September 20, 2020: Aged Sages of Biblical Renown – A Pharisee Named Joseph
Aged Sages of Biblical Renown – A Pharisee Named Joseph
Scripture: Luke 23: 50 – 54
Nope, it’s not Holy Week but we’re going to read a scripture that makes us turn our attention toward the death of Jesus. Today it’s not for the sake of what comes after that death, although the song I’ll be singing deals with that. The message is for the sake of one obscure individual who was there; watched the whole process that led to the death of Jesus and then chose a path that was unlike his colleagues. He was present for the trial, the conviction, and for the crucifixion. We know that because of his role after Jesus dies. This man was a respected authority, and a Pharisee. Believe it or not, he has a lot to teach us, particularly right now. So we continue in the series of “Aged Sages of Biblical Renown.” Given this man’s obscurity, he could be seen as the opposite of Solomon. The short set of verses read by Kathleen is the only time we ever hear of this man. But what he does, given who and what he is, should take our breath away.
The whole idea of peer pressure is not new, nor does it only happen in schools with kids. Peer pressure is alive and well among adults. There is all manner of bullying that takes place, all manner of pressure thrust upon us almost every moment of every day. We need to go no farther than the Presidential campaigns, as both candidates are seeking to sway each of us toward their side. We see it on all sides of the pandemic, mask-wearing, partying, and so much more. I was taking pressure to perform a wedding this weekend. I asked the bride how many people would be there and she said 100 or more. I know the venue where the wedding was to take place and the place for the reception. I also know what our Governor has said. I could not, in good conscience say yes. This is a family I’ve known for almost ten years. I still had to say no. There has been pressure about starting school with children in classrooms.
There have been debates around churches meeting together on Sunday mornings with some right here in Sequim ignoring the Governor’s mandates. There are peer-pressurized movements going on all around us. Peer pressure is everywhere. But we are certainly not the first to live in a time of it. The time of Jesus was no better and probably worse.
This morning we continue in the series about aged sages of biblical renown and today I want to focus on one key figure, but I can’t do it without looking at one other. The two are both Pharisees, religious authorities who constantly believed that the way the interpreted scriptural law was not only correct, but the only correct way to interpret scripture. One was named Nicodemus and the other Joseph. Both had a relationship with Jesus. It was the way each chose to communicate with Jesus that were as opposite as they could be. We have a full conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (see John 3). We can find no conversation between Jesus and Joseph. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night so that no one would see him, fearing that being seen with Jesus would change the way his colleagues and constituents would view him (peer pressure).
Joseph, on the other hand, dealt with Jesus openly – even asking the Romans to allow him to do what was needed for Jesus and his family as he was being crucified and more importantly after Jesus dies. Most scholars agree that Nicodemus was young and was still searching for answers. Joseph, on the other hand, was old, had found his answers. He was unapologetic and wise in his response to Jesus, to other Pharisees, even to Rome. Let me explain.
Joseph was from the town of Arimathea. Most place the town just north of Jerusalem, kind of like a suburb. He was a Pharisee, meaning that he was a studier and interpreter of the Law. Kind of like a lawyer but with more power, wealth, and authority. Because of where he lived, he would have immediate access to the Temple, the Temple authorities, his club of Pharisees, even Roman leaders if needed. Most believed him to be old, wise, and respected; at least older than most. He was certainly wealthy, at least wealthier than most, even among his peers.
We know that he was already preparing for his death. He had purchased what would become his family plot. It was not a plot like what is sold in cemeteries. For Joseph and his family, it was much more expensive and expansive, was not just a casket, but was a garden cave carved out of solid rock. I remember walking into such a cave and couldn’t believe the effort it would have taken to create it. A tomb like this would have cost a fortune. That in and of itself sets him aside as wealthier than most, but what takes it even further is the whole idea that it was in a kept garden. Please remember the story of Mary Magdalene thinking Jesus was the gardener.
Most wealthy people were buried above ground in stone caskets. Those caskets lined the hillside just across from the Temple and just above the Kidron Valley. Not Joseph. His tomb was in a garden by itself, just outside the city gates, and beautiful. It was a place of absolute peace; with paths and benches, and places of rest. It had fountains and flowers, and was large and enclosed by walls. All of that says that this was a man of means, wealthier than most. He was so respected that he not only had the ear of the Temple authorities, but had the ear of and relationship with the Prefect of Rome: Pontus Pilate. And yet, he was also a follower of Jesus. Now think about that as you think about all of the other disciples. Like Nicodemus, Joseph was as opposite as anyone could be from the normal followers of Jesus. But there is one more thing that sets him apart. He is given a place of honor in all four gospels. He was loved, admired, and, respected; not just by one group but it appears, by all.
There is something else that sets Joseph apart. It’s here that we begin to delve into why I chose him for this series. He knew who he was, what he was, and what he believed. At some point, he shifted his focus from the Laws of Moses to the living laws found in Jesus. He was willing, unlike so many in that time, to go up against the powers that be. He was strong enough, respected enough, and even wise enough to see the truth, and confront his peers as they were taking illegal steps to condemn a man Joseph followed and respected. He argued with them and lost. But even in that loss, he went around them to someone more powerful, Pilate, so that he, Joseph might offer Jesus what no one else could. A private, beautiful, peaceful, and even secure resting place – the resting place that was to be his own, and in so doing, gave up a bit of himself for the one who would become the Christ.
One quick aside…For most of my life as a Christian, I somehow believed that it was the Roman soldiers who rolled the stone in front of the tomb. I was wrong. It was Joseph (probably with the help of Nicodemus), and not only did he seal the tomb, he secured it with a lock so that no one could come and disturb the body. And like rolling the heavy stone into place, Joseph was not alone in preparing Jesus for burial. He had a friend and fellow follower helping him, a man who had moved from darkness and into light when it came to his relationship with Jesus. It was Nicodemus.
So, here we have two very different men who had approached Jesus in very different ways, now working together to honor Jesus at the end of his life. Both did it in the open. They took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in linen clothes, carried him to the tomb, placed him within, covered his face with another linen as was the custom, rolled the stone, and sealed the tomb. In other words, they loved him in front of everyone without caring what others might have thought. I wonder how it is for us as we continue to seek to be followers of Jesus.
We are living in a time more in need of hope than almost any other. We are living in a time when all too many feel hopeless, isolated, afraid, and lonely. We watch the news and see pictures of places burned beyond recognition, or other places blown away by storms so fierce that they tear trees up by their roots. We live in a time of a pandemic that has changed us. It continues to change us. We are living in a time of seeming contempt for anyone with whom we disagree. We are living in a time where we need to be church, but not just any church. We need to be a church that takes offering hope seriously. We need to be a people of hope; to be that light on a hill that cannot be hidden; a beacon that doesn’t get shoved under some bushel. We need to be the light of hope that answers the call of Christ to be his hands and feet – and even his voice. And we don’t have to be famous. We don’t have to be wealthy. We don’t have to even be noticed. Think again about Joseph.
Nowhere does it say that he had any ulterior motives. What he did wasn’t done to make some political statement. It wasn’t done as an “in your face” to the other religious leaders. He didn’t do it to get attention. He did it because it needed to be done. He did it because there is no doubt that Mary, the mother of the one he sought to follow, needed a friend. He did it because there were others that were around the cross that day that needed comfort. He was powerful in his compassion…powerful in his love. He also did what he did because he knew that the disciples were hiding and afraid. He did it for Jesus. And, by the way, he didn’t do it behind anyone’s back. He did all the right things so that he could do it legally and correctly.
That’s what a Pharisee would have done. He asked Pilate for control of the body because only Pilate could have given that level of permission. It makes me wonder, however, how Pilate felt when he heard about what Joseph had done. I wonder how the Roman soldiers would have reacted when Joseph and Nicodemus were so gentle after the soldiers were so violent. I wonder what the disciples felt after they had heard about the gift. I wonder what Mary and others along the road where the crosses were, felt as they watched. I wonder what the other Pharisees and the Temple authorities felt when he confronted them and then took this action. I wonder if maybe Joseph is even more of an example of how we’re to be.
Blessed are the peacemakers – and he was. Blessed are the merciful – and he was. Blessed are the poor in spirit – and he was. I believe Joseph to be a light on a hill then, and now.
Maybe we can do something similar in this time.
So friends, do you need hope. Please tell someone. Can you offer hope? Please take that on. Joseph offers us an example of how hope combines with wisdom and compassion and changes lives. In preparing this message, he became an example for me. Do we want to know what Christian leadership looks like? We need look no farther than this obscure man.
Do we need to know how to go about doing what is right? Here you have the perfect example.
So sages, let’s make some calls to find out where our neighbors may need some help with hope. Let’s offer some pieces of ourselves so that others can see the light of Christ in us and in these times of darkness. Let’s not care what others may think of the actions we take, particularly when the actions are done without agenda and out of pure, unadulterated love and compassion. It’s ours to bring peace. It’s ours to bring compassion. It’s certainly ours to bring hope. Let’s also remember that no matter where we are, what we’re dealing with, how lonely or lost we may feel, God is there holding us, helping us, embracing us and lifting us. And the amazing miracle is that when we offer hope to others, we find hope in ourselves. Let’s pray.