From Mourning to Joy

From Mourning to Joy
John 20:1-18
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
March 27, 2016

John 20:1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

What a glorious day Easter is! The blossoming flowers, the singing birds, the budding trees; it seems as if creation herself is united in a sensory chorus of hallelujahs! On this Easter morn, the eyes of children sparkle with joy from the bunny’s visit and parents try valiantly, and often in vain, to keep chocolate from staining little dresses and little boys’ first suits. Congregations everywhere revel with joy at the sounds of extra chairs unfolding to accommodate crowds, and the sound of checks being torn from checkbooks! And what wonder and glory fills the sanctuaries of Christendom on this day, including this great house of worship. Flowers, hymns, the mighty Fisk organ, the brass choir, a great original anthem, by this the most magnificent choir in the entire region, all combine to help us to pray with our ears and our eyes. And we’ve witnessed a holy, set-apart-from-the-ordinary, divine procession. 

Think of it! Our young people have donned ancient vestments and led us in worship by carrying the cross of Christ and the light of Christ. The service is marked with prayers, timeless liturgy and scriptural truth both read and proclaimed. And for many, special meals with family and friends will follow this service. And this happens all over the world. It has happened for 2000 years. It all brings to mind the words of a frontiersman the first time he leaned over and gazed into the Grand Canyon. He said, “Something big happened here!” Indeed, something big is happening here, because something big happened in a garden 2000 years ago; a garden located in a small, back water, mid-eastern nation harshly occupied by a global military power. The truth of that event impacts the globe to this day and in this place and in this moment and will continue to have an impact until the fulfillment of all time. The event was the resurrection of Christ. And the universe has and will never be the same since that day.

And just think, it all started in abject horror. Betrayal, fear, denials, torture, mock trials, and death on a cross were the preamble to the most magnificent day in the history of the universe. And in St. John’s gospel, the full weight of this abject horror was felt by a solitary woman, weeping in the darkness of that predawn Sunday: Mary Magdalene. 

Mary Magdalene’s life had once been so far gone that she is described in scripture as having the complete Hebrew number (seven) of demons in her. This meant there was nothing left of her as God’s child. Indeed, evil had hung a “no vacancy sign” on her soul. And such was her existence until she met Jesus the Christ. Jesus set her free. Jesus saved her in this world and for the next. Jesus gave her life back to her. But now, in this dark garden of death, facing a plundered appearing tomb, it takes no great leap of the imagination to wonder if, in her heart of hearts, she now wished that she had never met Jesus. After all, if she never met him she would never have had her heart wounded by the pain and grief she felt in that darkness that morning.

You see, the horror and darkness in Mary Magdalene’s life in that garden long ago, had descended deeper than death itself. It appeared that Christ’s final resting place had been desecrated. Grave robbers in those days frequently disturbed tombs and bodies to get jewelry or to steal the expensive spices or to practice the dark arts of necromancy, especially with the body of a person thought to be holy. In her horror, Mary went to Peter and John and declared the theft of Jesus’ body. Peter and John then ran to the tomb, arriving before Mary. John, seeing the linens folded, particularly the head cloth, discerned this was hardly the work of grave-robbers and he believed despite not understanding; of Peter’s state of mind and heart, the scripture does not speak. They left and returned to their homes. Assuming they ran faster than Mary, she arrived back at the tomb after they had left. 

The pain in her heart results in the Scriptures saying again and again and again that Mary Magdalene was crying and weeping. She looked into the tomb and despite seeing angels, one where the head of Christ would’ve been in the other where the feet of Christ would have been, is still convinced that the grave-robbers had done their dastardly deed and emptied the tomb of Christ’s body. And then even the third time, to a presumed gardener she weeps and sobs out about the body of Christ being robbed away. The tears of Mary Magdalene are so strikingly human, aren’t they? Her tears are so much our tears and really the very tears of Jesus as he wept over the death of Lazarus. Her tears are the holy human tears of grief, loss, and death. Her tears are the tears put into all of us who have been loved by our loving Creator; her tears and our tears are sanctified by the tears stinging the cheeks of Jesus outside Lazarus’ tomb, despite Jesus knowing the rest of the story. 

So, the graceful word is, for those who shed a tear today, even surrounded by the joyousness of Easter; the graceful word is for those who have a hollow spaced ache of loss in their hearts today on Easter; God in Christ has been there and is here with you in your grief. But the rest of the story is what makes all the difference in our lives and it is the eternal change-agent for humanity.

You see, in the words of John Heinemeyer, there indeed was a grave robber in that dark garden long ago. He said, “Our God is a grave-robbing God. He said to Lazarus come out. He said to Jesus come out. He will say to your loved ones come out. And they will all come out.” And how we need to hear this, we fallen and frail creatures of dust. You see, we are a grave-loving species, aren’t we? It would seem that we can’t help but put ourselves in graves and tombs that take so many forms, even in this life. And we all need a living Savior, a loving Savior, and a victorious Savior with the power to say, come out of the tombs we occupy. 

And Mary finally got it when Jesus called her name. When he spoke her name her veil of tears was rent. And think of her action: Mary Magdalene turned from facing the stone dead tomb, which seems emblematic of her life, toward facing the living breathing Jesus. And again, how we need this, too: we so often live a life trajectory of facing tombs rather than living Jesus. And Jesus told Mary Magdalene to go and tell his brothers and his sisters that He was returning to His father. 

And did you catch the good news in Jesus statement? Christ did not say to Mary Magdalene, “Tell them I’ve been risen from the dead.” He said tell them of the Ascension, but the most important facet is He spoke of them being family again; “My brothers and sisters, my Father and your Father; my God and your God.” The risen Christ has defeated all of their failures and restored them into the family of God. What a word of grace Jesus spoke to that crew who had so quickly fled, who had so quickly denied him! What a word of hope to those who so deeply believed that He was dead forever! What a word of grace Jesus speaks to us who in so many ways, thought, word, and deed have fled in the face of Christ foes; who have denied His Lordship in our lives and have often been touched by the tang of doubt! The first words of the risen Christ to us despite our sin and failures is this: you are my brothers; you were my sisters still; my God is your God still; God is your Father still. And nothing can change that, not denial, betrayal, not a cross nor a tomb, not even death!

And because we are loved by this grace-giving grave-robbing God, who called Mary’s name through her tears and failures and who also calls your name through your tears and failures, because we’re loved by this God who makes graves useless, we can all face tomorrow! Heinemeyer says, “Our grave robbing God beats the enemy at his best game. Destroys death. Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death has been buried. Where o death is your sting. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. So shout your hallelujah’s this morning; shout them in the columbarium area. Honk your horn if you drive by a cemetery on the way home we won’t be needing graves too much longer; don’t let the grave scare you it’s all over for graves.” And it’s all because He lives! In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sharing Starters:

  • Share with your group your favorite Easter memory.
  • Share with your group your favorite part of Easter worship.
  • Share with your group how it makes you feel to know God understands and is with you in times of grief.
  • Share with your group the comfort the Resurrection brings you.
  • Share with your group the hope eternal life brings you.