To begin with, not a single one of them were expecting it.
You and I have the advantage of 2000 years’ worth of 20/20 hindsight, so we know how the story ends; but understand that this was something totally out of the disciples’ frame of reference. Even though Jesus had told them – several times, in fact – that it would happen, that he was to be killed and on the third day raised from the dead, the possibility that all this might actually be true was inconceivable to them. None of them believed it would happen, because none of them believed it could happen!
So when, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene returned to the grave where the body of Jesus had been laid to rest, it was most assuredly not to check and see if there had been any activity at the tomb overnight. She’d actually gone to pay her last respects, bringing burial spices and her own loving heart to take care of Jesus’ body. There hadn’t been time to do it properly before the Sabbath, and now, especially given the horrific way that he had died, Mary wanted to be sure that Jesus’ broken body be treated with all the dignity that the dead should receive.
Except that when she gets to the garden tomb, things are different than they’d been left on Friday afternoon; something’s happened: something disorienting, something disturbing. The stone is rolled away and the tomb appears to be empty; and Mary’s first thoughts at this moment are not of what Jesus had told them or of promises fulfilled, but rather of vandals, the horrible thought that someone could have desecrated the grave and stolen Jesus’ body! Mary had come to this place filled with grief, but now she’s stricken with fear and confusion, and she does the first thing she can think of to do, which is to go find Peter and John – but even after literally racing one another to the tomb to see what was happening, they don’t understand either. We are told that when John actually goes inside the tomb, “he saw and believed,” but we’re never told exactly what he believes; all we know is that John didn’t yet understand, and that he and Peter “returned to their homes,” apparently to ponder whatever it was that had happened.
So now we have Mary, left all alone at the garden tomb, no doubt with a heart emptier than the tomb itself, and she’s crying her eyes out. And we can understand why; as Denis Campbell has written, “Good Friday is still alive and well for Mary.” None of this had turned out the way she thought it was going to be; just a week before they’d been waving palms and shouting hosannas, and now, Jesus is dead and his body missing. And “so she weeps” out of her sheer sense of loss and confusion.
In fact, such is her profound grief that at that same moment there are actually sitting there “two angels in white,” and they’re asking Mary why she’s crying, yet she doesn’t even recognize them as angels! But then, why would she? After all, to concede that angels might be involved would be to suggest that there was something going on here other than grave-robbing, or that this fleeting memory she had of something Jesus had said to them might actually have come to pass; and that was something beyond even hoping for!
So it’s actually quite understandable that the next voice she hears behind her she mistakes for that of the gardener, rather than that of Jesus himself, who asks Mary a question that quite literally puts her on a boundary line between life and death; a question on which everything hinged: “Woman,” he asks, “why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
It seems like such a simple question on the face of it, on par with what have you lost? Who are you missing, and what can I do to help you find him? If it had been the gardener, this would have simply seemed like a kind and compassionate offer of help. But you see, once again we discover that when Jesus asks the question, it cuts to the heart of everything.
Jesus knows, you see, just how much we’re looking for in this life. And he understands those moments when you and I have gotten so beaten down from the difficult task of living that we struggle with what it is we should be looking for, never mind wondering if we’ve lost it. Jesus knows well the restlessness of our hearts; the kind of wanderlust that leads us down pathways that leave us empty at best, and destroy us from the inside out at worst. He knows we’re yearning for that which will make life truly abundant; but who is it we’re looking for so that this can be?
At its very heart, you see, that’s what Jesus is asking Mary, and that’s what he asks you and me on this Easter morning: “Who is it you are looking for?”
It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time that Jesus asks such a question. As a matter of fact, in some translations of scripture, it’s almost word for word the same question that Jesus asked his first disciples at the very beginning of John’s gospel; when John and a couple of the others are following Jesus (more or less covertly), and suddenly Jesus turns and says to them, what are you seeking? What do you want? What are you after? What is it that you’re looking for? What was ostensibly a response to the disciples’ curiosity about him was in truth an invitation to a new way of life and living; and now, three years later, on a morning when all of her hope seemed gone forever, Jesus asks Mary the same question; the very first question that Jesus asks in the resurrection.
Of course, you’ll notice that this time, rather than what are you looking for, the question is, WHO are you looking for; because now, you see, this new, abundant and everlasting life is to be found in a person; and not just any person, but Jesus Christ, the one who by death has conquered death, and who by rising again has opened the gates of life everlasting. When Jesus asks, “Who is it you are looking for,” he’s signaling the beginning of new life – Mary’s, the disciples’ and also yours and mine – and it’s life found in him who is the way, the truth and the life!
In other words, now it’s intensely personal; and I think that’s why my favorite part of this story will always be that quiet and tender moment in which Jesus calls Mary by her name; when Mary suddenly comes to the life-changing awareness that this is not the gardener, but Jesus himself. John tells us that when Marty hears Jesus calling her by name, she cries out, “Rabbouni!” It’s an old Aramaic word, meaning teacher, and it’s a term that even then was rarely used; some biblical scholars suggest that perhaps this was a special name that Mary had for Jesus, a term of endearment, if you will. The point is that at the sound of her own name being called, Mary immediately knew who he was; and also that she’d truly found what – and who – she was looking for, in every good and lasting sense!
It makes sense that Mary’s first instinct was to embrace Jesus. As we like to say up in Maine, she wanted to “muckle right on to him” (!) and never let go; as though she could ever hold him down, as if the resurrection could ever be contained! And when Jesus sent her to go and tell the others the news, no doubt Mary ran the whole way, wails of lament replaced by tears of joy, thunderstruck by the realization that this incredible, unthinkable, unimaginable thing was true: Jesus had risen; he had risen indeed, and because she’d seen the Lord, life would never be the same again! She’d found who she was looking for…
…and beloved, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, so can we!
Today, together with Christians the world over, we gather in grand and glorious celebration of what took place at a garden tomb outside of Jerusalem one morning many years ago, an event that represents the pivotal point of all human history; but the good news, dear friends, is that it’s so much more than that. Today we come rejoicing because is not merely a one-time, long-ago happening, but an on-going gift of the God who loves us so much that he is relentless in pursuing us.
In one way or another, each one of us is looking for LIFE, and Easter is the way that God continually opens up the way of life abundant and eternal for each one of us. And it is good news indeed that the same God and Father who pulled Jesus out of the grave is able to free us from the fear and despair that would paralyze us in life and condemn us in death. Ours is a God who is able and passionately desirous of giving us the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, which casts death aside to open up the future before us, making us truly free in this life, and extravagantly welcomed in the life to come!
And even when we don’t know where to look for him, or even how to start looking; in the times when life’s burdens are so heavy and so numerous that we’re convinced that hope can never be found, those are the very moments of darkness in which he finds us where we are… and calls us by name. I love what Craig Barnes has written about this; he says that it’s not our hold on Jesus that gives us confidence, but rather Jesus’ hold on us. “Seeing that,” he writes, “we are ready for anything.” And even though there is no real “normal” in life, what we do know for sure is that “a risen Savior is on the loose. And he knows our names.”
Friend, who is it you’re looking for this morning?
What are you after in coming to church today?
Have you come here today hoping that somewhere in the music and the prayers and shouts of alleluia that you’ll find what you’ve lost, or discover that… something you’ve never really known at all?
Are you sitting here this morning, at least in a spiritual sense now, feeling that these days you’ve been pretty much living with “one foot in the grave,” merely trudging through the business of life, without any real purpose or joy in it?
Are you looking for new life?
Well, friend, if that is the case, then this is your day of resurrection – and the good news is that the very one who brings life is even now calling you by name with a voice so full of joy, so deep and abiding that not even the pain of death can diminish its brightness. A Risen Savior is on the loose; he’s in the world and he’s in your heart, and he’s opened up a future and a life that is as full and open as the sky above us.
It is not an empty hope of which I speak; this is not, as we used to hear it called, “pie in the sky thinking.” This is a sure and certain hope that God himself has given us; it’s the assurance that “death has been swallowed up in victory,” a victory that is ours “through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
God is the victor, Jesus lives, and by God’s grace, we receive the LIFE that we’ve always been searching for!
And on this Easter Sunday, beloved, and on every day comes, I hope and pray that our lives might very well proclaim that we have seen the Lord!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Alleuia, and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry