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John 20:1-18 "While It Was Still Dark"
Scott Hoezee


Friday evening we held our Tenebrae service. If you were here, then you know that that service of shadows ended in darkness and silence. Liturgically that service was the deepest shade of purple that culminated the purple season of Lent. This morning, however, you came to church anticipating the color white. You anticipated not darkness but brightness. You anticipated hearing from our brass instrumentalists. A few years ago the ensemble "The Canadian Brass" issued a CD titled "High, Bright, Light, and Clear," and in some ways you could use those same words to describe a typical Easter service.

But listen: Easter may lead to the light, but it begins in the darkness. Easter may ultimately be about things that are high, bright, light, and clear, but it begins in things that are low, dim, dark, and murky. Even in John 20 we are told right up front that for Mary Magdalene, the day that would eventually become known as Easter began "while it was still dark." That is important to notice because in a very real way, how you get to Easter may well have a very big influence on the Easter you experience. The setting from which the resurrection emerges shapes what the resurrection means (if it means anything to you at all).

John helps us see that. This is now the ninth Easter I have celebrated with all of you here at Calvin Church. Since there are just four gospels that tell the Easter story, that means I've probably preached on each resurrection story twice already and we're starting round three! And so I'll freely admit that some of what we need to observe about the nature of John's resurrection account is material we've reviewed together before. The principal striking feature to John 20 that we've noted in other years is its very non-dramatic, understated nature. If John had available to him the literary equivalent of a trumpet, he didn't blow it. If John had the narrative equivalent of a pipe organ at his disposal, he did not pull out most of the stops but kept playing a rather ordinary background tune throughout most of these verses with only a few stops pulled and the swell partially closed.

Indeed, until the very end of these verses, what you find among the main characters here is not jump-up-and-down Easter joy but head-scratching confusion and even heart-wrenching sorrow. Most of John 20 is spare, subdued, matter-of-fact. Eventually this morning we'll want to wonder together why that is. Obviously it's not that John failed to notice the vital centrality, wonder, and joy of the resurrection. So the reason for his shaping this story in non-triumphant fashion must lie elsewhere. In a little while, we'll ponder that.

But to begin, let's simply take note of the story as it unfolds through John's narration. We begin while it was still dark that first Easter morning. Mary Magdalene finds enough light to pick out her way to the tomb. It's not clear in John what she intended to do once she got there, but you suspect it was simply to mourn, to weep, to pay her respects. We've all done that at the grave of a loved one, so we can identify maybe with the emotions swirling through Mary's mind just then. But if today you came up to a grave only to see mounds of freshly dug-up dirt surrounding an open hole, you would immediately suspect foul play and grave robbery. Jesus wasn't buried in the ground, of course, but in this case a tomb stone that had been shoved aside indicated to Mary the same thing an open hole would flag for us: someone has been tampering with this tomb for some untoward, ghastly purpose.

Mary doesn't investigate any further, nor does she think she needs to. It's obvious what's up. So she runs for help. In general there is a lot of running in this story, but it's mostly frightened and confused running, not leaping and skipping with glee. Peter and the other disciple, presumably John, run to check out Mary's terrible news. They investigate the matter more thoroughly than did Mary but do indeed confirm that not only had the stone been moved, the tomb itself was empty, save for the burial wrappings. But that was just the odd thing: the wrappings were both still there and neatly folded up, too.

Jesus' corpse clearly wasn't there. The most obvious and logical reason was grave robbery, but who ever heard of a neat burglar? If you come home some evening (as my parents once did some years ago) to discover that a thief had been in your house earlier, you expect to find some messes. The drawers the robber had searched for jewelry and money will be on the floor, their contents disheveled and maybe even strewn about. If they swiped your DVD player, you expect to see the entertainment center shoved aside, books and DVD cases littered about. What you would not expect to see is that the thief, though having stolen stuff from you, had also neatly put everything back in its proper place, straightening out the curtains on the window he had broken and putting your drawers back just so.

Scholars claim that it is highly unlikely some ancient grave robber would have taken the time required to unwrap a well-embalmed corpse. Thieves are usually interested in speed so as to reduce the chances of getting caught. And anyway, at the end of John 19 we were told that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had slicked up Jesus' body with aloe and myrrh (a lot of it: nearly seventy-five pounds). Again, scholars claim that would have caused the grave wrappings to stick to Jesus' corpse like glue. But even if some thief did the highly unlikely and arduous thing of unwrapping the dead body, you would not expect him to then be so tidy as to fold and roll up everything in the orderly fashion Peter and John found.

Verse 8 tells us that John observed all this and "believed." But just what did he believe at that precise moment? That Jesus had been raised from the dead by the miraculous power of God? No, verse 9 makes clear that John and Peter did not even understand this as a possibility just then, much less believe it. So it seems likely that what John "believed" was at least the truth of Mary's report (there was no body there) but maybe also he had come to believe that something funny was going on. This was no grave robbery.

In any event, whatever tentative conclusions these two drew at the moment, they are reported in verse 10 as simply going back home. Again, isn't this a striking way to tell this most important of all Bible stories!? Not one single emotion is described. We're not told they were happy or sad, confused or elated, curious or oddly uninquisitive. Nothing. They just went home. They don't even say good-bye to Mary. They just silently walk away and leave the hapless woman to weep by herself in the garden.

Mary wept. We began this chapter "while it was still dark" but no matter how much higher over the horizon the sun had crept by this point in the story, there is a metaphorical sense in which the darkness persists. The very first emotion we have described for us is one of sorrow. She's bawling her eyes out. This is where Easter begins: in darkness and lament, in confusion and the shadow of death. That's not where the story ends, as we'll see in a second, but it is where it begins, and that's important for reasons I'll spell out soon.

But first we'll note John 20's turn toward brighter things. As I mentioned in my article in this month's edition of the Calvin Courier, although God clearly did something to and with Jesus' dead body, what God did was a wholesale transformation of that body, not a mere resuscitation of it. Our Lord was translated into a new mode of resurrection life, and at least one effect of this changeover appears in all four gospels to be that Jesus' physical form was not quite recognizable. (We'll see that again this evening in the delightful story about the journey to Emmaus in Luke 24). As New Testament scholar Michael Welker from Heidelberg once pointed out, when you read the post-resurrection accounts in the gospels, you don't find anyone seeing Jesus, instantly recognizing exactly who he is, and then rushing over to him to say, "Jesus! We're so happy you're back!"

There was something profoundly different about the risen Jesus. He had to keep showing off his scars just to prove that there really was continuity between the Jesus who had died on the cross and the one who stood before them after Easter. Indeed, at the very end of Matthew's gospel, one of the last words we read is that although standing in the midst of his disciples, Jesus looked different enough that "some doubted" it was really him. So also Mary looks right at him but at first mistakes him for a stranger. It is only when Jesus says her name in exactly the same way he'd said it who knows how many times before that she realizes who it is standing there.

The rest of the story flows from there with Mary Magdalene becoming the first ordained evangelist in history as Jesus authorizes her to go and preach the good news to the disciples. She discharges this sacred duty gladly, though you have the feeling that the disciples didn't take her very seriously. Thomas, for instance, will keep doubting for quite a while in the coming days. But Mary's sadness was definitively lifted, and no one could say anything to her to make her question who it was she had met that morning in the garden.

Again, however, compared to what you might expect to find at this juncture in the gospel, this is all pretty low-key and not near as brash, garish, high, bright, light, or clear as we might have expected. Easter doesn't so much burst onto the scene in John's gospel as it creeps onto the scene, emerging from the darkness and the confusion, from the death and the sadness, that set this chapter's tone. I've been hinting to you all morning that there may well be some meaning to be discerned in John's presenting it all just this way. It's getting to be time I tell you what that meaning may be!

I myself like the way John crafted this chapter, partly because it bears all the marks of an authentic re-telling of what really happened that day. It doesn't look like some embellished and embroidered tall tale, which is good because those kinds of stories sometimes sound fake on account of having been jazzed up. For instance, no one actually witnessed Jesus' emerging from the tomb, and so John doesn't pretend anyone had.

Sometimes you can detect it when stories have been embellished with false details. President Reagan, for instance, moved lots of audiences to tears by telling a World War II story about two heroic fighter pilots who were killed after their plane had been badly shot up by the Japanese. The co-pilot's ejector seat jammed and so he couldn't bail out of the plane. The pilot still could have gotten out but he chose to stay, clapping a hand on the co-pilot's shoulder and saying, "All right then, son, we'll fly it down together." It was a very moving story until one day a reporter noticed something fishy: if both men died in the crash, who survived to report that exchange in the cockpit? No one did--the story had been embroidered with faux details thrown in for effect!

John could have done that but the rather stark and austere account he actually wrote looks authentic. But that's not the main reason I like John 20. The main thing that attracts me to this story is that it fits our world and our lives in it. Easter in John 20 emerges from the darkness of death, the shadows of confusion, the sorrows of this sad world. That's exactly where we need Easter. Today too.

A number of you have commented to me in recent weeks that there are so many stellar, salt of the earth members of Calvin Church who are gravely sick just now. A few of you have told me how this is really weighing heavily on your hearts. We simply have to accept that some outstanding people whom we love won't be here next Easter. Beyond Calvin Church, some people have been making much of the fact that this is the first Easter after September 11. A feature article in the most recent issue of Christianity Today is titled "Easter in an Age of Terror: Living and Dying--and Living Again--after September 11." It's understandable why this emphasis is there--you certainly are all well aware how often I've framed sermons with 9/11-related thoughts.

But that singularly awful act of terror does not create the context of death for Easter but simply casts it into an unusually bold relief. But last Easter took place no less in the context of a death-filled world than does this day. Remember that lyric from the hymn "Abide with Me:" "Death and decay in all around I see." The person who wrote that hymn wasn't having a bad day--that's simply a realism-based assessment of life in an entropic universe where death seems like destiny.

John opened this magnificent chapter "while it was still dark," and in a real way the darkness of death persists for us in this congregation and throughout this world. In recent months we've even become more familiar with the instruments of death as we've heard so much talk about daisy-cutter bombs, bunker busters, incendiary cave-targeting missiles. We can maybe understand the logic of what has brought this new war about, but it's finally death we're dealing out, and it ought properly to sadden all of us that it has to be this way. Indeed, lately this old world has seemed "still dark" in ways we've maybe not sensed for a while.

But here's the good news of John 20: Easter still creeps up on us in the darkness! Easter comes for those who, like Mary, find themselves crying their eyes out some days (maybe many days). The triumph of God's Life is real. Jesus lives! It is finally life and not death that has the last, best, most glorious word. We serve a risen Savior who is worthy of every "Alleluia" we can muster this morning and any day.

But we dare not forget that gospel good news emerges from the shadows of the real world in which we live. Death, darkness, and sadness are the context of Easter. Death is Easter's precursor not just in the sense that Jesus had to die before he could be resurrected (obviously!). But death is Easter's forerunner in also the wider sense that Easter's light shines the more brightly precisely because it finds us in the very shadowlands of our lives.

John 20 gives us an Easter that fits us. John 20 gives us an Easter that can go back home with you when you leave here this morning. Because, you see, if Easter's joy and proclamation required the blare of trumpets, the thunder of pipe organs, and the shining brightness of white banners and vestments--if that type of setting were the only place where Easter could thrive--then who among us could take that back home with us? Who among us would claim that just about every single evening when we walk through the door after a day at work, we launch right into the "Hallelujah Chorus" because it had been such a wondrous day? How many of us ride the crest of a joy wave most every moment of the average week? Maybe a few of you do lead that kind of singularly lilting existence, and if so, God bless you in it. But some of the folks I know wake up many mornings "while it is still dark," and they're not sure they can outrun the shadows the balance of the day, either.

That's why John 20 gives us good news we can live by and also live with. Because somewhere in the shadows of your life and my life, a truly risen Savior is lurking, bursting with new life. You see, the darkness of this world does not need to lift completely in ways no one could miss for the truth of Easter to be available. It's here. It's now. He's here, now. And he knows your name. No matter how deep the darkness of your life may seem, listen for that voice calling your name. Because he is calling. Listen. Listen for that voice. Listen and then start living Jesus' new life right now, even while it is still dark. Amen.