On Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, I preached an Easter message from the Gospel Reading for the day, John 20:1-18. Mary Magdalene’s testimony to the other disciples was, “I have seen the Lord.” In this message I explore the idea that it isn’t enough to have seen only Jesus the baby of Bethlehem, or Jesus the miracle worker, or even Jesus the crucified. We must also see Jesus the risen Lord as a reality in our own lives.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow at my church. In it I reflect on the illness that has put me in the hospital for the last three weeks. But I also reflect on the resurrection, and how the resurrection itself makes possible Kingdom actions today.
Thinking About The Resurrection
John 20:1-18 NIV
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 came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, 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 where they were staying.
11 Now 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 He asked her, “Woman, 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 ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending 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. (John 20:1-18 NIV)
An Unexpected Lenten Journey
To say that the past five weeks have been unexpected is an understatement. On February 21, I went to my primary care physician with what I thought then were a couple of minor complaints for someone who is my age. Along with those issues, I also remarked that my legs were aching and burning, like when you have the flu, except the discomfort was just in my legs not my whole body. Both the doctor and I thought this was a minor issue which might be corrected with a little physical therapy if the symptoms did not disappear.
Well, they didn’t. As a matter of fact they grew worse. On Monday, February 25, I made the first of what were to be three trips to a hospital emergency room. Because I showed no signs of heart problems or stroke, the emergency room physicians all sent me home to follow-up with my primary care doctor, and they suggested that I see a neurologist.
By March 7, which was my first appointment with a neurologist, I was experiencing increasing pain and difficulty walking, so much so that I had begun using a cane. To add insult to injury, during the two weeks from February 25 until I was hospitalized on March 9, I was not sleeping. At first I was able to sleep 3 or 4 hours per night, but this gradually decreased to my complete inability to sleep at all on the Friday night before I was admitted to Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday night, March 9.
During the week I was at Moses Cone Hospital, doctors ordered several MRIs, CT scans, blood tests, and a spinal tap. In the meantime, my symptoms grew worse, and I was losing the ability to walk. All of that was a very uncertain time, as you might imagine it would be.
By Friday, March 15, with the encouragement of friends and the help of my neurologist, I was transferred to Duke University Hospital. At Duke, doctors performed additional tests including a muscle and nerve study, and a PET scan. The muscle and nerve test indicated that the sheath around my nerves — called myelin — was being attacked, probably by my own body. The PET scan revealed several lymph nodes that “lit up” more than they should have, according to the doctors.
I began a regimen of plasma pheresis treatments. In those treatments they draw all your blood out of one arm, remove the plasma which contains the antibodies that might be attacking my nerves, and then return the freshly laundered blood to my body through the other arm.
Thinking About The Resurrection
During all of this time, neither Debbie nor I were afraid or distressed. Both of us seemed to be at peace with whatever was happening, and both of us had faith in God to do the right thing. Your prayers sustained us and your love gave us strength.
But I never thought “Why me?” because I was in a hospital full of people sicker than I was. I do not believe in a capricious God who metes out suffering randomly just to see how people react.
I also did not ask, “What is God trying to teach me?” because, while I did learn some things in the hospital, I do not believe in a God who teaches us by inflicting pain and suffering on us. As a father, I tried to teach my children a lot of things, but I never hurt them in order to teach them a lesson. I don’t believe God does that either.
I do believe that all things work together for good to those who love God and live according to his purpose, but that’s a far cry from believing that God is the author of suffering and pain.
Actually, here’s what happened. One day in the first week of my stay at Duke, Debbie had gone home to get a good night’s sleep, and to get some things we needed. Alone in my room, after the doctors had told me that the PET scan showed some possible cancer sites, I was just sitting and thinking about my illness.
Without focusing on anything particularly spiritual, the word “resurrection” popped into my head. I thought about it for a moment, and then I realized “That’s it!” This journey I’m on is about the resurrection.
Let me explain.
Jesus Announces and Demonstrates The Kingdom of God
Often when we gather on Easter Sunday, we think about the resurrection as making it possible for us to go to heaven when we die. That certainly is true. But what about the resurrection in everyday life? Does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have anything to say to us in times of illness, sadness, joy, or celebration? I think it does, so follow me as I explain why.
First, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)
Now the kingdom of God isn’t heaven. The kingdom of God contains the promise of heaven, but it contains so much more. The kingdom of God is generally thought to be the unhindered rule and reign of God, when things are as they should be. That’s why the reading in the Old Testament for today says this in Isaiah 65:17-25 (NIV) —
17 “See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach[a] a hundred
will be considered accursed.
21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
23 They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.
This was the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. His message was directed to the Jews who would return to the land of Judah after the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. But it wasn’t just to them, because while God might make Jerusalem a delight and the people a joy again, the new heavens and new earth, the wolf and the lamb eating together, the lion eating straw like the ox, and the absence of harm or destruction of any kind would have to wait for another day.
Jesus came announcing that God’s plan to put everything right was being implemented with his presence. Remember that John says “They (the disciples) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9 NIV)
It is the resurrection, with its defeat of death, that becomes the foundational event making possible the new heavens and the new earth, the wolf and lamb eating together, and the lion eating straw like the ox. Let me explain.
Jesus not only announces the kingdom of heaven, he demonstrates what life will be like in that kingdom. So, how does he do that?
Jesus demonstrates what life will be like when God puts all things right by performing miracles. The point of the miracles is to demonstrate that in the kingdom of God everything is as it should be. That means that no one is hungry, so Jesus feeds people. He feeds 5,000 at one time, 4,000 at another. But a miracle that we overlook sometimes is the miracle of his sharing table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others of ill-repute in that day. Why does he do that? Because in the kingdom of God all are welcome to God’s banquet.
Jesus also demonstrates that in the kingdom of God there will be no more “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV)
So, Jesus heals people. Let’s talk about healing people. In various places the New Testament tells us that Jesus healed everyone who came to him. And because of his healing power, vast crowds flocked to Jesus.
The sick came to Jesus because in the first century if you were lame or blind or had a skin disease, you were an outcast. You were reduced to begging for food, or anything to keep you alive. Your family abandoned you, your friends avoided you, and there was no hope because the practice of medicine, if it existed, often did more harm than good to the sufferer.
But in the kingdom of God, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and lepers are made clean. There are no diseases in heaven, because the Great Physician heals that which has gone wrong.
The Resurrection Makes Kingdom Life Possible
Okay, let me tie all this together for you. So, if Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, and then demonstrated what it would be like by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and raising the dead, then how does that affect our daily lives now?
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead makes all of that possible and more. The resurrection is the pivotal event in which God exalts Jesus, and makes possible kingdom events then and now.
In the resurrection, God demonstrates his power over sin, death, and the grave. God forgives sin because Jesus has given his life to put God’s people right. God has power over death and demonstrates it by raising Jesus. God’s power over the grave means that not only are the dead promised eternal life, but those who mourn shall be comforted.
The resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, is the “first fruit” of God’s kingdom. The indwelling Spirit of God is the down payment, assuring us that God is going to make good on his promise.
So, as I was thinking about the resurrection and my illness, I realized that the hospital I was in, the doctors and nurses who cared for me, the healing that was done, was all a direct result of the resurrection of Christ. Healing is kingdom work, and any who do it are participating in the work of God in this world.
In Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) Jesus details what those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God will be doing;
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
In other words, those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, befriend the stranger, clothe those in need, care for the sick, and visit those in prison are doing the work of the kingdom of God. It is to those Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. We do not create the kingdom of God by what we do, nor do we ourselves bring in that kingdom. That is God’s doing. But we can pray that God’s “will would be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we can actually do the work of the kingdom of God because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has made that possible.
Paul sums up the significance of the resurrection this way:
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NIV)
On this Easter Sunday, I want you to know that the resurrection of Christ has opened the door for the kingdom of God to be demonstrated, and one day fully realized. But until then, those who do what Jesus did — who feed the hungry, who care for the homeless, who heal the sick, who reach out to the stranger, who minister to those in prison, who seek justice for the most vulnerable in our society and care for them — those people are demonstrating the values and the vitality of the kingdom of God here today, whether they know it or not.
The resurrection does matter. It matters to us when we approach the door of death, and it matters to us each day of our lives. Where there is healing, God’s kingdom is present. Where there is care for the hungry, the needy, the outcast, God’s kingdom is present. The resurrection matters because it is our guarantee of God’s power, presence, and providential care — now and all the days of our lives.
So, I’m not afraid of this illness I have. I’m not angry because I can’t walk like I used to. I’m not fretting that parts of my body are numb. I’m not questioning why this happened. And I’m not anxious about the future, because I know that the God who can raise the dead is a God who can do all things. Amen.
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.
This is the sermon I preached last year at Easter. However, John 20:1-18 is the Gospel lectionary reading for this year, so here’s the manuscript of that message. The video and audio versions are also available. I’ll post my Easter sermon for this year tomorrow.
Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time
John 20:1-18 NIV1Early 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. 2So 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!”
3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8Finally 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.)
10Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13They 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.” 14At 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.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
17Jesus 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.’ “
18Mary 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.
A Week Of Extremes
The events of the past week were a blur for Mary Magdalene. Only a week ago, she and dozens of Jesus’ followers celebrated his entry into Jerusalem with an impromptu parade. Mary Magdalene remembered how the shopkeepers and pilgrims, in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, had stopped to look, then joined in the procession that had moved joyously down the crowded Jerusalem streets.
The days that followed were a confusing mixture of preparation for the Passover, and watching Jesus do things he had never done before. Like giving strange answers to the chief priest and the Pharisees who challenged Jesus as he taught in the temple. Watching Jesus create a small riot as he chased the temple money-changers out of the court of the Gentiles, creating quite a scene.
Then, of course, Mary Magdalene had heard about that Thursday evening. She wasn’t there, but she had heard the story repeated over and over. A meal around the table with Jesus and those closest to him. Jesus, saying things about the meal that he had never said before. Like “this bread is my body broken for you” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” – only later would she understand. Later, after Jesus had been arrested and word had come from breathless men, excited and shaking with fear. Men who had vowed to fight the Roman legions, men who had promised to stay with Jesus no matter what happened. The same men who had run away when the chief priest had Jesus arrested.
Mary didn’t know who was more pitiful. Those who had run under the cover of darkness, forsaking Jesus, or Peter who had followed Jesus. At least he did that, but who then denied not once, but three times that he even knew Jesus, much less was a student, a disciple of that Galilean. All were heartbroken. All were shaking, weeping, pounding their chests and foreheads with their fists, inconsolable for having left their friend, Jesus, in the custody of the chief priest’s henchmen.
But then it got worse. As day had broken over Jerusalem, word quickly spread that Pilate was releasing Barabbas. Barabbas was a terrorist, a murderer, an insurrectionist. If Barabbas was being released, something dreadful was happening.
Waiting in the streets of Jerusalem, Mary and the others milled around, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus, or hear what had happened to him. Pilate will have him whipped and then release him, they told one another. That’s what he usually does when he’s trying to placate the Jewish leaders. A little dose of Roman justice, but not too much, just to keep the Jews happy.
Then Mary heard the cry of the crowd and saw a procession, more like a mob, moving down the street. But, they were jeering and yelling and striking at something in their midst. Mary strained for a glimpse, and at first she thought, “That poor, poor man.”
She saw a figure, hunched under the weight of a Roman cross, blood streaming down the cuts on his back, blood dripping into his eyes from some sort of thorny crown that was pushed into to his forehead. The horror of that scene was enough and Mary began to divert her eyes. As she did, she saw something familiar. A profile she had seen before, disfigured to be sure, but familiar.
And then she realized – this man, this poor man was Jesus. She watched him struggle with the cross, stumbling, falling in the dirt, rising each time under the weight of a beam too heavy for him to bear.
The Roman centurions were tiring of this game, it was taking too long to move this procession-of-the-damned down the street and out of the city. So they grabbed a stranger, ordered him to carry the cross of Jesus, and the macabre parade resumed its march of madness.
The disciples followed, all too aware of how this would end. Once the verdict of death had been pronounced by a Roman authority, there was no reprieve, no second chance, no appeal. All they could do now was follow the cross in horror, weeping as they walked.
The scene at the Place of the Skull was even worse. Two other men were being hoisted up, nailed to crosses, their crimes placarded above their heads. This was Roman justice, this was capital punishment at its cruelest, and most heinous.
Mary could not watch as Jesus was thrown to the ground, Roman soldier on each side, grabbing a leg and an arm, and pulling Jesus into position on top of the cross. Mary heard the sound of the nails being driven through the hands and feet of Jesus. The hands that had touched her and released the power of darkness from her body. The feet she had washed, now bruised and bloodied beyond recognition.
The jarring thump of the cross dropping into its resting place, and the agonized cry of Jesus, caused her to turn and face him. Huddled with the others who loved him, all they could do was weep. Weep for the gentle man who had been their friend, weep for the ache in their hearts, weep because nothing else could be done.
Jesus cried out, the soldiers tried to push a foul mixture of soured vinegar and gall in his face, but Jesus turned his head. Time seemed to stand still, Mary felt as if she were in a scene from hell, but it was real.
Hours passed until Jesus died. He cried out loudly, then, as if the cry used his last breath, his body slumped on the cross, lifeless. Suddenly, the sky went dark, the earth shook, people were running, screaming — a centurion fell on his knees and said “Surely this was the son of God.”
Someone screamed, “Jesus said the stones would cry out!” It was as if all of creation were groaning, struggling with the death of the Creator, uncertain what to do. So the sun quit shining, the ground quaked, the sky were darkened, as if the world knew something no one else knew.
Slipping and sliding down the hillside as they, too, ran for safety, Mary glanced back and saw the lifeless form of Jesus, being ripped from the cross by the soldiers. Thrown on a makeshift stretcher without care, the lifeless body of Jesus was born down the other side of the hill, out of sight.
Word came that Nicodemus, kind, curious Nicodemus, and a man named Joseph had asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Joseph had laid Jesus in his own grave, a tomb cut out of the rock. But now it was too late to go, the Sabbath was coming. So Mary and the others stumbled back to a room someone had found, where they huddled together.
The Passover went on, in homes and dining halls around Jerusalem that night, the question was asked by the youngest in each household, “Why is this night different from all others?” And then the family told the story of how God had brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, out of darkness into the light of God’s promise.
But for the disciples, the Passover was meaningless. The evening passed for them, not in remembering the exodus, but in remembering their friend. It was too soon to tell stories about Jesus – too soon to laugh at the times they had shared together, too soon to recall the amazing things that Jesus had done and taught them. So they wept, and when they were worn out with weeping they sat, eyes burning with tears, in exhausted silence.
The women there began to talk about what must be done. Jesus body had only had a hasty entombment, without proper ceremonial care. So the women would go to the tomb. They left that morning, several of them together, for strength as much as anything, making their way through the darkness of night to the tomb. They were determined to be there when the first beams of sunlight broke the darkness, ending the Sabbath. Jesus would wait no longer than absolutely necessary for a loving and proper preparation.
Arriving at the tomb, the scene was amazing. The stone was rolled away, the grave cloths were in place, but there was no body. The women hurried, running at times, back to the disciples, back to the room where the men huddled. In their excitement, broken sentences, gestures, and tears told of more tragedy — Jesus body was gone.
Peter and John had to see for themselves. They ran, John fastest and most eager, Peter close behind. John, stopped at the opening to the tomb, peering into the darkness. Peter brushed by him, and ducking, shouldered his way into the tomb. The women were right, there was no body. John also looked, and believed that the body was gone. The two of them ran back to tell the others. Mary Magdalene stayed behind, weeping again.
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed figures, angels, seated where the body of Jesus had been. Was she imagining these angels, but then they spoke – “Woman, why are you crying?” Mary blurted out, “They have taken my lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.”
Then she turned and saw another figure, a man, not an angel. “Maybe he’s the gardener, he’ll know,” Mary thought.
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Then, something happened. The gardener opened his mouth and said, “Mary.”
Instantly Mary knew that voice, that gentle voice. That voice had greeter her many times, that voice had commanded demons to leave her and never return, that voice had blessed broken bread in their homes, that voice had calmed swirling seas.
That voice belonged to Jesus.
“Rabboni,” Mary exclaimed. Grabbing him, holding him, weeping for joy this time. He is alive and he is here.
“Mary,” Jesus says gently, “don’t hold on to me now, for I am going back to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. But, go tell my friends.”
Glancing back over her shoulder, Mary Magdelene runs toward the city, with the news, “I have seen the Lord.” She had seen Jesus, again — for the first time.