WHILE IT WAS STILL DARK
TEXT: John 20:1-18
For those of us who practice Christian faith, the resurrection is the central, monumental event of history. Whether you’re the type of Christian that looks at it as historical reality or the type of Christian that sees it as a story of only spiritual truth, for all of us, the message of resurrection is the absolute center.
Of course it was the central message for the disciples as well, and the story is recorded in all four of the Gospels. But to say that all four report it is not to say that all four tell it the same way. The Gospel of John has a number of differences, and one of those in particular I think is helpful to think about.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that some variety of persons went to the tomb early on the first day of the week. Matthew and Luke say it was at dawn, Mark says it was early but notes “when the sun had risen.” John alone notes that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, “while it was still dark.” Now, if you’re really worried about that sort of thing you can say that Mary went before dawn and others came later, but I think you’d be missing the point.
Of all the Gospel writers, John is the philosopher. John’s Gospel is highly symbolic and multi-layered. It almost never means only what the words on the page say. There are symbolic themes that run throughout. John’s Gospel was written much later than the other three, and there are those who say that it was meant as a commentary on the other three…the Matthew, Mark, and Luke will tell you what happened and John will tell you what it all means.
One of the key themes that runs through the Gospel of John is the theme of light and dark. It is introduced in the very first paragraph of the Gospel. John 1:3-5 reads, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
After setting that up in the first paragraph, I don’t think it’s any accident that we have the light/dark theme appearing here at the end. I don’t think that John forgot whether the sun was up yet, and I don’t think it’s a mere historical rendering of when May showed up at the tomb. When Mark says it’s dark, he means you can’t see. When John says it’s dark, he means much more than physical darkness.
The last time we saw Mary Magdalene in John’s Gospel, she was standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus died. Now if you want to talk about whether Jesus and Mary were married, you’ll have to come to the class on the DaVinci Code I’m doing in May, but it’s clear that they were very close. She’s there at the cross with Jesus’ mother, Jesus’ aunt, and John. She’s the first one to the tomb and the first to see Jesus after his resurrection. She’s not on the fringe of Jesus’ followers, which means that for Mary, as much as for any of Jesus’ other disciples, the days have been dark indeed.
She was there at the darkest of them. She watched him die…horribly, brutally, as a criminal. That’s about as dark as it gets in a soul. And when she comes to the tomb on that first day of the week, it is still dark. She is still deep in the grief and horror and disbelief of what has happened. The sun could have been shining brightly…doesn’t matter. For her it is dark, dark, dark.
But John wants to say more than indicating that Mary hasn’t had a very good weekend. His theme from the beginning is that Jesus is the light of the world, and no amount of darkness can snuff that out. What he is showing, I think, is how Mary lives out that hope and what happens as a result.
What’s interesting to me is that not one of the Gospels tells us of the actual resurrection. Nobody records blinding flashes of light, earthquakes, visions, glowing rocks…nothing. What they report is the discovery of an empty tomb…nobody tells about the event itself. Here is this huge, central event and nobody but nobody sees it. Even though Jesus’ birth was ignored by the masses, there were still angels singing to shepherds, signs in the night sky that foreign astrologers could read, and a king mad enough about a possible usurper to the throne that he orders a massacre of children. But nobody at all gets tipped off about the resurrection in any of the stories. It happened sometime in the night…while it was still dark…and nobody knew until Mary went and looked.
Spiritually, this is our hope. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some very dark times in my life. And when it’s dark and you can’t see what’s going on around you because there’s too much grief and pain and doubt, that’s the time we’re tempted to ditch God and maybe even our own God-given lives…believing that God’s not ever going to do anything or help us, believing that God doesn’t give a flip about what happens to us. It’s easy to just pull the covers over our heads and give up.
But Mary has something to teach us in those times. She went to the tomb while it was still dark. Despite her terrible grief and probable fear, Mary got up and did something. She went to the last place she knew Jesus was. Even though it was his tomb and she knew darn well he was dead…she had watched it…she went. As useless as it was, she needed to be where Jesus was to give her comfort in the dark.
Mary shows us what faithfulness in the dark looks like. When our prayers just seem to hit the ceiling and fall back down on our heads, we go to pray anyway. When reading the Bible is just so many words on a page, we read anyway. When church seems to be just going through the motions with a bunch of hypocrites, we go anyway. We go to the tomb…the place where we last saw him…while it is still dark.
And then comes that time when we discover that God has been at work…even in the darkness. It wasn’t in the papers or on the news. Nobody saw it happen, but things are different. The tomb that we expected to stink with rotting flesh has been swept clean. There’s panic…what has happened? Is this the other shoe dropping? Is something worse now adding to our dark misery?
Mary panicked and ran to get Peter and John. They came running and saw the empty tomb. Then they went back home. But not Mary. Again, she stuck it out. If it was worse…so be it…if they had stolen the body, she would find it. Mary is not afraid of the dark. She is determined that she will find Jesus in it. And in her faithfulness, the scene again shifts. Again she goes into the tomb and this time there are angels. She turns around and there is someone else…the gardener maybe…but as the gardener speaks her name, the light dawns and she can finally see. It is Jesus. He is risen. Her tears vanish. Her prayers are answered and she goes out in joy as the first evangelist to tell the others the news.
And it all happened to her because she was faithful while it was still dark. No matter how bleak and completely impossible the situation looked, she went back to be with Jesus. Even when he wasn’t there, she stayed, unwilling to take his absence as an answer. And Easter dawned.
Of course the resurrection had already happened in the night. But the reality of the resurrection didn’t make the slightest difference in Mary’s grief until she screwed up the courage to go out into the dark and face whatever was there.
Christian life is like that. We meet Jesus at some point…some earlier, some later. We enjoy life with him…the food he provides, the healing, the teaching, the acceptance of us as we are. But then there comes a time when it all seems to go up in smoke. We question everything. Our spiritual lives are dry. Life hits us hard and Jesus seems dead and helpless. There’s no point, we think. It’s over. He wasn’t what I thought he was. He can’t save me after all…he couldn’t even save himself. Darkness descends.
In those times, listen to the witness of Mary. So what? He is my Lord, dead or alive. If a tomb is where I must go to be with him, then that’s where I’ll go. And you go and you weep and you fear it has gotten even worse. But then…out of the dark…someone calls your name. And you know it…you know the voice. He is alive! The stone is rolled away. The dawn has come. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. It cannot overcome it. It never has and never will. Life and light make the whole world new.
But that Easter experience comes from being faithful in the dark. Thomas, one of the other disciples, heard the news, but there was still no Easter for him. He didn’t believe it. He didn’t really believe that the darkness could not overcome the light. Easter didn’t come for Thomas until a week later when Jesus showed up and allowed this man we’ve come to call “doubting Thomas” to stick his fingers in Jesus’ wounds. Only then does Thomas acknowledge the reality of Easter. Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
And what about you? Is it still dark in your life? Dark times come to everyone…even to Jesus. Darkness is not a sign that you have no faith. Darkness is the opportunity to show your faith as Mary did. Darkness is the time to get up and face those fears head on…to go to the tomb. It is the time to recognize that Easter happened in the dark. When everybody was depressed and thought the work of God was a sham, God was doing the greatest work of all.
So get up…go to the tomb. It’s empty! He is alive, and if you stick it out, he will speak your name. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. What about you? Who are you in this story? Are you Peter and John, who come running to see and then just go back home without having met Jesus? Are you Thomas, who simply refuses to believe the news? Are you Mary, who refuses to let Jesus get away from her and is the first to know the joy of Easter morning?
God’s action was the same for all of them. The resurrection happened and was there for any of them to experience. It wasn’t the actions of Jesus that were different, it was the response of Jesus’ followers that determined whether the joy of Easter came early or late.
He is alive. The darkness has vanished. The stone is rolled away. What are you going to do about it? Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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