Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon: John 20:1-18, Easter, April 5, 2015

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text this morning is from the Gospel according to John, the 20th chapter:
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 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.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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 Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
My dear friends in Christ,
     Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  Mary went to the garden that morning, not knowing that Christ had arisen.  Remember the garden?  We heard it on Good Friday, that in the place where He was crucified there was a garden.  Beautiful lush trees.  Fruit blossoms beginning to come forth.  Green leaves, ivy, vines.  And a tomb.  A place where dead men would be.

     But, this was a tomb unlike another, for there, in that garden, would come the fruit of life to which none can compare.  As Mary went into the garden, she expected to see a dead man.  She expected to see the consequence of sin.  She expected to see nothing of joy.  In fact, one of the hymns we often sing, Abide with Me, could even have been her prayer as she watched her Lord, her friend, die.  
“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.  When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.  Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”
     Here, she prays to the one who changes not, the one who never changes.  Perhaps she had been wrong about her Jesus.  After all, if Jesus was God, as He was claiming, God cannot die, that would be a change.  But, Mary did not remember, she did not understand that her Lord had come for her.  That He had taken upon Himself Mary’s sin, and so He could die so that she would not forever.

     As she looked to the tomb in that garden, she thought all she would have that Easter morning was change and decay.  Good Friday had ended with such darkness.  Earthquakes, resurrections of long-dead people, a three-hour solar eclipse, the Temple’s curtain ruined.  Holy Saturday was the Passover.  There was naught she could do but hide for fear of the Jews.  Perhaps if she and the Apostles and Jesus’ family could get away, out of Jerusalem, maybe toward Egypt, they could get a head-start on the chief priests, who would surely be coming for them next.

     But, how could they leave this man, Jesus?  He hadn’t even been buried properly.  Nicodemus had been good to supply more than enough myrrh and aloes, 75 pounds worth, to rub over Jesus’ body so the smell of His decaying flesh would not be as bad as it could be.  But, Jesus died right before sundown, right before the Passover began.  There’s no way they could do the work before the Passover.  Jesus, Mary’s great teacher, deserved better.  He deserved a proper funeral.  

     After all, even if He were dead, even if all the things He claimed about Himself, that He was the Son of God, that He was the Lamb to take away the sin of the world, that He Himself was Yahweh, who knew Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, even if all those things were false, He was still a good man, wasn’t He?  Didn’t He still have faith in God?  Didn’t He deserve to be resurrected with everyone else on the last day as He had been teaching, and as we see in the Old Testament?

     Of course.  Mary and Jesus’ other friends couldn’t flee.  They couldn’t leave the man they loved in the garden alone.  But, when Mary arrived to prepare her friend to decay gracefully, to rub His dead body with ointments and perfumes, to wrap Him up tight so that not one bone of His cold, blue body would be lost, when she arrived, the stone had gone.  Now, we’re not talking about some 50-pounder.  This was a stone, probably a few hundred pounds in weight, at least four feet high, carved to be like a disc, so it could be rolled over into a ditch, locking the stone in place unless it were to be pulled with a team of men and animals.

     It’s no surprise Mary is astonished that the stone is rolled away.  The stone is supposed to be big enough and heavy enough that no smell would ever get through it.  But, the stone is gone.  The tomb is open.  And there is no smell of death there, but only the smell of the garden.  

     She runs to tell Peter and John, and they race to the tomb together.  John gets there first, but cannot breach the tomb, the memory of watching his friend, Jesus, die is too great.  He witnessed it all, the nails, the spear, the death rattle, the cries out to a God who didn’t seem to listen.  He had too recently seen the naked body of his friend upon the cross for all the world to see, and John could not bear to be near it again so soon.  Peter, though, rushed headlong into the tomb, charging in as he tends to do.  The man whom he had so recently denied had to still be there, didn’t He?  If He’s not there, was He risen as He had said?  Did He know that Peter had actually denied Him?  Did He know that Peter and the Apostles weren’t there with their friend in His last moments?  Was Jesus upset?  Did Jesus hate Peter?  What does it all mean?

     They became convinced that something had happened, that perhaps even Jesus was raised from the dead, but why?  Why would He need to be?  Obviously, He had failed in something, the Lord God has punished Jesus with crucifixion, a torture, an embarrassment, a humiliation worse than death itself.  God could not have loved Jesus there.  But, so believing, and not understanding, they left the tomb… and Mary.

     But, Mary stayed, weeping in the garden for the death of Christ, for the absence of Christ, her friend, for all that had happened.  She could not help herself.  She bent over sobbing, tears of pain wracking her body.  And when she looked up, she saw two angels there, though perhaps she didn’t know they were angels sent from the Lord.  Perhaps she took them to be passersby.  Perhaps she only thought they were people who had followed Jesus like she did.  Perhaps they were new, she thought.

     They looked at her with compassion, and a bit of confusion.  Didn’t she yet know?  Didn’t she yet understand?  It became clear to them that Mary did not understand what was happening.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”  They asked her this question… seemingly undoing the spell of her sorrow.  She answered that her Lord had been taken away.  She didn’t know where He was.  Was His body safe?  Was it still in the garden?  Did the Romans take it to mutilate Him more?  Did the Jews take it, and defile their purity before God in order to have Jesus secreted away so no one could find Him?

     Turning, though, she saw a new man, a different man, and she thought Him the gardener.  He asked her the same, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  And when she blathered on, He looked at her with pity, and perhaps just a little bit of joy, in that garden, and said, “Mary,” her name.  The Gardener knew her name.

     She looked at Him again, this time with a bit of wonder, and she saw that as she grasped His feet, her tears of sorrow had been falling into open holes.  Her tears had been falling to the ground through nail holes in His feet.  As she grasped His hand for help to get up, her finger fell into another hole, and she was poking right through the other side.  And as she grasped Him to embrace this friend, her elbow began to rub against His rib.  And she realized this was her Lord, the Crucified, now risen from the dead!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

     He told her not to cling to her.  He had business to do.  Go and tell the disciples, He says elsewhere, to meet Me in Galilee.  In some accounts, He’ll meet the disciples in locked rooms where they are hidden away.  Whichever came first, why does He not go with Mary?  What is delaying Him?  What business does Jesus have in a garden?

     Only the business He has had in the garden from the beginning of time.  It seems Christ may have stayed in that garden for a little while, looking at all He had created, and speaking to the earth the promise He would give to each of us, telling the earth that its time of being used as a burial ground is almost over.  Soon, the earth would be remade through the blood of the Lamb.  After all, the earth was never supposed to hold the dead, but support the life of God’s beloved children.  You can imagine, Christ speaking to His old friend, saying even to it, “Well, done, thou good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little, you have been faithful holding My people for Me, I will now set you over much, giving them life for eternity and you shall never again decay.”

     You see, Christ’s life is the life He lived for each of us, and all that He did is to undo the ravages of our sin.  Our sin infected everything, our flesh, our minds, our souls, the world around us, the stars, the moon, the plants, the animals, even the dust of the ground.  And Christ would undo it all.  Though yet He died for our sin, taking upon Himself the penalty for all of humanity so that none would need suffer eternally, He undid sin’s consequences in His death and resurrection.  Sin no longer has the power to hold anyone in the grave.  This was the first undoing.

     But, see where our Lord is to be found: in a garden.  Our Lord takes us back to the Creation.  After Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, after they chose death rather than life, Satan rather than God, Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden to die in the world.  Jesus, the perfect man, the good man, the one who defied Satan and followed the will of His Father, even unto death on a cross, now, Christ, the dead man, is taken back to a garden to rest.  There, He brings the resurrection of dead into the garden, making it, and all of creation, a paradise forever.  See here, too, Mary supposes Him the gardener.  God, the creator of all things, giving life to all plants, bringing up all animals from the ground, making and forming man with His own hands, is indeed a Gardener.  That was His business from the beginning.

     You can near imagine our Lord tending to each leaf and each sprout.  You can imagine Him guiding each calf being born, watching over every chicken’s egg.  This is the work of the tender Gardener.  He has done this since the beginning, and where does Mary find this risen God-man yet again?  In the garden, looking at each leaf, standing upon the good earth, having compassion over His creation, and on Mary herself.

     Jesus Christ has undone the consequence of sin in His resurrection, and He is back to work.  Death cannot hold Him.  The tomb cannot hold Him.  After His death, after His rest in the tomb on the Passover, Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  His work is the care of creation.  His work is the care of those whom He loves.  And He loves Mary.  And He loves Peter and John.  And He loves Adam and Eve.  And He loves you.

     He finds you, just as He found Mary, and He loves you.  He told Mary not to cling to Him for He had not yet ascended to the Father, but now He has.  Cling to Him!  For indeed, Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  Cling to Him tightly.  See as Mary did, but not with eyes of the head, but with the eyes and ears of faith.  See the joy set before Christ, which is our resurrection from the dead.  For this joy set before Him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame.  For you, He did this, for you, He died, so that you would be raised from the dead, as He was raised, His work and sacrifice accepted by His Father.  So, now, too, are you accepted.

     And now this day, even as Jesus is risen from the dead, He yet comes to you.  He finds you in the garden of His Church.  Indeed, this is where our dead are planted.  But, for every dead seed that goes into the ground, a beautiful plant will rise up.  When you are planted into the grave, we do not weep as those who have no hope, but we rejoice, we face our deaths, knowing that because Christ is risen, we, too, shall rise.

     And that is why, even today, we celebrate the good gift of Christ’s Sacrament of the Altar, for here, we cling to Christ.  What more intimate embrace is there than to have the crucified and risen Lord in you, on your tongue, in your mouth?  There is no greater intimacy with God than here.  The Gardener feeds and waters and fertilizes you, His glorious garden, here.  And here He clings to you as tightly as you cling to Him.  Here, He calls you friend.  Here He calls you by name.  Larry, Karen, Rebecca, Lewis… Mary.  Here He knows you and calls you friend.  Here He promises you the very thing that He is.  Here He shows you that He is risen.  Here He gives to you your resurrection from the dead.

     And so you shall be.  So you shall rise with Mary of the garden.  So you shall rise with Peter the impetuous disciple.  So you shall rise with John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.  So you shall rise with Eve, the woman who gave into the devil’s temptation.  So you shall rise with Adam, the first man.  So you shall rise, and you shall see Christ, the last man, the firstborn from dead, the new man.  For He shall be the one greeting you.  Christ will be there, saying your name.  Christ will point you to all those who have died in Him, all those who have trusted in His promises, all those who have been anxiously awaiting the Lord.  

     And there you will see the empty tombs.  You will look down and see your empty grave.  There you will see that the earth has spit out its dead.  Because the earth has its Gardener, and He has lead it with tender care to bring you up, like a growing plant, like a beautiful flower.  There is no more smell of death on that day, only the smell of the garden, only the scent of the prayers of the saints, given up to Christ as the Resurrected One for you.  He has guided the earth with His hands, and it shall give you up into everlasting life, just as it spit the Lord out of the tomb into His glorious resurrection from the dead.  For indeed, Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In Jesus’ name, amen.

     Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord!  Amen.

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