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April 8, 2012
The Gospel: John 20:1-18
Sermon: "While It Was Still Dark"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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 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." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who 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 returned to their homes.
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. 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." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus 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). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because 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 she told them that he had said these things to her.
While It Was Still Dark
A family was watching a movie of the life of Jesus on television. Their six-year-old daughter was deeply moved as the movie maker realistically portrayed Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Tears ran down the little girl’s face as they took him from the cross and laid him in a borrowed grave. She watched intently as a guard was placed outside the tomb. Then, suddenly a big smile broke on her face. She bounced up on the arm of the chair and said with great anticipation, “Now comes the good part.”
That’s why we are here this morning. We who have journeyed through Lent, shared the beginning of Eucharist on Maundy-Thursday, wept at the Cross of Good Friday, we are here to celebrate the good part; to celebrate the Resurrection; to give thanks for Christ’s victory over death; to join our voices with millions of his disciples around the world this morning to sing, “Jesus Christ is risen today!”
Focus with me now on these words from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to John, “Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark.” In other words, she came to the tomb before daybreak. John was simply reporting the facts here, of course. And yet, there is another way these words are to be interpreted. After all, the writers of the New Testament as well as Jesus himself often used the imagery of darkness and light to signify something deeper. John especially does this. Mary came to the tomb while it was still dark. The darkness isn’t just physical in the Gospel of John. It also refers to a world without Christ; a world without hope, a world of sin and death, a world where God’s promises are forgotten and God’s people feel forsaken. Darkness is much more than the absence of sunlight. Darkness is a spiritual condition in which the presence of God is no longer felt.
While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. She was in need of light within herself even more than without. We need light too. Not just sunlight and daylight; we need the “Light of the World.” When our world is plunged into darkness, when we are lost and we cannot find our way, we need more than sunlight. We need the Son’s light to shine upon our path again, and his warmth in our hearts again. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark. Most of us have been there at least at some point.
But here is the Good Part, the part we have come for this morning: The light has risen, and with him so has life. When Mary reached the tomb, she found the stone rolled away, and the body gone. Vanished! The tomb, empty! What was going on here? What had been done with him?
Mary wondered as fear griped her soul. She rushed to find the disciples. When two of them confirmed her discovery, she was all the more confused. She stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she turned around, and beheld Jesus standing there, but, whether it was due to the darkness within or without, she did not recognize him. 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.” Then it happened! Jesus spoke her name. “Mary!” She rushed forward to hold him in her arms. Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Now, much has been made of these words, most of it idle speculation. The thrust of the language here is this: Jesus is literally saying, “You don’t have to hang on to me. I’m still here. I haven’t ascended yet. I’m not going to leave you. Let go because I have a job for you.” That’s what he was saying; it wasn’t any kind of rejection or reproof at all. Reluctantly, Mary let go, and she became the Apostle to the Apostles as she announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” the first of them all to receive a direct commission from Christ to tell the Good News!
That is the good part of the story. Christ, who was dead, is now alive. Mary Magdalene had come to the tomb while it was still dark, outside in the world, and inside herself. But now, even before the Sun had risen, God’s Son was already risen. That is the Good News of Easter for you and me. Even in times of deep personal darkness, even when the sunlight has yet to dawn upon our circumstances, the Son’s light rises. In the midst of our darkness the Son’s light always rises. In him, there is light. In him, there is life. The Son of God has risen, and you and I shall have light and life.
Why is the Son’s light so important to us? Why does it mean so much? Because it makes real for us the presence of the Father’s love. A pastor friend relayed this true story some years ago. He wrote, “A friend of mine who had a beautiful wife and a sweet daughter just three years old was enjoying life to the full. Suddenly sorrow struck the home when his wife was killed in a traffic accident. It seemed that all of his happiness had gone out of his life forever. The night after the funeral the father was putting his little girl to bed and with awkward fingers was buttoning her nightie when the lights suddenly went out all over the house. Deciding to go into the basement to investigate, he said to his daughter, ‘I’ll be right back, sweetheart; you just lie still and wait here!’ But she was frightened at the thought of being left alone and begged him to take her with him. Picking her up in his arms, he found his way through the darkened hallway and down the stairs. The little one snuggled against him for a while in silence, but as they entered the basement, she tightened her arms about his neck and said, ‘It’s awful dark, but I’m not scared ‘cause you’re here, Daddy!’ A sob shook the young man’s body. He buried his face in his daughter’s hair as he said, ‘Yes, it is dark! But I’m not scared either because my Father is with me too!” “Thus,” my pastor friend wrote, “in his darkness he found light in God’s loving watch care over him.”
Mary came to the tomb while it was still dark. But the darkness was soon overwhelmed with light. Perhaps, for whatever reason, you are in darkness right now; family concerns, problems at work, or lack of work, anxiety about your health and your future, the loss of someone you love. Easter means that in the midst of our deepest darkness the Son rises to overcome the darkness forever.
The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes on the twilight; it opens on the dawn. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark, but the darkness did not remain. Before the dawn broke, the Son’s light had risen. Jesus Christ is risen! Christ’s light is risen! Trust in him. He is risen for you!