Racing Toward the Impossible – Easter Sermon on John 20:1-18

It was good to just rest. After all the events of Friday, it was good to find some quiet time to process everything. The sound of those nails being pounded into the cross, the darkness, and the smell of death were overwhelming. So it was good to observe Sabbath, to have some time to think, the second day after Jesus was crucified.

Oh, I know you would rather talk about the third day. That’s the one everybody likes to celebrate. But that second day, that quiet Sabbath, was important, too. All of the disciples needed that day, to come to terms with the way things had played out. It wasn’t what anyone had expected, and getting over the shock of realizing Jesus was really dead would take some time.

What would happen now, without a leader? Peter could have taken over, but he was just as devastated as everyone else. More so, maybe. And the disciple Jesus loved had been sticking close to Peter’s side, as everyone huddled in that room together. There had been talk all day long. Hushed whispers, loud wailings, each one grieving, everyone trying to figure out what to do next. While some kept watch, in case the religious leaders came looking for more disciples to arrest, others slept, or tried to eat. A few talked through the night, trying to decide some course of action, but in the end, no one had a good idea, and almost everyone had dozed off by the time morning came. No one even noticed Mary slipping out while it was still dark outside.

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

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.

There was a lot of running going on that morning. First Mary Magdalene ran back to the disciples as soon as she realized the stone had been removed from the tomb. Though Mary is the only woman mentioned in John’s version of this story, we get the sense that there were other women with her when she said, “We don’t know where they have put Jesus.” So they must have been running with her, as she raced back to tell the others what she had found.

We don’t know if Mary even looked inside the tomb before jumping to the conclusion that someone had taken the body away. It’s hard to tell why she assumed the body has been stolen. Maybe she thought the tomb had only been ‘on loan’ as a temporary burial place, just to get through the Sabbath, and its actual owner had removed the body. Maybe she thought the religious leaders had moved the body before this tomb became an unwelcome shrine. It’s hard to tell who she means when she says “they,” but it’s obviously not “one of us.” And it’s clear that Mary thinks Jesus is still dead.

But Mary’s words crackle like a starting pistol, sending Peter and the other disciple racing toward the garden to see for themselves. And this is where the scene becomes almost comical – you can practically hear an old piano playing silent-movie-chase-scene music, as one disciple gets there first, but doesn’t go in, and the other runs right past him to duck into the … empty tomb! Well, how about that! Mary was right, after all. There’s no body here. Just some grave clothes lying around, and what’s this? The head cloth has been carefully rolled up and placed away from the other wrappings. That’s strange. Peter and the other disciple leave, scratching their heads, believing that the body is certainly gone, but not quite clear yet on the concept of resurrection.

After all, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, someone else had to unwrap him after he walked out of his tomb. So, who unwrapped Jesus’ body for him, and why? Peter and his friend simply cannot comprehend that the impossible has happened here. So, they leave.

Before we condemn them for their lack of faith, or even for short memories that can’t remember Jesus’ own words about being the resurrection and the life, we might want to stop and consider how we, too, walk away from the things we can’t explain. When our view of God is challenged, when he doesn’t work in our lives the way we think he ought to work, how often do we give up and walk away, muttering to ourselves or anyone else who will listen? We aren’t much different from Peter and that other disciple.

But Mary comes back into the story, to remind us that there is more than one way to miss recognizing the miracle of resurrection. She must have run right back to the tomb behind those racing disciples, because here she is again, weeping as they walk away. As she bends over to peer into the empty tomb, just to be sure Jesus isn’t hiding under that pile of linen, she discovers that it is no longer empty. It was empty just a moment ago, but now there are two – not one, but two – angels, sitting there calmly, asking a simple question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

This might seem an odd question, since Mary is standing in front of a new grave. It’s a place where people normally weep. But they know something she hasn’t quite accepted yet. Mary is still stuck in the “He’s dead” reality of her own limited understanding. She hasn’t grasped the impossible fact that Jesus is alive. She can only answer, “They’ve taken him away, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”

As she turns around, she sees a man standing there, who asks her the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Her answer is another repetition of the theme, “I don’t know where they’ve taken him.” She’s stuck in this groove of grief, this firm belief that Jesus is dead, and she says the same thing she’s been saying all along, first to the disciples, then to the angels, and now to this man she doesn’t recognize, so she figures he must be the caretaker of this garden.

Aren’t we sometimes like Mary, too? When God doesn’t fit neatly into the box of our belief system, we might just walk away, as those racing disciples did, or we might act like Mary: senselessly, stubbornly repeating our view of truth, even when evidence to the contrary stands right in front of us.

Then, Jesus says her name. “Mary,” is all it takes for this sheep to recognize her shepherd’s voice. Jesus calls each of us by name, too, urging us to recognize him as our risen Lord. What keeps us from seeing him, when he’s standing right in front of us? What prevents us from reaching out to him, as Mary apparently did, naming him as our beloved teacher and Lord?

Theologian Karl Barth says we come to worship to answer this one, simple question: “Is it true?” Is it true that God exists? Is it true that he created a perfect world, and that humans were part of that creation? Is it true that he wanted us to love him the same way he loves us, freely, and of our own choice, so he made it possible for us to choose not to love him? Is it true that we broke his heart and the perfect world he created by choosing the wrong thing, and he’s been working to heal our brokenness ever since? Is it true that he loves us so much he gave his only Son to die, so that we could be reconciled to him? Is it true that this same Son not only died, but rose again, to give us eternal life?  Is it true?

There was a time in my life when I was pretty skeptical – maybe even downright cynical – about all this hocus-pocus we call faith. I had read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I thought I had it figured out. I was pretty smug about my openness to the possibility of a variety of mythological explanations for the things we cannot explain.

Then my world came crashing down around my ears and I found myself wondering: if there was a God, why didn’t he care about me anymore? I call that time in my life “the bottom of the well.” As I slowly climbed out of that well, I rebuilt my understanding of who God is, and I began to realize that he truly did love me. But I couldn’t quite get my head around that. I couldn’t explain it. I knew I wasn’t lovable. And then, one day as I read my Bible, without really seeing the words on the page, I realized I was like that other disciple, the one who entered the tomb after Peter, looked around, and believed. But we don’t know what he believed. The rest of that sentence says that the disciples still didn’t “understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” And I realized I was a lot like Mary, repeating over and over my version of reality, trying to make the evidence right in front of me fit into a box that was too small. I remember saying out loud, “Lord, I don’t know what to believe anymore.” And it came to me, clear as a bell, “That’s okay. Just trust.” That’s when I was changed, like Mary, into someone who could suddenly recognize Jesus.

That’s what I invite you to do today. No matter what your questions are, no matter what keeps you stuck in doubt or skepticism, no matter what makes you walk away scratching your head. Trust Jesus to be who he said he was, to do what he promised to do, dying for your sake, rising again to new life, so that you can live, forever reconciled to God, starting now.

Then you, too, can join Mary in saying, “I have seen the Lord.”

The Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia.
Amen.

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