John 20:1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be there that morning? I know you have, at least once. I have too – many times, in fact. I’ve read this story hundreds of times. I’ve sung hymns and songs about that morning thousands of times. I have been to countless Easter services in my life and had this story told in so many ways and yet I still find that the true impact of this incredible event is yet to fully take hold of my heart and my life – there is so much more I am yet to discover in this powerful, almost overwhelming scene. How can that be? How can one story; one snippet of history and life; one picture of an empty tomb; one slice of eternity have such an impact and carry so much meaning?
In the early hours of the morning, one day last week, I sat alone and read the story of the resurrection once again. In fact, I read it over and over again that morning. I may have read that passage a thousand times and yet last week, as is so often the case, this story carried a freshness and a power like never before. I was mesmerised by the power of that scene in the garden in front of the empty tomb.
I found myself asking God: “Take me to the garden, Lord … and let me watch that event … let me be a silent observer. Let me feel that sense of hopelessness which permeated the air when they discovered the empty tomb. Let me be there … let me search for the living among the dead. And Lord, take away my lifetime of stories and Christian heritage. I want to be there fresh … with no history … no preconceptions … no background insights … I just want to encounter that moment in time and space without any idea at all what was happening. Just like those who were there, I want to see the reality of this moment unfold before me. I don’t want to know what happens next. I want to be caught up in the reality of the moment … as it unfolds … there and then. Take me there Lord.”
A tall order – even for God – and it would be great if I could report to you this morning that I was caught up in heaven and the angels carried me to the garden and that I had this supernatural encounter which defies description, but that’s not what happened – I don’t think. But the Lord did take me to the tomb … in a way … at least more than He has at any other point in time. Perhaps you will allow me to share just a little of that experience with you now. Some of it cannot be described in words – it has to be felt in the spirit – but I will try.
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I found myself alone, sitting in the midst of the graves of people I did not know. It was dark; I do remember that … very dark … just a faint glow from the moon allowed enough light so I could see the tomb … The sun would be up soon, but not yet. I couldn’t see, but who would have thought there would be anything to see anyway? But there was …
Suddenly, there she was – standing right in front of me and then just as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared back into the night. Frightened … alone … weeping. I could understand that; it was a frightening place to be, standing there in front of the tomb with that stone rolled away. In the moonlight I could just see the threshold of the tomb and the huge stone … but beyond that, there was this horrible black hole of emptiness, despair and death: the entrance to the tomb. It was an awesome sight.
So she left, more quickly than she had come, and again the night air, the darkness, was silent. As silent as death.
I wondered if I should stay, but before I could go I heard footsteps again – someone … no two … running down the path. As they got closer and I could see them, I could tell it wasn’t the woman who had returned; it was two men and they were running.
One was faster than the other and when he got to the tomb he stopped. He just bent down and looked into the darkness. I couldn’t tell what he saw in there, but it was enough to convince him that life was better outside the tomb. But then the other man, the one who couldn’t run quite as fast, just ran right into the tomb when he got there. He didn’t take the time to stop, to look, to crouch … he just ran down the path and straight into the tomb! Convinced that it was safe, the other man then went in also. They saw what there was to see, I suppose, and then they left together side by side.
I had been watching them so intently, I hadn’t noticed that she had returned also. I was glad, really. She had come to the tomb and left so quickly – I felt as if I hadn’t had the time to get to know her … and I wanted to. Now she was there again; and she was weeping. I suspected that someone really important to her had died. Must have been a parent, or friend, or spouse, or a child perhaps. I wanted to know. As she stood there, consciously or unconsciously, I didn’t know for sure, she inched her way to that opening. Ever so slowly … very slowly she moved towards the opening of the tomb. In some ways I hoped that she would leave – because the pain of being there for her seemed so overwhelming … but she stayed … and she stayed … and she stayed. I wanted her to go away or at least turn her eyes, thinking that if she would, the pain would be lessened and the tears would stop falling. I couldn’t understand why she would want to be there. I wanted to go and comfort her. But I just watched helplessly in the darkness as she stayed, and stayed and stayed, and she moved slowly, very slowly toward that tomb’s entrance … and then leaned over and looked inside.
Then the strangest thing happened. I would not have believed it, had I not seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. As this weeping, distraught women leaned into the opening of the tomb, I saw a glow inside the tomb, like someone had lit a gas lantern. How strange. I had been standing there all the time and I saw no one enter that tomb. Where was the light coming from then? Just as I was trying to work out the source of this eerie glow in the tomb, I head a voice … I heard someone inside the tomb ask her my question! The very same question that had been burning inside me. They asked her: Woman, why are you crying? And as I was trying to convince myself that I didn’t really hear those words, she spoke in reply! I heard her voice, a faint voice, breaking up with disappointment and grief: she said “They have taken him away, I don’t know where they’ve taken him.”
Then I understood. She had lost this person twice – whoever he was – she had lost him when he died. Now she had lost him again. I could understand this kind of grief. At that point I realised that we were not alone in the garden. Another voice out of the darkness – but this time it was not an eerie glow … this time there was a man standing near the woman and he asked the same question: Woman, why are you crying? Suddenly her voice was stronger now, desperate, pleading, loud enough to wake up the world from its sleep: “If you know where they have put him – tell me where he is. I will pick him up and carry him away.”
Then this man called her by name – her name was Mary. Her voice changed from desperation to excitement as she moved towards the man and said, “Teacher.” And he told her to go – to tell the others that she had seen him and something about this God they shared. Then it hit me … then I understood … this man … this teacher seemed to be the man who was supposed to be in the tomb. How could that be? Surely he didn’t …. no that’s not possible ….. that can’t happen … but it appears it did. This man had come back from the dead.
This woman was obviously close to him … and she thought his body had been stolen … when in actual fact, it had come to life again. This was to much for me to process. My head was spinning and my heart was thumping. I fell to my knees as I contemplated the magnitude of what I was witnessing. She hesitated … but finally she left, as he had asked. I could understand why she didn’t want to go – but she had to. Now perhaps she was losing him a third time – what if she never saw him again? But she left, and then the teacher walked off the other way and disappeared from sight.
Then it was just me … I was left alone … in the darkness. I wished I had talked with this woman. But like so many times in my life, I let the opportunity escape me. Quickly it comes, and then it’s gone, but as I sat there and as daylight began to fill the sky, I realized I didn’t need to talk with her at all. Just by watching her and hearing her, she had become my teacher as surely as the one who had died had been hers. I almost felt as if this grand drama had been played out right before my eyes so that I would learn something about death … and life … and grief … and persistence. It was as if watching this story unfolding right in front of me was an invitation – a grand invitation to you and to me and to the Church which preserved this story for us. An invitation to go to those places in our world today where there seems to be no hope for anything but death and despair.
An invitation to go straight to the tomb which surrounds so many millions of people … and stay there … with them. Plant ourselves firmly there, and even if the realities are too painful, not to avert our eyes and not to move away. Just stay there in the darkness, shivering from the cold, but standing there with whoever is there … weeping for them … weeping with them … but never, ever running away. Just standing there until the world who is watching us cries out:“People, why are you crying?”
Then we would take the world by the hand and lead the world to the entrance, and we would say, “Look into the tomb.”We would show them who’s living there – in that darkness … in that emptiness … in that place where so many live each day. We would show them that small child with his mother and father huddled together. They are afraid. They told their child that they were coming to a new country, a better country that would be their home, their safe home. And we hear that small child whispering, “There is no life here. It’s not safe here either.” And in the corner … there is a woman there, a vacant look in her eyes. She knows only about a love that is cruel and abusive … and the child with the parched, cracking lips and swollen stomach dying from hunger … and the person dying alone from a disease that sadly yet has no cure. They are all there; in the darkness and emptiness of that tomb where the dead reside … they have given up any hope for life. We would want to turn away.
But Mary says to us, “Stay there.” Stay … and stay … and stay. Just stay until … in the midst of the noisy silence of the darkness … you can hear the halleluiah. It may be faint at first, but you will hear the halleluiah … it may be cold and broken, but you will hear the halleluiah, the song of survival, the note of hopefulness that in the middle of the grief that life pours upon us, somebody is there, and somebody will stay there until tears of sadness become tears of joy because we all know that none other than God Himself is there with us – in the garden of death. Stay there …. staring at the emptiness and hopelessness of that situation … until the sun of hope rises and pierces the darkness of grief and despair.
That’s what I learned from that woman named Mary who stood there at the entrance to the tomb in the darkness of that early morning. I learned that for the world to come to know something about God’s presence we must keep our tear-stained faces gazing toward all that is seemingly dead and dying until … until the world hears that melody. Halleluiah … life has conquered death … hope has risen from the ashes of despair … a new day is dawning … the sun has risen … the Son has risen!
I was standing there in what seemed like the longest moment in time … contemplating the depth of significance of that event. I was there .. in the face of the greatest enemy of all mankind … the source of more fear and heartache than any of the fruit of this fallen world: I was staring DEATH in the face. Death is our greatest foe … our worst nightmare … the end of our road … and yet if we stay in that garden long enough to see what is really happening … then we will see that death no longer has victory. Darkness is not stronger than life. The end is just the beginning. Our God has conquered death … and if He has conquered death … then He will conquer every hopeless situation in life. If death is no match for God … then neither is anything and everything we face in this life as humans.
So I invite you to come to the garden of despair and weep with those who weep … mourn with those who mourn … sit with the dying, the sick, the homeless, the helpless, the hurting, the lonely … look at the emptiness of their life … as Mary looked into the emptiness of that tomb … and pray with them … comfort them … because unlike Mary that morning … you already know that there is life in that Garden!
There is hope in that Garden. There is healing and restoration in that Garden …. God Himself is in that Garden … and to those who wait … and trust …. and hope … He will come … He will draw alongside them and ask them, “Child, why are you crying?” And when He comes … so will life … so will light … so will hope … so will transformation … for we shall reflect His glory and His glow into the darkness of this world.