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What If? What if I don’t have what I need? What if I lose my job?
What I get I sick?
What if someone I love gets sick?
What if we lose everything?
I’ve always known that asking what if questions is not helpful. Yet I’ve found myself doing this over the past few weeks. I suppose that I usually do my best to be ready for whatever might come. In school, I always studied for my tests. After school, I did research before job interviews. I practiced dance routines and I read before I write sermons. I do my best to be ready and to prepare. But it’s hard to be ready for that which you don’t expect. We’ve been hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ a lot lately. This new reality we find ourselves in of social isolation and physical distancing and cutting out the non-essentials is unprecedented in our time. And even though this coronavirus has been in the news since January, most of us probably couldn’t have imagined how much it would impact our lives. For the longest time, it was something over there. And then suddenly, it was here and we weren’t ready.
There are different ways we can react when we’re not ready. For some of us, we get so caught up in the unknown that it causes us lost sleep at best and crippling anxiety at worst. For others, we’ve had the experience of going through the unexpected and coming out on the other end. Maybe it was a cancer diagnosis, or a marriage ending, or a job loss. As an adoptive parent, I had to get used to living in the unexpected. The whole process of adopting is accompanied by the disclaimer that things might not work out. You have to be ready for the unexpected.
Our passage today is a story of the unexpected. We probably know it well, but for those who were living it, they could not have prepared for what they were about to see; the empty tomb. Throughout Jesus’ time on earth, he told his disciples that he would be leaving them but they never quite grasped what it was he was saying. Even as far back as John 2, we have this conversation between Jesus and the Jews where he challenges them to destroy this temple in 3 days and he will build it back up. He’s often talking to his disciples about his death and resurrection but no one gets it.
It’s significant that this story is taking place in a garden. That should take us back to Genesis. In the beginning, life was created in the garden. Man and woman walked, ate and talked with God in the garden. It was bustling with life and growth and the promise of newness. But then there was sin. Adam and Eve’s actions caused death to enter into this place that was bustling with life. Now, we see that Jesus is buried in a tomb in a garden. It is a place that Mary comes to expecting to find death. Not knowing that what Jesus has done, has brought life to this place of death. And not just life but resurrected life. Life in the spirit.
Mary’s discovery of the tomb is interesting. She sees that the tomb has been rolled away and doesn’t bother to look inside. She runs to tell Peter and the one called the Beloved disciple that someone has taken the body of Jesus. Somehow, she knows the body is gone, even though that’s not what she saw. Perhaps she’s so consumed by grief that she can’t imagine something good has come out of the death of someone she loved. Besides, she saw the stone rolled away and in her experience, that’s not a good thing. When Peter and the Beloved disciple hear Mary’s report, they go to investigate for themselves. They see the empty tomb and the linens and the face cloth and what do they do? They return home. Puzzled. Confused. Distraught.
So, the author goes back to Mary. She’s returned to the tomb and she’s weeping. This reminds us of another tomb-side scene. The time when Jesus goes to the grave of Lazarus and he weeps. There is something about these two scenes that show us the depth of grief that accompanies the death of a loved one. Jesus, God made flesh, felt all the emotions that we feel as humans. But we also remember that Jesus had to go to the tomb of Lazarus. There was something about going to the place of death, about having the full experience of grief and being faced with the reality of loss that needed to happen there. And for Mary, she does the same thing. She goes back to the tomb and this time, she looks inside. We know from the very first verse of this chapter that Mary’s eyes have not been opened to the truth. Remember, that for the author, the time of day often represents the character’s level of spiritual understanding and we’re told that Mary goes to the tomb while it is still dark. Mary sees the angels and they ask her why she’s crying and she tells them that her Lord has been taken. Then she turns around. She turns around and sees Jesus, but she doesn’t know it’s Jesus until he calls her by name. And in saying her name, her eyes are suddenly opened. It is once she realizes Jesus knows her, that she knows him.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been a situation where suddenly your eyes were opened to some truth or you have a realization of what’s going on around you. When I hear the phrase “Say My Name”, my mind goes to the Destiny’s Child song by that name. I remember in grade 7, a classmate and I were selected to go this workshop by the York Region School Board on racial awareness. We were told to come up with a creative way to talk about race. My friend and I re-wrote the words to “Say My Name” and so that it became “Say My Race”. It was actually really good; we talked about equality and diversity and the coordinators loved it. But I remember having this moment where my eyes were opened as I looked around the room and noticed that we, the students, all had something in common. We weren’t white. I kind of had to check and so I glanced at my friend and saw oh, her too, not white. Then I realized why I had been chosen to come. I remember questioning, should they have sent us or would it make more sense to send people who were white to learn about racial awareness. Well, given that I had to look at my friend to see that she wasn’t white, it might have been good for me to be there. But that was the first time that I remember being singled out because of my race and my eyes were opened to a new reality.
Mary, at the tomb has had her eyes opened to a new reality. A reality where death is not the end. A reality where her greatest fear and her deepest sorrow last but for a moment. And there’s so much that happens in this exchange she has with Jesus. She sees him, really sees him, and cries out “Teacher!”. She’s acknowledging who Jesus is to her, but also who she is to him – a disciple. She must reach out for him because he tells her not to hold on to him. Was he practicing social distancing? Probably not. He was likely telling her that things were going to be different now. She had spent the last three years dwelling in Jesus’ presence, learning from him and living in fellowship with now. The time for abiding was over. Now it was time to go out and tell people. Mary’s initial response is to go back to the way things were. And why not, they were good. They worked well. It’s a very human response to want to go back to the way things were. We are creatures of habit. We like that which is comfortable and familiar. But not so with God. One author writes that our task as Christians “is not finding God in the past, much less dwelling there, but rather catching up with a God who has so far outdistanced us and our obsolescent ways of thinking”. God is a God of new beginnings.
Incarnation to Resurrection
When Jesus appears in his resurrected form, it’s clear he has changed. Mary doesn’t even recognize him. Does this mean that there was something wrong with Jesus before? No! But it does mean that incarnation is not the final destination, resurrection is. The resurrected Jesus speaks to God’s newness. He’s defeated death and the grave and sin. And this newness emanates outward from him as he interacts with others. We see in this exchange that Mary has also changed as she relates to Jesus. Jesus tells her to go, not to his disciples but to his brothers. And Mary has become his sister. And the first task that Jesus gives her as his sister is to tell the brothers that Jesus is alive. She is the first to share this good news. She is the apostle to the other apostles. She is the first to preach the resurrection. She goes and tells them that she has seen the Lord. She preaches new life in Christ, new life for the disciples, new life for us all.
The question for us this Easter Sunday, is do we need to turn around so that we can see Jesus? Are we like Mary, looking at the empty tomb, searching for what we lost? Are we clinging to a past that was good and missing out on what is better? Do we need to have our eyes opened to who Jesus is?
We are living in an unprecedented time in which most of the world is shut down. And I believe that during this time, God is calling his Church to abide in him. Many of our distractions have been taken away from us. Many of the things that made us busy are gone. So, as we’re staying home, let’s take the opportunity to spend time with Jesus. Let’s be reading our Bibles and praying and seeking his will together. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him in preparation for his death. This word abide means that we have union with Christ and there’s a sense of mutuality involved there. We abide in Christ and he abides in us and the result of this is that we bear fruit.
The resurrection was unprecedented. It had never happened before in that way. And it changed everything. What if we are being called to abide in Jesus because we are going to enter a time of unprecedented new life in the church? What if we are being called to abide in our Saviour so that when this is all over, the church isn’t just about incarnational ministry but about resurrection ministry? Incarnation is good but we serve a God who gives new life. After all, Christianity is about new life. So how can we be resurrection ready?
It might be hard to celebrate Easter this year because it’s going to look very different than it used to. We may not be with our families and that’s hard. We’re going to go back into the week and hear about a lot of bad things happening around the world and here. So, what are we celebrating today? We are celebrating that when all seems lost and there is little reason to hope, God steps in with resurrection power and he creates life where there was none. We are celebrating that our hope is in Jesus who is alive. He is risen!
For now, as we social distance and self-isolate and quarantine, we are waiting at the tomb. We wait in the garden; the first place that man and woman walked and talked with the Creator. For now, we abide with our risen Saviour and rest in his love and his peace. For now, we seek him like never before. And soon we will hear the voice of Jesus calling us out the way he called Lazarus out. The voice of Jesus will call us to roll away the stone, to take off the linens that bind the dead and to “release the church to its true vocation.” Turn around and hear the voice of Jesus as he calls your name. Resurrection is coming.
What does that resurrection look like?
It’s recovery from addiction.
It’s the poor being lifted out of their poverty.
It’s people coming out of spiritual blindness into the light.
It’s the healing of relationships that seem beyond repair.
It’s the healing of hearts that are broken.
It’s racial reconciliation and gender reconciliation.
It’s the destruction of all barriers that keep us from each other.
And it starts with us being resurrection ready.
I started off with a series of What if questions that we don’t have the answers to. And I want to leave you with some What ifs that we do have the answers to…
What if God was for me? What if I could live in union with God? What if I could trust God to take care of my every need?
What if God could heal me of my trauma and my fear?
What if my anxiety could be replaced with his peace?
What if Jesus’ resurrection meant new life for me?
What if God saw me, knew everything about me and still called me his beloved child?
Today we celebrate that resurrection is coming. And we give thanks that we have been given time to get ready. Christ is Risen.