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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Easter People

Date: 03/27/2005
Feast: Resurrection of the Lord
Church: Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Rev. James McTyre
Bible text: John 20:1-18
Theme: Mary In The Garden

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.

In Jewish thinking, the day begins at sundown, not sunrise. God uses the darkness of the night to teach us things we won’t hear in the light of day. If you want to hear wild, dreamlike, impossible things go looking for Jesus in the night – as did the Pharisee, Nicodemus, in John 3:16, when Jesus told him, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asked Jesus. From the first words of the Old Testament, “in the beginning,” God starts working in the night. Before God says, “Let there be light,” God lets there be darkness. And the people who walk in darkness are the first to see the light.

There are Morning People; and there are Night People. Morning People spring out of bed ten seconds before the alarm goes off. Morning People are making coffee, and opening window blinds, and singing Barry Manilow tunes (“Ohh it’s daybreak!”) while the rest of the world is covering its head with a pillow, dreaming of smothering the Morning Person’s head in a pillow. Morning People say things like, “The early bird gets the worm.” Morning People forget that the early worm gets eaten first.

The first person to reach the empty tomb is NOT a Morning Person, as Morning People usually assume. Mary from the fishing town of Magdala – if we were to take her name literally, she would be, “Mary Fishtower” – Night Person Mary is just getting revved up early in the first day of the week. Saturday the Sabbath is over; time to get back to work. Maybe she can’t sleep. Maybe Mary is worn out from crying. When you lose someone you love, sleeping isn’t that attractive.

So, early on the first day of the week, while it’s still dark, in the time when God does impossible things, Mary comes to the tomb. And she sees that the stone has been rolled away.

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."

Have you ever gone running in the night? More, have you ever gone running in the night when you’re scared? Or angry? Or crying? Would Mary have slowed down as she tripped over tree roots, or as vines and briars scratched her face and arms? Would she have had to stop to catch her bearings even in a place she knew like the back of her hand?

She went to Simon Peter – impetuous, stubborn, denying Peter. And to the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved – John, we assume, being modest in the Gospel that bears his name. Probably both Morning People, having their first cups of coffee and staring at the table. Mary bursts in the door, breathless: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

When Mary says, “We,” she’s speaking not just for herself, but for all of us. She’s speaking for all of us would-be disciples when we know something has happened, but we just can’t say what. We fear the worst, almost automatically. She blames Jesus’ absence on the “Invisible They.” Just as people say, “They should do something about Alcoa Highway,” Mary says, “They have taken the Lord.” Them are the same they.

Well, of course they did. You don’t think the Lord just stood up and walked out of the tomb on his own, do you? They did it. And maybe Mary even wants to make sure the disciples know SHE wasn’t involved in his disappearance. Respectable women aren’t supposed to be out at this hour of the night and day. “Nothing good ever happens after midnight, dear,” Mary’s mother used to say.

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.

The Bible gives us the first recorded instance of the Easter Races, as much a part of Easter as white shoes and bonnets. Like the disciples, we race to get a picture of the kids in their outfits before they smear chocolate on them. We race for the good parking spaces at church, race for the good pews. Race out to our brunch reservations because the preacher went on and on like it was a religious holiday or something. It’s good to be on top, the one with the first information, to scoop the competition. Remember, Peter and John are Morning People; they can’t help themselves. But church, God and Jesus aren’t about coming in first place, as the morning crew will find out in just a few minutes.

He (John) bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.

(Well, yeah. Would you?)

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.

When Jesus raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead, Lazarus came walking out of the tomb with the cloths of death still wrapped around him, like The Mummy in the movies. Do you remember what Jesus said to the people there with their mouths hanging open? “Unbind him, and let him go.” But it wasn’t like this for Jesus. Whatever happened, Jesus didn’t need anyone’s help. Jesus wasn’t simply raised from the dead, Jesus cast off death. Jesus shook death off him, and rolled it up like old, used-up laundry, too stained, too worthless to ever put on again. Jesus left death behind him. And the power of God unbound him, all by itself.

And then he left. He didn’t tell anyone. He didn’t wait for an audience. He just left death behind in the darkness of the night, rolled away the stone, and was gone. Which I think is a message for people raised on Hollywood images. We think everything great has to have theatrics and drama. Jesus casts off the power of death for all humanity – and leaves the empty tomb to speak for itself.

Then the disciples returned to their homes.

The Bible’s a little confusing, here. It sort of sounds as if John believes… something. The Bible says nothing about Peter (bless-his-heart). The light of day is beginning to break on these apostles, but things are still pretty hazy in their minds. Would you blame them? They didn’t go out running – as they did when they ran to the tomb. They didn’t go shouting and jumping and telling the world about Easter. The disciples returned to their homes.

After a funeral, where do people go? We go home. A lot of times, we’ll have a meal, provided by the church. Not always, but most of the time, when we leave a cemetery, we go home. When the world outside is upside-down, there’s something instinctively comforting about the sight of the kitchen table, the dust bunnies under the bed. Our table. Our piles. It may not be much, but it’s home.

Maybe that’s what Jesus was thinking when he just rolled the stone away and left the tomb without a word. Maybe he had to start making his way home, too.

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 asks Mary, “Whom are you looking for?” Wait a minute, we’ve heard this before. These are almost verbatim the very first recorded words Jesus spoke to anyone. Back in Chapter One of this Gospel, Jesus – who has grown up and been baptized but as yet has said nothing in print – Jesus senses the disciples following him and he turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?” And now, with almost the exact same words, Jesus signals to Mary, to us, the beginning of a new life. “Whom are you looking for?” If Jesus were raised in East Tennessee, he would have said, “Who ya’ lookin’ for?”

But the question changes, just slightly, though. It’s no longer, “What” are you looking for, it’s “Who?” God – the Messiah – has changed from a concept, a dream of the night, into a real human being, who walks and talks with us in the daylight. Everlasting life is a person.

And if these are Jesus’ first words to us in life, and in eternal life, it ought to tell us they’re pretty important. Notice, God (Jesus) probably doesn’t go about things the way we would. Again, no trumpets, no pyrotechnics. No commandments. No, “Bow down and worship me, puny mortal!” Instead, God’s first word to us is a question. “Who’re you lookin’ for?”

Well, who ARE you looking for? Who’s going to rescue you from your graveyards? Who’s going to save you from your darkness? Who’s going to wipe away your tears? If you set someone else up to do those things… if you set yourself up to do those things, you’re always going to fail. The whole search, the whole purpose of life is wrestling with the answer to that question. Is God who we’re looking for? Or are we looking elsewhere for answers?

Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).

Speaking her name, Jesus really, really turns Mary’s world upside down. And, he changes our world, too. Think back to other places in scripture, when Jesus or God answers the question, “Who are you?” When Moses asks God for God’s name, what does God say? “I Am.” All throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeats God’s name, and takes it to himself. “I Am.” “I Am the way, the truth, and the life.”

But now, when he has every opportunity to say, “I Am,” “I’m Jesus,” “It’s me,” – when logically we’d expect him to follow the game plan and repeat the divine name, he says, instead, her name. “Mary.” And at the sound of her own name, she knows who he is.

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.' "

Beloved, the whole world has changed, and if we read too quickly we almost miss it. No longer is God solely the father of Jesus. No longer is God the God of the only begotten Son. Jesus’ Father is Our Father. Jesus’ God is Our God. We are Jesus’ brothers. We are his sisters. We now share EVERYTHING shared between God and Jesus: Knowledge. Life. Eternal life. We are God’s children. God knows your name. And when God quietly, carefully, lovingly says your name, you know who you are. And you know who God is, too.

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.

Perhaps it’s intended as a lesson to preachers that the first Easter sermon was only five words long. (The disciples didn’t have to worry about beating the Baptists to Cracker Barrel that day.) And, we might also note, the first Christian sermon was delivered by a woman preacher. We church people make distinctions that God doesn’t waste time on.

What counts in God’s eyes is not whether you’re male or female, young or old, rich or poor. What counts is what you have to say. Unlike the racing Morning People, no longer the stumbling Night Person she used to be, Mary is transformed into a Person of the Day, a Person of the New Day, a Person of Light. She becomes a good-news-teller, an evangelist, in the best sense of the word. She didn’t simply return home, as others did and do; she wasn’t leaving a cemetery. She thought it was a cemetery, but somewhere in the morning light it had morphed into a garden, a place of life, eternal. So instead of returning home to its comfort, she goes out and tells what she knows.

Easter Faith is deeply personal… but not private. If we have good news to tell, if we have mission projects to build, if we have children to mentor, if we have something to say on behalf of Jesus Christ, God never, ever tells us to shut up. I have a friend who says the only things he remembers from his childhood in church is the adults saying, “Be quiet! Don’t run!” Those are church people, not Jesus. The Bible tells us, if that little light of yours is shining, don’t hide it under a bushel, No! Go tell. Go sing. Go dance and leap and shout. And if you can’t do those things any longer, then pick up your walker and give it a good shake. Make your hearing aid squeal or your cell phone ring if that’s what the good news of Jesus Christ tells you to do. This is a new day. You are a Person of the New Day. You are an Easter Person. Every day, morning and night, belongs to the everlasting power of the everlasting God… and so do you. You are an Easter Person.

To God, through the Holy Spirit, of our Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, be the glory forever and ever. Amen.