Who Will Roll Away The Stone?

(I was invited by my home church in the Philippines to give a message during their virtual church service through Zoom and this was viewed via Facebook live. Here’s what I shared, though it was in Tagalog.)

Good morning to all of you, though it’s night time here where I am. Thank you for inviting me to share the word of God today. It is strange that when there is a time of travel restriction and stay-at-home order, that’s the time I am able to go back to my home church. In fact I have been worshiping with you for more than 2 months now. We must remember that the church is not the building in Sampaloc. The church is us, the group of believers wherever we may be.

Unprecedented Time

We are living in an unprecedented time. Never in our lifetime have we seen so many parts of the world placed in lockdown. For you people in Metro Manila you have been in community quarantine for more than three months now, and I know you are longing to get out.

Never before in my lifetime have I witnessed the police guarding stock of toilet paper. Who could have imagined that I would go to the bank teller asking for money and I was wearing a mask? We have problems right now that we never knew we would have. Like, can I trust my wife to give me a haircut? Or, how many type of dish can I make out of a can of sardines?

More seriously now, yes we have problems in this world currently that we don’t have an answer for, and we’re looking for someone who can help us solve them. As a worker in the medical field, I have witnessed first hand the deadly effects and devastation of this COVID 19, especially in the place I work – in the ICU.

I would like to review a story in the Bible, where people had a situation and they asked who could help them with their problem? I entitled our study today as “Who will roll away the stone?”

Mark 16: 1-3: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

Extravagant Burial

It was Sunday morning, and the women, the two Marys and Salome, were on their way to Jesus’ tomb. The mood among Jesus’ followers were doom and gloom. Their Messiah died, and many of them went into hiding. They went into self imposed quarantine. I am not sure if these women were the only ones with quarantine pass so they went out, but the men were afraid to go out not because of a virus, but because they were afraid for their lives. These women’s hearts were broken, yet they would like to show their devotion to their fallen leader by anointing his dead body with fragrances.

It was the custom of the Jews to anoint the dead. The anointing of perfume was not to do mummification, but to put spice and fragrances to cancel the bad smell of decomposition. The most common spice used to anoint the dead is myrrh. Where else have you heard about myrrh? If you said that it was one of the wise men’s gifts given to Jesus when he was born, then you’re absolutely right. Do you see the theme here? Jesus was a baby destined to die.

We may ask, was Jesus’ body not given proper burial rights before being buried that the women have to do it again? Let’s read:

John 19: 38-40: After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.

One hundred pounds of spices (some Bible version says 75 lbs; the original Bible manuscript in Greek says 100 litras). That’s a lot of spices! Twenty pounds of spices was the usual burial custom in those days. Forty pounds was for the rich. So 100 pounds was really extravagant. I read that it is estimated that the cost of 100 pounds of this mixture of myrrh and aloes would cost about $150,000 (7.5M pesos) in today’s market. Those men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, gave Jesus a burial fit for a king.

Do we have that extravagant devotion? Do we give honor to God that is fit for the King of Kings? But even how extravagant our devotion to God is, one thing for sure, we cannot out love the Lord. Do you know what extravagant love is? This is extravagant love – when Jesus exchanged his divine and royal crown for a crown of thorns and gave His life for you and me.

Very Large Stone

So back to those women, why did they have to go? I don’t think these women thought that the anointing of Jesus’ body was not done right or not enough, but rather they only wanted to show honor and respect to their fallen Savior in their own little way.

So while the women were on their way, they asked: Who will roll away the stone? This implies that they alone cannot roll away this stone.

me trying to move a large stone in Jordan

Archeologist have found many tombs around Palestine that they believe were first century tombs. Most of the time the opening of the tomb was blocked by a stone. It could be a large mill-like stone, though some experts say that it could also be a square rock that can slide. Though to me when the women said “roll” away, original Greek word apokylio, it must be circular that it can roll like a wheel.

The books of Mathew and Mark said that it was “very large.” If we say it should cover 4 to 5 feet of tomb entrance, then a disc stone would have a diameter of at least 6 feet. That rock could weigh 1.5 to 2 tons. That weight alone even though it can roll like a wheel, would be hard to move.

But there’s another factor that was found by archeological diggings: usually the groove where the stone rolls was in an incline or had a deep ditch where it would drop. Meaning, it may be much easier to close it, but a lot harder to open it, as you have to roll it against an incline or lift it out of a deep rut, and put a wedge to keep it open. In a conservative estimate, you need more than 10 strong men at the least, to roll away the stone.

One more factor, according to Matt 27:66, it was closed with a Roman seal and thus cannot be opened without the permission of the Roman authority. Besides, there were Roman soldiers guarding the tomb. A usual Roman guard unit is 4-16 men, most of the time 4 men stay on guard while the rest sleeps, and they change shifts every few hours, to keep them fresh.

We must give credit to these women, even though their faith was imperfect as they did not expect that Jesus would be alive as He told them He would, yet they went out anyway even if they knew there would be barriers in accomplishing their mission.

So they asked, “Who will roll away the stone?”

People have the same question today? Who will help us if we get sick of this virus? Who will provide us our daily provision? Who can stop this world pandemic? Who will release us from our quarantine? Who will roll away the stone?

Rolled Away For Us

But when they came to the site, what did they see? The stone was already rolled away! How? Let’s read:

Matthew 28: 2-4: 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.

No need for ten strong men, one angel is enough. No need to put a wedge on the stone, for the angel sat on it. No need to contend with the Roman guards for they became like dead men. Heaven took care of their problem!

The women seeing that the stone was rolled away, came in to the tomb, and the angel told them that the Jesus they were looking for was not inside the tomb, for He is alive!

Yes my friends, we serve a risen Savior. Our God is alive! The tomb was empty! That stone blocking the entrance of a tomb was rolled away!

I believe that the stone at the entrance of the tomb was not rolled away so Jesus can come out. What? Before you accuse me of teaching heresy and false doctrines, just hear me out first.

Remember when He appeared to the disciples when they were inside a house with closed door? Let’s read:

John 20:19: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

The disciples were staying at home and in lockdown. Doors were closed and locks were securely fastened, yet suddenly Jesus stood among them. How? He came through the walls! I believe Jesus when He was resurrected, can verily come out of the tomb even with the stone locked in!

But why was the stone rolled away? It was not that Jesus can come out. It was for the women and His disciples to come in inside the grave, and see that the tomb was empty. The stone was not rolled away for Jesus. It was rolled away for us, so we can believe.

Are we still asking who will roll away the stone? The stone of this pandemic. The stone of our failing health. The stone of our unemployment. The stone of our financial difficulties. The stone of our broken relationships. The stone of our addiction. The stone of our day-to-day struggles in life. The stone of our unbelief.

If we are asking the question “Who will roll away the stone?” then we are asking the wrong question. The answer is already clear.

The question for us is: “Do we have faith to believe that God can roll away our stone?”

David wrote a psalm during the time that he was running away from King Saul. Or maybe he was just doing social distancing from the king and his soldiers. During that time he was hiding from one mountain to another, staying in one cave to another. And he wrote:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalms 121:1-2

Faith Moves Mountains

Few years ago, we were blessed to visit Israel. During one of our trips our bus was traveling to Bethlehem, the tour guide asked us to look beyond Bethlehem hills and direct our sight to a strange-looking mountain in the distance. It was truncated and cone-shaped.

It was a strange-looking mountain because it was man-made. The mountain was named Herodium, a fortress that Herod the Great constructed, about 5 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem. This was the same King Herod that tried to kill Jesus by slaughtering all the male infants in the region.

As history recorded it, when Herod the Great, was searching for a place to build his home and fortress, there was not a mountain high enough for him to build this structure. Instead there were two hills near each other at the site where he wanted it.

So what did Herod do? He cut down one hill and with an army of laborers he placed the pared hill on top of the other hill to make it higher, one bucket of dirt and rocks at a time. He literally moved a mountain.

When Jesus and his disciples were having discussion about faith, they were probably looking at this Herod’s mountain, which was hard to miss in the Judaean desert. Its dominating presence was a constant reminder of an oppressive regime. It was a common knowledge of that time how Herod moved a mountain.

Jesus told his disciples: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

What Jesus was telling his disciples is that faith, is much powerful than what Herod can do. With faith they can be greater than Herod the Great. With faith they can be mightier than the mightiest ruler of their time.

Yes, our God is powerful and He can move mountains. And if we have faith in Him we can do that too. And if God can move our mountains, we should never be asking anymore, “Who will roll away the stone.”

(*most photos taken from the web)

Peace Be Still

A few days ago, while I was in my clinic seeing patients, I received a phone call. It was another doctor who wanted to discuss with me the results of a patient’s laboratory exam.

It is not unusual to have another doctor call me to discuss about a mutual patient. Except this one was not about a mutual patient. On the other line was the Hematologist-Oncologist (Hem-Onc) doctor. The patient he was calling me about, is my wife.

It started with a regular annual doctor’s visit. After having routine test, my wife’s Primary Care physician was alarmed by the results of the complete blood count (CBC). This prompted a referral to the blood and cancer (Heme-Onc) specialist.

After the evaluation by the Hem-Onc doctor and having the exam repeated, that’s when the specialist called me. He said that he was concerned about the elevated count of a blood component, and for some “funky-looking” cells. He recommended a confirmatory test, a bone marrow biopsy.

Bone marrow biopsy is not a very dreadful procedure but its not a walk in the park either. It can be done as an outpatient, usually under “conscious sedation” (meaning, light sleep). It entails drilling a long large bore needle into the hip bone down to the marrow, and aspirating and scraping a “sample” contents inside the bone.

The problem of being a doctor, is that you know “too much.” Too much than needed. So in my mind, I already ran down on the possible differential diagnosis. I started to play the different scenarios, their treatments and outcomes. And even though I know that it can be nothing or something benign, I couldn’t shake off the idea that it can be a myeloproliferative disorder. In layman’s term, leukemia.

My spouse’s family history was not reassuring either. Her father died of cancer in his 60’s. She has two brothers that died prematurely, one was barely 50, and the other one in his 40’s. Then her sister who was a little older than her, was diagnosed with cancer in her 40’s.

I tried to be nonchalant and positive about it when I spoke with my wife, but I think she can sense that it can be something serious. For the succeeding days prior to the scheduled biopsy, both of us were feeling the uneasiness, as if there’s angry storm clouds hanging over our heads ready to discharge their fury.

The fear of the unknown is one of man’s greatest fears. It terrifies us. It consumes us. It kills us even before we die.

Two nights before the biopsy, we both cannot sleep. My wife asked me point blankly, “Am I going to die?”

I don’t know how to answer that question. Or perhaps I don’t want to answer that question.

She told me that she’s really afraid. So in the middle of the night she asked that we kneel down in prayer.

As we prayed, I asked God to be with us as we go through this storm.

Suddenly I was drawn to the story of Jesus and his disciples when they were caught in a great storm* while crossing the Sea of Galilee. I saw myself struggling with the oars and the sail with the disciples. We were trying our best to keep the boat afloat……

The winds are howling. The billows are rolling. The thunders are cracking. The storm is raging. And I am terrified and trembling.

But where is Jesus?

He is asleep! How can he sleep, when we are about to be swallowed by the storm and the sea?

“Master, do You not care that we are perishing?” I cried.

When Jesus arose, he looked at me lovingly, yet he asked me why do I have so little faith.

Then he spoke: “Peace, be still.”

I looked around me. The winds are howling. The billows are rolling. The thunders are cracking. And the storm is even more raging.

But I am still.

image from here

(image from here)

(*Mark 4: 37- 40)