There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise. On many mornings, I like to rise for that hour and sit in my favorite chair. The drip of the coffee maker and flicker of the fire are the only noises in the house. In an hour, I know the house will be full of noise and grumblings of school and what’s for breakfast. A night of sleep has quieted my mind from the joy and frustrations of the previous day. And I can be alone with my thoughts. And I type on my computer. My creative energies are fully engaged, not yet worn down by a day of decision making. There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise.
When Mary arrives at the tomb on that Easter morning, John tells us that it was still dark. I like to think that Mary was in that quiet place too. A night of sleep has given her traumatized heart a slither of strength. She is planning to crawl into the tomb and unwrap the grave clothes from Jesus’ body. She has planned to pour fragrant oils into the wounds of his hands and feet. It was a burial ritual. It would be an hour of quiet healing for her. It would give her space to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous life and violent death. There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise.
Have any of you needed that quiet time? Perhaps it’s a break from the raucousness of raising children. Or you’re uncertain about the prospects of the future. Or COVID-19 has worn you down. Your nerves are about to break. It’s in that dark place just before sunrise that the shock of Easter sends Mary running. She arrives and notices someone has tampered with the tomb. Jesus is not there. She sprints. All of those emotions she had quieted come roaring back.
“They’ve taken the Lord. They couldn’t even let him rest in peace.” She tells these other two disciples, Peter and the beloved disciple. They too sprint to the tomb. They both look inside and to their astonishment, he’s not there. They leave. But Mary lingers. She doesn’t return home.
She stoops down one more time and peers into the tomb. There are two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. They ask her, “Why are you weeping?” Now, I’ve preached the Easter story for more than 15 years now. I have never really paid attention to this question. I always thought it was a throw away question. But John, the author of this gospel, is an artist and every word counts. “Why are you weeping?” Typically, I thought the angels deliver this question with the tone of, “Come on Mary. Stop you’re crying. There’s no crying on Easter!” But as I read this scripture again it hit me, they asked this question with great empathy, “Why are you crying?” She gives her logical conclusion, “They’ve taken my Lord.” Mary is stuck. She can only turn to one explanation. Something evil has happened to Jesus again. We can’t fault her. She’s witnessed the awfulness of the world. She’s watched political leaders deceive the crowds about Jesus. She’s watched soldiers beat his innocent body for the public to see. She’s watched the soldiers gamble for his clothes. She’s seen enough evil in the last three days to last a life time. Maybe we can understand where Mary’s coming from. We live in the same world.
Then Mary turns away from the angels and sees a man she thinks is the gardener, but it’s Jesus. Jesus asks Mary, “Why are you weeping?” It’s the exact question the angels asked. She says, “Sir, if you’ve taken his body, please give him back.” Now, gardeners were honest, hardworking people. She’s skeptical of him. She turns away from this man who seeks to understand her grief. “Why are you weeping?” and all she can say is “Somebody stole his body.”
We’ve all been there. We’ve all experienced grief. We’ve all watched a movement come to a tragic end. We’ve all experienced a failure. When we do, we often turn away from help. We turn away from life. We turn away from believing in a future. We simply turn to a closed position. How might you answer that question on this Easter day. “Why are you weeping?”
Just as Mary has turned away from Jesus and his question, Jesus delivers the one word that could jar her out of this place. Her name. “Mary.” And Mary turns to Jesus, “Rabbouni.” It’s the same Jesus who once said to her and the disciples, “I call my sheep by name and they know my voice.” This Risen Jesus indeed is a gardener who has called Mary’s name and is cultivating life again for her. That’s Easter. That’s the Resurrection. Easter is about Jesus calling our names and turning us towards the promises of life.
We all need Easter angels, messengers who call us out of the dark places. Easter turns our guilt into hope. Easter turns us to the promises of life.
Years ago, I was in seminary. During my first year, my dad called. I was in my dorm room, “Hey Buddy, I got some bad news. There’s no easy way to say it. I have bladder cancer.” I hung up the phone and I tried to pretend I was ok. Didn’t bother me. But the truth was, I was scared. It didn’t sink in the first night. But the next day, I couldn’t concentrate. I would sit at my desk with my books open, but I couldn’t study. I was one big ball of anxiety. After three days of this feeling, I slipped away from my friends. And I just went for a long walk and the chapel on campus was open. I sat down and found myself paralyzed by grief. The rivers began to flow from my eyes. And I just prayed and cried and I may have cursed too. I was mad.
My head was downward so I didn’t see anyone. Suddenly, I feel this light tap on my shoulder. I look in the pew behind me. It’s a fellow seminary student named Jason. Jason was training to be a chaplain. Jason and I didn’t know each other well. We may have spoken a handful of times. He said, “May I sit down?” I said, “Sure.” And then he asked, “Why are you crying?” Usually I kind of like to play the tough, stoic individual. But I just let it all out and told him everything about how I was feeling. How I was so mad at this awful disease. How I missed being so far from my family. He listened. And then he said, “Can I pray for you, Will?” When I heard my name, I knew without a doubt God had sent Jason to minister to me in that moment. I felt this reservoir of the Christian faith well up in me. It was the faith poured into me by my parents and by the local church and by my risen savior. I had an assurance that moment that whatever happened, our family was going to be ok. He prayed and cried and then I laughed. Hearing my name was an Easter moment that the resurrected Lord knew my name. I could turn from grief and turn to the Easter promises. As I remember back on that experience, I was trying my best not to be found. But that’s what grace is. It’s when God finds you even when you don’t want to be found.
Over the next two years, I may have spoken with Jason two or three more times, but on that day he was an Easter angel. I remember when I returned home for the first time at Christmas to see my dad, I was in a good place. When I walked inside our house, I saw him standing there waiting for me by the kitchen sink. He had a gallon of Blue Bell ice-cream waiting for me. I wrapped my arms around my dad. He said, “Will, it’s going to be ok. Let’s have dessert.” Friends, it’s Easter. Jesus Christ is alive. Jesus Christ is turning us to the promises of a new life, a new creation. I’m not sure what’s going on in your life, but I’m here to proclaim to you. It’s going to be ok. And if you believe it, can I get an Alleluia? It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. Friends, it’s Easter. Christ is Risen. Let’s have dessert.