WHILE IT WAS STILL DARK….
My sermon is directed to people who are living at the end of their rope. Many among us have endured some harsh blows in the past year. Some have been pushed to the edge of financial ruin by this economy. Some of have lost a husband or wife they are finding it hard to live without. Some have been diagnosed with a chronic illness, which drains their energy. Some are struggling with a child who has a problem, which has no easy solutions. There are far too many in our larger community who are unhappy and alone. The list of troubles goes on and on … and for this reason there are many who are barely hanging on.
When I read the Easter story each day this week many of you were sitting beside me. Your anguished faces were peering over the spine of my Bible. Each day as I prayed over this morning message I asked God to use me to speak to you. Many times over I have asked God to show me what the Easter Story has to say to someone who has lost a son, or someone who is struggling with depression, or someone who has been so abused by the church in the past they want nothing to do with it now.
The message of Easter proclaims Jesus victory over sin and death. Those words look good on an Easter banner bordered by Easter lilies. They sound great rolling off the lips of a preacher on Easter morning. But what does the resurrection Jesus mean where life is actually lived?
It is comforting to know eternal life awaits those who believe in Christ. However, it has occurred to me we need more help with life before death than we need with life after death. There is a program on MTV popular with our teens called the The Real World. What does the message of Easter have to do with the real world?
The voice inside me told me to let John answer these questions. After all, there is a movement in the text from darkness to light, from death to life, from sadness to joy.
(John 20:1 NIV) Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
John begins the Easter story with the words, “while it was still dark…” Mary Magdalene went the tomb because earlier in the week Jesus was executed like a common criminal. She did not go there expecting to find an empty tomb. She went there in the dark expecting to find a body to mourn. The one who had delivered her from the seven demons that tormented her mind and body was dead. With him, her hope died.
There is the message for those who came to this sanctuary in the dark. The Easter message begins in the dark. It begins in those times in our lives where it is a struggle just to get out of bed. It begins in those moments of life when we don’t think we can hang on any longer. Some will argue, myself included, there is only one road to Easter and it is through the dark. In many ways the Easter message does not become real until you have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, until you’ve experienced a loss that has shaken you to the core of your being, leaving you wondering if you can go on. I’m not suggesting we wish suffering upon ourselves for the purpose of knowing God. Instead, I’m saying those who have lived in the land of darkness can see the light better than those who have never been in the dark because of the contrast. The Message of Easter begins in the dark.
(John 20:2 NIV) So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"
“Where is he?” Mary cried? “Where have they taken him,” she asked. These are the words of someone who needs Jesus but does not know where to find him. They are the words of the parent who has lost a child and God along with him. They are the words of widow who has lost her spouse and her faith too. When people are going through hard times they same the same kind of things as Mary. They say that they have lost God. They say that God has abandoned them. They say that when they pray they feel as if their prayers never get beyond the ceiling. One of the hardest things about the darkness in our lives is the silence of God.
There is a powerful story told by Elie Wiesel in his book Night. Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated his life to telling his story. The novel Night chronicles his own experience in a concentration camp. Toward the end of the book he describes the fate of a family caught in an act of subordination. Every male member in the family was led to the gallows by the guards and hung while the entire camp looked on. Among those who were hung was a small boy – below the age of twelve. It took the boy more than thirty minutes to die because he did not weigh enough for the rope to break his neck. After they were all dead every person living in the camp were forced to parade by the little boy. As he waited his turn, someone cried out from the crowd, “where is God?” To which someone from the crowd answered, “there he is! He has a rope around his neck” – referring to the boy with the noose around his neck.
In one sense you could say the comment means that God suffers with those who suffer. But I’m afraid that Wiesel had a much darker meaning. He was actually saying that the God who had rescued the Jews from the hand of the Pharaoh died with that boy. The God who had rescued Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego from the furnace in Daniel was dead and could not save them. In fact, the whole God is dead movement from the sixties grew out of a response to the Holocaust.
Some will say the times they have felt God the most in their life is during times of suffering. Those who can say this during a difficult stretch in their life need to count their blessings. Not everybody can say that about himself or herself. For every person who say this there is another who wonders where God has gone. Where are you God? How did I ever lose you? Even Jesus. On the cross he cried, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” These valleys of the shadow of death experiences are what Christian mystics call the dark night of the soul. Which is an incredible hunger for God in a time where God is nowhere to be found. It is the desire to hear from God when the only response received is silence.
(John 20:11-13 NIV) but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"
“Woman why are you crying?” Don’t you think that is an odd thing to say to woman who has just witnessed the death of her savior? I don’t want to appear irreverent, but that was a really dumb thing to say. You would think a pair of angels would have been a little smarter than that. Imagine asking that same question watching the pallbearers lower her husband of 50 years into the ground. You’d never ask a grieving widow “Why are you weeping?” We know why Mary was weeping. Jesus was dead. She loved him and he was dead. She didn’t know what to do next.
The worse thing we could do with the Easter message is to try to gloss over your struggle. The truth is that the darkness that gets a hold of people is painful. You can’t expect people to just snap out of it when they are hanging at the end of a rope. The truth is there are some problems in life that have no easy solutions and no good explanations as to why it happened. My preaching professor at Austin Seminary said that when his mother died a group of students rallied around him and told him that they wanted to help him get over it. To them he said that he would never get over it but somehow with God’s help he would find a way to go on. There are some things in life we should cry over because we will never get over them. The best we can hope for is that we will find the strength to carry on. Don’t ever let someone minimize your pain. Not even an angel.
(John 20:14 NIV) At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. …Thinking he was the Gardner.
Now here is the problem with darkness. In the darkness no one can see very well. Mary’s grief is so great that she isn’t able to recognize Jesus. She thinks that Jesus is the gardener. That’s what grief can do to us. The darkness can be so great that we can’t see God, even when God is standing right next to us. Realize it, or not. Even if we believe God has abandoned us. God never abandons us.
There is where the story begins to make a 90-degree turn. Jesus was standing right beside Mary. She just couldn’t recognize him. No matter what you are going through right now, chances are God is working through people and situations all around you.
I’ll never forget the time I went to a woman visit a woman on numerous occasions that lamented the absence of God in her life. What never occurred to her was that God had sent our church to her. Once after she asked where is God I asked her “who do you think sent me to you.” This is more than a problem with grief and trouble. It is just the trouble with every day living. We just don’t pay close enough attention to God to notice what God is doing. It’s like walking through a field a bluebonnets so many times we fail to notice them anymore.
(John 20:16 NIV) Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).
Jesus knew her name and when he called her by name she recognized him. This is reflective of what Jesus was talking about in the 10th chapter of John when he said he was the good shepherd. He said that he was the good shepherd who knows his sheep by name and his sheep recognize his voice. This is where we begin to see the good news in the Easter story. The good shepherd knows your name. When you are hanging at the end of your rope you need to remember that Jesus knows your name. Listening to his voice is our task.
Easter is the message that we can begin again. It is the message that you can start over. What’s dead don’t stay dead where God is concerned. No matter how dark it is in your life right now there is hope because our God is the God of the ressurection. That’s the message of Easter. And even now he is calling out your name this Easter. He is calling your name.
Easter is crack a crack in the wall of the dark tomb you’ve been living in. But you’ve go to listen and you’ve got to be willing to step through that door into the new life hs has in store for you. Easter is the promise of new life. At Easter the good shepherd calls your name. He says you’ve been feeding in a dry and barren land. Come to me and I will lead to new green pastures with fresh flowing water. The Lord is your shepherd who leads you beside fresh clean water. No matter how dead you feel there is a new life available for you. When Jesus said I am the ressurection and the life he was not just referring to the future. He was referring to the present.
(John 20:17a NIV) Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.
You can’t cling to the past. You don’t have to forget the past. But you’ve got to let go of the past. You are going to have to accept that things will never be the same for you again. You also have to believe that the new life God has for you will be a blessing. This is why so many people never step through the crack that Easter offers them. They are afraid of what is to come. In the end this is just a failure to trust God. Besides what are you going to get if you just keep doing the same things over and over again? You are just going to get more of the same. You’ve got to be willing to step outside the box – outside your comfort zones. Life is best lived in the present with an eye trained toward the future. It can never be lived in the past. You may never get over something. But you can get on with your life. Nothing can return to normal in the resurrected life. This is what Easter offers us.
(John 20:17b NIV) Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
Did you notice that no one in this story says to go tell the disciples that Jesus has raised from the dead? He tells Mary to go tell the disciples that he is returning to the father. “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Those are some of the most comforting words in the Bible. The one who calls your name is returning to the father who is your father. The one who in the 14th chapter of John said he is going there to prepare a place for you. This is the one who said he was going back to God to send the Holy Spirit back to us so that we would not be alone.
This is what John means when he talks about the glorification of Jesus. There were three things that had to happen. Jesus had to die. Jesus had to be raised. Jesus had to return to the Father.
Do you see the movement here? A story that begins in the darkness is a story that ends in the light. A story that begins with death is a story that begins with life. And the same can be said for you.
These words are God’s promise to you. You can start over. You can go from death to life. That’s what the Easter message has to do with real life. And this is what the message of Easter has to do with where we actually live.
(John 16:20-22 NIV) I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
(John 20:18 NIV) Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" (John 20:8 NIV) He saw and believed.
Do you believe? I cannot prove any of this to you. I have no film footage of the ressurection. All we have is an empty tomb and some eyewitness accounts. I’ll never convince you of the ressurection of Jesus by proving it historically. I’m never going to prove the resurrection occurred by showing you what the Bible says about it.
However, I can say this much. With all my heart I believe it is true. I have seen people get absolutely crushed by this life get back up and build a new life for themselves. In this congregation there are people who have lost children and found new life, there are people who lost spouses and found new life, there are people who have filed for bankruptcy and started all over again, there are people who have been divorced and got back on their feet.
And then there is the simple matter of faith. It takes faith.
The Easter story begins in the dark. But thank God it doesn’t end there.