"From Tears to Trust at the Tomb"
Easter Sunday Apr.24, 2011 Jn.20:1-18
WHEN LIFE'S GONE TO POT
How do you deal with life's unexpected disappointments? How do you go about handling huge let-downs - I mean, MAJOR shocks and losses? How should faith cope in the face of these? Are we supposed to just smile and trudge onward, as if it never happened? Do you spout some pious-sounding banal saying, such as, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade"? Somehow such folklore gems sound pretty noble when you're not going through any pressure at the time, but when the bottom falls out of your boat, they don't quite hold so much water.
Do you adopt a sort of fatalist approach, shrug your shoulders, and try to re-classify 'bad' as 'good' as if it's all the same? One of my classmates from high school is a fashion expert in California. On her blog she was describing pottery firing techniques such as "raku" and "sager" in which, after the ceramic pots are heated in the kiln, they are specially wrapped in a container or aluminum foil along with combustible material which, as it burns, creates fine cracks in the glazing and marks the pottery in completely unpredictable fashion. As the artists uncovered their work, unsure of what the results would be, they had to prepare themselves to accept whatever happened. My artistic classmate concludes, "So I have decided that we need to embrace life like a Raku. We are never certain what will happen, and we must be willing to accept whatever comes our way. All things have beauty, and it is up to us to see that."
Again, sounds very noble and altruistic: "accept whatever comes...all things have beauty" - if you can't see that, I guess you'd better just adjust your spectacles. Que sera sera, what will be will be. But is there beauty even in the bad? Are we to embrace all things willy-nilly, from tulips to tsunamis, from mozza sticks to reactor meltdowns? Doesn't this necessarily blur the categories so you can't tell the difference between good and evil?
Sometimes loss is genuine, grief is real, and to be acknowledged as such. It's not all rosy. And if we try to get on with life as if nothing happened, our emotions reject the head's analysis and lock the brakes.
I was speaking with a young woman who'd become pregnant at a young age and given her baby up for adoption. Much better than yielding to pressure to abort it. But, many years later, she was saying it took her years to figure out she'd never really grieved the loss, and it affected her. People around expected her to get on with life as if nothing had happened; meanwhile, she experienced bouts of depression and inappropriate anger. Then a counsellor introduced her to the term 'disenfranchised grief': other people were not acknowledging she had a right to grieve, she'd experienced a huge genuine loss, it wasn't 'nothing'. Once with the Lord's help she allowed herself to grieve, she was able to start getting back to functioning near normal again. So, just burying the grief as if it never had a legitimate cause doesn't help.
On Easter morning, we meet Mary Magdalene at the tomb, in tears, trying to cope with a colossal disappointment. The Lord Jesus, the wonderful teacher who'd made such a difference in her life in recent years, had been unjustly kidnapped, condemned, and executed all in a few brief hours. For Mary, a surprise encounter changes tears to joy as her relationship with Him who was Crucified and Risen gives new meaning and strength in the midst of upsetting circumstances.
If the grass greens up and the hockey playoffs ever stop it may be baseball season again, so I'll using a sporting analogy of two ways of attempted coping for Mary that are 'strikes' as she steps up to the plate of coping with catastrophe. Her first coping tactic is to keep on with routine and rituals: just keep going through the motions day by day, focus on the regular patterns, and let structured activities hopefully help you 'get through it'.
John 20 begins, "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb..." We're told by another gospel-writer, Mark (16:1), that she and the other women had bought spices the previous evening so that they might go anoint Jesus' body. When someone dies, there are customs and procedures we go through that not only deal with the necessities but also are designed to be helpful for someone who's grieving: making funeral arrangements, picking out flowers, putting together an obituary notice, meeting with the pastor about the service, finding meaningful music and Scripture passages, and so on. In Mary's culture, buying spices and going to complete the embalming was just something you did - part of the package. It was one pattern that helped people cope. Most of the time.
But not this time. 20:1 continues, she "went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance." That stopped her in her tracks. The body was gone! What are you supposed to do with the spices if the body's not even there?! Strike one - so much for just trudging on through the usual routines and rituals.
Another popular, generally helpful, coping tactic in tough circumstances, is to turn to other people: call for help - friends, family, etc. Mary tries this next. V2, "So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"" Not a bad start; but how far does this get? Peter and John run to the tomb and verify the body is indeed gone, but with some intriguing details: the linens are still lying there intact, neatly folded, as if the body had somehow just evaporated from within leaving them behind like a partly deflated cocoon. Most unusual! Verses 6-7, "He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen."
Here's the thing: there would only be 2 categories of people who would remove that body - friend or foe. If friends had taken it, they would have kept the body carefully and respectfully wrapped in the grave-cloths. If it had been enemies - they wouldn't have done such a neat job: they either would have taken the whole works, or left the linens strewn about. Either way, it didn't add up. Was there any third option?
That's when the little light bulb went on inside John's head. Suddenly he remembered Jesus' repeated predictions about rising from the dead. Only later did they put that together with the Old Testament prophecies. Vv8b-9, "He saw and believed.(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)"
Now, here you'd think John would seek out Mary Magdalene and let her in on his brilliant deduction. But what happens? What's the picture you get when you put v10 alongside v11? "Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying..." WHAT?! She'd tipped them off to the news event of the millennium and they didn't even bother to clue her in? Why didn't Peter and John comfort Mary more? Maybe they couldn't find her - but that sounds a bit lame. Maybe they wanted to share the developments with their own families; we know Peter was married. John - who did John have at his home since Friday? Remember Jesus' words from the cross - "Woman, here is your son"? Quite likely John was racing home to share the news with Jesus own mother Mary.
But that still leaves Mary Magdalene back at the tomb, weeping. Coping tactic #2 has bombed just like #1. Strike two: people can let you down, even best friends can fall short in the comfort department.
ENCOUNTERING THE LORD: CONNECTING FOR A HOMER
What does Mary see next? Vv11b-13, "As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him."" This must rank almost in the same sort of category as a vision at Lourdes, but for some reason it doesn't seem to 'fizz' on Mary. Angels just don't cut it. This is a foreign supernatural sighting; but as religious ceremonies and churchy actions sometimes don't really address the core loss people are feeling, Mary just can't relate to the angels. She and they are in different worlds.
And then - suddenly something happens that turns her world upside down, right-side up after all the loss. She's so deep in her grief, mind you, that she mistakes the person she perceives through her tears standing nearby for the groundskeeper, the custodian of the tidy little sepulchre-garden. He asks why she's crying; she blubbers something about if he'd just tell her where the body's been put, she'd like to look after it from here. Then one word stops her in her tracks, takes her breath away, and makes her heart skip a beat: "Mary."
It wasn't the word itself - after all, it was merely her name - but the way it was said. Almost exactly like the way HE used to say it. Exactly. Uncanny. Could it be? How in the world...
Lately since we switched telephone providers we've been enjoying having call display for the first time in our life (we never would have ordered it before, but it's included in the service). It's kind of fun to see who's calling before you pick up: you can mentally prepare yourself. But there's another amazing feature for identification purposes that comes pre-programmed into the human brain: voice identification. The truth is, for most people who call (especially family or those in our church), I don't really need call display: I can tell who it is as soon as they start talking. Now banks and other institutions have started using voiceprints as passwords.
So it wasn't linens or prophecies that did it for Mary: it was the sound of the Master's voice that told her He was alive! Immediately she turned to Him and gasped, "Teacher!" And suddenly the world was right-side up again. Mary was instantly right back in the sweet spot of intimacy, close friendship, and followership with the One who had turned her life around.
All it took was a word - said with the Lord's own voice, the inflection and tone His disciples recognized and loved. The very sound drew her back into His arms. Jesus knows and invites us at our deepest level: the root of our fears, limitations, doubts, even our shame, what we try to hide from others - it's all an open book to Him. And still He loves us, pays the price to redeem us, wants us with Him forever.
The Psalmist marvelled at God's intimate knowing of us: "O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar...you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD." (Ps 139:1-4) Nathanael had marvelled how Jesus knew him from a distance, while he was under the fig tree (Jn 1:48): the Master knows us up-close even from far-away.
So Mary connects for a home-run. First, Jesus knows and addresses her personally - "Mary." Next, we are touched in our humanness. V17a, "Do not hold on to Me" - more literally, "stop clinging to Me". This was no ghost; He could be touched and handled, eat pieces of broiled fish. Luke 24:39, "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." He welcomed the women who in Matthew 28(9) clasped His feet and worshipped. He told Thomas, "Put your finger here; see My hands.Reach out your hand and put it into My side." (Jn 21:27) Jesus in His glorified risen supernatural state still has a physical dimension by which He allowed His followers to make contact with Him, so they could tell future generations.
Next, He helps us locate ourselves (and what seem to be shoddy circumstances) in God's larger picture. 17b, "I have not yet returned [lit.gone up, ascended] to the Father...I am returning [ascending] to my Father..." The 'big picture' foremost on Jesus' mind is ascending as predicted, so He could send the promised Holy Spirit and connect with ALL who believe in Him. What's happening in the immediate sense does fit ultimately as part of God's redemptive plan (however difficult that may be to see at the time).
With the disciples on the road to Emmaus He put it all in the context of what He'd told them previously and what the Scriptures prophesied. Luke 24(44ff), "'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day..." Even His suffering played an important part in the divine-human history.
God does redeem the painful parts of our lives in such a way that, when we look back, we can see His hand at work; yet that doesn't minimize the reality or significance of the hurt, the loss (doesn't treat it as if it doesn't matter). Romans 8:28 does promise God works in all things for the good of those who love Him - but that's closely linked to v29, that working is integral to conforming us "to the likeness of His Son..." In a mysterious way, our sufferings are connected to the sufferings of Christ, even extensions or completions (rom 8:17; Php 3:10; 1Pet 4:13). When Shouwang Church members in Beijing are jailed and abused and lose their homes and jobs simply because they purpose to worship God together outdoors, Christ is suffering with them, redeeming their living sacrifice to His glory.
Jesus addresses us; touches us; locates us in God's larger redemptive picture; and he commissions us with new purpose. V17, "Go instead to my brothers and tell them..." He has a task for Mary to do, a role for her to play in the next unfolding of God's magnificent drama. So v18, "Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her." Tears turned to trust at the tomb, and triumph, joy, yes and even privilege at being the first witness to the Lord. (See, John and Peter should've hung around, but they missed out!) Jesus commissions Mary; that gets her moving forward into the next chapter of her life.
Finally, Jesus introduces us into the close continuing intimacy of the Trinity and the Church. Mary's graduating to the 'big league' (if that's not pushing the baseball analogy too far!). First, the Trinity: v17, "I am returning to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God." Those who trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord are inducted into a new relationship and status with the Godhead, to be the Father's own dearly-loved and valued sons and daughters. That same precious intimacy Jesus enjoyed on earth with the Father is now extended to others.
Also, the Church: "Go instead to my brothers..." Unlike Peter and John's abandonment of Mary to her grief, Jesus nudges her back into loving community with other believers. The heavenly connection with God the Father has implications on the earthly plane: when we see a sister or brother in Christ crying, we're not to desert them, but love them, reach out to them, comfort them because 'they're family!'
This is the sort of blessing Isaiah anticipated in chapter 58(7-9a): "Is [the type of fasting the Lord seeks] not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I." Then our hardships are transformed to become opportunities to minister and connect with others, and experience fresh intimacy with our Redeemer. Let's pray.