“The Lord, at First Sight” John 20:1-18 April 12, 2009 By Larry Gaylord One day this past week—Holy Week—a house in our subdivision suddenly appeared decorated in the morning light with red, white, and blue banners, stars and flags. By afternoon, there was a yellow ribbon tied around the tree in the front yard. And on the door was a big sing: “Welcome back, Zach.” He is returning, no doubt, from a distant outpost, maybe a war—Iraq, Afghanistan—but back, alive and well. Someone named Zach is dearly loved and has been greatly missed, and is home for Easter. Today is the great day of triumph for the Christian faith. It announces to the world, “Jesus is back: from the grave, from death itself.” He is among us in victory over sin and darkness, and is calling us to lives of hope and purpose through faith in God. Today we are most mindful of those who, like Mary Magdalene, have lost loved ones and are grieving their loss. For you, this is a day of hope. Because he lives, we, and they, shall live also. Christian faith offers a powerful response to the greatest question of human existence. We recognize the terrible reality of death, but in the risen Christ we encounter the God of life, abundant and everlasting. This week brings a kind of parable, of one who was and is ready to lay down his life for his friends. Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this.” Capt. Richard Philips, of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, voluntarily gave himself as a hostage to Somali pirates, on the understanding that they would let his crew go free. A family friend in Underhill, VT, upon hearing the story said, “Yes, that sounds like something Richard would do.” Our prayers are with Capt. Philips and his family—and with his captors and the Somali people in their desperate poverty. The first Easter did not start triumphantly. Mary Magdalene ventured out in the blackness of the night. It wasn’t a very safe or prudent thing for a woman to do. She had no hope or expectation that Christ would be alive, and could not have imagined herself strong enough to move the stone. She was simply lost in grief, and wanted to be near her fallen friend. She might have been too crushed to sleep, so she went to his tomb. There she could mourn in her own way. Sleeplessness is a classic symptom of anxiety. A recent headline declared, “Anxiety Seeps into Everyday Life.” The story examined the effects of the recession on many people—many of whom are not directly harmed but worry that they might be. Stress is troubling people, jolting them awake in the middle of the night. Someone else was up in the middle of this night. It was Jesus. We don’t know what his rising was like. It was only between the father and the Son. But imagine that sealed tomb holding its priceless treasure. There was no light at all. The mighty power of God broke through. Life broke through. And in the middle of the night, Jesus got up. John Updike, the great American writer who died recently, wrote in a poem: “Make no mistake: if he rose at all, it was as his body. It was not as the flowers, each soft spring recurrent. Let us not mock God with metaphor: let us walk through the door.” He himself truly arose. Can it be that our down times, and our dark times, are meant to prepare us for resurrection? The great English mystic William Law urged, “Receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with the certainty of God’s goodness, and that all is created for you.” There can be no resurrection without the cross, no true life without dying to self. Eric Wilson writes, “By 1741, George Friedrich Handel was in his mid-50’s, and found himself a fallen man. Once a ruler of the musical world, he had suffered several failed operas, as well as poor health. He was left in a state of poverty and illness, and he was heartbroken. Living in a run-down house in a poor part of London, he expected any day to be thrown into debtor’s prison, quite possibly to die there. But then, out of nowhere, as if by the hand of God, he received a libretto, based on the life of Jesus, and an invitation to compose a work for a charity benefit performance. On August 22, 1741, in his squalid rooms on Brook Street in London, Handel saw possibilities no had before seen. Immediately he felt a creative vitality course through his veins. During a period of 25 days, he barely ate or slept. He only composed, and then composed more. At the end of less than a month, he had completed “Messiah,” his greatest work. Out of the deepest despair of his life, came light to the world. Mary didn’t recognize the Lord at first sight. Her loss was too great. She was completely tied to that story of hers. “They’ve taken him, and I don’t know where….” Through her tears, she mistook Jesus for the gardener. Symbolically, she wasn’t that far wrong. He IS a gardener: he plants and nourishes and gives the growth, and prunes the branches to keep them healthy. But he also said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I call my sheep by name, and they know my voice, and they listen to me.” So, he calls this particular sheep by name. “Mary!” That is the moment of recognition. The familiar, comforting, challenging voice of the Lord: that’s the key. It goes to our heart, and opens our eyes. Mary’s story changed, at that moment. She quit saying, They’ve taken him away. To enter Easter fully, she had to let go of that refrain. She had to let go of her own interpretation of things. Author Mike Bellah writes, “The stories we tell ourselves have great power over us. Depending on how they are told, our stories can mislead or enlighten, discourage or inspire. Deciding what to highlight can spell the difference between lingering bitterness, guilt, and grief on the one hand, or a sense of closure and meaning and redemption on the other.” Will we allow Christ in and let him shape our stories, and give our lives their true meaning? Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold onto me.” Ever since, scholars have puzzled over what he meant. Yes, he would ascend to the father, but Mary could not keep him from that. Maybe he meant, “Don’t hold onto your past experience of me. I will be with you in a totally new way now. Something new has begun.” The biblical writers were so astonished by the Easter event that they searched for words to express it. He is the all in all, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He is Lord of lords and King of kings. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. On and on they went. They tried to put into words the fact that through faith, our personal narrative is linked to something inexpressibly great and grand. We are caught up into the life of God, and the plan of God. To join Mary Magdalene this Easter day in saying “I have seen the Lord,” also means we have the vision of that Kingdom, where love is enthroned, where the hungry have bread to eat, where those who are alone drink the wine of gladness in the embrace of a loving community, where children can laugh and play unafraid, and where the very earth is cared for like a garden. Come to this table, all you who have seen the Lord.