A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 24, 2011.

John 20:1-18

The Resurrection of Jesus

20Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So 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.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They 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.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because 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.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  (Emphasis added)

At Easter the followers of Jesus Christ celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead.  But people want to know, need to know, and deserve to know how the resurrection of Jesus Christ affects their lives and living.  How does the resurrection matter to how people deal with the messed up economic, social, political, and other realities of 21st Century life?  Does our testimony about the resurrected Christ have any relevance to how people live every day?  Here’s why our testimony about the resurrection matters. 

People need to know that God’s love is stronger than death.  When Mary Magdalene announced “I have seen the Lord” to the shaken men who were hiding after Jesus died, her announcement was more than a fantastic claim.  It was an audacious testimony that God’s love is stronger than death.  For Mary Magdalene had come to know God’s love in Jesus Christ.  God’s unconditional love had claimed her despite all the issues and rumors that surrounded her identity.  God’s unstoppable love in Christ had accepted Mary Magdalene and people like her.  They had seen God’s love heal, teach, correct, laugh, weep, hunger, and thirst in Jesus Christ. 

Then Mary Magdalene saw Jesus die like a criminal at Calvary.   She saw him bleed and strain for breath.  She watched him being taunted by the soldiers who were assigned to crucifixion duty. She witnessed him being ridiculed by his opponents within the religious establishment.  Then Jesus died.  His body was buried.  All that she had experienced and hoped seemed lost. 

Since the morning Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus and announced “I have seen the Lord,” we who follow Jesus have declared that God’s love is stronger than death.  The death of Jesus affirms that God’s love is unafraid of death.  The resurrection of Jesus affirms that God’s love is stronger than death.  The crucifixion of Jesus shows just how badly sin contaminates relationships, religion, government, and anything else it affects.  The resurrection of Jesus shows that God’s love is more powerful than the deadly and deadening influence of sin.

What Jesus experienced during his arrest, trial, and crucifixion demonstrates that people can and will fight love and truth.  People can and will lie on love and truth.  People can and will conspire against love and truth.  People will even use the power of religion and government to murder love and truth.  But the resurrection demonstrates that God’s love and truth will rise in new life, new strength, and new power.  God’s love and truth overcomes being battered, abused, and crushed to death.  God’s love and truth are sin-proof, hate-proof, lie-proof, and even death-proof. 

And this reality means everything to us—no matter who we are, where we live, or what our circumstances may be—because we live in a world where sin, hate, lies, and death threaten us at every turn.  When we see violence in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and across the world it is tempting to believe that violence and hate are stronger than God’s love and truth.  When we see materialism and greed corrupt people in the exercise of their duties, it is tempting to believe that the power of materialism and greed is stronger than God’s love and truth.  When people choose second-rate thinkers and slipshod characters over others who have dedicated themselves to helping others, living humbly, and committing their lives to excellence it’s tempting to think that the power that inspires scoundrels and ruffians is stronger than the power that inspires virtuous folk. 

The resurrection of Jesus stands against all that history of human misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance.  

       •            Because of the resurrection, we can look at the sad and sick condition of our world and live with strength. 

       •            Because of the resurrection, men and women sang and prayed with strength even as they were being tortured and murdered for believing in Jesus. 

       •            Because of the resurrection, women refused to allow their hopes to vote, own property, and be treated with the dignity equal to men die. 

       •            Because of the resurrection, African slaves refused to allow their hopes for freedom die even when religion and government conspired against those hopes. 

       •            Because of the resurrection, although religion and government had said women and slaves didn’t need or deserve education, schools were built and teachers worked. 

       •            Because of the resurrection, parents and loved ones sacrificed and pushed their children.  Because of the resurrection, Freedom Riders put their lives on the line. 

       •            Because of the resurrection, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu never stopped believing in freedom. 

       •            Because of the resurrection, Martin Luther King, Jr. and believed that a non-violent revolution could redeem the social and political policies of a society addicted to racism, materialism, and violence.

       •            Because of the resurrection, hospitals have been built and operated to combat disease and heal injuries.

       •            Because of the resurrection, workers have defied the power of greed and death to stand on picket lines and demand safe places to work, fair wages, and respectful treatment.   

We can’t and shouldn’t deny the power of sin and death in the world.  We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the glaring evidence of corruption around us.  We can’t and shouldn’t excuse politicians who cut Pontius Pilate deals.  We can’t and shouldn’t’ pretend that opportunism and petty jealousies don’t contaminate religious life.  The Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus don’t allow us to do so.  Each Gospel shows that Jesus died because of these realities.

But none of the Gospel accounts concludes with Calvary.  They all conclude with accounts that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  The powerful witness of the Gospels is found in what God did to prompt the audacious testimony of Mary Magdalene—”I have seen the Lord.”  So every day, people who have experienced the same resurrection power face their tomb-like situations with strength.  They dare to believe that sin and death are not invincible.  They dare to live in the power of resurrection rather than the power of fear and defeat. 

Perhaps this audacious testimony helped influence an artist in England.  Born in 1817 to the second wife of a poor piano-maker on the birthday of George Frederic Handel, he was named George Frederic Watts.  His mother died while he was young.  Although he was home-schooled, his father held to such a conservative interpretation of Christianity that the boy was put off with conventional religion for the rest of his life.  He became an artist during the Victorian period. 

In 1886, Watts completed an oil painting that is titled Hope.  In the painting, hope is symbolized by a woman sitting on a globe, blindfolded, dressed in a tattered dress, and holding a wooden lyre.  Her instrument has only one string, not four, seven, or ten strings.  The woman is hunched with her head close to the instrument as if she is trying to hear the weak music she can make with the last string on her lyre. What does that Victorian-era painting matter to you and me, and what does it have to do with resurrection, you may ask?  Good question. 

In the late 1980’s a black preacher named Dr. Frederick G. Sampson used this oil painting as the subject matter for a lecture on hope at Richmond, Virginia (perhaps the annual Hampton Ministers Institute).  A preacher named Jeremiah Wright heard that lecture.  In 1990, four years later, that preacher was inspired to preach about Hope and referred to the figure in that oil painting in these words–“with her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God … To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope … that’s the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt’s painting.”  There was a fellow in the congregation during that sermon named Barack Obama.  

Fourteen years later, in 2004, Barack Obama had been elected the junior U.S. Senator from Illinois.  John Kerry was seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party to be President of the United States.  Somehow Kerry selected Obama to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic Convention.  Obama’s twenty-minute speech launched his career as a national political figure.  The speech was titled “The Audacity of Hope.”  It was inspired by the sermon Obama heard Jeremiah Wright preach, after Wright had been inspired by the lecture Dr. Sampson delivered about the oil painting by George Frederic Watts titled Hope

In October 2006, Barack Obama’s second book was released.  It was titled “The Audacity of Hope.”  In 2007, Obama launched his campaign to for presidency of the United States.  The initial theme of the campaign wasn’t “change you can believe in.”  It was one word:  “Hope.”

Because God raised Jesus from the dead, Mary Magdalene had an audacious testimony.  Because Jesus rose, doubting men under the power of the Holy Spirit became bold.  Because of their testimony about the resurrection, the name of Christ rose above that of Caesar, Pilate, Herod, and every other pretender to power in the world.  Because of God’s power in raising Jesus, Hope is not just an ideal.  Hopeful trust in the victorious power of God’s love and truth is the foundation for more than audacious talk.  It’s the foundation for audacious life! 

Give thanks to God for life too strong for death and sin to hold.  Give thanks to God for life stronger than all the world may do to us.  Give thanks to God for the life shared with us in Jesus Christ.  Then live that audacious life in the power of the Holy Spirit, with every breath and heartbeat, to the glory of God.  Amen.

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