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

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

2010-04-04 Jn 20 01-18 Easter

2010-04-04 Jn 20 01-18 Easter

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

What if? What if Mary didn't do all the things in the stream of things she did on Easter morning? What if she had made one different choice?

No one else has come to the tomb. But Mary Magdalene comes. She sees that the stone has been rolled away and runs to tell the disciples. Then later, after Peter and John go back home, Mary stays. She stands weeping outside the tomb. She bends over for one more look, to be sure of what she's seen. She sees angels. After the angels, she wipes her eyes and stands up, turns around, and sees Jesus. Actually, she thinks it's the gardener. She begs him to give back the body he's taken. And then he speaks her name, and she recognizes that it's not the gardener at all. It's Jesus. He gives her an assignment, and a message – to go tell the disciples what she's seen and heard, and that he's ascending to his Father, their Father, his God and theirs.

What if? What if Mary hadn't gone to the tomb that morning? What if Mary had stayed home and done what everyone else was doing, whatever that was? What if Mary hadn't gone back to visit the grave one more time?

And what if Mary hadn't run to tell the disciples? What if she had assumed the worst, that someone had stolen the body? And what if she decided to protect Jesus' friends from the horror, and disappointment? What if she rolled the stone back over the tomb and kept the terrible truth from ever being known? What if?

And what if Mary hadn't bent down for one more look, after all the others had left? What if she had gone away with the disciples? What if the story ended there, with Mary a thousand times more heartbroken than before? What if Mary hadn't had the courage to look that gardener in the eye and say, “If you have taken him away, you'd better tell me where”? What if Mary Magdalene hadn't been been so strong? What if she hadn't shown that she was one tough woman?

What if?

Easter is God's greatest world-changing, reality-shifting event since creation. Easter is actually a new creation. But for all that, Easter – the first Easter – is a fantastically fragile moment. What if just one of the “what if's” had gone the other way? All it would have taken was one tiny slip, one lapse of Mary's will at any point, and Easter as we know it wouldn't be Easter as we know it. You've got to figure God had contingency plans. A Plan B in case she didn't bend down to see the angels, or didn't yell at the gardener. Or maybe God knew exactly every move Mary would make because... he's God. What if God had planned all along for the greatest event in human history to appear as if it were unfolding almost by accident, discovered almost in secret by one, lonely, heartbroken soul. What if?

The church, in 2000 years of retelling this story - with all its Passion Play pageantry, with its annual traditions and preachers' repetitions – the church has milked Easter dry of real suspense. And this is our loss. We hear the story and nod forgivingly at poor, confused little Mary because we know how so much more than she does. We know how the story turns out. And that's the problem: we know Easter a little too well. But Easter is not a tidy story of God declaring, the angels singing, the people saying, “Amen,” and then all of them going to lunch to talk about what a nice time that was. When you examine what happened, all it would have taken is one little “what if” falling out of place for the whole morning to have blown apart. Yes, Easter is miraculous beyond belief. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, the defeat of death, the open door to eternal life and heavenly salvation is the greatest good news ever. And yet, all this miraculous news rests on the tired shoulders of one weak and grief-stricken human being. What if Mary's weakness, what if Mary's grief had changed any part of that good news? What if? What would have happened to Easter? What would happen to us?

2000 years later, here we sit. Just one tiny congregation out of hundreds of thousands of churches, just one more gathering of ordinary, average women, men, and kids coming together to celebrate the news that God wrought, that Jesus brought, and Mary caught. We're nothing special. We're not God's chosen congregation. But what if? What if the choices you and I make in response to Easter, what if the choices of our weak and fragile lives turn out to be as important as Mary's? You think, “Oh, no, not me. I'm no apostle.” Well neither was Mary. I think it's those gloriously ordinary, those almost accidental “what if's” that make Easter real in our gut. That's where the death-defying suspense lives on. I think the power of those little-bitty “what if's” - the power of what might or might not happen by the choice of non-special, non-apostles like you and me – is the power that makes faith alive, the strength that makes faith reborn, the miracle that makes faith resurrected – in weak and fragile people like us.

What if?

A long time ago, a high school youth group advisor was talking to us. On Sunday nights he was a youth group leader at our church, but the rest of the week he was a dentist, with a good practice, a nice home, and a lovely family. He was telling us about the professor he hated in dental school. It's good for idealistic youth to hear these things. Oh, this professor was awful to him. Picked on him in class, failed him on papers, made his life miserable. One day the prof called him into his office and said, “You are a waste of my time. I don't know how you even got accepted into dental school. The best thing you could do is drop out and go get a job digging ditches.” Our youth leader was crushed. He was so furious at this jerk for crushing his dreams. So he made a decision. He decided he would show that idiot professor how wrong he was. He would study twice as hard. He would stay up nights learning whatever it is dentists learn. With God as his witness, he would crush his enemy. And he did. He showed him. Graduated at the top of his class. And one day, it dawned on him. If his evil prof hadn't said what he did, he never would have done anywhere near as well as he did in school and in life.

Now, I wouldn't think this professor's methods would have worked on everyone. But apparently the old buzzard had been around long enough to know how to inspire this one student to excellence. But what if? What if that professor hadn't been there? What if the youth leader had responded differently? What if?

Thinking back on your life, who are the people – or the events – that put a choice before you? Maybe they meant you good. Maybe they were inspiring teachers or parents or friends. Maybe your spouse meant to inspire you to greatness you didn't know you had. But some people or events don't mean well. Maybe, sadly, they meant you harm, meant to press their crosses into your shoulders. Maybe it was something that just happened, something totally random. For good or for bad these What If's changed you. You're different because of them. What if they hadn't been there? What if you had responded differently? What if?

More and more I'm convinced that it's not the big, momentous choices that change us (and possibly the people around us) as much as everyday actions and reactions. Average people, making everyday choices, more or less from their gut have a lot more power than they think.

For instance, Mary probably didn't say to herself, “Well. I'm confronted with a history-changing choice here. Do I stick my head in the tomb one last time, or do I do something else? Let me get a legal pad and list the pro's on one side and the con's on the other.” “Do I express my emotions at the gardener or do I keep my feelings to myself?” Mary probably did what her gut told her to do. Maybe her choices were predictable by God or by the people who knew her best. Maybe people said, “Yup. That's Mary alright.” We'll never know. What we do know is that she didn't do what the other people did. No one else came to the tomb that morning. No one else stayed behind for one last look. Culture said women didn't speak to men in public, and especially not as Mary spoke to the gardener. If, in any one of those instances, Mary had stopped, if she had done what everyone else did, if these seemingly small choices had gone a different way, would she have seen angels? Would she have seen Jesus? Would we be reading the same Bible we have today? What if?

It's one thing to think back on your life and reflect on the what if's. And wondering what if Mary had done something different is the kind of thing preachers like to do. It's sort of interesting, but if you dwell too much on these things, you're just going to get a headache. Because things are the way they are and no amount of wishing is going to bring them back for a do-over.

But we can learn from the past. If a string of ordinary choices changed a life's path, or in the case of Mary, MANY people's lives' paths, what about the choices we make today? The story of the first Easter teaches us God never works alone. God will trust something as important as Easter to a broken, fragile, pretty average, ordinary person like Mary. The Bible teaches us that if God will trust the first Easter to Mary, God'll trust this Easter to someone like you. God entrusts the good news of Easter, God entrusts the gospel of Jesus' resurrection, God entrusts the word of eternal life and heavenly salvation to you. We know the Bible the story, so that's not where the suspense is. The suspense is in what you're going to choose. What are you going to do with Easter? What are you going to do with the salvation of Jesus Christ? God is willing to work with you – You – to continue spreading the greatest, world-changing news in all of history. What are you going to do?

There may have been a good number of people who would've sold Mary Magdalene short. “You know, it's not like she's an apostle. What does she know? She says she saw Jesus. Maybe she's crazy.” Don't let anyone sell you short. And don't sell yourself short. You're much more powerful than you think. Not because you're so great and strong, but because you're not. And the word of God is. As weak and as fragile as you might think you are, you've been given a tremendous gift. In your hearing today, you are given the gift of Easter. Maybe it's the first time you've really heard it. Or maybe you hear it every year and you wonder what difference it's going to make this time. Whatever path has led you to the good news of the resurrected Christ, good or bad, it is what it is. Cherish it or curse it, the path can't be changed. Don't waste today worrying about those What If's. Because today is going to bring you a brand-new set of choices. And you can choose how you're going to respond to this Easter, this day. What if? What if, like Mary, you choose to give Jesus a second look? What if, like Mary, you choose to do what your heart tells you, even if no one else is doing it? What if, like Mary, you recognize the face of Christ in the most unlikely of faces, faces that are so familiar you overlook them, or maybe even the face of someone you're angry at? What if?

What if someday you look back on this Easter, and think, what if I hadn't chosen this, or that? What if I hadn't felt God grow near? What if I didn't go where my heart of faith led me that one day? I'm pretty certain Mary Magdalene had no idea she was changing the course of history. She just followed this vision of new life. Whether or not you or I will change the world today, who can say? But Easter has given you a vision of new life that you can choose to follow, starting today. And that vision of new life has changed the world, has changed the worlds of countless saints and countless sinners alike. What if you choose that new life? What if?