conclusion of verse 42, John doesn’t say that they placed Jesus’ body in the tomb, but that they placed Jesus there. Jesus and His body are interchangeable. People do not have bodies; they are bodies. Bodies are not an accessory to our real selves, not a shell or husk waiting to be discarded in death. People are bodies and souls knit together by the Creator. The separation of soul from body in death—though souls rest with Jesus and bodies sleep in cemeteries—is always an unnatural disruption to the Creator’s design.
This is the reason for the incarnation of the eternal Word of God. God is embodied so that His body can be buried.
Behold the man, dead. Behold the One who was mocked as an impostor king and crucified under the sentence of making Himself to be a king. Behold the man whose reign was rejected by all people, whose closest disciples deserted Him, who was betrayed by one of the Twelve, and who died a criminal’s cursed death. Behold His dead, lifeless body.
Behold two unlikely candidates to carry out the Jewish burial rites for this true King of the Jews and of Gentiles too. Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, and a secret disciple of Jesus. Presumably, he was afraid of what a public confession of Jesus as the true Messiah would mean for his position and standing in the community. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to Jesus by night and was told that he must be born again by water and the Spirit if he was to see and enter the kingdom of God. It was Joseph who had the political clout; he asked Pilate for the body of Jesus and had his request granted. Nicodemus brought an exorbitant amount—seventy-five pounds—of myrrh and aloes to wrap the body in. Joseph offered his own new tomb in which to bury Jesus.
So with the perfuming ointment, linen to wrap the body, a freshly cut tomb in which no one had ever been laid, and the body of their crucified Lord, they came to do what was meet, right, and salutary. Behold the man whom they had followed, albeit secretly. Behold the care they demonstrated for His body, which stands in sharp contrast with the way in which Jesus’ torturers treated His body just hours before.
His work finished, on the seventh day of the week, God rested from His work of redeeming man, restoring creation, removing the effects of the curse. This is the final Sabbath. On Thursday, Jesus observed the last Passover, replacing the Seder with His new covenant, with the Supper. On Friday, Jesus was the last sacrifice, fulfilling the promise made by every innocent animal slain for the sins of men. On Saturday, Jesus fulfills the Sabbath. Even in the sleep of death, He keeps the Law perfectly. Not since God rested on the seventh day of creation has the Sabbath been so perfectly observed.
So may you rest in Him.
Behold the man who, while Joseph and Nicodemus were caring for His body, was caring for their bodies and souls, even while He was in the sleep of death. And He was caring for yours too. Jesus wasn’t buried for His sake any more than He died or rose for His sake. All of what He does, He does for you.
Jesus rests, He Sabbaths, because you do not. Who regards the hearing of God’s Word as a holy obligation and a blessed opportunity to rest in the finished work of Jesus, as the catechism instructs? If there is work to be done, games to be played, families to visit, or pillows that are too comfy to abandon, the Sunday morning resting in the Word seems to be the first thing to go. Or if the preacher is boring, the sermon too long, or the kickoff too early, even while your ears may be hearing the Word, you may not be resting in it, receiving it gladly, and learning it.
But Sabbath rest in the Word is not just for Sunday mornings (which have replaced Saturdays as days to hear the Word because Sunday is the day of resurrection). Sabbath rest is for your whole life. Sabbath is the opposite of American busy-ness, where we are always striving, working, and rushing, but never finishing.
The psalmist declares, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for He gives to His beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). Sleep is good. Rest is good. Receptivity to the Word of God is not just to be your Sunday morning posture but your daily habit. Behold the man who rests, sleeps the sleep of death for you. Behold the man who bids you rest in Him.
On this Holy Saturday, Jesus rests. And while He rests in His grave, He, in His perfect stillness, secures for you a rest like His. When someday we take your dead body to its resting place—the Greek word for “cemetery” means exactly that, a “sleeping place”—your pastor will bless the piece of ground where you will sleep your short sleep of death, praying, “O Lord Jesus Christ, by Your three-day rest in the tomb You hallowed the graves of all who believe in You, promising resurrection to our mortal bodies. Bless this grave, that the body of our brother may sleep here in peace until You awaken him to glory, when he will see You face to face and know the splendor of the eternal God, for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”[i]
Behold the man, who, while resting in His grave was also blessing yours. Behold the man who by His death has broken death’s power over His creation. Behold the man whose Sabbath sleep of death guaranteed that death is nothing more than a short sleep. So Luther said that a Christian should “despise death and to regard it as a deep, strong, and sweet sleep, to regard the coffin as nothing but paradise and the very bosom of our Lord Christ, and the grave as nothing but a soft couch or sofa,”[ii] a place for a little nap.
So tonight we keep vigil. We stay awake knowing what the morning holds. No, not only that morning, with the lilies and the alleluias, but the other one, the eternal morning, the great Easter of our own resurrection, when the Lord who woke from the slumber of death and left the grave powerless behind Him will do the same for you.
Behold the man who woke from the sleep of death and will wake you with a word on that eternal Easter morning, the day He returns. Behold the man whose rest in death reduces death to just a light sleep for you. Behold the man whose body in the grave has made holy the resting places of all the blessed dead who die with faith in Him, who in death rest with Him. But behold the man who, though He makes cemeteries and graves places of serene rest now, will completely wreck them and make them the busiest, noisiest places when He returns to wake the dead. Behold the man who was dead for you and who rose for you. Behold the man who alone gives you comfort in the face of death. Amen
This sermon is adapted from a sermon series by Jeffrey Hemmer published by Concordia Publishing House.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, Committal (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 128.
[ii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 53, ed. Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 326.