Sunday – April 4th, 2021 – John 20:1-18
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
Christians are sometimes told that we are delusional – I know I have friends who think frankly that I'm nuts to be a pastor – and the way they think of Christianity is that we just follow silly little tails ignoring reality, expecting life to be happy all the time and never anything bad and blah blah blah. And chances are that as the years go by, this will be an assumption that becomes more and more common about us Christians, about what we believe. And that is because people do not know, or do not care to know the story. Yet, consider our Gospel lesson today. While there is joy, incredible joy, there's also fear and sorrow and confusion and even despair. The Christian faith is not that because of how great or smart we are nothing bad will happen – no, quite the contrary. We acknowledge that in this life there will be hardship and fear and pain and death – that these all came upon God Himself, Christ Jesus – but we also confess that in the face of all these things, in the face of evil and wickedness and sin and suffering and even death itself, there will be joy, defiant joy, resurrection joy because of Jesus Christ. Listen.
Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Think for a moment on the emotions that would have been at play in Mary here. Sorrow, grief. Jesus had died and there had not been time to properly tend His body, so before the sun rises they head to a tomb to do right by Him, and before they can get there, the grave has been broken into (or out of as the case may be but they don't know that yet) and He's gone. This isn't a “happy” story yet, this isn't some delusional story of victory. This looks to be not only defeat, but having your nose rubbed in your defeat by the wicked tyrants of the world.
So Peter and John go to the tomb, and when they get there, they are absolutely no help at all. They head on in, see that the tomb is empty – they don't get what is going on, and then we hear: “Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping...” Again, think on the emotion – the friends you ran to for help have no answers, and then they ditch you. They don't even stay with you in the midst of your fear, they leave you – just wander off. Man, even as we acknowledge that hard, dark days come – we've got to admit that Mary is having what has to be a rough morning, rougher than most of us will ever face. And that is a thing – you will face dark days, you have been, and often help will be scarce to be found. That's not unusual, that's not a sign that you are unloved by God or any such thing. Nope, even Mary Magdalene, famous Christian, right there. The Scriptures don't pretend that hardship and sorrow don't come, and when we listen to the Scriptures we don't pretend that hardship and sorrow don't or won't or can't come upon us. No, we know the powers of sin and death and Satan, and we know that they are at work in this world. We see it. But there is something else to see, and it is important that we see it. Watch.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” There is a change here in the story. There's a shift. The first ten verses are full of tragic sorrow – it looks to be a sad ending, full of confusion and doubt. But right here there's a shift. There's confusion – but this time it's the angels who are confused. Uh, ma'am, uh, why are you crying? Jesus told you He would be raised on the Third Day, and see, He's risen, He's not here. There in the tomb, you have two angels, celebrating the everlasting victory of the Lamb, and Mary doesn't see them (not really), she doesn't understand, she doesn't comprehend. She doesn't see the Word of God fulfilled yet, she only sees her sorrows and fears and pain – and so she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they laid Him.” Having said this she turned around – pause. Mary turns her back on angels. Now, in the Scriptures we see people duck in fear of angels because they show up in surprise – Angels do get to say that “Fear not” phrase over and over – but you never see someone just go, “eh” and turn their back on angel; that doesn't happen! These angels get the task to proclaim Jesus' resurrection to His friends, and they get nothing. “Uh, I thought they'd have a little different reaction there, didn't you?”
But it gets worse – Having said this she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. There is Jesus, risen in front of her – raised from the dead – cue the great and glory hymns and... record scratch. So upset, so overcome by tears and fears that through them she doesn't even recognize Jesus, Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus standing right in front her. And Jesus speaks, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Um, hi there, were you looking for someone. Parents, you may know this – when your kid is so overwrought with something and the solution is right there in front of them and you want to laugh but you feel so bad for them – that's this. Seriously – listen to Mary ramble – every parent knows this – Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Well fella, if you're the grave robber, let me go grave rob you back... it's utterly ridiculous – driven by fear and sorrow and not seeing, not knowing what is going on right in front of her.
So Jesus does the wise thing. He calls her by name. Jesus said to her, “Mary.” I don't know how Jesus said this – maybe it was soft and tender – Mary. Maybe it was a bit amused/exasperated – Mary. Maybe even questioningly – Mary? I don't know, Jesus is Mary's friend, He'd know how to talk to her in that moment. And it clicks, it clarifies, Mary hears, Mary sees. And then right there, hearing and seeing the Risen Lord, then there is the joy. Maybe even a bit too much joy – Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father...” This is a good, accurate, literal translation, but it sounds too formal to our ears. If we're just talking with friends, we don't use the word “for” - I must go to the store, for I am to make you a cake. And so we hear this, and it sounds stuffy and formal – away from me, for I have serious business to be about. Nope – that's not what is happening here – this is not a distant and stuffy God trying to put some distance between Himself and Mary. This is, “Ah, okay Mary, you gotta let go, cause I've gotta go ascend, and I'm going to have you go tell the disciples that I'm checking in with My Father and their Father.” We've all been there – where someone is overjoyed to see us, but we still have stuff we have to do. That's exactly what this is, once you get past the accurate but stuffy sounding translation. This is joy and mirth and nothing but humor and relief and joy – joy in the end, defiant joy over and against and beyond all the junk that sin, death, and the devil can throw at us.
Oh Christian, yours is not a delusional joy, pretending that everything will always be hunky dory. Nope, we know what we see in life, good times, bad times. Ups and downs. As St. Paul says, I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. We could add whatever contrasts we wanted here – it resolves the same, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
And that is Jesus Christ, raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. That is Jesus Christ, who is no stranger to you, but who has called you by name – there at the font – baptized by your name. And whatever chances or turns your days take on this earth, in the end Jesus Himself will call you by name and you will be raised to everlasting life, even as He Himself is raised from the dead, and there's not a cotton picking thing Satan and the hosts of hell can do about it, because they are defeated, destroyed, done for, kaput. And so, we are given a defiant joy – we'll hear Jesus teach us about this more in a few weeks, but a defiant joy, that cannot be taken away – that even in whatever situation we find ourselves, the fact remains that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and in Him we are forgiven, we have life now and we have eternal salvation. We have His strength – even if sometimes we don't see it, if sometimes the tears are too thick – Jesus sends forth His Word, and we are forgiven and restored again.
That's the story, that's how it works. All the confusion, all the noise, all the fear and pain – it all resolves in Jesus. He Himself took it all upon Himself on Good Friday, even to the point of death, of dying – and then He rose. And that's the way it goes for you – all upon Christ, and then just as He was raised from the dead, so too shall you be. And then, the joy that we can't even quite wrap our heads around yet – the eternal joy, the steadfast joy that wavers not nor wanes. Sometimes we have glimpses, sometimes things are blurry – but this fact remains. You are baptized into Christ Jesus; He is with you and you shall be with Him, both now and ever more in your own resurrection. This joy defies all the junk we see now, and it shall endure forever. Amen. Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia.