Part 1 of 3
Vignettes of Hopelessness
Poverty breeds desperation.
Having lived half my life in three different third-world countries, I have seen what I believe is some of the worst poverty in the world. Gang leaders gouging out eyes and maiming people so that they can garner sympathy more effectively. Whole families living on trash piles and picking through refuse for their meals, their clothes, their livelihood. Men killing others to grab a mere trinket to hock. Women selling their bodies, their children, their souls to put food on the table. Squatters setting up lean tos in the middle of 8-lane highways where children play mere inches from certain vehicular death and the begging; in Asia it is a perfected art.
All of these scenarios scream silently of horror, harshness and hopelessness. They are vignettes born of a physical and social malady, improved only by unexpected fortune or someone’s kind grace. They are heartbreaking to witness and even more harrowing to live.
But there is another similar scenario of desperation that runs rampant through developed countries, even countries where Christianity is well-known. Dare I say that I have seen this soul-poverty in churches all across America, even in some of our dear, dear supporters? These vignettes speak of a quiet desperation. You may recognize the vestiges of a spiritual poverty breeding emotional desperation and leading to a heartbreaking hopelessness. Let me give you some real-life examples from our tiny world.
Example 1: Peter and Rina (names are changed) are Pakistani refugees in our circle of influence. They fled from intense persecution by Muslim radicals in their home country merely for the innocent act of distributing Bibles. They now tentatively reside in Chiang Mai desperately trying to attain refugee status to go anywhere in the world where they can build a life for their teenage boys. This critical search has left no stone unturned in its attempt to find a way – any way – for a move to be made, but six years later, their faith is draining slowly down their faces in countless tears.
Example 2: A number of years ago, Bob and Sue endured a difficult pregnancy in Laos only to deliver a stillborn baby in the hospital. Years later, this family clutches onto their remaining son with a frenetic stranglehold. He is not allowed to play outside the gate, come over for a play date without a parent in the room, nor is he ever disciplined for truly incorrigible behavior. The parents, out of incredible fear, are stifling their remaining son with a blanket of residual faithlessness borrowed from a past trauma.
Example 3: Lara has endured a really difficult life, there’s no question about it. With sexual abuse lurking in the shadows of her past, she mercifully managed to escape a hateful husband after a terrible marriage went down the tubes. Now she serves sex-trafficked girls through her gift in the arts, but while she is a missionary, there is a dichotomy in her faith: she is sweet and kind in some instances yet hard and bitter in others. Currently, she is battling an undiagnosed nutritional malady along with a tumor and some adrenal issues. As time goes on without any answers to her very real needs, she is becoming reclusive, sequestered in isolation due to the discomfort of her nutritional demands and the greater discomfort of her unanswered questions.
These are just a few of the desperate Christian people with whom we rub shoulders; you know just as many. People who have physical poverties leading to emotional poverties; a poverty of spirit, if you will. This bankruptcy in the soul goes quietly unnoticed by many because of the pleasant facade that is plastered on top of the pain. But underneath the smile is a maelstrom, a jumbled disarray of broken shards of a faith that once stood strong and firm. Once resolute, their faith has now broken loose from its spiritual moorings by a year-after-year time or pain or severity.
They need a faith resurrection.
My Faith Discovery
Incidentally, you may be feeling this slow drain of faith in similar ways. Possibly you have prayed for a husband to become a Christian for years and still are fighting the same losing battles. Maybe you are struggling with a debilitating illness that is not only sapping your strength, but your faith-life as well. Perhaps your situation may not feel so dire; you just struggle with doubts about God and whether He loves you as much as your more-godly-seeming-than-you-neighbor.
On the heels of last month’s devotional, these themes may seem familiar. They are, mostly because I am still struggling with some residual issues of faith myself. Year-after-year types of suffering can be very painful and will not be put to rest after three short January devotionals. We both can vouch for this if we are brutally honest. I am humble enough to own up to this lack of complete faith in my soul and so for me, the quest is still on the proverbial table. It is a quest for hope in the midst of some hopelessness, the light of the face of God in the midst of some darkness, and the unquenchable, unshakeable tenacity of divine love in the midst of some soul-abandonment.
All in all, it is a quest for raw joy.
You see, I have a deep faith…with my head and with my will. I believe God is who He says He is and that He can do what He says He can do. I am single-minded in my determination to be in the Word; actually, I kind of live there, so faithfulness is not my biggest problem. I regularly stand up to Satan in spiritual warfare and stay pure in temptation. Prayerlessness is also not at the root of my problem. I seek to be content in my situation, however problematic it may be, so I can also count out resentment as my nemesis. God and I are living in real intimacy, intimacy to the extent that I have not experienced before. But God has been showing me that something is amiss, something is eating away at my faith like rot on decaying wood.
It is insidious, which is why it has taken the Lord and me a long time to come to an agreement. What I have discovered has come through, what I call, my emoting time with the Lord. This is where I sit down with the Lord and my journal and just share all that is on my heart and listen for His guidance and insightful read on my soul-cries. What He recently revealed to me is that sorrow is my nemesis. Grieving and mourning are tenaciously holding me back from a complete faith.
My feelings, believe it or not, are at the root of some of my doubts and fears. Honestly, I can usually barrel right on through a problem, ignoring my feelings, and make a faith-based judgment with my mind. I can also encounter a trial and ignite my will to act in a faith-based manner. I can be obedient and it is not terribly difficult for me after walking with the Lord all these years, but all the while inside, my grief is blocking a joyfully completed surrender. I am obeying and loving God and being incredibly obedient while at the same time mourning at the graves of some of my year-after-year traumas. The Lord has made it very clear that this has got to stop and I agree; I am just at a complete loss as to how to make it happen.
You see, I have learned from painful experience that feelings overlooked lead to a numb and weak faith. This is where many believers walk their journeys of provocation down the aisles of countless churches. However, the opposite is also stunningly true: feelings fully lived out in all their explosive array lead to a rocky walk with God and others. Somewhere in the middle, there must be a balance where feelings are explored and God uses that exploration to reveal soul-cries gone awry. In Christian terms, we call that idolatry and from that honest look, those idolatrous emotions can be released into God’s hand. Again, we call that surrender and repentance, which if followed to its delightful end, leads to soul-satisfying reconciliation and intimacy with God.
A Soul-Revolution Extension
You will remember from January’s Soul Revolution that faithfulness, rising up, and prayerfulness are needed for a revolution in the soul. But you will also remember that there must be a God-given revelation to enact that kind of transformation. That revelation is what I daily beseech God for and out of that prayer time with God, He led me recently to a passage of Scripture that has been sweetly eye-opening for me: Matthew 28:1-10.
After spending almost two weeks in this passage, there have been some rhema-revelations for me, meaning that God has spoken specifically to me out of my Bible, but honestly, I am still waiting for God to connect my head and heart on this issue. I believe He will, for He has promised a revelation that will conquer this faith-blocker in my life, but I am also firmly convinced that I must do everything I can to position myself for this revelation downpour. Writing this month on a resurrected faith is my sacrificial offering to God of a surrendered, but definitely not passive, watchman kind of waiting in breathless anticipation for Him to move in my soul in His perfect time.
If you are still struggling, still wrestling with some year-after-year kind of torment, would you prayerfully come along with me during this month of February? I do not promise to answer all of your faith questions, but I do promise an honesty and vulnerability which, I pray, will open you up to the possibility of engaging your own questions. This month will be my concerted attempt to unpack one of the most incredible moments in history, a moment that lies at the very center of our Christian faith. It is a familiar story and familiarity breeds contempt, I know. But I have been amazed at what God has shown me through these ten verses and hope that somehow in the midst of His Word and my meditations, you will also, while stepping in my tentative foot prints, find some measure of abundant joy in your year-to-year circumstances.
With that lengthy introduction out of the way, would you prayerfully read the story of the women going to the tomb in Matthew 28:1-10? The correlating passages can also be found in Mark 16:1-8 and Luke 24:1-10. As you read, look for any hints of hope you can find that will ignite that same quality in your walk with God. Today we will only study through the first four verses.
The Mourner’s Tread
With the first few words of chapter 28, Matthew informs his readers of the mournful tread of Jesus’ beloved followers, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb” (NIV).
Mark tells us that the other Mary is the mother of James and along with her is another woman: Salome. Luke 23:55 gives us another important tidbit of information. These women had come with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and after Jesus’ death, had followed Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb he had prepared for Jesus’ body. They saw the tomb, Luke says, and they saw how his body was laid in it. His very dead and broken body.
Imagine their pain. This was the man they had followed behind and listened to and fed for three years. This was the man who had cast out seven demons from Mary Magdalene, a man who had irrevocably revolutionized her life. She was free from torment because of this Jesus and now, He was dead and along with Him, hope was dead. Jesus’ death was unbelievable, inconceivable and absolutely faith-shattering.
The Prerequisite for Hope
Hope is a double-barreled, powerfully-loaded word. We use it willy-nilly in our everyday conversation as a watered-down version of its original intention, I hope it won’t rain tomorrow or I sure hope my car does not run out of gas before I get to the gas station. But hope defined is power crouched at the beckoning. It is a “desire accompanied by expectation of fulfillment, something longed for” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, p. 516).
Look at those words ‘desire,’ ‘expectation, and ‘longed for.’ I see these as deep soul-cry types of words. When I mention a desire of mine, it is something that grows in the deepest part of my identity. When I speak of expectation, it is with a bated-breath type of longing, an eye-covering shrinking coupled with a furtive peeking through the fingers kind of aspiration. Hope is a bold ambition covered by a fear-filled concern for rebuttal. It is a scale balanced both by mind-numbing discouragement and hesitant dreaming.
The greatest hopes arise out of the deepest despairs. One cannot fully know hope without first experiencing crushing hopelessness, for in these deepest contrasts the colors of both extremes are most fully unveiled. Hope’s door is best appreciated in its openness when despair has first slammed it shut.
This contrast in diversity is seen most clearly in the opening verses of all three writers’ renditions of this amazing story. My friend, in this first verse of abject misery, there are four words or phrases that wallow in despair, but allude inevitably to hope. These words dwell in ashes of hopelessness. Amazingly hard to swallow but thankfully true, genuine hope is born out of a mourner’s march. My dear friend, pit-dwelling hopelessness is the prerequisite for some gloriously-satisfying hopefulness.
H – Helpless Inactivity
Matthew 28:1 begins with these words, “After the Sabbath.” Because we are not Jewish, this small phrase may not mean so much to us, but to a disciple in Bible times, it was power-packed. The Sabbath was an incredibly important day in the life of a Jew. Even as far back as Exodus 16 when the Lord introduced “Sabbath” to the Israelites, this day took on special meaning.
The Lord commanded that the Sabbath was to be a day of rest, a holy day unto the Lord. The Israelites were not to cook on this day nor were they to try and gather any manna on the day. In fact, no manna would fall on this holy day as per the Lord’s instructions to gather extra food the day before in preparation (Ex. 16:21-26).
In Exodus 20, the Lord’s commandments are given to the people of Israel and three verses are given to this idea of Sabbath-keeping. It is to be kept holy, to be set apart from other days. It is to be a day where no work is done. No one, not even servants, animals or aliens to Israel’s customs, were to do any work. It was also a day blessed by God and made holy by His example of creating for six days then resting (Ex. 20:8-11). Extreme as it may seem, if anyone desecrated this day by doing work, he was to be cut off from the congregation. To be cut off, God declared, was to be put to death (Ex. 31:14-15). Additionally, the Lord instituted the Sabbath day as a long-term agreement between Him and His people forever; it was to be a lasting covenant (Ex. 31:16-17).
This idea of Sabbath was a real bone of contention in the New Testament. The Pharisees, who followed every jot and tittle of the law, even making up hundreds more in their religious zeal, often saw Jesus “breaking” the Sabbath. He healed a man on the Sabbath, which caused the Pharisees to go out and plot how they might kill Jesus (Mt. 12:9-14). One time Jesus and his disciples walked through some grainfields and began to pick some grain. The Pharisees told him that what they were doing was unlawful (Mk. 2:23-24). Later in Luke 13, Jesus healed a woman who was bent over from a spirit. The synagogue ruler was indignant and said, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (Luke 13:10-16).
I give you these examples to show you how deeply ingrained this Sabbath mentality was in the minds of the Israelites. Jesus died at 3:00 pm on a Friday just a few hours before the Passover and Sabbath began. Sabbath ran evening to evening for a Jew so the Passover lasted from Friday night to Saturday night. No work of any kind could have been done all day Saturday so you can imagine the disciples’ frustration.
Here their Lord was dead in a tomb and they could literally do nothing to work off their sorrow and frustration. The women could not cook. They men could not fish. The group could not take a 20-mile hike. They could literally do nothing but separate the day unto God as holy and if they believed Jesus’ words at all, a day that seemed desecrated because their self-proclaimed Son of God lay dead in a tomb. The holy inactivity that was to be laid as an offering of contemplation before the Lord on a normal Sabbath seemed unholy in light of all that had happened on Crucifixion Friday.
Have you ever been constrained by inertia? Have you ever felt hopeless in light of the helplessness of doing nothing? Many a time I have sat by a friend wringing her hands and wished I could just do something to help. Many a time I have sat in my own life, which seems to be going nowhere, and cried out to God, “What can I do?” And many times, there is nothing to do but wait and frankly, in that waiting, there is a sense of despair…unless you combine that inactivity with hope.
O – Overwhelming darkness
In John’s rendition of resurrection Sunday, he begins his parade of witnesses with a woman. No other gospel writer tells this part of the story except for John, the “other disciple, the one Jesus loved” (Jn. 20:2). “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb…” (Jn. 20:1)
Did you see that phrase, “while it was still dark?” All the other gospel writers use a different phrase, which we will study later, but John makes sure we know that for Mary, the day was still dark. At this point, the Sabbath was over. The period of inactivity was over, but darkness still ruled the land physically and in Mary’s heart, spiritually.
The word ‘dark’ is often used metaphorically to describe evil or spiritual ignorance. Our bodies are to be full of light, with no part of it being dark (Lk. 11:36). The disciples were in the middle of the lake in the dark and John adds that Jesus had not yet joined them (Jn. 6:17). Jesus told His disciples that darkness would overtake them and that if they only trusted the light, they would know where they were going (Jn. 12:35-36). Ephesians 6:12 calls planet earth a “dark place” and when Christ died, a darkness came over all the land (Mt. 27:45). John gives a strong verdict, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (Jn. 3:19).
Mary did not remember Jesus’ words that He would rise; none of the disciples did, for that matter. So consequently, the brightness had gone out of her world. She was overwhelmed by the fact that darkness had triumphed, that evil had prevailed, and that the light of her beloved Savior had been extinguished. She was literally overwhelmed by the darkness of hopelessness.
Are you walking in a period of time where everything seems dark? You cannot see the next step for the grey mist surrounding your feet? Perhaps you are in the middle of a storm, like the disciples, and you cannot see your Master; you feel all alone. Maybe you are surrounded by a situation that seems evil because the people surrounding you love the darkness. Dear one, when darkness is impenetrable, life seems hopeless…unless you combine that look into your darkness with a little bit of hope.
P – Patrolling tombs
As soon as they are lawfully able after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome go to look at the tomb (Mt. 28:1). It is interesting to me how other translations describe their actions: they went to see the tomb (ESV); they went to view the tomb (HCSB); the came to look at the grave (NASB); and they came to keep vigil at the tomb (MSG).
That word ‘look’ or ‘see’ is the Greek word theoreo meaning “to be a spectator of, discern, consider, perceive, view attentively, take a view of, survey, to view mentally, to ascertain, find out by seeing” (ESV Strong’s). It means “to gaze, to look with interest and for a purpose, usually indicating the careful observation of details” (CWSB Dictionary).
These women were not just going to the tomb to hang out; they were going there to keep vigil. They were patrolling the area, watching over it, monitoring events that were going on there in order to ascertain some sort of meaning. They did not understand what had happened, so they came to the grave to mentally view it and bring meaning to an otherwise meaningless event by peering carefully into the details.
This is all very good except that they were hanging out at a tomb. Notice they did not come to look at Jesus; they came to look at the grave.They went for the purpose of visiting a place of death. They came to keep vigil at the side of a dead body in a dank tomb in the darkness of night.
I asked myself these questions as I meditated on this tomb-peering ritual, “What tombs am I keeping vigil over in my life? What dead graves do I keep looking at year after year? What brings me despair, grief and mourning?
I ask you the same questions. Underneath the faith that keeps you going, do you have a sense of despair about a loss, a hurt or a grief? I am not talking about bitterness. That is a totally different conversation that needs to occur with the Lord; I’m just talking about plain old sorrow. Sorrow over long-term traumas, over unanswered prayers, or over the death of dreams. If you are still patrolling sepulchers of death, there is something missing in your faith. This vigil of mourning heralds hopelessness…unless you combine that vigil with a little bit of hope.
E – Embalming dead
Mark 16:1 gives us more information about why these three women were going to the tomb, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.”
After the inactivity of the Sabbath and after the darkness of their ordeal, they decided to do something, anything, that would honor their Lord. What they decided to do was to embalm the dead. Here we see their love and deep devotion to God; but it was only an adoration of a dead Christ. They were seeking to preserve what they had with Jesus instead of looking forward to what God would have them experience in the future.
Do you enshrine your past? Are you clutching onto the past in order to preserve what God has already done in you? Is your mourning some deaths a precursor to anointing its memory in the shrine of your mind? Your choice to embalm those dead memories or people or significant events is really a choice to mummify them in a sarcophagus of hopelessness…unless you combine the preserving spices of the past with a little bit of hope for the future.
Portraits of Hope
My husband says that one of the scariest hunting trips he has experienced was when he got lost in the woods. All the trees look the same when you are down on the ground and have gotten turned around. Yes, a compass is very helpful and having walkie-talkies to call a buddy even more so, but it still does not discount the sinking feeling when you know you are walking in circles in the midst of a huge forest.
You may feel like your life right now is lost in a terribly large forest. It is a frightening place to be: hopeless, helpless, and dark. You may not be able to see the way out for all the trees in your path. This is exactly the way Mary and her friends felt in these opening verses of the gospels. They had lost their spiritual way and could not find the path out of their darkness.
But, mercifully for them, they had an unseen Guide; One who was working behind the scenes to bring them to hope. In these first couple of verses, there are breadcrumbs of expectation that are placed on their path, much like Hansel and Gretel in the old fairy tale. They may not have seen them for all of the “trees,” but you and I can pick them out and learn from them and look for those same portraits of hope in our own scary forests.
H – Hints of change
Matthew 28:1 begins like this, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary…went to look at the tomb.” We have looked at this verse quite a bit already, but I want you to notice those words “at dawn.”
These are some of the most powerful words in this story. They speak of newness, they cry out about change, they herald a turning, they shout of hope. These two words remind me of incredible moments in biblical history when the tide turned.
There is the moment when Naomi returns to Bethlehem minus her husband, two sons and one daughter-in-law. She is bereft and is so physically changed that all who come out to greet her exclaim, “Is this Naomi?” She reflects her bitterness in agonized words, “Do not call me Naomi. Call me Mara for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.” But hard on these words’ toxic dripping is a refreshing windfall of hope, “They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22).
Beginning. Harvest. A dawning of possibilities.
Spies are sent into the land and they narrowly escape for their lives, except for the help of a prostitute named Rahab. Their report to Joshua is a positive one despite their harrowing escape. They tell Joshua that God has given them the land for all the people are terrified of them. These next words are powerful, “Early the next morning Joshua and all the Israelites left Acacia Grove…” (Josh. 3:1).
Early. Morning. Left. Their old life is gone and they have entered a dawn of possibilities.
Jehoshaphat was in trouble. A huge army was coming out to meet him and he did not have the manpower to protect his people, let alone win the battle. He went to God in prayer and a Levite stood up with a word from the Lord that they would not need to fight; God would win the battle. The people rejoiced in God’s promise and they praised God with loud shouts. “Early the next morning the army of Judah went out into the wilderness of Tekoa” (2 Chron. 20:20).
Early. Morning. Went out. They headed into battle, leaving their fear behind them, and praising God in advance for His new dawn of possibility.
Jacob was a man of great deceit until his lifestyle caught up with him. He heard the news that Esau was on his way to meet him with a huge band of people. Jacob divided his family up, placing them on the opposite shore to keep them safe and during the night he wrestled with an angel of the Lord. At daybreak, the man asked to be let go, but Jacob would not until he was blessed. The angel wounded his hip socket, but blessed Jacob with a new name. I love these words, “The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip” (Gen. 32:31)
Sun. Rose. Passed. And he was limping away from the name ‘Jacob’ and toward ‘Israel,’ a dawn of new possibilities stretching ever before him.
One of my favorite scenes from the Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, is when the army is held up in Helm’s deep. They know they are in desperate trouble, for the enemy is attacking their fortress and beginning to breech their walls. Aragorn is in conference with Gimli and Theoden, the reigning king of Rohan.
Gimli states simply, “The sun is rising,” and Aragorn looks to the high window in the battlements where the sun begins to shine through the stone casement. He remembers what Gandalf told him close to five days before, “Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East.” That remembrance brings hope to Aragorn, who, in turn, breaks out of Helm’s Deep with his soldiers, cutting a deep swath through the enemy. He looks up to see Gandalf high on the hill; the sun is rising behind him and the huge army he has gathered. They pour down the hill, turning the tide of the battle.
God’s Word speaks quite a bit about the hope of morning:
- “He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (Ps. 37:6).
- “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Pr. 4:18).
- “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear, then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (Isa 58:8).
- “…who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings…” (Mal. 4:2).
I could go on and on for this theme is rampant in Scripture. Other verses speak about the shining of daylight, of people waiting until dawn to have God work, of healing coming, of righteousness shining, of God being the One who turns blackness into dawn and sadness into joy. Look into your circumstances deeply. What are the dark spots in your forest? Name them before the Lord, then ask God to show you His hints of dawn. There are, you know. Every forest has a glade, an open, grassy area, where God’s light shines more brightly.
Look to the dawn.
O – Overpowering Problem
The second portrait of hope comes out of Mark 16:3, “and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’” The three women, laden with spices, hurry toward the tomb in the waning darkness, but this thought overpowers them, How are they going to move the stone away from the tomb’s opening?
Mark 16:4 tells us that the stone is very large. How large? To answer that, I need to let you in on some information that my ESV Strong’s divulged: “In Palestine, graves were usually in a depression and the stone was rolled down an incline to cover the mouth of the tomb. For a small grave, about twenty men were required to roll a stone down hill to cover the door of the tomb. The Bible tells us that the stone covering the door of the tomb was a large stone. The women would have needed more men than even a full Roman guard of sixteen men to roll away the stone. This was a major task.”
What an overpowering problem! As the women contemplated the impossibility of even getting into the tomb, I am sure they felt completely hopeless. There was nothing they could do physically to overcome this insurmountable obstacle. But in the telling of this overpowering problem, Mark is hinting at something powerful to come. Just like the dawn, this stone is a foreshadowing of the soul-resurrection that will soon arrive.
As I meditated on this portrait of hope, I asked myself what the stone represented in my walk with God. I felt pretty clear that if the tomb was filled with dead dreams and hopes that were buried in my past, then the stone had to be my sadness. This grief is blocking the entrance to my tomb and has to be dealt with in order to open the tomb to God’s healing.
What does the stone represent to you? Is it disgrace? Shame? Bitterness? Anger? Numbness? Think about it. For as morbid as all of this may sound, many believers live plastic lives with smiles pasted on their faces over a gnawing, tomb-like faith in their hearts. Asking the question, “Who will take care of this problem?” was the women’s first step to finding hope. And it might just be your first step as well.
An overpowering problem in the life of a believer is a neon sign that hope is on the way.
P – Perspective on Remembering
I found an amazing detail in this Mark 16:3 verse. The word ‘tomb’ in this verse is a different word than the one used in Matthew. Matthew’s use of ‘tomb’ actually means “grave or sepulcher,” but Mark uses the word mnemeion, which means “a remembrance, i.e. place of interment: grave, sepulcher, tomb, any visible object for preserving or recalling the memory of any person or thing, a memorial, monument, specifically, a sepulchral monument” (ESV Strong’s). You might recognize our English word mnemonic from this Greek word, a device that helps us to remember.
Boy, does this ever speak to me. The tomb in Matthew was filled with Christ’s body, or so the women thought. They had seen Jesus’ dead corpse laid inside the tomb, but here Mark uses the word remembrance to describe the burial place of Christ. It was not only the body that was laid in that tomb; it was also all the memories of Jesus that were memorialized in that mausoleum.
Memory is a faulty friend; it turns on you when you least expect it. It distorts vision and deforms perspective. Look at what happens when memories are not remembered in the light of truth.
The Israelites, in wandering through their desert, ran into a few huge problems. They complained a lot about it to Moses and fire fell down from heaven. On the heels of that mighty showcase from God, the rabble began to crave other food besides the manna and the Israelites started wailing, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”
Really? Were they remembering correctly? Fish at no cost? In the middle of their dark “forest,” the Israelites could not see the Sun for all of the trees. They remembered Egypt with fondness and longing, even desiring to go back? Did they have amnesia or just a very warped perspective? There was nothing free about Egypt. They paid for those cucumbers and melons and leeks with their very life and the blood of their male children.
Barbara Streisand has made famous a song about remembering. Look at these words from “The Way We Were:” Memories/Light the corners of my mind/Misty watercolor memories/Of the way we were/Scattered pictures/Of the smiles we left behind/Smiles we gave to one another/For the way we were/ Can it be that it was all so simple then/Or has time rewritten every line/If we had the chance to do it all again/Tell me, would we?/Could we?
Notice that her memories are in misty watercolors. They are scattered pictures and all she remembers is the good: the smiles, the way things were, how simple everything was. Then she asks the question, “Or has time rewritten every line?”
Mary and her two friends were not only going to anoint Jesus’ body; they were also going to try to rewrite the lines of a very bad tale. They were attempting to memorialize the way things were. Everything seemed so simple when Christ was alive and all they wanted to do was to turn back the clock. But time had actually rewritten a few lines, like all the times Jesus mentioned that He would have to die to bring salvation, to bring something better.
This portrait of a sepulchral monument is a powerful picture of hopelessness. Memories light up the corners of your mind, but they are misty, watercolor memories. God wants to rewrite every skewed memory. He wants to bring about a new perspective on the past. If you are struggling with how free the leeks were in your Egypt, get ready for a change.
A skewed perspective of remembrance is a welcome mat for the chance to rewrite painful, tomb-like memories with the brush of hope.
E – Escaping the Past
The last portrait of hope I want to highlight also flows from this short sentence in Mark 16:3. It is the phrase “who will roll the stone away?” Immediately when I read this phrase, it brought to mind a similar wording way back in the book of Joshua.
In Joshua 5, the Israelites had safely crossed the Jordan river and camped on the land close to Jericho. God then asked Joshua to do a strange thing. He was to make a flint knife and circumcise the Israelites again. So that is what Joshua proceeded to do. The reason why is explained: “All those who came out of Egypt – all the men of military age – died in the desert on the way after leaving Egypt. All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the desert during the journey from Egypt had not” (vv 4-5).
The rebellious ones had died in the desert due to their unbelief. So God raised up sons in their place and these were the ones that were circumcised, cut to remember their part of the covenant with God. On that day of circumcision, the Lord told Joshua, “Today I have rolled away (this is a word similar to gilgal)the reproach of Egypt from you” (v 9).
Reproach means scorn, rebuke, shame, and disgrace. God, through the circumcision of their flesh, began a new season of hope for them. A season where the rebuke of slavery was sloughed off. A season where the scorn of rebellion was removed. A season where the disgrace of wilderness testing was rolled away.
Ah, what a beautiful picture of hope. The Israelites understood the grace and mercy they had received, for verses 10-12 tell us that they kept the Passover for the first time since Egypt. And on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land because the manna stopped coming down. That manna, according to Deuteronomy 8 was to humble the Israelites and test them (vv 8, 16), but when the circumcision rolled their reproach away, it was a symbol also of the end of their wilderness testing.
Precious one, are you struggling in your wilderness time? Are you working hard to escape your past, whether it be because of your own rebellion or because of someone’s hurtful actions toward you? You need to hear this today. This picture of shame, disgrace, sadness being rolled away is a hint of hope for you. You will not always wander in a wilderness of testing. There will come a circumcision that will roll away your disgrace and you will, like the ‘Gilgaled’ Israelites, celebrate with joy and feasting.
The ‘Who’ of Hope
The female trio asked an incredibly important question in Mark 16:3, as we have just been studying, but there is just one more aspect of hope I want to bring you. As these women contemplated the impossibility of their task – rolling that huge stone away – they expressed their anxiety with one word: who? This word is the greatest foreshadowing word of all of these portraits of hope.
The first portrait of hope involved the mention of the dawn as the ladies moved out of the darkness of night into the sunrise of a new day.Who is the only one who can turn the night into day? It is Jesus, of course. And it is no accident that He is called the light, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12)
If you are in a dark time and Satan is whispering his lies in your ear, telling you that you will not make it, that you cannot survive, you speak out over his deception with life-bracing truth. “Jesus is the light in my world. If I follow Him, I will never have to walk in darkness.” Not only that, but if you choose to believe in Jesus, He promises that you will never have to stay in darkness (Jn. 12:46).
Believe in Jesus, dear one, and look to the Light.
Our second portrait of hope leaped from an impossible problem, the problem of that stone. Remember how it was so large that it took 16 men to move it. Obstacles like shame and disgrace and an abiding grief block the entrance to our souls so that no one can see the real inside. Jesus looks at an impossible problem like that and dares you to speak truth over it. God is omnipotent. He is the all-powerful God Almighty. Nothing is too difficult for Him.”
If you are struggling with the impossible problem of dealing with the stone in your soul, you can take heart, my friend. This is God’s answer to your impossible problem: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:9-10).
Believe in Jesus, sweet one, and open the Gate to your tomb.
Our next portrait of hope came from that skewed perspective of remembrance. That tomb that was declared a monument to death came from watercolor memories. Only certain memories of Jesus were remembered and many of the truths of His words completely forgotten.
In case you are struggling with some glorified or exponentially inflated memories of your sin or your hurts or your disgrace that lie in a deadened tomb, think about Jesus. In a similar scenario, He stood by the gravesite of His dear friend, Lazarus, and He pronounced these words, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn. 11:25-26).
Believe in Jesus, precious one, and walk into a Resurrected Life.
Lastly, we studied the portrait of escape as depicted by the rolling away of the stone. Many believers run from their tombs; run like their very health depends on it, but such running away from the problem is futile. Trying to escape God’s word in your life actually leads to more bondage; God wants to roll your past away, to bring it full circle into Him.
God wants you to walk through the waters of your Jordan river, as scary as that may be. He wants you to allow Him to circumcise your heart, to cut away all that is not of Him so that you can walk in complete covenant with Him. He wants you to celebrate His Passover, the time when He made a way for you to escape from your Egypt and He wants you to feed on Him, the Bread of Life. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus invites. “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:35).
Believe in Jesus, beloved one, and allow the Bread of Life to roll away all of your burdens.
A Brief Ramble…
As I was studying the different gospels to glean the most complete picture of this story, I was frustrated by the lack of coherence between the stories. John gives Mary Magdalene’s personal encounter with the risen Lord, a witness account that no other gospel writer deems important. Matthew and Luke do not agree on when the women told Peter and John and when they went to the tomb to see the evidence for themselves. There are discrepancies in the accounts about when Jesus appeared to His disciples, but the biggest difference has to do with angels.
Mark states that the women came to the tomb and found a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the side of the tomb (Mk. 16:5). Luke indicates that two men dressed in white suddenly appeared to the women and John concurs with this except that the men were in the tomb also and appeared only to Mary Magdalene. Matthew’s account is quite different yet again from the others, giving details that are not mentioned by the other three writers.
My first thought is, if Jesus was appearing to people to try and build a witness case, wouldn’t you think that the case would be rather weak due to all the seeming discrepancies? But as I considered this further, I realized that if there were four people in the same room and they were tasked with describing a certain activity, all four of their accounts would appear different because of their own biases.
Mark is short and to the point. He cuts to the chase and gives only the bare facts. Luke is very interested in healings due to his occupation. Matthew gives special attention to the down-and-out like women and tax collectors, which is why his accounts mention women more often than the other three gospel writers. All in all, the details are not nearly as important as the message, which in this case, is the message of the resurrection.
I wanted to talk about this a bit because it is a concern for many people reading the gospel accounts. Different details seem to weaken the event, but as I mused on the event, I realized that the “discrepancies” actually strengthen the power of the event because when added together, a more complete picture is given.
With this in mind, please return to the Matthew account in chapter 28 and we will flesh out one more point I wanted to make from verses 2-4. These verses describe an amazing event that is virtually undescribed in the other passages, “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.”
The Power Behind Hope
When I gave you the dictionary definition for ‘hope,’ I left out one of the definitions mentioned in my dictionary. Remember it means a “desire accompanied by expectation of fulfillment…something hoped for.” But there is one more definition, “One that gives promise for the future” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, p. 516).
We do not have the time to delve deeply into Romans 4:18, but I do want to make mention of Abraham’s great example of faith. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
In this verse, we can see both sides of hope. Abraham desired children and that desire was linked to an expectation of fulfillment. Why? Because God had promised that he would have a lot of offspring; that’s the first definition of hope. But Abraham did not just bank his trust on a promise; he banked his reliance on God Himself, in the only one that could give the promise for his future. And I believe that dependency on the Lord Almighty was the stronger power behind his hope.
In Matthew 28:2-4, we see some miraculous events, but these are not occasions that are confined to New Testament times. The God in Matthew’s lifetime is still the same God today. His grace has not been drained. His mercy is new every morning. His faithfulness is as great now as it was then and His power is still the same power that spoke the word and brought the universe into being. God Himself is the power behind hope. I pray that if you are struggling with hopelessness, these few verses can raise your eyes to Giver of all hope.
H – Heavenly Upheaval
Matthew’s account of these incredible events begins with an earthquake and not just any earthquake, but a violent one. If you do not live in California, you may never have felt a violent earthquake so may have no idea what kind of fear erupts in this situation.
When I was about seven, Irian Jaya suffered through a whole night of earthquakes. The initial one was 7.8 on the richter scale and it was a doozy. I remember huddling under my covers thinking that the world was coming to an end. Worse than the actual quake were the aftershocks that continued for the rest of the night; the ground just kept rumbling and shifting. Sleep was a passing dream in my bed and, I am not too ashamed to admit, in my parents’ bed.
Another missionary recounted that she ran to her doorway when the shock began. Looking out over the helicopter pad not far from her house, she literally saw the ground coming at her in a wave. Because her house was built on stilts, it sustained the impact and rolled over the top of the wave like a megaton surfer. But she said that her fear will never be forgotten at the violent events of the night; ground should not surge like the billows of the ocean.
The fear that I experienced on that difficult night may have been similar to the women’s fear as they approached the tomb. Upheavals of this monumental nature are awe-inspiring at the least and faith-shaking at the extreme. Those women could have been awestruck but coupled with the strange events of the whole weekend, I believe they were petrified. It was too much, they might have thought, unless they knew Hope.
A harbinger is something or someone that foreshadows what is to come. I believe the earthquake had a dual purpose. It was to help shake that stone loose, I think, but it was also a demonstration of capability and of the considerable power at heaven’s disposal. It was a harbinger of hope, an event that foreshadowed the revelation that was to come.
Avery T. Willis Jr describes the nest of an eagle. It is created with sticks, branches, and bones and then lined with leaves, fur and other soft material. During the infant stage of an eaglet, he just sits in that nest and food is brought and basically dropped into its mouth. But the parent eagles know that an eaglet was made to fly so they have to do something to get the eaglet interested in flying.
The parents begin to stir the nest. They claw out the leaves, fur and other soft material, exposing the sticks and bones. This is done so the eaglets are more eager to leave the nest. Then the parent eagles stop bringing meat to the eaglet. These two upheavals in an eaglet’s life are the harbingers of the incredible freedom of flying that is to come.
Avery suggests that the following circumstances are harbingers of God’s stirring: job changes, relationship problems, feelings of discontentment, unforeseen events, new desires, and disquieting circumstances (Learning to Soar, pp 27-32). That list could really be a lot longer. Frankly, anytime upheaval surges into your unsuspecting life, you are in the midst of a nest-stirring episode. And you have a choice. You can fear and run, or you can fear and dialogue with God about what is happening.
I believe I can safely say that anytime an earthquake shakes at the pillars of your life, God is at work. He is foreshadowing something new to come. That shaking in your life is not an occasion for you to shake your fist at God; it is a God-given opportunity to learn to fly. It is God’s heavenly upheaval to bring you hope.
0 – Omnipotent Outpouring
The earthquake was just the first show of God’s power. After that amazing shake-up, an angel descended from heaven, went to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. Scripture says that his appearance was like lightning and his clothes were white as snow.
You might be interested to know that this is the first angel appearance since the birth of Christ. In December, we spent a lot of time in Matthew and Luke studying through the birth of Christ. Angels appeared in the Christmas story at least five times and if you count visions, probably more. Each person who saw the angel was scared, but there was not the reaction like the reaction in Matthew’s empty tomb tale.
This omnipotent outpouring of heaven’s glory is very similar to an event in Daniel 10. Daniel describes his heavenly visitor like this: “I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude” (Dan. 10:4-6).
Earlier, Daniel saw God and this was the description, “As I looked thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire” (Dan. 7:9). According to one commentator, “The angel of the Lord is seen here…as more than a mere ‘messenger’; the description is not far from that of a theophany. He comes with all the majesty of God, and mortals cannot stand before him” (Tyndale New Testament Commentary).
However you want to view this event – angel or a theophany of Jesus – it was a cataclysmic event. And might I say, it also was a harbinger of hope. Angels do not just appear everyday; they are typically heralds of messages God wants to deliver to humans. And that is what happened on this day. This angel came down to deliver a message. It was a message of the omnipotent outpouring of hope.
You may not ever see an angel or experience a theophany of God, especially one of this caliber of majesty and glory, although I know people who have had angel meetings. My language helper, for instance, came to know the Lord because she saw a theophany of Jesus in her bedroom and he spoke the words of Revelation 3:20 to her. You may think, Sure, it’s easy to believe in hope when angels are flying around and rocks are being moved in front of you. I would believe then too.
It may be true that heavenly help may not appear to you in angelic form with lightning appearance and shining clothes, but I bet you have had some unusual events stir up hope in your life. Perhaps some incomprehensible occurrences have lined up to bring about a change in location or occupation. Maybe a casual conversation with a friend led you to think about a major life change. Possibly even you had a dream or experienced a miracle. Then there is the exhortation from Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” An opportunity to be hospitable may lead to a revolution.
Many Christians write off unusual events as coincidence, but are they really? Is anything in the life of a child of God a coincidence? Or might those strangers’ words, those casual conversations, those random events add up to something much more: an omnipotent outpouring of God’s message of hope, hope that will bring about a resurrection of faith. Do not discount the serendipitous; it may just be a hopeful emanation from the hand of your Father.
P – Palpable Authority
With the earthquake and the angel’s appearance of lightning and shining clothes, what the angel chose to do in the aftermath of his coming down might easily go unnoticed. Look at verse 2 again, “the angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”
These bullet phrases are thrown out with hardly any fanfare, but they are power-packed. Notice first that the angel of the Lord came down. Those words ‘came down’ are pretty significant in the Old Testament; they forecast a movement of God.
In Genesis 11:5 the people of Shinar began to build a huge tower that they hoped would reach the heavens. They desired to make a name for themselves and not be scattered over the earth, which was in direct opposition to God’s will. “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.” Not only did He come down to take a look, but He came down to confuse their language and scatter them over the whole earth.
Moses also had occasion to see God come down. Speaking to Moses first, God had him chisel out two stone tablets and then meet him on the top of the mountain. Moses obeyed and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning with the stone tablets in his hand. “Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD” (Ex. 34:5). What followed was the incredible revelation of His character to Moses and all Moses could do was bow down and worship.
At one point in the wilderness wanderings, Miriam and Aaron began to criticize Moses for taking a Cushite wife. They also complained that they did not share a bit of the glory of God speaking to them. The Lord responded at once and ordered them to go to the Tent of Meeting. “Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud…” He spoke highly of Moses, telling them that He met with Moses face to face. His anger burned against them and when He left, Miriam was leprous.
These examples show that when God chooses to come down, He enters our world with palpable authority and power. He comes both to meet people in judgment and in intimacy, but when He comes, something unusual always happens. Revelation of any kind is glorious, but especially when God chooses to come down to give it.
Notice also that the angel rolled back the stone, a stone that 16 men would have struggled to move. It was no problem physically for this heavenly being, but think with me of the spiritual weight of that stone.
That stone was rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb to keep Him in and robbers out. Matthew 27:62-66 tells us that the chief priests remembered Jesus’ promise to rise again so they had Pilate secure the tomb with a seal on the stone and the posting of the guard. When the angel rolled that stone away, he showed that his authority was higher than the chief priests’. His authority superseded the Romans and even Pilate Himself. That angel was given the incredible authority to remove the very symbol of death that sat fixed immovably over Jesus’ last-known status.
Lastly, notice that after the angel rolled the stone away, he sat down on it. This action of sitting down is a palpable show of authority. Jesus sat down often in the gospels to teach. People stood to pray, but sat to teach. It symbolized authority. When Jesus was being sentenced, John tells us that Pilate brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judge’s seat (Jn. 19:13). He sat down to exercise his authority to bring judgement on Christ. In Hebrews 12:2, we are told to fix our eyes on Jesus who endured the cross and then sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Sitting down by the Father indicates a share in the glorious authority of heaven.
We will find out next week that the angel sat down for a variety of reasons. One of them was to teach; he taught the women the truth of the gospel. I think he also sat down to judge. In that action, he was judging death overruled and Christ as conqueror and king in direct contradiction to Pilate’s judgement which sent him to His death. I also think he acted with the authority of the Father. He was not equal with God, but in this incredible move, he became God’s messenger of hope.
Again, you and I may never see an angel; certainly not one doing all of these specific actions. But look around. When God begins to move in your life to bring about some hope, He will do it through palpable actions of authority. You will have an innate sense that God is on the march and that nothing will stand in the way of His coming down on your behalf, of His moving the stones out of the way and of sitting down in absolute dominion over your circumstances. Precious one, look for the signs of authority being wielded in your favor. They are palpable manifestations of a powerful Hope that is coming to bring you to a resurrection.
E – Emancipating Evidence
The reaction of the guards is understandable, under the circumstances. They were so afraid of this angel that they shook and became like dead men. This is not unusual; even Daniel reacted similarly. “I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; the men with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had not strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I feel into a deep sleep, my face to the ground” (Dan. 10:7-9).
You and I would be terrified as well. My point is not to dwell on this obvious reaction, but to think about the result of their death-like trance. All of the evidences of God’s power – the earthquake, the angel, the stone being rolled away, the shiny appearance – felled those guards to the ground. But notice that in all of this activity, the tomb was also left unguarded. This enabled the women to walk up and have a conversation with the angel unimpeded.
All of these powerful displays that foreshadowed incredible hope were actually emancipating on two counts. They pointed to the Christ that had been freed from the bondage of death. We will talk about this a lot more next week. But more personally for the women, these displays of power foreshadowed their own emancipation. From what? You might be thinking. From the bondages of sorrow and unbelief that covered the passion in their heart for God. The evidence gathered in these short verses was enough to blow open their faith-tombs with the power of the gospel, liberating them to hope, to joy and to love.
Your Movement of Hope
I pray that all of these amazing evidences of hope are not pie-in-the-sky theology. I pray that they speak to you in a personal way, as they have to me. No matter whether your faith is strong or weak, God is always moving to increase your faith, to bring a resurrection of more complete trust in Him. You may notice His work beginning in your life through a death of some kind. Trauma is usually the place God commences an internal resurrection.
If you are currently sitting at a tomb, take courage! It will not be long yet before God begins a work of renewal and change. As you submit to His will faithfully, resolutely, and prayerfully, God will reveal what is to come. And in that revelation, your hope will begin to blossom leading to the stone being rolled away from a newly resurrected faith.
To give you courage in your waiting for hope, I leave you today with Kristene DiMarco’s lyrics from her song “Take Courage:” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=r49V9QcYheQ)
Slow down, take time/”Breath in,” He said/He’d reveal what’s to come / The thoughts in His mind/Always higher than mine /He’ll reveal all to come/
So take courage, my heart/Stay steadfast, my soul/He’s in the waiting (2x)/And hold onto your hope/As your triumph unfolds/He’s never failing (2x)
Sing praise, my soul/Find strength in joy/Let His words lead you on / Do not forget/His great faithfulness/He’ll finish all He’s begun.
And You who hold the stars/Who call them each by name/Will surely keep Your promise to me/That I will rise in Your victory.