A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on April 24, 201
No darkness is darker than death. No stench is more repulsive than the stench of death. No defeat is more final than the defeat of death. No emptiness is as lonely as the emptiness of death.
It’s just that the word is so final.
You stand by the graveside. You shuffle your feet. You don’t want to leave, because when you walk away, you walk away from life as you have known it. Everything has to be rearranged. Re-done. Re-thought. Because of death.
Mary of Magdala has been there. Look at John 19:25. “Therefore the soldiers did these things. But there were standing by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”
She had seen the awful crucifixion. Perhaps as she walked she was wiping sleep away from her weary eyes – the eyes which had seen the horror of her Lord’s crucifixion. And I wonder, as she wiped her eyes, was she trying to wipe away those horrid images from her mind – images that had haunted her and kept her awake through the night? I wonder what sights and sounds stampeded through her soul that morning? I wonder what she was feeling?
She, herself, had been one of the few – why, even the apostles themselves were hiding, claiming no relationship to the Lord any longer – who actually witnessed the burial of Jesus (Luke 23:55). Yes, she had been there for the crucifixion. And she had witnessed the burial. And she was returning to the tomb to further anoint his body.
And, even in the midst of the grief , I am sure she also had feelings of gratitude, gratitude mixed with grief. She remembers what life was like before she met Jesus, before she met the rabbi. She remembered how He had changed everything. Before Jesus, her life was one of chains, a life of restriction and oppression. He had been her great liberator.
He had delivered her from seven devils, the evangelist tells us, much like He has liberated us from the powers that haunt and entangle us. No matter how poorly things had ended, no matter how horrible the crucifixion, she would never forget what this man Jesus had done for her. He had given her freedom when, before.
Maybe with a slight smile, she remembered some of the things that Jesus had said and taught, remembered some of the things that He had done, as she walked to the tomb.
But things turned out in a way that Mary of Magdala could never, ever, have imagined.
The death of Jesus had shamed the disciples. They had labeled Him the “Messiah.” Despite His protests to the contrary, they had tried to push Him into becoming their Jewish ideal, the one to restore the power and glory seen only in the reign of King David.
But now what? The crucifixion had been so terrible it had shamed them, stunned them, left them numb. Some Messiah they had – why, He was hanging on a tree. And they had only been hanging on to preposterous delusion that He was going to be the king.
But they had loved Him. Oh, they had loved Him even if He did finally prove to be a great disappointment. He had taught them deep truths. How could it happen this way? They had seen Him give sight to the blind, even raise the dead. Where was all of this splendor now? He can’t raise Himself from the dead. The possibility never even crossed their minds.
The splendor had faded as quickly as the bloom of the morning flower withers in the midday heat. He was gone. Hope was gone. They had given up everything to follow Him – now they had nothing. They could only lurk in the shadows, afraid that they, themselves, might be next if the Romans’ thirst for blood had not been fully satisfied.
Without Jesus, there wasn’t anything left.
Some of you this morning, even this year, have lost someone that you love. You know all too well the sting of death. All of you will know it at sometime. I’m not sure what it was in your situation.
You loved your husband, and even though he had been sick, you always thought he could out run death. Finally, the disease, however, overcame him, and death, at last, took its prey.
Or she was snatched away from you suddenly. One moment she was there; the next minute she was gone. There wasn’t any history of heart attacks in her family. How could you have ever known? You always thought you would have more warning than this. You thought you’d have a chance to say goodbye, but you didn’t.
You had the shower. You painted the baby’s room. But something went terribly wrong in the delivery room. There was chaos, confusion, whispering. And then you discovered the baby was going to be born dead. The pain and emptiness of your heart is greater than anyone ought to have to bear, ever.
You know where the disciples were. Where Mary was when she went to the tomb that morning. I think sometimes we’re drawn, we’re called to go back to the place of burial as if, somehow, we can re-think it all, re-do it all, and re-claim a relationship that is really gone.
No longer would they hear Jesus teach in parables. No longer would He enlighten their hearts and minds with truths unfathomable. No more blind eyes will be opened. No more lame feet will be straightened. No more demons from hell will shiver at His authority. They had seen it all. But now, all was gone.
I can only imagine that Mary and the disciples were going through the “if only” stage. If only they hadn’t come to Jerusalem for the Passover, they’d still have their Lord. If only they had listened more carefully when He was teaching, maybe they would have understood. But now the deed was done. Christ was crucified. And all the “if onlys” in heaven and earth would not bring Him back again. Jesus was dead. And they were hopeless and helpless and numb.
Mary really didn’t have any fame. The only claim she could possibly have is that the gospel writers described her as the one who had served Jesus. You can’t miss the implication in Mary’s choice that God’s priorities are not our priorities when it comes to picking people. We would never have written the story making Mary of Magdala, once demon possessed, the first one to discover the empty tomb.
Mary had been anxious, pondering who was going to move the enormous stone out of the way so she could get on with the full burial business. But when she arrived – when she arrived…odd, curious…the stone had already been taken away.
Seeing the stone rolled away and seeing the empty tomb, she immediately had to turn for help. She ran to Simon Peter and to John. There could be only one logical conclusion: someone had stolen the body. They had lost the very body of their Lord.
The disciples waste no time in talking. They set off to see for themselves. John was younger than Peter, and he was faster. And he arrived at the tomb first, but he dared not go in. Hesitant. Cautious. Contemplative. From his position, he could see the linen cloths that had been around the body of Jesus lying there. Finally, Peter arrived. Peter was always a man of action – act first, think later. Emboldened by Peter (v. 8), the other disciple entered the tomb and he saw and he believed.
Perhaps this is the climax of this story – the faith of the beloved disciple. The writer of the text, he had an “aha” moment when he finally understood what Jesus had meant when He predicted that He would rise again.
Mary, still confused, stands outside the tomb weeping after the apostles had gone to their homes. She sees two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain – one at the head and the other at the feet. Being a Jew, proper burial procedure was of utmost importance. The Jews could not stand, as we cannot stand, any disrespect paid to the body. She is weeping because Jesus has died. She is weeping because now even His body has been disrespected. She has the throbbing pressure of grief in her heart. The lump in her throat – try as she might, it cannot be swallowed away: “How will I ever adjust now that my Master is gone.” Life is meaningless and empty. Perhaps Mary was feeling all of these things when the angels inquired, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Mary hears movement behind her. She turns around. She saw Jesus, but she didn’t know it was He. She thought He was the gardener. Jesus repeats the question of the divine beings. “Woman, why are you weeping?” But He adds a second question, “Whom are you seeking?”
You see, Mary was looking for a corpse when she should have been seeking a Savior.
He must be the gardener. Who else would come this early? Maybe he carried the body off? Maybe he saw someone carry the body off. “Sir, if you’ve taken His body, just tell me where you’ve laid Him. I’ll go get Him, no questions asked.”
Jesus only had to utter one word to change it all. “Mary,” he said. He spoke her name in those well-remembered accents that had first unbounded her from the sevenfold demonic power. It’s the same accented voice that had called her into new life before. If she had not known His appearance, she did know His voice. She could not mistake His voice. No one else said “Mary” like Jesus did.
It’s the moment that changes everything. It’s the moment of Easter hope.
She’d been looking for a corpse, but now she was standing before her Lord. Before, she thought death was victorious, but now she realized that life had won the day. Before, hers was an attitude of despair, but now she was rejoicing. Now was Easter hope.
Mary has an unthinkable reversal. She was just as surprised as you and I would be if someone we loved, once dead, had actually come to life again after the funeral. Her joy at the idea of resurrection was just as real as would be your joy having your mother, your child, your brother, your sister come to life in your presence again – to stand before you in an instant, a surprising instant.
I love these words. I’ve always loved these words. Look at verse 18. Mary says, “I have seen the Lord.” She announces to the disciples, “I have seen Him. He is alive. The Lord is alive. I have seen the Lord and He has spoken to me.”
Death is such a thief.
I looked through three notebooks of obituaries this week – the names and faces of those who are a part of First Baptist Church who have been stung by death since last Easter. Took three notebooks to contain those names. Death’s sting on this congregation, given the enormity of our size, is constant. I read through the names. It’s the names of your husbands. It’s the names of your brothers. Your wives. Your sisters. Your grandparents. Yes, on occasion, your children. (249 in all) If I called the names, many of you would know some of them. It’s kind of overwhelming to see what death does to the people called First Baptist Church of Amarillo in a single year. Three notebooks full of obituaries since last Easter. Your family. My family. Your friends. And my friends.
Today is the day of Easter hope. Today we realize that we worship a resurrected Lord. And as I looked through all these names, I realized they bear one thing in common – their hope of eternal life and our hope of reunion with them is based upon this one empty tomb of two thousand years ago.
The apostle Paul tells us Easter is not about the resurrection of one Jewish rabbi who somehow came to life again. No, it’s not that at all. It is the beginning of the age of the resurrection. It is when Yahweh, when God begins the process of calling to life all His sleeping children. The empty tomb of Jesus is about the resurrection of all who call Him Lord.
Paul said He’s the first fruits, and all those who believe in Him shall follow, each in his own order. Like the first fruit of the tree promises a full harvest, the first empty tomb promises the resurrection of all God’s children.
Our death is connected to His death. And our resurrection is connected to His resurrection. The One who said (John 14:1-6),
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may also be. And you know the way where I am going.
And Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”
And Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let it be afraid.”
Easter means your sins are paid for. Easter means death has been defeated. Easter means because He lives, we live. And those we place in the ground for safekeeping live. Easter means we don’t have to be afraid anymore. Just like Mary was reunited with Jesus, we will be caught up together in the clouds with those who love the Lord, and thus we shall always be with Him.
Do you realize that today changes everything? Grieve if you must, but you cannot grieve as do the rest who have no hope. Because Easter, Easter says “hope has won the day.”
He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. And for you and for me, He defeats death.