A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor of Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on April 4, 2010.

John 20:1-18

How do you leave a cemetery with hope in your heart? I am no stranger to cemeteries. Rarely a week passes that I do not accompany a family to a cemetery as they bid a family member farewell. I’ve noticed that most people enter cemeteries with heavy hearts and a slow gait. They usually leave the same way, too.

Mary may have approached Jesus’ tomb that way, but she definitely did not leave it like that. A dramatic transformation took place while in that cemetery, from grief to joy and despair to hope. What made the difference?

Obviously, the words and presence of Jesus had a dramatic impact upon Mary. Her surprising encounter with Jesus after Peter and John left her all alone at the tomb lifted her spirits and turned despair into hope. That encounter saw her shattered dreams replaced with new ones and set her on a different course.

While you and I cannot duplicate that personal experience, there are some things we can learn from it. Leaving a cemetery with hope in our hearts is the result of listening to our faith, listening for our name and responding to those living in despair who are crying out for hope. Let me explain.

To leave a cemetery with hope, listen to your faith. As Christians, our faith is rooted in a God whose most distinguishing characteristic, according to Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, is His ability to make something new.

“The entire Bible bears witness to this gift of newness from our God and His son, Jesus,” Brueggemann declares. “The forming of the worlds, the liberation of Israel, the anointing of David, the deliverance of the exiles, the summons to disciples, the silencing of the storm, the call to Lazarus, all attest to God’s ability to give newness to a world filled with endings.”

For this reason, in ancient Israel, grief was always linked to hope. Believers never had to settle for things as they were and give in to despair like those that believed nothing happened apart from them and no one was at work but them. As people of faith, they never came to the end of the road. Always and at all times, there was more, even when it seemed improbable or impossible.

I believe this is the message of Easter, too, and I cannot think of one we need more. Easter is about starting over when you thought all hope was gone because, as Christians, grief is always linked to hope just as it was for our ancient ancestors. We, too, believe in a God that makes all things new.

Perhaps you feel like you have reached a dead-end this morning. You are getting a divorce or your beloved mate of many years died. You have lost your job or don’t know which way to turn. You are facing limitations because of health issues. Your best friend moved away or has abandoned you. Your children are no longer at home and have left you with the empty nest. You recently buried a dream.

What do you do? Talk to God about it. Lay your life and need before Him. Ask Him to help you create something new in your life, even as you share your fears, anxiety, doubts and confusion. Let Him know you trust Him but you will need a lot of help to remain confident and faithful to see new possibilities and travel down unfamiliar roads. I am certain our Lord will help you, for as Gail O’Day reminds us, “the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father now marks the believing community’s relationship with God.”

To leave a cemetery with hope in your heart, listen not only to your faith, but for your name when someone close to you calls it. The most tender part of the resurrection story in John’s account is the way that Jesus interrupts Mary as she was asking for help to find her Lord’s body, from whom she presumed was the gardener. 

“Mary,” Jesus said tenderly with a voice she had heard many times. Immediately, Mary turned and embraced the Good Shepherd, abandoning her grief and sorrow.

We need to follow Mary’s example and respond to those who call our name out of compassion and concern. Burdens get lighter and spirits are lifted when we let others help us carry our heavy load. When lost relationships are replaced with new ones, hope is born.

Likewise, we need to respond to those who are living in despair and crying out for hope. Henri Nouwen refers to those who do so as “wounded healers.” That’s what Mary was as she left that cemetery and went straight to the confused disciples. “I have seen the Lord,” Mary said, as she told them about her encounter beside that empty tomb.

Have you recently traveled through a cemetery of broken dreams? Have you come to this service today in search of hope?

I’ve got good news for you. It is here and available to you if you will trust in a God who makes all things new, open your life to your friends who care for you and go from here to tell someone living in despair what you have experienced. Like Mary, you can leave this service differently than when you entered. What a memorable Easter this will be if you do.

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