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.
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.