Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Happens in the Dark (John 20:1-18)

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  How many of life’s journeys begin while it is still dark?

Neither my wife nor I are morning people.  She is less of one than I am.  I am at least functional early in the morning, but one of the rules of our home is that I don’t speak to her until she has had at least one cup of coffee.  My grandfather, whenever someone would say they’d see him bright and early the next morning would say, “Now, you have a choice; I can do bright, or I can do early, but don’t expect me to do both.”

As I was growing up, we lived in Niagara Falls and my grandparents lived in the DC suburbs in Northern Virginia.  So many road trips to go see them meant loading up the family Suburban at some completely ungodly hour while my Dad barked things like “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out, we’re burning daylight,” which always struck me as odd because it wasn’t going to be light for hours!

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  Easter begins in the dark.  Not with fanfare and trumpets, no choirs singing “Alleluia,” but in a dark, cold cemetery.

On that first Easter Sunday, the characters in the story didn’t know it was Easter.  They didn’t wake up, excited like we may have, to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord!  For us, on this side of the story, Easter Sunday is the greatest day of our faith!  But for Mary Magdalene, Mary (the Mother of Jesus), the other women, Peter and John, the other disciples, and all the friends and followers of Jesus, the day started with no cause for celebration.  It started in the dark, darkness that was not only literal, but spiritual and emotional, as well.

Mary did not set out early that morning to find an empty tomb.  She walked through the darkness as one with no hope, crushed and defeated.  Maybe you know that road.  Maybe, you, too, are feeling crushed and smothered, maybe you feel like there’s no way out, nothing but dead ends every road you try to go down.  Maybe you know something of abandonment and despair and the feeling that hope itself has died.

But friends, hear the good news: God does God’s best work in cemeteries.  God does God’s best work while it’s still dark.  Though we cherish images of a sunrise creeping over the horizon and shining light into the empty tomb, Easter happens while it is still dark.  It was still dark when Mary arrived at the empty tomb, discovered the stone rolled away and a vacancy sign hanging outside.  The resurrection, God’s new life and new creation for all the world, doesn’t wait until sunrise; it takes place while everything is still dark.

No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until he or she has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen.  None of us is ready to approach the empty tomb before we have knelt at the cross, none of us is ready for the joy of resurrection before we have known the abandonment of the crucifixion.

In the dark and cold, Mary arrived at the tomb, and she was startled to discover that it was empty.  Mary wants to know – where’s Jesus?  Was it body snatchers?  Grave robbers?  Had the authorities moved him to a secret location in the middle of the night?  She told Peter and John, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

A man she supposes to be the gardener asks her why she is weeping, and you can hear exasperation and combativeness in her voice – “Please, if you have taken the body away, please, just tell me where it is, so help me . . .”

The gardener doesn’t answer.  He just says one word: “Mary . . .”  And when, out of the darkness, we hear our name called, we recognize the One who stands before us – the crucified One is the risen One, he who had died now lives again.

An empty tomb is one thing.  But meeting the risen Jesus face-to-face and hearing him call your name is something completely different.

Does Mary understand it?  No!  Of course not!  And really, who among us really understands the resurrection?  Resurrection isn’t meant to be understood, rather, an encounter with the risen Christ is meant to be experienced.

In one of the more curious exchanges in the Easter story, Mary goes to embrace Jesus, who says, “Don’t hold onto me.”  Why would Jesus say that?  Maybe he has a touch phobia!  Some people don’t like hugs, maybe Jesus is one of them!

Well, not exactly.  In that moment, Mary was reaching for the Jesus she had known – the pre-resurrection Jesus.  Make no mistake: pre-resurrection Jesus is good, but now, there’s so much more to him.  For Mary to reach out and embrace what had been, she would miss out on what was yet to be.  Something even better was coming, but Mary had to let go of what had been in order to embrace what was yet to come.

With Jesus, the best days are ahead of us, not behind us.  That's a resurrection faith!  That's an Easter faith!  If you’re a person who loves and cherishes your past, Easter is a day to hold onto your bonnet because God has something even better in store for you.  If you’re a person with a past you’d like to forget, Easter is a day to claim the promise of a fresh start and a new beginning.  Either way, with Jesus, the best is yet to come.

Another reason Mary is not to hang onto Jesus is because when we encounter the risen Christ, we are supposed to share the news, not hold onto it for ourselves.  Our instincts, when we encounter something truly good say, “Hold on tight and don’t let go!”  But the Easter story is different.  Jesus didn’t go and get resurrected so a small handful of us would keep him to ourselves.  In the story of faith, good news, life-giving news, is always meant to be shared.

That’s what Mary did, making her the first apostle.  The first one who has encountered the risen Christ, experienced his new life, and goes to tell others about it.  Again, Mary doesn’t have it all figured out, but that doesn’t stop her from witnessing, to the best of her understanding and experience, to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life it is.

Could Mary prove it?  No.  And you know what, it’s not our job to “prove” anything about God to anyone!  It is our responsibility, however, when we recognize that we have experienced the presence of the risen Christ, and then to go and share – to witness – about what we have seen and experienced and felt.  It’s not our job to convert or convince anyone, it’s our job to keep sharing the good news of the new life God is bringing.

The difficult thing with Easter is that something has to die in order for there to be a resurrection.  Maybe that’s an old habit or behavior, an attitude, some bitterness or resentment that needs to be put out of its misery in order to experience the gift of new life.  Ashley and I love to work in the yard, and when we moved here last year, we inherited some sad rose bushes.  I mean, pitiful, really!  They were wild, gangly, diseased, and producing zero flowers.  So last fall, we hacked them back.  Butchered them.  I just knew we had killed them, and if we didn’t, surely the winter we just had would have finished the job.

And yet, this spring, new healthy growth is flourishing from those bushes that appeared to be dead.  It’s as if the roses are going, “Ahhhh” and thanking us for cutting back everything that was diseased and dead and fruitless.

So it is with us.  We are Easter people, but to experience the joy of new life, sometimes something within us needs to be pruned, pinched back, and hauled away.  It’s near impossible to experience the resurrection so long as we want to hang onto dead, diseased, and self-destructive ways.  We cannot make room for what is yet to be, until we have let go of what has been.

Easter doesn’t diminish the reality or the difficulty of sin and evil and spiritual and emotional darkness; but it does let us know that God can redeem something good from the most profound loss and suffering, just as God did through the tragic and heart-breaking death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday.  What God did in the lifeless body of Jesus, so too will God do in those dead and dying places within each of us.  Easter is the day to remember that neither evil, nor hate, nor even death itself has the last word in our lives.  God has the last word, and that word is, “LIFE.”  New life.  Abundant life.  Eternal life.

And friends, every day for us is Easter.  Easter is not a one-time thing that happened once upon a time in a land far, far, away – the resurrection of Jesus is a game-changing present reality.  I would die a happy man if we would all stop talking about the resurrection as a past event – to purge from our vocabulary the phrases “Christ was risen,” and “Christ has risen” and instead to boldly declare the Gospel truth that “Christ is risen, present-tense, Christ is risen indeed!”  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will have counted for something when the people of faith claim the power of Christ’s new life in our lives – right here, right now.

Easter is a present reality.  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s a verb.  God is Easter-ing all the time, new life is springing up in some of the most unimaginable and unlikely places.  Where do you need an Easter in your life this year?

"New life starts in the dark.  Whether a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark" (Barbara Brown Taylor).

Friends, Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed!)  The cemetery is empty, and Christ is alive.  Easter happens in the dark – God can overcome anything.  Claim the promise of the resurrection this year: with Jesus, the best is yet to come.

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