A secret disciple from the ranks of Jewish leadership, Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows to ask for the body of Christ. At great personal cost, he and another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, climbed that dreadful hill and approached the lifeless Jesus.
They worked in a rush as they wrapped his body. The sun was setting and the Jewish Passover was about to begin. There were rules about such things, and it was rules that mattered most to their religious sect. With Joseph’s tomb so close by, he permitted Jesus’ body to rest on the place reserved for his own. In a freshly hewn rock, where death had never been, they laid the forgiving flesh. The two Marys sat opposite the entrance and watched.
As you watch with them the ultimate incongruity that is the burial of Jesus Christ, there’s more than meets the eye. They lift one arm, then the other. They fold them across his still chest, tuck in the spices, and mercifully cover his face, so taken over by death it is barely recognizable. While they do these things, know this: the Passover was the highest celebration in the life of a Jewish man, especially in the lives of privileged leaders such as these. When you look at Joseph and Nicodemus from now on, see two old Pharisees who just gave their Passover away. They wouldn’t be taking part . . . not that year . . . not after the way they had handled the dead body of Jesus.
These two who loved their rules must have loved Jesus more.
Do you see it there against the backdrop of Golgotha? There, so close to the battered and breathless body of God, was the release of something new.
(Please read John 19:38-42.)
Some people have a problem with Christianity that can be stated like this: “I’m a positive person. My philosophy is to see the bright and lovely side of life. Christianity is always talking about sinning and repenting, always making rules and judgments, always imposing guilt and fear. ‘People are bad and going to hell’ and ‘the world is evil’ and ‘we’re all dying’ . . . frankly, it turns me off. I don’t need the negativity bringing me down.”
This objection deserves a thoughtful answer. It’s the apostle Paul himself, under divine inspiration, who counsels us that “whatever is noble, whatever is right . . . whatever is lovely . . . think about such things.” By all means think about those things, “and the God of peace will be with you.” However, do you know what adjective actually appears first on his list?
“Whatever is true . . .”
You want to think positive thoughts? Good. But this is first: they must be true. Positive thinking cannot mean pretending—being unwilling to see painful realities. (By the way, we are all dying.) A personal philosophy of squeezing your eyes shut to the things that you do not want to see, if you can manage it, could seem to work for a while.
Spiritually speaking, it will kill you.
When ugly grasshoppers had eaten everything in sight, devastating ancient Israel, the people asked the prophet Joel what they should do. His answer? “Weep!” “Wail!” “Mourn!”
His answer was not, “Look on the bright side.” It was not, “Stay positive.” In fact, no response was called for but that they open their eyes, see what they had become before God, and let the painful truth in.
Think of all the means God has used to open people up to truths they never wanted to see—truths about the world, about life, about themselves. He wrote pain into their child- bearing. He planted thorns in their soil. Waters ravaged the ugly world. Fire fell from the sky. He permitted the evil hiding within people to be expressed in openly evil acts. He let the ground open up at their feet. He sent prophets to shout at them and enemies to carry them away . . . all to show them their own desperate conditions. The news was worse than they could have imagined. They had a problem with sin, which meant they had a problem with God. For this reason they lived in a world for which no one is truly equipped, among horrible dangers and far, far from home.
The Israelites answered their prophet Joel, “Tell us pleas- ant things . . . and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” Sound familiar?
So, to reach them, there was one thing God had never done before.
From now on, if the idea begins to appeal to you that there is nothing so much wrong with life, with the world, or with you and me that thinking differently can’t solve, think about this: God lying there dead—brutalized, butchered, murdered by this world.
Whatever was really wrong with everything, measure its weight by the fact that this was the only solution: God, in the person of Christ his Son, lying there dead. I am convinced that the only solution to my life, which God can always see just as it is, no matter how nice I make it appear to you, was my Lord Christ lying there dead. Yet out of the most awful thing we could ever confront comes the most beautiful.
It’s something like what the grief counselor means by the word closure. It can be important for family members to see the body of their loved one to help them accept the fact and achieve closure: “Okay then. So it’s really over. So it’s really done.” In this way we come to the public death of the Son of God while hundreds stood staring. All four of the gospels call us to come close and watch. Sit there with the two Marys. Draw near to the funeral of the Lord, because here is closure . . . on the matter of all your sin, your guilt, your grievous and unending hell.
“So it’s really over then. So it’s really done.” Yes. For he was, for a time, really dead. Christianity is never mere positive thinking alone. It’s always thinking that turns positive in the end. It always starts with some profoundly disturbing truths. If you’ll see them, if you can handle, so to speak, what God himself is showing you by his Word—and only then—they will give way to other truths, exhilarating truths that make you alive and set you free. That’s the way it works. Forgiveness makes me come alive precisely because I still see my sin. I celebrate the gifts of faith and love in the people I’m with, for the very reason that I’ve seen what we are like if left to ourselves. Heaven fills me with longing and hope to whatever degree I’ve seen this world as it really is. The truths of Christianity get up and dance to the degree I get it: I’m a sinner who is going to die.
But there stands Jesus.
Everything that it meant for the two Marys to see him alive that one particular Sunday morning came to them entirely because they had first seen him die. So, in Christ, there is an eternal optimism and a joy that doesn’t depend on you closing your eyes to any painful thing. Whatever God wants you to see during this life, which he will gently but relentlessly show you, there will always be forgiveness on the other side. There will always be his Spirit holding you together. There will always be heaven standing open, waiting inevitably, more beautiful than your mind can conceive. When a personal philosophy of positive thinking leaves you cold because you’re dying and you’re scared, think with me of Jesus—so noble, so right, so lovely, and, best of all, so true. He lives! You need no other affirmation than this!
Here is all my resilience, and yours if you do not refuse to believe. It lies in knowing that whatever valleys the river of your life will run through, in the end it will empty out into heavenly glory.
You only think of Jesus, and you are positive.
Consider an analogy from C. S. Lewis. A hundred people went to live in the same building. However, 50 of them were told the place was a hotel, and 50 were told it was a prison. Ironically, those who held the positive view became the bitter ones: “What kind of hotel is this!? It’s drafty and smelly and . . .” You get the idea.
On the other hand, the 50 who seemed to have the pessimistic view were pleasantly surprised. “Hmmmm. Spacious rooms. Fully furnished. The plumbing works. You know, for a prison . . . it’s not bad!”
And so, it is precisely those who naively try to maintain a positive view—as if the world is designed to make them happy, as if people are basically good—who wind up in cynicism and tears. “What’s the matter with this place? What’s wrong with these people? It’s not supposed to be like this!”
A hotel? The followers of Jesus have no such illusions about the world or about themselves. The biblical view is of that most awful ground from which grows beauty, gratitude, and joy. Given the life I should expect in a world moaning with sin and overwhelmed by death—given what I must be prepared for even now—I live among unexpected surprises, unbearably sweet.
My comfortable home and meaningful work—which of these did I deserve?
The love of family and friends—something only God could have given.
This faith, this hope, this inexpressible joy that stirs to life as I sit staring at Christ.
You know, for a prison, it’s not bad!