April 20, 2014
William G. Carter
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
For all of today’s hosannas and hallelujahs, Easter begins with tears. A woman went to the tomb of a beloved friend and found it cracked open. His body was supposed to be there. She had every reason to expect him to stay in Joseph of Arimathea’s donated tomb. Mary Magdalene had stood near the cross with his mother. She heard him gasp in pain, she saw him breathe his last breath. She knew he was gone and wasn’t coming back.
So there is no logical reason for her to go to his tomb. John says all the necessary work had been done. The body of Jesus was wrapped in linen with the burial spices. Nicodemus had seen to that, returning secretly with an extraordinary amount of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body. The deed was done, the tomb was sealed, the Sabbath rest began.
I have been with people when they discover a grave has been desecrated. It is not a pretty sight. There were gasps and exclamations of shock, then blind rage. “Who did this? Where are those vandals? Why wasn’t somebody watching?” Then come the tears, tears that declare “I loved him.” It was hard enough to watch him die, to say goodbye – but now this: a broken grave.
Before we rush onto thin affirmations today, let’s first take the time to feel the shock of it all. Easter begins with tears. Easter begins with Mary weeping by the tomb.
She had run to tell two disciples that the grave had been robbed. Simon Peter and another race to the empty tomb. They can only confirm that the grave is open, and that it is empty. Somebody has been there before them. The linen wrappings lie without a body. Some of them were rolled up and placed off to the side. Who knows what they think? Simon Peter leaves, heartsick and scratching his head. John says the other disciple “believes,” but doesn’t actually say what he believes. So the two of them go home.
What exactly do you believe about Easter? Not what people have told you, but you yourself. What do you believe? I believe Easter begins with tears. Real tears. Death is real. Our loved ones die. Jesus died. Mary Magdalene was certain of that.
As she peers into the tomb after the other two depart, she sees two angels. They weren’t visible before. They ask about her crying. “Woman, why are you weeping?” They offer no consolation, only a question. Her grief should be self-evident, if angels have any emotion. She has lost her Jesus, not once but twice. He died and now he is missing. The tears are real. They are always real. Easter begins right there.
I was eleven years old when my grandfather died. He had a heart attack on his way to seeing me walk a ceremonial bridge from Cup Scouts to Boy Scouts. Grandpa was only five years older than I am now. My parents raised me as a Christian, and I had heard plenty of sermons that declared Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead. But as I stood sobbing by my grandfather’s grave, I also knew my grandfather wasn’t coming back. The fresh dirt on his grave assured me of that.
Was Easter real? Was death defeated when Jesus was raised back to the life? I couldn’t say at age eleven. I knew death was real. And I knew if I ate enough chocolate eggs and marshmallow Peeps on Easter, I wouldn’t think about death for very long.
But here’s the thing. Mary turned away from the tomb. Through scalded eyes, she saw somebody she could only construe as the gardener. He asked her the same ridiculous question, “Why are you weeping?” as if he was on the same wavelength as the two angels in the tomb. She didn’t recognize his voice even as he spoke to her.
He asked another question, “Whom are you looking for?” That’s a question that the Gospel of John places on the lips of Jesus over and over again. He knows there is a search going on in every human life. We are looking for something, Someone, who can meet us, who can complete us, who can hold us forever in grace and truth.
People will do all kinds of things to satisfy this fundamental human hunger. They will take cruises and come back weary. They will dine on extravagant meals and come back weary. They will medicate themselves to get as high as they can, only to fall like Icarus with melted wings. A friend of mine tells me about a loved one who is going in June on a weeklong retreat in Hawaii with a new age guru; it’s going to cost $6800 for her to search for enlightenment, and she’s looking for the same thing the rest of us are looking for: meaning, purpose, holiness . . . God.
The gardener asked the question, “Whom are you looking for?” Truth be told, she was looking for a dead Jesus, so she could take him away and keep him safe once and for all. That was all she was looking for.
That’s when he said it: “Mary…” Easter happens when Christ calls our names.
Some people today are out trying to prove the resurrection. They haven’t realized it is impossible to do. If you go to Jerusalem, the Christians over there can’t even agree on the location of the empty tomb. They don’t know conclusively where it actually was. Three hundred years after the first Easter, some Christians said, “We know the place; let’s put a church on it.” In 1867, a Garden Tomb was found and others said, “This is the place.” A friend of mine tells me they are both wrong; the tomb of Jesus is actually in Japan.
The fact of the matter is, Christians have never worshiped a tomb. There is no comfort in a tomb, especially if it’s empty. No, we worship Jesus Christ. He is the One who calls our names . . . Louise, John, Ann Kelly, Margaret, Richard . . . Easter becomes real when we know he is alive and he is the One we are looking for.
If Jesus is alive, he can speak to us. He can lift the old words of scripture off the page and lodge them in our hearts. And we know the Lord is our shepherd, we know that death has no final power over us. I spend a lot of time with the Bible, and sometimes it is as if he speaking to me – because he is. Have you ever had that experience? He is the One we seek behind all of the words written in Bibles and newspapers.
If Jesus is alive, he can come to us even if we do not see him. “Though we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil - - for You are with us” We can stand a little taller, stand a good bit stronger, because it is He who helps us to stand. And we discover because of his presence with us, there is nothing for us to fear. Not since he is alive!
If Jesus is alive, he can invite us to do something important for God and God’s world. He does not want us to fall into selfishness and self-absorption, but invites us – calls us – to give ourselves to others as he gives himself to the world. One of our church members apologized to me the other; she has to skip worship today because they need her to serve food at the soup kitchen. I said, “Don’t ever apologize for responding to the voice of the Risen Christ. You have to do what he calls you to do.”
Easter becomes real when we hear the Risen Christ calling our names.
I didn’t know that at age eleven, standing by my grandfather’s grave. But I have stood beside countless graves of other people and declared with full authority, “Don’t be afraid. The God of life is stronger than death, and the people who have trusted Christ continue to be alive eternally.” I said it because it’s the truth, and I said it because I believe the Risen Lord called me by name and said, “Bill, this is what I call you to say.”
Mary’s tears are real. But she stops weeping when the Risen Christ calls her by name. Easter is for her.
And Easter is for you. Trust that, behind all the words we say today, behind all the hymns we sing and the prayers we speak, trust that, behind the bread we eat and the cup we drink, Christ is alive. He knows you better than you know yourself. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine being loved. He imagines you living a life free from fear, a life you can offer to him for the benefit of the broken world that he loves.
This is the grand adventure of faith, Easter faith. And if, at heart, you are looking for him, he will find you . . . and he will call you by name.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.