Text: Matthew 27:57-66
Following the funeral of a Christian we travel in procession to what we call the committal. We commit the body of our loved one to the ground. The pastor leads the casket and all those mourning to the place of burial and family and friends stand before the casket and the empty grave.
In this situation a pastor finds himself before some eager listeners. Why? Well, it’s because all the clichés about death here simply will not do. “He will live forever in our memories.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “They are in a better place now.” Well, that all won’t really do. Not now. Not when you hold that cold hand in death or kiss that grey and pale forehead. Not when the casket shuts and not when the body is lowered into that dark grave. Those clichés of empty comfort and hallmark card sympathy, even when offered with complete sincerity will fall short. They die in the midst of death.
The undertaker and cemetery staff have a habit of placing down green fake grass over the mounds of dirt. But that’s not fooling anybody. Death is a cruel intrusion into this world. Even the atheist and the unbeliever, well, if he is honest, knows something of the truth of it all. Because ever human heart cries out and knows with surety – that it was simply not supposed to be this way!
And that’s true! God formed man from the dust of the ground. Breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and so man became a living creature. Man and woman were created to live forever in fellowship with their Creator. God did not create them to die. He did not create us to die. And we know from the Scriptures that the cause of death is sin and so death spread to all because all sinned. If there was no sin there would be no death. So you can’t blame God. You can’t blame the devil either, even though Adam and Eve tried both.
We must blame ourselves. Every sinner must acknowledge the truth of it all. He must say: I am a sinner. I sin. And the sin which I commit is killing me and my sin also kills others. I am sick with a terminal disease which leads to death. This is what I rightfully deserve. I am an accomplice with the devil. I am to blame. And so God has spoken also to me: “By the sweat of my face I shall eat bread, till I return to the ground, for out of it I were taken; for I am dust, and to dust I shall return.”
This was the hard but necessary truth we all needed to hear on Ash Wednesday. I smeared ashes on you. I smeared ashes on your children and my own children, even on the little babies here, remembering the words of King David, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” No one escaped those words. No one can ignore the prognosis: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
So consider this curse of death – the horror of it all – it’s unrelenting jaws – how it dogs us – chases us and hunts us down at every step. But then look to this precious and Holy Gospel tonight! Because there you see the one and only man who didn’t deserve all that. So how strange, how awful, and how wonderful that that judgment and curse isn’t coming down on your head but on His instead. Look at Him taking the weight of the world’s sin, absorbing God’s righteous wrath, that we might be spared, healed by his wounds and restored.
He cried out with a loud voice. He yielded up his spirit. He trusted that His Father would raise Him from the dead. The curtain tore in two. The whole earth shook. The tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints were alive walking out of their tombs by the power of His resurrection. At the foot of the cross the centurion and those standing there were filled with awe and confessed: “Truly this was the Son of God.”
Tonight we remember and give thanks for Joseph of Aramaethea – a Joseph not just charged with being a steward of the grain in Egypt – but rather a steward of the very bread of life. A once secret disciple is secret no more. Jesus death has made him bold and so he risks all by asking Pilate for the body of Jesus - to take him down from the cross – to gently care for that body. To wrap Him in a linen shroud and lay him in the manger of earth, in his own grave. Nicodemus who once comes to Jesus by night assists as well. You might call them the first altar guild.
And how perfect that Nicodemus was there, as well! He was that disciple who had a hard time getting his head around baptism. But now here he is at the death of Jesus, a real theologian of the cross. And that’s just absolutely perfect! Because baptism, you see, baptism is the link between Jesus death and every one of us.
That’s why Saint Paul asks the question: “Don’t you know, don’t you get it, that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
We probably don’t get it! We think we can reform our lives, shape up morally, and cheat death. But don’t you know, don’t you get it, that all of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death!? Don’t gloss over those words! Let them sink in! Because in baptism, Jesus took you up in his arms, sins and all, and carried you right with him into his tomb where he buried all your sins. Dear friends, there is only one cure for sin: death! In baptism you die with Jesus – plan and simple! In baptism you are raised with Jesus. In baptism you have a new life, every day, through repentance and confession, through faith and forgiveness. In baptism you participate, you are joined to Jesus death and resurrection. The benefits of Good Friday and the benefits of Easter Sunday become your possession through baptism and faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s the truth!
So at the grave side this is what ultimately matters. No clichés and empty platitudes here. Just Jesus death for the life of the world – in which there is forgiveness and everlasting life. At the committal of every Christian saint we pray these words “O Lord, Jesus Christ, by your three day rest in the tomb You hallowed and sanctified the graves of all who believe in you, promising resurrection to our mortal bodies. Bless this grave that the body of this saint may rest here in peace until you awaken them to glory, when they will see You face to face and know the splendor of the eternal God.
At the committal for a baptized child of God we remember this. That the Christian grave is a beautiful and delightful garden. We place upon it fragrant roses and lilies, which will flourish and flower on the eternal summer of the last day when all the dead in Christ will rise and bloom on that great and final day.
Dear Christian heart. What has Christ done for you that you trust in Him? Say this: “He died for me and shed His blood for me on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. And because Christ was laid in the earth and buried, and His grave made glorious, so my Christian grave also has become a glorious thing, so holy, and a portal to everlasting life!
My Jesus joins His death to mine so that when my last hour comes, I make awake from sleep and know and believe that Jesus will stand by me in the hour of death and in the day of judgment, rescue me from and evil of body and soul, and give me a blessed end, and so lead me into the way of eternal life and everlasting fellowship with God.
Therefore, Christ’s death teaches us all how to to die, committing ourselves fully to Him who loves us. And in learning how to die, we learn how to truly live. Learn also from Joseph of Arimathea to ask boldly and confidently for the body of Jesus, risking everything to have Christ as your one true and only treasure. In the name of Jesus. Amen.