A Skull and a Garden

Today is day thirty-one of ninety days of reading the New Testament. The reading today is the final three chapters of John. Thank you for joining me.

There is a story of hope, written between the lines.

John, in his gospel, weighs us down with such harsh language concerning the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. It would seem that, while reading these, all hope would be lost.

Notice the cruelty:

  • During Jesus’ arrest, Peter cuts an ear from a man (John 17).
  • While Jesus is on trial, before the high priest, Jesus is brutally slapped after answering a question (John 18). And, yes, the entire scene of Jesus’ death is disturbing, but this passage has always especially offended me.
  • Intermixed in this trial story is the telling of Peter’s denial — a man who, just hours earlier, defended Jesus by hurting another man with his blade (John 18).
  • Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, after a seemingly innocent time of questioning (John 19:1).
  • It was the Roman soldiers who placed a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head (John 19:2).
  • Jesus was forced to carry his own cross (John 19:17).
  • At the place called Golgotha, the place of the skull and the place of death, he was crucified (John 19).

__________

These waves in the story are worth telling here. I’ve not made much mention, throughout these posts, of the specific crucifixion scene. It is, of course, the basis for the gospel, but often, it’s telling far outweighs other facets of Jesus’ life, thus, in my reading, I have found other parts of Jesus’ life to be freshly noticeable.

John’s distinct telling of the story is powerful, though, considering all of these gruesome details, prehaps moreso since he offered the fact that there was an eye-witness to these events.

But in spite of the gruesome pacing, John was also telling us — telling me — between the lines, that there are new beginnings, there is needed hope, even in such a violent telling.

And he does so by the language he uses. Notice the time markers:

  • In John 19:28, John introduces the crucifixion by using the words After this … . Jesus’ crucifixion was a page-turning moment, a new beginning to the story. Hope.
  • In John 19:38, John uses the same phrase again, After this … . Jesus’ burial was a page-turning moment, another new beginning to the story. Hope, again.
  • In John 20:19, John writes this phrase On the evening of that day … . Jesus’ appearance to his disciples was a page-turning moment, another new beginning to the story. More hope.
  • In John 21:1, John writes (again!) After this … . Again, Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on the Sea of Galilee was another page-turning moment. A new beginning. And more hopefulness.

We have to read between the lines to see this, though. We’ve become so familiar with this story, this central story in the life of every believer, that we fail to see the genius of John’s writing. He is telling us that in the midst of this awful moment, there is something new happening.

__________

So this allows us to look even more closely at the burial scene in John 19:38-42

38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Of all the page-turning moments in these stories, this is the one that shouts to us — to  me — a new beginning.

Joseph of Arimathea, a Jewish man, is the first in this narrative to not treat Jesus with indignity. This small story is a change of pace from the previous events. Joseph overrides the Jews’ previous treatment of Jesus’ body by asking Pilate for permission to bury Jesus. The Jews had broken the legs of the criminals, and pierced the corpse of Jesus — again, such indignity. Joseph asks for Jesus’ body, because he wants to bury him with reverence and respect.

Nicodemus arrives. The Jewish man who came to Jesus “at night” in John 3, has decided to, at least, respect Jesus. Maybe even follow him. Nicodemus’ decision, though, can be hidden because Jesus’ body needed to be removed before the celebration of Passover began. His was a convenient decision, but nevertheless, he’s there, bringing the burial treatments.

Seventy-five pounds of spices and lotions are brought. Only a king would receive such an amount for their burial. No commoner, and certainly no insurrectionist, would ever have been buried this way.

But there is even more to this new beginning.

John writes that at the place Golgotha, the place of the skull, there was a garden. In the midst of death and horror, there is a place where new things are grown.

And in this garden, John writes, there was a new tomb. A new tomb. No one, according to John, had ever been laid there.

Something is about to be planted in this garden that will come to life again.

__________

Often, our own humanity allows us to only see cruelty. John needs us to see hope between the lines. The life sprouting in the midst of death.

As we finish the gospels today, as these thirty-one days have taken us and immersed us into the story of Jesus, it is my hope and prayer that you’ve come to know Jesus again. John’s story of Jesus gives us a God who comes to us with an array of new beginnings for so many people. Jesus’ resurrection story is our story. It is your story.

Believe in a God today that can give you something new, even in the place of death. Even in a darkened heart, or an abused life, or in a series of awful mistakes, God can raise something new in you. You may hold a place of death inside you, but inside that place of death, there is a new tomb waiting to receive a spirit that will overshadow every dark moment of your life.

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