I am angry to this day at my council colleagues for calling that meeting so hastily in the middle of the night.
Nicodemus somehow learned about the plan for Judas’ betrayal of the Master, which brought Him into custody for judgment before the Sanhedrin. By the time Nicodemus’ message got to me, the die was cast. While I was racing the 20-mile trip from Arimathea, the crowd had already certified to crucify the Lord.
Nicodemus was waiting for me as I entered the Fish Gate on Jerusalem’s eastern wall. His message had instructed me to meet him there.
“Joseph, it’s too late!” Nicodemus sounded exasperated. “They are already there.” His hand shook nervously as he pointed in the direction of Golgatha. Jesus told us this would happen according to God’s plan. But, at the time, we could not imagine what earthly good such a Heavenly plan would bring.
It was nearly 3 p.m. Approaching the cross, we heard Him cry loudly, “IT IS FINISHED!” He was dead, the skies were dark, and my soul was filled with dread.
The sight of the guard running a spear into Him, and the sight of His blood splashing down His side, His leg, and His cross, stirred in me a bitter passion. “God as my witness, they’ll do no more to Him!” I blurted loudly.
Nicodemus and I rushed back to Gabbatha for a meeting with Pilate to request the Lord’s body. By the time permission was given, it was getting very late in the evening to make burial preparations.
Leading a borrowed ox and wagon, we two trudged back to the Cross. The crowd previously poised around Jesus’ cross had dispersed. John, Mary and the other women we knew as His followers were gone. The Roman guard kept at an indifferent distance. The two criminals writhed weakly with their own dying agony. Jesus’ body hung lifeless. It was certain that though dead Jesus would hang there until the others died, too. Sometimes the condemned lingered two to three days.
But, from the backside of Jesus’ cross, we saw the gaunt features of a small-framed woman. Though we had never seen her, there was something strangely insightful, yet wonderfully spiritual about her countenance.
She knelt on a piece of sackcloth spread over a rock. She was a curious sight, because she looked weather-worn and as though drenched with rain. The skies and the weather had taken on an eerie quality all afternoon, but it had not rained.
Little did we notice the two vultures which defiantly drifted near the Lord’s body as though looking for a place to land on the Cross. Suddenly, this woman jumped from her knees in a ferocious manner, and, with her sackcloth, put the two scavengers to high flight. When a passing dog stopped to sniff the blood at the foot of Jesus’ cross, she put him on the run very quickly, too.
She re-spread her sackcloth over the stone, and re-positioned herself on her knees. Her eyes confronted our gaze. In an instant, an incident in the Hebrew Scripture came alive right before Nicodemus and me about a certain mother named Rizpah.
Rizpah had been the concubine of King Saul, bearing him two sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth. When her two boys were hung for others sakes, Rizpah watched over their bound, dangling bodies until rain came to the drought-afflicted kingdom. She protected their dead bodies night and day through cold and heat until King David came to give them a proper burial. Could it be that the spirit of Rizpah was present by the direction of God to watch over the body of Jesus until He, too, could be given a proper burial? Little did the two of us realize how important our detail of burial was.
Her presence backed away from the Cross as though inviting us to start the task. We lowered the Lord’s body, and disconnected Him from the three nails and the rope. We handled Him carefully, because the flesh on His back was so severely shredded from the Roman whips. His face was bruised and swollen by the pummeling he received from the hands of those who hated this gentle man.
“Joseph, why did I not do more to stand up for Him?” Nicodemus asked sorrowfully. He took the Lord’s hand and rubbed it softly as though trying to remove the nail-hole from it. “I forsook Him when I should have been more open about my belief in Him!”
“My friend, I did the same,” I returned. Looking down into Jesus’ face, I whispered through my tears, “Thank you for showing me the love of God. Does God surely love the world as you said to let this happen to you?” I watched His face for an answer that came only later.
I gingerly lifted from his head the crown of thorns and skipped it across the dusty ground with disgust. It scratched to a stop.
But, I felt a rebuke in my heart for my angry gesture when I remembered the presence of the woman. As I turned toward her, I heard her say, “Be full of faith. Watch for the rise of the sun on the morning after Sabbath.” And, surprisingly, her decrepit form disappeared in the wisp of the west wind.
Nicodemus and I had seen Jesus perform so many miraculous things that somehow we were not surprised by the appearance of this personage from the books of the prophets. We spent the next day discussing her and her story.
Just like her sons died for the sins of a few others, Jesus said that He would die for the sins of the world. Just like her sons died that some be blessed, Jesus said that His death would bless the world. Just like her sons died to satisfy the demands of justice, Jesus said that His death would serve as the means of satisfying the just demands of God for eternal salvation.
The comparisons startled our minds. To top it all, we remembered how Jesus had said that the Scripture pointed to Him, and that His dead body would not see corruption, for which designation, comparatively, Rizpah became the last woman to leave the cross.
It was certainly a black Friday for those of us who believed in Jesus of Nazareth. But, by Sunday afternoon, when Nicodemus and I realized that Rizpah had meant “the rise of the Son,” it put all things into powerful perspective as Jesus had intended all along. It was then I truly committed that I would never leave the Cross of my Savior.
The Rev. Ron Branch is pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Mason, W.Va.
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