Sunday, April 12, 2009

Surprise!! -- An Easter Sermon

John 20:1-18

Rarely is there any “surprise” in a surprise birthday party. The tale-tell signs are everywhere — the clandestine phone calls and the secretive meetings. Besides, since you know that your birthday is coming up, you’re not at all surprised if your friends jump out from behind the sofa and yell: “Surprise!”

A real surprise would be a long lost friend unexpectedly showing up on your doorstep. Or, you go out to dig a well in the backyard and stumble upon a complete T-Rex skeleton. That’s the definition of a surprise. It’s something that happens, which you wouldn’t ever expect to happen.

Although the four gospel accounts of Easter morning differ to some degree in how they pass on the details of that event, they all agree on one thing. They agree that everyone involved was truly surprised to learn that the tomb was empty and the body of Jesus was missing. This is especially true of John's account, which carries with it a sense of the “who dunnit?” Indeed, this would be a good case for Sherlock Holmes or one of the CSI teams – whether it’s Vegas, Miami or New York. In fact, you might even call in the NCIS team to get to the bottom of this mystery!


Although John doesn’t explicitly say this, we could assume from his narrative that Mary Magdalene had watched the soldiers take Jesus down from the cross. If we make that assumption, we might also imagine her helping Joseph and Nicodemus prepare the body and then place it in the tomb (John 19:38-42). If we had been there with her, and had shared in her experience of the cross, like her, we would have been devastated. Good Friday had dashed all of her hopes and dreams, and so when she went to the tomb, early on that first day of the week, she went to grieve not to find an empty tomb. I can see her walking toward the tomb in the coolness of the morning, tears falling down her face, wondering what would happen to her now that the Master was gone.

While she was in that frame of mind, she would have looked up, her eyes cloudy with tears, and discovered that the stone, which sealed the tomb, had been rolled out of the way. I think she would have been frantic when she looked in and found the tomb empty. I don’t hear in this text Mary shouting out: “Oh joy, he’s been resurrected, just as he said.” No, as John suggests, her first inclination was that someone had come and stolen the body; there was no other possible explanation.

When she returned to where the disciples were hiding, her story led Peter and the beloved disciple, to check out the story for themselves. Although the beloved disciple got there first, he deferred to Peter, who entered first. Like Mary, Peter found the tomb to be empty. Although John says that beloved disciple looked in and believed, I don’t see anyone jumping and down celebrating the resurrection. So, I’m not exactly sure what the beloved disciple believed, because apparently they still didn’t "understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead."


Everyone went back into hiding, everyone except Mary, who stayed behind. Maybe she was hoping she could find the body or at least get an answer to where the body might be. It’s at this point in John’s version of the Easter story, that Mary looks into the tomb and finds two white-robed angels sitting where the body had once lain. They asked her what would appear to be a most insensitive question: “Why are you weeping?” And she answers: "They have taken away my Lord."

While the beloved disciple may have believed, Mary remained unconvinced. The tomb’s emptiness didn’t prod her toward faith in the resurrection. She knew that bodies didn’t just disappear, there had to be a logical explanation, but these two messengers from God didn’t offer her any help. They just reinforced her confusion and her grief.

As the story continues, Mary realizes that someone is standing behind her. She glances back, but doesn’t recognize who it is, but she figures it must be the gardener. When the supposed gardener asks: "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" In her anger and in her grief, she yells back at him: "If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."


David Hume, an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, questioned the truthfulness of anything he couldn’t experience with his own senses, and he didn't even trust them. His world view was closed to anything that couldn't be explained by empirical testing, and as far as he was concerned, resurrections were outside the bounds of his presuppositions. While Mary wasn’t a disciple of Hume, resurrections weren't part of her normal life experience either, and so she needed a rational explanation. I can sympathize with her. I’d probably want the same thing.

While the angels didn’t help, when the “gardener” called out her name, he broke her world view, and ours, wide open. She knew exactly who it was, when Jesus called out her name. This was her surprise. She went looking for a body, but she found her Lord. Indeed, she shouted out "Rabboni!" And then she probably said something like: "Oh my, you're not dead! You're alive." She must have been as giddy as Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. She was so excited that Jesus had to restrain her. I can see her grabbing hold of him and not wanting to let go. He’d gone away once, but she wasn’t going to let him go away again. But Jesus said to her “don’t touch, you have to let me go.”


I’m sure Mary let go very reluctantly, but Jesus wasn't finished with her quite yet. She would be his witness, his apostle. He commissioned her to take the good news of the resurrection to the rest of the disciples. This is another Easter surprise, because in choosing Mary to be his first witness, Jesus elevated her, and with her, all women, to a place of equality with men in the kingdom of God. He could have revealed himself to Peter, or to the beloved disciple, but he waited for Mary, and that just didn’t happen back then. But on that day it did, and it changed her life and ours forever!

When Mary got back to the Upper Room, she carried with her the good news –“I have seen the Lord!" That must have come as quite a surprise to the despondent disciples, but this confession transformed their lives. That was a day, to quote a Brian Wren hymn, “of new beginnings, a time to remember and move on, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone” (Chalice Hymnal, Chalice Press, 518).

On this glorious Easter morning, Mary proclaims to us this message: He is alive! And if Jesus is alive, then we’re alive! Death no longer reigns. Indeed, death has lost its sting. There is no need to fear. Why? Because Jesus has conquered death, and made it his servant. Therefore, with Mary, and with all the saints in heaven and on earth, we can proclaim this message: "Alleluia, Christ the Lord is Risen Today!"

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter Sunday
April 12, 2009

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