I recently visited the grave sites of relatives of mine from a couple of generations ago. If you have ever done such a thing, you know it can be a very meaningful, but also a very humbling, experience, especially if these are people you never met, and you know very little about. All you know is that you share a common ancestry with them through a grandfather on your mother’s side or a great-grandmother on your father’s side or someone beyond that. The person in that grave may have been a vibrant, important, loving, joy-filled person, but what is left of all that? – there in the grave for many decades, maybe more than a century? – not much remembered – hardly even known? When we are at that grave and think about it that way, we might even wonder how meaningful this meaningful experience really is. That full grave might threaten to make the whole experience feel pretty empty…
But visiting the grave of Jesus as we are doing tonight makes visiting any grave of every believer in the Lord a wonderful experience, regardless of whether we knew them well or knew them not at all, because we will know them and we will see them when we are fellow citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem through the work which our Lord Jesus did in the earthly Jerusalem on the cross from which he was taken down — and then placed into a grave, there to reside until he would rise, just as the Scriptures – and Jesus himself – had said he would.
That’s what makes visiting Jesus’ grave so much different, because the why and the how of Jesus’ death and burial are so much different. As I read these words from Isaiah the prophet, spoken of the coming Messiah over seven hundred years before Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, try to think about the “why” and the “how” – why Jesus went to the grave and how Jesus went to the grave, because the why and the how are all mingled together throughout the words Isaiah wrote. As we then share some thoughts about these words, I pray that they will be very helpful for you for any time when you visit a grave…
From one of the great chapters of the Bible – Isaiah 53: 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.
The first part of verse 9 right in the middle gives a good hint about the why and the how. I’ll read the first part of verse 9 one more time: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death…” The holy Jesus would be connected to wicked people. It’s only sinners who die. That gets to the why. But the heavenly Father would show that he was set apart from sinners in a special kind of way. Those who went through the horror of crucifixion were thrown into graves which others felt were fit for such despicable people. Jesus, however, would not be thrown into a grave like that. He would have that wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea place him into a brand new tomb cut out of the rock, and he would have Joseph’s friend Nicodemus bring seventy-five pounds of spices to be part of the linen covering with which they would wrap Jesus’ body so quickly to get it in before the Sabbath began and also before the Sunday morning journey of the women to that tomb to wrap their dear Savior with even more spices – at least, as was, of course their plan. Jesus would die in a humiliating way, but he would not have to go the grave with a totally humiliating defeated bow. That helps us think about the how.
The “why,” however, is humiliating. Isaiah describes the why in striking detail hundreds of years before it happened. Though Jesus – using phrases from Isaiah — had “done no violence,” and “no deceit was found in his mouth,” since he was the holy Son of God, still he was “cut off from the land of the living,”because he was “stricken for the transgression of his people.” When you and I visit the grave of Jesus, we cannot look at that grave without realizing is that it is you and I who put him there. He wouldn’t have allowed himself to have been “led like a lamb to the slaughter” if there hadn’t been sins of other people that he needed to be slaughtered for, and because of that in love which we cannot fully grasp, “it was the Lord’s will,” Isaiah tells us, “to crush him.” And not only did Jesus allow himself to suffer and die in the place of people who would have otherwise been lost, he also allowed himself to be looked at as if he had lost. “Who can speak of his descendants?” Isaiah said. He’s dead. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself,” the mockers had said just hours earlier. What meaning could there be in such a meaningless life to have led people to believe that they could trust in you and never die, and there you are, lying in a grave.
Thankfully, though the “why” is humiliating, the “how” is overwhelming – wonderfully overwhelming. Jesus didn’t die like anyone else who had ever lived, since he died not for his own sin, but for the sin of the entire world. And Jesus wasn’t buried like anyone else who had ever lived, since he was buried as someone who was the winner, the conqueror, the champion over death, even as he died – someone who was going to make it possible for everyone else who knew the “why” of why he died to someday have the same how – as a winner, a conqueror, a champion. The prophet Isaiah makes it painfully clear that we were the cause of his death, but he also makes it wonderfully clear that we are the beneficiaries of his death, because Jesus would not stay dead. Isaiah pictured it this way: “He will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.” You can’t see your offspring and have things prosper for you if you aren’t alive. And Jesus certainly would come back to life.
That is also what Isaiah was talking about in that last verse when he says that Jesus would “divide the spoils with the strong.” People who divided the spoils were soldiers who were victorious in battle. They would be able to take for themselves all the things that once belonged to their conquered enemies. Jesus has taken for himself all that has been his from the very beginning, and he has given every blessing and every reason for joy to you and to me, even at a time like this when we think of why he went to the grave on that first Good Friday so long ago.
That is why we can be certain that when our Lord Jesus someday visits our grave, we don’t have to be one bit afraid of what he will be thinking or what he will end up saying. Since he lives in our hearts by faith, he will know that we confessed the why of his burial – as a payment price for our sin – and he will know that we rejoiced in the how of his burial – as a winner who accomplished the forgiveness of those sins. Through Jesus we are all conquerors even in death, leading us all the more to want to be faithful to him until death and until that time to live as people who are dead to sin and buried in his love. Amen.