He Did Not Give Me Over to Death
The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.
But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
In June of 2011 a news story appeared detailing how an Israeli woman who, as a surprise, bought her elderly mother a new bed. Her mother was more than surprised. Apparently this mother had been stuffing the old mattress, now thrown out in the garbage by her daughter, with her life’s savings totalling somewhere in the neighbourhood of one million dollars. This prompted the daughter’s frantic search through tons of garbage—at the time of the news story the mattress had not been found.
I would love to know if the mattress was ever found. I have never been able to find a follow-up story to this initial one. All I can find is the one slice, so to speak, in the lives of these people. I find a lot of news has this feature—only a small slice of what is a much longer story of someone’s life is told. It is akin to walking in on a conversation and you don’t know the subject being discussed and you are left guessing—or worse filling in the blank with what you imagine the subject to be. Oy maybe it is like the experience of seeing the beginning of a television show and not the ending, or vice versa. We are left without key pieces of the story.
I wonder if the Easter story in not, in some measure, heard this way by many Christians. We come and hear the Easter story—we hear of earthquake, stone rolled away, an empty tomb, angel in bright garments, Jesus suddenly appearing—but we aren’t as familiar with the rest of the story. We read the stories of Jesus life episodically and today is the resurrection episode. If we went to Good Friday we heard the crucifixion episode. It is vitally important to understanding either episode to know that the good news of Jesus Christ insists that they are joined together in the one life that is Jesus Christ.
Notice how in Matthew’s gospel this resurrection story is deliberately joined to that which has gone before. “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” said the angel. We will only know the glory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as it is understood in the glory, as John’s gospel calls it, of the cross. If resurrection and crucifixion are separated we lose the significance of both.
1. Psalm 118 is a Psalm of praise to God for his steadfast love. The Psalmist, likely a royal figure, rejoices that God’s power has saved him. The themes of peril and rescue, rejection and reinstatement are explored and is why it is read on resurrection day. Imagine Jesus coming to the garden of Gethsemane in preparation for Golgotha. He has been teaching his disciples that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” Imagine how Jesus would hear this line from Psalm 118—“The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.” The Lord has punished me severely. What is happening on the cross? Is it merely a bad day in Jesus otherwise successful ministry?
The New Testament makes clear that the cross is the prism through which Christian faith, and all of life for that matter, is to be understood. Further, we can never exhaust its meaning any more that we can encompass the love of God with words. The gospels make abundantly clear that only God can remedy the wrong of humanity; only God can rectify the ravages of evil.
One theologian insightfully probes the inability of sinful humanity to rectify the situation by saying “forgiveness is not enough.” This is never to say that forgiveness has no power or is not worth the effort. On June 17, 2015 Dylann Roof casually joined a group for Bible study and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Later in the meeting he stood up and brandishing a gun began shooting; nine were killed. The forgiveness offered Roof by members of the families of some of the victims spoke volumes. It is a powerful witness even though Roof remains unrepentant. The point being that forgiveness, though powerful, will not give their loved one back to them.
Jesus, on the cross, asked the Father to forgive those who perpetrated this godless crucifixion. Even so, the atrocity went forward. There are many things that need to be set right (rectified) if we are to proclaim a God of both justice and mercy. Only a Power independent of this world order can overcome the grip of the enemy of God’s purposes for his creation.
Jesus Christ, “the heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2), offered himself to be the condemned and rejected Righteous One. Giving himself up in full knowledge—after Gethsemane—in what would happen to him, and in perfect union with his Father, he went to Golgotha carrying his own cross, upon which he was nailed, “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3). At the historical time and place of his inhuman and godless crucifixion, all the demonic powers loose in the world (think radical evil) convened in Jerusalem and unleashed their forces upon the incarnate Son of God. Derelict, outcast, and godforsaken, he hung there as the representative of all humanity, and suffered condemnation in place of all humanity, to break the Power of Sin and Death over all humanity. Here at the cross rectification takes place in him. (Rutledge, The Crucifixion, p. 610)
The resurrection is the vindication of the efficacy of his self-offering for us. The words of Psalm 118 resonate. “The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.” The all-encompassing nature of this world-changing victory is staggering. As Jesus stands before us alive the words “Do not be afraid” apply to much more that the shock of seeing him alive though we know he was dead.
2. “… but he did not give me over to death,” said the Psalmist of God’s steadfast love. “He is not here;” said the angel, “for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, He has been raised from the dead.” Surely the truth about God asserted in this Psalm—he will not give me over to death—sustained out Lord as he left the garden of Gethsemane on his way to Golgotha for our sakes.
Later on that day of resurrection Jesus met two discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus said to them (and to us) “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Jesus teaches us how to read the scriptures. In this Psalm is a most profound truth about God. The psalmist has in mind God’s deliverance from some earthly peril threatening his life. Jesus knows that death is an enemy power opposed to God and that God will not give him up to death—even though for a while this is precisely what appears to us to have happened. But now, this Easter day, “Jesus has been raised from the dead—death did not win but was defeated. God did not give him over to death.
In many places in the church today the scriptures are read as if there were some universal principle imbedded in the text for us to extract that will help us live life more successfully. The resurrection story is read as if it were to encourage second chances or to promote the hope that life can get better after some dark time or as if to announce that spring time will inevitably follow winter. Now I do not wish to diminish anyone’s joy at a second chance, nor hope for restoration, nor dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for spring but such interpretation robs the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ of its cosmic glory and is wide of the mark.
I think about how many churches champion inclusion or some such ideal; the problem being these ideals at typically about us and what we do as if we will fix the world by inclusion. As good as it is to welcome refugees such welcome does not set tight the wickedness that rendered them refugees. In other churches the life of Jesus is studied to extract leadership principles as if what the world needs is better leaders. Skilled leadership promotes much good but it will never undo the wrong that requires new and better leaders. Such things will never undo the world’s evils.
It is only the power of God that will set things right. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ avails the world’s evils because it is the righteousness of God—the rectification God undertakes for us in himself. The power of God to make right what has been wrong is what we see, by faith, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. Jesus now alive greeting the women is God’s vindication that things have been set right in him.
On Palm Sunday, last Sunday, 40 Christians were killed during worship in two Coptic Orthodox churches in Alexandria, Egypt. Fr, Raymond de Souza wrote of this sacrilegious act in one of our national newspapers. He wrote, “The funerals were led by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II who was at the cathedral of Alexandria when the bombing took place there, but was not hurt. …
When each coffin was brought in to the funeral, the congregation interrupted their sobs with thunderous applause. They recognized in their dead the principal mystery of this Holy Week: that the Cross of Christ ends not in the tomb, but with the promised glory of the resurrection.
The promise of faith in Jesus Christ is that in him God will not give you over to death. This is what the Apostle Paul asserts for the believer in his Colossian letter—“your life is hidden with Christ in God.” When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” Those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life.
Unless God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist there can be no serious talk of forgiveness or inclusion or leadership. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the cosmos to its rightful Creator. This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Christ Jesus.
3. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” The witness of the scriptures is that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, a body with a physicality of a different order, to be sure, but raised bodily nonetheless. In this account, for example, his bodily presence is witnesses in that the women take hold of his feet. I recognize that many today find such an assertion too much for them. Now if you were to ask me if I believe Jesus was raised bodily the answer is yes. The point I have been underlining in this message is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ in by the power of God—the One who calls into existence things that do not exist. Jesus raised bodily witnesses that death has been defeated in him—death that destroys our bodily existence we so treasure.
It was a short time after these events in the life of the early church that the Apostle Peter finds himself in the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. We read of the sermon Peter preached that day. Listen again to what he said of the crucifixion and resurrection. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
Peter went on to say that Jesus “commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” Notice their role to testify, or we could say, to bear witness. Their role wasn’t to prove his resurrection but to testify to it. This is our role today—to proclaim him risen from the dead.
In this upcoming church season of Easter we will be reading stories of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. In many respects these stories are of Jesus making know what was impossible to the disciples’ thinking—that he is alive. And in many ways this is the same for the church throughout history. Jesus, alive, making himself known to people calling them to faith—to relationship with him—through the witness of the Apostles borne in the witness of the church. It is happening here today as our risen Lord looms before us calling us to believe. My prayer is that you would each know the joy of believing. Say “yes” to him.
… but he did not give me over to death. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.