“Hope and Emptiness” Sermon for April 8, Easter Sunday, 2012 on John 20:1-18

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

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from the tomb. So 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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. They 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.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus 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.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The text we read starts with the utter realism and seriousness that we live: it begins in the darkness.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb”

Darkness In Us

There is a darkness in us, that much we know.  The dark thoughts we have – the darkest ones we never share; what we could do, would do, under the right conditions.  The dark wishes directed toward others; the anger; the dark fantasies of vengeance.  The deep darkness of personal despair.  Dark desires present themselves to us; dark voices coax us.  There is darkness in us; we know that much.

Us, in Darkness

And we are in darkness.  Is it the times we live in, or is it my age that makes me notice it?  I don’t know which, but I hear more dark hopelessness in these days than I ever remember hearing.  My life has been shorter than most of yours, your list is longer, but I lived through  enough that you would think were worse times.  I remember the riots of the civil rights movement.  I was in Ohio during Kent state. I had my radio on to hear Nixon resign.  Those events were all happening during the MAD days of mutually assured destruction; the Cold War.  But I never heard so much dark hopelessness as I hear these days.

There is darkness within us, and there is the darkness we are in today.  What do we make of it?  Not all darkness is created equal.

What kind of Darkness?

What kind of darkness is it?  Whether it is the darkness of the theater before the curtain rises, or the darkness inside the coffin after the lid is closed, makes all the difference.  Whether the darkness in us is the hour before a new sun rises, or the darkness after the last one sets, is the question.  Womb and tomb – they rhyme simplistically like a Dr. Seuss couplet, and both share darkness in common, but only darkness.  Otherwise, they are polar opposite places; one is the place of preparation for life, the other is the “final resting place” (we euphemistically say) of the dead.  Yet both are dark places.

There is darkness in us, that much we know.  And we are in darkness.  It is the darkness of the soil beneath the earth.  Are we there as planted seeds, or as bodies, buried?

The Hope difference

The difference is hope – or rather, the difference is whether or not there is any reason for hope.   One kind of darkness ends the night; the other ends the day.  Hope is the difference.  The

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only question is whether there is any reason for hope.

Whichever kind of darkness it is, before the difference is revealed, all darkness feels the same: empty.

The Story Starts in Darkness

Mary arrives in darkness at the tomb, and it stands open, and empty.  Empty like her expectation.  People were not stupid in those days.  Everybody knew what death was.  Everybody dealt with it as we still do.  You do what has to be done.  You make arrangements.  You inform people.  You will-yourself into the mode of acceptance, because no amount of crying “No!” is going to change anything.

“[she] saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So 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.”

What other conclusion could she come to?  It’s still dark.  Not just for her.  For Peter and the other one too, it’s simply dark.  There were no lines for anyone to recite on the script for this scene in their minds; this scene was not supposed to happen; the page entitled: “Expectations for the future” was now blank.   Empty.  Dark.

3 “Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together”

Apart from sports, when do grown men run?  Only when the house is on fire.  Only when a child is wandering towards the curb, only in moments of intense stress.  This is such a moment.  Of course they both ran.  And of course they found the tomb as empty as their expectations.

From Total Darkness to a glimmer

Only not completely.  It’s not completely dark anymore.  Peter enters the tomb first.  Indeed it is not empty.  Not entirely.  Grave clothes are still there.  The wrappings nail the coffin shut on Mary’s grave-robber theory, at least in Peter’s mind.  Robbers do not wast time rolling up wrappings.  Could these be a sign?   A reason for hoping that this darkness is impending light instead of concluding doom?  It is not as dark as it had been, but still the light is dim.

10 “the disciples returned to their homes”

Mary’s Story

The next scene is set in dim light, blurred by tears.

11 “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb”

Perhaps she was prepared to see angels (would I have been?).  Is this vision; a crack  of light in the dark sky?  A first ray of light over the horizon?  Anyway, the vision is confusing; it solves nothing.

14 “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”

The kind of darkness Mary has been in is still empty of hope, and so she is not prepared to see what she sees.

The End of Expectations

This scene shatters all expectations.  If you were to set out to write the story of God coming to earth, as John did, the “Word made flesh” – how would it end?  Look at how the great

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painters of the world have depicted it:  Bright lights bursting forth from the mouth of the tomb; an exultant Christ, scarred by nails, thorns, and spear, but rising triumphantly upwards, people struck to the ground with awe all around.

Perhaps they are theologically accurate, but those paintings do not touch my life.  But I can imagine myself there in garden in the early morning darkness, empty of hope, plus confused, like Mary at this point, not even sure I can see anything clearly anymore.

Knowing Names

But then  it happens.  Jesus speaks.  Not like the way God spoke to Moses on the mountain in thunder and lightning, but like a completely human person, Jesus speaks personally to Mary:

“Ma’am, [as we would say] why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

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.”

16 “Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”

It happens so quietly.  No angel choirs break the silent sky open.  No earthquakes, no voices from the clouds.  Only a recognizably human voice, saying the one thing that changed everything for her: Jesus called her by name.

What kind of darkness has she been in?  The curtain in the dark theater has risen an inch – it is enough; light streams out; the drama will begin.

A little green pokes up from beneath the darkness of the earth: it is enough.  There will be spring – and if spring, then a harvest to come.  The first fruits of a future with hope reveal themselves.  The emptiness has been replaced by presence, and the present one is the sign that the new age has come. Hope has returned. He is alive!  He is risen!

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”  Is. 9:2 

Drawing Conclusions 

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Yes there is darkness in us – that much we know for certain, and there is nothing to be gained by denying it.  And  yes there is darkness around us; hopelessness that does threaten to flatten us under its weighty emptiness, but we are not without hope.  The darkness is not entire, nor is it as empty as they say.

The God who is the source of the world, the creator has come into our world; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; lived life with us, ate our food, drank from our containers, and knows our names.

He knows our darkness; he experienced everything we experience, even God-forsakenness on the cross, he knows even the reality of death that we will not escape; but God raised him from the dead.  Now, the meaning of the empty tomb is that our lives do have meaning; we have been named.

We are no longer in despair or utter darkness.  Though we have many unanswered questions, many days of doubt, nevertheless, we now know that the full sun-rise is coming.  We have hope.

Mary’s (Our) Commission

And in the mean time, like Mary, we have been sent out on on a mission. Jesus commissioned Mary, saying,

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“go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

We too have been sent out on a mission.  We who have hope have been sent into a hopeless, dark world with the message that darkness is not final.  God is at work in this world.

We have been sent out to spread the light and hope of God’s love and grace into every dark corner of this world.  We have been sent out to proclaim the Kingdom of God is at hand. We have been sent out to bring light to the darkness all around us, to spread hope to the poor, the hungry, the marginalized and the despised of the world.

We who have been named by the risen Lord are sent out to call by name all who need the dignity of a human voice who can speak light into their darkness.

People of hope, hear the good news.  Light has come into the world.  Hope is real.  Christ is risen!

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