Easter 2018 The Resurrection
John 20: 1-18
Well, it doesn’t quite feel like Easter, but here we are. We’ve journeyed with Jesus through the pain and turmoil of holy week; we’ve experienced all the strange emotions that fill this time: joy and hope, followed by denial and betrayal, suffering and rejection, hopelessness and finally, despair. But today all that is pushed to the side, like a stone in front of a tomb, as we open ourselves once again to proclaim an old story that changes everything. Hear these words:
Watchman Nee, a 20th Century church leader from China once said this about Easter: “Our old history ends with the cross; our new history begins with the Resurrection.” I think that’s a wonderful and powerful statement. And I’m guessing that’s part of the reason why you’re here. Historically, Easter is one of the most populated worship services of the year. Now, maybe you come because it’s part of your tradition. Or maybe you come because being in church just feels right on Easter. But I think it’s something deeper than that. I think if we each took some time to really investigate our decision to come to church today, we’d probably discover a hope that maybe God will start over with us, and maybe something about our world can be made new. In Watchman Nee’s line of thinking, we long for God to end our old history and write a new story. And so did those first visitors who made their way to the tomb.
Every year when Easter rolls around, I’m always struck by the fact that a woman named Mary Magdalene is one of the first disciples on the scene that world-changing day. I don’t know, but I guess I would expect to see someone like Peter or James or John, since they seem to pop up so often in the stories of Jesus. They’re always the ones invited to see the stunning miracles. They’re the ones who go to the mountaintop to see the transfiguration of Jesus and Peter is invited to step out on the water and walk. And they do appear soon in this story, but it’s Mary who first experiences this day of Resurrection.
Chances are you’ve never heard much about this woman, and for good reason. We never hear much about Mary Magdalene, but when we do hear about her, it’s sort of a mixed bag. When we really take the time to look at her life, she’s just as committed to Jesus as anyone else, even offering whatever resources to further Jesus’ mission. But that’s not usually the narrative that follows her around. (Show picture of tree). You see, Mary also had some real challenges in life. The Scriptures tell us several times that she was plagued by infirmities and evil spirits, and I’m guessing she carried around a certain reputation that would’ve found its way on to Snap Chat for all the world to see. She was the woman who did those things, and had those issues, whatever they were, yet had found in Jesus someone who had looked at her differently. Not as a problem, not as a failure, not for her body, not as someone’s lunchtime gossip, but as a person in need of new story; a person in need of resurrection. And when Jesus liberated her from all those old ways, she had so much reason for getting up every morning, and so much promise that things for her could finally be different.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been in similar shoes. I’ve been the person, and in many ways I still am the person, who needs resurrection. My struggles are different than Mary’s, and so are yours, but we all have them. We all carry around our stories, our pasts, our histories. And when we turn a corner and the struggles aren’t so daunting, it feels good, doesn’t it? When we carry our baggage long enough, it feels like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. But when we find that baggage coming off little by little, it’s like a little revival is sparked in hearts! During a campus ministry night in college, I saw a simple skit that portrayed this exact thing. I’ll never forget it. The speaker was preaching about Jesus and how Jesus sets us free, but the preacher struggled to talk because on his back was a backpack full of rocks. Those rocks signified all the sin and burdens he carried. But over time as he preached, someone would come up and remove a rock, and the preacher would feel lighter and freer. You see, that’s what Jesus does for us. He removes the guilt and weight we carry in our lives. And that’s what He did for Mary. As she followed Jesus, Mary felt free, light and ready to take on the world with a new mindset and a new passion. But then the unthinkable happened: the cross. And it stopped her dead in her tracks.
The cross is a horrible reminder of evil. Looking back from our 2,000 year vantage point, we know the cross is truly a symbol of God’s love and grace. But from Mary’s viewpoint, it was the ultimate sign of death and hopelessness, as if someone had just stuck a pin in her balloon and sucked all the joy-filled air out. She had taken so many steps towards victory; she had made all the strides in the world. She was becoming new; she was coming alive again. But this was a big old kick in the shins. And as she made her way to the tomb that morning, it was disappointment she expected, not resurrection.
We’re no strangers to disappointment. In fact, I think it’s one of our biggest problems today. I know it’s one of mine. If I had to take a guess, I’d guess that most days we think more about the possibility of disappointment than we do the possibility of resurrection. Kind of like Murphy’s Law. Sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that things are never going to change, that somehow we’re always going to be stuck with who we are, and no matter what we do, it will never quite be enough, or now matter how hard we try, we’re just going to end up back in the same old mess. Now I can’t say for sure what was going through Mary’s mind, but that’s what would’ve been going through mine.
As Mary looked at Jesus on the cross, I can almost hear those internal voices begin to haunt her again. “See, I told you this guy was too good to be true. Did you really think he was going to change you? Did you really think becoming more spiritual was going to make people forget about your past? Where will you go from here, Mary? Who will listen to you now? You’re just going to return to your old habits and your old ways.” Mary hedged her bets that Jesus was the one, so she took a step toward him. Sort of like we do. We try every trick in the book to live differently until we finally take a step toward Jesus. But it’s hard to not look over our shoulder. The fear of things never being anything different is tangibly real…until we actually get to the tomb. There is no Easter unless we first go to the tomb.
When Mary goes to the tomb early in the morning, it’s still dark outside. She isn’t expecting resurrection. She’s expecting a body to care for. She’s expecting one last glimpse of her Hope who now lay in a grave. And then she expects to go back home and start living that same old life. But when she gets to the tomb, the story begins to change: her story, your story and all creation’s story. The stone which was meant to keep Jesus in and everything else out had been rolled away. The barrier between death and life, reality and hope, disappointment and resurrection had been shattered. And with one simple word, her name spoken aloud, Mary knew that everything had changed for good. Jesus had come back. In the middle of that garden, in the midst of her greatest disappointment, in the height of the world’s darkest moment, Mary met the One who was making a new way filled with hope for all who believe. But the miracle doesn’t stop there. Before she knows it, Mary’s history gives way to a new story, and she becomes the first person to share the story of Jesus with others. Not Peter. Not James. Not John. The first preacher of the Gospel is a woman named Mary. She, with all her faults and failures and mistakes, is part of God’s new thing.
Friends, there is no better news than this. And we need to celebrate and share this news like people who are desperate to believe. It’s no secret that we don’t live in a world that expects much resurrection to take place. We live in a world that is paralyzed by disappointment and darkness, hopelessness and fear. But Easter sings a different tune! Jesus breaks through all the barriers the keep us stuck and invites us into a living hope. When you wonder if all your mistakes will define you, remember the Resurrection. When you doubt you’ll ever get it right, remember the Resurrection. When you think all is lost in our world, remember the Resurrection. When you face your darkest hour, remember the Resurrection. And when all you see is a big, old stone that seems to separate you from the love of God, look up…because God is doing a new thing and He’s invited you to be a part of it. Happy Easter! Amen.