Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seeing What Is Not There

John 20:1-18
April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

In Sunday School last week, I cued up the video about Holy Week and Easter for the children to watch. One of the little boys said, “Every Easter, it’s the same story!”

Yep, he is right. Each of the four gospels gives an account of the empty tomb. In each of them, the particular theological emphasis of the gospel is demonstrated in how that first Easter morning is described. All four agree that it was the first day of the week. Matthew includes an earthquake, and guards fainting in fear. In Mark’s gospel, the women encounter an angel sitting in the open tomb. In Luke’s account, the women also encounter an angel who says, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

But in John’s gospel, the burial place is in a garden. It is early morning, and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone. And only in John’s gospel does Jesus himself appear. Let’s listen for God’s good news for us this Easter morning in 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. 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 word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.


As we think about Mary Magdalene, I think it is important to start out by saying that she was not a prostitute. She was unfairly described so by mistake a few hundred years ago. Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. She loved him, and followed him, and was probably a patron who supported his ministry.

Mary Magdalene didn’t go to the tomb to see Jesus. She was not expecting to see Jesus.
She was perhaps thinking she would see his dead body, his pierced hands and feet, his bruised forehead, the flayed flesh of his back, where he had been whipped. She was perhaps thinking that she would find him there, wrapped in the grave cloths stained with blood, and she would lovingly tend to him.

Perhaps she was expecting to see that his body had been carried away, taken from this garden, from within this borrowed tomb. But she knew that he was dead, because she had been standing there, at the foot of the cross, with his mother, when he breathed his last.“It is finished,” he’d said. And then he had died.

Perhaps she only came to sit near the tomb, to weep, to sit in silence in the early morning in the garden, to pray, to remember. But she was not expecting to see Jesus himself.

Have you ever had that happen? -- not seeing what is right in front of you?
You know, you’re looking at something, but you can’t see it?

Some women say it is particularly common in children and husbands.
“Where’s the pickle relish?”
“In the fridge on the middle shelf, left side, right by the lunchmeat.”
“It’s not here.”
Exasperated sigh, as the mom/wife comes into the kitchen, where you are bent over peering at the middle shelf. She reaches right in front of you, picks up the pickle relish, gives you that look, and hands it to you.
“I didn’t see it!” you say, to her retreating back.

It happens to all of us – we don’t see what’s right in front of us. Interestingly, we also see what is not there. When we look at a picture or word that is incomplete, our brains fill in the blanks with the lines or colors.[1] Sometimes, a simple verbal cue can help us see what is there, even when the hint comes after the fleeting image!

I think that the gospel of John’s account of the empty tomb may be my favorite of the four. Each one has its interesting details, and its own theological slant. But this one, with Mary of Magdala alone at the tomb, there in the early morning twilight, just pierces my heart.

I think of her walking through the grass, wet with dew, in the gray dawn, heartbroken, coming to the tomb, alone. There’s something kind of holy about the early morning. The air seems crisp and clear; the birdsong seems brighter; there’s a stillness that makes you look around, and listen. I’m not an early riser, myself, so I’m rarely outside before dawn, unless it is for our monthly Men’s Prayer Breakfast. This past week at the Men’s Prayer Breakfast, the conversation turned to cemeteries.

We read this scripture from John’s gospels, and I was struck once again by this visit Mary made to the tomb. There are lots of very small cemeteries around here. Many of those cemeteries are overgrown and neglected, with grave stones toppled, weeds and grass waist high, fences down. But just as many are lovingly tended and cared for – like gardens - the gravestones upright, the grass cut, flowers along the fence row. W en you go to a cemetery, no matter what time of day it is, you have an expectation of what you will see there.

Most of us, when we are in a cemetery, know what we’re looking for. We look for familiar names on gravestones, or a particular grave. Lots of people are looking for ancestors, doing genealogical research.

I wonder what we are looking for when we come to Jesus’ tomb this bright Easter morning. I wonder what we do not see, even though it is right in front of us. I wonder what we see that is not there, because we have been primed, given some kind of hint or cue of what we ought to see, or hope to see.

Mary came to the garden in grief, expecting to see a dead body.
So when Jesus stood in front of her, she saw a gardener.
But it was not a gardener. It was Jesus. “Who are you looking for?” he asked her.
Jesus asked the same question in the first chapter of John’s gospel, when the first two disciples saw him. “What are you looking for?” he wanted to know.
"Rabbi!” they answered, and they followed him.
“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked Mary Magdalene.
Mary still saw the gardener.
Pleading with him, she begged him to tell her where the body was.
And then he spoke her name.
Jesus spoke her name and she answered, “Rabbi!”
Right in front of Mary Magdalene stood her risen Lord.
She was alone with him, there in the garden.
He walked with her, and he talked with her.
And then he told her to go, to go and tell the others.

Who are you looking for?

Every one of us comes to an Easter moment, when we have the opportunity to see what is not there: we may be expecting to find loss, sorrow, death and decay, but the body of Jesus is not in the tomb. Perhaps we expect to see judgment, or punishment. We might be expecting to see the long list of good deeds we must do. Maybe the realization comes slowly, rising like the bright morning sun. Maybe it comes in prayer, after long hours of struggle.

And then - we see what is not there:
What is not there is shame.
What is not there is isolation.
What is not there is manipulation, greed, empire.
What is not there is death.

Every one of us comes to an Easter moment, when can finally see what is right in front of us. We see, like Mary, that Jesus has been right there, right in front of us, all along – offering life and hope and joy. We stoop over and see the grave cloths, where he left them. The morning sun shines brightly in our eyes.

And then - we see what is right there:
What is there is grace.
What is there is community.
What is there is generosity, hope, patience.
What is there is life.

When that stone rolls from our hearts and the light of Easter dawns, we can, at last, see what is not there, and what is there. The “the old questions lie folded and in a place by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love’s risen body.”[2]

Our Risen Lord is right in front of us – in this world,
at this table, in the bread that gives us life,
in the cup of mercy poured out,
in the love that never dies, but is always there
– for you, for me, for the world.
Amen.






[1]“The Brain Doesn’t Like Visual Gaps and Fills Them In.” Vanderbilt University. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070820135833.htm


[2] From the poem, “The Answer” by R. S. Thomas, Anglican priest and poet. http://onebreadonecup.typepad.com/blog/2011/04/the-answer-by-rs-thomas.html

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