One of the things I love most about the Bible is that you can read the same story dozens of times and there’s always something different that catches your attention. Which is exactly what happened to me this year. I’m reading John’s Gospel version of the Easter story again, for most the version of the story that sits atop the greatest hits list, and it struck me.
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.” “While it was still dark.” Perhaps the Gospel writer simply wrote those words to put the story into a designated time frame. In other words, it was so early in the morning the sun hadn’t come up yet and most of the world was still asleep. But as preachers are apt to wonder, I suspect there’s a deeper message in this opening sentence…
Mary Magdalene had been with Jesus from the very beginning. And along with the disciples, Mary Magdalene’s loyalty to Jesus ran deep. She had been with Jesus long enough to see lives transformed. She had marveled at the bodies he healed. She had witnessed blind eyes opened and sight restored. From time to time she had heard disciples complain and she had been in earshot of the religious authorities when they vented their criticisms. She saw firsthand how crowds of people adored Jesus and she noted the malice in the eyes of local rulers as they plotted to bring Jesus down.
Less than a week prior, Mary Magdalene was out on the road shouting “Hosanna”, waving her palm branches and escorting Jesus through the gates and into the city of Jerusalem. She was in Pilate’s courtyard when the hostile crowd cheered for Barabbas over Jesus. Ultimately, she was one of the few who stood at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified, her heart breaking a little more with every failing breath Jesus took.
Now having reached the end, Mary Magdalene was lost. Like a player on the team that loses in the championship game, the only thing left to do was clean out the locker. And she was empty. Like a campaign volunteer on the losing side the day after the election, the only thing left to do was throw away the bumper stickers and the banners and the get out the vote flyers.
Still unclear was what Mary would do after the crucifixion. Peter and some of the other disciples could always go back to their fishing boats. The Roman soldiers and government officials returned to running an empire. The Jewish religious authorities had worship to lead and rituals to conduct back in the temple. But Mary Magdalene had no life to fall back on. Because in many ways Mary started living her life in earnest when she first met Jesus three years earlier.
Over the course of three years alongside Jesus, Mary Magdalene had formed all kinds of hopes and dreams. As a result she was committed to moving forward and not looking back. She was invested in following Jesus, no matter where he went. She pictured herself a fixture in the movement Jesus embodied. And now Mary’s dreams lay in shambles at her feet.
You and I have likely had similar dream shattering moments. The pink slips comes from our employer and suddenly those long hours we worked and the deadlines we met and the last minute projects we finished seemingly amount to nothing. The test results come back positive from the lab and in an instant the plans we had to travel and walk our children down the aisle and hold our newborn grandchildren in the hospital are in jeopardy. We’re trying to live our lives, loving who we love and identifying ourselves the way we choose, and proposed laws suddenly give others the right to discriminate against us based purely on who we are. Life is going along without a hitch and then, in an instant, it’s dark.
There are times when life forces us to learn difficult lessons. It’s easy to believe in the sunlight but much harder to believe in the darkness. Anyone can have faith when life is good, but what happens when life turns sour? Walking in the sunshine is one of life’s great pleasures. But how many of us have enough trust and enough courage to walk a long distance after the sun sets and night falls?
If you read the Easter story closely, however, you realize Mary was never alone, even while it was dark. Yes, people were still sleeping. No, the sun had not yet risen over the horizon. Yes, Mary was still devastated by the death of her mentor, Jesus. Nevertheless, God remained hard at work. Making a way for Mary when no way was apparent to her. It was likely the toughest morning in Mary’s lifetime. But that didn’t mean God had left her alone to her own devices.
During the bleakest days of World War II, Winston Churchill was invited to speak to a boys’ school in England. When he got up to address his audience that day, the message was brief and unmistakable. “Never give up, never give up, never, never, never.” And then Churchill sat down. After the speech was reported publicly, those nine words became a mantra for the British people, sustaining them all the way to the end of the war…
This morning as I stand in the pulpit, I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that there is heartache in every pew in this sanctuary. What’s more, many of us are suffering in silence. But the Easter message is undeniable. Even if we feel as though we are in the darkness on this greatest of all Christian days, even if we feel empty and alone, we have not been abandoned by God.
Returning to the Easter story, all the Gospel writers agree that Mary Magdalene was at least among the first followers of Jesus to arrive at the tomb. Moreover the mention of darkness in John’s account is part of a theme of darkness and light that occurs throughout the fourth Gospel. In John’s Easter story, the resurrection breaks in on a dark world like a great light.
When Mary reaches the tomb she discovers the tomb empty and the body gone. Tomb robbery in those days was not uncommon. So Mary runs to the disciples to inform them of the missing body.
For a short time, the focus in John’s narrative shifts. Peter and the Beloved Disciple race by foot to the tomb. The Beloved Disciple pauses at the door of the tomb while Peter, to no one’s surprise, barges in. Indeed, the tomb is empty, just as Mary reported.
Then the focus shifts back to Mary. Still weeping, she notices grave clothes and two angels dressed in white sitting in the exact spot where Jesus’ body was laid to rest…and she quickly realizes that the powers of heaven had been at work. As a result, Mary is not frightened by the angels. Nor is she frightened by the Risen Christ who appears behind her and greets her with love and gentleness.
She doesn’t recognize the Risen Christ, though, until he calls her by name. “Mary.” And she responds with the name she used for him so often. “Teacher.” It’s still not light out. But God has not left Mary to her own devices. Instead God reaches out to her through the Risen Christ and accompanies her in the darkness.
Then while it’s still dark, God in the Risen Christ gives Mary a direction…a mission. The first command ever uttered by the resurrected Christ instructs Mary Magdalene to go and preach the good news to the other disciples.
So Mary Magdalene went off to proclaim that Jesus was alive. Death had been defeated. The light had in fact come. Meanwhile, underneath the message Mary relayed to the other disciples there was a clear subtext. “Never give up, never give up, never, never, never.”
Think for a moment about everything that happens in the Easter story while it was still dark. God gives Mary the strength and the will to get out of bed and set out for the tomb despite her profound grief and sadness. God ministers to Mary by sending angels in white to reassure her and comfort her. When Mary feels lonely and empty, the Risen Christ appears to her in the flesh to call her by name. Finally, the Risen Christ gives Mary a new purpose and a new direction. Go and tell the disciples what you have seen and heard.
Time passed that initial Easter morning and gradually the sun rose the same way it always does. People woke from their sleep. God rolled the stone away and sent God’s son into the world breathing, talking, living. And Mary passed along the Easter message to anyone who would listen. “I have seen the Lord!”
Brothers and sisters, the same thing has happened this Easter. The sun rose the way it always does. You and I have awakened from our sleep. God has been hard at work through the darkness and into the morning light. And Mary’s Easter message echoes loud and clear. “I have seen the Lord.”
Never give up. Never give up. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!