Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 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!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. 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. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. 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.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 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. (John 20:1-18)
John invites us to witness this drama played out on a morning early in spring in a cemetery outside of Jerusalem.
He especially wants to focus our attention on one person – Mary Magdalene. Though the other Gospels name the rest of the women who were with her that morning at the tomb – Mary mother of James, Joanna, Salome – John introduces only Mary Magdalene and shows us how she experienced the events of this incredible morning and the impact the events of that morning made on her.
Perhaps it is Mary’s background that makes her such a powerful example of the transforming work of the Lord in her life.
- Luke tells us about a woman from whom Jesus drove seven demons – that was Mary.
- The woman who showed up uninvited at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears – tradition tells us that was Mary.
- The one who broke the alabaster jar of perfume and poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair – and was scolded by the disciples as wasteful – some suggest that was the same Mary.
Again and again, this woman whom Luke describes as a sinful woman, a prostitute, but who had experienced the incredible forgiveness and cleansing that Jesus gave, displays her devotion to the one who gave her back her life.
And here on the third day after Jesus’ death on the cross it is Mary who has come to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. But what she finds is an empty tomb with the stone rolled away. Her grief is suddenly turned to disbelief and shock. She runs back to where the disciples were gathered and tells Peter and John.
Her footsteps are retraced as John and Peter race back to the tomb to see what she is talking about. Their own eyes confirm what Mary has told them, the tomb is empty, the body of their Lord is gone.
Do not miss John’s parenthetical comment here in vs. 9 – it is crucial to understanding why they are all filled with shock and dismay – “They (himself included) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”
You see, this side of the resurrection we know what has already happened and for us it is often simply an old story too often told. We already know “the rest of the story,” and we have lost the initial emotion it must have stirred. But for these disciples, it was the end of their world; it was crushed dreams and shattered lives.
John and Peter return to their homes, this time feet dragging and heads bowed. But Mary remains at the tomb. Grief has now been immersed in despair. Even the one physical reminder of her Lord has disappeared.
Nearly overcome, and weeping, she leans over and looks once more into the empty tomb. But instead of seeing the dismal darkness, there are two angels clothed in white sitting where the body once lay. They ask her, “Why are you crying?”
She sobs, she cries, “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.”
Another voice, this time behind her – “Woman, why are you crying?”
She spins around to find another man she does not recognize – she assumes he is the gardener. Perhaps she doesn’t recognize him through her tears – maybe it is simply the unexpectedness of finding him there. But John tells us it is Jesus.
Maybe he can tell her where Jesus has been taken.
And then he speaks a word, one simple word – “Mary” – and suddenly the veil is lifted and the recognition floods over her as she cries out “Rabonni” and falls at his feet.
I know it’s impossible to step in and know what Mary was thinking and feeling at that moment. But I am especially fascinated by the irony that is present. We know what we know because John has (like a good narrator) given us more information than the characters – contrasted with Mary’s own very natural reactions because she is unaware of what is about to happen, the unfolding of this event which will shape the rest of human history.
What is so ironic is the unexpectedness of it all – the resurrection came as a complete surprise. How many times Jesus had told them what would happen, and yet as they stand in the midst of it, they have no clue as to what has just taken place.
Jn 2:19 “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
Jn 11:25 “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jn 16:16 “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Mt 16:21 Even the chief priests and Pharisees remembered Jesus’ claim and told Pilate, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’”
And yet now, we find Mary in grief and shock, with no notion that something else could have happened except that someone has taken the body.
How much different are we? Promise after promise from God, and yet, we go about our lives as though he had never spoken.
Paul will write to the Corinthian church, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” To the Colossians, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
Yet, we live lives hopelessly chained to the old man, dominated by the world’s values, living in fear of the very thing Christ defeated at the resurrection.
The irony grows with the drama. As Mary bends over to look into the tomb, and sees the two heavenly angels, there is no recognition. Jesus speaks and she still remains blind to reality. She is in diligent search, questioning Jesus himself, where the body has been taken, yet in the diligence of her search she fails to recognize the very one she seeks.
How much like Mary we are. Seeking the desire of our heart – success, independence, security, education, family, happiness. In the process we brush by Jesus as though he is the one who keeps us from our pursuits, we neglect to worship him, to study his word, to put our lives in his control, because we think that he will keep us from what we truly seek.
When in truth, the very one that we should be seeking is Jesus. Those very things we invest our lives in so heavily that we sacrifice our spiritual lives, Jesus says, “the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
All of those things we think are so important, yet Jesus reminds us, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
The key to this passage, and perhaps to our own dilemma, comes when Jesus speaks one word, “Mary.” Suddenly she recognizes Jesus. But until that moment she had not expected to see him, could not have dreamed she would find the one she was looking for alive and standing before her.
Her reaction is understandable – she is so overjoyed she falls at his feet and holds on for dear life. More than anything, she wants him to be there with her, his tangible presence reassuring her that it is all right.
But Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to my Father.” Jesus’ ultimate purpose lay, not in coming back to live in bodily form – his mission now was not on earth, but in heaven. He had already promised them, “I will not leave you alone, as orphans, I will send one to be with you and walk beside you…”
How desperately we want some reassurance of his presence. We want to cling to him and we bring him down to our level. Like Thomas we want some demonstration that will force us to believe.
But we, like Mary -- as long as Jesus remains dead -- his resurrection only so much wishful thinking -- the Savior a distant, impersonal figure that is, for practical purposes an historical person with no relevance for real life – we remain blind to his presence and his power.
But when we hear the call that Jesus makes: “Mary… _____..., _____...” then suddenly it is a call that demands we see him in all his glory, that opens our eyes and fills us with hope.
The impossibility became reality. It defied everything they (and we) know to be possible. But God has never been bound by possibilities – and in fact, he uses those things which are impossible, unbelievable, unexpected to cloth his purposes in faith.
I hope for you that the resurrection is not an odd little historical footnote, but a personal reality that transforms your life day in and day out.
It is not optional – for Paul, Peter, for all of the disciples it was the heart of the Christian’s faith. To reject it or minimize its importance is to nullify God’s promise and neutralize the good news that Jesus Christ has come to save us from our sin and give us a place with God forever in heaven.
The gospel – the good news – has its roots in that empty tomb outside of Jerusalem, where two angels said, “Why do seek the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen, just as he said.”
Illustration – Jefferson’s Bible
In the 1904, the U.S. Congress issued a special edition of Thomas Jefferson's Bible. It was a simple copy of our Bible with all references to the supernatural eliminated. Using a razor, Jefferson cut and arranged those verses from the Bible he believed were the essence of Jesus teaching. He described the verses he selected as diamonds in a dunghill. Jefferson, in selecting what to include or exclude, had confined himself solely to the moral teachings of Jesus, eliminating all references to the supernatural, to miracles, or even Jesus’ deity, believing that Jesus was only a great teacher of morals, and not in any sense the Son of God. The closing words of Jefferson's Bible are: "There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the sepulcher and departed." Thank God the real gospel ends with the news that "he has risen, just as he said."
Illustration – No voice to shout
Margaret Sangster Phippen wrote that in the mid 1950s her father, British minister W. E. Sangster, began to notice some uneasiness in his throat and a dragging in his leg. When he went to the doctor, he found that he had an incurable disease that caused progressive muscular atrophy. His muscles would gradually waste away, his voice would fail, his throat would soon become unable to swallow.
Sangster threw himself into his work in British home missions, figuring he could still write and he would have even more time for prayer. "Let me stay in the struggle Lord," he pleaded. "I don't mind if I can no longer be a general, but give me just a regiment to lead." He wrote articles and books, and helped organize prayer cells throughout England. "I'm only in the kindergarten of suffering," he told people who pitied him.
Gradually Sangster's legs became useless. His voice went completely. But he could still hold a pen, shakily. On Easter morning, just a few weeks before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter. In it, he said, "It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice to shout, 'He is risen!' – but it would be more terrible still to have a voice and not want to shout."