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The Glory In The Garden

John 20:1-18

Easter is a lot like Christmas. It is not a time for learned discourses and complex theology. Rather, it is a time to tell a story—the story of “the glory in the garden.”

But I must warn you of something. There is a risk in telling this story. For, in telling it, one commits oneself to the preposterous affirmation that Death is dead. The wisdom of the world says: “Dead men do not come to life again; graves do not open; tombs are not emptied.” So, in telling this story, one is open to ridicule and derision. Also, there is a risk in hearing this story. For, as you listen, you expose 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 it for you.

Yet, in spite of these risks, I tell you the story, inviting you to listen and to believe…

Here is what happened.

It was the custom in first century Jerusalem for the wealthy citizens of the city to have private gardens outside the city walls—quiet, beautiful places to which they could retreat in order to escape the dust and the hustle and the bustle of the city. Joseph of Aramathea was wealthy and he owned such a garden. 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 on Friday afternoon. Mary could not have gone to the garden any sooner because it would have been a violation of Jewish law to have gone on Saturday, the day of the Sabbath. So, 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 alarm: “They have taken away my Lord.”

Without stopping for further investigation, she immediately turned and ran back into town to tell the disciples what had happened. Peter and John, thunderstruck by the terrible news, dashed out to the garden. John, because he was younger, ran faster and got there first. But he did not enter the tomb. He hesitated. Then Peter, impulsive, impetuous Peter—barged onto the scene and charged right into the tomb. John then followed.

There they made an amazing discovery. The grave clothes were still in the tomb. Now that was astonishing, you see, because if the body of Jesus had been stolen (as they presumed it had) then the thieves would have taken the grave clothes. They were made of the finest linen, very valuable, so valuable in fact that grave robbers would never have left it behind. And, besides, it would have been much easier to transport a body which had been carefully wrapped rather than one which had been unwrapped. Yet the grave clothes were left.

And there’s another detail to notice—a crucial detail: the grave clothes were not thrown about the tomb. They were not even unwound and folded or even piled in a corner. Instead, they had—and here the Greek 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 then simply collapsed in upon themselves, being left virtually undisturbed. And John, seeing that, suddenly caught the significance of it. ‘”Scripture says: “He saw and he believed.” Jesus had been raised from the dead. He had left the tomb. And the grave clothes, in the process of His moving, had been left undisturbed.

Well, I would never presume to stand here and try to tell you how the resurrection happened. I cannot describe to you by what magnificently mysterious process Jesus rose from the dead. I do not understand how it happened—but I believe it did happen! I believe it. And everything else that I believe in life is based upon that one simple belief. Everything. Everything I believe about God, about Christ, about the world, about life, about death, about what happens to us here, and about where we wind up—everything is based upon that one simple belief that on Easter Jesus was raised from the dead. I believe that. I believe it with my life.

The story continues.

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—they were running all morning long). Now Mary went running out to the tomb again. Peter and John had departed. She was alone there—and she did a very courageous thing. She bent down and looked into the sepulchre. Remember the dawn was just beginning to break, and the light was dim. There in the shadows, she saw two angels. Startled, she jumped back 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 logically be expected to be coming to the garden to work. So Mary said to him: “They have taken away my Lord; and 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 the woman, alone and without assistance, have carried away the body of Jesus? But then, love never knows the meaning of the word “limitation.” I learned the other day about Tommy Ogan. He lives in Seattle. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Ogan have 12 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 crippled. And he cried, all the time. No one wanted him. Now, Ed Ogan worked for Boeing Aircraft and at the time things were bad. He was in danger of being laid off. But love knows no limits. So the Ogans took the little boy into their home. They adopted him. They 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 was resident in that home. For here is the Gospel, my friends, and make no mistake about it. When Christ lives in a home, when Christ lives in a heart, when the love of the Lord is alive in a life, there is no limit to what can be done. Nothing is impossible. So Mary said: “I will take Him away.”

People often wonder why Mary didn’t recognize Jesus. Even in the dim light she ought to have realized that it wasn’t the gardener. I think I know the reason. She had been weeping and 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 tears must be wiped away. You see, tears can blind us to the glorious resurrection truth of our faith. So, if you weep today for a loved one lost to death—and I know that some of you do—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. That until that day you are to live life to the fullest and serve Christ to the best. Don’t let tears blind your eyes to the truth.

There’s more to the story.

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 said, and she fell at His feet. But He gently lifted her up and said: “Don’t stay here. You know the secret, Mary. I have risen from the dead. So go and shout it from the mountaintops, carol it in the valleys, tell the world that death is dead.”

So you see what that means? It means that our lives are not a flame that can be extinguished by any whiff of air. They are not a grain of sand that slips through the fingers or is washed away by the tides. 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 that shall never end. Easter means that we stand on the foundation of our faith and cry: “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. St. Augustine said it so well when he said: “We are Easter people and alleluia is our song.”

Philip understood that…

But wait, you don’t know Philip, do you? You should know him, so let me tell you about him. He lived in Tennessee. He was born mongoloid. He was a pleasant child—happy it seemed—but he did appear to be somewhat aware of the difference between himself and other children. Philip went to Sunday School every week. He was in the third grade class. Now, most of you know about kids who are 8-years old and in the third grade. Well, Philip with his difference, was not accepted by the other children in that class. Philip didn’t choose to be different. He didn’t want to be different. He just was. And, because of that, the other children would not quite let him in.

But Easter two years ago something happened—something so simple, so beautiful, so simply beautiful that I am not sure I can tell you about it. The teacher in that Sunday School class planned a special activity for Easter. This sounds crazy, but hang on and hear me out. You know those plastic containers that pantyhose come in—they look like great big eggs. Well, this teacher gave each child one of those big plastic eggs and told them that they were to go outside on the church grounds and to find a symbol of new life, put it in the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then mix them all up, and open them one by one, sharing the surprises. They all ran off to search. It was exciting and it was wild. When they all returned to the class, they clustered around the table as the teacher began to open the eggs. The first one opened contained a flower—and the children ooh-ed and aah-ed. The next one opened contained a butterfly—and the children cried out: “That’s really neat!” The teacher opened the third plastic egg and there was nothing there. “That’s stupid,” the children said, “Somebody didn’t do it right.” About that time the teacher felt a tug at her elbow. It was Philip. He said: “That one’s mine.” The children said: “Aw, Philip, you can’t ever do anything right. There’s nothing there.” But Philip immediately cried out: “I did do it right. It’s empty. The tomb is empty!”

There was silence—a long, full silence. For anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened there in that silence. From that point on things were changed. Philip suddenly became part of the group. They took him in. He was set free from the tomb of his difficulties.

Philip died that summer. His family had known all along that he wouldn’t live out a full life span. Many other things were wrong with his tiny little body. So that July, Philip caught an infection most children could have shrugged off. Philip couldn’t—and he died. He was buried from that church. I suppose you could say that it was a normal funeral service, except…except that at the end nine little 8-year-old boys and girls marched up to the altar in that church—not with flowers to cover the stark reality of death—no they marched up to the altar and laid on it an empty plastic egg, an old discarded holder of pantyhose. Then those children repeated the lesson they had learned from Philip: “The tomb is empty.”

And that’s the message we are given to proclaim. That’s what the story is all about. The tomb is empty. Jesus Christ is risen! There is a glory in the garden. No. Wait. No. He is the glory in the garden…

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