A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Text: John 20:1-18
She showed up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. She was alone. What was she doing there? What had drawn her to the burial ground in the gloom of a barely emerging dawn? The other gospel versions of this story say that it’s a group of women that shows up very early on Easter morning. The tradition suggests that these women come to finish preparing the body for its final resting place. There was simply not enough time between his death on that Friday afternoon and the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown. He was hastily placed in the tomb without the proper anointing, so these women arrived at the tomb at their first opportunity to finish their work.
But in John’s account Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have already taken care of the burial. At great risk to fortune and reputation they have claimed the body and buried it properly. John writes, “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19: 38-42). Under the cover of growing darkness they had cared as best they could for this one who was so cruelly and wrongly executed. It was finished – or so it seemed.
So here Mary is, all alone, in the fading darkness of the early morning. Why is she there? The text does not say for certain but I assume she has come to grieve. Graveside grieving is not for everyone, but some find comfort in being near the burial site of a lost loved one. And I believe Mary Magdalene loved Jesus. He was crucial to her life, her faith, her sense of well-being. His death is devastating for her. Somehow mourning is more meaningful for her in the cool, dark, damp of early morning in the graveyard.
Here in the lessening shadows she is searching for something – a quiet, private place to shed her tears, away from the confused and grieving company of his followers? Answers to her own questions? A bit of solace? There is no sense that she, or the others, expect what is to come. Her repeated concern makes this clear. “They have taken away my friend, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She assumes that the body has been moved for political purposes or by body-snatchers or for some other mysterious reason. No thoughts of resurrection are apparent for her, Peter or “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” I know the text says the latter disciple “saw and believed,” but I take this to mean that he saw and believed that body was indeed missing. He had no more idea what was happening than Mary did.
Once more we find Mary alone, still pained and confused in her sorrow in the waning darkness in front of the open, empty tomb. Suddenly a shadowy figure appears in the garden. She assumes it is the gardener, and why not? In the dim light of a breaking dawn, who else would show up to begin his day’s work? Through her red and swollen eyes, with a downcast gaze, not expecting anyone else, least of also Jesus, she makes a logical assumption. She sees a stranger. The truth does not dawn on her until he gently calls her by name. “Mary.” The half-darkness may still surround her but something blazes deep inside her as it never has before. Here is the living Christ, calling her by name. As he calls out her name, she begins to see that even in her grief and confusion, she is not alone. She never really was. She never will be. This is a great truth of learning to walk in the dark, we are never alone. The Holy One, God’s Steadfast Love, goes with us every step of the way.
We want to celebrate Easter with voices raised, instruments blaring, flowers in full bloom and hearty alleluias. There is nothing wrong with Easter joy, but in Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor points out that resurrection actually happens in the dark. In today’s Words of Preparation, she writes that “By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after. Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.” She says, “As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.” I will confess that I had never really thought of resurrection this way.
She continues, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. ). ”Now the green blade rises from the buried grain…”
Mary is prepared to grieve, to spend her time mourning what is lost. She is heart-broken and feels alone. “My God, how could you let this happen? Why have you forsaken me?” Neither she nor the rest of the disciples are prepared for resurrection. “What have you done with the body? Where have you taken him?” It doesn’t matter that he has told them more than once that he would die and rise again. It is a claim that does not compute, has not registered in their reality. Do you think it would be any different for you or me if we had been in their sandals? That lack of awareness may still be too true today.
My friend Tim Phillips writes of death and resurrection, “Maybe the worst thing about death in all its forms is that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.” Isn’t this Mary’s truth in the early morning shadows. She couldn’t imagine anyone else. She assumed she was talking to the gardener. Tim continues to speak of death and its equivalents, “Addiction robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs of the energy to imagine some kind of wholeness beyond a cure. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that can put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive its hold on us” (Tim Phillips, “Resurrection Power,” The Spire, Vol. 80, No. 3, March 2016, Seattle First Baptist Church). On this Easter morning, what, if anything, might rob you of the energy to exercise your own resurrection power?
Most of the time we live in what Melanie May calls the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday,” somewhere between the deep and terrifying darkness of Good Friday and the brilliantly overwhelming sunshine of Easter. Because of this, she says we have to learn to “practice resurrection.” I’m assuming this something very much like learning to walk in the dark or claiming our resurrection power. Consciously or not we wrestle with death and its equivalents – addiction, violence, illness, the burdens of existence. Practicing resurrection, learning to walk in the dark, claiming our power, entails a recognition that there is life-giving energy beyond anything we ever imagined, that there is resurrection power in all creation, that, somewhere out there, God, in Jesus, the Risen Christ is gently calling our names – yours and mine. Do you have eyes to see? Ears to hear? Hearts to open?
Here’s the resurrection reality. Mary Magdalene and the other disciples experienced a Living Christ. We can speculate all we want on what exactly that meant for them and what it means for us. But, whatever happened in the early morning darkness that first Easter changed Mary’s life, transformed the lives of us Jesus’ first disciples and ushered in the new creation, God’s beloved Community, here on earth as in heaven. At times, we may have difficulty seeing, hearing, holding onto our resurrection power. In our current context, with so much distrust, hatred and evil, we may not recognize Jesus at first, but he is there in all that claim the promise of abundant life offered to each of us and, indeed, the whole creation. He is present in all who serve and seek to do God’s will. He can be seen wherever compassion is practiced and love made manifest. If you’ve been there for one of the least, you’ve been there for him. We may live for now in the “tensive drama of Holy Saturday;” there may be times we come to the tomb alone and heart-broken; there will be days when it’s hard to believe our eyes, but, early one morning, we will find the transformation complete. We will know that God has gone with us all along the way. There will be singing and dancing and shouts of “Alleluia!” Since we know that day has both come and continues to come, we might as well practice resurrection today, right here and right now. “Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.” Amen.