Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous.

It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my trip to Israel that I made a few years ago. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the tradition Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that the tomb is empty!

The God of Saturday

It’s Good Friday as I write this.  The last few days have been filled with all sorts of special observances and activities, from neighborhood Easter Egg hunts to special Holy Week midday church services – days have seen both secular and sacred activities, observances that have in some cases had pagan origins, and others that form the foundational truth of Christianity.

Facebook is flooded these days with all sorts of memes, featuring pictures of a cross, an empty tomb, and more, and lots of Bible quotations.  People keep repeating lots of bumper sticker theology, but I wonder how many of us are actually thinking about the truth we say we are professing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  Yes, we NEED to talk about Jesus’ suffering.  We must teach and understand the atoning work of Christ on the cross.  And by all means, we should exult – and exalt – the resurrection.  The historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the founding principle on which Christianity is based.

But what about those who are still waiting for God to come through for them?  They want to believe in God, but they’re not seeing the victories and the good times that others are talking about.  Maybe you can relate to:

  • A loved one who died, even in the face of many, many prayers.
  • A marriage that shattered, in spite of your best efforts.
  • A job that didn’t materialize.
  • A situation that you were sure was God’s will, that has now fallen apart.

The awful moment has passed.  You’ve left the hospital, the police station, the cemetery.  Now you’re left with shattered hopes, broken dreams, and wounded faith.  You want to believe that God will come through and make it all okay, but you are afraid to hope too much.  Well-meaning friends tell you that God will not put more on you than you can bear, and to just keep praying for the victory.  The Friday of your crisis is over, but you haven’t seen the Sunday morning of your renewed hopes yet.

You’re stuck in Saturday.

Saturday is a terrible place to be.  It was the attitude of Saturday that left the disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear (John 20:19).  It was the same attitude of despair you can hear in the words of Cleopas, even as they encountered the Stranger on the road to Emmaus – “But we had hoped…” (Luke 24:21).

Surely you have experienced a Saturday.  God hasn’t done things in a way that makes sense.  Your expectations have been turned completely upside-down.  So now what?

Even on Saturday, we must hold on.  Keep on trusting.  Keep on hoping.  This is the truth King David understood when he wrote, “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)  Or the psalmist in Psalm 42 & 43 – “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him.”

This is the meaning behind the scripture that Jesus quoted from the cross – Psalm 22.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Like any good Jewish boy, Jesus knew He didn’t have to quote an entire passage, in order to reference an entire passage.  And Psalm 22, the crucifixion psalm, also contains some of the most confident outpouring of hope in the entire Old Testament.

Psalm 22 may be the most – human – of any psalm ever written.  Who has not felt abandoned by God?  Who has not felt forsaken?  But I reject the theology that says that God “turned his back” on Jesus here.  I think Jesus was experiencing the very human emotion of feeling distant from God.  Haven’t you ever felt that way?  When you felt alone and abandoned, had God really turned His back on you?  Of course not.  And I don’t think He did here, either.

Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 to remind Himself of its glorious truth – that God is still God, even when I can’t figure out what’s going on.  God is still God, even when I can’t feel Him.  In Psalm 22, David pours out his heart to remind himself that even though it’s bad right now, God has always come through before, and He will again.  Psalm 22 begins in despair, but ends in triumph.

Faith is hard when you’re in a Saturday.  It’s easy to feel offended by what God has – or has not – done.  Unmet hopes gnaw at us, and unfulfilled dreams mock.  The enemy is constantly in your ear, telling you that God is not to be trusted, to cut your losses and move on.  Or maybe just lower your expectations, go through the motion of going to church, but don’t risk too much.

But the truth of the Bible, and the word of our testimony both say, HOLD ON.  God will come through.  Maybe not in the way you expect.  Maybe not with the timing you think best.  But He will not forsake you.  He will not abandon you.  He will bring ultimate victory, and He will make all things new again.

God is still God, even when I don’t understand.  He is still God of my life and God of my hopes.  And He is still God, even of my Saturdays.

Saturdays are long and painful, but there IS hope.  Don’t give up on God, and don’t give in to despair.  Keep on trusting.  Keep on hoping.  Keep on praying.

Sunday’s coming.

(Originally posted in 2013.)