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April 7, 2007 (Easter Vigil)—“Weeping to Witnessing”

Interim Pastor Steven Jensen

John 20:1–18

It is understandable that when we read of John’s resurrection account, we do it with the knowledge that Mary Magdalene and the disciples did not have at the time, and it is easy, then, to wonder about their faith in the one they had served.

But just as God’s plan required Jesus to be fully human, I believe it was also part of Jesus’ plan to have disciples that were all too human. The marvel of God’s redemption requires that the events of Jesus death and resurrection not be some religious fable or myth, but factual events in human history, events that still meet us where we live.

So instead of judging those who go to the empty tomb, let’s put ourselves in their sandals.

Mary Magdalene and the remaining disciples have until now, at least, survived the unthinkable horror of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, passion, and crucifixion. Anyone associated with Jesus and his threat to the religious establishment was in jeopardy of losing his or her own life. They are, therefore, in hiding from anyone who might recognize or overhear them and turn them in.

The majority, I expect, are having major ambivalent feelings. They are still in shock at the loss of the one on whom they had pinned their hopes and dreams, sacrificed family and vocation, and come to love. They likely are feeling guilty about having let him down and left him alone. But as human as they were, they may also feel angry that the one they called Messiah came to such an end and crushed their dreams with his last breath.

And now, unlikely able to sleep anyway, Mary finds herself in the early morning darkness drawn to the source of her grief. She is not even sure she can do something, especially at this early hour. She is acting on impulse—she is not able to think this through. Who will roll away the stone? Perhaps the soldiers will take pity on a woman in such a state of grief. And then what? We always want to do something, have one more chance to let the deceased know we loved them, ask for forgiveness, pray that this is not really happening, discover our loved one is not really gone.... But we have learned death is so very final; there are no more second chances.

So reaching the tomb and seeing the stone rolled away, she hesitantly, but of necessity, looks in and finds it empty. She never thought she could be hurt anymore than what she already was. Is there no end to the evil the temple leaders and the Romans could do? They can’t even let Jesus rest in peace and allow her to grieve at his tomb. What utter helplessness! We can only imagine the sobs, the agony, the total loss of remaining strength that may have caused her legs to fail her. Whoever “they” were, they had won. The powers of these horrible people were too great. She and the others were helpless. It was hopeless.

But she must tell someone. Somebody has to do something! She has to get his body back in that tomb and the stone back in place. Gathering some strength, she hurries back to the disciples in hiding and blurts out this new horror. “They have taken him away and I don’t know where they have put him!” Despite all the horrendous things they have seen and heard done to people in their lives, they, too, have difficulty comprehending this additional evil done to them and to their Master.

Off run Peter and John, with Mary Magdalene hurrying as best she can. Can it be true? Was she at the right tomb? Have they really taken the body away? What would the disciples do if it were so? John and then Peter arrive to discover it indeed was true—the tomb was empty. Mary watches them search and then slowly and dejectedly return to their place of hiding. Did a word pass between Peter and John? Did they retreat further into their own grief? Perhaps the only thing they were able to say to any others awaiting their return was that Mary was right—the body had been taken—and then sink into bitter silence.

Seeing the disciples were helpless and would be able to take no action to seek out and return the body of Jesus, she returns to his empty tomb to grieve. Through tear-filled eyes she is greeted by the angels who ask why she is grieving. “Why am I grieving????” Could these people have no idea of the terrible events of the past few days? “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” With that burst of words, she sits down in this place of death, defeat, and despair and sobs once more.

Sensing another presence, she wonders who else might be in such a place this morning, and assumes it is the gardener—until he calls her by name. He calls her by name! That voice! It was him, it was Jesus! She would know that voice anywhere! Is she hallucinating? Had her grief sent her over the edge? No. Wiping her eyes, she can see it truly is Jesus. Still weak and in shock, she wraps her arms around his legs. She’s going to hold on to him and never let him go. This was too good not to be true!

This was not a time for holding on to what was. Jesus tells her to release the Jesus she knew and embrace the true Jesus—the Son of God, the Messiah, the keeper of Yahweh’s promises, the Prince of true peace.

Embracing the new Jesus means letting go of her helplessness, her grief, her recent belief that evil eventually wins. Embracing the resurrected Jesus sends her from weeping to witnessing. Mary Magdalene would be the first to say, “I have seen the Lord!” She and all the others who would see this Jesus who returned from the grave would now know that God had broken the bonds of evil and of sin and death. Is there anything now that could hold them back from proclaiming that Christ is Lord of all?

The hope of the world is not in the empty tomb that once held the body of the Son of Man. The hope of the world is in the Jesus who lives and the people who live in him. Let your lives proclaim the words that our mouths speak this day: “Christ is risen!”

Congregation: “He is risen indeed!”


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