First United Methodist Church
April 17, 2022
Rev. Dr. Byron Kaiser
The Magdalene Dilemma
Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" (John 20:15). Sometimes we forget. We focus so much on the joy and celebration of this day, on the bright flowers and festive music that sometimes we forget. "The first sound heard on that first Easter Sunday was the sound of weeping."
Pause for a prayer.
It was Mary Magdalene's weeping. Tears of hopelessness poured out of her in loud wailing and moaning. "Her body convulsed in grief and her sobbing pierced the quiet of the early morning stillness."
We often overlook the fact that this was the sound which greeted the first Easter's dawn in Jerusalem. She had gone to the garden tomb early in the day, as the sun was rising, to finish dressing the body of Jesus. The coming of the Sabbath at sundown on Friday had prevented her from doing a proper job with Jesus' body.
Now Mary was back to finish her sorrowful work. On her way to the garden, she had wondered how she would roll away the enormous stone which sealed the tomb. When she got there, she was relieved to see that she no longer had that problem to worry about, but her relief quickly turned to horror when she discovered that the body was gone! Mary stood there weeping, devastated, and broken hearted.
"They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him."
"Woman, why are you weeping?"
She wept much because she had loved much (Luke 7:47). We, too, who love and weep in our own lives might try to imagine what went through her mind that day. Perhaps she wept to nurture her grief, to make herself recall the bitter events of the last few days. We all do that sometimes, don't we? We replay in our mind's eye the images of sorrows we have suffered, as if to preserve them on some internal video screen to make sure we don't lose them. We summon up those feelings of sadness from the past because we need them in some way, and we aren't quite ready yet to let them go.
Sometimes this isn't all bad. Sometimes we need the pain and memory to cut through the numbness. There are times when our melancholy can be therapeutic, and our tears can begin the healing.
Perhaps this is what Mary was doing. Perhaps she wailed as she forced herself to recall every detail of Jesus' trial and execution.
She remembered the betrayal at Gethsemane, the soldiers dragging Jesus through the city to Herod's palace and then to Pilate's court, the mockery, and the vicious whipping He received from pitiless soldiers who seemed to treat it as sport. She remembered how the disciples deserted Him and she groaned even more deeply as she thought to herself, "How hard it must have been for Jesus to watch His friends deny Him and run away." She remembered the raw hatred in the crowd, the way they spat upon Him and cheered His pain.
Most of all, she recalled His hanging on the cross in helpless agony. She remembered the nails, the blood from His side, and the cruel crown of thorns on His head. She probably thought she would never forget that gruesome sight and wondered if she would ever be able to remember Jesus as He looked when He lived. And now, she thought, His enemies weren't even satisfied to let Him rest in death. They had to come and take His body as a final indignity!
Mary may have been sobbing in the garden as thoughts like these flooded her mind and watered the roots of her grief.
"Woman, why are you weeping?"
Maybe she was crying tears of regret and self-recrimination, chastising herself for not doing more than she did. "If only I had stayed by the tomb," she might have thought to herself, "they wouldn't have been able to steal His body. If only I had asked my brothers to stay here with me and guard the tomb ... if only I hadn't let my friends talk me into going home and getting some sleep. Jesus did so much for me – He saved my life, He saved me from the street life, He redeemed me and restored my soul – why couldn't I have done just this one little thing for Him?”
Again, we do this all the time, don't we, with the losses and sorrows of our lives: we take all the guilt upon ourselves, as if we are to blame in every instance for being less than perfect.
"If only I had done such-and-such with my child; he wouldn't have turned out like he did. If only I had seen the signs of trouble sooner. I might have been able to warn so-and-so about her problem before it was too late. If only I hadn't asked my brother to drive over here and help me paint the house that weekend. He wouldn't have had that accident and would still be alive today."
Whether we are right or wrong about such circumstances (and we usually judge ourselves more harshly and take more blame than we deserve), we often try to make sense of tragedies and disappointments in life by holding ourselves totally responsible for them. Maybe this was also part of Mary's moaning and wailing in the garden on that first Easter Sunday.
"Woman, why are you weeping?"
Whether consciously or not, Mary may also have been weeping for the world, even as she wept for herself and Jesus. Maybe she sensed that the Light of the world had gone out on Calvary's hill, the Light which could have guided people and nations on the paths of peace. "What will happen now?" she may have wondered, as she looked to the future with fear and foreboding. "Where will the healing come from, the enlightenment, the spirit of power and truth which is so lacking in the world? Why does this world beat down and kill off the very goodness it needs the most?"
"Woman, why are you weeping?"
For all these reasons and more, Mary stood there weeping, the sound of her sobbing stabbing the stillness of Easter's sunrise. She turned around and beheld a man. Have you ever had the experience of thinking you were being watched and then turning around to see someone there? That's what happened to Mary - she felt a presence and looked behind her and saw a Man standing there whom she presumed to be the gardener.
The Man spoke: "Mary."
Suddenly her bottomless grief turned to heightening joy, as incredulity gave way to certainty. Suddenly, her tears of disconsolation became shouts of exultation. Suddenly everything was changed, and nothing would ever be the same again, not for her and not for the world.
He was alive!
Miraculously and unbelievably, the same Man whose cold, dead body she had come to dress with funeral oils was standing there before her, alive and well and calling her name. Wonder of wonders to Mary and wonder of wonders to us as well - Christ the Lord is risen today! Mary was blessed to be present now of creation, the moment of the "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) when the kingdom of death was ended, and the kingdom of eternal life was begun.
But we are no less blessed today.
But we are no less blessed today. We are no less blessed than Mary, even after all these years, because the Resurrection can be as present to us as it was to her. It's a matter of belief, a matter of faith; and it makes all the difference in the world.
When you believe in your heart and soul that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, you have a profound sense of inner peace and joy, a sense of triumph in life which no one or nothing can take away.
You carry a light inside which no amount of darkness can overcome (John 1:5).
You have a spiritual foundation holding up the rest of your life which neither time nor trouble can erode.
No, you're not perfect, and yes, you still have your share of difficulties and disappointments in the world, but when you believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, you have a serenity and inner strength which gives you the long view of things - a long view which stretches all the way to eternity. It puts the pressure and problems of the moment in their proper perspective.
After all, what is there to really defeat us now that Christ is alive again? Surely life can hurt us, but now it can never destroy us. Surely life can challenge us, but now it can never consume us, because now we are "more than conquerors" (Romans 8:37) through faith in our Lord who is risen today.
Perhaps I can explain what I mean by comparing the way we live to the way we read a novel. Most people start on page one and continue to the end, without having a clue as to where they are headed. But in living with an Easter faith, it's as if we have read the final chapter first and then gone back to read the rest of the book.
As we read the story, we experience joys and sorrows, we are frightened and amused - we even shed a tear or two as the plot twists and turns along the way. But because we have read the final chapter, we already know how the book turns out. We already know that in the end, we will all "live happily ever after," so even the tears we shed in the middle of the book aren't quite so bitter or hopeless as they surely would have been otherwise. This is what Easter has done for us and what a difference this makes in life! What a difference it makes to bring to our present problems the perspective of eternity!
Look up and See!
"Woman, why are you weeping? Why do you act as if all hope is gone? Look up and see that they have not taken your Lord away - He is standing there before you alive as can be!"
There was a young woman living in Washington, D.C. during the Second World War. Her husband, who had been stationed at a nearby Army base, was killed a year earlier during a training exercise - they had been married just four months. During that whole year, this young widow felt more dead than alive. She merely went through the motions of living. Her family and friends were worried about her and wondered if she would ever "snap out of it."
Easter Sunday came along, and a friend asked the young widow to go to church with her. It happened that they went to hear the legendary Peter Marshall, who preached in an historic Presbyterian church which still stands in downtown Washington, a few blocks from the White House.
That morning, Peter Marshall spoke of Mary coming to the tomb and how her tears turned to joy. He described the sound of a wind rustling through the tomb as if the breath of God were blowing by. He described the sight of Jesus rising from that cold, stone slab, swaying a bit on wounded feet and then walking out into the garden. He described the smell, "the whiff of strange scents which must have drifted back to the Man from that tomb, [the smell] of linen and bandages, spices and myrrh, close air, and blood ... By the time Peter Marshall finished that sermon, the people in that church felt as if they had been there in the garden to witness the first Easter themselves!
When the service was over, the young widow practically walked on air as she left the church, and her friend couldn't believe the change which had come over her. "What happened to you in there?" she asked. "The weight has finally been lifted," the young woman replied, "now I can go on living again."
That modern woman saw just what Mary saw so long ago and what we may see today. She saw Jesus risen from the grave and suddenly a glimmer of hope replaced her inconsolable sorrow. Suddenly, she felt the comfort of knowing that a crucified and risen Christ must ultimately prevail over whatever would diminish or destroy her. Suddenly she realized she would never feel so abandoned again; she knew God's love would see her through.
Of course, it's not just that Jesus was raised from a long-ago grave that matters this morning; what matters more is that Jesus is still alive even now. As the woman discovered on Easter Sunday in Peter Marshall's church, the fact that Jesus still lives is what rescues us today and encourages us for tomorrow.
So, it is with us.
Remember the Magdalene’s Dilemma when Mary first went to the garden, she couldn't find Jesus. She looked for Him in vain because she was looking for a dead man. So, it is with us. If we look for a dead Christ, the One who lived two thousand years ago in Israel, we might admire Him and learn something from Him - we might be intrigued and inspired by Him - but we won't experience the Risen Christ who lives with us today.
This is the Jesus who saves and sustains. This is the Jesus who stands before us in the garden and calls our name, the Jesus to whom we may turn and shout for joy: "Rabboni!"
Know today that Jesus lives. Know that the past is no longer a burden, and the future is now a promise. The tyranny of sorrow is overthrown, replaced by the kingdom of joy.
Because He lives, we can surely face tomorrow no matter what may come our way today. "All fear is gone," and yes, "life is worth the living just because He lives" (Gloria and William Gaither).
Like Mary so long ago, we discover on this Easter morning how inexpressible sorrow gives way to unutterable joy and suddenly, there is no need for weeping anymore.
Thanks be to God! Amen.