Easter marked the beginning of a series entitled Face to Face: Encounters with the Risen Jesus. It’s fitting that we begin with Mary. When Mary Magdalene watched Jesus die, all of her hope died with Him. Lost, hurt, and grieving, Mary came face to face with the Risen Jesus. In the midst of the chaos and darkness all of us will encounter at one time or another, Jesus is still there calling you by name.
Mary was devoted. And who could blame her? She had once been possessed by seven demons at one time. And that demonic possession caused her much anguish and pain. Those memories had become a blur…thanks to Him. And while her memories of that difficult time were now dull, she’d never forget the first time she met Him. He was just passing through town, healing people as He went along. She didn’t remember what he said to her, but what he did for her was unforgettable. In one swift moment, the demons who had tortured her for so long were finally forced to leave her body. She was healed. And she had Him to thank for it. She knew this man was special. His compassion was unlike that of any other teacher she’d heard. His healing power was unmatched by any previous miracle-worker she’d ever encountered. Yes, this man from Nazareth was different.
She decided to join the growing crowd of people who were following this man. Some were very interested in the words he had to say. He spoke in short stories that were both easy to remember and difficult to understand. They’d discuss the implications of the stories for days after they heard them. Some were offended by the stories he shared and the things he was doing. He was eating and drinking with tax collectors and other sinners. He even allowed a sinful woman to actually touch Him and pour out expensive perfume on His feet. At the time, a good Jew wouldn’t be caught dead associating with such ‘unclean’ folk. So they followed him, looking for a chance to undermine his teachings. Others were because they wanted to be entertained. Yeah, the stories were nice, but they wanted to see the real memorable stuff – the miracles and healings that occurred whenever He was around. And maybe they’d even be the beneficiaries someday. There were rumors that He’d once turned water into wine. If He did it once, surely He’d do it again!
And then there was a small but growing group within the crowd that followed this man wherever He went. They were disciples…students of the Teacher…they chose to follow Him wherever He led. And that’s what Mary decided to become the moment He healed her from her demonic torture. Mary was a follower of Jesus. She wasn’t the only Mary that was part of the growing number of disciples. At the time, nearly 20% of the women in the region were named Mary. So it would sometimes get confusing as to which Mary someone was referring. So she became known by her hometown – Magdala. Mary Magdalene was a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ. And she chose to go wherever He went.
And she even went where His closest disciples, commonly referred to as The Twelve, would not go. She’d heard them say they’d go with Him anywhere. She’d seen Peter’s self-proclaimed boldness and heard him say on several occasions that he’d die before Jesus’ enemies would get their hands on him. But when push came to shove, he ran away. He did like the rest of the Twelve did and fled the scene in fear. She’d heard that he came back, though. When Jesus was facing false accusation upon false accusation before the Jewish authorities, Peter was in the courtyard. All he had to do was speak up and say that the man was innocent. All he had to do was provide a defense for Jesus and they would have to let him go. Even an uneducated fisherman like Peter could have poked holes in their trumped up charges. But he didn’t. Instead, he publicly denied any connection with Jesus. And he did it three times – just like Jesus said he would. If she could, Mary would have burst into the kangaroo court they were holding and proclaimed the innocence of Jesus, but they wouldn’t listen to the testimony of a woman. It was a man’s world at that time and she essentially had no legal rights. There was no way she could even get inside the proceedings and there was absolutely no chance any of them would listen to her. So she was forced to stay back and watch as the authorities committed the most notorious act of injustice in all of human history. Jesus had come to serve, heal, and proclaim Truth. In response, he received mockery, rejection, and condemnation. What kind of world do we live in where such injustice could occur?
But she continued to follow. When they nailed his wrists and his feet to the cross, she was there. She couldn’t do anything to stop this injustice, but at least she could remain faithful to her decision to following her Master and Friend. In one act that seemed like an eternity ago, Jesus had healed her body. As she continued to follow Him, Jesus also healed her soul. She decided long ago that she’d follow Him wherever He went. So there she was with His mother, also named Mary, and a few other women. And one of the Twelve was with them, too. In spite of their brashness and boldness of speech, the rest were still cowering in a hidden room. Mary and the others were helpless as they stood before the cross. She wept with the rest of her friends as they watched their Master, Teacher, and Friend struggle to lift his body up enough on the cross to breathe…and then fall back down on the cross in exhaustion. For hours, Jesus continued the pattern. With his body hanging from outstretched arms, it causes pressure on the lungs, suffocating the victim. The only way a person hanging on the cross can breathe is by lifting his body as high as possible, relieving the pressure on his lungs. So, Jesus uses whatever strength he has left to stand up as much as he can so he can fill his lungs with as much air as possible, and then collapse upon the cross…doing it again and again because it was the only way he could breathe. Every once in a while, he turned his gaze towards the small group of women who were watching from a distance. Even now – at the very end – Mary could still see the love and compassion in his eyes. His cheeks were swollen. The blood was caked on his body and his hair matted to his face. And all Mary could do was watch as this perfect, innocent man slowly died upon the cross. Every once in a while he’d pause as he lifted his body. Mary could see his lips move and moved in closer to hear what Jesus was trying to say. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”… “I’m thirsty”… “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit”… “It is finished.” And all Mary could do was watch and listen. She saw Jesus collapse on the cross after taking his final breath. Through her tears, she watched his lifeless body hang on the cross. The women and the member of the Twelve tried to comfort each other, but what do you say…what do you do…when the world has crashed down around you? How do you act in creation’s darkest hour? How do you make sense of anything when everything you’ve hoped for and lived for is now dead? Mary didn’t know either. So she stayed there and watched and wept. She saw the soldiers crack the legs off the other men who were being crucified, hastening their death. She saw the soldier pierce Jesus’ lifeless body with a spear and witnessed the blood and water that poured out his side. He was dead. The One who had changed her life was dead. He did so much for so many people and now he was gone. What could she do? How was she going to make sense of all of this? She couldn’t. So she followed the other disciples as they took Jesus’ body and hastily wrapped it with a mixture of about 75 pounds of aloes, myrrh, and strips of linen. They put Jesus in the tomb of one of his disciples named Joseph because it was close to the Sabbath and they didn’t have time to transport him to his family tomb before they had to celebrate the day of rest. So he was placed in a borrowed tomb. They went away and tried to make sense of what they had just experienced. Mary felt abandoned, isolated, and alone.
Of course, looking back we know the end of this story. We also know the purpose of the entire event. We know that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. He took on the sins of the world so that we might receive righteousness and become friends of God. There was a purpose to the entire painful episode – and it was you and me and the rest of the world. But Mary didn’t realize that. Neither did the rest of the disciples. So she went away looking for answers and came back with nothing.
Three days later, after the Day of Rest that was hardly restful, Mary of Magdala arose early and made her way towards the tomb of the man she’d called Master. The other women would be there later, but she wanted to get there early. She needed to be alone for a while. She didn’t know what she was going to do once she got there, but she knew she needed to be there. They’d already buried him in accordance with the custom. Maybe she could pay respect to him with some more burial spices. There were rumors that the tomb had been sealed and there were soldiers standing guard. “What was the point?” she wondered aloud. It’s not like Jesus had ever harmed anyone. He’d healed many and changed so many lives. And how do they recognize his efforts? By killing him like a criminal and guarding his body like he was still a threat. “No matter,” she thought to herself. “I’ll figure out something once I get there. Maybe this will all make sense once I’m there.” Her journey towards the tomb was full of questions – questions she couldn’t answer. “Why did this happen? Where’s the justice in condemning an innocent man? How could you betray him like that, Judas? What else could I have done? Peter – why didn’t you say something? What am I going to do now?”
As she walked into the garden surrounding the tomb, she knew something wasn’t right. There were weapons and pieces of armor scattered throughout the garden. Smoke still came from a campfire, but there was no one around tending it. “Strange,” she thought. Where is everyone? She continued towards the tomb as the first beams of sunlight pierced the horizon. And what she saw shocked her at her very core.
The tomb was empty!
How could this be? It must have been robbers! Who would do such a thing? She stood there in silence, her mouth agape and completely frozen at the thought of Jesus’ body being stolen. Could things get any worse? She thought to herself. She’d followed Jesus wherever He went. She watched Him die on the cross. She’d seen them bury him in that very tomb – the one that was now open and empty. She didn’t know how long she was there, but it was long enough for the others to get there, too. For a few moments, they discussed what might have happened, but Mary didn’t stick around much longer. She did the only thing she could think of. She ran. At first, she wasn’t sure where she was running, but then decided she needed to tell the others. She ran to the home where the Twelve, now known as the Eleven, were in hiding. She stood there gasping, trying to speak and breathe at the same time. “They’ve…taken…his body…the tomb is empty…” she said. “We…don’t…know…where…they’ve put…him!” Peter and the One Jesus loved took off. They ran as fast as they could to the tomb.
Mary was still in a daze. This couldn’t be. Maybe it was just a bad dream. She wandered away. And the tears came again. She had already lost Jesus once when he died. Now she had lost him all over again because someone had snatched his body! And in her confusion, she went back to the tomb again. And what happened next changed her life. Turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 20. John is the fourth of the written accounts we have about the life and ministry of Jesus, known as the Gospels. If you don’t have a Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. John 20 is found on page 944 in that Bible.
Mary makes it back to the tomb. This time, she decides to walk in. Through her tears, she sees something amazing. Read 20:10-13.
It’s easy for us to look back on this situation and say, “Why didn’t she catch on? Doesn’t she remember all of the things he had said about dying and coming back to life? She should have realized that God was at work here.” Yeah, it’s easy for us to say that when we’re not in the actual situation. It’s easy for us to look back and see where God’s hand was at work. But that’s not always the case when you’re stuck in the middle of it. When everything is dark and you can’t see because you’ve been crying so much – it’s nearly impossible to step back and look from a different perspective. The pain is too much. The sorrow is too deep. The circumstances are too unexplainable. But even in the midst of all of that pain and suffering and anguish, God is still at work. And look at what happens next.
Mary has no idea who she’s talking to. She’s still overcome with grief. Her vision is blurry because her eyes are so full of tears. She’s still trying to make sense of everything, even asking who she thinks is a gardener where the body might be. She figures he might be part of this unspeakable conspiracy to bring her and her friends even more pain and suffering. But Jesus reveals who he is like a shepherd calling to His sheep. In an earlier teaching, Jesus says that a shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (Jn. 10:3) And so even though Mary isn’t wearing a nametag, this gardener calls her by name and her eyes are opened.
All of us have gone through difficult circumstances. In the middle of them, it seems like things will never be right again. Maybe you’re in a difficult time right now. Maybe your life is gloomy and cloudy. Your life is like Mary’s was during the hours immediately following Jesus’ burial. You look around and all you find is despair and pain. You try to find a silver lining, but all you can do is cry. Ever been there? Ever been in the middle of what felt like a hopeless situation – completely alone and abandoned? We’ve all been there.
The good news of the message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that He brings hope to the hopeless and wipes away our tears. In the midst of our sorrow and grief, He is there. He steps into our grief and offers peace and comfort. He doesn’t just send a message, telling you everything’s going to be OK. No, just like He did with Mary, He is calling out your name and standing with you. In a world where we are increasingly known by a number – account numbers, social security numbers, Personal Identification Numbers and symbols like email addresses and other ways to mask our identity, God still knows us by name. And He’s calling out to you and to me, providing hope and peace in the midst of pain, suffering, and hopelessness.
Can you imagine the excitement that Mary felt when she realized that Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen but He had, in fact, risen from the dead? Can you imagine the sheer joy she experienced as she clung to the man who was once dead? No wonder she wanted to hold onto Him forever! She didn’t want to lose Him again. The great thing is that because of Easter morning and the amazing story of the resurrection, we will never be alone again. We will never lose Jesus and He will never lose us. In fact, He promises He will be with us always – even until the end of time. And Just as God was the God of resurrection in Garden Tomb that first Easter morning, He is also the God of resurrection today. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been. It doesn’t matter how gloomy things are or how hopeless you feel. God is the God of resurrection. And He can resurrect your life – regardless of the circumstances. Where are you going to turn? Are you going to keep going to the tomb, trying to figure things out on your own, or are you going to respond to Jesus’ voice? He’s standing there, saying your name. All He wants from you is your answer. Will you respond to Him?