[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]
In the beginning, the Old Testament book of Genesis says, God’s Holy Spirit “swept over the waters” of chaos and, on the first day of the first week, God began to bring creation into being.
According to Genesis, God’s week of creativity culminated in the creation of human beings. God placed the first man and the first woman, Adam and Eve, in a garden. It was a place of perfect peace and fellowship with God.
You know what happened, though. Adam and Eve wanted to “be like God.” They caved into the egotistical notion that they could declare their independence from God without any consequences. Through their sin, the world was plunged into the dark chaos of selfishness, violence, injustice, and hopelessness we have to this day.
This garden, God’s perfect creation, has been groaning under the chaos and darkness of sin ever since.
But God hasn’t given up on us!
Long centuries after God’s creation fell under sin, on the Sunday after Jesus’ death, some of the female followers of Jesus went to Jesus’ tomb.
In our gospel lesson for this morning, John focuses on just one of the women who went to the tomb that day. Her name was Mary Magdalene.
We know little about Mary Magdalene. The gospels of Mark and Luke say that she was a woman from whom Jesus cast out demons. And the Gospel of John says that, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, she stood at the foot of the cross, among the few who were unafraid to admit that she was a believer in Jesus. But, while we may know little about Mary, she played a huge role in the event we celebrate today.
Turn to John 20:1 in your Bible. “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” The first day of the week: Unbeknownst to Mary or anyone else for that matter, God was creating again. This day, begun in darkness, the pall of death and chaos hanging over it, was to be the first day of the first week of God’s new creation. But neither Mary nor any of the women with whom she went to Jesus’ tomb that day suspected it.
Go to verse 2: “Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we [Mary mentions herself and the other women] do not know where they have laid Him.”
Mary had no notion that Jesus was anything but dead. She had watched Him die. She was simply outraged that the One Who had freed from slavery to demons, Who had been humiliated, beaten, and crucified, was now, in death, being further demeaned and desecrated.
Verses 3 and 4 tell us that Peter and the beloved disciple, the one to whom Jesus from the cross had entrusted the care of His mother and probably John, the author of this gospel, ran to the tomb to see for themselves. The beloved disciple, younger than Peter, made it to the tomb first.
Now, look at verses 5-7: “And he [John], stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there yet he did not go in.” [Peter, ever impulsive, doesn’t show the same hesitation.] “Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen clothes lying there and the handkerchief that had been around [Jesus’] head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.”
The burial custom of those days was to wrap the deceased in linen cloths. They would roll the body in linen, so it wound around it in layers. The head would then be wrapped in a separate linen cloth.
Unraveling the linen after the wrapping took place would have been quite a process. If you were a grave robber, wanting to work fast and remain undetected, you wouldn’t take the time to peel the linen off of Jesus’ body. Yet, here were the linen cloths that had wrapped Jesus’ dead body lying there and the cloth that had wrapped His head, neatly folded in another spot.”
To John and Peter, the place would have looked less like a tomb from which a body had been stolen, than a guest bedroom in which the guest had considerately made his bed before leaving in the morning!
Look at verses 8 and 9: “Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture [the Old Testament prophecies], that [Jesus] must rise again from the dead.”
The beloved disciple believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Listen: Faith understands things that the intellect strains to comprehend. Faith is the teacher of the mind, not the other way around.
John accepted the signs of Jesus’ resurrection before he actually saw the risen Jesus, before he knew it to be empirically true.
Believing--even the willingness to believe--is seeing. You cannot see God unless you are willing to see God. Faith is not imposed by God; it’s given to those who want to believe!
When I was an atheist exploring the faith of the dear people Ann had introduced me to in her home congregation, I found that as I opened myself to accepting what I could not understand, I began to believe in the God and in the risen Savior I could not see. I saw the risen and living Jesus working in the lives of people who believed in Him with every fiber of their beings.
Their faith pried open this heart and will that once were sealed as tightly as Jesus‘ tomb was.
I don’t know when I first believed. But I do know when I first knew that I believed.
I had been looking into this Christian faith, studying the Bible with a group of people at the Lutheran church of which Ann was a member. One night, I went to sleep and experienced something I rarely experience, a dream I could remember. In my dream, I was walking down a street. Ahead of me, I saw Jesus. I didn’t dare to be so presumptuous as to approach Him. But He came up to me. And when He did, He wrapped His arms around me. To this day, as I recall that moment, I can still feel the cloth of Jesus‘ robe touching me.
When I realized that I believed in the crucified and risen Jesus, I also knew that my life would never be the same again. I was no longer be in charge of my life, just as Mary Magdalene, John, Peter, and the other witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection knew that their lives could never be the same again.
And if you believe in Jesus, your life can never be the same again either.
Yet, at this point in John’s telling of the events of Easter, Mary is still unbelieving.
Maybe Mary had seen too much of life and death to believe that Jesus could be risen. Maybe you feel that way this morning; then what John says happened next is for you.
Slip down to verse 11: “But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept, she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?‘ She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.’”
Mary sill thinks that Jesus is dead. No other possibility has entered her mind. Sometimes, we can be so beaten down by life and death and grief that we feel nothing good can happen, that God is powerless, that the future holds no hope.
Don’t cave into those lies!
Verse 14: “Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.” When we allow our faith to be held hostage to grief and doubt, we cannot see or experience the blessings God wants to give to us.
But Jesus never gives up on trying to reach us! Look at verse 15: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ She, supposing Him to be the gardener, 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, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which is to say, ‘Teacher’).”
Mary wanted to grasp hold of the risen Jesus. But in verse 17, Jesus tells her not to cling to Him. Both He and Mary have things to do: He must ascend to His Father and she must go tell others the good news.
Look at verse 18: “Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.”
If you need any more proof that Jesus really has risen from the dead and is alive this very moment, this verse should provide it!
First-century Judean culture believed, as centuries of their Hebrew ancestors had before them, that women were inferior and that their testimony could not be trusted. Yet Jesus chose Mary Magdalene to be the first preacher of this good news and, miracle of miracle, in spite of the messenger being a woman, those she told believed her; they believed that Jesus was risen from the dead. If Jesus’ resurrection were untrue, the originators of such a hoax would have come up with a more politically correct way of kicking off their campaign to convince people Jesus had risen from the dead than to make a woman the first Christian preacher!
So, what does Jesus’ resurrection mean?
First, it means that everything that Jesus ever said is validated. Jesus has conquered sin and death. He’s the Lord of everything. Nothing is beyond His authority. Nobody has sinned so horribly that God can't forgive them and give them eternity.
And we dare not call into question anything Jesus says about sin and repentance, forgiveness and new life, death and resurrection, heaven and hell, about money, or taxes, or work, or parenting, or marriage, or sex, or the Ten Commandments, or saving faith.
When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” we must believe it.
When He says, “Those who believe in Me, even though they die will live,” we can bank on it.
When He tells us, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter...from [God’s] law” will be abolished, the Christian grateful for the undeserved love and forgiveness that comes to those who trust in Christ will do all they can to break away from the me-centered morality of the world and align their lives, however imperfectly, with the will of God.
When Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” and “those who believe in [Jesus] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already...,” we should ask God to help us turn from sin and trust in Christ each day.
Jesus’ resurrection means that we need to take Jesus seriously as God and Lord and Savior and not see Him as just a nice teacher who did nice things.
And we certainly cannot take His words as advice that we can take or leave!
And here’s the second big thing that Jesus’ resurrection means: On the first day of a new week, in a garden, God burst through the chaos and sin of this old creation and began to bring His new creation into being. The fall into sin that happened in Eden and the chaos into which creation sank has been decisively undone by God’s creative act in Jesus!
Go to 2 Corinthians 5:17. It says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, [she or] he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new.”
God hasn’t given up on you; so, don’t you give up on God!
All who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Christ are part of God’s new creation.
For the follower of Jesus, the past is dead and buried. It’s a new day!
God is making all who follow Jesus Christ new and one day like Mary, we too, will see the risen Jesus and He will call our names and we will fall at His feet, the beneficiaries of an eternity of second chances to be all we were meant to be, living forever in God’s new creation. Amen!