Monday, April 6, 2015

The Tomb is Empty - Easter Sermon

Copyright by Chris Mullis March 30, 2015
John 20:1-18

John 20:1-18
1Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. 12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

Opening
            We begin our conversation at a tomb.  A place where they keep dead people is not the happiest place to begin a conversation, but our text requires it, so here we are.  There are all different types of tombs.  You've seen them.  There is that old dilapidated graveyard with the weeds growing through the neglected and cracked tombstones.  There is that small, crowded cemetery at the old, country church.   There are the spacious, well maintained graves at the perpetual care cemetery.  There are those places where people of great fame lie buried in historic cemeteries.  I even read once about a pauper’s graveyard that was full of unmarked graves.  There is something mysterious about a tomb—something that awes us and commands deep respect.
            Once I visited a confederate civil war cemetery in Marietta.  It was a place of mysterious beauty.  The grounds were well maintained; but because of the sheer age of the graves, many of the tombstones were old and worn.  Some were very hard to read.  I walked slowly from one grave to another, reading the names of those who had been born, had lived, and died.  There was a great variety of lives represented—men, women, and (most strikingly) the graves of little children who may have only lived a short time.  In one section, about a hundred plain white markers were lined up in straight lines—as if in military formation.  These were the graves of a whole company of confederate soldiers who had given their lives in battle—fighting for what they believed.  In another place, there was a tall monument—about 5 feet tall, shaped like the Washington Monument.  At one time it must have been a regal headstone, but now it was old and rough and gray.  It was the marker of a prominent Marietta family.  The names of each of the family members were engraved on the front of the marker; the dates of death ranged through the early to mid-1800s.  A few feet from this old, worn monument lay four roughly hewn stones.  A sign on a post explained that these stones were the unmarked graves of four of the slaves that worked in the family home; some speculation was made as to what their names may have been.  I continued on, captivated by the memorials to the lives that had been lived and had ended—as life always does. 
            And of course, there are those familiar tombs, where we have buried our loved ones.  My Grandma and Grandpa lie side by side in a cemetery in Macon, GA.  They died six years apart.  I attended both their funerals.  I saw their coffins a few years apart standing poised above freshly dug graves, waiting to be lowered and covered.  I have visited their gravesites a few times.  I've read the simple, metal markers seated in the ground that honor their lives.  I have placed flowers on their graves in loving memory of them.  I have stood above their burial plots remembering their faces and the good times we shared. 
            There's an eerie aura that surrounds a cemetery.  Cemeteries are the setting for ghost stories.  I mean, who would want to visit a cemetery all alone in the dark?  Yet this is where we find Mary Magdalene in our passage from John.  


Movement One – Dark Sadness
It's still dark.  There is a chill on the air that cuts to the bone.  And here comes Mary, eyes swollen and red from grief, walking all alone down the path that leads to Jesus' tomb.  In John, it doesn't say why she came and before we can find out, she discovers that the stone—which was meant to keep the tomb securely locked—has been rolled away, leaving it wide open and unprotected.
The first thought that came to Mary's frantic mind was, "Oh no!  Someone's stolen the body!"  Can you imagine showing up to visit the grave of your loved one, only to discover that someone had dug up the body and stolen it? 
          Jesus was a famous man.  He'd worked many miracles.  He'd healed the sick, brought sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, even raised the dead.  Mary, herself, had seven demons driven out of her by Jesus.  Maybe someone had stolen the body, hoping to steal its power.  Or maybe some religious fanatic had stolen it, hoping to propagate the rumor that Jesus had risen—just as he said he would.  Or maybe some sick soul just wanted an exotic souvenir.  But Mary wasn't looking for any of those things.  She was just looking for the body of her beloved Jesus—her Lord, who just days before had been brutally murdered by the religious establishment.  She was looking for a sealed tomb, with a marker to remember the wonderful man she’d known, but what she found was and empty tomb and all she could think is, "They have taken the Lord's body out of the tomb, and I don't know where they have put him!"
          So she ran and told Peter and John.  Why she told Peter I don't know.  Maybe she didn't realize that just the other night he had adamantly denied even knowing Jesus.  But she told him nonetheless.  And Peter and the John ran to verify the news.  They even looked inside the tomb where the body had lain.  Sure enough, the body was gone.  Only the linen body wrappings remained—folded up neatly in the corner.  Didn't the thieves who stole the body realize that the linen shroud would be worth a lot of money? 
          Peter and John looked around, verified that the body was gone, and went back home.  The scripture said that the Messiah would rise.  They now knew that the body was indeed gone, but they hadn't put two and two together yet. 
          But poor Mary remained at the tomb.  Weeping for the dead.  They’d robbed her of her Lord.  Now they had even robbed her of his memorial.  How would she ever be able to get on with life, now that her beloved Jesus was gone?  She was so distraught that when she stooped and looked into the tomb, it didn't even register that she was speaking with white-robed angels.  

Why are you crying, Mary? 
The Sun is beginning to rise.  The tomb is empty and the stone is rolled away.
Why are you crying, Mary? 
The body is gone but the grave clothes are still here—for Christ has no need of earthly coverings!
Why are you crying, Mary, as though you've lost the one you love? 
Look, you don't even know you are speaking with angels!
Why are you crying, Mary?  Why are you looking for the living among the dead? 
You will not find the living in a tomb made to hold the dead!

Movement Two – Darkness to Light
          Mary is in such a spiritual fog, she doesn't even care that she's speaking with angels.  She can't recognize the truth that should be coming to light, just as the sun is beginning to rise above the horizon—bringing light to the world.    
          There's a funny thing about light in the gospel of John—it always has two meanings.  On the one hand, it is the physical characteristic that makes it possible to see.  But light also has a deeper meaning in John—it symbolizes the light of Christ:
8:12 Jesus said to the people, "I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won't be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life."

12:35 Jesus replied, "My light will shine out for you just a little while longer. Walk in it while you can, so you will not stumble when the darkness falls. If you walk in the darkness, you cannot see where you are going.

12:46 I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the darkness.

          In the same way, darkness has a metaphorical meaning in John.  Remember when Nicodemus approached Jesus in John chapter 3, trying to understand about being born again, he approached him at night.  When Judas left to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies in John 13:30, it says, "he immediately went out; and it was night."  The darkness of night in John represents more than just the absence of sunlight-S.U.N.  It represents the absence of the Son's Light-S.O.N.
          And when Mary Magdalene visited the tomb that first Easter morning, she visited, "early, while it was still dark…" And even as time wore on, though the sun may have begun to rise above the horizon, the darkness in her mind continued to cloud out the Light of Christ's Truth—he was not dead, there was no body to find.  Yet she was seeking a dead Jesus, not a risen Lord.

Why are you crying, Mary? 
The Sun is beginning to rise.  The tomb is empty and the stone is rolled away.
Why are you crying, Mary? 
The body is gone but the grave clothes are still here—for Christ has no need of earthly coverings!
Why are you crying, Mary, as though you've lost the one you love? 
Look, you don't even know you are speaking with angels!
Why are you crying, Mary?  Why are you looking for the living among the dead? 
You will not find the living in a tomb made to hold the dead!

Movement Three – He Calls My Name
          Mary was still lost in a dark fog of despair.  She didn't see the Truth; she didn’t recognize the angels; she didn't even recognize Jesus standing behind her.  From the shadowy entrance of the tomb, she mistook her Lord for the gardener.  Therefore, Christ called her out of the darkness by name, "Mary!"  He called her out of the darkness, just as he once called Lazarus out of the darkness of a tomb, "Lazarus, come out!"  You remember Lazarus.  At the sound of Christ's voice, Lazarus, dead for four days, came stumbling out of the tomb still wrapped in his grave clothes. 
          In the same way, when Christ called her by name, Mary came stumbling out of the darkness of the tomb and into the light—recognizing that her Lord was not dead, but alive!  Immediately, as he spoke her name, she knew that Christ her Savior had risen!  He took everything the evil of this world could dish out; he died on the cross, was buried in a cold dark tomb and yet, he rose from the dead and he is alive!  At his command, she ran as fast as she could to proclaim the Truth to the other disciples, "I have seen the Lord!"
          Often we are like Mary.  We get lost in the dark fog of despair.  We don’t recognize the Truth—even when it’s right there in front of us.  We grope around in the darkness and don’t see that Christ our risen Lord is right there with us.  But sometimes he calls to us—calling us out of the darkness, calling us by name.  Do you hear his voice calling?
          Christ is risen!  You will not find him in a tomb.  You will not find him among the dead.  He is not there.  He is here with us.  He is calling us by name.  John!  Bobby!  Scott!  He is calling us by name!  Do you recognize his voice?  Sara! Joanna!  Kaye!  Who are we looking for?  Are we looking for a body or are we looking for a Risen Savior?  We will not find the living among the dead!  Jack! Kelly!  David!  Turn around and recognize him in light of his resurrection!

Why are you crying? 
The Sun is beginning to rise.  The tomb is empty and the stone is rolled away.
Why are you crying? 
The body is gone but the grave clothes are still here—for Christ has no need of earthly coverings!
Why are you crying, as though you've lost the one you love? 
Look, you don't even know you are speaking with angels!
Why are you crying?  Why are you looking for the living among the dead? 
You will not find the living in a tomb made to hold the dead!

Closing
          Christ is alive!  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."  He offers this eternal life to you.  You need not stumble along in the darkness anymore.  Turn to the Light.  Recognize the risen Savior.  Believe in him and be saved.  For this is the glorious message of Easter Sunday!