John 20:1 -- 18
Looking for Jesus?!
The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! As we review the Gospel text we discover that it's a lot easier for us to say that than it was for those first disciples who encountered the empty tomb. We have been given the rest of the story while they are still discovering the joy and wonder of the events that are unfolding right before them. The first Easter didn't start off clear and wonderful. Mary Magdalene didn't rush off to the tomb dressed in her finest outfit with a corsage attached to her blouse, wearing shoes that matched her handbag and her Easter bonnet. No, the first Easter is likely nothing like this Easter for us and yet perhaps there are more similarities than we may be aware of at first glance.
Mary Magdalene's first response to the empty tomb was not jubilation but rather confusion. The story of Mary Magdalene in Scripture is a story about a woman who was in bondage. It appears that she was in bondage to evil and sin and to the devil. There is a reference that says that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, but now her life is transformed. She has left behind the old sinful ways. In a sense she gave up everything she knew in order to follow the Lord and her liberation which she so cherished which was found in following her Lord Jesus must have felt crushed at the cross. In many ways Mary Magdalene even on this first Easter morning is still at the cross. She is not anticipating an empty tomb and a Risen Lord, but rather a miserable tomb where her beloved friend and liberator, the one who set her free from demons and showed her how to live would be laying bruised and bloodied, his body disfigured. She had come on this first morning to minister to his broken body, to the dead body of her Lord and friend.
Christian tradition suggests that Jesus died around 3 a.m. on Friday. At sundown on Friday the Jewish Sabbath begins and work is not allowed. In 1976 during our country's bicentennial I was able to make my first visit to Israel and on a Friday I was in Jerusalem. Late in the afternoon a little before sundown I saw about 30 men running down the street carrying a coffin seeking to get the body buried before Sunset. It was a stunning and even shocking scene. There was great anxiety among those who were hurrying down the street. Their behavior was a testimony to their strict interpretation in the following of the religious law. Yes even today for Orthodox Jews the Sabbath remains a time when work is not allowed. After Jesus death there was a hurry to remove his body from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus worked with the authorities to get the body down, we can imagine that each of them had servants who helped them wrap the body in cloth and carry it to a nearby tomb where it could be laid to rest. Perhaps they also had to run with the body so that they could reach the tomb before sunset. 2000 years ago Israel didn't have funeral homes to prepare a body for burial. The mortuary did not come to the cross with a cart or a hearse to pick up the body to take it to a solemn location where it would be prepared for a viewing. In Jesus time friends would gather to wash the body and to wrap it up in sweet smelling spices but on this Friday, the day of our Lord's crucifixion there was not enough time to prepare his body properly and so they had to wait until the Jewish Sabbath was over. After sunset on Saturday the new day would begin and it appears that Mary waited until sunrise on Sunday to go to the tomb so she could wash the body and wrap it properly with sweet smelling spices used for burial.
We may wonder what Mary did during those hours between Jesus crucifixion and her visit to the tomb. Perhaps she simply sat in her grief for she being a Jew could not even do the work of preparing the necessary materials for her Lord's burial while she waited in her home. Perhaps when the sun finally set on Saturday evening, she then got busy with the task at hand, preparing all of the spices necessary to honor the body of Jesus. One thing we do know from the Gospel text is that Mary got up very early on that Sunday morning for she was the first one to the tomb. Perhaps she wondered how she would remove the stone and enter the place where Jesus lay but upon her arrival she was surprised to see that the stone was rolled away. When I first encountered the Gospel texts and envisioned the stone in front of the tomb I used to think of it as a boulder. A large round stone that somehow covered the entrance but upon visiting the holy land I discovered that the stones used to cover the entrance of the burial plot was shaped more like a wheel. It may be as much as eight to 10 inches thick and 5 feet in diameter. The stone would normally be set on a slight incline and rolled into place when the tomb was ready to be sealed. It would take great strength to move the stone back up the incline because the stone, even though it was shaped like a wheel, would still be very heavy, rough hewned and difficult to move. No doubt when Mary arrived at the tomb and saw the stone had been removed from the tomb she must have felt scared and then confused. She thought someone had come in the night and stolen the body of Jesus. We can only imagine the depth of horror and grief she must have felt when she discovered the body was gone and the Gospel text tells us that she was weeping. One can easily imagine the bitter tears that must have been streaming down her face. It was bad enough that Jesus died a slow, painful and terrible death but now this, it was too much, too overwhelming and Mary didn't know what to do. She had come looking for the dead Jesus to show her love and respect by putting spices on the body, giving her something practical to do to minister him and feel useful and now there was no Jesus, no way for her to express the depth of her love for her Lord. She needed to tell someone and so she went and told two of the disciples who were likely her friends, she told Peter and John who then ran into the tomb looked in and went back home. Mary was left alone at the tomb once again. Mary stayed there and began to weep.
She was so full of her own confusion and sadness and trouble that she didn't even recognize Jesus when he stood before her. She was so caught up inside her own experience that she was unable to recognize his gaze or his voice when he first asked why she was weeping. She thought he was the man who took care of the garden in which Jesus was buried. Then a wonderful thing happens. He speaks, he calls her name, he says Mary in the way no one had ever spoken her name before. She recognizes in the gardener's voice the voice of the Lord and as she gazes to meet him she sees that he is looking deep into her heart, that he is ministering to her pain and confusion and that he wants to comfort her to set her free once again, this time free from her fear. All Mary needed was just one word, "Mary" and she knew instantly she was wrong to be searching for a dead Jesus because at that moment she found that the living Jesus was searching for her.
That same living Jesus is searching for us this morning. Isn't it true that sometimes when we come to church, we are like Mary? We are so full of our own worries and sadness that we don't see that Jesus is alive. Yes at times we say we believe Jesus rose again but as we become honest with ourselves we must admit that we act like Jesus is still dead. Perhaps we expect our Lord simply to stay in church, where it is safe and easy and we come to church to do him a favor, to help just like Mary did, but we don't expect him to really walk into the rest of our days, the rest of our week, the rest of our life. Sometimes we are trying so hard to control our lives, our family, money, work, future that we don't see Jesus is right here with us wanting us to let go and to let him into our lives.
Perhaps the message of Easter is as simple as this -- the living Lord wants to be with us -- though we think it is we who are seeking the living Lord the fact is that it is he who seeks and finds us. As we gather with brothers and sisters to celebrate the mystery of the resurrection may we open our eyes to find Jesus among us in bread and wine, in the body of Christ, in brothers and sisters who gather in his name. We are invited to open in our hands and our hearts, we are invited to open our whole selves to his presence. When we make a fist we can hold very little in our hands but as we open our hands we discover we are capable of holding much more. The same is true with our hearts. If our hearts are filled with worry and sadness or plans for later, if our hearts are filled with anxieties, grief and darkness then there won't be room for Jesus to come in, perhaps because our hearts are tight and closed we won't even see Jesus just as Mary Magdalene didn't see the Lord who was standing in front of her and speaking to her.
Yet let us not worry that our hearts are not perfect or ready or worthy. The fact is none of us are ready or worthy to receive our Lord. None of us is ever really ready for Jesus. Mary Magdalene wasn't ready. But Jesus called her by name and came to her anyway. On this Easter Day these many years later the same risen Jesus calls each of us and says our names and invites us to please open our hands, to open our hearts. He says, "I want to come live with you." And we reply, "I have seen the Lord."