John 20: 1-18, John 11: 17, 21-27, 38-44
April 8, 2012
Because I’m telling you, as I stood outside the empty tomb that morning all those years ago, I was drowning in my loss. They have taken my Lord and my savior, and I don’t know where they put him. It was all I could think about. See, I had already lost Jesus once on the cross. And now I had lost him a second time.
Going to the tomb that morning was the last thing I wanted to do, you understand. Rising out of bed long before the sun’s light raced across the earth. If I had my druthers, I would’ve stayed in bed all day long. Hiding from the new day that would remind me, excruciatingly so, all that had happened to Jesus in just three days. Captured and tried and executed as a criminal; put to death by the Roman empire and those who simply could not stand anyone else claiming authority. I had been forced to face his death alone when everyone else ran away. I stood my ground. I was there when he breathed his last and died; I was there when they sealed him in that cold dark cave, entombing not just him but all the hope and light and love he embodied. And now, every bit of it would decay and rot in that tomb. Because nothing that goes into a tomb ever comes out.
It was not at all what I wanted to do; to go and anoint his dead body, as is our Jewish custom. But I did up anyway. I did it for him; only for him. Even in his death, I still walked where he led me. And so as I made my way along that winding path with the new day sun peeking around rock crevices and trees, I prepared for the onslaught on my senses – the smell of decay, the sight of decomposing flesh, the sound of silence that finds its home in tombs. All reminding me of the harsh truth that I was still coming to grips with – that Jesus, my teacher and preacher, my Lord and my savior, my master and my friend, Jesus was dead. Alive no more.
We all had seen the signs, first-hand. How he filled the jars with new wine at the wedding, wine that was even better than what was in them before, saving the best till now. How he healed the centurion’s son and the crippled man, showing us that God’s grace was meant for all. How he fed the thousands of hungry with an abundance we never even knew we had; how he walked on water and lifted Peter right out of his very failure. How he gave sight to the one who had never seen before, and how he exposed as blind those who had made such a great pretense of seeing.
And then, just a week or so before, how Jesus walked right up to that tomb; a tomb much like the one I was heading to at this very moment. A tomb that belonged to his friend Lazarus, who was our friend too. He had died to us; he was lost to us.
His sister Martha, expressing to Jesus her faith in the resurrection to come. But Jesus told her something else: I am the resurrection and the life, he said. And with that, he turned to the now open tomb, all the stench coming out, and told Lazarus to get out of there. And Lazarus walked right out! Still wrapped in burial cloths, but alive again, breathing again, living again! What was lost was found!
Signs, every last one of them. Not signs to “wow” the crowds or to prove anything. Signs to point us all closer and closer to Jesus, like mileposts along the journey. Signs showing us who Jesus was, revealing the glory of God to the world!
But now, now all that glory was lost forever, sealed away in a tomb with a stone rolled in front.
Except that stone was no longer there! That’s what I saw with my own two eyes as I rounded the corner to the place where they laid him. The tomb was wide open. Burial cloths folded on the ground; the stone off to the side. And my stomach sank as I realized that I had lost my Jesus again. They have taken my Lord and my savior, and I don’t know where they put him.
What do you do with loss like that, huh? What do you do with yourself when you lose something that can never be replaced? When what you’ve lost is so much more than a possession of yours, but is the very definition of who you are? Because we all found our true selves in Jesus. We all had our jars filled, our brokenness healed, our hunger satisfied. We all were lifted right out of our failures and healed of our blindness. That’s who Jesus was to us! So what do you in that hopeless period that follows the cross, when empty tombs are all you’re left with; a painful reminder that Jesus is nowhere to be found?
Because, see, I think so much of life happens in that place. Loss is a frequent companion along the journey, isn’t it? Loss of a loved one. Loss of innocence. Loss of a relationship, loss of a job. Loss of what was familiar and comfortable; loss of a much hoped-for opportunity. Jesus came to put an end to loss forever; and show us the beauty of what we can find in and through him. Jesus came to do all that, and more. And now he was lost to us. He was lost to me.
They come running back to the tomb with me, running back up that same path, running to see what I had seen – or not seen, as it were. Peter and the “other disciple,” who ran faster than the rest of us. So fast that we couldn’t even remember his name! But that’s the way it is, isn’t it? We all make our own pace in the journey that leads us to the tomb, don’t we? Some of us take more time; others can’t get there fast enough. The important thing, though, is that we’re all heading in the same direction. We’re all headed there together.
They see exactly what I had already seen, what I had told them about – the moved stone, the open tomb, the folded burial cloths. One says he believes – but what, exactly? What does he believe? He doesn’t say, he just runs away, so excited. Me? I am as lost as ever.
And so it is there, standing outside the open tomb, where he finds me. The gardener. He finds me there, weeping my eyes out. And he asks me what’s wrong. He asks me who I am looking for. So I tell him, as I’ve told them all a thousand times:
They have taken my Lord and my Savior, and I don’t know where they put him.
And I respectfully ask this gardener that if he has taken my Jesus, if he has put his body somewhere, to just let me know where, so I can go with my ointment and anoint his body as is our custom. Just grant me this one favor, please. One small grace so I can bring closure to all of this and entomb Jesus one last time.
And it is at that moment, at that very moment, that I find him. And all he has to do is say my name! Mary. He says “Mary” and the last sign reveals itself to me, like the early morning sun illuminating the darkened earth. It is the miracle to end all miracles! Because this man before me is not the gardener. He is the one I’d been searching for all morning long – all my life, really. He is Jesus! And he is not lost, he is found. He is not dead, he is alive!
Tell the others, he says to me. And so I do. I run back and tell everyone that I have seen the Lord! Seen him with my own eyes; heard him with my ears. Jesus – not lost, but found. Not dead, but alive! I tell them all, and they hear me. And they go and tell others. And even now, we are still telling the story – after all these years, the wonderful story of a moved stone and an empty tomb and folded burial cloths and a gardener who was not a gardener and Jesus calling me by my name and being alive all over again. Alive for every one of us!
And you know what I eventually came to understand, much later? It took awhile, but I know it’s the truth. Jesus was never lost – I was. I was the lost one. We all are lost, aren’t we – if we’re honest with ourselves? Every one of us, trying to figure out who we are, what we’re here to do, what our life means. Trying to make sense of a world where jars are always empty, where human bodies are perpetually broken, where stomachs go hungry all the time, where failure is a constant companion, where eyes are overcome with blindness.
That is the world we know – until that moment when Jesus finds us! He finds us when he comes out of an empty tomb that simply cannot contain him one moment longer. He finds us and embraces us in everlasting love. And he fills our empty jars, he heals our brokenness, he feeds our bodies, he lifts us out of our failures, he makes the blind to see. Signs, pointing us to the glory of God. Pointing us to him.
There is no doubt: Easter is a miracle! But do you know what the real miracle of Easter is? It is not that Jesus walked out of a tomb. It is not that one man defied death. The real miracle of Easter, the real sign of God’s glory, is that Jesus, like he did with Lazarus, beckons each one of us out of our own tombs – he tells us to “get out of there!” All those things that lead to decay and rot; all those things that bind us up like burial cloths. Jesus frees us from them! He frees us so we can be who we were created to be: children of God, walking in newness of life. And what a precious life it is! Not a life to be wasted, but a life to be lived to the fullest! And not an ending to our journey of faith, as if victory is all we’re after. But a beginning. A beginning to the real work of the kingdom that is just getting started.
That, my friends, is the miracle of Easter. And it’s a miracle that changed the world. For we all are lost. But through the risen Jesus, we all are found. Called out by our very name and claimed forever by the God who loves us. Jesus Christ is Risen! Alleluia! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN!