Darkness - Easter 2018

John 20:1-9

There is something about the night that makes things worse. Streets you have no problem walking down during the day take on a different atmosphere in the dark. Buildings, like this one, which seem cozy during the day, take on a different feel once the sun sets and you begin to notice all of the creeks and noises. When I was little, we would go visit my grandparents who lived in the country. During the day we ran through the fields and woods on their farm, but when the night came we tended to stay under the safe warm glow of the porch light. Even stories seem a bit more terrifying in the dark. I mean who tells a ghost story on a bright, beautiful, sunny day? Or what ghost story starts with the line, there I was surrounded by sunlight.

Darkness is a pretty remarkable thing. God uses the image of darkness and light all throughout His story. Luke tells one of those darkness stories. Jesus and His disciples are at the Mount of Olives, a place they had been many times before. But this time is different, the sun has given way to the darkness of night. The only light they had to illuminate the garden was what light the moon offered them. So, Jesus and His disciples had gone to the garden to pray under a blanket of darkness. In the light this was a safe place, a place where they could gather and relax under the shade of the trees and spend time talking about life, about their hopes and dreams for what the future would hold. But now it was different, it felt different. Now there was a darkness, not just in the atmosphere, but in their souls as well. 

The darkness would soon be interrupted, not by the warmth of a campfire, or the sun breaking through, but from a crowd who had come with swords and torches. Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” …  Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour–when darkness reigns.”  (Luke 22:47-53)

Darkness reigns are the most defeating words in all of humanity. Darkness is not supposed to win, the light is supposed to win. The guy wearing the white hat has to be victorious, there has to be a hero, we long for and they lived happily ever after. But in the darkness there is no happily ever after, in the darkness we truly believe that things cannot get any worse. In the light we had hope, in the light we could see our way, but now darkness has taken over. Now the darkness has taken our hopes and dreams as well as our King.

Unfortunately, Luke tells another story about the dark. It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23:44-46)

There in the dark, life seems hopeless. There in the dark you begin to question, your mind begins to race about all that you have lost. There were only a few disciples at the cross, John and a few women. Matthew tells us that in the darkness of the garden, all the disciples deserted him and fled. (Matthew 26:56) Not only is darkness reigning, but they are also isolated, and alone. 

In the darkness we feel the pain of separation. It is in the darkness that our eyes are red and swollen from the weeping and inability to find sleep. It is in the dark that we grope around looking for something concrete to hold on to, something that will give us a glimmer of hope. It is in the dark that Mary comes to the tomb where she believes her worst nightmare has come true and she enters a whole new world of terror. Because things always look worse in the dark.

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. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved… (John 20:1-2)

It was still dark when Mary approached the tomb. Maybe John is just telling us about the weather conditions, or just maybe John is talking about much more than the fact that the sun hadn’t risen yet. Maybe, John is talking about the condition of her heart; it’s not only physically dark; it is emotionally dark as well. When she had met Jesus, she was enslaved by 7 demons, but the darkness she feels now is much heaver, much thicker. This is the darkest time of her life.  For two long days, emotional darkness filled the hearts and lives of all the little weeping group of disciples. And now three days later Mary comes out to the tomb still in darkness.

It’s not that Mary didn’t believe in resurrections, she had seen or at least heard about someone coming back from the grave. She knew the stories of Lazarus, the Widow of Nain’s son, and the daughter of Jarius. But when you are in the darkness it’s hard to see what you know is true. Mary was living in her darkness and in the darkness when a person died they were dead; it was permanent. Even though she knew those stories, there was no room in her world to find hope. In the darkness she would tell you that people didn’t raise from the dead, so Jesus couldn’t have risen from the grave. So that morning when Mary returns to the tomb she went there looking for a dead Jesus, not for a living one.

For the moment, the empty tomb is simply another twist of the knife. Chaos upon chaos. She had come to the tomb to bring spices to anoint the body of Christ so that He could have a proper burial. Or maybe she was there just to cry, or more than likely she had nowhere else to go. On this morning, in the darkness nothing else mattered and she believed that nothing else would ever matter.

The darkness Mary was feeling became darker when she discovered that the body of Jesus was missing. When she arrived, the stone had been moved. The soldiers were gone and so was the body of Jesus. Mary had lost the most valuable relationship in her life; she had lost Jesus.

Someone's taken Him away. Was it the gardener, or a soldier, or some servant. Is this some kind of sick joke? In her darkness she runs back into the city, back to Peter hiding in his own darkness, back to John who stood at the foot of the cross by her side, but who was now standing in his own darkness. 

Peter and John run to the tomb. Whatever darkness they feel, is compounded when they hear the news that someone had taken the body, someone had rolled the stone away. The fear that had caused Peter to announce hours earlier that he would fight for Jesus, then caused him to deny Jesus, now has him running to the tomb of Jesus. 

John arrives first and his fears are confirmed. Mary was telling the truth; the stone was rolled away. He looked in the tomb to see if just maybe there would be a glimmer of hope, maybe the body was still there. But for a moment try to sense the dread, the darkness, as he realizes the tomb is empty. But there is something off, the body is not just gone they left the linen wrappings lying there. Someone has not only taken the body; they went through all of the trouble to unwrap it. Why on earth would you do that? The darkness grows thicker.

Peter is older and slower. He finally arrives at the tomb and rushes right in. He saw what John had seen before him, the body is gone and the burial wrappings are there. But he notices something that John cannot see from outside the tomb, the cloth that had been around Jesus' head, isn't with the others. It's in a place by itself. Peter thinks that not only did someone go through the trouble to unwrap the body, they laid the wrapping out to create an effect, like a collapsed balloon when the air has gone out of it. It looks as though the body wasn't moved, it had just disappeared.

John steps into the tomb and a sliver of light begins to break through the darkness. If someone took the body, it would have been to much trouble to unwrap it first. John thinks maybe, just maybe. Do you remember how it felt when you finally felt the rain at the end of a long drought. You have longed for this to be true, wished and hoped for this moment and then all of the sudden you feel that first drop and you begin to wonder if what you felt was real? Could it be?

John had faith before, he spent three years with Jesus, he saw the miracles, the transfiguration, heard the parables and the sermons. He was at the table a few days before, he had faith; but this was different. The text says that He saw, and believed. He believed that once again God had stepped into the darkness and called for light. Jesus was alive again. But not everyone was out of their darkness. Peter and John go home and leave Mary in the garden, by the tomb.

Going back to the text: Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. 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. “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.” (John 20:11-13)

For a moment can we just stand here with Mary in her darkness? Can we acknowledge her fear and her tears? We understand tears, they have their own redemptive flow and rhythm. We understand fear, the way that it makes our hearts beat faster and our breath grow shallow. We understand, more than we would like to admit, the darkness that Mary is experiencing. Because we have experienced it as well. We have had our own darkness, we have struggled with God and our faith. We have wondered if God would do what He claims to do, if He really loves me. We understand that God could do a miraculous thing in someone else life, that He would love someone else, but we have our own darkness and our own chaos. Other people have slivers of light that break through their darkness, but we are surrounded and drowning.

There in the darkness Mary dares to look into the tomb and she sees two men. There is no flaming sword, no golden halo, no mighty wings, just two men dressed in white sitting on the stone where they had laid the broken body of Christ. Mary is so enveloped by her pain she doesn’t ask the questions I would ask: Where did you come from? Did John and Peter see you? What are you doing here? All she can do is stand there and gaze into the place where hours earlier the body of Jesus was placed in burial. 

The men speak first, Why are you crying? To them it seems like a very logical question. Why are you here? Why are you sad? Don’t you believe what Jesus said to you before His crucifixion? But Mary didn’t understand the question, and she didn’t understand the resurrection. Maybe these men took the body, maybe they know who took the body, maybe they know where the body is. Mary is still lost in her darkness, the only thing she can see is her pain, her loss, and her tears.     

In my mind it is her pain, her darkness, that causes her to turn away. Maybe she had every intention of running away from the tomb, trying to run away from her pain. She didn’t have a plan, her destination was to merely get away. But God had something else in mind for her.

She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. “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.” Jesus said to her: “Mary!” (John 20:14-16)

Have you ever been looking for something, maybe for a while, and couldn’t find it only to have someone come right in and find it in the same place you had been looking? Mary went to the tomb looking for Jesus, but in her darkness and grief she could not recognize when Jesus found her. Jesus asks the same question the angles asked, Why are you crying? But unlike the angels Jesus already knew. Jesus had experienced the human condition of sorrow and pain. A few days before Jesus had been in His own darkness, when He cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me.” He is not questioning her for information, He is using these questions to draw her close so that He can provide her a way out of her darkness.

Mary is completely blinded to the fact that it is Jesus in front of her. Assuming He was the gardner, assuming that maybe if it were not the two men in the tomb, maybe it was the gardner who moved the body. Maybe it was a mistake, so if you can just tell me where you put the body I will go get it, I’ll put it back. And then like the breaking of the sun through a starless night, Jesus calls her by name. When Jesus calls her name it is not a rebuke or a condemnation, it is a greeting … no it was an invitation.

When Jesus said her name, She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” When Jesus said her name the darkness was lifted. The onslaught of light that happened in that garden, by that tomb, was the greatest introduction of light the world had known since God first spoke those beautiful words in Genesis 1, Let there be light. This is Mary’s Let there be light moment. Jesus who was light, who is light, and who will forever be light has broken through the darkness. That morning in the darkness of the garden Light had won. The darkness was no match for the light of God.

The darkness cannot hide our hope or our joy. It might obscure our view, it might dim the light for a moment, but the light always breaks through. The light has come into our darkness and taken away our fear, taken away our heartache, taken away our insecurities. Because when Jesus appeared to Mary in that garden, He delivered on His promise that He is the light of the world (John 8:12).

I am a resurrectionist by nature. I am not fond of the cross, I am thankful for what Jesus accomplished at the cross, I am grateful that Jesus sacrificed His life for my selfishness. But I find my hope at the empty tomb. It is because of the empty tomb that we have hope of eternal life with Christ. It is because of the empty tomb that we can endure here for a little longer, endure the pain, heartache, and our own darkness. It is because of the empty tomb that cancer, heart attacks, strokes, or any other kind of sickness will never win. I know in the darkness we lose sight of eternity. I know when we are in our darkness it looks like we are defeated. But we must remember that because of the empty tomb that we have the promise of hope, love, peace, and eternal life.

This morning Jesus is standing by the empty tomb calling your name. The same invitation He made to Mary is the same invitation He makes to you. Today Jesus wants to come into your darkness and bring light. Whatever you have done to create your darkness was dealt with at the cross. Today you are invited to come into the light. If you can believe what John believed at the empty tomb, what Mary believed at the empty tomb, that Jesus is our resurrected Lord and Savior, that He is alive, then He will come into your darkness as your eternal light.  Only He can bring light into your dark, despair and suffering. There is no need for you to suffer in the darkness any longer. 

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