If you would please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to the gospel according to John, John’s gospel chapter 20, which you will find on page 906 in the church Bibles.
Before we read it, I want you to have some sense of what kind of story this is. The Christian message centers on the fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It’s not a metaphor or a symbol for some abstract spiritual experience. It’s not a myth concocted by the religiously deranged or a deception deployed by the strong to manipulate the weak. It is a fact of history. It is the fact of history. The power of the world to come has broken in, right into the middle of the world that now is. Death has been made to work in reverse. Life has overcome it in the triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.
I came across a poem by John Updike about Easter that really gets at the central claim of the Christian faith related to the historicity and the beauty of the resurrection of Jesus, “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” Let me read it to you:
“Make no mistake: if he rose at all It was as His body; If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit, The amino acids rekindle, The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers, Each soft spring recurrent; It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the Eleven apostles; It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes The same valved heart That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered Out of enduring Might New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor, Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence, Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded Credulity of earlier ages: Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache, Not a stone in a story, But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of Time will eclipse for each of us The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb, Make it a real angel, Weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in The dawn light, robed in real linen spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed By the miracle, And crushed by remonstrance.”
He’s saying the resurrection of Jesus is a bodily reality. He lives, He was raised with the same body in which He suffered and bled and died, and today He lives, sitting at the right hand of God as truly as you are sitting here. He fills definite space in a definite place in a glorified human body. That’s the Christian claim, and that’s important to understand because as we read the passage before us, focusing on Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus, we need to understand what’s really going on. This passage is making a claim, indeed it’s making an offer to you. Because Jesus is alive, the Christian Gospel is a means by which you can meet Him for yourself as really as Mary met Him in the garden tomb that first Easter Sunday. And so, we’re going to direct our attention to John chapter 20 in just a moment. Before we do, let’s pause and pray and ask for God to help us. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, now we pray for grace to hear the voice of our Savior who calls His people by name. Grant that we, like Mary, may hear our names on His lips calling to us to turn from an empty tomb to the living Savior in the preaching of the Gospel, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
John chapter 20 at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
"Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 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.' So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one 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.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ – and that he had said these things to her.”
Amen, and we praise God for His Word.
J. R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, coined a phrase that describes for him a crucial element in good storytelling. He coined the word, "eucatastrophe." And he explicitly relates it to the resurrection. The resurrection, he said, is the archetypal eucatastrophe. We know what a catastrophe is. A catastrophe is a disaster that suddenly overtakes us that could not be prevented. A eucatastrophe is a good catastrophe. As disaster is about to descend suddenly, there is a glorious reversal and good rather than evil is what ensues. And the resurrection, of course, is the great eucatastrophe. Mary is about to encounter it in a dramatic way in her life and experience. Isn't she? She is overcome with grief and eventually her eyes are opened to see the risen Lord standing before her. The passage does focus on verses 11 through 18 where Jesus meets with Mary and He says three things to her. He speaks a word of correction in verse 15, a word of calling in verse 16, and a word of commission in verses 17 and 18. And we are going to focus on that in a few moments. Before we do that, we do need to spend some time with Mary and to see her confusion, first of all. So confusion, then correction, calling, and commission.
Mary’s confusion. The chapter opens, doesn’t it, on the first day of the week – very early on Sunday morning. It’s still dark. John says Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb. The other gospel accounts, you’ll see that they speak about a whole company of women who were followers of Jesus who came along with Mary. John wants to focus in on Mary Magdalene so he doesn’t mention the other women. He does give us a clue that they were with her also. In verse 2, if you will look there for a moment, we are told that when she found the stone had been rolled away she ran to Simon Peter, the other disciple whom Jesus loved – that’s a reference to John, the author of the gospel we are reading. And she said to the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” So she’s there as the spokesperson for a group. The group have discovered the tomb is empty and “We don’t know where they’ve laid him.” The other gospels tell us what happened. While Mary was with the disciples reporting this to them, the other women saw angels at the tomb who explained that Jesus had been raised and those women returned to the disciples eventually too and explain what the angels have said and the disciples dismiss their message out of hand.
Meanwhile, Simon Peter and John, they race to the tomb to see what's happened. Mary follows along behind them. When they get there, they look in and they see the grave clothes folded and the face cloth lying in a place by itself and we are told: "they saw and believed." That is, they believed the report that the body was missing because John says "they did not yet understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead." So they leave, no doubt, dismayed and crestfallen and heartbroken all over again that the Lord's body is now missing. And Mary is left behind, we're told in verse 11, "outside the tomb weeping." Over and over again, actually, the passage emphasizes her distraught condition. She's weeping, grieving. She's heartbroken, devastated. Her tears give evidence, don't they, of her profound love for the Lord Jesus.
In fact, her grief is so profound, in verse 12, when there are two angels who appear to her, it barely seems to register at all. Look at verse 12. “She saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.” Now scholars note several interesting things about this scene. For example, one of them points out that this is the only place in the whole Bible where angels are ever seen sitting down. Another notes that where they are sitting – one at the head and one at the feet of where Jesus’ body was – emphasizes the emptiness of the tomb. He’s not here. And a third, the great Geerhardus Vos, connects the location and the posture of the angels sitting at either end of the place where the body of Christ lay with the golden cherubim, these angelic statues who were positioned at each end of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. That was the place where the high priest in the Old Testament sprinkled blood on the Day of Atonement to make payment for the sin of the people. Is John perhaps alluding to that and suggesting here is a picture of satisfaction, atonement made in the blood of Jesus and accepted before God?
Whatever the symbolism and the significance of the visitation of these angels, Mary misses it. Doesn’t she? She doesn’t seem to notice. It’s almost as if she has a conversation with angels every day. None of it penetrates. Instead, when the angels inquire, “Why are you weeping?” – they’re astonished! “Why would you be weeping, Mary? He’s alive, you see!” She replies through her tears rather matter of factly, almost absentmindedly, “Oh, they’ve taken the Lord away and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.” Do notice that little note of intimacy in her language. When she was the spokeswoman for the group of other women, she went to the disciples and said, “They have taken away the Lord and we do not know where they’ve laid him.” Now that she’s alone in the tombs with her grief, she says, “They’ve taken away my Lord. He’s mine. And He’s gone. And I don’t know where He is.”
And it's just at that moment of vulnerability and intimacy that Mary becomes aware of someone standing behind her. And verse 14, she turns around and there's Jesus standing there, alive again from the grave, and still, she does not know that it was Jesus. Some have suggested this is another indicator of just how profound her grief was that her tears are blinding her, her grief is blinding her from seeing Jesus. But there are other instances of encounters with the disciples after the resurrection, just like this one. For example, the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, they knew about the cross but they did not know yet about the resurrection. And when Jesus met them, like Mary, they too were blind and Jesus has to open their eyes supernaturally as He is about to do supernaturally for Mary. The blindness here isn't simply psychological or emotional or physical. It is profoundly spiritual. And so even when Jesus, the living Christ, speaks to her and repeats the angelic question, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" she doesn't recognize Him. She actually concludes He must be the gardener.
It’s comic. For Mary, this is a moment of agony and grief, but we know how the story ends. You see? John, as he writes the gospel, wants us to feel some of the joy of it. Mary’s tears are about to be replaced with a celebration. And John is cluing us in to the sheer wonder, the hilarity of resurrection, the joy of it, the celebratory note. It’s preposterous! Here is the Lord, alive from the grave! She thinks He’s there to look after the roses. Clearly, clearly she loves Him. And who would fail to be moved by her expressions of intimate, tender loss and grief for her Lord. But her love is not enough. She loves Him, but she does not yet understand, she doesn’t remember His promises. He’d often told them that the Son of Man must suffer and be crucified and buried and on the third day He will rise again from the dead. Like the other disciples, Simon and John, she also did not yet understand the Scriptures, that He must rise from the dead. She loves Him. There’s care for Jesus, but there is not yet faith in His promises. The tomb was empty. That ought to have been cause for rejoicing – our Savior is keeping His promises! But instead, she has discounted all that Jesus has said, telling her that He would rise. All she can see is her grief.
Believe His Promises
There is, I think, an important lesson there for us that we mustn't miss before we come to Jesus' answer to Mary. Mary loves Him, she cares deeply about Him, but she doesn't yet believe His promises. Love for Christ, an affection for Christian things, is not enough. Love for Christ or an affection for Christian things unmixed with faith in Christ's person and promises leaves us still blind. Only faith opens our eyes to see the risen Christ. I'm assuming that you are here because you have some affinity for Christian things. Why else would you be here? But it's not enough. You must believe on the Lord Jesus. And I don't mean some vague, ill-defined sense of assenting to the idea about Jesus. I mean you must personally come to rely on, trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for yourself personally. He, only He, can rescue you from a spiritual blindness that every one of us labors under by nature. Jesus, faith in Jesus alone, opens our eyes. And so that's the first thing I want us to notice – Mary's confusion. She's had so much time with Christ, she's so familiar with Christ and His message, and yet at this crucial moment, she does not see because she does not yet believe.
Word of Correction
Then, let’s look at how Jesus responds. Mary’s confusion, then Jesus speaks three words. The first of them, in verse 15, is a word of correction. Do you see it in verse 15? It’s a gentle word, tender, kind to be sure, but it is a word of correction nevertheless. Look at verse 15. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking? What’s the place of tears here, Mary? If it’s Me you’re looking for, why in the world would you look in My old tomb as though I would linger a second longer than necessary there? No, Mary. The work is done. Death is dead. I have risen! Why are you weeping now, Mary?” It’s a word of correction.
And it's a correction, I'll confess, that I need to hear; perhaps you need to hear it too. As a Scotsman, I am temperamentally melancholy. I'll try not to take your laughter personally! Here's the difference between an American and a Scotsman. If you ask an American how they're doing they'll say, "I'm awesome!" And if you ask a Scotsman how he's doing he'll say, "It could be worse." And so I need to be reminded. Scottish people are glass-half-empty kind of folks, you see, so I need to be reminded. Jesus is alive. The stone was rolled away. The tomb is empty. The throne is occupied. The Lord of life has shattered the bonds of death and stepped alive again from the tomb never to die. And so while from time to time there may yet be cause for weeping, there are grounds for hope now. There are grounds for joy now because of Easter that no earthly sorrow can ever extinguish. Jesus lives. Praise the Lord! Jesus lives! Lift up your head. Weeping may last for a night but joy comes in the morning. With the dawn of that first Lord's Day, that Easter Sunday morning, the promise that one day death will be undone and sorrow and sadness will be no more and the Lamb will wipe away every tear from our eyes, that promise was guaranteed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. And so there's a word of correction here that I need to hear and perhaps you do too. Lift up your head. Christ is risen. Weep no more. Weep no more.
Word of Calling
And then look with me at verse 16. The second word of the risen Christ in response to Mary’s confusion – the first is a word of correction; the second is a word of calling. Do you see it in verse 16? Mary thinks He’s the gardener and so she explains her fears that someone has moved Jesus’ body. “Perhaps it was you,” she says. “If you’d just tell me where you put Him, I’ll go get Him and get out of your hair. I won’t bother you anymore.” And then Jesus decides, I suppose, enough is enough and calls her name. He calls her by name, “Mary.” It must be one of the most beautiful moments in holy Scripture. The risen Christ calls one of His dear ones to Himself by her familiar name. She had turned her back on Him when she had asked the question. She is now back looking into the tomb. But when she hears her name, suddenly and at last her eyes are opened. She knows exactly who this man is now and she turns again to look and says, no doubt she cries, “Rabboni!” It’s actually not just “Teacher,” it’s “my Teacher.” There’s that note of intimacy. “My Teacher, You’re here! It’s You!” When He called her name, her eyes were opened. She was facing the wrong way, looking for the living among the dead in a dusty old tomb where Jesus was not. But at His call, she turns to Him and grief is replaced with gladness and sorrow with celebration.
It is an individual and a personal call. Isn't it? He calls her by name. Jesus said that's what He does, for all of us, actually. John 10 at verse 3, "I am the Good Shepherd. I call My sheep by name." Isaiah 43 verse 1, "Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are Mine." The call of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, when it comes to us in the power of the Holy Spirit, it lifts the veil, it dispels the darkness, it opens eyes. Jesus' invitation to you is not some scattershot general proposition thrown out at random. The fact that you are here this morning, hearing the Word of Christ, is profoundly personal. The risen Christ is now issuing to you the same invitation He issued to Mary. He's calling to you, personally, individually, intimately. He's calling you to come and see who He is, to turn from the empty tomb. You're looking in all the wrong places, perhaps, for life, for peace, for pardon, for a clean conscience. You're looking in all the wrong places. You need to hear Christ calling you to Himself. Look to Him and your eyes will be opened and you'll see the Lord and giver of life Himself, risen in victory over the grave. And nothing will be the same again.
Mary’s confusion, and then Jesus’ word of correction, and this His call. He’s calling you too, in the Gospel. Are you listening? Will you answer the call and turn from all the wrong directions in which you’ve been looking to Christ alone? He is the one, He is the one you need.
Word of Commission
And then finally, there’s Jesus’ word of commission. Look at verses 17 and 18. Apparently, when she suddenly sees who He is, she does what I suspect most of us would do. She reaches out to take ahold of Him in her joy, in her wonder. But Jesus understands that behind this touch there is more than simply a touch of affection and gratitude. There is something else in Mary’s heart. There is a desire to hold onto Him, to hold Him down as it were. “I’m never going to let you out of my sight again! Now that You’re back, You’re here to stay!” There’s something of that going on in Mary’s heart. It’s understandable. She thought she’d lost Him and now, here He is. So she’s clinging to Him and sort of clutching to Him possessively. She doesn’t understand, you see, what must take place next. Jesus is not here to stay. He must ascend to the right hand of the Father, there to take His place as King of kings and Lord of lords and to pour out His Spirit on the Church that the Church may be equipped to take the good news that He lives to the ends of the earth. And so He says to her, “Do not cling to me,” verse 17, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” The issue is not that He can’t be touched. It’s not that He’s immaterial. You remember His words to Thomas when He appears to the disciples in the Upper Room. He says, “Put your finger in the nail marks in My hands. Put your hand into the wound in My side” where that Roman spear punctured His heart. He rose in the same body with which He suffered. He is physically risen. The issue is not physicality. The issue is He can’t stay and it’s better for Mary and better for the disciples and better for us that He ascends, that He has ascended.
And that’s Jesus’ point. He wants, instead of Mary clinging to Him, He says, “No, Mary, I have a job for you.” And He gives her a commission. He sends her back to the disciples with good news – not just that Christ has risen, but why He has risen, what it is that His cross and empty tomb and soon-ascended mastery over all things will give to us. Look at the message she is to proclaim. It’s an oddly phrased message if you think about it. Why does He not say to her, “Mary, go back to My brothers and tell them that I am ascending to the Father”? Look at the language of verse 17. “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, My God and your God.” Why this peculiar emphasis on the Fatherhood of God? Well, simply because the great benefit, the greatest benefit that comes to us from the sufferings and the exaltation of our Savior is our adoption into the family of God. “You are My brothers,” Jesus says, “and My Father is now your Father. You come to belong to the family because I died and rose and ascend to reign. You’re welcome into My family.”
He lives that you might have a place in the family. That’s what Easter is about. Actually, that’s what it’s about quite literally for many of you here today. You’re here with friends and family. You’ve traveled some distance, perhaps, to be with your family. Easter, by tradition, for many of us is about family. Please understand, it’s about family in more ways than perhaps you recognized when you made your plans for Sunday lunch this Easter. There is an invitation to you to come home from the Lord Jesus Himself, to turn to Him in faith, the faith that opens eyes and sees the Lord, and trusts Him to be our Rescuer and our King. There’s an invitation to trust Him. When you do, you see, you become part of the family. John 1 verse 13 says, “to as many as received Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God; children born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but born of God.” And in his first letter, John will write, “Behold what manner of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God.” There is no privilege greater than that wayward, hell-deserving sinners like me should be called a child of God, an heir of God and a co-heir with Jesus Christ. That is the invitation extended now to you as Jesus calls your name in the Gospel and bids you come to Him. He’s saying to you, “Come home to your true family. You will become My brother, My dear sister, and My Father will be your Father forever.”
May the Lord give us all grace to hear the accents of the voice of King Jesus speaking our names in the Gospel, and may He help us turn from empty tombs to see Him and take our place in His family. Let’s pray together.
O Lord Jesus, we adore You. We adore You that You live and reign at the Father’s right hand – King of kings and Lord of lords. And we pray, having heard Your voice in Your holy Word, that You would give to us the joy that is consistent with our adoption. Those of us who have come to trust You, help us to glory in the fact that wayward sinners, we are welcomed home into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. And we pray for those in this room this morning who are not yet followers of Jesus. Grant that they, like we, may hear their name, their Savior call them to Himself. Grant that their eyes, like Mary’s, might be opened today and that they might turn from empty tombs to the living Christ that Easter joy might fill their hearts also. For we ask it in Christ’s name, amen.