April 20, 2014 – Easter Day, Year A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
The audio of this sermon is available here.
My wife, Elizabeth, will tell you that I have the maturity of a third-grader. She’s right, of course. I laugh at crude jokes. I pull pranks on unsuspecting friends. And I love to jump out from around the corner and scare people. I do it enough that now my kids have caught on to the act, and all three of them will hide behind a chair or a sofa when they hear the garage door open, signaling that I am home. Although their timing still needs a little work, they’re getting pretty good at jumping out and yelling “BOO!” when I get too close.
The staff at St. John’s is regularly subjected to my little surprises. Eventually, though, after enough times, the victims of my startlings get used to it, and they don’t jump quite as high. Sometimes I can still get them—especially early in the morning when they don’t think anyone else is in the office—and I smile a big, friendly grin when I hear them gasp and then mutter the four-letter words of surprise under their voice. It’s my way of keeping everyone on our toes here at St. John’s. But I’m curious about the rest of you. When was the last time you came to church and were surprised?
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed…
The steps she took toward the tomb were as heavy as any she had ever taken. Mary Magdalene had been among the few women who stood at the cross and watched Jesus breathe his last. The pain and grief that hit her during the crucifixion had faded into a confused numbness. The reality of his death had sunk in, but her heart didn’t even know what it should feel. So she made her way to the place where his body had been laid, walking almost mindlessly, drawn inexorably toward the locus of her sorrow. But, when she arrived, her grief was compounded. The stone had been rolled away, which meant that someone had stolen his body, probably to desecrate it.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Mary’s words of alarm ripped through the mournful disciples, who dropped everything and raced to the tomb. When the first arrived, he looked in and saw the grave clothes lying there, but he waited for Peter to catch up. Then, they both went in and confirmed what Mary Magdalene had told them—that his body was gone—but they still didn’t understand what to make of the empty tomb. So they turned around and walked back home.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
A woman wracked with grief and left with nothing to do but cry, Mary just stood there sobbing. Through the blurriness of tear-filled eyes, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Why are you weeping?” the angels asked, and Mary choked out the words of her grief, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And then, in that place of bitterest pain, a surprise rippled through her heart.
Jesus [appeared and] said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
In that moment, that split-second when Mary Magdalene learned that everything she had ever feared had been transformed from death into life, Easter filled her with the joy of surprise. In the blink of an eye, her grief was vanquished, and it was replaced with pure joy. But that is how resurrection always happens. It must begin in a place of real death and only breaks through into our lives when and where we least expect it. Easter is the story of God’s greatest surprise—that from the ashes of our darkest, most hopeless hour springs forth new life and new possibility.
But when was the last time you came to church and were surprised? We are all here this morning because we know that it is Easter. We proclaim, “The Lord is risen indeed!” as if it were a well-rehearsed fact. And, even though we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ every single Sunday, rarely does it surprise us. Rarely does what happens in this sacred space, within these hallowed walls, shake us out of the familiarity of the gospel and fill us with the real joy of surprise. But we need to be surprised. Like Mary Magdalene, we need the joy of resurrection to turn us upside down. But what will it take for Easter to break through in our lives and not just in our worship?
We must go forth from here and look for resurrection where it is to be found—in that place where it will surprise us the most. In the garden where the body of Jesus was laid. In the hospital room where our loved-one takes his last breath. In the daughter who refuses to speak to us or in the son who is in rehab for the umpteenth time. In the marriage that has been dead for years. In the elusive job that cannot be found. Or maybe even in the church that hasn’t meant anything to us in longer than we can remember.
Where is resurrection least likely to be found? What relationship is as dead to you as Jesus was to Mary Magdalene? That is the place where you must go and search for new life. In our hopelessness is the very place where God surprises us with resurrection. Is it possible? Can it be? On this day, when we gather at the empty tomb to see that Christ is risen indeed, we proclaim our confidence that God can transform even our darkest moment into the light of Easter. Amen.