Easter, April 16, 2017, Sunrise John 20
In 1650, Thomas Fuller, English theologian and historian said in his travelogue A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine and the confines thereof “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.” People have debated for hundreds of years whether this is a fact or just a thoughtful notation. But there is no debating that this phrase has captured the human imagination.
There is an element of truth within it that speaks to us on deep levels. We’ve experienced the darkness and we know it can seem the most overwhelming just before the light breaks through.
Mary began her journey in this passage surrounded by the darkness. While it was still dark, John tells us, Mary made her way to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been placed. The darkness she walks through may indeed be the darkest time of her soul.
She is going to the grave of a man who gave her everything. Jesus had healed her from seven demons. Jesus had given her a spot among the faithful followers, roaming the countryside, sitting at his feet, soaking up the joy of his presence.
What will happen to her now? What will become of the life she has been shown? How will she ever be able to move past the darkness?
I think this is when Mary is the most relatable to me on a personal level. I’ve battled with depression throughout my life. There have been times when the darkness seemed impenetrable. Times when I could not imagine ever seeing sunshine again.
I, like most of us here today, have felt the pain of losing a loved one to death. We understand how it feels to go to the graveside, in the darkness of our grief and sit and wait, gathering that darkness like a blanket around our shoulders.
In her grief, in the dark, Mary went to the final resting place of Jesus, and when she arrived she saw that he was not there.
He was not there. Jesus’ body was gone. I wonder if she took a quick step back and counted the graves, just to make sure she was at the right place.
This past January, I returned to New Mexico for my Aunt Joyce’s funeral and while we were there the family decided to visit my grandparents grave site as well. Only, we couldn’t find it.
I’m sure it looked odd to see close to sixty people walking around that small cemetery looking for a headstone. Each of us remembered that the grave was on the West side, with the name facing the road, one row in from the edge. But it wasn’t there.
Finally, someone spotted it, two rows in, with the name facing a different direction. The confusion was caused by an extra row of bodies being added since their passing in 1983 and 1997 respectively. But no one can account for the stone being turned.
This confusion cannot begin to compare to Mary’s. Jesus is not misplaced. She has not miscounted tombs. He is simply no longer there.
In her angst, while it is still dark, she ran back to tell the disciples. Peter and John, the beloved disciple, return to the tomb with Mary. They ran to the tomb and find it empty, just as Mary had said. They entered the tomb, found it empty and believed. Believed what exactly? I think they believed Mary. They believed that Jesus’ body had been taken. They believed the darkness. The next verse says, “for yet, they did not understand the scripture, that he must be raised from the dead.”
Peter and John return home, still in the dark, still unaware of what this might mean. Still bound to and by the darkness.
Mary could not leave the place she last saw Jesus. She began to weep outside of the tomb. She cried tears of frustration, of loss, of fear, of love. It was bad enough to have Jesus die, but to not know where he body was? To not have a concrete place to take her thoughts and memories? This was like losing him all over again!
She looked into the tomb and saw two messengers, angles, dressed in white, one at the foot and one at the head. And in her darkness, she didn’t even seem shocked or surprised. She asked to know where Jesus’s body had been taken.
She turned around from the tomb and bumped into a man. And supposing him to be the gardener she asked, “If you have carried him away please tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”
In the darkness, she could not recognize who was speaking with her. In the darkness, her grief kept her blind. In the darkness, she was bound to earthly understanding.
In the darkness, we too sometimes do not recognize the voice of Jesus. In the darkness, we too allow grief and loss to keep us blind to truth. In the darkness, we are bound to earthly understanding.
“Mary” With a word the sun began to shine. With a word, the scales fell from her eyes. With a word the creator of the universe reminded Mary of who she was, and whose she was.
“Teacher.” She responds. In that moment, the sun shined out. In that moment, Mary not only identifies Jesus, she also identifies herself; for what good is a teacher without a disciple?
“Do not cling to me,” Jesus told her. Don’t cling to the old way of understanding. Don’t let the darkness, the past, hold you captive any longer. You are free of all that darkness now!
This is the message for us as well my friends. As the sun dawns brightly in our lives, let us set aside the darkness that clings so tightly. Let us be unbound, set free.
And when we have been unbound, when we have faced the dawn, let us go and boldly proclaim “We have seen the Lord!” Alleluia! He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!