(Sermon preached on March 31, 2013. Text: John 20:1, 19-23.)
Preaching on Easter Sunday is difficult for us pastors. Sure, we’re excited about the occasion; we like to see the sanctuary swelling with great attendance, and we like to see family and friends visiting from out of town. But the Scripture text is always the same. Every year. There is not much room for diversion and we can’t very well preach on anything we want. People dress in their Easter best to hear a good Easter sermon.
Martin Copenhaven, a veteran pastor and popular author, is one of the few lucky pastors who still finds something new to preach even after pastoring the same church for over 18 years. John Buchanon, another pastor and editor of the The Christian Century, is not so hopeful and positive. Ethicist Reinhold Neibhur once confessed that he visited a church on Easter Sunday that had the least amount of preaching because no pastor, he argued, was up to the task of speaking to such weighty matters.
I must admit that I too feel that I’m not up to the task. I feel that I am still in the dark many an Easter Sunday. I have trouble finding new things to talk about. But, then again, it’s in the dark where a lot of things take place:
- It was in the dark of wilderness that Jesus was tempted and learned that no one lives by bread alone, but by the very words of God.
- It was in the dark that Jesus gave his final breath: “From noon on,” Matthew wrote in his gospel, “darkness came over the whole land.”
- The resurrection occurs in darkness. Those of us who gathered in the wee hours of the mourning for sunrise service were too late. Jesus already came like–you guessed it–“a thief in the night.”
But, you know, I’m not the only one in the dark around here. I have a feeling that many of you are in the dark too. In fact, many people come here every week precisely because they’re in the dark. It’s like when I hear people complain that churches are full of hypocrites. Of course there are hypocrites in the church, dummy! Why else go to church than to know that the only way to be saved from hypocrisy is found right here in this place, at the foot of this cross?
It’s because we’re in the dark that we come like King Zedekiah coming to Jeremiah at night, wondering, “Is there a word from the Lord?” Or the Reverend Nicodemus sneaking away to visit Jesus in the cover of darkness to ask how he can be saved. Or like Pharaoh, who comes to Moses after nightfall to ask for a blessing.
By being in the dark and owning up to our sin or our regrets or our hypocrisy, we become just like Jesus’ disciples on Easter day: We are nowhere to be found, locked in some room scared to death. We fear the darkness and emptiness; but, we start in darkness before we move towards the light!
John’s Easter story in chapter 20 is appropriate for those of us stumbling in the dark because the story doesn’t begin in glory or in the midst of Alleluias or hosannas. Rather, according to verse 1, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb “while it was still dark” to finish the burial rituals left undone from two days ago.
She came, according to local pastor Bill Self, like a sorry intern sent to clean up campaign headquarters after her boss lost the big election the night before.
So, here we have Mary at the tomb while it was dark and, upon finding the tomb empty, expected the worst. She went to get Peter and another disciple, and they come to the tomb. Same thing: They expected the worst and they headed back home, shoulders slumped ever lower, and went back to bed.
Mary remained there, however, and she wept. Unlike Peter, she was not afraid of the dark or emptiness. As a person who once had 7 demons in her, she knew a thing or two about darkness.
Finally, angels appeared and asked, “Why are you weeping?” Then Jesus appeared and repeated the question. Mary, still enshrouded in darkness, didn’t recognize him and mistook him as the gardener.
Jesus called her name–light pierced the darkness!–and she recognized him. They embrace, and he told her not to hold on, that his work was far from finished. She ran and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”
Interesting, this scripture is: It’s not until nightfall–darkness–that Jesus appeared to the disciples for the first time on Easter with “peace” and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is in the midst of this dark that we are reminded how John’s Gospel begins in the first place: “The light pierces the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).
The Easter story moves quickly from here like a good action movie: Next, we get the story of Thomas, himself in the dark and wanting proof. Then Jesus disappeared for a while. He left the disciples clueless, and the disciples went back to doing what’s familiar–they go fishing.
They fished all day long, and scripture tells us: “But that night, they caught nothing.” Then: daybreak! (John 21:4) Jesus appeared to them a third time, the disciples caught fish, Jesus made breakfast, they shared communion and–boom!– light pierced the darkness yet again, they recognized Jesus.
Jesus asked Peter over breakfast (three times): “Do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter responded, “You know I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.” To the rest of the disciples, Jesus added, “Follow me.”
It was a second commissioning because it was back on Easter that Jesus commanded them: “Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”
Once again, with a “feed my sheep!” Jesus pierces the darkness, and our own darkness too. Will Willimon, in the devotional Disciplines 2013, puts it this way:
“Here in the darkness, we are witnessing the birth of the church, a group of half-understanding, often cowardly, people trying but not always succeeding to follow Jesus…down a path few of us really want to go.”
The difficulty of coming up with an Easter sermon simply reminds us that even after all these thousands of years–even after Jesus has appeared in our lives so many times–that we, too, still get stuck in the dark.
And darkness surrounds us. There is…
- Exploitation and mass consumerism consuming us in its slick blackness.
- Broken tax codes that leave too many in the darkness of inequality and injustice.
- War and violence that brings its deathly shadow to too many lands.
- Poverty and hunger that creates dark in the pit of the stomach.
- Cancer and grief and illness–a darkness that lingers and lingers and lingers…
We, like the disciples, continue to stumble in darkness, and we need Jesus’ light yet again to pierce it, to war against it, to remind us that we are not in the dark and empty space all alone. We need bread broken, the taste of juice whetting our lips to awaken us from our slumber.
And we still have Jesus asking us–not once, not three times, but over and over and over again: “Do you love me?”
“Yes, Jesus, we do!”
“Then feed my sheep! Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”
“But how Jesus? It’s too dark? We can’t see in front of our very eyes!”
By walking through the Easter story, we walk with Mary and the disciples through these three movements:
- We start in the grief and sorrow and dark of Good Friday.
- We move to discovery and experience of Easter morning.
- And, after that, we repeat communion and get Jesus’ repetitive but never redundant commissioning.
It’s a movement we do continually because we will always stumble, but even in the darkest hour, light pierces our darkness yet again!
In a recent article in Desert Spirituality, occupational therapist, Mary Gilligan, tells a story of a time she was hospitalized for a serious illness. She couldn’t eat for days other than those lousy ice chips–you know what I’m talking about. Between her hunger and the medication, she experienced hallucinations and bad dreams.
She tried to pray, but no words–not even the “Hail Marys” she knew as a Catholic–brought her comfort. She drifted in and out of consciousness, the pain was excruciating. Then, one day, she had a vision:
She found herself at the bottom of a spiral staircase in darkness. With just enough strength to take it one step at a time, she began to ascend. Each step brought her closer to the light until, finally–like a child with a father–she saw herself crawling in Jesus’ lap.*
She held her hand. She rubbed her head. She spoke words of comfort to her:
“There will be a long journey ahead, but I will be with you every step of the way.”
Reminds me of the hymn we sang this morning, “Because He Lives”:
“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone..”
It was in a similar place of darkness–in fear, behind locked doors–that Jesus gave the disciples strength to take their first step towards the light. That is the same strength Jesus gives us today. It’s not much–only a “Peace be with you”–but it’s enough for today…and tomorrow.
“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus tells us as he pierces our darkness, “So send I you.”
It’s when we see and experience the light that we find ourselves running like Mary with a simple message, “I have seen the Lord!”
Amen and amen.