Easter 2017 April 15/16, 2017
John 20: 1-18
I had a chance earlier this week to read to a group of young preschoolers. When I arrived, the teacher handed me a book entitled What is Easter? I was intrigued because for the last 40 days we’ve been asking “What Is” questions, and “What is Easter?” fits in so nicely with our recent sermons. So before I read, I decided to begin by asking the question to the kids. What is Easter? One little boy shot his hand in the air and said, “Easter Egg Hunts.” A little girl then got a big grin on her face and said, “It’s when the Easter Bunny comes.” Finally, a third child said, “It’s when I get to eat lots of chocolate.” And they were so pleased with their answers. I smiled at them and thanked them, and then I added, “I wonder if there’s something else we could say, so let’s read the story and find out.”
I don’t think you’d be here if Easter stopped with eggs, chocolate and fluffy white bunnies. Sure, all those things are fun, and make for lasting memories, but Easter is for us, an encounter with something unexpected. It’s a face to face with good news that we call Resurrection. It’s the story of hope breaking in and heaven opening up to us like never before. It’s about death meeting its match. It’s about Jesus proving once and for all that He is Lord over all creation and no challenge is to big for him. The grave could not hold him. Death could not contain him. The Resurrection is our hope, our faith, that things really can be different. That’s what Easter is. But the question I’ve been wrestling with lately isn’t “What is Easter” but rather, “How do I find it?”
If you ever think you know a story so well that you’ve heard every angle, let me tell you, you better go back and re-read. That was my experience this week. I’ve preached on this passage countless times, but I saw something in this story that I had never before seen, and I think it’s what I (and I’m guessing you) needed to hear today. Like the pre-school children to whom I read, I had to read the story again to see if there was something else. So here’s the overarching vision for today. Here is what I think you need to know today: If you truly want to find Resurrection, you have to locate yourself where Resurrection is most likely to take place. Let me say that again. And to help us do that, I want to focus today on the story of Resurrection through the eyes of a woman named Mary Magdalene. This is truly her story, but it might just be our stories as well.
John, our story-teller, begins by telling us that Mary made her way to the tomb while it was still dark outside That’s an easy fact to miss, but darkness plays a key role in resurrection stories. Resurrection simply does not happen without darkness. I wish I could somehow rearrange the story to make it sound like this: After Mary had a nice breakfast, she put on her Sunday best and took a morning stroll. The road was filled with lilies and the air with the songs of the birds. And the warmth of the sun was a sign that something good was about to happen. But that’s not how it went down at all. It was dark outside. It was still dark, like the chaos that covered creation before God spoke life into it. The void created by the cross on Good Friday was still heavy, like a dark cloud snuffing out every semblance of hope and joy. You might even call it evil. And that’s where we find Mary, stumbling through the darkness on her way to a grave. We don’t really think much about darkness during Easter. We’d much rather talk about light and springtime, but really, darkness can’t be avoided. Before the egg hunts, the feasts, and the chocolate, we have to agree that there’s no other way to tell this Resurrection story. This was rock-bottom darkness, and for Mary, because of what Jesus meant to her, there was no darker moment than this.
It was Jesus who had first given Mary a chance of new life. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary’s life was a life steeped in personal chaos. Ever feel that way? Hers was a chaos Luke defines as “seven demons.” And you can interpret that term however you want. But the point is this: Mary lived a dark life under the influence of something that wasn’t good, and it was Jesus who had given her a fighting chance. And now he was gone. Her hope. Her chance. Her salvation. Dead on a Roman cross and buried in borrowed tomb.
For many in our world, maybe even for some of us, “it’s still pretty dark outside” and resurrection seems like such a far-fetched idea. But if this story tells us anything, it tells us to hold on, because anything can happen. I don’t know exactly why Mary went to the tomb that day. Maybe she just wanted to pay her last respects. Maybe she was trying to prevent something worse from happening. Or maybe she really was desperately attempting to hold on to the sliver of hope that resurrection could happen. Whatever the reason, darkness didn’t stop her from going. She went to the place where Jesus was. She went to the one who had given her hope, or at least to the last place she had seen him. You and I have lived long enough to know that darkness cannot be avoided. Sometimes we bring troubled times upon ourselves; other times it finds us and we have no idea how it happened and end up having more questions than answers. But when darkness strikes, where do you go? To whom do you turn? Maybe it’s time to remember Jesus and to run back to him…even if it feels like we’re walking toward an empty grave. There’s a good chance you’ll find resurrection in the darkness.
There’s a second darkness-related theme John wants us to see in this story, and it’s this: Sometimes we have to linger in those dark places to truly encounter resurrection. I don’t know why I’ve never seen this before, but Mary can’t bring herself to leave the discomfort of a tomb. Peter leaves. So does the other disciple. As soon as their eyes lay hold of an empty grave, they’re outta there. But Mary stays. She doesn’t know what to do or what to say or how to make the situation any better. She just stays and weeps and lingers and waits. She probably didn’t think about it at the time, but she had seen Jesus do something very similar on so many other occasions. He didn’t just pass by uncomfortable places filled with uncomfortable people. He often lingered there, as if expecting hope to one day break through. It was Jesus who refused to run away from his approaching pain. It was Jesus who never shied away from those who were sick and condemned. It was Jesus who seemed to befriend those who were “dead to the world” and made them feel alive again, made them feel significant and worthy. In way, they came to life again. That was Mary’s story.
We don’t know much about Mary except that she was a broken individual. And because of her brokenness, she was used to people running away from her. She made them uncomfortable. She was the subject of their gossip. What were these seven demons that influenced her? Why can’t see control herself? That woman is a disgrace to society! She was the type of person you wouldn’t let your kids around. She was rejected and stripped of her dignity and worth. And yet Jesus didn’t run from her. He wasn’t scared by her darkness, and he stayed around long enough to witness new life rush into her spirit and set her free.
There’s an old story told in the book of Ezekiel about a valley full of dry bones. It reads like a vision, and God takes the old prophet Ezekiel, who thinks he’s seen it all, and asks him, “Ezekiel, do you think these dried up dead bones can live again?” That’s a resurrection question we’re called to ask. And Ezekiel, like us, doesn’t have a confident answer. Are people too far gone for redemption? Can hope ever come to situations that seem so hopeless? Can healing ever happen to the wounds that have cut so deep inside? Often those situations make us want to run, like Peter fleeing the tomb, uncertain of how to uncoil and make sense of the stark discomfort and pain. Yet so much of God’s story is one of remaining present in times of trial. Like a gardener steadfastly watering the seed buried under the ground day in and day out, believing that one day that seed will grow and bear fruit, we have to stay long enough in the darkness to see Jesus at work. Ezekiel sees dry bones live again because he stays in the valley. Mary is the first to see Jesus alive again because she doesn’t leave the tomb. She stays when she would rather be anywhere else than that empty place. I wonder how many times we miss Jesus because we leave too soon? We gave up when we needed to press on? We were convinced these bones were too dry to ever live again? To see true Resurrection, sometimes we have to linger in those dead and dry places.
As Mary stays in that darkness, something begins to happen. Slowly but surely, she begins to see something she something unexpected. Her eyes are slowly opened to the presence of Jesus. That’s what happens when we stay in the mess long enough. We will see Jesus rising up in new ways because he’s not one to abandon lost causes. Whether he was there all along, we can’t be sure, but something happens in Mary when she sees her once dead King alive again. She is transformed. In the end, that’s the proof of resurrection. That’s how you know resurrection has taken place. That’s how you know you’ve found it. Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farms in Georgia, once said that the proof of the Resurrection is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. I’m sure Mary would’ve loved to stay at the tomb and gaze at the miracle, but there were others waiting to discover that same miracle. And once you have you seen, once you have found this hope who reaches inside your darkest moments, your task is to go and help others see. So what does Resurrection look like? Well, Resurrection is not finally an event that took place some 2,000 years ago; Resurrection is a person. Jesus is the Resurrection. That’s why we can’t stay at the tomb forever. Because even the Resurrected One doesn’t stay there. He’s headed back into the darkness of the world’s doubt, confusion and pain, and he beckons us to go with him. Will you go? Will you follow the Resurrected One to the mountains if he leads your there? Or to the valleys if that’s where he calls? Will you go to the doubters, the sinners, the stumbling, the lost, the sick, the hurting, the broken, the restless? Will you go wherever Jesus leads and proclaim along with Mary, “Don’t give up yet. Don’t lose hope. Because I’ve found him. “I’ve seen the Lord.” That’s how you find Resurrection Amen.