A Portrait of Jesus Painted By His Best Friend: His Power
Easter is a lot like Christmas. It is not a time for learned discourses or complex theology. Rather, it is a time to tell a story—a story that is so simple, so beautiful, so simply beautiful that it is as fresh and powerful today as it was when it was told by Jesus’ best friend, John, some 2000 years ago.
However, I must warn you about something. There is a risk in telling this story. For in telling it, one commits oneself to the seemingly preposterous affirmation that death is dead. The wisdom of the world says: “Graves do not open; tombs are not emptied; the dead do not come to life again.” So in telling this story, one becomes vulnerable to ridicule and derision. In fact, this past Friday, a hard-hitting editorial in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that all too often these days “our public squares are increasingly dominated by elites who look upon Christian expression as low and unnatural.” Yes, there is a risk in telling this story. But there is also a risk in hearing this story, for as you listen, you open yourself to the possibility that it is true. And, my friends, if the story is true, then there are far-reaching, life-changing implications in the story for you.
Yet, in spite of these risks, I am going to tell you the story, and I am going to invite you to listen and to believe…
Here is the story as told by John.
It was the custom in first century Jerusalem for the wealthy citizens of the city to have private gardens outside the city walls- lovely, quiet places to which they could retreat in order to escape the dust, the noise, the hustle and bustle of the city. It was also in those private gardens, adorned with brightly colored flowers that the wealthy people would bury the members of their families. Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy and he owned such a garden just beyond the walls of Jerusalem. It was in that garden that Jesus was buried.
It was April- very early on a Sunday morning. In fact, John says: “while it was still dark.” Mary Magdalene hurried out to the garden. She wished to improve upon the rather hasty burial Jesus had been given late Friday afternoon. Mary could not have gone to the garden any sooner because it would have been a violation of Jewish law to do such a thing on the Sabbath which began on Friday at sundown and ended on Saturday at sundown. So at the first opportunity, early on that Sunday morning, Mary headed out to the garden. When she got there, she made a startling discovery. The mammoth stone used to seal the tomb had been rolled away. She cried out in both alarm and despair: “They have taken away my Lord!”
Without stopping for further investigation, she immediately turned and ran back into the city to tell the disciples what had happened. Peter and John, thunderstruck by this terrible news, dashed out to the garden. John, I suppose because he was younger, ran faster and got there first. But he did not enter the tomb. He hesitated for the moment, perhaps trying to absorb the details of what he was seeing. But not Peter- good old impulsive, impetuous Peter. He didn’t hesitate. He barged onto the scene and charged right into the tomb. John then followed.
There they made an astounding discovery. The grave clothes were still in the tomb. That was astonishing because if the body of Jesus had been removed or even stolen (as they presumed it had) then whoever carried away the body would have taken the grave clothes away with the body. No one in those days would ever touch a dead body without the body being covered completely by the grave clothes. Besides, such clothing was always made of the finest linen, very valuable, so valuable in fact that grave robbers would never have left it behind. Yet, John discloses this extremely important detail. The grave clothes were left behind.
And there is another detail to notice, an even more crucial detail: the grave clothes were not thrown about the tomb. They were not even unwound and folded and placed in a corner. Instead they had- and here the Greek term John uses is quite specific- they had “fallen in upon themselves.” It was as if the body of Jesus had suddenly evaporated from within them, and they had simply collapsed in upon themselves, being left virtually undisturbed. John, seeing that, immediately caught the significance of it- and the Scripture says: “He saw and he believed.”
There in the dawn’s early light, it dawned upon John that Jesus had been raised from the dead. He hadn’t been carried away from the tomb at all. He had left the tomb under His own power- and the grave clothes, in the process of His rising, had been left undisturbed.
Well, I would never presume to stand here and try to explain to you how the resurrection happened. I cannot describe for you by what magnificently mysterious process Jesus was raised from the dead. All I can do is to tell you the story and point out to you the significant little details of the story, all of which have about them the ring of truth. So I do not understand how it happened, but I believe it did happen! I believe it with my life. And everything else I believe in life is based upon that one single, simple belief. Everything! Everything I believe about God, about Christ, about the world, about life, about death, about what happens to us here, about where we wind up- everything is based upon that one unshakable belief that on Easter Jesus was raised from the dead. I believe it. I believe it with my life. And I would willingly give up my life before I would renounce that belief.
Then John continues the story.
When Peter and John realized what had happened, they ran out of the tomb to tell the others about it. (Have you ever stopped to think that that first Easter operated at double time? I mean, they were running all morning long!) Now Mary went running out to the tomb again. Peter and John had departed. She was there alone- and she did what I count to be a very courageous thing. She bent down and looked into the tomb. Remember that in the early morning the light was dim. There in the shadows of the tomb she saw two angels. Startled by their presence and by what they said, she backed out of the tomb and turned around. There, to her increasing consternation, she encountered someone else. She didn’t think for a moment that it would be Jesus. It was at the hour of the morning when Joseph’s gardener could be expected to be coming to the garden to work. So Mary said to him: “They have taken away my Lord; if you have taken Him sir, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
That statement of Mary’s has always amazed me. I mean, how could this woman who was bound to be exhausted from running back and forth between Jerusalem and the garden- how could this woman, alone and without assistance, ever have thought that she could carry away the body of Jesus? But then love never knows the meaning of the word “limitation” does it? I learned not long ago about Tommy Ogan. He lives in Seattle. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Ogan, have twelve children, all adopted. A few years ago, the Ogans were contacted by a Korean orphanage about a little boy. He had no parents. He was badly disabled. He cried all the time. No one wanted him. Now Ed Ogan works for Boeing Aircraft, but at that time Boeing was experiencing a downturn and Ed was in danger of being laid off. But love knows no limits. So the Ogans took the boy into their home. They adopted him and named him Tommy. They had him baptized. Three weeks later he stopped crying and started laughing. After two months he began to crawl. After he crawled, he walked. After he walked, he ran. He was lifted, you see, by the love of his parents and by the love of the Christ who is resident in that home. Here then is the message: When Christ lives in a home, when Christ lives in a heart, when the love of the Lord is alive in a life, then there is no limit to what can be done. Nothing is impossible. So Mary said: “I will take Him away.”
There is just a bit more of the story told by John.
John says that Mary “supposing him to be the gardener,” said to him: “Sir, if you have taken Him away…” I have often wondered why she didn’t recognize Jesus. Even in the dim light she ought to have realized that it wasn’t the gardener. Now, later in my life, I think I know the answer. She had been weeping and I have learned that you never see things clearly when your eyes are dimmed with tears. It’s important to remember that.
When we have lost a loved one to death, tears are the blessed release God gives us for our grief. So we ought to weep. It’s good for us. But there comes a time when the tears ought to be wiped away. You see, like what happened to Mary, tears can blind us to the glorious resurrection truth of our faith. So if you weep today for a loved one who has died- and I know that some of you do- then let Easter speak to you. Easter is the great ringing affirmation that Christ has taken care of everything- that all is well, that there is no need to worry, that one day you will be reunited with the one you love never to be parted again, and that until that day you are to live your life to the fullest and to serve your Christ to the best. Don’t let your tears blind your eyes to that truth.
At that point, John tells us that Jesus said: “Mary.” Not a sermon, just a word. “Mary.” She looked at Him, wiped away her tears and saw who He was. “Master”, she cried, and she fell at His feet. But gently He lifted her up and said; “Don’t stay here. Now you know the truth, Mary. I have risen from the dead. So go and shout it from the mountaintops, carol it in the valleys, tell the whole world that death is dead!”
Do you see what that means? It means that our lives are not a flame which can be extinguished by any whiff of air. They are not a grain of sand which can slip through the fingers or be washed away by the tides. No! A thousand times, no! We are the children of God. We are imperishable. Death is not the end, but the beginning. In death, we put on a new life- a life which shall never end. We can cry out and know it’s true: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” No one ever said it as well as St. Augustine when he said: “We are Easter people, and alleluia is our song.”
Hallelujah and Amen!