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A new beginning

July 12th, 2012 No comments

“A new beginning” (Mark 16:1-8)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
April 8, 2012 (Easter), Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Dangling ending
“They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

. . . And in the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark’s gospel, that is the ending of the text, the ending of the gospel. Now it is often remarked that Mark likes to be brief in telling the story of Jesus’ life – he gives Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness all of two verses (1:12-13)! – but it seems that there’s something important missing if you end the story here.

It’s like Mark is on the home stretch but pulls a hamstring just short of the finish line. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you. So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” End of story.

But wait, we know the rest of the story, don’t we?

How Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden and she rushes off to tell the rest (John 20:11-18). How the women bring the Easter tidings to the eleven (Luke 24:1-11). How Jesus finds the two on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). How Jesus has breakfast with the disciples on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-19). How the disciples greet one another with shouts of “He is risen indeed!” (Luke 24:34). And Jesus comes and stands among them and speaks peace to them and breathes on them and says, “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23), and how he gives them one last instruction as he ascends into heaven, to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:16-20). That’s how to tell a resurrection!

Or what about Paul’s grand sermon,

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. . . in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. . . Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:20, 52-55)

That’s how you preach resurrection! That’s how you get to the end of the story and close the good book and say Amen and start singing Hallelujah! It’s about blaring trumpets and bold triumph, not fearing and fleeing.

Apparently there were some scribes down the line who agreed about the proper way to tell a resurrection, for they filled in the alternate endings to Mark’s Gospel that we find in our Bibles. And I don’t think that Mark would disagree with anything that his later copy editors added. In fact, if you read through Mark, you’ll find that he is perfectly aware of the amazing things that happen following the resurrection. It’s all good; it’s just that Mark is quite specific about his ending to the story, which states emphatically, “They said no-thing to no-body, for they were afraid.”

Why end a gospel on such a dismal note? How can the story end with fear and silence? How could these women, who have made it so far – farther than all the now-famous men amongst Jesus’ disciples, farther even than Peter who had fallen the farthest and the hardest – how could these women make it so far, how could they brave the horror of the cross only to falter at the light and hope of the resurrection, how could they come so close to the edge of mystery and truth only to collapse on the home stretch? And how can Mark just leave them there?

The late Donald Juel, a famous New Testament scholar, once told the story of one of his students who memorized the entire gospel of Mark and performed it orally, as a full-length solo show.1 His first performance was an incredibly moving event, but when he got to the last line, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” the audience just sat there, waiting breathlessly for resolution, for an ending. The student shifted nervously, then said, “Amen,” and the relieved crowd burst into applause. But the second performance, he resisted the temptation to bring closure to the dangling ending. After saying, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” he paused for a beat or two, then left the stage in silence. As people left the sanctuary, the conversation was peppered with the experience of the dangling, tantalizing ending.

Hearers of Mark’s gospel were literally left wondering, “What now?” What do you do when you’re left dangling?

Afraid of Death’s Undoing
You know, most of us know how to behave when there’s a death. There are legal matters that need attending, and there are arrangements to be made. We gather at the graveside to bid farewell to our loved one and release him or her, and we gather with the community of faith to find comfort and to hear a word of the hope that is all of ours, and to remember and celebrate life. And after it’s all over, maybe there’s a thank you card to send, or a maybe we return the the graveside later to tend the flowers. There’s something good, something comforting, in these rituals. They do not erase the sting of death, not by a long shot, but they do help us process, keep moving, conclude, release, and move on. We know how to behave when there’s a death.

These three women went on the first day of the week because it was their responsibility to care for the body. There was a death. Yes, it was horrific. Yes, it meant the death not only of their friend, but of their hope for a new kind of life where children were loved without exception, where sick people got better, where lepers could give up their branding, where people got together for picnics by the thousands, where even prostitutes and tax collectors were forgiven and welcomed to the new life. It was the death of the hope for a world without foreign occupiers patrolling their streets, where love was more powerful than fear and hatred. But, it was a death, and they knew the rituals that would help them mourn, process, keep moving, conclude, release, and move on with whatever future they could muster.

And so they come early the first day of the week because they know how to behave when there’s a death. You prepare the body, you seal the tomb. You go home and mourn and eventually, you get back with your life, changed forever as it is.

You know the story from there. They find the empty tomb. They’re told to go and spread the world, and they’re flee fearful and silent. Surely you know what you’re scared of, right? Why do you think they were scared? Was it because they didn’t understand what resurrection meant, or do you think it’s because they understood all too well? They knew how to behave in the face of death alright, but how do you behave in the face of death’s undoing?

Didn’t they come that morning with a sense of guilty release from all the things they didn’t have to do or trust or hope any more. I’ve heard it said that hope is harder than death, and I think it’s true. At least with death, there’s release of responsibility. Would you want to go back to moving mountains again? “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Hadn’t they departed for the tomb that morning in a world where Caesar was Lord, where Rome kept peace through fear and military power, where might makes right, where you either hit or get hit? But if Jesus was risen from the dead, then they would have resurrection life too, and they didn’t have to live that way any more. Death had lost its power. Violence had limited power over them now. How scary is it to realize that there’s really nothing whatsoever holding you back from living the new life with Jesus. How scary is it to think of all the excuses that don’t quite fit for resurrection people anymore? How will we get by? What will happen to me in retirement? What about providing for my family? What about what the others will think of me? What will I have to give up?

Isn’t it scary, truly scary when you realize that in reality, the fundamental truth of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing standing between you and totally giving yourself to the kingdom of God, where people are beating swords into plowshares and machine guns into planters, where terrorists are becoming peacemakers, where the hungry are fed, the poor are blessed, and the stranger is always welcome, where the naked are clothed and the prisoners and slaves are set free, where debts are forgiven and land is justly apportioned, where children are the model for life and forgiveness is chosen over revenge, where the rich share their wealth and the most powerful are the most compassionate and carry not sidearms but towels, where demonic powers no longer rule over people’s lives or their institutions, where the blind receive their sight to follow Jesus’ way seeking justice and surrendering false values like wealth, status, and power; where there is no need to fret over tomorrow, over what you will eat or drink or wear, or where you will live; where God is personally present and faithfully worshiped in endless joy.2

Can you imagine what it would mean to give yourself fully to that kind of life? Resurrection means hope for a life that is so terrific, it’s terrifying. No wonder these women were so scared they just said no-thing to no-body.

What now?
Well, as you’ve probably figured out by now, Mark has no intention of letting us recount the blessed Easter story, close the Gospel, say Amen, sing an Easter hymn, then tuck away our bulletins and go home to our old lives. Mark has every intention of leaving us dangling, asking not just of the disciples, but of ourselves, “Well, now what?”

My guess is, Mark didn’t know exactly what our fears would be in the 21st century. He just knew we’d be scared, because discipleship is “never easy, never perfect, and never ending.”3 Death is defeated, but it’s not down yet. Caesar may be gone, but his heirs are still running the world, and in that world, following Jesus is so new, so different, that our hope is often so terrific, it’s terrifying. But Mark also leaves us with a word of hope, a choice, an invitation.

“Go tell his disciples,” the mysterious young man at the tomb said. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” God’s hope is still alive on earth. Who is a disciple? Well, of course there’s James and John and Andrew, and the rest of the ten who fled when Jesus was arrested. And the women, they’re included in the “you” as well.

And there’s Peter, who gets special mention. “Even Peter,” who denied Jesus three times. Even he’s invited because you might give up on Jesus, but Jesus never gives up on you. All of them are invited, of course, but so are you. You are a disciple too. You also are invited to Galilee.

And where is Galilee? To the north of Jerusalem, of course, but also located in the first chapter of Mark, which is titled, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”

It’s the place where the disciples first heard the call to leave all, where they made a good beginning, where they struggled to understand the kingdom and saw powerful signs of its coming, where they were first commissioned, where they misunderstood, where they began.

“Now go back and do it all over again,” Mark says. You see, the ending of Mark’s gospel is really an invitation to a new beginning. And it is for everyone. Young and old, new to faith and lifetime Christian, steadfast and wavering, fearful and courageous, certain or unsure, men and women, those who gave up early on and those who have finally reached the home stretch, we’re all invited to a new beginning.

Timothy Geddert of Fresno Pacific Seminary writes:

Mark invites us, challenges us, to fix our eyes on Jesus, who has gone on ahead of us. We must follow him, obey him, go where he goes. Then we too will meet the risen Jesus. Then our failure will be forgiven and our courage renewed. We will take up our crosses in discipleship and proclaim the gospel in mission. . .4

It is about opportunities to find reasons for faith in a life of obedience to an invitation, in a life of following the risen Jesus. Obedience precedes “seeing” . . . Following Jesus is the prerequisite to truly seeing him.5

What do we see when we begin again? Well, many things. Evil powers are confronted. The sick are healed. Sinners find forgiveness, the hungry are fed, new life and hope rise out of brokenness and despair. In Jesus, God’s kingdom has arrived in truth if not yet in fact. When he speaks, his words ring with such power and authority that “the demons [flee], faint hearts [revive], and even the dead [sit] up to take another look around.”6

When we see these things, we know we’ve seen the risen Christ. But we also see Jesus being misunderstood, even by his closest friends and followers. God’s saving initiative in the world is always just beyond obvious explanation. Beginning again, we see Jesus breaking upon this world in power, but also as one who suffers and dies. We see that God’s power is a strange, suffering power that surprises us at every turn of page.

What now? Go back to Galilee and begin again. Today we all get the fresh start of a new day. Go back and follow the risen Lord with newly seeing eyes. He goes ahead of us. If we will follow after, we will see him, just as he has told us. The question still presses upon us, “What now?” Thanks be to God. Alleluia Amen.

Notes:
1. Retold in Thomas G. Long, “Dangling Gospel (Mark 16:1-8)” in The Christian Century (April 4, 2006), p. 19.
2. Adapted from the description by Robert J. Suderman, et al, “Jesus and the Church” in Jesus Matters, ed. James R. Krabill and David W. Shenk, 203.
3. Timothy J. Geddert, Mark in Believers Church Bible Commentary, 399.
4. Timothy Geddert, Mark, 399.
5. Geddert, 405.
6. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Sunday 2006,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 2008), 11.

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Rocks and Stones

June 29th, 2011 No comments

“Rocks and Stones” Acts 6:8-15, 7:51-60; 1 Peter 2:1-10; Psalm 31
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
May 22, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”1

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from [the Lord] comes my salvation. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.”2

“Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.”3

“In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress.”4

The psalms are brimming with imagery of God as our rock, our redeemer, our fortress, and our salvation. This is a good way to speak about who God is, for there are times when this has certainly fit with our experience of the living God, the One whose faithfulness to us is as steadfast and immovable as a massive boulder; there have been times when we have hid ourselves in the Rock of Ages, or when we find ourselves safe and resting in the rifted rock despite whatever storms of life are raging.

Many of these psalms that sing the praises of the Lord who is our rock, our fortress, our salvation, also pray to God that the psalmist, along with God’s people, might be delivered from their enemies, that they might be saved from painful persecution and their distress and grief. From Psalm 31: “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. … Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery… I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors … I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. … My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.”5

Yet what happens when this deliverance does not seem to come? What happens if our enemies still persecute us and seek to harm us? What happens when we pray without ceasing and still it feels as though our cries of distress go unheard and fall upon ears of stone? What happens when the presence of the Rock of Ages seems to crumble around us and we feel as though we are now utterly abandoned?

I wonder about many who have faced painful torture, persecution, and even death on account of their faith. Surely they had prayed for deliverance. Such has happened even within our own family tree as the Anabaptists of the 16th century, our ancestors in faith, were severely persecuted and painfully executed. I would assume that most prayed for deliverance from their enemies even as they prayed for their persecutors, lest they have to face death by drowning or by being burnt at the stake. Even on the way to be executed as they spent their last moments continuing to proclaim the good news and to sing their terrified hearts out, some must have wondered “Why me? Why wasn’t I delivered from this painful death as others were before me?”

One of our Anabaptist ancestors in faith, Gerrit Hazenpoet had fled his native city after becoming an Anabaptist to avoid being caught by the authorities. But he missed his wife and children, and so secretly returned home to visit them. While home, a policeman recognized him and captured him. Hazenpoet was tortured, imprisoned for 24 days, and then condemned to death by burning. His wife came to visit him at city hall to bid him farewell, but fainted from grief and had to be carried out. Surely both Hazenpoet and his wife prayed for deliverance from enemies, prayed that they would not have to be separated by death, prayed that they could have more time together.

Or Maeyken Wens, a mother who wrote letters to her children from prison which expressed her joy in Christ, but also her despair and her fear of death as she waited for her execution. She was eventually burned at the stake, as her children stood watching in the crowd (though who fainted as the fires were lit around her and only awakened after their mother’s body had been destroyed by the flames. Her oldest son had searched through the ash afterwards to find the tongue screws that had prevented his mother from witnessing at her execution, and he held on to this for the rest of his life). Surely she and her children had prayed for deliverance from death. Surely, as a mother, she had in no way wished to leave those who were most precious to her, so that she might have had more time with her children, more time to hold them, more time to comfort them, to dry their tears, to rock them to sleep.

Or what about Stephen, the one who is remembered as the first martyr of the early church. Surely even Stephen, a model of the faith, had never prayed that this would be the way that his life would turn out. I would assume that instead he had hoped that he could go on living to witness to the power of God’s Spirit that shone through him; that he might continue to proclaim that the resurrected Jesus is indeed Lord of all creation instead of having life ripped so cruelly away from him. Perhaps even he had prayed for deliverance from his persecutors even as he prayed for their forgiveness.

Had these faithful followers been abandoned by the Rock in whom they had wished to hide themselves, the strong fortress they had prayed to for deliverance?

Aren’t there times when we wonder this too? When it feels as though the storms are raging so fiercely around us that we will lose our grip from the Rock that we are clinging to, to be swept away in a torrent of our own deep grief and fear?

Are there times when you our someone you love has experienced persecution because of faith? When you or a loved one have experienced mocking, hurtful words, or even physical violence as a result of firmly held convictions? Are there times when in your suffering you have cried out to God only to have your prayers seem to go unanswered?

I am always amazed by these faithful followers of Christ who are able to face horrendous persecution, suffering, grief, and even death with such strength and grace, that one cannot fathom how it is humanly possible. Stephen surely had never wished that his life would end so abruptly, perhaps he had even prayed for deliverance from those who sought to end his life, but Stephen knew that he stood on solid ground. He had been built into the solid foundation that had been laid before him, he had been joined to the stone that the builders had rejected, and yet who had become the very chief cornerstone. Stephen, who even in the face of severe persecution rested in the Rifted Rock, was himself a living stone, even though he had been felled by a flurry of dead ones.6

For there was something much greater than himself that was at work; he was not facing this alone. For Stephen’s face to have been like the face of an angel makes known that the very power of God’s Holy Spirit was shining through him and was within him. The power of the One who had endured persecution, torture, and death before him, enabled Stephen to face this with the same strength and grace just as all living stones who are joined to the chief cornerstone also have the same power at work within them. So that even despite all that had happened, even when they did not experience deliverance from their persecutors, they still were empowered to remain faithful. Gerrit Hazenpoet, the Anabaptist who would never again see his wife and children, chose to sing a hymn with his dying breath to strengthen his brothers and sisters in Christ who were standing in the crowd to witness his execution. Maeyken Wens, the Anabaptist who was burnt in front of her own children, had written letters to them from her prison cell, despite her fear, to strengthen them, to comfort them, and to continue to teach them of her love for the One she followed even to death. Stephen, the first martyr of the early church, continued to embody the life of the living Stone to which he was joined by placing his spirit into God’s hands and by asking God to forgive those who killed him with his dying breath, just as the One who had gone before him, and who now strengthened him, had done. Surely none of these courageous, final acts of faith could have been possible had these living stones themselves not been joined to and strengthened by the firm foundation of the Rock of Ages.

Now I don’t know why God allows some of these terrible and painful things to happen. I don’t know why faithful followers of Christ such as Gerrit and Maeyken died painfully at the hands of their persecutors while other faithful followers such as Menno Simons remained safe and died of nothing more than old age. I don’t know why some faithful followers today seem to face more than their own fair share of grief and pain and sufferings whereas others do not.

The truth is that we live in a world that is fallen, a world that does not yet acknowledge the power of the resurrection. Within this world we still find ourselves victims to the fallen powers, whether they are made manifest through those who would seek to harm us either physically or emotionally, or through the pain of illness, or through the grief of loss and death. And surely God still weeps and grieves alongside us, just as Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

Even when the fallen powers of this world continue to cause such terrible and painful things to happen; God is still present with us. The solid ground is still there beneath us even though we’re sure that there are times when we feel the sinking sand instead. Even despite these tragedies, God is still at work within these painful situations, using even these for God’s good plans and purposes. Even when the world persecuted Stephen and other members of the early church who met a similar end, the blood of the martyrs was a powerful witness for the fledgling church, that they should be so willing to die for the Lord of all creation. Even when the world pursued and executed the early Anabaptists, their love for enemies has inspired many congregations today to remain true to the peace witness and love for enemies that Christ himself taught. Even when the world lashed out at Jesus with its final weapon, the cross upon which he died, this faithful act on behalf of all brought salvation to the world which God so loves.

And we know that it is not the fallen powers of this world, but it is God who has the final word. It is God who has the final victory. And even though we still find ourselves in the midst of the world that does not yet acknowledge the power of the resurrection, the very power that raised Christ from the dead is at work within us and within all who are joined to the strong foundation of the chief cornerstone, even when situations seem hopeless and even when things do not turn out as we would have liked. For the resurrection of Christ shows that God has conquered even death itself, even though we still find ourselves struggling from the grief and loss of death among us.

“Jesus lives on. The grave could not hold him. God’s love is stronger [even] than death. Jesus’ resurrection is a promise that God will do away with death. We do not have to fear death even now, while it still exists… Jesus’ resurrection tells us that God’s love is more powerful than death. God’s love will have the final say.”7

There will be times when it will be difficult to remember this, when pain and grief caused by this world seem to overwhelm us. There will be times when, even after many prayers, things still do not go as we had hoped, for we find ourselves in a fallen world. But even in these situations, we can be assured that God is present with us, just as God’s power was at work within the faithful martyrs of the church, and just as God was present with the faithful One who was sent. For God is our Rock and our Redeemer, our ever present help in times of trouble, the One who will not let our feet be moved and who still causes us to stand firm on the solid ground. For regardless of whatever barrage of rocks we may find being hurled our way, we ourselves are living stones who are joined into the foundation of the chief cornerstone, who has paved the way before us from death into new life.

Alleluia. Amen.

Notes:
1 Psalm 18:2 (NRSV)
2 Psalm 62:1-2
3 Psalm 71:3
4 Psalm 31:1-3a
5 Psalm 31:2, 9-15 (abridged)
6 The last part of this sentence taken from the “Sermon Notes” in The Leader worship resources for this Sunday.
7 Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy.

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We have seen the Lord!

May 5th, 2011 No comments

“We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:1-18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
April 24, 2011 (Easter), Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Mary weeps outside the tomb
Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the garden tomb that morning. While the other disciples were seeking their safety behind locked doors, she had ventured out into the dark shadows early that morning, and had come to this place of death and decay.

Mary had come to this place where the King of Love had been broken by the Princes of Fear and Hatred, where the forces of darkness had finally extinguished the Light of the World, where all that is chaotic and void had finally canceled out the very last remnant of the grand promise of those very first words, “Let there be light.”

Mary had come to this garden hidden in Golgotha’s penetrating shadows, to this place where hope was finally lost to the oblivion of sin and rebellion, where the deathly powers that so easily ensnare us had unraveled every promise and had rent asunder everything made by the Word of God, through whom all things had come into being.

So Mary Magdalene stood by the tomb, and she wept. Had she come to perform the burial rites of spices and ointments, only to find no body to care for? Had she come to grieve the death of Jesus, since there could be no funeral for a man executed for treason? Had she come in the secrecy of the night’s shadows to say goodbye, only to find no one to bid farewell?

And had she come to this place of darkness because the true light, which enlightens everyone had sparked something in her soul? Was she responding to some life, some light reaching her through the fog of confusion and grief, some lighthouse that drove her to this place, to find something, some hope?

But she found nothing. The stone was rolled away, and she feared the worst. And so she wept. She wept over the loss of her good friend and teacher. She wept over the light and hope this broken world had extinguished. She wept because she knew she had no power to change what had happened. And maybe she wept because she had seen the stone rolled away, and it was so difficult to allow herself to risk hope.

Mary’s Tears in Our Eyes
Mary’s tears find themselves again and again in our own eyes and in the countless eyes of God’s weeping children. We weep Mary Magdalene’s tears of grief when we lose a dearly loved one. We weep Mary’s helpless and hopeless tears over a broken and shadowy world seemingly devoid of light, when we consider the persistent callous resignation and indifference we show to the vulnerable and powerless, or the countless acts of outright gruesome violence we do to one another.

The tears of Mary’s broken heart flow from our eyes when we are confronted with humankind’s service to the powers of sin and death, defacing what is beautiful, staining what is pure, robbing the innocent.

We weep for the widows and orphans of hatred and violence, for the bereaved parents of manipulators of power, for the beautiful children dwelling in the long shadows of abuse from which we know they may never escape. We weep with the injured and the brokenhearted, who courageously seek out empty tomb after tomb, but never find hope.

We weep because the world seems spiraling back into chaos and void darkness. We weep because whatever hope there is always seems to suffer under whichever Pontius Pilate is holding the Beast’s reigns. We weep because what is good and true and beautiful in the world gets called treasonous by the Powers of this age.

We weep because we have so little power in a world of nearly 7 billion to bring light into a land of shadows and sickness. We weep because it’s just so hard to risk hope, for fear that hope will get crucified yet again and dash our hopes. Mary Magdalene’s tears must surely be found in our own eyes as we follow the Crucified Savior in this present age of shadows and darkness.

Empty Tomb
And yet, as she wept, there in the shadow of Golgotha where Jesus had been crucified, Mary Magdalene bent over to look into the tomb, and through her tears, she saw that the tomb was empty. There in the shadow of Golgotha, through her tears of grief, of loss, of helplessness and hopelessness, through those tears she beheld the empty tomb, and with those tear-soaked eyes she would see the Risen Lord.

Maybe that’s the best way to behold the empty tomb – through tear-soaked eyes. Maybe that’s the best way to understand what the empty tomb means. Maybe that’s the best way to understand why the Risen Lord still bears the wounds of Calvary. Maybe it’s when we’ve lost all else, when we’ve lost the world, that we can bend over, look into the empty tomb, and see. Maybe it’s then that we can hear those gracious, compassionate words, “Why do you weep?” and be transformed.

One night at the Homeless Shelter in Newton, I met a man who had a long history of substance abuse. He’d started using when he was in high school. Eventually, it estranged him from his family, it cost him his job and driver’s license, and left him partially disabled. He was sitting in darkness and walking in the shadow of death.

Then somehow, he had found his way to the homeless shelter. Somehow he followed some lighthouse through his foggy perception, and he found his way through the dark night to the the tomb, and the tomb was empty. Through tear-soaked eyes, he looked in, and heard someone say, “You’re welcome here,” which translated, I think means, “Why do you weep?”

And by resurrection power and resurrection power alone (and recovering addicts will often say this), he had been sober for 7 months when I met him. He encountered the Risen Lord there, I believe, amid the care of God’s people; he found a job; he reconciled with his parents and family; he was even starting to find his way back to church; he had a new chance and a new start. He came to the tomb with tears in his eyes, you see, and the tomb was empty.

Beholding the Gardener and the Christ
Mary Magdalene turns back from the empty tomb and saw Jesus, though she doesn’t know it is he just yet. He greets her with the same question as the angels in the tomb, “Woman, why do you weep?” Jesus doesn’t chide Mary for her helplessness and hopelessness; he doesn’t chastise her for her despair, or for struggling to understand. Instead he tells her to name her grief, to look into that empty tomb inside herself, to enter the darkest valley where he is waiting for her, and says to her, “Mary!” “Mary.”

The one who has endured the full brunt of the darkness of the world is the one who is able to find us in the darkness as well, is the one who is able to say, “Mary,” to call us also by name, to turn us around, to enable us to see the world as it really is – not as a place utterly devoid of hope and light, not as a place dominated by the deathly powers of sin and self-aggrandizement and relentless “progress,” nor by exploitation and violence and neglect and abuse, but rather as a place that is God’s beloved creation even now becoming new in resurrection power.

You see, maybe Mary Magdalene’s perception wasn’t so far off when she mistook Jesus for the gardener. For there, that morning, in that garden, on that first day, the Light of the world who was in the beginning, who was in the Garden with God, once again scattered the darkness and chaos. There, in that timeless garden in the shadow of Golgotha, she was no longer east of Eden, for through her tear-soaked eyes, she beheld the Master Gardener face-to-face.

She had come to the tomb amid the long shadows of the world’s darkness, but the tomb was empty, because the Master Gardener was still creating and restoring and re-creating anew, because the Creator God is still sovereign. Maybe that’s what we need to do when we’re weeping Mary’s tears; maybe we need to find our way back to the tomb, and peer inside through our own tears to see that it’s empty, and turn around to meet the Risen Lord, and the creator who is still sovereign in this world.

I recently read the story of Jonathan Kuttab, one of Mennonite Central Committee’s associates in the deeply conflicted region of Israel/Palesting. He wrote:

When we think about US power. . . and its crusading mentality of projecting that power throughout the world, of going out to punish and to kill, to discipline everyone into complying with its dictates, then we think, “Who are we? What resources do we have. . . what influence can we have against this tremendous power that is marshalled against us?” In times like these, I go back to my faith, to our faith. . . because there I see the affirmation and confirmation first and foremost of the sovereignty of God. God continues to be sovereign in the affairs of people. . . not Washington, not the tanks, and the guns, and the fleets, and the bulldozers, and the Apache helicopters and the Wall and the money. God continues to be sovereign. Any time you are tempted to feel helpless and hopeless, to read the world map through worldly eyes to count how many tanks, how many planes how much ammunition, how much power, how much influence, then you need to go back to the Bible. . . Looking outside at all the armies that are surrounding [God’s] city, we need the angel of God to open our eyes to see that God is with us, and he is stronger than all the forces of evil, of war, of violence, of oppression, of racism, of control that are marshalled against us. We need to go back to the Resurrection, to see that Christ has conquered death itself.1

At the empty garden tomb, we see through tearful eyes that God is still sovereign, that the one through whom all things came into being in the very beginning, has now met us in our greatest darkness, has forgiven us and healed us, and is now creating again, making all things new. Paul once jubilantly proclaimed, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

Mary, in that garden, was entering that new world, a world where the powers of sin and death have been vanquished, where all things are now under Christ’s feet, where there is healing and hope and joy, where the long, chaotic shadows of the void night are finally broken by the dawn from on high!

Encountering life at the tomb
Mary Magdalene had come to a cold and foreboding place of suffering, of rebellion, of violence, of great scandal and grief, and there she encountered life. It is by following Jesus, our Lord and King, our Savior, directly into the shadow of death that we find the most dazzling light. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). It is through tears that we perceive the Risen Lord most clearly, for he wears not the badges and medallions of pomp and circumstance, but his wounds reveal his rank as King of King and Lord of Lords.

He did not enter into glory through the power of wealth, nor the force of weapons wrought by human hands, nor through careful courtship of those who hold the reigns of the beast, but rather through suffering, through self-emptying self-humbling love, and through unwavering obedience to death, even death on the cross. It was costly obedience to his mission to let the light shine in the darkness and upon those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He entered his glory through tears and suffering, through obedience unto death, even death on the cross.

Are there any who weep this day? Your tears are welcome at the empty tomb, where the Risen Lord awaits you. Are there any who despair this day? Come and shed your tears at the empty tomb and greet the Risen Lord Are there any who are discouraged or lost or afraid or guilty or shamed or sick or jaded or wounded or alone? Follow the lighthouse straining to reach you; find your way through the night’s shadows to the empty tomb, and hear the gracious words, “Why do you weep,” as you turn to greet the surprising Risen Lord.

For your tears, your cries, your doubts and worries and wounds are all welcome in this garden, in this place, in the hour, on this day of new beginnings, of promises kept, of creation restored – on this day of resurrection power.

Because they came to the tomb, but the tomb was empty.

Sent to Reflect and Focus the Light
Mary Magdalene had braved the darkness – the piercing, engulfing darkness of grief and despair – and there she encountered the Risen Lord. Bending over with tearful eyes, she saw the tomb was empty and heard her Lord call her name, “Mary!” He led her through the shadows of fear to the other side of his radiant love and grace in the Garden of God’s New Creation.

That morning as Mary Magdalene stood weeping by the tomb, she knew that she could not bring light into her dark world. She knew she could not replace what had been extinguished, could not rebuild what had been broken on Good Friday. Instead, through her tears she found that the light still shines in the darkness – now even brighter than before, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Mary Magdalene became the first apostle of the Gospel – the first messenger of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. She was not the light and never could be, but she had been to the empty tomb, she had met the Risen Lord, and she was sent to focus that light, to reflect it, to magnify its glory and hope, to reveal its redeeming power over sin and death and all that exists in rebellion to God’s sovereign purposes working in love and peace. And it began with that message: “I have seen the Lord!”

Today we are all mirrors of the Light of the Resurrection. Today the tears we shed focus the light of Christ into the tombs of the world. Today we are all lenses – magnifying glasses of the Light of Christ – the light that has gone through the deepest darkness to win the new day, the light that burst forth from the tomb on Easter morning declaring the victory of love over fear, proclaiming the triumph of life over death, preaching the good news of peace above the racket of violence, announcing good news to the helpless and the hopeless and calling all who weep this day by name.

Today is the day of the Lord’s surprising high triumph, robbing sin of its power by taking its fury upon himself, conquering death by death, overcoming hatred and violence by enduring it. For today, God has raised Jesus from the grave! Today the tears of the faithful fall on the garden of hope! Today our Lord reigns in glory! Today the tomb is emptied of its dead! Today Jesus Christ lives, and the faithful rejoice! Today death is swallowed up in victory!

For Jesus Christ is highly exalted with the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. For we have seen the Lord! The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

Alleluia! Amen! Alleluia! Amen!

Notes:
1 Jonathan Kuttab, “Justice and Mercy: the Missing Ingredients in Christian Zionism” in Challenging Christian Zionism ed. Ateek, Duaybis, and Tobin, 166.

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