Nicodemus, 100 pounds of embalming spices, and the Resurrection of Christ: A Sermon for Easter, 2013

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

What are we doing here? Is there anything more unbelievable, outlandish, absurd, than the idea that 2000 years ago, someone was raised from the dead? Let’s get real and be honest with each other. It’s flat out unbelievable.

We are fascinated with ideas about the living dead. Zombies are all over the place in popular culture; there are TV shows about them, movies, apparently there are long-running roleplay games. We’re fascinated by vampires, have been since before Bram Stoker published Dracula. And now there’s an industry, multi-volume novel series about vampires and vampire hunters, blockbuster movies

We’re fascinated with immortality. Scientists debate whether there might come a time when people could live, if not forever, for much longer than they do today. We seek all sorts of remedies to prevent aging. We read books about people who claim to have a near-death experience, who say they’ve been to heaven and back.

What of that do we really believe? While we may enjoy reading about zombies or vampires, most of us don’t expect to encounter either phenomenon in our daily life. It’s fantasy. But as fantasy always does, it says something about our deepest hopes and our deepest fears.

Resurrection? If we’re honest with ourselves, how many of us really believe that Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead; that he was flesh and blood, that he ate and drank, that he could be touched? Oh, if I were to ask you, most of you would claim you believe it, but I wonder… My guess is that if you and I were to have a conversation about the resurrection and I would probe deeply into what you thought happened, what you thought Jesus’ resurrected body was like, we would have a very interesting discussion that would involve biology, physiology, and perhaps a little science fiction

Look, I’m not just playing devil’s advocate here. Resurrection is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable now; it was unbelievable in the first century. The gospels are crystal clear on that point. All of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection agree about several things. 1) the disciples weren’t expecting it; 2) they didn’t believe it when they heard about it; 3) they didn’t believe it at first when they saw the Risen Christ, they didn’t even recognize him. So if it was hard for them, why should we be surprised that it’s hard for us?

John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is full of fascinating details, but for the most part it raises more questions than it answers. And the first question I have is, why did Mary Magdalene come to the tomb that morning? No, it was not to bring spices and ointments to embalm the body. That had already been done.

Every year on Good Friday, John’s passion narrative is read as the gospel of the day. The whole story of Jesus from his arrest in the garden to his burial is read every year. This past Friday as I was listening, I heard something I had never noticed before. That’s the great thing about listening to a text being read aloud; you encounter it in different ways than you do when reading it silently to yourself. At the very end of the story, after Jesus’ death, when telling about his burial by Joseph of Arimathea, John adds the detail that Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus who brought with him 100 pounds of myrrh mixed with aloes. Now what struck me was the amount. 100 pounds. In case you’re literal-minded, that’s a Roman pound, not an American one, and scholars think that a Roman pound was a little less than our pound. So, not quite 100 pounds, but still, a significant amount.

The same verses recounting Jesus’ burial were read yesterday morning out in the courtyard as part of the liturgy of the day, and again, that number 100 pounds, jumped out at me. What might it mean? Was that a customary amount? Well, a little bit of research revealed that yes, it is an extravagant amount—apparently the average amount used on Jewish burials was about a pound of spices, so Nicodemus had way more than necessary. But it was also the case that the burials of important people were honored with additional amounts. So the Jewish historian Josephus reports that one famous teacher was buried with forty pounds of spices.

Although we’re reading the gospel of Luke primarily this year, we’ve had a healthy dose of the gospel of John, and heard other stories from that gospel of enormous extravagance—the 180 gallons or so of water that Jesus transformed into wine at the wedding at Cana, and the jar of ointment that Mary of Bethany poured on Jesus’ feet. It cost the annual salary of a day laborer, 300 denarii. To put it terms we might understand—20,000 or $30,000. And here again we see an extravagant amount—enough spices to embalm 100 bodies, all used on Jesus.

My guess is that this extravagant amount of spices is intended to remind us of Mary of Bethany’s earlier extravagant gesture, of pouring all that costly nard on Jesus’ feet, and wiping them with her hair, with one significant difference. Nicodemus misunderstands what’s going on. He had come to Jesus very early in the gospel, seeking to learn more, but went away unsatisfied. He didn’t get it. He comes again now, also by night, to help bury Jesus, and although the amount of spices is a sign of his respect of Jesus, it’s also obvious that he has no clue what is going to happen. He still doesn’t know who Jesus is. We won’t encounter him again in the gospel. We won’t know if he truly came to believe that Jesus was the Christ. We don’t know if he came to know the Risen Christ. All along he wanted to know and understand Jesus on his terms and all those embalming spices were intended to keep Jesus safely in the tomb. But Jesus didn’t stay there.

So Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week. She finds it empty. She goes and tells the disciples, and after Peter and the Beloved Disciple come and go again, she lingers behind in the garden, waiting, wondering. And in the garden, she encounters Christ. When she meets him, she tries to fit him into her categories of understanding, her world view of expectations and assumptions. But Jesus didn’t stay there.

He knew her, he called her, “Mary” and in that moment, she recognized him. In that moment, she came to know that the world had changed forever. She had experienced Good Friday, the horrible and violent death of Jesus Christ, the dashing of all of her hopes, the crushing of her faith. And she had experienced the silence of Saturday, a day of grief and mourning. That morning she had come to the tomb, seeking solace, perhaps to say a last goodbye to the friend and teacher she had known and loved, and instead her world was transformed.

We all know too well the reality of suffering and death. We see it on the news, the pictures of the violence we humans perpetrate on each other, whether in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, or closer to home, in Newtown, the streets of Chicago, or Madison. We have experienced the reality and horror of suffering in watching loved ones die. We know the horrors and pain of this world, the weakness and frailty of human existence. We know all that. And too often, like Nicodemus, we seek to encase and embalm our hopes and dreams under 100 lbs of embalming spices, behind a heavy stone, in a tomb.

Jesus was safely, securely buried. The story was at an end. Nicodemus could go home and quit wondering about this strange teacher and return to his work and to his religious duties without another thought. But Mary came back to the tomb and discovered that the world she knew no longer existed. Jesus Christ had burst from the tomb, conquering death, defeating the forces that sought to crush him. He came to her, called her name, and in that moment, as she recognized him, she experienced the amazing power and love of God.

My hope and prayer for you is that you experience something of that same amazing power and love of God, that like Mary you see the world with new eyes and new hope, that everything you have done to keep the amazing love of Jesus Christ safely embalmed under 100 pounds of spices and behind a heavy stone, will be overwhelmed and destroyed by the joy of Easter and our resurrection faith that proclaims, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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