Jeremiah 31:1-6 | Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 | Colossians 3:1-4 | John 20:1-18
Today is a day characterized by bright colors. Colorful flowers, pastel shirts and dresses, and bright Easter eggs are all staples of Easter morning. I knew I was going to wear this shirt today weeks ago, because it’s my brightest shirt. It’s my most Easter-y piece of clothing.
But today didn’t start our bright and sunny, at least not according to John. It started out in darkness. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…”
Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary set out to Jesus’ tomb by herself. Why? What was she hoping to see. Her surprise when she comes to the tomb implies that she wasn’t expecting to find it empty. The sight of the stone rolled away is hardly good news to Mary, she immediately assumes someone has stolen her Lord. So why does she go? Why is she compelled to wake before anyone else, and brave the dark? Maybe she just wants to be near him. Even a dead Jesus is better than no Jesus.
And what was Mary thinking as she walked that lonely path to the tomb of her Savior…well, the one she thought was her savior, until Friday happened. Now she isn’t sure who he is…or was. She probably reflected on all that she had seen, horrific scenes of her friend and teacher – the One who loved her and the other disciples like no one else, the one who healed the sick, brought sight to the blind, and even raised the dead – being beaten and humiliated, tortured and abused. Perhaps she thought back on some of these events that we see here this morning, the stations of the cross we set up for Good Friday. Only, for Mary, they weren’t cool looking, aesthetically pleasing works of art. She saw the real blood. The real humiliation. Real death.
A few of us were struck on Friday, after making our way through the stations of the cross, by the brutality of all that happened to Jesus. Even as we looked at art that reflected Jesus’ journey to the cross, we were struck by the cruelty. How much more must those scenes have been imprinted on Mary’s mind?
She saw the powers of death and violence rain down on the body of Jesus with her own eyes. She saw the one who claimed to be life die.
As Mary walked toward the tomb on that dark Easter morning, she carried the weight of pain, grief, fear, and uncertainty. She began her Easter morning in sorrow.
Perhaps some of us here also began our day weighed down with hurt, grief, fear, or uncertainty. We didn’t see Jesus bloody and beaten, but we’ve turned on the news and seen bombs dropped, missiles launched, buses blown up, and innocent children killed.
In our own community there are upcoming surgeries, loved ones have been hospitalized, and we have friends and family who are in places of danger.
We’ve experienced broken trust and unkind words in friendships we thought we could count on.
Within ourselves we wrestle with questions about the meaning of life, the reality of God, and the presence of evil.
Despite today being a day of celebration and bright colors, many of us come, like Mary, with our heads clouded and unsure. We’ve been drawn here, but we don’t know what to expect.
As Mary slowly made her way to the tomb, holding her lamp, wrapping her cloak around her to ward off the early morning chill, she must have wondered who Jesus really was. He definitely wasn’t who she thought he was.
He said that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly, but he wasn’t even able to hold onto his own life, how could he give anyone else the abundant life?
He said the kingdom of God was here, but that kingdom was crushed by the real kingdoms: the kingdoms of Rome and Herod and the Pharisees. Friday proved that there’s only one way to get what you want in this world, and that’s through domination. It’s through crushing everyone who stands in your way, not through preaching peace and refusing to pick up a sword.
Mary’s whole worldview must have been shattered. If Jesus couldn’t survive in this world, who could? If God didn’t protect him, is God even real? We must be on our own, and at the mercy of those who wield the biggest stick, the biggest sword, the biggest gun, the biggest bomb. We are all at the mercy of the crucifiers.
These are the thoughts Mary and the rest of the disciples must have been having ever since Friday. And yet, for some reason, she was drawn to the tomb on this dark morning. Maybe she expected something but she didn’t know what.
As she approached the tomb, the moonlight caught the large stone that had barred the door, but it was cast off to the side, the mouth of the cave a gaping hole, pitch black and eerie. She didn’t wait to look inside, she already knew what had happened. Someone had broken in and taken the body. What cruel, inhumane scheme were they planning to further humiliate her Lord?
She ran to Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” When they heard the news they took off at a sprint. By the time she got back to the tomb they were inside, the light from their lamps showing the burial clothes tossed aside.
Almost as quickly as they came, the other two disciples left. While Scripture tells us that one believed and the other apparently didn’t, Mary probably couldn’t tell because their reaction was the same. Whatever the one believed in and the other didn’t, that belief meant very little, because they both turned and went back home. That’s the thing about belief that comes too easy, it often looks like non-belief in the sense that they both often result in very little change.
Mary must have been dumbfounded. The tomb is empty and they just went home?
But what does it mean? What does the empty tomb mean? Unlike the other two disciples, she won’t walk away from it. Like Jesus standing in front of the tomb of Lazarus and feeling the full grief that comes from the loss of a friend, Mary let’s all her emotions hit her. Her fear, her doubt, her confusion, her grief, her anger, she’s been feeling them all since Friday, but now they all hit her at once.
She has nothing. No Lord. No Savior. Not even a body to visit anymore.
She stands in front of the empty tomb, alone, weeping.
The other disciples ran back home. They didn’t want to wrestle with this empty tomb and all its implications. They couldn’t bear the thought that not only had the one who embodied all their hopes and dreams died, but now they didn’t even have his remains. Every last bit of hope disappeared with his body. The empty tomb represented their empty dreams.
The truth is, they don’t know who they are anymore. Mary doesn’t know who she is anymore.
They are like the young lion, Simba, in The Lion King. With the death of his father, Mufasa, Simba has lost his identity and runs away to live a life characterized by Hakuna Matata, which means “no worries.” The disciples, at least Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, also run away, wanting a life characterized by “no worries.” They want to get back to the old way of things.
But one night, Simba meets an old friend of his father’s, a monkey named Rafiki. Rafiki tells Simba that Mufasa is still alive! He leads him to a pool of water and tells Simba to look into the pool. At first Simba sees only his reflection and the disappointment is clear on his face. He starts to turn away, but Rafiki stops him, and tells him to look harder. If Simba was like Peter and the other disciple, he would have ignored Rafiki and walked away, but Simba is like Mary. He looks into the pool, as she looked into the tomb. He looks hard, and the water begins to change and Mufasa’s face appears, and then he hears a voice from above saying his name – that’s the first thing Mufasa says – “Simba,” and he sees an image of his father, Mufasa, up in the clouds. Mufasa is disappointed in Simba because Simba has forgotten who he is. The apparition of Mufasa is brief, and his last words to Simba are “remember who you are. Remember. Remember.”
Just as Mufasa spoke Simba’s name, so the resurrected Jesus speaks Mary’s name, and it’s in his naming her that she recognizes him. “Mary!” She isn’t sure who she is anymore, but Jesus knows who she is, and he calls her by name.
Only, unlike Simba, Mary isn’t told to remember her old identity, but she is given a new identity: she is a child of God, and a sibling of Christ. The message Jesus gives her to tell the other disciples is surely for her as well: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She is the first person to see the risen Christ, the first one to preach the Good News of the Gospel, “I have seen the Lord!”
I believe we’ve overlooked Mary Magdalene for far too long. In a way, she is a kind of spiritual mother to us. It was Mary Magdalene who had the bravery to stand in front of the empty tomb and contemplate it’s meaning. It was Mary Magdalene who first saw the risen Christ. She was the first one to call him teacher. It was Mary Magdalene who was first commissioned to preach the Gospel.
She was the first disciple of the risen Christ.
Mary Magdalene teaches us that belief is necessary, but it must be a deep belief, not an easy belief. Mary challenges all of us, whether we come today to the empty tomb with belief or with unbelief. Whichever extreme we find ourselves on, or somewhere in between, we may be tempted to come this morning, sing some song, eat some food, and leave saying “that was a nice service” (hopefully), but Mary Magdalene challenges us to take the empty tomb seriously, to wrestle with what this could mean for us and for our world.
When we come to the empty tomb, we bring our burdens, questions, and doubts with us: the personal, the communal, and the universal. We must contemplate them as we contemplate the empty tomb. What does the risen Christ mean here, now, today? What does it have to say to Syria and North Korea and the United States. What does it have to say to war and immigration? What does it have to say to racism, sexism, and homophobia?
The empty tomb tells us that death in all its forms will not win the day. That life has won and will win. That Jesus has stayed true to his word: he is the resurrection and the life for all people. He has come to bring us the abundant life, life in him and with him. His kingdom is here, and it is characterized by peace and healing and love and inclusion, not war and domination. The empty tomb is liberation to the oppressed and good news to the poor.
But how? How does it work here and now? How does it interact with the troubles we face today. The truth is, it isn’t always clear. We have to look for Christ to show us, listen for his voice to guide us. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.
As a church we gather every Sunday to explore what the empty tomb means. We read our Bibles to find the risen Christ in its pages. We meet up with one another in coffee shops and at each other’s homes to explore what it means to live in light of the resurrection.
Our website says that Grant Park Church is a community that is journeying deeper into the love and knowledge of Christ, and inviting everyone to join us. Life with God is a journey and it’s done in community. It can’t be handed out in one message or sermon, no matter how good it is. It takes time. It takes a lifetime.
The journey we are on began 2,000 years ago with Mary, standing in front of an empty tomb, weeping, looking for Jesus, listening for his voice. Many of us find ourselves in the same place today.
Lord Jesus, risen Christ, give us eyes to see you. Give us ears to hear you. Speak our name. Show us the way. Amen.