April 20, 2003

From Bewilderment to Belief
John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene is a bundle of nerves as she approaches the tomb on this first Easter morning. Mary, both Mark and Luke inform us elsewhere, had been healed by Jesus on an earlier occasion, and her healing left her totally overwhelmed by the love and grace of our Lord. Apparently a woman of financial means, Mary spent a considerable amount of time afterward supporting Jesus’ earthly ministry. She and a group of other women often traveled with him as he preached, and they looked after his everyday needs. Mary was among those who stood nearby when Jesus was crucified—she never ran out on him—and she was present at the tomb when Jesus was laid to rest. As she returns to the tomb, then, here in John 20, Mary brings a great deal of emotion and surely disappointment along with her.

She comes, John points out, on Sunday, “… the first day of the week.” Sabbath regulations prevented her from wandering to the tomb on the previous day, so she is doubly eager to go now that Sunday morning finally arrives. She probably didn’t sleep too much Saturday night thinking about recent events, so she rises early on Sunday and makes her way “while it is (was) still dark.”

The moment she arrives at the tomb, however, her plans are rudely interrupted. Surprisingly, the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb had been moved. Two “minor” tidbits need to be kept in mind here. First, tombs from this period did not have anything like hinged doors. Instead, a narrow and gradually sloping channel was carved at the opening of the tomb, in which was placed a large, round stone that weighed several tons. A group of workers would position the stone at the top of the channel and let it roll gradually down into place. Such a job—positioning the stone in the top of the channel—was demanding enough and required many able hands. Removing the stone, however, was far more difficult still.

Second, Matthew informs us in his account of the crucifixion and burial that the authorities had the tomb sealed in order to enhance security. The combination of the design of the tomb, weight of the stone, and special seal, then, made displacing the stone an unusually difficult task. Mary, quite understandably, is totally caught off guard at the sight of the open tomb. How could this have happened?

I remember one occasion when I was strolling through the cemetery near a camp where I worked as a teenager. A man I happened to know served as the caretaker of that cemetery, and he was in the process of digging a new hole. “Someone else is moving in,” I said to him as I passed by. “Not this time,” he responded. “A woman is moving out.” I stopped in my tracks. I had never heard of such a thing. As it turned out, her husband had remarried, and he wanted to be buried between his two wives. To do this, he had to have his first wife’s body moved to a cemetery in Allentown. Anyway, I was surprised.

Mary is beyond surprised—she is bewildered. Immediately, she runs to notify the leaders among the disciples. As she runs, you can almost sense her thoughts flying in a million directions. “Did grave robbers confiscate the body in search of valuables?” she no doubt wondered to herself. “And what were the culprits doing with the body, anyway?” “Were religious zealots desecrating it in their attempts to do Jesus further harm?” “Did fortune seekers simply abandon it in some ditch along the way?” Imagine what you might feel like were you to go to the grave of a loved one, only to find it open and the body missing? We have all heard stories about excruciating attempts to locate the body of a missing person, even one known to be dead, so that family and friends can rest easier. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” Mary cries to the disciples, “and we do not know where they have laid him.”

From all indications, Mary is totally driven here by fear and alarm—we sense no element of hope yet. No rising anticipation that this strange turn of events might bring with it unusually good news. We find only overwhelming bewilderment. There is not even a trace of suspicion on her part that perhaps God is up to something. Maybe he is being sneaky again. No. “They did it,” Mary cries. “How often do we, in like manner, misinterpret as dark what is really pregnant with light, and blindly attribute to ‘them’ what Jesus does?” the great nineteenth century English preacher, Alexander Maclaren, once asked when preaching on this passage. I can’t help but wonder the same thing.

In any case, as soon as the disciples hear the news, they are off and running themselves. They run to the tomb, investigate the evidence more exhaustively, apparently come to faith in the risen Lord, and return home without a further word. Belief apparently came easier for them on this occasion than it did for Mary. But what about Mary? Do the two disciples simply leave her behind? Do they run past her on their return trip? Do they fail to see her in the midst of all of the commotion? Wouldn’t you at least expect them to offer her some sort of explanation? To try to console her?

Somehow, while all of this is going on, Mary makes her way back to the tomb. Whereas the two disciples reviewed the evidence, satisfied their curiosity, and went home, Mary remains broken, distraught, and yes, bewildered. Nothing has yet happened to even begin to alleviate her pain and anguish—she surely continues to think the worst. Nervously, she looks for the first time into the tomb, and notices two angels whom Peter and the other disciple apparently never saw. Surely an encounter of this magnitude would alter Mary’s perspective. At the sight of these angelic visitors, Mary would have no choice but to sense the extraordinary—the divine—implications of the empty tomb. Yet, when the angels rather abruptly ask the reason for her obvious sorrow, she continues to offer the same old explanation—“They took him….”

Then, before the angels have the opportunity to offer any further directions, Mary turns and notices another figure standing nearby. John assures us that this man is in fact Jesus, but Mary remains clueless. Why, we might wonder, doesn’t she recognize him? After all, she had spent considerable time in the company of Jesus and his disciples. One might rightly have thought that the face of Jesus would be among the most recognizable for Mary. Why didn’t she know who it was standing there?

Was it perhaps her tears? Her grief? Pain and suffering can do that sometimes, as many of us know. They can blur our vision and alter our perspectives. Pain and suffering can cloud our eyes and block our senses, deadening our ability to perceive things rightly. Think for just a moment about Job. As we will see a few weeks from now, the intensity of his own grief increasingly prevents him from recognizing the presence of God in his life. God is right there beside him, but he simply does not recognize him.

Perhaps you have been there, too. Perhaps you are there right now. The pain and suffering in your life, either past or present, continues to affect your vision and perspective. The risen Lord could step right up beside you—he probably already has on many occasions, through the consoling and welcoming voice of his Holy Spirit, the warm and caring gestures of family and friends, or the prayers and invitations of committed Christians—but you wouldn’t even know that he was there. You just cannot seem to see past your own pain and frustration. Is that it? Is it her grief that block’s Mary’s vision?

Or is it perhaps the fact that she is overly distracted by other things going on around her? John specifically tells us that Mary “turned around” in order to see Jesus. She was between him and the tomb. Might her fascination with the empty tomb—the remaining burial linens, the angels, or perhaps the stone itself and her continuing inability to imagine how such a monstrous piece of rock could have been moved away—might it be her fixation on these surrounding distractions that are obscuring her concentration and keeping her so distant from Jesus? Distractions can do that, you know.

Have you ever been involved in what you thought was a conversation with someone else, but you just knew that she didn’t hear a word you said? There is that
unmistakable blank look upon the other person’s face, notifying you that her mind is elsewhere. Or perhaps you can recall a time when something distracted you and prevented you from seeing what was right in front of your eyes. You had to rewind the video tape because an intruder in the room broke your concentration. You walked to work, but the pressing responsibilities of the day so clouded your mind that you never noticed the beautiful daffodils along the way. You were distracted. Life is busy. There is so much noise. So many things to do and places to go. Perhaps that was Mary’s problem. She kept fidgeting, staring back at the tomb and trying to make sense out of the misplaced stone and the surprising visitors. Maybe that is why she failed to recognize Jesus when he was standing right beside her.

Or perhaps it was her limited view of the possibilities that prevented Mary from recognizing Jesus. “Jesus died,” we might imagine her saying to herself. “I was there. I saw them remove his body from the cross. I stood beside this very same tomb when they buried him here just a few days ago.” Mary had her own range of experiences and a wide assortment of data, and the box that she constructed out of all of it simply did not allow for an appearance of Jesus. Even Lazarus’ earlier resurrection was not enough to offset the hard, cold fact that Jesus is dead. Whoever this person might be, it could not be him.

Does that way of thinking sound slightly familiar? Perhaps you yourself have said something like, “Nothing that I have seen and experienced lately suggests to me that Jesus is alive and well. And anyway, the empirical data of our modern age offers reasonably satisfying explanations for much of what goes on around me. Every cure is attributed to medical advances. Every accomplishment stems from personal giftedness and hard work. We generally have reasons for everything—“Mary’s ‘They took him’”—and our reasons all too often exclude God. Maybe that was Mary’s problem. There are more reasonable explanations for the empty tomb than imagining that Jesus might be alive again.

For whatever reason, Mary didn’t know who he was. She didn’t even recognize him after he initially spoke to her. “Woman,” he begins, “why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” In response, Mary speculates that this stranger might be the gardener, asking him if he himself had in fact removed the body from the tomb. Mary is caught up in a frenzied moment, and she can’t see before her the very person whom she is looking for. The very one for whom her heart longs is right here, and she doesn’t realize it. Until…..

Until Jesus addresses her by name. “Mary,” he says. And immediately, her sense of bewilderment gives way to a burst of belief. She had seen the empty tomb, but thought only of grave-robbers. She had encountered the angels, but remained in the dark. She had seen Jesus, but failed to recognize him. Up until now, Mary was totally and overwhelmingly bewildered. Until Jesus spoke her name. Suddenly, she was no longer just a “woman,” just a no-name among countless others. Now, she was “Mary.” “Mary.” The risen Lord called her by name, and that changed everything.

Imagine a familiar seen at the Capital City Mall. A young child is wandering deliriously through one of the stores. He has clearly been separated from his mother, and the best efforts of those standing nearby fail to calm his nerves or stop his tears. Then, from a just short distance way, this child hears a familiar voice calling, “Adam.” “Adam.” Instantly, his countenance changes. It is his mother, and he runs to her as quickly as his little legs will take him.

The Good Shepherd, John informs us in 10:3, calls his own sheep by name. He calls Mary by name here as she stands bewildered. At that moment, her astonishment over the empty tomb gives way to amazement over the power and presence of the risen Christ. At that moment, her frantic frustration in the company of the angels gives way to a new sense of freedom. At that moment, her lingering confusion concerning the supposed gardener gives way to a confession. Whereas earlier she had run and told the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him,” now she announces to those same disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Can you make a similar confession this Easter morning? Have you seen the risen Lord? If not, why not? Do your tears stand in the way? Your grief? Does the pain and suffering in your life and in the lives of people all around you prevent you from seeing Jesus? Perhaps it is the distractions. There are so many things to do and see, so many responsibilities to fulfill, so many other things going on in your life. It is hard, isn’t it, to see Jesus in the middle of everything else. Or is it your view of life and the world—your “box”? Like Mary, you have seen enough material evidence to conclude that Jesus isn’t anywhere nearby, much less right beside you.

Be quiet for a minute. Open your heart and listen carefully. When all of the data and pain and distractions and low expectations leave you confused and bewildered, Jesus might very well come and personally call out your name and mine. “Mike.” “Barb.” “Dan.” “Megan.” “Ben.” “Christine.” “…Terry.” And in hearing our names, we too can move from bewilderment to belief, and from death to life.