Fear of the Unknown, April 17th, 2022
Spirit of power and new possibility, open our minds to understanding, our hearts to loving, and our wills to carrying out the mission of the Risen Christ, God’s Living Word. Amen.
With the reality of the last year and the unsettling times we’ve experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d like to look at our New Testament reading concerning Mary and the empty tomb in light of the fear and confusion she would have felt upon discovering that the body of Jesus was no longer where it had been placed by his followers after his crucifixion. After all that we’ve been through, we can better relate to the state of mind Mary would have been in when she came upon that empty tomb. When things aren’t as expected, we, like Mary feel lost and confused.
But first of all, a little historical background on the person of Mary. She was called Mary Magdalene as a means of distinguishing her from the other Marys who we read about in the New Testament, most notably Mary, the mother of Jesus. The word Magdalene comes from the name of her hometown, Magdala, which at that time was a city in Israel, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It no longer exists today.
We first read about Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus was in the fishing village of Capernaum performing various healing miracles. Capernaum was also on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and its main claim to fame was that it was the hometown of the Apostle Peter.
Here’s what the Apostle Luke has to say about Mary Magdalene in his Gospel, “Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”.
We can understand from this that Jesus and his disciples had gone through Magdala and there had encountered Mary and healed her from whatever aliment she had. After this Mary, and a number of other women who had been healed, became followers of Jesus. From that point on we hear no more about her until the crucifixion of Jesus, when the Apostle John, in his Gospel, is describing the scene at the foot of the cross. John simply says, “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”.
After Jesus had healed her, Mary had become a follower of Jesus and she and a number of other women accompanied him and the disciples on their missionary journeys. And not only that, but Luke also told us that these same women used their financial resources to feed the disciples. And no doubt they had been there on that glorious day a week earlier when Jesus had entered Jerusalem to the sounds of the crowds cheering for their Messiah, that day which we call Palm Sunday.
But now everything had changed. Here she was at the foot of the Cross looking up at the one who had had the power to heal her of her sickness yet had been unable to overcome the strength of the Roman authorities and so was left to suffer and die in the most terrible way. We can only imagine her sense of despair.
It must have seemed to Mary that the rug had been pulled out from underneath her. Here she was, abandoned in Jerusalem, far from her hometown, without a sense of purpose and not knowing what was going to happen next.
Sounds a lot like what we’re experiencing, doesn’t it? Even with the introduction of the vaccines, things are far from getting back to the way they were. Some days there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. We still feel as if we’re cut adrift with no sight of landfall.
John says in his gospel, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”. The Apostle Luke, in his gospel, provides much more detail. This is what he tells us, “Joseph of Arimathea, went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.”
For some reason John speaks only of Mary coming to the tomb early that morning, while Luke mentions that all the women from Galilee went together. There doesn’t seem to be any agreement among Bible scholars on why John focuses just on Mary alone but obviously it was important to him.
Also, as you can imagine after having witnessed the crucifixion on Friday, Mary is deeply depressed. Hope is gone and replaced by fear. She is not thinking of the resurrection. She has seen her Messiah and Lord die a horrible death. It’s over. In that moment, the dream of a glorious kingdom is gone.
But early -- very early -- on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and some other women rise and go to the tomb to complete the hurried burial. And what does she discover? An empty tomb.
Now, you’d think this would be a cause for joy, the body of Jesus isn’t there so that must mean that he has risen from the dead, as he had promised. But quite the opposite is true, this is Mary’s reaction, “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.””. She’s not thinking of a resurrection, she’s imagining grave robbers. Just like in our time, often the first thought is negative.
And at the time, this only makes sense. It’s easy for us to be critical and think she should have realized that Jesus had risen from the dead, after all we know how it all turns out, hindsight is 20/20. But for her that wasn’t the case. Maybe she hadn’t even heard Jesus talk about his resurrection, after all she wasn’t part of his inner circle, one of his 12 disciples. All she knew for sure was that he had cured her of her sickness, so he did have some special powers.
Now, after she told Peter and John about the missing body, they came running to the tomb to see for themselves. They see the stone rolled away and Peter goes into the tomb and sees the burial clothes, but no Jesus. John follows him in and sees the same. Not knowing what to do next, they come out of the tomb and return to where they are staying, leaving Mary crying outside to tomb. For her, things only seem to be getting worse.
Not knowing what to do next she bends down and looks inside. This is what took place, “she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”. This doesn’t help her any, two strange figures in the tomb of her Saviour. She must have been even more distraught, what are they doing there? Things are going from bad to worse.
In her grief Mary turns away from the mouth of the tomb and sees another man standing there. He says to her, ““Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?””. In her hopelessness and confusion, she doesn’t recognise Jesus and supposes him to be the caretaker, so she replies, ““Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.””. She’s thinking frantically, if this is the man who moved the body of Jesus, hopefully he will tell her where it is.
Seems strange, doesn’t it, that she wouldn’t recognise the one who had cured her! Yet, Mary was just like us! She was overwhelmed and not thinking clearly. At times over the last year, when our daily lives had changed so much, didn’t it seem that the sky had come down on us, and at times we forgot all the assurances of God? We felt sorry for ourselves, became anxious and upset. We so quickly forget the promise of Jesus, “And, remember, I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
But with one word, Jesus changed everything. John writes, “Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”. Through the will of Jesus, Mary came to recognise her risen Lord and Saviour. She came to understand that he had risen from the dead. He was with her once again. You can imagine the joy in her heart as she ran to say to the other disciples, ““I have seen the Lord””.
And isn’t that the truly good news of Easter. What keeps us going is the realization that Jesus can enter one's life and go with us through the trials, pressures, tears and joys of life right here on earth. He’s with us through all the difficulties we face. No one wants to face pressures all alone; it helps to have someone with you, especially our Saviour. And not only someone like yourself, as we saw through the Easter scriptures and his suffering, but one who can really understand how you feel. In addition, one who has authority and power, one who can work out solutions to your seemingly insoluble problems, what a comfort that is! What a gift from God!
In the weeks and months ahead there’ll still be more difficult problems to face. Like the Coronavirus, things that seem like they will never end. Fears and anxieties, loneliness, emptiness, heartache and sorrow will always be here on earth. But the good news of Easter is, we don't have to face any of that alone. There will be joy again!
Listen to these words of Jesus, found in the Book of Revelation, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come into him and will live with him and he with me.". Quite a promise, isn’t it! We need only ask, and he will be there for us.
Let me close with this quote from J.C. Ryle, who was a 19th century Anglican Bishop. He wrote these lines in commenting on our New Testament reading where we find Mary at the open tomb weeping over the disappearance of the body of Jesus, when in actual fact he is alive and standing right in front of her.
Ryle writes, “What thoughtful Christians can fail to see, that we have here a faithful picture of many a believer’s experience? How often we are anxious when there is no just cause for anxiety! How often we mourn over the absence of things which in reality are within our grasp, and even at our right hand! Two-thirds of the things we fear in life never happen at all, and two-thirds of the tears we shed are thrown away and shed in vain. Let us pray for more faith and patience and allow more time for the full development of God’s purposes. Let us believe that things are often working together for our peace and joy, which seemed at one time to contain nothing but bitterness and sorrow.”
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, we thank you again for the beauty, the consistency of the Word of God, and particularly regarding this most marvelous of all events, the resurrection of our Savior. As we think about our crucified and buried and risen Saviour, as we think about what he has done for us, may our hearts be filled with joy and gratitude. We thank you that Christ rose and that he lives, and that we live in him and that he calls us brothers and sisters. May we be faithful in believing and proclaiming his glory. Let us leave here today knowing He is with us this Easter day and in all our days to come. Amen.