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The Rev. Dr. William L. Self The Rev. Dr. William L. Self

The late Rev. Dr. Bill Self was a masterful preacher, a prominent Baptist leader, and a leader in the Alliance for Christian Media.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship


While It Was Still Dark

John 20:1-18

Easter - Year C

March 31, 2013

Early one morning I was reading this text preparing myself for this sermon and there it was; I could not get beyond it. It demanded that I address it in the sermon. I had read this text all my life, but it had never captured my attention in the past. The words were demanding my attention. The text tells the story of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb of Jesus early on the first day of the week, and then the text says, "While it was still dark..." I know it was in all likelihood meant by John to be only a reference to the time of day, but for me it opened my imagination to a deeper understanding of the text.

Mary had been with Jesus all the way. She had seen lives made new, bodies healed, and eyes opened. She had heard the complaining of the disciples and the criticism of the religious leaders. She saw how the crowds adored him and the rulers hated him. She stood under the cross as they killed him, and her heart was broken. She had seen the adoration of the people when they entered the city on Sunday and their hostility when they stood before Pilate at the end of the week. Now it was all over. She may have thought, "The least I can do is anoint the body with spices. Everyone deserves a proper burial. Her heart was heavy and in her soul, "...it was still dark."

That empty, forlorn feeling is perhaps like the feeling that political campaign workers have when their candidate has lost. Someone has to go back to the office and pack up the stuff. Or a football team that has been eliminated in the playoffs. Their season is over...no Super Bowl for them. The only thing to do is to clean out the lockers and head home.

What will we do now? Peter and the others could go fishing; they could start their businesses again. Perhaps we could have a reunion in a couple of years and talk about old times. About the only thing she could think of was perhaps starting a memorial society for a dead Galilean preacher. Sadness, disappointment, and emptiness had been her companions since Friday. It had been a good three-year run, but now it was over.

Let's face it. We all have our days when we stand with our dreams in shambles around our feet. Our children go astray. We get the pink slip from our employer, or worse still, the test comes back from the lab as positive. This happens to good people as well as to those who haven't been so good. "Why me, Lord?" I go to church with regularity. I'm even secretary of my Sunday School class. My life was going so well and now this darkness. 

What we must all learn, and it is a very difficult lesson, is that it is easy to believe in the sunlight but very difficult to believe in the darkness. It is easy to believe when life is good, but when it turns sour the natural inclination is to feel rejected or guilty. Anyone can walk in the sunshine; only the faithful can walk in the dark. In fact, if you have blood in your veins and skin on your bones, you will have some darkness. No one has all sunshine. Remember all sunshine produces a desert, not a garden.

However, a close examination of the text reveals something helpful. When it was yet dark...God was at work in her behalf. He was making a way where there was no way. Have no doubt about it, when things get tough--and they will--it does not mean that God has abandoned you. When the darkness comes upon you, God is still working in your behalf. She didn't leave Jesus or deny him. She remained faithful to him while waiting for the light.

Winston Churchill was invited to speak to a boys' school in England during the most difficult days of World War II. He simply said these words, "Never give up, never give up, never, never, never." After this he sat down. When it was reported in the papers, it became the mantra for the British people during the darkest days of the war.

I have been a pastor long enough to know that there is a heartache on every pew and that most of us suffer in silence. No one is immune to heartache. Rich or poor, we all carry our own bag of rocks.

Let's be real about the issue we face. The elephant in the room is death. It haunts us all. That is why we watch our weight, exercise, take our vitamins, and see our doctors with some regularity. We are running from death.

I like Leo Tolstoy's story about the ever present threat of death. I paraphrase:

A man was running from a bear, and to get away from it he jumped down a dry well, and he clings to a small tree growing between the bricks on the side, only to look down and see a lion at the bottom of the well waiting for him. And when he looked to the top of the well, he saw a bear trying to reach him. As he hangs there by the small tree, knowing he cannot stay there forever, he sees a rat crawling out on the limb he was hanging onto, and the rat begins to gnaw at the limb.

Death is a fact of life and we must face it. We can't in good conscience deny it as some would have us do. Easter and the Christian faith have no life apart from the resurrection. You may be in the darkness on this Easter morning; don't feel alone or abandoned. You have not been abandoned by God.

Let's examine John's witness to the resurrection and experience its meaning for our lives. All accounts agree that Mary Magdalene was the first of the followers of Jesus to go to the tomb. The other three gospels mention that she was accompanied by other women. It only is hinted at in this gospel. But the mention of darkness in this account is a part of John's approach to show that the resurrection is a great light breaking in upon the dark world. He plays darkness contrasted with light throughout his gospel. When Mary arrives at the tomb, much to her distress she finds it empty and presumes that the body had been removed. Tomb robbery was not uncommon. She runs to the disciples with the disturbing news that the body was missing. One can only tell what one knows.

The focus now shifts to Peter and the other disciples--the Beloved Disciple and their foot race to the tomb. The Beloved Disciple, presumed to be John, pauses at the door of the tomb while Peter barges in. The tomb was empty; and the gospel notes that when the Beloved Disciple does enter the tomb, he saw and believed.

The emphasis now shifts back to Mary. Still weeping, she saw the grave clothes and realized that the powers of heaven had been at work. She sees two angels; they were presumably sitting where Jesus' body had been. She is not frightened and they inform her of the good news. While she was speaking, Christ suddenly appears behind her. She sees the object of her concern, but does not recognize him. Jesus comes to her with great love and gentleness.

We need to realize that in our most difficult situations God is working in our behalf even if we do not know it at the time. He is working to bring light and to dispel our dark situations. The good news is not only that Jesus was raised from the tomb, but the character of God is revealed in Jesus. He is light and he is also love.

The angels used this as the perfect opportunity to proclaim the good news, but they were interrupted by Jesus himself. When Mary recognizes who he is, she calls him by the name she has used for him: Teacher, Rabboni.

In her darkness she is ministered to, and her life goes in a different direction when Jesus calls her to go and tell the brethren. Note that his first command as the resurrected Christ is to tell a woman to go preach to his disciples. She becomes an apostle to the disciples.

What was she to proclaim? She was to proclaim that Jesus was alive. He had been resurrected. Death was dead. Death had been defeated. The elephant in the room had been killed. No longer must we live in darkness. The light had come. God in Jesus had defeated sin and death.

Where we in the past had done everything to hide from death, she is told to proclaim the cure for death, the resurrection of Christ. We try to camouflage death, artificial grass at the cemetery, slumber rooms for the deceased to make it appear that they are not dead but merely sleeping. We put makeup on the corpse in preparing it for the viewing. But none of this hides the fact of death, nor the fear of death from us. We deny death with our language too. We do not die; we pass away. We do not die; we cross over. We do not die; we enter our eternal rest. We do not die; we are promoted to the church triumphant. And on it goes.

With Jesus, who by his resurrection has defeated death, we no longer have to avoid death, for with the resurrection of Jesus, Death is deadIn the words of John Donne, "Death be not proud...thou has died." This is the uniqueness to the faith we bear witness to as Christians.

Arnold Toynbee, the noted historian, in his Study of History VII noted some parallels between Jesus and other so-called saviors. Thirty-seven of those who claim to be the savior died after a trial, but that was all. No hint of resurrection. There is no hint even in Greek mythology of a resurrection. In short, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a distinct event in history without parallel. Mohamed is dead, the Greek gods have vanished, the Roman gods are gone, statesmen, politicians, and philosophers have lost their control over our lives. Nothing could pierce her darkness, not grave clothes or the singing angels. But when Jesus calls her name, she responds. 

God is piercing her darkness and ours. He not only ministers to her with comforting angels, he calls her into usefulness. Go and tell the apostles. The dispelling of our darkness demands that we tell others in order to complete the cure.

As believers, we have difficulty acknowledging that the same power that rolled away the stone that covered the mouth of the cave where Jesus was buried can roll away the stones that have plagued our lives. The power of the resurrection will dispel our darkness and enable us to live resurrection, empowered lives.

I like the words of Flannery O'Connor in a Good Man is Hard to Find. She has her character say, "He thrown everything off balance. If he did what he say he did, there's nothing for you to do but to throw away everything and follow him. If he didn't, then enjoy the minutes you have left the best you can."

Christ the Lord is risen today.  Alleluia. Alleluia.

 


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