April 16, 2017 – Easter Day
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Happy Easter to you! We’ve been waiting forty days to say that, and it feels good. I am glad that you are here this morning to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Many of you are wearing new Easter dresses or suits or ties. Some of you have dusted off your seersucker jackets and linen trousers and white shoes. Either way, you all look great. After church, I hope that you have a glorious afternoon waiting on you—one filled with family and food. This morning, however, I want to talk about what comes after that. What comes next—when the brightness of Easter begins to fade?
For Seth and me and lots of other clergy, tomorrow will be a day of rest and recovery. I’ll squeeze in a nap and try to catch up on all the yard work I haven’t been doing lately. What about you? It’s a school day. Many of you will go back to work. If you have had family in town, your house might seem pretty quiet. You might be glad for the rest, but you might miss the company as well. For some of us, the brightness of today is just a momentary reprieve, and the challenges of ordinary life, which we have set aside for this Easter feast, will come rushing back with renewed vengeance. Others of us will carry the joy of the resurrection with us for the fifty days of the Easter season and maybe even beyond that, but then what? Will this Easter—this discovery of the empty tomb—make a lasting difference in our life, or will it come and go just like a tray of mama’s deviled eggs?
Have you ever known someone who was in such a funk that he or she just couldn’t shake it off even when everyone and everything all around them was doing great? Have you ever felt like that? A loved one dies, and we spend months and months stuck in an impenetrable fog of grief. We get burned in a relationship, and we build a wall around our heart so high and so thick that even when love comes knocking we fail to recognize it. An unexpected election result causes us to question the character of the American electorate to the point where we can no longer see the good in one another. Do you ever feel, as I heard in a recent sermon, that “we are dwelling not in an era of blossoming life, but rather [subsisting] within an age of death?” In other words, do you ever feel like we need more than a baked ham and Cadbury Creme Eggs and plastic grass and chocolate bunnies? Do you ever feel like we need more than Easter? Do you ever feel like we need a resurrection moment that can make a lasting difference in our lives? To me, it seems like we need the resurrection now more than ever, but how will we find that resurrection moment?
The resurrection story that we read today in John’s gospel account speaks words of lasting hope that have the power to shatter even our deepest despair, and they come not with the discovery of an empty tomb but in an encounter with the risen Jesus. Some may find the story of the resurrection hard to believe, but I think that the disbelief that runs through today’s gospel lesson is far more unbelievable than the walking, talking, breathing, risen Jesus.
On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, one of Jesus’ closest followers, Mary Magdalene, came to the tomb, and, when she saw that the stone had been rolled away, what did she run to tell the disciples? “They have taken the Lord of out the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Not, “Our Lord has risen just as he promised!” Nor, “The stone is rolled away from his tomb. Could he be raised just as he told us?” But, “They have taken his lifeless body and put it somewhere else.” For months, Jesus had been telling his followers that on the third day he would rise again, but, when Mary Magdalene saw the stone rolled away, she panicked and feared the worst.
Maybe it’s because she didn’t look inside, we might think to ourselves, but, when Peter and the other disciple got there and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there but no body with them, their conclusion was no clearer. John tells us that the other disciple believed, but what did he believe? Not that Jesus had been raised, for, in the very next sentence, John tells us that they did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead. It seems most likely that these disciples believed what Mary had told them—that Jesus was gone. So they left and went back to their homes, carrying with them their grief and loss, which had now been compounded by their master’s missing body.
After the disciples left, Mary stood weeping by the tomb. This time it was her turn to look in, and when she stooped down to peer into the tomb, she saw two angels, clothed in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been laid. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked her. And, if you thought that two angels surely would trigger in her mind that something supernatural was going on, you’d be wrong because she answered, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Talk about blinding grief! Then, when she turned around, she saw Jesus, standing in front of her. Jesus himself spoke to Mary and said the same thing: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” But she was still not able to see the miracle even though it was standing right before her eyes. Supposing him to be the gardener, she replied to him in utter agony, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away and give him another burial.” Something had to give. Finally, unwilling to let this fog of despair linger any longer, Jesus cut right through it and said, “Mary!” And, in that instant, everything changed.
“Rabbouni!” she said to him, seeing for the first time that he had indeed been raised from the dead. With that one word—her name—spoken by the one who knew her best, the only one who could call her out of her grief, the risen Jesus brought her from the shadows of despair into the light of the resurrection. And she would never be the same again. “Go to my brothers,” Jesus told her, “and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your father, to my God and your God.’” And Mary Magdalene raced away from the tomb as fast as she could to find the disciples and say to them, “I have seen the Lord!”
What does it take for us to live in the light of the resurrection? What does it take for us to leave the darkness of doubt and grief and woundedness and despair behind and experience the transformation that the resurrection brings? The terrible thing about despair is that it creeps in slowly, and, before we know it, it takes over our life and changes everything we know from light to dark, from hope to fear, from life to death. It gives us not a set of “alternative facts” but, worse, an alternative truth so that, even when signs of new possibility are all around us, we are unable to see them for what they are. Our despondency rewrites those signs of hope, changing them into another defeat waiting to happen. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The resurrection is not something we experience when we die. It is a gift to the living—to those who have met the risen Jesus and believe in him and follow him as the one who has the power to bring light and life to even the darkest places. In him, the defeat of the cross becomes God’s greatest victory. Those who witness the miracle of Easter, in whose hearts the light of the resurrection lives on, know that there is nothing that could ever take God’s saving, redeeming love away from them. But how do we find that victory? How do we meet the risen Lord? It’s not by putting together all of the pieces of the Christian faith until you come up with a believable whole. We discover the resurrection when we hear Jesus call our name. Today, this miracle is for you. This morning, it is your name that Jesus is calling. Can you hear him speaking your name?
Live in the light of the resurrection. Hear Jesus speaking to you. See him show you that God has the power to take even your darkest troubles and open up within them the possibility for new life. Do not dwell in the shadow of despair any longer. Do not leave the empty tomb this morning without encountering the risen Jesus. He is the one who has the power to give you life. He is here with us, and he is calling your name. See him. Believe in him. And carry the unbreakable light of the resurrection with you in your heart every day for the rest of your life.