St Michael’s, Easter Day 2017
Reading – John 20:1-18
People often ask me what it was like that first Easter morning. My simple answer is that it was dark. I don’t just mean dark as in no light. I mean the whole mood and atmosphere of that morning was dark. Never before had I ever felt such terrible, bleak despair and I thank God from the bottom of my heart I never will again.
But let’s start from the beginning. My name is Mary Magdalene, and you probably think I’m some kind of a saint. Let me tell you, in the bad old days I was anything but. I was a wild, wild woman. People used to think I was crazy, and if you heard stories about what I used to do, they were probably true. I kept saying I couldn’t help myself, and as my life span out of control, I never knew who I was going to hurt next.
However, that was before I met Jesus. Now I had met religious people who had either preached at me or tried to drive the demons out of me. None of them had ever had much effect, except to make me try and avoid them like the plague. But Jesus was different. He had such love and such power that He turned my life right around. It’s said that He drove seven demons out of me. I don’t know whether that’s right or not, but the moment He came into my life, I knew a peace, a healing and a forgiveness I never thought was possible. He changed my heart once and for all, and I knew I owed Him everything.
So for the next three years I went everywhere with Jesus. He was literally my life, and I saw His love and His power change the lives of so many other people as well; through His preaching about the love and goodness of God; through His miracles that brought peace and healing to the most broken of people; through the simple way He showed care and compassion even to folk like me.
Now I know some people started ugly rumours about me and Jesus. Some made up stories we were secretly married, some even that we had children together. I believe you have an author called Dan Brown who has made millions claiming that our family exists to this very day. Let me tell you straight away – all that is nonsense. Jesus never took advantage of anyone, and he never kept any secrets. I followed Him because He was my Saviour, and when I say I love Him with my whole heart, it’s because I I owe everything to Him – nothing more, nothing less.
So when Jesus rode into Jerusalem that Sunday, I was there with the crowds, waving my palm branch and shouting Hosanna to the Son of David. A wonderful, bright new future seemed to be dawning, and we were all so excited. Yes, I know Jesus had talked about the cross and His death before, but in the heat of the moment we didn’t remember that part of His teaching. Or at least we chose not to remember. We wanted Jesus as our King but we had forgotten what He said about His kingdom not being of His world.
But five days later this same Jesus was hanging on a cross stripped, humiliated, dying in the most painful and agonising way possible. To many that sign over His head, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, was a sick joke, and they hurled all kinds of abuse at Him. I should know, I was there. While all the men had fled, some of us women stayed to the very end. We knew Jesus needed us there, and we could not leave Him. Even as we watched Him breathe His very last breath, we could not, would not abandon Him. We owed everything to Him.
But that did not mean the darkness on that terrible day was any less real. As Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, it seemed that our hope had been extinguished. We knew we would never meet anyone as loving as Jesus. We would never again encounter the presence of God. We would never see lives transformed so completely and for good. Even though after three awful hours the sun emerged again from behind the clouds, the light in our hearts was almost completely gone.
Yet we still wanted to honour the memory of Jesus and do what we could to pay our respects. That’s why after we had rested on the Sabbath we set out that first Easter morning to the tomb to anoint His body. It seemed the kindest thing to do, and maybe after we had finished we could somehow get on with our lives. We hadn’t worked out all the details, like how we could actually get into the tomb, but then no-one of us were thinking straight at the time.
But someone had already gotten there first, or so it appeared to us. That large stone in front of the tomb had been rolled away. The body of our beloved Jesus was missing. So in my panic I ran back to where Peter and John were staying. I don’t know what they made of this crazy woman hammering on their door, shouting, They have taken the Lord. But they got up, pulled on their clothes and ran on down to the tomb.
By the time I arrived back at the scene, all huffing and puffing, Peter and John were already coming back out of the tomb. You could see from the look on their faces something extraordinary had happened, but they weren’t sure what. Now you may ask why they hadn’t put two and two together; after all, Jesus had talked several times about rising from the dead. I guess the thing is, in my experience, you so often think His words are meant for other people at other times. Sometimes it can be hard to realise Jesus’ words are actually addressed to you and you don’t expect them to come true. But then, as I said, none of us were thinking straight that day, and I can’t really blame them for being confused.
So away went Peter and John, still discussing intensely just what had happened. And being typical men, they seemed to forget I was still there, with tears rolling down my face, feeling terribly alone and abandoned. (I have forgiven them since, by the way!). So what was I to do? Well, I couldn’t walk away with all my questions unanswered. Staying put didn’t seem much like an option either. So I gathered up all my courage and dared to bend down and look inside the tomb.
I don’t know what I was expecting to see, but whatever I expected, the scene certainly wasn’t as I imagined. There was no body, and no sign anyone had tried to drag it away. I had always thought of tombs as dark and gloomy, but this tomb was filled with light. What was going on? And yes… were those angels seated there? While I was still trying to make sense of it all, I heard a voice asking, Woman why are you crying?
Well, that was a right daft question if ever I heard one: “They have taken my Lord away … and I don’t know where they have put him.” I don’t know who I meant by “they”. I just knew this Jesus, the one I had followed for three wonderful years, the one who had healed me and been my life, was now gone. And more than anything in the world I wanted to find my Lord. I would do anything, say anything just to be in His presence again.
Then I heard that same question again, this time right behind me: Woman why are you crying? Who is it that you are looking for? Looking back, I guess I should have started to grasp what was going on. Time after time when people came to Jesus, He began by asking them a gentle question, drawing out in such a loving and kind manner what exactly was on their hearts. And the more I think about it, the more I see He was doing the same thing here. I was looking for something – a body. But He knew that in my heart I was looking for someone – for Jesus, for His living presence to fill the aching void I had felt for three impossibly long, weary days.
But my brain was still so very confused and very muddled, and for some reason I could only think this person behind me was the gardener. Quite why I thought there would be a gardener up and about at that time ofday, I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment. Anyway, I blurted out: Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.
And then I heard one word that changed my life forever. It wasn’t anything deep, or mysterious. It was such a simple word, spoken with such love and tenderness. It was quite simply my name. I can’t really explain how Jesus spoke, but in an instant my life was transformed. It wasn’t just that I understood what had happened in that tomb. It was that this event became real and personal to me, and gave me a hope and purpose I had never ever known before.
That’s why I turned round. It’s why I fell at His feet and held Jesus so tightly. Well, you would do, wouldn’t you? When you think someone is gone and lost forever, of course you throw your arms around them, and decide you are never ever going to let go.
But Jesus had a message for me. I can still remember word for word what He said: Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’
Now you might have thought I would have been upset by what Jesus said. I wanted to hold on to Jesus, and He was telling me to let go. But actually I realised He was saying something really wonderful and important. Very soon He would be going back to His Heavenly Father, and He would no longer be seen in physical form on earth. But that wasn’t going to be half as bad as it sounded. The very reason He was going away was so that anyone in any part of the world from this point on could have a living, life-changing encounter with Him. You wouldn’t have to travel to a particular country, or belong to a particular nation or background. You could simply meet Him in the power of the Holy Spirit in any place at any time. You see, by rising from the dead, Jesus had made it possible for anyone anywhere to call on God as their Heavenly Father, and know His love and forgiveness.
And that even included that scared bunch of His followers who three days earlier had fled in terror while Jesus was being arrested and crucified. Yes, they had badly let Him down. Yes, they had completely failed to understand everything He had taught them. But Jesus wanted them to know that His love and compassion extended even to them.
So for the last time that morning I ran. I had a joy and a gladness in my heart that has never really gone away, despite everything that has happened since. My message wasn’t complicated or hard to understand. It was quite simply: I have seen the Lord! And in many ways that’s been my message ever since, that whenever I can, I tell those who want to listen that this Jesus is real, that He is risen, that He has met with me, and if you ask Him, He can meet with you too.
Now I don’t know how things are for you this morning.
Maybe some of you are in a dark, dark place just like I was on that first Easter morning. All I can say is that no matter what you are going through, the risen Lord Jesus is able to give you a hope even when you feel most alone and abandoned. He has won a victory over death that is real and relevant to whatever situation you are facing.
Maybe some of you are confused as to just what happened to Jesus’ body. My advice to you is don’t stand outside the tomb wondering. Be prepared to bend down and humbly look at the evidence. Plenty of people since my time have looked at the facts of the resurrection and come to the conclusion Jesus really was raised from the dead. And when you understand that, everything else about the Christian faith fits into place.
Maybe some of you know the Easter story but somehow think it’s for other people or for another time. That’s simply not true. This morning Jesus is calling you by name, just like He called me by name. All He asks you to do is turn round and ask Him into your heart. He wants to offer you a fresh start where everything you have ever done wrong is forgiven and you begin to enjoy a new relationship with God your Heavenly Father forever.
Or maybe you already know the joy and wonder of the Easter story. So what then is stopping you from going out and sharing the news: I have seen the Lord!
Read Romans 8:28-39