Easter Starts In The Dark

John 20.1

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

It feels good to say that word! We’ve been avoiding it for an entire liturgical season. It has not hit my lips since before Ash Wednesday. And even in the church we have not used the word in a hymn, in a prayer, or even had it in a bulletin. 

And today we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been bottling up over the last 40 days!

Hallelujah! He is risen!

But then I wonder, should we be so bold with a proclamation such as that this early in the morning? Do you feel that joyful right now? What do you think people are thinking when they drive by and see a group of people outside in the dark on a Sunday morning like this?

The Bible is full of stuff. 

Want to know about an obscure law that guided the Hebrew people 3,000 years ago? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Noah planted in the ground after being in the ark for 40 days and forty nights? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Jesus’ final words were right before he died? The Bible’s got it.

But, interestingly, the Bible is relatively silent about what happens between the burial of Jesus on Friday and the visit to the tomb on Sunday morning. We don’t really know what the disciples were up to after Jesus was taken down from the cross. We are not privy to any of their conversations or murmurings.

This sunrise service plants us squarely in that strange mystery. 

We walk with the women on their way to the tomb.

We fear with the disciples back in the upper room.

The darkness is a time for wonder.

What will the day bring? We do not know, we only know that it is coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so we read from the gospel according to John that on the first day of the week, on Sunday, while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb and saw the stone had been removed.

Why does she go to the tomb?

The other gospels stories write about the women, not just Mary by herself, go to the tomb to anoint the body of the Lord. But in John’s version, Mary goes alone and we know not why.

Why do any of us go to cemeteries? 

Sometimes we go because we don’t know where else to go, we don’t know what else to do. That’s the decisive power of death – it robs us of our rationality.

When the rug is pulled from beneath our feet we do things without knowing why we do them. 

What is Mary thinking about as she trudges along the path? Is she remembering the day that Jesus saved her from being stoned? Is she thinking about what he looked like while he was dragging the cross up to Golgotha? Does she talk to herself in attempts to calm down the grief?

We know little more about Mary’s morning other than the fact that it was dark when she arrived at the tomb.

Perhaps we are encouraged to wonder about her wonder in the dark.

Darkness and lightness are prevailing themes in John’s gospel. At the very beginning we learn that Jesus is the incarnate light comes to shine in the darkness. 

Nicodemus comes under the cover of the night so that no one would will see him with Jesus.

Jesus warns the disciples and the crowds about those who love the darkness.

And Jesus himself declares, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

And yet this most pivotal of moments in the gospels takes place not in the light of the day, but under the cover of darkness.

A few years ago I was asked to preach at a sunrise service on behalf of all the United Methodist in the city of Staunton, Va. Sunrise services, as you well know, are only for the really faithful people so instead of each church having a small gathering we decided to get all 8 churches together. The tradition started a number of years ago but we always met in one of the church’s parking lots.

Which, if I may be honest, drove me crazy.

If Sunrise services are to happen anywhere, they should be observed in cemeteries.

They should take place among the dead. 

Anyway, after years of fruitless complaining, the churches finally gave in and agreed that we could have our sunrise service in the town cemetery. I promptly put my blood, sweat, and tears into that sunrise service because I finally got my way, and sure enough when the day of Easter arrived and the sun began to ever-so-slightly approach the horizon we had over 150 people standing among the gravestones singing about the resurrection of our Lord.

And, as it happened, I was about halfway through my sermon when I noticed something strange: I saw lots of people from the other churches in town, but no one from my church was in the cemetery. 

I kept going, trying to keep my focus in check, and finished the service with as grand of a benediction as I could muster and sent everyone to their respective churches for the rest of their Easter services.

I drove into town, still dressed in my Sunday robe, and couldn’t shake the fact that none of my people were there. I know I had made plenty of announcements about it from the pulpit, I had printed the information in the bulletin, and yet no one showed up.

A few hours later, with the sun high in the sky, I greeted everyone as they made their way into the sanctuary for Easter worship, trying my best to not think about what had happened in the darkness when a group of church people all walked up laughing.

“You’re never going to believe what happened to us this morning?” They said.

“What happened to you?” I thought to myself, “What about what happened to me!?”

I motioned for them to go on and one of them said, “We went to the wrong cemetery!”

Under the cover of darkness, a faithful group from my church met in the parking lot to drive over to the cemetery as a carpool. And when they arrived at the wrong cemetery, they kept driving around wondering where everyone was until they saw a very small group of people huddled together near the top of the hill. They quickly parked their cars and ran up to the group and joined together in the singing of hymns. 

The group from my church nearly tripled the number of people at that sunrise service and it was only when a much older woman stepped forward to preach did they realize they had gone to the wrong place. 

But they were good and faithful Christians, so they stayed and they listened to the resurrection story. They let it fill their souls and they offered up all their Hallelujahs.

When their service came to a conclusion the female pastor walked up to the group and asked how they found out about their Sunrise service. She told them that it filled her with such tremendous warmth to know that so many people had come. To which one of my people told her that God works in mysterious ways.

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New life always starts in the dark. Whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb. New life starts in the dark.

The resurrection happened at night. No one was there when it happened. By the time Mary arrived Jesus was already gone. He arose from the kingdom and dominion of sin and death into the victory of life and resurrection. By the time the sun rose on the tomb all it revealed was that the victory had already taken place. 

Some of the best, and most important things in the world take place without us having to do anything. That is a strange and troubling word to a people who constantly feel as if they’re never doing enough.

The message of Easter, of the mystery in the darkness, is that the resurrection happens without us. We are only witnesses. But that’s good enough. Amen.

Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

Mark 16.1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 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.

I was hiding in the tomb for what felt like hours, but in reality it had only been 30 minutes, on Easter Sunday more than a decade ago. It was the church’s Easter Sunrise service, out on the lawn, much like ours, though we had a fake tomb, with a fake stone, around which everyone had gathered.

I arrived particularly early that morning because it was my job to dress like an angel and hide in the tomb until the right moment, in which I would break down the stone and declare the resurrection of Jesus. The pastor and I had concocted this plan together, and nobody else knew.

So there I sat crumpled up in the corner while failing to keep my wings nice and clean. I hadn’t anticipated the walls being so think which made it difficult to hear the pastor, and more importantly to hear the keyword that would be my signal.

When he said something approximate to what we had agreed upon, I turned on the fog machine. You know, we wanted to create the right sort of atmosphere. But I was in a very small and tight space, and the space filled with smoke far sooner than I had anticipated, and I misheard the pastor and he was not yet ready for the theatrics.

So I did what anyone would have done, I tried to keep quiet. But the more the smoke billowed around me, the more I felt the need to cough until I could no longer hold it in, and like a drunken fool I kicked down the stone blocking the entrance, and fell into the mud, while hacking up a lung.

While the smoke dissipated, I took in the scene around me. The sun was just peaking above the tree line, a few dozen dedicated Christians were huddled together for warmth, the pastor was standing off to the side with his sermon in his hands, and all eyes were on me. I don’t know quite what I looked like, but I’m sure I looked more like a vagrant who slept in the tomb overnight than an angel prepared to make the greatest declaration in the history of the world.

For a few moments of silence I panicked – I was supposed to offer a brief monologue pertinent for the occasion, but I couldn’t remember any of it. So I just stammered something like, “He’s alive!” And then I ran.

If anyone left that day feeling anything but bewilderment, I’m sure they were afraid.

Much has been made about the women fleeing from the tomb in fear. Some say that the gospel writer did not intend to end the story this way but that he either died mid sentence, or the page was ripped at this exact place. Others have remarked that many people fear the divine in the bible, and the women are just living into the reality of what it’s like encountering something greater than yourself.

We don’t know exactly. All we know is that they left in fear.

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But why fear? For many of us, fear is the last thing we think about on Easter. Instead Easter is about the lilies, and the eggs, and the giant bunny. Easter is about color coordinated children, and big lunches, and the good ‘ol hymns. You know, like Christ The Lord Is Risen Today, and In The Garden. Those hymns are about joy and hope and praise and glory. Nothing about fear.

But the little we know of the first Easter, is that the very first people to experience news of the resurrection responded in terror.

We are told that in life there are only two truths: death and taxes. And if we’re honest, both of those truths scare us. Jesus tells us what to do about taxes – give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But death, death is still an absolute. Or at least it was until Easter.

And that’s why the women are afraid.

If Jesus, the one crucified by colluding governmental and religious leaders, the one who had been crushed by the forces of evil, if this Jesus was now raised from the dead, now vindicated by the mighty act of God to bring new life, if God stepped in and reversed all of time and history, then the women at the tomb knew enough to know that everything in the world had been turned upside down, and that nothing would ever be the same again.

If the one truth you knew to be true was no longer true, how do you think you’d respond?

When you take the time to think about it, being met by a man who was once dead is a truly frightening proposition. It seems more like a horror movie than a polite Sunday sermon.

If Jesus was beaten, crucified, dead, buried and nothing more, then the world is right: Evil is all powerful. Violence wins. All life concludes in cemeteries.

But if Jesus is raised, if the tomb is empty, if God has the final Word, then there is reason for the women to run in fear, there is reason for all of us to be afraid. God is on the move! Everything about what we think we know to be true is wrong. He’s alive!

The frightening truth about the resurrection is that we, like the women that first Easter, will not leave the same as we arrived. Every Easter we are confronted by the scary truth: God really is in control.

That’s a frightening thing to accept because in the resurrection we discover God’s truth; that our dependence on all sorts of earthly things mean nothing. Life, beauty, security, wealth, power, our careers, property, even our families – they pale in comparison to the promise of the empty tomb.

Everything has been made new!

It is good and right for us to be here in this space at this time to celebrate Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I love worshipping in the sanctuary, but here, right now, we are participating in an even deeper truth. Jesus’ resurrection happened in the dark, when no one was around. Jesus was given new life in the tomb just like he received life in his mother’s womb. It happened in the scary mystery of darkness.

Easter was, is, and forever shall be the height of joy, it is God’s love and majesty made manifest in a new reality. Death has been defeated. We have reason to celebrate.

            But Easter is also a reminder that God has inaugurated a strange new world, one in which all of our priorities have been flipped upside down.

So the question remains: Are we afraid? If not, then perhaps we should be. Amen.