Ever since I have been in parish ministry, my wife Kay and I have rarely worshipped together as we have served different congregations. However, with her being on leave this year we actually got to be in the same building on Easter Sunday. She said that she thought this sermon was pretty good and since she’s the better preacher in the family, I take that as a high compliment. So, since she thought it worthwhile, here it is in manuscript form in all it’s glory.
Scripture Text: John 20:1-18
This past Friday, we left this place in darkness. Christ had died. We had nailed him to the cross. And so we exited in darkness, overwhelmed with a sense of loss at the death of the one who had been sent by God.
The Gospel of John also begins the Easter story in darkness. “Early in the morning, while it was still dark…” John says. While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to a tomb because earlier in the week Jesus had been executed. And in his death, her hope had died also.
Of course, this wasn’t the onlytime someone’s hopes have been dashed. Everyone of us knows those moments of utter darkness.
- Earlier this week a woman was called into her supervisor’s office to hear that times were hard for the company and they had to let her go. As she cleaned out her desk, she packed away her hopes for getting ahead, and wondered what she would tell her kids.
- Earlier this week, in a doctor’s office in this town, someone learned that they cancer had returned, that there was little chance for survival, and hope fluttered out the window.
- Earlier this week, a man heard the words “I don’t love you any more . . . I want a divorce,” and all his hopes of fatherhood and success seemed empty and hollow.
- Earlier this week, parents were disappointed by children. Earlier this week, someone else’s dreams were ripped away. Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified. And the resulting darkness is overwhelming.
As Craig Barnes, the pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington says, “No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until he or she has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen. Easter is the last thing we are expecting. And that is why it terrifies us. This day is not about bunnies, springtime, and girls in cute new dresses. It’s about more hope than we can handle.”
More hope than we can handle. How do you get from no hope to more hope than you can handle? When hope is gone, why bother?
It’s hard to know what Mary was thinking when she headed down the road that day toward the tomb. Like many of us visiting the graves of those who have gone on before us, she probably needed to stand and look and listen as she tried to make sense of what had happened over the past few days. Surely, as she traveled that day, memories of better times in Galilee would have flooded her mind. How distant those memories must have seemed. Jesus was popular there, with crowds pushing around him on all sides. Everyone had great hope that he was the one, the Messiah, who would free them from their oppression. He was his own man, for sure, and no one ever quite knew what to expect from him, but nowhere in the hope he gave them would they have considered that he was destined for death on a cross as a rebel rouser and blasphemer. And now that hope was gone, pierced by three spikes though human flesh.
Remembering the shame of it all, Mary drew her cloak around herself for comfort. Numb. She was just numb
When she arrived at the tomb, things were not in order. She had expected the tomb to be closed as any proper tomb should be. Instead, it was open . . . wide open! The stone was rolled away and by all indications the tomb was empty.
“Grave robbers,” she thought. “Oh my God, can it get any worse?”
So Mary did what any of us would have done in the days before cell phones. She ran back to Peter and another unnamed disciple, and told them that something was wrong. “The master is gone,” she cried. “They have taken him out of the tomb and we don’t know where he’s been taken.”
Of course, the guys (as men are prone to do) had to run to the tomb to check things out. And as guys are prone to do, they turned a crisis into a competition, racing to see who could get there first, who would be the first to enter the tomb, yada, yada, yada. They wandered about a bit, looking in the tomb and scratching their heads. Then the nameless disciple said, “Yep the tomb is empty, he must be gone.” And then, having proved to themselves that the tomb was indeed empty, they headed home without so much as a word to Mary.
Of course, that wasn’t good enough for Mary. She had come expecting to find things in order — and they weren’t. She had come trying to make sense of the death of a loved one — but now she was confused. She had come thinking that Jesus’ body would be there when she arrived — but instead she found an empty tomb, and the thought of the possibilities drove her to tears.
It would have been easy for her to leave with the men. There was little that she, as a woman, could have done. But she couldn’t leave . . . she just couldn’t. This was all so awful — the Sabbath had gone from bad to worse. And so, in the midst of her weeping and her hopelessness she found herself bending down to see the black emptiness of the tomb again. Maybe the sad truth would sink in with just one more look.
Of course, as we heard earlier, she was in for a shock. The tomb wasn’t empty at all. She would have sworn earlier that there was nothing in the tomb but rags, but now, two angels in white were sitting where Jesus’ body should have been. They looked at her with compassion, and asked why she wept.
“Why am I weeping?”, she said incredulously. “They’ve taken my master from this grave and I don’t know where to find him!”
She turned away from these men in white only to find another standing before her. Unlike the angel, he was dressed in simple clothes. “A gardener,” she thought.
“Ma’am, why are you crying?”, the man asked. “Are you looking for someone?”
Mary was so tired of it all — all these men asking questions at every turn. “Look,” she said, “if you took him from here please tell me where. I just need to see him, to take care of him. Please tell me where he is.”
“Mary,” the man said.
It was Jesus . . . alive!
In that moment, Mary’s hope came back to life. Her expectations were rekindled. She was in the presence of the risen Christ.
And to think, if she had gone home (like the men), if she hadn’t hung around, if she hadn’t been willing to take another look and stare at that gaping hole of death in the face, she would have missed him. It took a second look, a second glance in the midst of her pain, to hear Jesus call out her name and to see his face come into view.
Why then do we bother when hope seems gone? We bother because we believe in a God of second looks, a God of second chances. We drift into a whirlpool of despair, a vortex of desolation, only to find that when we look despair in the face, love breaks through, because Christ has risen to call us by name. We bother because we know that there is so much more to the story that we can’t head home until we’ve seen Jesus face to face. And then, when we stand in his presence and hear him call our name, we (like Mary) discover a hope is that more than we can handle.
You see, it’s not enough to simply know that the tomb was empty. Peter and the other disciple knew that the tomb was empty — and then headed home for another glass of wine. They weren’t changed by knowing that Jesus was missing. It didn’t make much of a difference in their lives. It was just another mystery in a week of mysteries.
What is more important is that we encounter the risen Christ, that we stand in the garden and hear him say our name. For when we meet him, and hear him, see him, we find our tears turning to laughter, our sorrows turned to dancing, and our despair transformed into hope. As Mary discovered, standing in the presence of the risen Christ puts a whole new spin on the world. It provides an entirely new way of thinking.
Back in the late 1980’s, Ted Koppel asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu if the situation in South Africa, with its system of racial segregation called “apartheid,” was hopeless. “Of course it’s hopeless from a human point of view,” Tutu replied. “But we believe in the resurrection, and so we are prisoners of hope.”
We too are prisoners of hope, taken captive by the risen savior and filled with the knowledge that nothing is impossible with God. We have seen death transformed into life. We have seen the impossible made real. Christ stands before us, calling us to him, and then sends us into the world to proclaim that He has risen. He has risen indeed!
And we know this because folks like Mary . . . and Martin Luther . . . and John Wesley . . . and all sorts of other folks weren’t willing to stop with a single glance. No, they took a second look . . . and a third, and fourth, and fifth . . . however many looks it took until they encountered the risen and living Christ.
Friends, some of you today find yourselves in the pit of despair. You feel like your hope is gone. You’ve looked in the tomb, and it’s empty. You don’t know where Jesus is gone, and frankly you’re not really sure where to go to find him.
Take another look. Don’t settle for the easy answers, but look into your pain and despair and you will discover the risen Christ standing in your midst, offering love and comfort.
There are others of us for whom things are doing pretty well. You’ve taken a look at Jesus, maybe even looked in the tomb. But you didn’t find much there, and so you headed home without really understanding what was going on.
Take another look. For there’s more to the story than meets the eye. I challenge you to spend some extra time searching for Jesus. You see, he wants to meet you, to stand before you, and lead you to a whole new way of life. Take another look and experience the risen Christ.
Take another look. All of us . . . no matter where we sit or stand today. We need to cast aside our complacency, our fear, and most of all, our smug notions that we fully know everything we need to know about Jesus.
Take another look, and be prepared to discover more hope than we can handle.
Take another look and encounter anew the one who healed the sick, who fed the hungry, and the one that raises all of us to new life.
Christ has risen. Christ has risen indeed!
Preacher’s Addendum: Kay reminded me that the concept of taking another second glance or another look first came to us through the witness of our friend and her mentor Sally Langford. Thanks Sally for stirring in us an insight into the passage that we had never noticed before.