Sermon: “The Bright and Morning Star”
First Presbyterian Church of Tolono
April 12, 2009 – Easter Sunday (B)
Text: John 20:1-18
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. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the
other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken
the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and
went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other
disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen
wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then
Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen
wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head,
not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb
first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as
yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.
As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where
the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you
weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know
where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and
saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you
weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said
to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him,
and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said
to him in Hebrew,*
‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus
said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the
Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and
your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary
Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she
told them that he had said these things to her.
Memory is such a strange and wonderful thing. The older I get, the more and more questions
my memory creates for me. Not only
questions like, “Where did I put my glasses?”
(Which I ask myself at least six times a day), but questions like “Do I
really remember the things of my childhood or youth the way they actually were-
or have I edited them-maybe even re-written them somehow? And if so, does that
matter?” Is it important to remember my past with factual accuracy- or should
memories take on new and deeper meanings as I grow in age and wisdom and
experience? Or both?
For example, when I was a young boy- no more than 8 years old- my
parents took me to see a baseball game at Busch Stadium. Do not despair Cub fans- this memory does not
glorify the Cardinals. In fact, my
memory is that on that day the Cardinals got their collective butts handed to
them on a platter by the San Francisco Giants.
But there is one image- one memory- from that game that I cherish above
all the others. This is how I remember it:
It is a warm but windy summer afternoon, most likely the third or fourth
inning. We are sitting behind home plate
maybe twenty or twenty five rows up. The
Giants are batting. Well, one Giant in
particular. His name is Willie
Mays. Willie Mays was an amazing
baseball player. For those of you who
are too young to remember him, I’ll put it this way: Willie Mays was better at
baseball than LeBron James is at basketball.
I think he was the greatest to ever the game. (And you’re going to argue with the preacher
on Easter Sunday?) My memory is that it
was late in the count, maybe 2-2 or 3-2.
The pitch came in on Willie Mays’ hands, but he turned on it fast and
hit a towering foul ball down the third base line. At least, everyone thought it was a foul ball. My memory is that Willie Mays stood
stock still, looking long and hard at that ball and he willed it to go
fair. Willie Mays willed the wind to
blow from left to center and nudge that ball the three feet it needed to clear
the foul pole and land deep in the left field seats for a home run. And so it did. I remember than Willie Mays was a force of
nature. Whether it is exactly true or not, it is remarkable
memory to have- a memory which profoundly shaped my childhood and early life.
Our gospel lesson this morning tells us
of a remarkable woman, Mary Magdalene, and the remarkable things that happened
to her one morning in Jerusalem. Far
more remarkable than even seeing Willie Mays hit a home run.
Sometime between 3am and 6am, Mary
slipped out into the dark city streets- remember this was way before
streetlamps- and she headed, off all places, to the cemetery. She looked up at the stars in the night
sky. She was going to see the body of
Jesus in its new stone tomb.
It was such a short time ago that Jesus
had arrived in Jerusalem and caused such a stir. He had ridden through the city gates on a
donkey colt. The crowds grew and
cheered. They called him the new king,
the one who would bring back the great kingdom of David. They called him the Messiah.
It was such a short time ago that Jesus
had taught in the Temple courtyards and had healed the sick. He confronted the scribes and the Pharisees,
challenging them to stop twisting the laws and the scriptures to their own
And it was such a short time ago when
everything had gone wrong. In a small
garden just outside of town, Jesus was arrested by the Temple guards. He had been betrayed into their hands by one
of his disciples. For thirty pieces of
Mary again looked up at the sky. Clouds had covered the stars. And she remembered that just three nights ago
Jesus had been dragged before the Temple Council and was found guilty of
blasphemy, of claiming to be the Son of God.
It didn’t matter that none of the witnesses could agree; it was enough
that Jesus chose not to defend himself.
They said it was better for Jesus to die for the sake of the nation.
Mary had watched as Jesus carried the
heavy, rough cross. She watched the
soldiers hammer the nails through his hands and feet. And she watched him die as the sky turned
black and the earth shook. “It is
finished,” he said.
Finally she reached the tomb. The
eastern sky was growing lighter and above her shone a bright morning star. But this did not comfort her. Mary had come to the tomb to grieve. She was there to cry and wail and to dress
the body in a fitting way…
Only there was this one thing. The body was gone. The tomb was empty. Oh, God, no.
Not another cruel twist in this nightmare. Someone had taken Jesus’ body and had done
who knows what. Mary had trouble
catching her breath. She was
As the sun was peeking over the
horizon, Mary ran to find Peter and John and the other disciples. She told them about the empty tomb.
And they ran, too. They ran to the tomb
and went in and saw only that the burial clothes were still in place- as if
Jesus had simply disappeared. There was
no smell. There was no body. Jesus was gone.
For Mary this was worse than ever. The only thing that she had to hold onto had
been ripped away her again. Now the tomb
became a horrifying symbol of the emptiness which was her heart and her
life. She looked inside and could not
find Jesus her Lord.
And so she cried and cried. There was nothing else to do.
But then it happened. Mary found Jesus in the last remarkable place
she thought of, but exactly where he belonged.
He was alive.
It must have been like coming out of a
dark, long tunnel: where once there was darkness was now brilliant, warm,
penetrating light. The great burden of despair
was forgotten in a moment, forgotten in the hearing of her name. And what she suddenly remembered were all the
times that Jesus had said that he must suffer death in order to rise again. Jesus had known that this moment would
come. He had tried to tell her, but she
had to live it to believe it. She had to
lose her heart to find it right where it belonged: in Jesus’ voice: “Mary.”
The story is no different for all of
us. Even though it comes every year with
all of its trappings, Easter takes us by surprise. As much as we think of Easter as something
that happens here in the church with flowers and special hymns or with Easter
eggs and fancy clothes, that’s really looking for Easter in the wrong place.
I was once listening to an interview
with a jazz pianist. “Until you’ve learn
to suffer,” he said, “you’ll never understand jazz.” What I want to tell you this morning is that
until you’ve experienced the despair and emptiness which Mary Magdalene
suffered in those dark days when Jesus was dead, then you’ll never fully
This may be hard to hear. So much of what we are taught at church is
how much God loves us and how happy we should be because God loves us. But what I’m saying now is that you cannot have
that deeper happiness- joy- until after you learn what it means to be very
unhappy. That’s what growing up is and
that’s what growing wise is. And it’s
not bad to be unhappy. It’s just hard.
And it’s also hard to have the person
which means the most to you in all the world taken away from you by death. Many of us here know this because we lived
it. It has happened to us as it happened
to Mary. And in fact as it has happened -in
a very real way- to all of us…
Death once meant despair and hopelessness
for each of us, because we were doomed to have our very lives taken away. Death was once total and complete, never
ending and ever-deepening darkness. Our
tombs were places of terror, where our lives were twisted into lifelessness.
But then it happened. We found life precisely where it belonged: in
Christ in us. That moment when Jesus
stops being just a good person who taught us some important things about living
and becomes someone you talk to and listen to and live with, then Easter has
happened for you.
The emptiness of Jesus’ tomb means that
despair and death are stripped of their power over us. Because now we have life after death, life
Easter is like finding your way home in
a terrible storm at night. Life is given
to us anew at Easter. Hope is given and
love is given.
For God so loved the world that the
only Son was given, that we who believe in him should not perish but have
eternal life. For God sent the Son into
the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through
Easter is for us as it was for Mary
Magdalene: a time to feel great,
powerful joy when we hear God call us by name.
Easter is finding what we had once lost forever: life itself.
So, say hey, kid! It looks like God- through Jesus Christ- has
knocked one right out of the park for us.
And don’t you ever forget it.