Sunday Sermon: "Who Is 'They?'"

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: John 20:1-18
Series: "The Dawn of a New Day"

In an Easter world where death no longer has the last word, old rules no longer apply. No longer do we live by “might makes right” and “whoever has the most toys wins” and “everyone eventually gets what he or she deserves.” Instead, we live by new rules, rules that are based on God’s ability to intervene in everyday life, even in the face of our greatest disappointments and what seems to be the most insurmountable challenges, to open up for us possibilities that fill us with a hope that nothing or no one can ever take away. Such is the message of Easter, when God came down and raised Jesus from the dead so that everything in this world might be changed and all of it changed for the better.

I start out this morning with that grand assumption, given how so many of our lesser assumptions are based on ones that can’t support us when the props get knocked out from under us and we find ourselves unable to get back up. As long as the breeze is blowing in our favor, we’re good as gravy; are we not? We pat ourselves on the back for having done such a good job of taking care of our business. But then something unforeseen happens – a diagnosis, an economic downturn, a natural disaster, an untimely death – and suddenly we find ourselves wondering how we can ever get back to “normal,” when “normal” was something always constructed on impermanent and non-sustainable realities.

That’s one lesson we glean from John’s account of the Easter story, which focuses at the start on the character of Mary Magdalene, an interesting choice given how she seems on the surface to be the last type of person to whom you would expect such a momentous revelation would be entrusted. She’s a woman for whom first-century rules were not constructed. She’s from a sketchy region in Galilee and she herself has a sketchy past with having been possessed with seven demons before Jesus had cast them out, also the kind of person the rules of both the first-century world and the twenty-first century world would tell you to steer clear of. And perhaps most telling of all, she comes to Jesus’ tomb on that first day of the week while it was still dark with darkness in her heart, darkness that was based on numerous assumptions of how things like crucifixions “normally” played out.

For example, when Mary makes it to the tomb, she is taken aback at how the stone that the Roman soldiers had put in place to seal the tomb’s entrance had now been removed. “That’s not normal,” Mary thinks to herself. And so she runs off to find Simon Peter and John to tell them of this strange and unusual development. Because like all of us do when we come to some unexpected and unsettling occurrence, Mary needed in her own heart to resolve this abnormal event by making a reasonable assumption: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

If I had been Peter or John, my first response would have been, “Who is ‘they?’” “Who are you talking about?” Of course, there would have been plenty of suspects, the most likely of which would have been graverobbers. In fact, that may have well been the explanation offered by those in John’s day who saw nothing about the fact of an empty tomb to believe in. That’s because grave robbery, as ghoulish as it seems to us today, was a “normal” occurrence in the first-century world, given the fact that Roman emperors in the day were constantly passing edicts that forbade it. And even though Jesus himself wasn’t known to be an affluent person by any stretch of the imagination, the fact that had been buried in a borrowed tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea may well have led some to believe that there were valuables that had been buried alongside Jesus. 

I mention that assumption because of the amount of attention John gives to the burial clothes Peter and he saw had been left behind – the strips of linen, the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head, which was separate from the linen. No, it wouldn’t have been graverobbers, at least not any “normal” ones. No graverobber worth his salt would have taken the time to carefully remove the burial clothes from the dead body. In his haste to leave the scene of the crime, he would have taken everything, clothes and all! No, it couldn’t have been graverobbers who were responsible for the empty tomb. Who, then, was it?

When Peter and John leave the tomb of Jesus to return to their homes, Mary Magdalene lands on another possible suspect, the gardener.  Tombs of the wealthy were often located in lavish gardens, which would have required the services of someone to maintain them. In this case, when Mary, having bent over to look into the tomb saw two angels in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been, nothing about that remarkable sight seems to have awakened her to Easter’s reality, so mired was she in her assumption that someone had taken Jesus’ body away. Even when she turned around and came face to face with the Risen Jesus, she did not recognize him. She assumed he must be the gardener and in a desperate attempt to prove her assumption, she accuses him, perhaps thinking that the gardener didn’t want a crucified criminal in his cemetery of elites. “Sir, she says, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” It’s another wrong assumption, based on Mary’s efforts to make everything about this Easter morning conform to normal expectations.

But nothing about Easter will ever conform to normal expectations because with Easter, the old rules do not apply.

The “they” who took Jesus from the tomb were not graverobbers. The “they” was not the gardener. The “they” were not the Romans or the Jewish religious authorities or anyone else we might think of who would have benefitted in some way from removing Jesus from Joseph’s tomb. There’s only one other possibility. It was God. It was God who on the third day, in fulfillment of messianic prophecy, came down from above to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat, hope from the pit of despair, and life from the valley of the shadow of death.  It was God who came down to abolish the old rules of this world so that everything might become new.

Mary Magdalene came to see it and believe it and confess it when the Risen Jesus called her name. And by God’s grace maybe on this Easter morning you will see it and believe it and confess it also as you hear Jesus call yours, inviting you to join him on a journey out of this world’s darkness into his abundant and everlasting light of life. 

One of the greatest challenges we in the church face today on this Sunday morning is to see our Easter celebration as something much, much more than a commemoration of a past event, as a commemoration of something that happened over two thousand years ago in a borrowed tomb outside the city of Jerusalem. Our working assumption is that while we celebrate the resurrection today, tomorrow will go back to business as usual, where losses are to be expected, where dreams are destined to be crushed, and where death will always have the last word. No, when God raised Jesus from the dead, God introduced into this fallen world a new world of potential and possibility – a new world in which you and I are no longer passive, helpless spectators but active participants as the same power that raised Jesus from the dead sets us on our feet, puts holy wind into our soul’s sails, and commissions us to go forth in the same way the Risen Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene to go forth to make all things to become new. 

As I have said on so many Easters before, on this my last one with you at Mountain Brook Baptist Church, I will say it again. Easter assures us that there is no tragedy that God cannot redeem, there is no loss that Christ cannot overcome, and there is no dream that the God who raised Jesus from the dead cannot in us energize and advance. God has indeed taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we know where God has taken him. He has ascended to the Father, where he has gone to prepare a place for us, so that when he comes again, he will receive us unto himself, that where he is, we shall be also. Live now by that assumption and for you everything will be changed and it will most definitely be changed for the better.