It would be easy to bemoan the state of the world in which we live. 2019 was a year of momentous change with the introduction of abortion in Ireland and in Northern Ireland, and also with the redefining of marriage in Northern Ireland. Add to that the pressures which both of these events place on Christians in affected professions, and especially on our young people in schools and colleges. The world around us increasingly wants Christians to keep their opinions to themselves, and more, to conform to its opinion—no dissent is tolerated.
It would be easy to talk incessantly about the encroaching darkness, about discouragement—even sermons equipping us to live in these 'dark days' can unhelpfully frame the scene—but Jesus Christ is on the throne and has sovereignly ordained that we live at this time and in these circumstances, for his glory. And he is the one orchestrating all things for the good of his church. This is His time for us.
So what sort of people ought we to be? I have been thinking over an unlikely figure in recent weeks: Joseph of Arimathea. He has much to teach us for life in the 21st century.
A warning - Don’t be an undercover Christian
John 19:38 records: “Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews.”
Joseph knows what it is like to hide his beliefs, not to speak up for what he knows is right. Was he present at Jesus’ trial and didn’t speak up, or chose to be absent to avoid the pressure? In either case he is silent while an injustice is done, afraid of what others would think.
There is a great temptation to tone down our Christianity out of fear of what others will think of us. Or the fear of what will happen to our standing. Joseph was a prominent member of the council of seventy (Mark 15:43). He was one who was honoured and respected; his opinion mattered. He stood to lose that.
There is also the fear of what it will cost us—Joseph was rich, rich enough to have a brand new tomb in an exclusive district of Jerusalem. All this would go if anyone knew he was a follower of Jesus—his life and business ruined.
But think how much Joseph missed out on by his timidity. Spurgeon comments:
“Joseph of Arimathea was a great loser by his secrecy; he didn’t get to live with Jesus, as many other disciples did… he lost many of those familiar talks… missed that sacred training and strengthening.”
There is a great temptation to be an unobtrusive follower, but it is always to our loss. Joseph stands to us as a warning.
A Challenge – Up your level of commitment
What does our world need? Christians who will stand out, not blend in.
At this crucial moment Joseph changes his commitment. We see a figure making its way from Golgotha back to the city, heading for the governor’s palace.
At great risk to his life, Joseph asks for the body of a man executed for rebellion—from the man who had had him executed. Astonishing courage!
And this transformation is not because he senses a change in the wind—he has no idea of Jesus’ resurrection. All is lost as far as Joseph is concerned. But at the darkest moment Joseph turned up the volume on his commitment.
And how different it is for us—we know that Christ is coming again, that our commitment is not in vain. How much more reason to step forward!
What spurred him on? I suspect the courage and commitment of Jesus birthed a courage and commitment in Joseph’s heart. Grasping what Christ did for us motivates and recalibrates our commitment. It is not simply a matter of being bolder—it is a matter of fixing our gaze on the Cross. That creates love-fuelled boldness.
An Encouragement – God has a specific role for you
What would happen to Jesus’ body? The Romans left the bodies of criminals for animals to scavenge. The Jews buried them in a mass grave outside the city. In either case the truth of the resurrection would have been severely compromised. But God had a different plan to safeguard forever the resurrection.
God had his man in place. Joseph of Arimathea was God’s instrument: a man of influence, with access to Pilate, and an empty tomb.
This is the exciting thing that happens when we up our commitment and place ourselves and our resources at the disposal of Christ. We find that God has a specific role for us to play. Something that we are tailored for.
This is what our world needs—men, women and young people, motivated by Christ, increasing their commitment, shining brighter. And seeing what God will do with their lives.
Enough talk about darkness. We are called to be lights, and lights are best seen in the darkness!