It’s Easter! Aren’t we finished with the tomb of Jesus by the time we get to Easter Sunday? Can’t we leave behind the gory events in Jesus’s last days, and focus on the resurrection now? This Easter, I am suggesting that we follow the example of Mary Magdalene who stayed at the empty tomb that day. Because she took time at the tomb, Mary Magdalene experienced the power of God in ways the other disciples missed. Let’s take some time today to linger at the empty tomb so that we, too, can discover what Mary Magdalene discovered.
Taking Time At The Empty Tomb
John 20:1-18 NIV/84
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
10 Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11 but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “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 toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
The Journey to the Empty Tomb
We have been on a journey for the past several weeks leading up to this day, to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. In a sense we have been on a journey together with the disciples to this moment, to this place, the empty tomb of Jesus.
But, despite the long Lenten season which seemed like it would go on forever, the events of Holy Week unfolded quickly. Beginning with Palm Sunday, through the first days of the week, down to Thursday night and the Last Supper, to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion on Friday. The interval of Saturday passes; and, then Easter Sunday bursts upon us with all its glory and joy.
But if we are not careful we will be like Peter and John. After Mary Magdalene discovered that the tomb of Jesus was empty, she rushed back to tell the disciples. Peter and John run quickly — they are literally in a footrace — and arrive at the tomb of Jesus. John, who arrives first, looks in; but, Peter, arriving moments later, rushes headlong into the now-empty tomb and to have a look around.
Then, without explanation, John says, “Then the disciples went back to their homes…”
Don’t you find that strange? Wouldn’t you want to find out what had happened to the body of the teacher you had just spent three years of your life with? Perhaps human nature explains their leaving the empty tomb almost as quickly they arrived. The next time we see the disciples is in the next verse, verse 19, on that evening. John records the setting this way —
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’” — John 20:19 NIV/84
“…with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…” Well, that might explain their reluctance to hang around the empty tomb. Of course, Peter and John did not know what had happened. For all they knew either the Romans or the Jewish leaders had removed the body of Jesus to further humiliate him and his followers. So, we can’t be too hard on Peter and John.
The fact remains, however, that Mary Magdalene stayed at the empty tomb. She was just as mystified as Peter and John. She was probably just as afraid, confused, and grief-stricken as they were. But they left and she stayed. And because Mary Magdalene took some time at the empty tomb, she experienced the things that no one else did.
My point today is that we, too, should linger and spend some time at the empty tomb, just as Mary Magdalene did. I know that this is Easter and that all that gory business about scourgings, and mocking, and beating, and crucifixion is behind us. And, those pictures of Jesus being ridiculed by religious leaders, soldiers, common criminals, and the rabble of Jerusalem are not images we want to dwell on this day. We want to celebrate new life, the resurrection of Christ, and all that it made possible.
But if we leave the empty tomb too soon, we miss too much.
If We Leave The Empty Tomb, We Miss Mourning
John, one of the disciples who left the tomb, writes years later about Mary Magdalene there. Perhaps John talked with her later, and she shared the details of that resurrection morning that he had not been present to witness. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that, according to John’s account, Mary Magdalene was crying. As a matter of fact, when Peter and John leave her standing at the empty tomb, she was weeping. Mary Magdalene was mourning the death of Jesus, and her grief was compounded by the absence of his body, which she had come to properly prepare for burial by washing it and anointing it.
The burial ritual was, and remains, profoundly important in Jewish tradition. To be denied that opportunity to care for the physical body of a loved one as a last act of devotion, was to add further to the grief of the mourner.
Of course, our situation is not the same as Mary Magdalene’s. We are not anointing and preparing Jesus’ body for burial, as she had come to do. But, if we leave the empty tomb too quickly, we miss the chance to mourn for Jesus.
If we leave the empty tomb too fast, and move on to the joy of Easter, we will not have an adequate understanding, for if there had not been a Good Friday, there would not be an Easter Sunday. Those days are locked together in the purposes of God and one cannot be separated from the other. Death and resurrection go together. We cannot avoid the one we do not like, in order to embrace the one we do.
What do I mean by mourning? And, why should we mourn at the empty tomb? After all, it’s empty!
The tomb may have been empty on the first day of the week, but on the two preceding days it held the body of Jesus. A body that Isaiah the prophet had prophesied would be marred beyond recognition. We cannot rejoice on Easter Sunday if we have not mourned the tragedy of Good Friday.
But, Jesus was God, wasn’t he? He knew he was going to rise from the dead, didn’t he? So, what is the problem with downplaying his death?
To believe that Jesus was the equivalent of a first century superhero is to miss his humanity. The incarnation, the idea of God in human form, was not just God in a man-suit. Jesus, the earliest creeds tell us, was fully God and fully man. His heart broke with betrayal, his body bruised with the blows of the centurions, his forehead was pierced with the crown of thorns, his feet and hands bled from the nails driven into them.
But we also mourn that this had to happen. That Jesus had to die. That sin, and selfishness, and hatred, and greed, and all the other dark forces of the human condition had to be directed at him.
So, we need to mourn as Mary Magdalene did for the condition of mankind, the sacrificial love of Jesus, and the cost of our salvation.
If We Leave The Empty Tomb, We Miss The Meaning
Of course, Peter and John had looked into the empty tomb. They had actually gone into the tomb themselves. But, John says, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9)
Mary Magdalene stays and she discovers the meaning of the empty tomb. It is God’s great affirmation of Jesus. The resurrection is God’s “Yes” to the empire’s “No.” The empty tomb is the proof of God’s approval of Jesus, and the verdict of God’s judgment of the empire of evil.
In the crucifixion, the Roman empire, at the behest of the corrupt religious leaders of Jerusalem, executed a man they judged to be a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, a charlatan, and a threat to the stability of Roman rule.
So, they did to Jesus the worst they could do. They crucified him. Crucifixion was meant to humiliate and send a message. The prisoner executed was humiliated by being hung naked above the jeering crowd, and his body was usually left on the cross for the wild animals to devour.
The message Rome meant to send every time it crucified prisoners was the warning that this is what happens to those who offend the empire. They lose.
But just as God had done at Jesus’ baptism when the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased,” so the resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus. Rome and all the forces of evil arrayed against Jesus had done all they could do. They killed him. They killed him in the most humiliating manner possible. But, Paul says, “God raised him from the dead.”
Without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection. Jesus couldn’t have just sacrificed himself by jumping off a building to his death, or by dying in some other way. No, the empire had to kill him. Evil had to have its day. Sin had to do its worst.
I am sure when Pilate ordered Jesus execution, and when the religious leaders watched it, they must have said, “There, now we’re rid of this trouble-maker. Jesus won’t be around to bother us anymore.”
But God had a different idea. God demonstrated that evil may be powerful, but love is more powerful. All evil can do is take life; but love can give life. All sin can do is end life, but the power of the love of God demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus opened a new chapter in human history. The resurrection of the dead began with Jesus. Paul calls Jesus the “first-fruits” of the dead.
The meaning of the resurrection, the meaning of the empty tomb is that Jesus is alive. He is not dead. Indeed, Death could not keep him, and since Jesus had been raised there was hope that all who love God would also be raised one day. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 —
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. — I Corinthians 15:12-19 NIV/84
There is a popular idea gaining some acceptance that this life is all there is, and that all that matters is what we do here. While I strongly agree that what we do here is vitally important, Paul says there is a life to come, there is the hope of resurrection, and that if we only have hope in Christ for this life, then we are to be pitied above all men. Why? Because eternity looms, and the meaning of the resurrection is that this is not all there is. A new world is coming, we will be transformed, the dream of God will be accomplished, creation will be redeemed, and it all starts with the empty tomb.
If We Leave The Empty Tomb, We Miss The Messiah
But most importantly today, if we leave the empty tomb too soon, we miss the Messiah, Jesus. Mary Magdalene stays at the empty tomb. She weeps and mourns. Her eyes are blinded by tears. She sees a man in her grief, and believes he is the person in charge of the garden. He asks why she is crying. Mary replies in her desperation —
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus simply identifies himself by calling her name. “Mary,” he says, as he must have done a hundred times before. “Mary.” And in an instant she knows him.
And all of a sudden the meaning is clear, the mystery is solved, the story has an ending. Jesus is alive. And not only is he alive, he is still with those who love him.
If we leave the empty tomb too quickly, we miss the first and most important appearance of our Lord. We miss his appearance at the door of Death, we miss his triumph in the face of evil, we miss his claim that this garden of death is no longer his tomb, but his new creation.
When our friend Donnie Bower died last December, Susan asked me to preach Donnie’s funeral. We gathered in the sanctuary of the Dalewood Baptist Church, the church that Debbie, and Susan, and I grew up in.
After the service there, we made our way to Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville where Donnie would be buried. One of the Old German Baptist Brethren ministers conducted the graveside portion of the service. When he finished his remarks, rather than leaving the casket to be lowered into the vault by the cemetery staff, we did something I had only experienced once before, and that was at Donnie’s father’s graveside. We stayed at the graveside.
After the casket was lowered into the vault, the Old German Baptist Brethren members, with women in their bonnets and men in their dark suits, began to sing. As they sang, men gathered shovels and long tamping rods. And we all stood around the grave, singing hymns, while members of Donnie’s childhood church began to fill the grave. Others of us joined in, friends and family, as we lovingly laid our friend to rest.
As we shoveled ,we mourned with tears streaming down our faces and the words of the hymns sticking in our throats. But as we shoveled, and as we sang, we knew that this grave would not hold Donnie forever. Because 2,000 years ago, Mary Magdalene stayed at the empty grave, showing us that through our tears and grief, there is meaning and hope.
So, let’s linger a while at the empty tomb today. Because it is there that we not only mourn, but that we find meaning, and meet Jesus.
He is risen. He is risen indeed. He is risen. He is risen indeed. He is risen. He is risen indeed.