“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark” is how our Gospel begins today. And this is how the gospel begins with each of us in many various ways, for the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” comes to us in the midst of the darkness of our lives to “give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” There is a lot of darkness and confusion, doubt and despair in the present world we live in. Each of us has to deal with it not only as we read about it in the daily news, but also as we struggle with the difficulties of modern life. But each day is a new opportunity for the light to shine. And so today I want to trace the steps of Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning, for through them we, too, might experience a new dawn of God’s light and hope.
I love early morning, even though it is hard to shake off the slumber as I greet each new day. Mornings are mystical and sacred, but this morning did not feel mystical, this morning did not feel sacred. Mary Magdalene (much like you and me) did not want to get out of bed as the orange glow in the east was spreading across the sky. But the day’s duties were pressing on her mind and waking her from sleep.
The last few days seemed a blur. The Passover meal, with its prayers and rituals, family and friends gathered to recite the ancient story happened only a few short days ago. Jesus’ strange words that night as he passed the bread, “Do this in remembrance of me,” now didn’t seem to make much sense. She remembered him all right, but she couldn’t extract from her mind the tragic and horrific events of the trial and crucifixion of the one she loved so dearly. It all seemed like a bad nightmare, and now he was gone.
But the burial rites needed to be done. Sabbath meant they couldn’t do the customary anointing. But today, early on the first day of the week while it was still dark, she could bring the “spices which (she and other women) had prepared” (Lk. 24:1) to properly prepare his body for burial. She made her way down the street to the waiting women. With a silent nod they joined in slow procession to the tomb in the garden.
And they saw that the stone had been rolled away! It was empty! How could this be? What have they done? They have taken him. One final insult from the people who had robbed her of her best friend, her teacher, her Rabbouni. They must have taken his body to deny him a proper burial.
But now with grief in her heart, Mary ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved, “They have taken him!” is all she could get out. So Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb to see for themselves. “But Mary stood 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?
…Then a voice from behind her said, Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” That voice. It sounded familiar, but it couldn’t be. “Mary!” was all that he said.
That voice. The familiar voice of the impossible. How can this be? This is not possible. She would not have believed it unless she saw him with her own eyes. He’s alive! Jesus is risen!
“Rabbouni?!” Is all that she could say, as she clung to him and would not let him go.
Early on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene expected to find death but instead she found new life. We have stood in Mary Magdalene’s shoes. We know only too well what it means to expect death but find new life. We know what it feels like to follow on Good Friday only to be confronted with an empty tomb on Easter Sunday. And for many of us, it is hard to make the connection.
On Good Friday God didn’t seem to make any sense. This is not how the disciples imagined things would work out for their leader. After all they believed he was the Messiah. Wasn’t he the one who was supposed to conquer his enemies? What happened to the one who walked on water, and opened blind eyes and raised the dead? He seemingly had no power against these soldiers. What was going on? This didn’t seem to be the same Jesus who could calm the waters of a stormy sea. But now they are beating him and mauling him and opening up his back. And this is the one they had put their trust in! They couldn’t help but be confused.
When things are not going as planned and the bottom drops out of our hopes and dreams, we have to know that God is still working even if we can’t perceive it now. The disciples did not understand Good Friday even though Jesus had told them over and over that he had to go to Jerusalem to be rejected, mocked, killed and on the third day be raised. They did not understand his words, because it was completely outside of what they had expected. And it is the same with us. We all have expectations of how life should work out. And this is especially true when tragedy strikes. After Good Friday, they were downcast and so discouraged that they were numb. They couldn’t go by their feelings, because when it comes to faith we don’t go by our feelings. In fact, we don’t go anywhere by our feelings.
And on Easter Sunday when Mary peered into the empty tomb, she was not expecting to see a resurrected Jesus. The thing is, we don’t go looking for resurrection either – the resurrection finds us.
Jesus’ resurrection is about God loving us so much that God is willing to go to any length to find us. That is what he did for Mary and that is what he does for us. And when he conquered death, don’t you know that he is going to conquer the discouraging circumstances you are facing in your own life.
Now “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?”
This means that because of the resurrection our lives now have purpose and direction and meaning. For not only have we been forgiven and given eternal life, but we also have internal life, the life of God living and empowering us to live for him to his honor and glory.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (I Cor. 15:56-58)
I believe that you came here today to hear a message of hope. The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us that hope. You see: the Christian life is not about my feeble efforts to be like Jesus, but it is about Jesus Christ living his life in you and me. It is the life of God, lifting us up, raising us up with Christ, and giving us his life that makes all the difference in the world. Jesus came back from the grave to prove there is life after death with him. And as Jesus said, to Martha, “I am resurrection and I am life.” The question for us is: “Do you believe this?”
The only proper response to this is to reach for it and pray that our Lord will give us the gift of faith that boldly proclaims, Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.
— The Rev. Stephen Becker