I certainly didn’t, especially not in 2019. 2020 is a different animal. One of the blessings of this strange and taxing year has been helping my songwriter friend Nicole Unser put together this companion devotional to her most recent album.
Before the virus hit, Nicole had started her “story night” home concert series where she weaves her music with stories about her life into the lives of those who are in her audience, who quickly become participants and even part of her rapidly growing extended family. It’s a unique and moving experience, but much of it came to a screeching halt in March when the world shut down.
One good thing that came out of it was this journal, which takes you on a “road trip” that encourages the reader / listener to examine their own lives in light of how the past impacts the present, and how God brings context and healing to it all, if we allow him.
I’ll be honest, this is the sort of thing that women tend to gravitate toward and men shy away from. But if we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that mental and spiritual pain is not just a female thing. We’re watching our society implode largely because we don’t know how to deal with what’s going on upstairs, in our heads. If something inside you is telling you that not everything is OK, and you are wondering if that is something that God can help with or even cares about, then this is a road trip you should embark on.
In the foreward I wrote, I talk about Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and his struggles with depression and anxiety. There were some who criticized him for being so open about that. But guess what? When we don’t deal with these things, they fester and damage other people, even if we can’t see what these things do to ourselves. There’s plenty of evidence of the consequences of that kind of denial all around us.
So, are you up for the road trip challenge? Head over to Nicoleunser.com to pick up a copy, or even to just check out her music, video mini-documentary, and podcast appearance where she encourages us to take on this important and timely topic.
It has been a long and difficult week. You and the many who followed Jesus of Nazareth began the week with a feeling of triumph, entering Jerusalem with fanfare, people lining the streets, proclaiming him King of the Jews. Surely, Jesus would lead his people into throwing off the Roman oppressors, would continue to put the Pharisees and their self-righteous ilk in their place? It was time for a new age. Everyone could feel it.
Yet, that was not what had happened. Celebration turned to confusion turned to pain and fear. Jesus was betrayed by one of his own, captured, tortured. He was “celebrated” as the King of Jews all right … with a crown of thorns, with his hands and feet nailed to a cross in an execution as humiliating as it was physically cruel.
The man who claimed to be one with the Father – maybe even in a way God Himself – was now dead. All of your hope for the future is gone. Everything he taught seems to have not only been in vain, but maybe even a lie.
Close your eyes now …. take in those feelings of confusion, of hurt, maybe even of betrayal and anger. How could all of his words been have untrue? Did not those whom he healed still walk, still see? What does this mean for you?
Keep your eyes closed. You don’t know why, but you have accompanied a small group of women this early morning to the tomb. Maybe it was a chance to say a last goodbye. Maybe a desire to see that he really had indeed been killed. Your little group cautiously approaches the grave site as the first shafts of sunlight peak over the horizon. You feel the warmth against your skin, feel a light breeze, take in the scents of early morning, mixed with the scents of the burial spices carried by the others.
Your thoughts are interrupted as the ground shifts beneath your feet. A jerk, the ground lifts, then falls. Rocks tumble in the distance. Those around you are alarmed, and you stumble. As suddenly as it started, it ends. You look at the others around you … frightened, discomfited. After some discussion, you move on.
You enter the garden surrounding the tomb. You know that Joseph of Arimethea had given this space for Jesus, and you think it was befitting of someone like him to be honored in this way. But as you approach, something seems amiss. The others are murmuring as well. From a distance it appears as though the stone meant to seal the tomb was sitting next to the opening, not covering it as it should. Could this be the wrong place?
You get closer … there had been a contingent of four Roman guards at the tomb. They were … well, they are there. But one of them is gone. Two are on the ground, asleep, appearing dead. The fourth is just awakening. He turns and sees the tomb, somehow open, with the stone rolled uphill from is resting place. You know that his life is as good as over. With the tomb open, the guards will be executed. He looks at you and the women, eyes wide with fear, and runs. Runs!
You have never seen a Roman guard run from anything, so approaching the now open tomb seems much more frightening than it did moments ago. What had happened here? Yet the desire to know is too strong to ignore. You loved Jesus and want … need … to know what had become of him.
And then it all seems to happen so fast, so fast that you have to think through it carefully later on to capture details that all melted together in the confusion.
You peek into the tomb, but it is dark. You can see that there is no body. Linens, yes, but empty. And then it is light, much lighter and you can see the head piece, rolled neatly at the other end of the stone platform where Jesus’ body had laid. Light? Yes, from two men … not men, angels … sitting on the platform, one at the head, one at the foot. You and the others fall to your knees, but the angels tell you not to be afraid. Not to worship them. They ask why we seek the living king among the dead.
He was not there because … he had risen from the dead? It is one thing for Jesus to have brought others back from the dead, but how does one raise himself? It was as he had told us, but we hadn’t understood. It was the third day …
There is no body here because Jesus is alive. Alive! He had been dead. You had seen it. You had seen much of the flesh torn from his back from the relentless beatings. You had watched them brutally place the crown of thorns upon his head. You had watched as the spikes had been hammered through his hands and feet, as his body had been raised upon the cross upon he was mocked while he suffered. You had watched as the Roman soldier stabbed his side, and water came forth, proving he was indeed dead.
You had helped take him down, helped deliver him to Joseph’s burial place. He wasn’t just dead, his body was completely broken.
Some of the women are convinced that Jesus is alive. You think of what he looked like when you last saw him and wonder how that could be so, and if that would even be a good thing given his condition. You and the others discuss the matter and decide to tell the disciples, who are all still in hiding for fear of their lives.
But the twelve … well, the eleven that were left … they don’t believe it. They accuse your group of being crazy. If you’re honest with yourself, you do wonder about your sanity. You know what you’ve seen. No man could come back from that. But then Jesus … wasn’t just a man. So, could it be?
Peter and John at least are willing to believe that Jesus’ body had somehow been taken, despite the presence of the Romans. They didn’t see how that was possible, but they take off running for the tomb. You and the others follow as best you can. When you arrive, John is standing outside the tomb, looking uncertain, as though trying to wrap his mind around what he was seeing. He goes into the tomb, and soon he emerges with Peter. They are arguing over the same teachings of Jesus that you remembered, that he had said he would be raised from the dead. And now, apparently, he had …or his body was just … gone. They head back to the other disciples, their loud discussion receding in the distance as you wonder what to do next.
You and the women stand quietly talking. Mary Magdala moves off by herself, weeping. You are ready to leave, but when she re-enters the tomb you decide to wait for her. She is inside for a few minutes and as she comes out, you see that a man is waiting beside the tomb now as well. Joanna asks you if you remember seeing that gardener before. He seems vaguely familiar, but you can’t quite place him.
Curious, you draw closer. He seems gentle as he speaks to Mary. You hear her ask if he was the one who moved Jesus’ body. This kind man, who seems both familiar yet unfamiliar, looks at her and says, “Mary.”
And then you and the others all see him at once for who he is. It’s really him! His flesh is not torn. He is not swollen from his beatings, or bloody. It is hard to look at him and see the impossible. And yet it is as he promised.
His hands and feet hold the scars of his crucifixion.
His eyes are the same eyes of the one who loved beyond all measure, without fear or condition.
It is Jesus.
He tells you to go back and tell the others that you have seen him. They still do not believe you. In your heart, you know that you hadn’t truly believed until you saw him for yourself. Peter, John and the others will soon as well.
(Originally written for Tonasket Free Methodist Church Easter Sunrise Service, April 2019.)