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Weekly Message 02-28-10: Second Sunday Of Great Fast

Second Sunday Of Great Fast

How are you going to be dressed in your coffin? Do you spend time thinking about your last farewell? Are your grave clothes going to be stylish? What impression will they make on the mourners?

Make a list of depressing subjects and burial garments are somewhere between a series audits by the IRS and long-term dental care.

Its is not that no one likes grave clothes, but generally no one discusses grave clothes. No one thinks of spicing up a dinner table conversation with the question, "What do plan on wearing in your casket?" Does anyone know of a store specializing in burial garments with the advertising tableau, Clothing to die for"?

Most people do not discuss their burial plans and anticipated attire.

However, the apostle John was a notable exception. Ask him and he will tell you how he came to see burial garments as a startling symbol and stark reminder of unmistakable triumph and victory. Of course, he did not always look at them that way. A tangible reminder of the death of his best friend, Jesus, they used to seem like a terrifying reminder of tragedy personally experienced and so, better not dwelled upon. But on the fateful day of Resurrection, our heavenly Father took the clothing of death and made it an impressive symbol of life.

So the provocative question is "Can our God do the same for you?"

We all face tragedy. We have all received the symbols of tragedy. For some it may be a telegram from the war department, an ID bracelet from the hospital, a permanent disfiguring scar on our bodies, a serious court subpoena or the horrific words that a disease has advanced beyond the control of conventional drugs and accepted therapy. We certainly do not like these symbols, nor do we want them. Just like wrecked cars in a junkyard on a hillside outside of town, they clutter up our hearts with memorials of catastrophic bad days.

And our question today is: "Can our God use such things for something good? How far can we go in understanding God's revelation to us in Scripture: "We know that God makes all things work together for the good of those who have been called according to his decree. Those whom he foreknew he predestined to share in the image of his Son, that the Son might be the first-born of many brothers. Those he predestined he likewise called; those he called he also justified and those he justified he in turn glorified. What shall we say after that? If God is for us, who can be against us? Is it possible that he who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for the sake of us all will not grant us all things besides" Romans 8: 28 - 33?

These verses outline the fundamental Christian vocation as it was designed by our heavenly Father: to share the image of the divine Son, that the Son might be the first-born of many who follow him. In terms of God's initiative, the call in its totality consists in the exercise of God's predetermination, God's gift of the call, his sanctification and glorification of the individual Christian down to the slightest detail. Thus all that happens to one who loves God, good, bad or seemingly indifferent, is directed by God toward the achievement of that good which is likeness to God's Son through grace and glory in all the minutest detail, even in the case of our Lord, the folded grave clothes which remained in the empty tomb.

The all-conquering power of God's love has overcome every obstacle to man's salvation and every threat of his separation from God just as dramatically and fittingly as the friends of the paralytic removed all obstacles to bringing the sick man into the very presence of Christ. That power manifested itself fully when our heavenly Father delivered up to death even his own Son for our salvation. It is only through Christ that the individual Christian believer can overcome all his afflictions and trials and emerge victorious. All that is placed in the path of the believer can be utilized to glorify the Creator. It can be accepted with freely offered grace to overcome the detours of life that our path remains constant. Our vocation, then, as fellow believers, is to bear each other, to affirm and assist each other on the pallet of redemption so that all our efforts, in all our varied circumstances lead us without question to victory in the empty tomb.

Does "all things" include tumors and tests and bad tempers and terminations? The beloved disciple would dramatically answer with an emphatic yes. The disciple whom Jesus loved would tell us that God can turn any tragedy into a triumph if only we faithfully wait, endure and watch. To prove his point, he would relate for us about one Friday in particular. "They took the body of Jesus and in accordance with Jewish burial custom bound it up in wrappings of cloth with perfumed oils" John 19: 40.

Reluctant during his earthly life, but certainly courageous at his death, Joseph and Nicodemus came to serve the Lord. They came to bury his earthly remains. They ascended the hill bearing the burial clothing. Pilate had given his permission. Joseph of Arimathea had given the tomb. Nicodemus brought the spices and necessary linens.

The amount of myrrh and aloes was typically used for rulers and kings. John comments on the linens because to him they were a picture of Friday's tragedy. As long as there were no grave clothes, as long as there was no tomb, as long as there was no coroner to pronounce death, there was hope. But the arrival of the human hearse triggered the departure of any hope. And of course to this apostle, the grave clothes symbolized and epitomized tragedy.

Could there have been a greater tragedy for John than a dead Jesus? Three years earlier John turned his back on his career and cast his lot with the Nazareth carpenter. Earlier in the week he enjoyed a literal ticker-tape parade of welcome as Jesus and the disciples entered Jerusalem. But how quickly things changed! The same lips who recognized him as king on Sunday called for his death only a few days later, on Friday. The linens in the tomb were tangible reminder that his friend and his future were wrapped in grave clothes and sealed behind a huge round rock.

John did not know on that Friday what we all know now. The paralytic in his misery who was lowered through the roof today to be near the healing hands of the Lord never imagined what God had in store for him. John did not understand that Friday's momentary and temporary tragedy would be Sunday's permanent and eternal triumph. John would even later confess that he "...did not yet understand from the Scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead" John 20: 9. How could the paralytic ever have dreamed he would hear, " Son, your sins are forgiven you ... Arise take up your pallet and walk" Mark 2 :9?

That is why what John did on Saturday is so important. He waited. All we know about Sunday is that when it came John was present. When Mary of Magdala came looking for him, he was found. Jesus was dead, the Master's body was lifeless in the flesh. John's friend and his very future were buried. But John had not left. Why? Was he waiting for resurrection. Certainly not! As far as he knew the lips were forever silent and the hands forever still. He was not expecting a Sunday surprise. He could have left. Who was to say the men who crucified Christ would not come after him as well? The crowds were pleased with one crucifixion; perhaps the religious leaders would call for more.

Maybe the reason John lingered is because he truly loved Jesus. To others Jesus was the miracle-worker, the master teacher, the hope of Israel. But to John Jesus was all these and more; Jesus was a friend. And you do not abandon a friend, even when he is killed. John stayed close to Jesus because he had a habit of doing this. He was close to the Lord in the upper room at the Mystical Supper, he was close to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the foot of the cross and he was a quick walk from the tomb at the burial.

Did he understand Jesus? No. Was he glad Jesus did what He did? No. But did he leave and abandon Jesus? No.

And what about us? When we are in the same position as the beloved evangelist, what do we do? When it is Saturday in our lives, how do we react? When we are somewhere between yesterday's tragedy and tomorrow's triumph, what do we do? Do we leave our God or do we linger near him? John chose to linger and because he patiently waited on Saturday, he was around on Sunday to witness the miracle.

Mary tells him, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they placed him." "So Peter and the other follower started for the tomb. They were both running, but the other follower ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down and looked in and saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, but he did not go in. Then following him, Simon Peter arrived and went into the tomb and saw the strips of linen lying there. He saw the cloth that had been around the head of Jesus, which was folded up and laid in a different place from the strips of linen. Then the other follower who reached the tomb first also went in. He saw and believed" John 20: 2 - 8.

What he saw stunned him and he froze. What did he see? Strips of linen cloth, the cloth that had been around the head of Jesus ... folded up and laid in a different place. He saw cloth lying around, he saw grave clothes, now more important than ever, rolled up and still in their folds. The linens were in their original state, undisturbed; the grave clothes were neatly folded. Through the rags of death, John saw the power of life. Odd, wouldn't we all think, that our Almighty God would use something as sad as burial wrap to change a life? But our God is given to such practices. In his hand empty wine jugs at a wedding become a symbol of power. The coin of a widow becomes a symbol of generosity. A crude manger in Bethlehem is a sign of devotion. And a tool of death, burial clothes, become an enduring symbol of his love. Should we be surprised that He takes the wrappings of death and makes them an astounding picture of life? Are we surprised when the paralytic approaches him with enduring faith, that he is forgiven and cured?

This all take us back to the original question. Can our God do something similar in our lives, in our particular circumstances? Can He take what today is a token of tragedy and turn it into a symbol of triumph?

Then do what John did. Do not leave the Lord. Keep faith with him. Hang around and patiently wait your turn. Can what happened to John happen to you? Can what happened to the paralytic happen to you? Without a doubt! If our heavenly Father changed John's life through tragedy, if He changed the life of the paralytic, could it be that He will also use a tragedy in your life to change yours?

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