Like Mary Magdalene making her way to the tomb Easter Sunday, so too do we make our way here. Maybe you came with high expectations, that you’d encounter the risen Lord and experience something of Mary’s joy. Maybe you came with low expectations, hoping nothing really important comes up on your cell phone before the service ends. Maybe you got dragged here against your will. Nevertheless, we are all here now so we might as well make the best of it. Let us explore the Easter story from Mary Magdalene’s perspective and see if there are some things in there that can help us raise our expectations for what life offers.
What do we know about Mary Magdalene? Although the Bible doesn’t say it, most people think she was a prostitute. This came from the teachings of a medieval pope (in 1969, the Catholic Church rightly said there was no grounds for such a claim). Throughout history, artists typically portrayed her as a redhead, as if to say, “You know those redheads.” Author Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code picked up on a tradition that says she had really been Jesus’s wife. All we can say from scripture is she was a follower of Jesus who witnessed his crucifixion and she was first to encounter the risen Lord and tell others the good news, the first preacher of the gospel.
On Easter morning, while it was still dark, she made her way to the tomb. Some folks think this is the root of the aphorism, “The darkest hour is just before dawn.” Maybe you are in one of those hours right now. Hang on. Maybe that’s what you needed to hear this Easter morning, why the Lord led you here. Don’t take it from me. Turn to your neighbor and tell ‘em, “Hang on. The darkest hour is just before dawn.”
Why did she venture on a dangerous pre-dawn journey where bad things could have happened to her in the darkness? Maybe it was grief. Sleep is difficult right after you’ve lost someone. Or, maybe she just had to go–just to make sure it hadn’t been some horrible dream. Perhaps she thought that attending to the details of giving Jesus’ a proper burial (that he’d be denied) might help put the whole dreadful experience behind her so she could go on. Many people find it helpful to stay busy because they cannot face a constant tsunami of grief, and can only bear it in smaller waves.
I don’t think Mary came to the tomb with big expectations–even though she’d heard what was supposed to happen straight form the lips of Jesus himself. She came to do what she had to do. She came expecting to smell the stench. She came expecting to feel her pain–the sting of loneliness, the hollowness of all the hopes she had in Jesus, now dead. She came expecting to taste the salt of her tears, expecting to hear nothing–the nothingness of death.
But let’s not get too hard on Mary. Don’t we all sometimes expect the worst out of life? Don’t we all at times expect to find nothing new, to only hear the same old stories, of the stench of a world gone mad with violence and hatred–the same old stories of corruption, inhumanity and suffering? Don’t you have times where you expect nothing more than disappointment?
Regardless of how she got there or what motivated her to get there in the early morning, so too have we come to the garden (symbolized by all these lilies). Perhaps hoping and longing for better than what we usually find. Mary went to the tomb expecting to feel pain, and smell and smell the stench, and taste her tears. She found herself standing in front of an empty tomb; and she did feel pain, and she did taste her tears–but the stench was surprisingly absent.
Was this some sort of cruel joke, a final indignity? Hadn’t his death been painful enough? The only way she could make sense of the empty tomb was to assume grave robbing. In a confused stupor she ran to tell the disciples that someone had stolen the body. Peter and another disciple raced out to the scene, before her, and were gone by the time she arrived. She may have thought, “Typical. They weren’t there when Jesus needed them either. While Jesus was being tortured, Peter comforted himself, warming his hands by a fire, denying he ever knew Jesus.”
She sticks her head inside the tomb—this time, two angels were waiting for her. But even they are of no comfort, asking, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It must have felt like a punch in the gut–an incredibly insensitive question. Isn’t weeping the normal response for a person who has had her heart ripped out? She isn’t in the mood to critique the angels’ pastoral care techniques–she simply blurts out the only explanation that she can imagine, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Not even angels can help her.
Turning to leave, she bumps into another bystander. Mary mistakes him for a gardener. The imagery is highly symbolic. Remember how the biblical story begins with Adam in a garden? The early church understood the resurrected Jesus to be the first born of the new creation—the new Adam. To say Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener is a way of saying she does not yet understand that the whole world has changed. From here on out, it’s not business as usual. It’s not Adam’s sinful and fallen world, it’s a world alive with possibility and hope.
As the drama unfolds–we wonder, we wait. What’s it going to take for her to recognize him? When will she believe in the Resurrection? Seeing him is not enough. The empty tomb is not enough! Angels aren’t enough! So we anticipate Mary’s moment of recognition.
Jesus is right in front of her and all she can see is death and pain. All she can taste are her tears. All she wants to know is where Jesus’ body has been taken. She can’t even imagine the possibility of any other conclusion than death and pain.
The story is told in such a way that we have to ask: Do you suppose resurrection might be looking us in the eye and we haven’t noticed it? That we may be like Mary, all we expect is pain and the same old story and we can’t even believe there is anything new and wonderful possible in the world? Do you suppose that like Mary, new life is right in front of you and God is just aching for you to recognize it? Do you suppose like Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener, you may be mistaking the extra-ordinary in your life for the ordinary?
I believe in the Resurrection as something that happens now, and is staring us in the face. Mary’s story teaches us to look for the Resurrection. To look for new life where before we have seen only death.
It’s as if we’ve bought into a culture that tries to tell us the facts of life. The old hardened, cynics pull us close to tell us how the world “really works,” the real facts of life. They aim to squash idealism right out of us. They say: everybody is in it for themselves and is out to take advantage of you. It doesn’t matter if you do something good for someone else, they’ll just grow dependent on you and you’ll make things worse. Wanna change the world? Fool! Whatever you try, things won’t change. Bad people will still do bad things. The world is corrupt and it’s all a matter of who is buying who off or who is forcing their way on someone less powerful. People are going to judge you based on whether or not you have a home and how much power and influence you have, how much you acquire. These are the facts of life.”
And we buy into this stuff and have a confirmation bias. We look for the bad and when we see it, we say, “Whoop, there it is.” The cynics are right. We get so used to seeing the bad that we cannot even see all the good stuff right in front of us screaming for our attention.
Easter introduces an alternative set of facts, real facts—not fake alternative facts like they talk about, but honest to goodness real facts! Easter says God isn’t done with this world, yet. There is hope, there is vindication for those who do things the right and truthful way. There is new life in the midst of tragedies and defeat. Easter teaches us not to give into the darkness, to settle into the tombs of our lives, but to rise, rise in spirit and defiance to those who would keep us down.
You can stare at that pink slip and think it is telling you: facts are you are a loser, you screw everything up, you’ll never make it. But you can say, “I’ve got some alternative facts for you. I’m a child of God. I still have dignity. I will find a way.”
You can look at that bad report from the doctor that tells you, facts say it’s time to get all gloomy and redefine your life around illness, now it’s okay to grow bitter and negative. You can say, “I’ve got a set of alternative facts for you, bub. I’ll deal with it and it won’t be easy, but I don’t have to define myself by illness and what’s wrong, but what’s right with me. I can choose to see the good in the world and be a good person and treat each day as a precious gift from God.
When some person comes along and does something horrible to you or ascribes the worst possible motive to your actions and your ego kicks in and starts plotting retaliation and leads you down a road of becoming mean and nasty too and ascribing to them the worst motives you can say, “I’m going to live by some alternative facts. I’m not giving in. I’m not going to get drawn in and become like you. I’m going to keep positive and working for what is right.” My friend, Iowa pastor Dave Swinton says when we start assigning horrible motives to everything someone does, we should set our systems to “chill” and check things out before assuming the worst.
You can feel the grief when someone dies and hear those voices inside that say facts are you should never be happy again. Or you can say, “I’m going with some alternative, resurrection facts. Though my heart hurts and I won’t get over it, I’ll get through it. I know God surrounds my loved one with love even now and that I am called to go on living as faithfully and fully as I can, letting that which was best about my loved one draw out that which is best in me.”
This isn’t some empty naiveté, a power of positive thinking that says you can prevent bad, unfair, cruel stuff if you paste on a smiley face. Easter is a reminder that things can get unbelievably bad and awful, but while it’s still dark, the dawn is on its way. When the world has done its worst, there is still something God can do. God vindicates truth-tellers, the peacemakers, the forgivers, the people who although they’ve been wronged and laid out, get back up anyway. God is with those who suffer. God helps people who mess up and fail and get themselves into problems and are willing to admit their wrongs, learn from their mistakes and redeem their lives. Seems that the Easter story isn’t just about Jesus getting up. It’s about us getting up from defeat, from shame, from failure.
Here’s the key. When you go through something unimaginably bad, keep reminding yourself that yours is a resurrection story. I’m not blowing smoke up here. This is my story, it’s the way I got through my own monumental failures and struggles. Make your story a resurrection story.
The Gardner finally says something to Mary that changed her world forever. The risen Christ speaks one word to her and this time she swirls around to give him her full attention. He simply says to her, “MARY.” And her eyes fly open. It exceeds her wildest expectations. A possibility she never could allow herself to consider is now a reality standing before her.
No longer is she fixated on an empty tomb. No longer is her heart heavy with pain. No longer is she clinging to a memory.
When Mary hears her name — and she listens to the voice of the risen Christ — her perspective changes. She no longer sees the empty tomb as a symbol of death and pain and tears, but as testimony to the powers and possibilities of life.
I believe that for every one of you Jesus is calling you by name this morning, asking you to open your eyes to the power and possibilities of new life. My prayer for you this day is you have an encounter with the risen Christ! That low expectations be transformed into ultimate expressions. May your eyes be opened and your life never be the same.
Chist is risen.
Christ is risen indeed! Amen.
Iowa Pastor Dave Clark, senior Pastor Bay Shore Church, Long Beach, California