While It Was Still Dark

Sunday, March 31, 2024
Isaiah 25:6-9 & John 20:1-18
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

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There once was a girl named Mary Ann Bird. She had a hard life. She was born with a cleft palate, which left her face with a noticeable scar. Her legs were uneven, so she walked with a pronounced limp. You can imagine that her appearance left her victim to the school-age cruelty that mocks difference. The words of her peers left her hurting in a world that already made her feel alone. 

One year she had Miss Leonard as her teacher. Miss Leonard was kind of frumpy, but kindness beamed from her. In those days teachers were required to give a basic hearing test. One by one, the teacher would call each student to her desk. She would have the student cover one ear and then the other while whispering something to see if the child could hear her. Usually the teacher would say something simple like “The sky is blue” or “I like your shoes.” Mary Ann Bird dreaded this test. Along with her other infirmities, she was also deaf in one ear. This was one more chance to feel different. 

When it came time for her to take the hearing test, Mary Ann limped forward. She covered her bad ear first and then, as Miss Leonard leaned in close, Mary Ann heard words that would change her life. Miss Leonard knew this was her good ear, so for the test, she whispered, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.” Those words cut straight to her heart. Amidst all of her hurt and personal darkness, she heard the voice of love and acceptance. She heard that she was wanted. Those words changed her. 

Mary Ann grew up to be a teacher herself continued to extend the kindness she received from Miss Leonard to the children of her class. The care of someone willing to see her, to love her, and to accept her changed her life. 

The story of Easter also includes a woman also named Mary. We know her as Mary Magdalene, which really is Mary of Magdala. Magdalene is not a last name. It’s her home. Like Mary Ann Bird, Mary Magdalene did not fit into normal expectations, which made her an outsider. But an encounter with Jesus led to a changed life. Jesus had been going around doing what he did — proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God — and with that he brought wholeness into many lives. One of those healed was Mary Magdalene. Like Miss Leonard, I can imagine Jesus looking on Mary with love and whispering in her ear, “Mary, you are special. I love you and set you free. Live fully and freely.” Luke tells us that several women, including Mary, followed Jesus from that point forward, underwriting his ministry with their own resources. Mary followed Jesus all the way to the end. In all four gospels Mary is there for the crucifixion, and she is there to care for the body after death. In John’s telling, Mary Magdalene is the only one there early in the morning darkness on Easter. She is the first witness to the resurrection. 

You see, there is life before death. There is also life after death. And there is also life after life after death. That’s true for Mary, and it’s true for all of us. Let me explain by way of Mary’s story. First, there is life before death. All of us have life before death. Mary did, but the details are sparse. We know she is from Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. We know that she is single because the Bible never describes her as the wife of so-and-so, which was the common way of describing people at the time. Maybe she never married, or maybe she was widowed. We don’t know. We can also safely assume that she was the major inheritor of her father’s estate. She has means to support herself and to support the ministry of Jesus.

We also know that she had suffered prior to encountering Jesus. Luke 8 says that, “The twelve were with [Jesus], as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” was among the followers. She had suffered, and Jesus relieved her of that suffering. In Mary’s life before death, her story — like ours — was complex and unique. She knew freedom and joy; she also knew sorrow. 

This healing changed her life. For the rest of his ministry, Jesus had Mary’s support. It went beyond financial support. She loved him and followed him all the way to Jerusalem. While Scripture is silent on all the places where Mary was there along with the disciples, it’s not a stretch to imagine her there with them on Palm Sunday or close by when Jesus cleared the Temple of moneychangers. It’s not hard to picture her there with the others when Jesus shared his last Passover meal. She could have seen the guards arrive at Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. The spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Well, Mary was there. She saw him nailed to the tree. She saw him pierced in the side. She was there when the sun refused to shine. She was there when they laid him in the tomb. With love, she came early on Sunday morning to care for Jesus’ body, only to find the body gone. This was Mary’s life before Jesus’ death. 

But there is also life after death. Mary is the first to experience the reality of the resurrection. Mary saw Jesus die. While it was still dark, she came to the tomb — an act of grief and devotion. In her life after Jesus’ death, she was blindly making her way forward. Only, something was wrong. The stone was rolled away. Unsure what she should do, she went for reinforcements. She ran and found Peter and John, assuming someone had stolen the body over night. They ran to the tomb, finding it empty, the grave clothes still there. In silence they looked around, trying to understand, and then they left. 

But Mary returned. She followed Peter and John back to the tomb, watching the whole scene through weeping eyes. Even after they have left, she stands there, tears blurring her vision, staring into death. What would her life be like now that Jesus was gone? What is life after his death? What do you do with a world where those we love inevitably die? She finally musters the courage to look inside the tomb, but she sees more than Peter and John. She see the linen wrappings, yes, but, unlike the men, she also sees two angels. Maybe it’s her tears. Maybe it’s her profound faith. Maybe God just knew she needed them there, but she sees angels. She sees through tears what others cannot. They break into her sorrow. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they ask. 

Why is she crying? Death. The finality of it all. What once was will no longer be. 

One theologian says that hope is “an act of yielding in the present to the assurances of God’s future….The disgrace of being helpless, powerless, and exploited; the shame of being stepped on and not being able to resist the powers of death. It is the humiliation of being…ultimately inadequate.” Hope believes even that will be overcome. This is the experience of Mary in this crucial moment in the empty tomb. What will she do with her life after death?

She says the obvious. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Her life after his death is on hold. She doesn’t know what to do next.

Like he did when he healed her those years earlier, Jesus approaches her with healing words. Her vision is still blurred, so she doesn’t know it’s him. Honestly, who would think it was him? She saw Jesus die. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” he whispers. Heart still in pieces, eyes full of tears, she assumes the gardener has shown up. Perhaps he knows what has happened to the body. “Where’s Jesus? What have you done with him? You may have no respect for his body, but I do! Show me where it is, and I will put his body where it belongs!” 

But then, a voice. Like a laser, it goes straight in her heart. “Mary!” It was the same voice that spoke into her darkness all those years earlier. It was the same voice she heard teach the crowds and speak healing to others. It was the same voice she knew from countless meals. This was not the gardener. It was Jesus. He was alive. Indeed, there was life after death — for Jesus and for Mary. Jesus had broken the power of death. Mary had a new purpose for her life. Mary had been the only one at the tomb. She was the first to encounter the risen Jesus. And now she is the first to share good news. “I have seen the Lord!” she gushes when she sees the disciples. 

There was life before death. There is life after death. And now there is life after life after death. Who will Mary become with this resurrection reality? How will she live now that God in Christ has conquered death? 

That’s also the question for all of us. Who are we becoming with this resurrection reality? How will we live now that God in Christ has conquered death? Only Mary was there for all the firsts, but the reality of resurrection profoundly reshapes everything for all of us. One commentator puts it this way, “If we really believe in this resurrection, we must believe it down to our very bones. You can’t halfway believe in resurrection. Either he got up from the grave, or he didn’t. And if we really believe that he got up, then that belief should transform our every day: who we are and what we do has to be different. Belief in the resurrection is not just a response to a survey of belief; belief in the resurrection changes our very existence, right here and right now. We are free from the normal bounds of death’s consequences and exist in this world with a newfound confidence born of resurrection power. It’s a confidence that breaks the chain of limitations that we put on ourselves, one that allows us to be at our best in this world.” 

Like Mary, through our weeping eyes, we can stare death in the face (whether our own mortality or that of someone else) and have the confidence that God is in the resurrection business, that death is a broken power. Through our tears, we can look at any situation that seems hopeless and dare to bring the light of Christ with us as we find new life where all seemed lost. Through our weeping eyes, we have the audacity to live as citizens of heaven now, bringing heaven to earth when we live justly and kindly and humbly because we know the power of Christ’s resurrection overcomes all of that, bit-by-bit now and, in the fullness of time, will overcome it all. 

Friends, there is life after death. May you know that not just on Easter but on into eternity. 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!