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Easter Surprises

San Williams

April 24, 2011
John 201:18

Easter Sermon 2011Easter begins in darkness. It begins with the pre-dawn discovery of an empty tomb by Mary, Peter and the unnamed disciple.  After Peter and the other disciple see that the tomb is empty, they return home, but Mary remains.  She stands alone weeping outside the tomb. Let’s enter the story at this juncture, and fasten our attention on Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus.

As we draw near to Mary, the first thing we notice is that she is in tears. When she looks into the empty tomb, John tells us that there are two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, and they ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  At first hearing, their question sounds unnecessary, even foolish.  When you see a woman weeping in a cemetery, it’s safe to assume that she is grieving a loss, shedding tears of sadness, missing a loved one who has died. We might have expected Mary to respond to the question of why she weeps with answers such as, “I’m crying because Jesus, whom I loved, was nailed to a cross.  I’m crying because the one in whom we had placed such hope was put to death. I’m crying because the world is such a wicked place, with so much suffering.”  

But what Mary actually said was this:  “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  At the very least, Mary might have been thinking, they could let his lifeless body rest in peace.  Wasn’t it enough that he had been beaten, crucified and stabbed?  Yet even in death, Mary assumes, the cruelty continues.  They have taken her Jesus away, and she doesn’t know where they laid him. 

Surely many of us today share Mary’s sense of loss.  Consider how a second semester seminary student feels after his or her naïve assumptions about the Bible have been toppled by the wrecking ball known as historical biblical criticism. The student might want to cry out, “They’ve deconstructed my Bible; they’ve taken away my Jesus, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Older adults in the church sometimes lament that the church they loved has changed. What happened to old hymns?  Onward Christian Soldiers, The Old Rugged Cross, In the Garden.  They’ve even taken away the “amens” we used to sing after every hymn.    “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I do not know there they have laid him.”

Surely some of you came to worship this Easter Sunday remembering with nostalgia the Easters of your childhood—pretty new dresses, Easter egg hunts, dinner with the large extended family. Life seemed simpler then, didn’t it, and faith was accepted without question.  But for modern adults in our mostly secular, postmodern society, belief is no longer easy, nor, as many have concluded, even necessary. “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I have no idea where they’d laid him.”

This week Homeland Security eliminated the color code that we’ve used to indicate the level of terrorist threat in favor of a simpler, two-word code.  From now on, the terrorist threat will be measured by one of two terms:  elevated or imminent.  Such is life in the 21st century.   The threats, the dangers, the uncertainties of our new century are at best elevated and at worst imminent.  Mary’s cry in the pre-dawn darkness of the first Easter is one that echoes in every dark night of the soul, when whatever makes life worthwhile withers away, and hope vanishes.  This is what Martin Buber called “the eclipse of God.” And this is how Easter begins: in darkness, in a cemetery where a woman weeps.

But then two surprising things happen. First, Jesus calls Mary by name. When Mary turns around she sees Jesus standing before her.  At first she doesn’t recognize him; she mistakes him for the gardener. Yet as soon as he calls her by name–“Mary!”–at that moment Easter dawn breaks upon her.   As one theologian noted, the surprise of Easter is not just that Jesus was raised from the dead; it was that he rose from the dead to us.  He appeared first to a powerless, marginalized woman named Mary, and later to the very people who had betrayed and disappointed him. Easter began for Mary not when she finally understood the physics of the resurrection, not when she declared a doctrine or articulated a belief.  No, her Easter faith was born when she heard herself called by name.  “All we know for sure,” writes theologian Craig Barnes, “is that a risen Savior is on the loose and he knows our names.”

On Easter Sunday, you expect to hear glorious music, to see the lovely flowers and a larger than average congregation.  Wouldn’t it be surprising, though, if quite unexpectedly you heard, felt, sensed, knew that Christ is alive and knows you by name? 

Two weeks ago, at our all-church retreat at MoRanch, our speaker, David Johnson, led us in a simple but powerful demonstration.  He asked a student to go to the platform and stand with his back to the podium.  The podium, David said, is God. God is there with us, but often our gaze is turned away from God.  Then David asked the student to turn and face the podium.  God hasn’t moved, but our gaze is now turned toward God, who is always present.  When we turn, as Mary did, we are surprised to find ourselves in the presence of a risen Lord, who loves us and who calls us by name. 

And here’s the second surprise of Easter. Jesus then tells Mary not to cling to him.  “Do not hold onto me,” he says to her.  Isn’t that disconcerting?  No sooner does Jesus appear than he vanishes. He speaks, then disappears; he comes to us, then quickly leaves us.  If only he’d stick around longer we could have a better understanding of the resurrection. We could confirm our faith, and gather a DNA sample so the lab could analyze the data. But as Mary’s experience shows, the risen Jesus is not to be captured or managed.  He’s impossible to pin down or control. As someone said, “Control freaks don’t do well with Jesus.” What matters, though, is not our ability to hold on to Jesus. What matters is our confidence that he has a hold on us.  As the contemplative monk Thomas Merton put it,  “Love enters the darkness and lays hands upon what is its own!” 

Jesus isn’t trying to be evasive. Rather, he’s going ahead of us—in John’s words—back to his Father who is also our Father, to his God who is our God. He goes to prepare a place for us.  As Jesus had earlier said to his disciples:  “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”   

Yes, Easter began in darkness, in a cemetery with a woman weeping. But Easter doesn’t end in darkness. Easter shouts the good news that Christ is alive, and Christ is calling you out of darkness into light, out of despair into hope, out of the past into God’s promised future.