(a sermon for April 1, 2018, Easter Sunday; based on 1 Peter 1:3-9 and John 20:1-18)
Somewhere in the midst of all the busyness of this past week I did the math and discovered that as of this morning I have had the joy and privilege of standing in a pulpit somewhere and preaching the gospel on 34 (!) Easter Sundays! Now, not only did that suddenly make me profoundly aware of the passage of time, it also got me to thinking about how no matter what I happen to plan or do for today, there will always be much about our Easter Sunday worship and celebration that’s “a given.”
For instance, it’s usually a given there’s going to be some kind of sunrise service in the “wee hours” of the morning (some years more “wee” than others!) when we’ll huddle together in the cold and try to reach the high notes of “Up From the Grave He Arose!” I also know that there’s going to be plenty of joy and exuberance in our worshipping together; that there will be lots of upbeat music and inspired hymn-singing; and a great many “alleluias” shouted and sung throughout the day. Also it’s pretty much a given that come Easter Sunday there will be beautiful and fragrant flowers spread throughout the sanctuary; that there will be a whole bunch of children running around in their new clothes, having perhaps already partaken of Easter candy and yet very ready to go out and hunt for some eggs after church!
But perhaps the best “given” of all is that you’re all here, and that’s a wonderful thing indeed; because what better day for us all to come together to worship and praise God than this one? Because this is the Day of Resurrection; and everything about it, from choir anthems to unison prayers to the fellowship we share, just bursts forth with triumphant joy! Christ is risen indeed, and that shatters the commonplace of our lives; truly, worship becomes celebration! In the best possible sense, friends, so much about our coming together today has to do with raucous, noisy, triumphant celebration; and praise God for it!
Which makes it all the more interesting that as we finally settle in to hearing the gospel reading for this Easter Sunday, what we encounter there is not so much an air of triumphant celebration as it is the darkness just before the dawn, an atmosphere of what the Old Testament often refers to as a “deep, crushing silence,” and also, it’s important to note… a lingering sense of hopelessness!
For you see, it’s important to realize that there were no trumpets blaring early on that morning “while it was still dark;” nothing at all victorious about Mary Magdalene drawing near to the tomb where Jesus has been buried. All Mary knew in that moment was the enveloping quiet and the heaviness of her heart and soul. This was, in every sense of the word, a funeral processional, a silent walk of death; for Jesus of Nazareth was gone.
Remember, Mary had been there with Jesus from the very beginnings of his ministry, and she’d seen and experienced it all: bodies healed, eyes given sight, countless lives made new simply because of his presence. She’d seen the throngs of people clamoring around him to glean even the smallest bit of his teaching; and yes, she’d also seen the rulers and leaders who were perplexed and threatened by him. And later on, with the other women beside her, she’d stood by helplessly as Jesus hung on the cross to die; and it was then that her own heart was broken.
Only a few days before, there’d been so much rejoicing, so much praising and so much hope; it had seemed like every one of their hopes for life, for living, and forever had come to fruition in this man who had become their master, teacher and friend. But that was all over because now Jesus was dead; and not just dead, mind you, but crucified, hastily brought down from that tool of execution and placed in a borrowed tomb without even the dignity of a proper burial. Whatever else was going on deep within Mary’s soul as she approached the tomb, one thing was for certain: any kind of hope she’d ever had was gone forever. All that remained now was to anoint Jesus’ body with burial spices and that would be the end of it.
The truth is, I suspect that there are probably some of us here today who can understand that kind of hopelessness; who know what it means to have sadness, disappointment and emptiness be the prominent emotions of life and living. As the late Rev. Dr. William Self once wrote, “We all have our days when we stand with our dreams in shambles around our feet. Our children go astray. We get the pink slip from our employer, or worse still, the test comes back from the lab as positive.” These are the times when everything we’ve ever wanted, worked on, sacrificed over and hoped for simply, in whatever circumstance and for whatever reason… falls apart! It doesn’t matter how good, or how faithful you’ve been in your life and it has nothing to do with what’s fair or just! As Self concludes, “If you have blood in your veins and skin on your bones, you will have some darkness.” And sometimes in that place of darkness, all you think of to ask is, “Is there any hope at all?”
Well, that’s what happened to Mary Magdalene. What’s interesting is that as John tells this story, even after Mary had discovered that “the stone had been removed from the tomb;” even after Simon Peter and “the other disciple” ran to investigate and saw “the linen wrappings lying there;” even after that other disciple “saw and believed;” and even when she herself “bent over to look into the tomb” to find “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying,” all this time Mary is still weeping! But this we can understand as well; for hopelessness is not something that is so easily disposed of, especially when it goes hand in hand with death. We all know about the fragility of human life, and of death’s irretrievable finality; and so we also understand that at some point that reality of it must be accepted.
So it just follows that as she was sitting there in the garden, Mary’s heart had to have been reeling from grief and loss. Remember, at this point she’s still wondering if in the night someone had come and stolen Jesus’ body, which would have been the final indignity to be heaped upon this man that she loved; so there would most certainly have been some panic and even anger mingled in with the grief! There was no way that Mary would even begin to comprehend or even entertain the notion that this was anything more than what it appeared; any potential evidence to the contrary, Mary was not about to pin her hopes on an empty tomb!
But here’s the thing: though Mary was still weeping, though the disciples had gone home to ponder what they may have seen at the empty tomb, and though as far as all of creation was concerned death was still the one hard and fast reality of life, something amazing had already happened: death had been vanquished forever! The tomb was empty, for Jesus had risen from the dead; and by his resurrection, God gave his people not only the gift of new life in the present, but also the promise of salvation and an eternal home. In this moment when any and all hope seemed to be gone forever, now in the risen Christ there is hope unending! It’s truly redemption and salvation on a cosmic scale; but even in that moment of victory there is still one thing that remains.
In looking at this text, David Lose makes the very interesting point that “the space between ‘woman’ and ‘Mary’ is perhaps the distance between the cross and resurrection.” Remember that at first, “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’” and Mary, supposing him to be the gardener (and perhaps even thinking him complicit in the robbery of Jesus’ grave), fails to recognize him even when they’re standing face to face. It’s only when Jesus calls Mary by her name that she recognizes him as “Rabbouni,” that is, her beloved Lord and teacher. It’s the fact that Jesus knows Mary and reaches out to her personally that ends up making all the difference in her belief and understanding of what’s taken place. As Lose puts it, “Known, [Mary] knows. Seen, she can see. Loved, she loves… and then [she] goes and tells [the others] what she has seen, known and loved.”
And once again on this Day of Resurrection, we rightly proclaim it a wonder, a miracle, and a sure cause for celebration with songs of triumph and shouts of joy; and that it is! But it’s also an affirmation of how God always works, isn’t it? In the end, you see, it’s not in pursuing God’s favor that we earn righteousness or that we’re given salvation; it’s that God pursued us in the person of Jesus Christ, that he went to the cross and died for us, and that then was raised from the dead so that by grace we could be given life abundant and eternal. Moreover, it’s not mere wishful thinking, nor the passing hopes and dreams that we build up for ourselves that offers us security for the living of these days; it’s rather the unending hope that comes in knowing that in our most difficult and seemingly hopeless situations God is working specifically and directly on our behalf, yours and mine; bringing much needed light into our darkness. And it’s not – and this is important, friends (!) – merely a one-time only historical event that happened some 2,000 years ago; but rather it’s the divine experience of rebirth that happens again and again in the hearts of those who have been named and claimed by the one, as 1 Peter proclaims it, who “by his great mercy… has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” Beloved, the good news of Easter is that there’s always hope; because Jesus is risen from the dead; and because Jesus is alive, so are we, now and forever!
I said to you earlier that as a pastor I’ve been in the pulpit for 34 Easter Sundays; what I didn’t say is that there was, in fact, one particular and very memorable Easter that I wasn’t. As I’m sure I’ve shared with some of you before, that was the year that I had to undergo emergency back surgery: I’d had some spinal disc issues that were causing me incredible pain and were getting much worse during Holy Week; moreover, the doctors were concerned for complications and even possible paralysis if something wasn’t done soon. So I was told that if I had a “Plan B” for worship on Easter Sunday morning, I’d better put it into action because my surgery was being scheduled for the same hour as Sunrise Service the next morning!
And I’ll be honest; even in the pain I was in, for this particular pastor, that was a hard thing (I’ll let you in on a little secret; we clergy types can be a little possessive about our Sunday morning worship, especially on Easter!). But I really didn’t have a choice; and so while I was under the knife Lisa and Jake, along with a layperson from the church, took care of the sunrise service; and our choir director, who was in seminary at the time, learned how to preach an Easter sermon on the fly! Everything went fine, for the church and for me, as it did for the next few weeks as I recovered; and I mention it to you this morning because along the way I did learn something that I shared with everyone who asked me: that “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” whether I show up for worship or not!
But it also served as a good reminder that Easter cannot and will not be contained… by a day, by a service, an certainly not by a pastor… or anybody else! It can’t be hemmed in by any of the limits or boundaries we set upon it, and it won’t be diminished by our doubts! Friends, Easter won’t be over when in a few moments we pronounce a Benediction, nor will it be finished later today after dinner is done and the family’s all gone home for the evening. It won’t even be over when you get up tomorrow on “Easter Monday” and return to the busyness of a new week and all the challenges it will bring. Easter continues…today, tomorrow and in every day that comes; and resurrection happens for you and for me as we move through this new and abundant life that our Lord has given us. Christ is risen, beloved, and by the power of his resurrection we are given all the hope we need to live full, empowered and purpose driven lives.
It’s Resurrection Day, beloved, and the future is wide open; so let us rejoice and be glad in all the possibilities before, and of this life that God has given us…
… for Christ is risen! He is Risen Indeed!
Alleluia, thanks be to God, and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry