April 8, 2007

Worshipers May Come
Matthew 28:1-10

I am, as I’ve confessed many times before, hopelessly addicted to the cartoon series, The Farside. While the shelf on my bed is filled with books on spirituality and theology, the basket directly beside my bed contains any number of Gary Larson’s works. I could go on and on reciting my favorite cartoons, but one in particular comes to mind this morning. A host of wildlife are gathered together in the forest—birds, chipmunks and squirrels in the trees; and raccoons, rabbits, deer, bears and other animals on the ground below. The atmosphere is somber, the mood reflective. And the caption under the cartoon simply reads, “All forest animals, to this very day, remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Bambi’s mother had been shot.”

Where were you when J.F.K. was shot? I was in my 3rd grade classroom at Jefferson School in Emmaus, PA. Where were you when the planes first struck the Twin Towers in New York on September 11? I was here in the church office, two weeks into my first term as pastor. And where were the disciples when Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead? Hiding somewhere in a closet in downtown Jerusalem, it would seem. Like the animals in Larson’s cartoon, I’m sure they could tell us if they were here today. They certainly never forgot. I’m not certain where the disciples were or what they were doing when these events transpired, but I do know where two of the women were who had traveled with Jesus down from Galilee and who had helped care for his needs all along the way. They never forgot, either.

If you have ever looked at any of the Where’s Waldo books or made puzzles by the same name, you know that Waldo is a rather naïve looking young man dressed in a red and white, striped shirt and cap. In both the books and puzzles, the viewer is asked to find Waldo hidden in the pictures. And he is always there. Buried in the crowd at the beach. Nestled among the throngs in the city. Hiking with the other climbers up the mountain. In each and every picture, Waldo is there—somewhere. So it is with these two women in Matthew’s account of the Christ’s death and resurrection. In every scene, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, are there—somewhere. Matthew seems to invite us to find them.

They are, first of all, in the opening picture in 27:32-56. As Jesus was stripped and hung on the cross, various people from elsewhere in the Gospel were there with him. I’m sure the devil was there, much like he was when he tempted Jesus out in the wilderness during our Lord’s ministerial infancy. The Roman executioners were there, carrying out their gruesome orders. The sinners—two bandits—were there, fellow convicts receiving their due punishment. The chief priests, scribes, Jewish elders and other detractors were there, taunting Jesus in his hour of agony as they had done repeatedly throughout his lifetime. The unnamed crowds were there, not wanting to miss even a moment of the “festivities.” A centurion was there, apparently learning more from the events than some of the others at the scene. And many women were there, standing off at a distance—women who had followed Jesus wherever he went. Where were the disciples? Back in the city, I guess. But look, there in the picture, there they are—Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (v. 56)—standing among the crowds.

In the second picture, found in 27:57-61, a man from Arimathea named Joseph secured Pilate’s permission and took the body of Jesus away for burial. Apart from Joseph, however, no one else appeared at the scene of the burial. Joseph worked alone, wrapping the body in clean linens and placing it in a new tomb. Why, Joseph even rolled a large stone in front of the tomb, all by himself, before walking away. No. Wait a minute. Look more closely at the picture. There they are, again. Can you see them? Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are off to the corner, sitting opposite the tomb (v. 61). And where are the disciples? Hiding somewhere, either depressed or fearful.

Look at the third picture with me for just a minute or two (27:62-28:1). In this case, the tomb lies quiet and guarded. The detractors had moments before grown nervous that someone might fiddle around with the body and start unwanted rumors about Jesus rising from the dead. When Pilate refused to settle their nerves and send additional security forces to guard the tomb, these same detractors did so themselves. Now that they’ve left the scene, no one remains. Just a picture of a tightly sealed tomb and yawning guards. Where are the disciples? Your guess is as good as mine. But look again. It’s Waldo, I mean the two Mary’s, staring at the tomb (28:1). Do you see them there, right by the large stone?

And finally, notice the fourth picture (28:2-10). There is an angel, much like the one who comforted Jesus following his bout in the ring with the devil back in the wilderness. Acting in a far less subdued manner, however, this angel has rolled the stone away from our Lord’s grave and is now sitting on it. The previously yawning guards lie paralyzed on the ground, and the risen Christ stands a few hundred yards off to the left. Are the disciples anywhere to be found in the picture? I can’t see them, at least not yet, but there are the two Mary’s again. They are not very well hidden in this final picture. They are kneeling right in front of Jesus, holding on to his feet (v. 10). Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, are everywhere—at the cross, beside the sealed tomb, and in the garden on Easter morning.

But once we move beyond such casual glances at these pictures and the enjoyment of seeing our two Mary’s appear—Waldo-like—in every scene, we cannot help but notice that this series of appearances actually forms a progression of sorts. Not only do Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, appear in each scene, but they are likewise transformed as each picture moves along. Quite simply, these two special women appear in the first picture as broken-hearted spectators, only to become by the final scene true worshipers. Furthermore, each picture represents or presents a major question or stumbling block that continues to affect all of us today who must at some point decide whether or not we too will become true worshipers as well. For while Jesus welcomes sinners, bearers of bad news, detractors, struggling disciples and overwhelming crowds, his heart is deeply moved when these same people come back again to bow down and worship.

In the first picture, the two women watch as Jesus is viciously nailed to a cross. Recall for just a moment the frustration and even anger that you might feel when you see or hear about the horrors that are sometimes inflicted upon indisputably innocent victims. Whether genocide, spousal or child abuse, or misfirings of the judicial system, watching helpless victims suffer at the hands of their tormentors is a grueling thing, indeed. So difficult, in fact, that some would have us believe that various atrocities, including the Holocaust, never actually occurred. “No one could ever do such a thing,” some people say.

I recently finished reading John Grisham’s newest book, The Innocent Man, which, unlike Grisham’s earlier novels, recounts a story that actually occurred. The further I read, the more incensed I became at the shoddy police work and the resulting death sentences given to Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in Ada, Oklahoma. What a fiasco. I just couldn’t believe it, and I quipped to someone that I’d never visit Ada, Oklahoma. If you drive down Main Street there, you run the risk of being thrown into jail and strapped in the electric chair! So, too, with the crucifixion of Jesus. They did not really do that to him, some might say. It couldn’t have been that bad—floggings, crown of thorns, nails? It must be a thoroughly embellished story or tale—Jesus never received such treatment. “Yes he did,” Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have responded throughout history. “We were there, watching in disbelief.”

Others, acknowledging that Jesus might very well have received ill-treatment at the hands of his detractors and the Roman soldiers, question whether or not Jesus actually died. Perhaps he simply fainted out of hunger, weariness or sheer exhaustion. I’ve heard it said, for example, among all of the other conspiracy theories concerning the assassination of J.F.K., that he never really died. Instead, he was in such a debilitated condition that Jackie and others wanted to keep his vegetative state a secret! The entire funeral was staged, an empty casket and all. Likewise, some argue, Jesus never died. How could the Son of God die? they ask. “He did,” both Mary’s quickly respond. “We were there. We watched, in deep disappointment and with a great sense of hopelessness—our entire world was shattered—as Joseph of Arimathea laid his linen-wrapped body in the grave.”

Still others, in concert with the worrying detractors of the 1st century, assume that Jesus’ body was somehow confiscated by some delirious disciple. Why such a disciple, no doubt overwhelmed by grief and disappointment of his own, would want to take the body of his apparently defeated leader remains unspecified. Why promote such a hoax? Better to throw in the proverbial towel and put your faith in something or someone else. Yet so the story goes. Someone removed the stone and stole the body of Jesus.

I remember walking through the Upper Milford cemetery one day when I was a child. The cemetery sat next to the camp where my parents owned a cabin, and I knew Irvie Snyder, the care-taker. Irvie was at the cemetery that day with a few other grave-diggers, and they had a back-hoe with them. “Irvie,” I yelled, “Is someone else moving in?” “No,” he answered. “Someone is moving out!” Here, the husband of the woman buried there had remarried, and his second wife had just died as well. He wanted to be buried between his two wives, but there was not enough room in his plot at the Upper Milford cemetery. So he had his first wife’s body exhumed and reburied in Bethlehem, where his second wife had just been buried.

Something similar happened to the body of Jesus, some people say. Someone took the body. “Not a chance,” the Mary’s answer in unison. “We were there. When we arrived on the scene—look at the third picture—the stone remained unmoved and the tomb untouched.”

And finally, many argue that Jesus never actually came back to life. The idea of resurrection is a common middle eastern metaphor, after all, without any historical grounding. At best, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary saw, in their grief-induced hysteria, a ghost or shadow of some sort. God never raised Jesus from the dead. “Yes he did,” these two persistent women respond. “We were there that day. We saw Jesus. We heard him speak to us. We even touched him. We got down on our knees and wrapped our hands around his feet.”

Where were the disciples and what were they doing when Jesus died, was buried and rose again? I’m quite certain that they remembered for years to come, although I can’t tell you for sure. Somewhere in the city, grieving the loss of their leader, pinching themselves to see if these gruesome events were real or imagined, wondering where God was in all of this, and feeling bewildered about the future. Wherever the disciples were, they were not on the scene with Jesus. They were not at the cross, and if they were, they left early. They were not at the tomb. They were certainly not in the garden. And because they were not there—because they stayed away—they were not worshiping. They had, after all, no one to worship and nothing to worship about. They were still living in the escalating darkness that dominates the middle of the story. They had not yet heard God’s final word.

Now look one final time at Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph. Unlike the disciples, these two women were present, Waldo-like, in every scene. They did cry at the cross. They did come and struggle with their pain and uncertainty at the tomb. They did feel an overwhelming sense of grief. They, too, had any number of unanswered questions. But they didn’t stop at either the cross or the sealed tomb. Instead, they continued into the outer stretches of the garden where the God of surprises spoke yet again. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, saw the risen Christ, heard the risen Christ and even touched the risen Christ. “He is alive,” they shout. “Alive!” And in a moment of indescribable transformation, these two grief-ridden women from Galilee became true worshipers. Sinners, detractors, strugglers and mourners alike—people like you and me—are all invited to become worshipers in God’s ending to the story. So step beyond the cross and the grave, as the disciples themselves soon do. As our two Mary’s keep telling us, true life begins when we encounter Jesus Christ face to face on this side of the tomb.