I Corinthians 15:19-26
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
They knew that he was dead. That much was beyond question. Mary Magdalene, Peter, John the Beloved Disciple, Nicodemus, Mary his mother…they had seen it happen. They had heard the screams and cries of pain, the crack of the leg bones of the crucified men being broken to hasten death, the final gasps for breath. They had held him in their arms, washed his body and wrapped it in the strips of linen. They had placed him in the cave, had heard the stone being rolled into place and finally the dry, dusty silence that followed.
They had been silent all that night, and the following day and night. It was the feast of the Passover, a great day of rejoicing and celebrating in Jerusalem, and the noise of the crowds of pilgrims was tremendous. Mary, Peter, John, the others…they did not celebrate. They might go through the motions, prepare the meal and set the table, but their hearts found it impossible to celebrate the day.
I wonder if, sometimes, we find ourselves out of sequence with the calendar? I wonder if anyone came here today knowing (or imagining) that you “ought” to feel a certain way, but don’t? As your pastor, I know a few stories—your own Good Friday sufferings, and the struggles that many of you are facing, on your own behalf or that of loved ones.
That sorrow and struggle and suffering continues to affect us all, that much is beyond question. That the world itself, in every place, from Augusta, Georgia to Augusta, Maine, from Atlanta to Australia, still wrestles with the powers of sin and death; that too is beyond question or doubt. Our garden here beside the church is a cemetery, and I frequently encounter people who come to be there, early in the morning, or late in the evening. Their presence bears witness to this ongoing struggle. They come to be with; they come to remember. Not expecting anything in particular.
When the worst thing that could happen, had happened, and the powers of death and destruction had had the final word, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. Not expecting anything in particular, early on that first day of the week; she just wanted to be near him. She just wanted to “be with.”
What she and the others find there is inexplicable. It wasn’t merely “they couldn’t believe their eyes”; it simply wasn’t possible. They saw him on the cross; they washed his lifeless body with their own hands, they laid him in the cave themselves. To learn that this was not a grave robbery, not some twisted prank, left no explanation whatsoever. They all are beyond confused; not knowing how to proceed or what to do next. Peter and John drift off, heading home perhaps, or looking for the first-century equivalent of Starbucks before beginning the day.
Mary remains: still confused, still bewildered, still frustrated beyond words. Perhaps we know that feeling? When there is nothing to be done, no real solution to the problem, and seemingly no way out. All we can do, it appears, is remain there in the moment.
She sees two figures in white robes—messengers, which is the primary meaning of the word “angel.” She doesn’t recognize them as such, just at the moment. We usually recognize angels only after the fact—but that’s another sermon altogether.
She stands, still confused, still weeping. Still not seeing what she doesn’t expect to see.
The gardener—as she supposes—comes up to her. And asks her: “Whom do you seek? Whom are you looking for?”
We’ve heard that question before, earlier in the Gospel of John. When Jesus was in another garden, in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, before he was arrested, twice he asked the authorities who came to arrest him: Whom are you looking for? And twice they answered him: Jesus of Nazareth.
This is the third time that question comes from Jesus’ lips.
The answer is the same, but not the same at all.
Mary cannot see; she cannot recognize; she can barely speak.
In her grief and confusion, she is like one close to death herself.
Until he calls her name.
Until he calls her, by name.
Then she hears. Then she sees. Then she speaks.
Then the breath of life comes into her, as it did in another garden, in Eden, when God created life at the beginning of all things.
Her shock and amazement and incredulity is just that—she didn’t expect to find him at all. He was dead; he was buried; he was gone; that was it. Game over.
But God had something else in mind. When the worst that could happen, did happen, and the powers of death and destruction had had the final word, God had another word after that. And that word brought new life out of old death; breathed the breath of life into dust and ashes. Faced with the worst that human sin and suffering could do, God did something even more wonderful. A new creation comes to birth, by the power and mercy and love of God for all the creation. The last enemy to be destroyed is death; the destruction of death has begun. Christ first; in God’s good time, all the rest of us with him.
She didn’t expect it at all. None of them did. Nor do we.
This week, in those places and situations where you are quite sure that it’s all over, the end has come, no way out…look for the angels. You may not recognize them at first. That’s okay. Look for the gardener, as you may suppose him or her to be, who comes to call you, in the midst of confusion and sadness and incomprehension. Who comes, and calls you by name. Who comes into all our places of death and destruction, to bring good news of God’s life and unconquerable love.
And then, go tell the others. For it is good news, today and tomorrow and all the days to come.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!