April 21, 2019
Resurrection in the Dark – Easter, April 21, 2019
Sermon for Easter, April 21, 2019
Here’s something crazy for you this Easter morning: Did you ever think about the fact that Jesus rises from the dead in the dark?
At least as John’s Gospel tells this story, the resurrection happens quietly, imperceptibly, while the world still thinks it’s night, while darkness still thinks it’s won the battle. Now, movies like to show Jesus breaking free in the brilliance of the sunrise. The stone rolls away, shafts of light penetrate the tomb, the orchestral score swells, and Jesus steps boldly into the morning. That’s great for Hollywood, but Scripture tells the story differently – that God preferred to defeat darkness in the dark, when nobody was looking.
Apparently, nobody even knew it had happened until Mary Magdalene came on the scene. In John’s telling, we don’t know why she’s there; the story doesn’t say anything about her finishing the work of preparing the body for burial. All we know is that she’s there, and she sees the stone over the tomb’s entrance has been rolled away.
Well, Mary presumes foul play a second time, the insult of grave robbery added to the injury of crucifixion. So, she goes to find Peter and John, two leaders of the disciple community. Peter and John run to the tomb and eventually step inside to investigate. But they find a tidy crime scene, with the cloth that had been on Jesus’ battered head neatly rolled up and set aside. Then, unbelievably, the two men just go back home. With all the compassion of the rock that gave Peter his name, the two guys abandon Mary, leaving her standing there, weeping alone.
So, Mary also looks into the tomb. There, she sees more than the evidence; she sees angelic beings, and they ask her the question of the day: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:13). Now, you can hear this as a rhetorical question, which is where the theologizing goes: Why weep in the face of new life? But you can also hear this question as divine compassion for a grieving child of God.
Well, Mary can’t really hear the question at all or contemplate why the angels are asking it. In her grief, Mary’s in problem-solving mode; she’s got a body to find. So, she turns away from the tomb and sees a stranger, who continues the angels’ compassionate questioning: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (John 20:15).
Let’s hit the “pause” button on this story for a second. This moment is a fulcrum in time, a hinge point between old and new, past and future. Mary figures this stranger is the gardener, and she confronts him about whether he might have had a role in the grave robbery. In this last minute of the old order, Mary is living in the world of death. She’s looking for a body, managing the details of human demise. She can’t hear the deeper point in the stranger’s question about what she’s looking for, because she isn’t looking for Jesus. She’s looking for Jesus’ body, which is not the same thing. She’s looking to do the best she can to manage the consequences of our mortality.
But there in the dim of daybreak, with light just painting the edges of the scene, she hears that gardener say, “Mary!” – and she knows she’s stumbled into new territory. In the compassion of his question and the heart that calls her by name, Mary sees the truth: that death is not the end, that love can’t be held prisoner, and that light shines in the darkest night.
A month and a half ago, I found myself in a peculiar, even surreal, darkness – one I’d never quite experienced, though I’d been in it many times before. My father was dying – actively dying. We’d found out just a few days earlier that he had esophageal cancer, and his decline had been blessedly quick. Now, it was just a matter of waiting for it. In this odd and beautiful line of work, you find yourself at the bedsides of dying people sometimes. But it’s not the same when it’s your father.
And honestly, he was struggling as that long night wore on. He would try to speak, which made him cough, which I imagine made the pain intensify, which made him move around to try to get away from it. As many dying people do, he kept reaching out into the air, seemingly trying to connect with something just that too far away to grasp. But eventually, in the dark hours just before dawn, he calmed and seemed ready to rest. And soon – with no drama, no fanfare, no angelic presence – he stopped breathing.
After a few minutes, I went out to the nurses’ station and talked with the woman who’d been caring for my father through that night. She went and found a colleague. They did the obligatory assessment and assigned a time of death. She put the steps in motion for others to tend to the body and prepare it for transport. As she had all though that long night, the nurse did her job carefully, respectfully, lovingly. Finally, she turned to me and asked, “How about you? What is it that youneed?”
I hadn’t thought about that. And I didn’t have a good answer. So, I stammered out the stupidest and most inaccurate thing I could have said. I told her, “I don’t need anything, thanks. I’m fine.” And she looked at me, and smiled, and said, “No, you’re not. But he is. And you will be, because God will raise him, and you’ll be together again.”
What is it that you need? Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?
In our world, on any given day, death can seem to hold such power over us, bringing us the darknesses we grieve: Broken relationships. Broken choices that hurt others. Long-term illness and slow demise. The end of life for those we love. Evil that we seem powerless even to influence, much less defeat – families caught in poverty and violence; people trafficked for sex; children treated as if they were disposable; a political culture of echo chambers and self-aggrandizement, where leaders seem more eager to strut and to taunt than to serve. Even on Easter morning, for some of us – maybe many of us – pain or bitterness can make these beautiful flowers fade and make the grandest music ring hollow.
Into that pain, or illness, or loneliness, or sin – into the mess steps someone we probably don’t even recognize at first. Maybe he’s the gardener. Maybe she’s a coworker. Maybe he’s a guy at a coffee shop. Maybe she’s a nurse, just doing her job. But what strikes you is that this person, meeting you at the edges of your pain, becomes an unexpected bearer of the light. She takes you seriously enough to look you in the eye and ask, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? What is it that you need?”
Implicit in that stranger’s questions is stalwart trust, despite the evidence, that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it (John 1:5). In fact, in that moment – in the garden, or in the office, or in the coffee shop, or in the nursing center – in that moment, Jesus Christ himself steps out of the tomb and into your darkness. Even before the sunrise, he brings you light, not with some empty “everything will be OK” but with a costly victory that comes by defeating evil and sin, and rising from the grave, and making all creation new. Even the earth itself witnesses to the story, redbuds and daffodils and tulips and forsythias declaring in living color that winter will not have the last word.
And that’s the irony, isn’t it? – the irony of resurrection in the darkness. Flowers blossom brightest just at the edge of winter’s chill. Hope lifts us up when despair nips closest at our heels. The deepest darkness shows us God’s light. And there we find an unlikely champion, a surprising voice of Good News, who enters into the darkness with us, and leads us out into life.
So: In this Easter season, I invite you to look deep into your darkness, and refuse to look away, and seek the unlikely face of Jesus Christ. I invite you to listen hard to the silence of the night, and open your ears to his unlikely voice. How will you know you’ve found him? Not because you’ll hear trumpets. Not because you’ll hear all the answers to what keeps you up at night. But because you’ll see eyes looking back deeply into your pain, and you’ll hear a voice asking you to share your heart: Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? What do you need? And then, when that voice speaks your name, you’ll know it’s Jesus, and into your darkness will come the greatest light of all.