Life Begins in the Dark

John 20:1-18

 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 towards 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.

Life Begins in the Dark

There was a church whose beautifully decorated sanctuary on Easter was the pride of the town. Five hundred lilies were arranged in the sanctuary for the special day sometimes a bank of lilies; sometimes lilies in the shape of a cross; sometimes lilies randomly strewed around as if painted on a canvas. Like our lilies, they were memorials. People gave five dollars for each one, and, the bulletin insert on Easter listed the names of people remembered by the giving of a lily. But in the 16th year of the tradition – it all fell apart One of the members of the congregation went up after the service and said,  “I’m going to the hospital to visit a friend, Can I take a lily to her? I know I can’t tell which one I gave, but anyone of them will do–they’re all alike.” And before getting an answer to her question, she went up to the cross of lilies, picked one up  and suddenly announced, loud enough for everyone to hear: They’re PLASTIC!” There was much consternation. Not just over their being plastic, but because, “We gave five dollars for these lilies, and if they are plastic, they could be the same ones we paid for last year.” Well, committees were formed official and unofficial, and the whole tradition collapsed. Someone came up with the figure that over 16 years they had raised forty thousand dollars for the same lilies!

The minister gathered those concerned together and tried to defend the practice of having plastic lilies. Her defense was along two lines: First was the solid defense, the fact that the money went into a contingency fund. They had helped transients and paid for emergencies that have not been budgeted for. The money had gone to good use. There was whispered and reluctant acceptance by some, outright rejection by others. Her second defense for the action was theological. “After all,” she said and she said this with great enthusiasm “the plastic lilies are more appropriate to Easter because they always bloom…they never die, After all, we don’t want to waste Easter!”

Indeed, Easter would be a terrible thing to waste. But it’s easy enough to do, isn’t it? Easter is lost when we make it only about colored eggs and chocolate bunnies, fancy new clothes, and the Hallelujah chorus. We come to this day seeking, longing, searching for evidence of the resurrection, of new life, but Easter is wasted if that life does not first emerge from the darkness of death..[1]

We like to think that the Bible begins with new life, after all, the very first Bible story is the creation of the world! But actually, even that first story begins like all life begins: in the dark. “At the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”

John’s gospel also begins in the dark, with a nod to the creation story.  “In the beginning,” John writes, “was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” In other words, in the dark beginning of everything that is, Jesus was present with and within the very heart of God.  At the end of John’s gospel, we find ourselves, with Mary, back where the whole thing began: in the dark. In the other three gospels, the description of the first Easter morning begins at dawn, when the sun has already begun to light the sky. But not in John’s gospel. In John, Mary arrives at the tomb “while it is still dark.” It is not the light of day that reveals the empty tomb, but the dark of a night that, to Mary, must have seemed endless. For Mary, there was nothing ambiguous about what happened to Jesus. Mary knew, as certainly as she knew anything, that Jesus was dead.

Now I’m guessing that you did not come here this morning to talk about death you came looking for life. But the truth of Easter is, if Jesus wasn’t dead before he was resurrected, then none of this matters or makes any sense. If we do not acknowledge that before the sun rose on the first Easter day there was the complete and total darkness that comes after the devastation of death, after the painful reality of grief and loss if we do not acknowledge that, then we will indeed have wasted Easter.

The resurrection of Jesus is not symbol or myth or metaphor it is the most profound and most astonishing affirmation of God’s honest truth: resurrection can only happen to what is dead. Resurrection is not metamorphosis; it is not a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly or a person whose heart is shocked back into the rhythm just in the nick of time. Resurrection is not life restored or rejuvenated, it is life made new, and that can only happen to something genuinely dead.

Jesus was dead. All the gospels attest to this, as did the early church when it proclaimed: “This Jesus who you hanged on a tree God raised from the dead.” as did Paul when he wrote, “I had always brought before you Jesus crucified.” Jesus did not just get nailed to the cross; he died there. The soldiers made sure of that. And his followers made sure that his body got the proper treatment for burial a treatment only given to bodies that are dead. John writes that after Jesus died, two disciples, “took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with spices in linen cloths, according to the customs of the Jews.”

Now you might be wondering why this matters, why we can’t just come here and focus on the good news that Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!) It matters because if Jesus’s resurrection doesn’t follow Jesus’s death, it has nothing of relevance for you or me. Because while we might try and fill our lives with things like plastic lilies that will last for decades, we know that the best things in life, the things we treasure the most, will all, in time, wither and die.

After 35 years as a devout agnostic, Mary Karr reluctantly agreed to take her young son to church at his request. “I sat with a stack of papers and graded them in the back,” she remembered. I had a latté. I’m not even making this up. I bought a latté. I sat in the back, and He was in Sunday school, and I was cynically there, marking time. And something about the faith of the people it wasn’t the spectacle or the grandeur or the ritual or all the gold stuff. None of that I cared about…It repelled me. But just the people saying their prayers, people saying, “Please pray for my daughter who’s having surgery,” people bringing hope and terror into a public forum and saying, “I’m afraid, and I need these things to happen to go on…”[2] For Karr, it was the honesty and vulnerability of human beings that stirred her soul and ultimately convinced her that there might be something of value in Christianity.

In John’s gospel, it is Mary who brings honesty and vulnerability into the public forum of the garden outside Jesus’s tomb. It is Mary who shows up in the dark with her grief on full display, weeping openly because Jesus is dead. When she sees the stone has been rolled away from the tomb, she goes and gets the disciples, but they are anxious and distracted, sublimating their grief and fear into a foot race to the empty tomb and then leaving almost as quickly as they came.

But Mary doesn’t leave. Mary stays. She stays, and she grieves. She doesn’t know what it means that the tomb is empty. The best she can figure, it means someone stole Jesus’s body. So not only is her beloved teacher dead, but there is nobody to tend to or weep over, there is only the empty void of death. Mary does not cover up her grief or her fear of Jesus’s death. She brings it out into the open.

To say that Easter is just about the wonder and joy and hope of the resurrection does not honor the grief and fear and longing you have brought with you today. You may not wear it openly, you may have no intention of declaring it publicly, but why else would you be here? We did not come here for artificial flowers or recorded music, or for anything that masquerades as the new life we can get plenty of that outside these walls. We came here hoping against hope to experience resurrection because we know death.

We all know death. We all know loss. We are all grieving something, even if we’d rather not admit it publicly. But if we risk honesty and vulnerability, if we chance to admit publicly that we too are grieving the dead, that we also are braving the darkness, then Easter will not be wasted. The new life God offers us at Easter, the strange, astonishing hope that comes with the resurrection, can only emerge from what is genuinely dead.

Margaret Feinberg was a thriving Christian author and speaker by the time she reached her mid-thirties. She had spent a year researching and writing a book on joy not just any kind of pleasure, but biblical pleasure, the joy that is referenced more than four hundred times in the Bible.

Then, just two weeks away from turning in her manuscript, she received the worst news of her life: she had advanced breast cancer. “I went from searching for joy in the relatively good times of life,” she said, “to search for joy in the deep dark suffering pain and horror, which-body-part-do-we-want-to-cut-off-today kind of world. Before that, I never understood the connection between joy and grief, but actually, when you learn to grieve well, you expand your bandwidth for joy.”[3]

Mary does not run away from the darkness of that first Easter morning, or from the emptiness of Jesus’s tomb, or from her gut-wrenching, life-altering grief over Jesus’s death. She stays. She stays long enough to notice the angels, though she did not know who or what they were; she stays long enough to ask the apparent gardener, to help her find the body; she stays long enough to hear the resurrected Jesus call her by name, which is how she finally recognizes him. Mary stays, through the darkness, with the pain, and discovers that this is where new life begins.

The minister of the church with the plastic lilies had it all wrong.  Plastic lilies do not always bloom. Plastic lilies never bloom. Because to bloom, something has to die.  This is the way God has ordered the world; the light doesn’t overpower the dark, the light is born from the dark. You cannot have one without the other. Darkness teaches us what light is. Easter promises that all the death and decay and destruction in our lives, in our relationships, in our politics, in our communities, in our churches and in our schools that is the very stuff with which God does God’s best work: resurrecting hope from despair, resurrecting justice from inequity.

Resurrecting love from hate, God is at work, even now, in the darkest places, calling us to stay long enough with our pain and our grief. To witness the wonder and joy of resurrection and new life, to hear the God who loves us beyond all measure call us by name, and invite us to go and share this good news with all the world.

Amen.

 

 

[1] The plastic lilies story and the idea that we should not waste Easter come from a sermon by Mark Ramsey, “Wasting Easter,” delivered on April 12, 2009 at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC.

[2] Krista Tippett, On Being podcast, “Astonished by the Human Comedy” with Mary Karr, January 25, 2018. https://onbeing.org/programs/mary-karr-astonished-by-the-human-comedy-jan2018

[3] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens podcast, episode 5, “Joyful, Anyway” with Margaret Feinberg. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/margaret-feinberg-joyful-anyway/id1341076079?i=1000405095155&mt=2

 

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