Easter Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Gospel Lesson: John 20:1-18
Throughout the forty days of Lent, we have been on a journey with Jesus – one that began in the wilderness as he prepared for his three years of public ministry: healing the sick and afflicted, seeking the lost and the outcast, restoring dignity and relationships and connections to the community, and demonstrating time and again what it means to love God by loving your neighbors, by sowing seeds of peace, and by humbling oneself to serve others.
Throughout our journey, we have seen glimpses of God’s own heart – how God longs to provide for our needs; how God longs for our love and devotion; how God longs to nourish us toward vibrant, fruitful life; how God longs to welcome and celebrate those who have wandered, who have squandered, who have lost everything and are finally willing to come home out of desperation; how God generously pours out love in a way that liberates, and heals, and restores; how God is Love itself and longs for us to live out of our relationship with Love by loving and serving one another; and how God’s love took our very humanity and endured all the cruelty, hate, fear and abuse of power that mocks, tortures and kills the spirit and the body.
Today, our journey with Jesus takes us to his grave with Mary Magdalene. The gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene is one of the women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples. Mary herself had been healed by Jesus of seven demons that had tortured her own body and spirit. She had seen and heard Jesus as he preached and ministered to the crowds throughout the region of Galilee. And she journeyed with Jesus on his final pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She, along with Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister remained at the cross with the disciple John to the bitter end, even after all the other disciples had fled out of fear.
John’s gospel tells us, “There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.” (John 19:41-42) Sabbath began that day at sunset, and so they had to ‘make do’ with what they could pull together in order to bury Jesus’ body according to their customs. Someone brought some aloe and myrrh and linen cloths, and they quickly wrapped his body and laid it in the tomb.”
John’s gospel tells us that “Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb. Perhaps she felt they had not given Jesus’ body a proper burial in their rush on Friday. Or perhaps she returned, as many of us have, to the graveside of a loved one in order to grieve, in order to try to better remember the face or the voice, or in order to feel near them once again. So as we remember and celebrate all that Easter means, I don’t want us to skip over this part of the story – because it is so much our story.
Let’s take a moment to go to the tomb with Mary. It is still dark. The full weight of grief and despair fill her heart. Having been forced to leave the tomb after witnessing such a cruel death, maybe she has been trying to make sense of all that has happened. Maybe she walks to the tomb to confirm the reality of Jesus’ death. And so she goes to confront her worst fears, to see the lifeless body of the One who called himself the Bread of Life.
How many of us have had mornings like these? You wake on the day after something terrible has happened, or on a morning in a season of despair, and maybe for a moment you forget… but then the reality comes crashing into your consciousness, and the pain is there immediately. Today is the day you must deal with hard things, the day you must face the very thing causing your pain, your distress, your heartache. Many of us have experienced this day. The day after a tornado or fire destroys; the day after an accident or diagnosis; the day after a child leaves home or a spouse walks away; the day after a death – death of a dream, an expectation, a belief, or the death of one we love. It is a day that begins in darkness as you become fully aware of the defeat, the devastation, and the loss.
So Mary goes to the tomb and only has her grief compounded when she realizes that Jesus’ body is missing! Despair turns to confusion and panic. And so she goes for help. I think that is such a wise choice in that moment. She realizes that the situation has become too much for her to bear alone, and so she returns to her community, to her tribe, to find strength in numbers, to ask someone else for their perspective.
John, the faithful disciple as well as Peter who denied Jesus and ran away, both come with her the second time. And they run to the tomb, even, it seems, racing each other to see who can get there first – as if there is some merit for that. It seems almost inappropriate against the seriousness of the situation. We could understand them running with urgency, to get there as quickly as possible. But why should they race? Why does it matter who arrives first? Didn’t Jesus say something about how the first should be last? On this morning of darkness, the disciples are confused, too. Do they race each other as a distraction from their own grief and despair? Or maybe, John ran faster than Peter because Peter is just not ready yet to face the guilt and shame from abandoning just days before Jesus. What we can see is that all three of these followers of Jesus – Mary Magdalene, John and Peter – each make the journey to the tomb on this morning, carrying with them their own baggage, and their own perceptions. And we see that they each leave with their own conclusions, as well.
John arrives first, looks inside and sees the grave-cloths lying there. Peter doesn’t just peer inside but enters the tomb and sees more than John. He sees not only the grave-cloths, but also the facecloth. And it’s not just lying there, but is folded up in its own place. John then decides to enter, as well, and apparently sees enough to “believe.” But it doesn’t seem to be enough for him to understand. Perhaps he believed that Jesus had simply ascended to heaven. But his behavior doesn’t indicate any change of heart, because he and Peter both return right back to that room where they and other disciples have been hiding.
Mary Magdalene doesn’t leave with them. Even through her grief and tears, she’s still looking for answers. When she enters the tomb, she sees even more than the other two. “She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.” (v. 12) And they ask her why she is crying. But their presence doesn’t seem to shake Mary from her grief. She continues her search for Jesus by telling them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” (v. 13) There are two angels dressed in white, sitting inside the tomb. Peter and John didn’t see them, but Mary does. And yet, she seems completely unfazed that two of God’s messengers have appeared to her. In her panicked search for what she’s lost, for what she believes has been stolen, she dismisses these angles only to turn around and nearly bump into Jesus himself.
He also asks her, (v. 15) “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Sometimes our grief, and despair, and heartache over what we’ve lost can cloud our sight and our judgement to the point that we don’t even notice God’s presence.
And then, Jesus calls her name. “Mary!” And suddenly, it’s as if she’s been shaken from a dream, or a nightmare. As if a heavy fog has lifted and she can finally see. When he calls her name, she immediately recognizes him, and responds to him, “My Teacher.” Because Mary chose to remain fully present – physically present at the tomb, but also mentally and emotionally present to her pain and grief – she is blessed with the appearance of Jesus. And I think that’s an important part of our story, as well.
Deep pain like this – raw and heart-wrenching sadness and grief – these are not pleasant. Some of us would do almost anything to avoid experiencing the deepness of these feelings. So we may deny or avoid our feelings, stuffing and burying them, ignoring them, or pretending they don’t exist. Or we may try to numb them or cover them up with alcohol, painkillers, food, or other distractions. But eventually, these feelings will tear us up if we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge them, to fully feel them, and let go of our need to try to control them. When we are able to be fully open to those feelings, then we also open a door for Jesus to appear. When we acknowledge our grief, our brokenness, our need we find God drawing near; we hear Jesus calling our name.
But here’s the most important part of the story – what Easter morning is really all about. When Mary recognizes Jesus, she tries to reach out and hold on to him. She is probably reacting to her memory of who Jesus was, and so she is relieved that he is alive. But what she doesn’t understand at first is that Jesus was not just resuscitated, like Jesus did for Lazarus. This is not Jesus in the physical body that was beaten, tortured and executed. This is the resurrected Jesus. This is Jesus after the holy and mysterious work of defeating death and hell once and for all. Mary did not recognize Jesus because of how he looked, but because of the way he called her name. Jesus tells her (v. 17) “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
"Don’t hold on to me.” Remember the words of Isaiah 43:18-19, “Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”
Don’t hold on to the past. When you have encountered your worst day, when the worst possible thing has happened in your life, when you wake up to deep darkness, and grief, and despair, look for Jesus. Bring your pain and your sorrow to Jesus’ tomb and wait there until you see him, until you hear him call your name. God can take our worst days, our worst experiences and transform them with resurrecting love, to bring life out of death, and to create a new thing – a new way forward, a new normal.
Next week, we’re going to celebrate what God can do in song. Our entire worship next Sunday will be a service of Easter hymns and a celebration of our ministries at Maple Grove. You’ll also have a chance to hear next week about upcoming ways that you can get involved in making a difference right here in our community with some mission and outreach projects. And then, beginning May 5th, we’re going to explore the Easter stories of resurrection and Jesus’s appearance to others in a worship series called, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Life Falls Apart.” Because the Easter story is our story.
We have all had a ‘worst day.’ Some of us are living through that day, or that season, right now. And we are all looking for resurrection, for God to come to us in our time of struggle, worry, and grief, when everything starts to come unraveled, and to mend our pain and brokenness, to lead us to a new path, a new morning of light and healing and a new creation. And once we’ve experienced resurrection like that, then we, too, can say with Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord!” (v. 18)
Scriptures for the Fifth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
In this season of lent, we’ve been invited to journey with Jesus to the very heart of God. We began with Jesus in the wilderness, a time of fasting and spiritual preparation for his earthly ministry. In that time, we remembered with Jesus how God’s people, once enslaved in Egypt, had their own wilderness experience – and we learn along with them that God longs to bless and provide, sending them mana, bread from heaven, and quenching their thirst by creating a stream from a rock in the desert. Next, we found ourselves with Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry, as he is about to enter Jerusalem for the last time, knowing that certain death lies ahead. And we catch a glimpse of God’s heart of tenderness and mercy, like a mother who longs to gather and embrace her children, protecting them and even willing to sacrifice her own life in order to save her children. We listened to stories Jesus told, like the parable of the fig tree that seemed to be a waste of space, and learned how God is like the gardener, wanting to give us time and nourishment and second chances, helping us grow and bear spiritual fruit. And we heard the parable of prodigal son, and learned how God is like the good father, always looking and waiting for the first opportunity to welcome back the ones who have wandered away.
What we will learn about the heart of God today? What does it mean that God is about to do a new thing?
Today, we are with Jesus in the home of some of his closest friends, just six days before Passover, before Jesus himself becomes the sacrificial Lamb. He’s staying in Bethany with Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Bethany is located just outside of Jerusalem, and was an easy walking distance away. It seems that the home of these friends is precisely where Jesus stays whenever he makes the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Now you remember Mary and Martha; once before when Jesus visited them, we witness a sibling spat between them. Mary spends time sitting at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word, listening as a disciple would to learn what she can from this great Teacher. Martha, however, is busy with other things. Too busy to sit and listen. And she complains that Mary is leaving her with all the ‘work.’ But Jesus invites Martha to consider how Mary’s choice to sit and listen is the better choice.
And recently, Jesus has been called by these sisters to come quickly because their brother Lazarus is dying. Jesus has his reasons, though, for taking his time. And by the time he finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. When Jesus is confronted by Martha and Mary, who both blame him in their grief for not being there to save their brother, he is moved to tears. And then he demonstrates the resurrecting power of God, bringing Lazarus back to life. This event was witnessed by many. And word spread all over Jerusalem and the hillsides of Judea. In fact, word traveled quickly to the Pharisees and chief priests who began to fear that miracles like this will amass such a following that Rome will think that Jesus is mounting a national revolution and will destroy their temple in retaliation. They’ve been trying to squash out Jesus’ ministry for some time now, but after this, they are afraid. They’re afraid of Rome’s retaliation, they’re afraid of losing control of their own power over their religion and the people who used to come to them for answers. And so they decide that Jesus must die.
Knowing this, Jesus even goes into hiding for a few weeks, withdrawing once again to camp out in the wilderness. But six days before Passover, he returns to the home of his friends. By now, Jesus’ closest followers are aware of the threat against Jesus. But they are hoping, and some even expecting, that Jesus – their long-awaited Messiah – will ultimately stand up to these threats, and free Israel from its Roman occupation. Remember that among Jesus’ disciples were at least a couple of zealots – extremists who wanted a military takeover of Rome. Over these past three years, Jesus has been trying to show them what God’s kingdom will be like – one where all people are welcomed, healed, liberated, restored, fed. He’s been trying to show them the merciful, tender heart of God. And even now, some of them still don’t get it.
But one who does get it sits again at Jesus’ feet. We can only imagine how grateful, how surprised beyond her wildest imagination, Mary must have felt that Jesus brought her brother back to life. And we can only imagine the conflict at knowing that this miraculous act is the very act that signed Jesus’ warrant for arrest and execution. Mary has received a gift so extravagant that it will cost Jesus his very life. How do you say ‘Thank you’ for a gift so precious? How do you convey your deeply, heartfelt gratitude? Mary wanted to offer Jesus something extravagant and meaningful in return. Maybe she decided that if his gift to her ultimately does end in Jesus’ death, that the least she could do is attend to his body afterward. So she buys the most expensive nard, or myrrh, she can find. It cost three hundred denarii, or about a year’s wages. But for some reason, she decides not to save it for after Jesus’ death. It was customary in those days for the host of the home, or for their servant if they had one, to wash the feet of their guests as a sign of hospitality. And so Mary decides, as she washes the feet of Jesus, to go ahead and lavish on him this precious gift, to show him while he’s still with her, the depth of her love, adoration and gratitude for what he’s done.
The spicy, earthy aroma of the myrrh would have filled the room. And Mary goes beyond merely anointing Jesus with the perfume, but uses her own hair to wipe his feet in a scene so tender and so intimate we’re almost embarrassed to imagine. Think of the disciples in the room while this happened. John’s gospel tells us that one disciple in particular was quite vocal about his disapproval of this gesture. Judas tries to shame Mary for this act, calling attention to the extravagant cost of the perfume, money that could have been spent to help the poor. And just so we’re not fooled by this act of protest, John goes ahead and lets us know that Judas isn’t really concerned with the poor, but rather with his own greed; as the treasurer of the group, he had started helping himself to the money pot, skimming from the top – a little here, a little there. And if three hundred denarii had been added, well just think of how much he could have gotten away with! But Jesus tells him, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Jesus’ answer has unfortunately been misquoted and taken out of context for generations as a way to justify NOT helping the poor. But Jesus, as he so often does, is quoting scripture – this time it is part of the code of conduct, or law, that Moses gave the Israelites just before they crossed into the promised land. This was part of a classic passage in Deuteronomy which focused on God’s goal of there one day being a society where everyone has what they need, and there are no poor. Sounds like one of those kingdom goals Jesus was constantly teaching us about. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 commands,
“7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”
It goes on in verse 11 to say, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
Open-handed generosity vs. tight-fisted selfishness. Can you see the contrast in this story? Are you starting to catch a glimpse of the heart of God?
Jesus chooses to act in a way that puts his own life at risk by bringing Lazarus back from the dead. Mary chooses to pour out every drop of the costliest perfume to show her adoration and gratitude for Jesus. And John’s gospel tells us that Jesus himself is God’s costliest gift – the gift of God’s own Son. Jesus was sent into a world that did not request him, yet he acts entirely for its benefit. And soon, Jesus will lay down his life for his people (John 10:17–18), not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to give himself.
As we think of our own journey of discipleship, we may find at times that we resemble Mary, willing to perform extravagant acts of generosity and service, willing to unashamedly show our devotion and worship of God. But we may also find at times that we are more like Judas, willing to judge and shame others so that we don’t look as bad in comparison; wanting to hold back and keep the ‘best things’ for ourselves, for our own agenda, or to suit our own desires. But the extravagant love of God willingly goes to the cross and lays down his life for both Mary and for Judas.
God loves us so much that God sends streams in the desert to parch our dry and thirsty souls. God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to show us love that heals, restores, feeds, nourishes, and ultimately gives his own life for us. And as disciples who are called to take up our own cross and follow the way of Jesus, we are called to love just as extravagantly.
We are on the edge of holy week. When Jesus leaves the sanctuary of his friend’s home the next day, we will be taken up in a whirlwind of emotions – from the praises of “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, to the intimacy of communion on Maundy Thursday, to the cruel shouts of “Crucify Him” on Good Friday. And then we’ll wait for the dawn of resurrection and new life on Easter.
God’s extravagant love is about to do a new thing. It’s about to sprout up like the crocuses and daffodils. Like streams in the dry desert. Will you recognize it?
PRAYER: God of new things, like Judas, we like to complain about your generous ways, rather than living in your grace. We believe the poor will always be with us, so we justify ourselves in ignoring them. In our memories, we see a perceived golden past, so we close our eyes to the new things you are doing in our midst. We are so enamored with our achievements that we are not willing to throw them away in order to follow Jesus. Forgive us, Restoring God, and help us to notice the kingdom springing forth in our midst. By your grace, may our fears turn to faith, our seeds of grief produce a bumper crop of joy, and our tears turn into torrents of tenderness as we journey with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, to Jerusalem.
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