This is a version of the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church.
It’s text is John 20:1-18.
In trying to find an image to accompany this sermon, I realized that Mary Magdalene has suffered greatly at the hands of artists across the years. Of the ones I found, I think this one, from the St. John’s Illuminated Bible is the most appealing to me.
After preaching, my son mentioned that the language of “running into the dawning” reminded him of the hymn, “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” (United Methodist Hymnal, 569, H. Ernest Nichol). Here’s an alternate arrangement of this song.
Holy Spirit, fill us as with your very breath. Inspire the words of scripture and the meditations of all our hearts, that we might see, know, and love Jesus more fully this day. Amen.
Early in the morning on the first day of the week, Mary goes in darkness to the tomb. Was she afraid? Without electricity and only small oil lamps for light – which didn’t carry well – the darkness was a risky and scary place. Fear and darkness go together, but maybe more so for Mary this morning. Mary and the other disciples were likely also afraid of who might be watching – afraid of being discovered to be one of Jesus’ friends, and then taken away like Jesus was.
But there’s more in the dark than just fear. Jesus’ death – crucified as a political message with criminals – likely darkened every part of Mary’s life. Everything she’d known, all she’d hoped for, had come crashing down with the crushing sounds of nails, cries of pain, and a stone-closed tomb. In the midst of this darkness cast by fear, grief, loss, and uncertainty, I suspect Mary nearly ran to the tomb that morning.
I can relate to Mary. I feel like I’ve been running in the darkness these last few weeks – have you? – running, rushing, and living in the midst of darkness cast by fear and loss. These are some of our fears. We may fear the unknown, fear what might lurk ahead, fear sickness and death. And very truly, we are experiencing loss and grief: loss of schedules and plans and dreams; loss of security or certainty; loss of normal; and loss of life as we knew it. Yes, we may be running in the dark with Mary toward darkened tombs of what once was, but in the dark, she discovers something else.
Mary arrives in darkness at the tomb. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. And she runs to tell the others. The darkness – and all it carries – cannot contain her. She runs with a mixture of fear, and, could it be, hope? We’re not sure. It’s still too dark.
But then the race truly ensues. The other disciple – we’ll call him John, as tradition sometimes does – outraces Peter to the tomb. He looks in and sees burial cloths but no body. Peter chugs up next, and barges right in to look around. John then rushes in too. He sees something beyond the obvious emptiness and believes, though it’s not clear what he believes from the gospel’s telling. And then they return to where they where they were staying together. They ran through the darkness, and toward the dawning light of revelation, toward belief, and toward hope.
Perhaps huffing and puffing, Mary comes up behind the other two. She’s run twice as far. Whether she saw them in the tomb, or talked about its emptiness, we’ll never know, but now she’s left standing there, in a tell-tale runner’s posture: bent over. The weight of the experience, the exhaustion of the runs, and the heaviness of grief and fear weigh upon her shoulders as she looks into the tomb. But it’s not empty, not any more. Where Jesus’ body should have been, she sees two white-clad angels. In the midst of darkness, the light of awareness starts to dawn upon her grief-tears.
Turning quickly, she sees a man behind her, whom she presumes to be the gardener. Perhaps it’s still darker than we thought. She pleads for him to tell her where they’ve taken Jesus’ body. But when he calls her by name, “Mary,” the light dawns and she sees: It is Jesus, her dear teacher.
I can only imagine that she runs to him with outstretched arms. Instead of lingering for embrace in the dawning light, Jesus sends her off on another race, saying, “Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (v. 17).
And so Mary goes, running, I’m sure, into the dawning light. Once she ran aimlessly, in darkness cast by fear and loss, but no more. Now, she runs with growing purpose and conviction. She runs into the dawning light of hope and promise and new life. And arriving winded she exclaims, “I’ve seen the Lord!” (v. 18).
If we, lately, have been running in darkness with Mary, are we also willing to run with Mary toward the dawning light? Certainly, we can keep running and rushing from the darkness. We can work with fervor as though we could overpower the darkness. I’ve tried some of that, to no avail. How about you?
But what if, instead of trying to run from, or outrun, the darkness, we just run with Mary and the other disciples in it? What if we recognize, name, and admit the darkness: we’re afraid, we’re worried, we’re grieving, we’re feeling uncertain, which makes us feel angry and frustrated and impatient. We may be in darkness, but darkness turns to dawning on Easter, and every morning.
As John began his gospel account, he proclaims the light of Jesus “shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (Jn 1:5). At the tomb on Easter, Jesus calls us like he called Mary, casting out darkness with the light of his alive-again presence. Standing alive outside the tomb, Jesus proclaims that darkness – whatever darkens our lives – cannot contain us, cannot control us, and cannot consume us. In Jesus’ resurrection, God proclaims that whatever is darkness has not, cannot, and will not ever overcome God’s marvelous light and life in us.
The tomb is empty. The body’s not just been moved. Jesus is risen. And in his rising, Jesus’s light dawns, so we can run life with hope and courage. We can run in the darkness with Mary, but we also run with Mary toward the dawning light of resurrection life.
Running toward the dawning takes its own practice, especially because darkness still looms. We can run toward Jesus’ dawning light whenever we see the faintest glimmers of him and who he is. Jesus is life, joy, abundance, and grace, so when these things surface in our lives, may we run to them, as toward resurrection-dawning light.
- When we see Jesus-joy in pans of warm bread, on smiling faces, or in heartfelt phone check-ins, then let us run to them, and in them, to Jesus’ dawning light.
- When we see Jesus-light glinting behind the inkling to serve another, to give for another, to bless another, then let us run toward the dawning with courageous grace.
- And when we see glimpses of the resurrected Jesus in a little bit of rest, may we steal away with him in it without guilt.
Every Easter, Mary runs in darkness, but then runs even quicker in the light of Jesus’ new life, his resurrection, and his promise of life in God’s presence. This Easter, we know the run in the darkness, but we also know that, alive and unbound, Jesus’s light is dawning. May we run with Mary toward Jesus’ dawning light with hope proclaiming, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” May we run toward Jesus’ dawning light with courage, proclaiming with Christ that “no darkness can hold us forever!” Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!