John 20:1-18. Easter
Early 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. So 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.”
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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.They 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.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
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.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus 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.’”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
It is Easter Sunday--the Sunday of pastel colors, potlucks, cascarones and mimosas, it is the happiest and brightest holiday in the Christian calendar. It is the Christian Sunday of celebration and new life, of resurrection and overcoming death. It is tempting to start the resurrection Sunday sermon with light and joy and blue skies and shouts of “He is risen!”
Easter is the day for what author, priest, and professor Barbara Brown Taylor would call “full solar spirituality.” A spirituality and form of Christianity that is all sunshine and pep talks, all the time. It is Easter.
While that seems appropriate, my friends, even more so because of the bright blue skies of our own Easter Sunday, I fear that it would not be true to the actual story of Jesus’ resurrection if we only allowed for sunshine and solar spirituality and bright smiles on this day, if we only allowed for hallelujahs and painted eggs.
In the Gospel of Matthew and Mark and Luke and in the Gospel of John which we read from this morning, the day of resurrection actually starts not when the sun is up and making all things clear and bright. The story of the resurrection happens, quote, while it was still dark. The bright blue skies of our own worship service are much different than the morning of Christ’s resurrection because if we listen carefully John sets the scene not in the brunch hour but when? “While it was still dark.”
Early 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.
While it was still dark.
And maybe, if you are like me,” that line subconsciously if not consciously alarms you a little bit because what good things happen in the dark? Oftentimes we are taught that nothing good happens after dark--or if you are a How I Met Your Mother fan, nothing good happens after 2AM! (season 1! Episode 18!)
The dark, or nighttime, is often portrayed literally as a dangerous time. It’s a time where you lock your doors. You don’t go outside alone. It’s the setting for countless scary movies and ghost stories at the campfire.
When it is dark outside you cannot see your surroundings very well or know who or what is behind or in front of you. The literal dark is often portrayed as a place where all sorts of things can happen, many of them not pleasant. I asked Darcy this week if ANYTHING good happens in Minecraft at night and she unequivocally said no.
The Bible it seems is also quite guilty of perpetuating our associations of darkness with evil, struggle, and abandonment.
In a parable in the Gospel of Matthew that talks about where the unjust will go, we read “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” If we back up to the Old Testament, the day grows dark in the book of Exodus as the locusts gather and overwhelm the Egyptians during the plagues. There are about a hundred references to darkness in the Bible and it doesn’t fair well for the most part. It portrays darkness as a place where the questionable happens.
And if darkness is not literally a place of danger or uneasiness, it is definitely metaphorically depicted as a place of risk, uncertainty, and suffering. While meeting with one of my first counselors in high school early on, he asked me to describe what my depression felt like. How would I describe it? Like many who struggle with mental health, my response was not surprising: “it feels dark” I remember saying. Like the whole world is getting dim and something menacing is brewing.
In addition to depression, grief is often also described metaphorically as a season of darkness. One of my favorite poets David Whyte describes it as a dark and deep well where we throw our coins.
When we say we are experiencing darkness in our hearts, our mental health, or the seasons in our lives, we mean that things are not going well. They are dim, painful, confusing, even grief-filled. Darkness for us too often encompasses all the things we fear or run away from. We don’t give darkness a chance.
If you read our story this morning too quickly, you might be tempted to do one of two things. Maybe you just skip the part that says it’s dark outside and plaster a blue sky over the story of Mary finding Jesus, of Peter and the beloved disciples racing to the tomb, of the angels. Or maybe, when you read that it was still dark outside, you overlap your assumptions about “the dark” with this narrative.
The dark sky challenges the good news of this story in ways both conscious and subconscious. It’s dark, confusing, scary.
Either way I think you miss one very important, actually, ESSENTIAL part of the GOOD news, of resurrection, of new life: it happens while it is still dark.
Walk through this story again with me--there is darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Mary Magdalene, close friend to Jesus and the disciples, is grieving deeply. She arrives at the tomb and Jesus’ body is gone. Her first response is to call for back-up and she goes to get Peter and the beloved disciple. After they assess the scene, she is left alone weeping in the darkness. She is so overcome with grief she seems unperturbed or utterly oblivious to the presence of two angels. Then in her desperation to find Jesus’ body she mistakes the real thing with for the gardner. Mary's darkness was more than just physical that day. Yes, it was still dark outside. But it was still dark in her soul and in her heart, the darkness of grief, of doubt, and even despair gripped Mary at the empty tomb.
And for Peter and the beloved disciple, things appeared dark on this morning not only because of the early hour, but because the state of Jesus tomb was utterly confusing. Things were murky. Jesus’ body was gone! Was it stolen? Probably not, because the linens are still there, folded as if someone no longer needed them. So where was he? What has happened? Could they remember and understand Jesus’s message about death and resurrection when they were standing in the middle of a graveyard stricken with grief and confused at the empty tomb?
For the people in this story--for Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple it is dark and confusing. Their own experiences reflect the early hour dimness of the morning. In this darkness, they and we might think that it’s all for loss, that the only thing we need to do is get to the light, to figure out this mystery, to grab a candle, to remove the darkness, the grief and the confusion. Turn the lights back on.
Perhaps even in the way we read this story we rush through it to get to the a-ha moment, the reveal, the light piercing the darkness, to Jesus.
We, my friends, are too comfortable demonizing the darkness, associating it with our fears, discomfort, and dread. We, my friends, are too comfortable walking away from it and avoiding it.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Learning to Walk in the Darkness, tells us that there are some consequences when we do that, when we “tuck all the sinister stuff into the dark part” of our lives and avoid it. She says we start to identify “God with the sunny part...leaving you [and you and you and you] to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true...it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things,” from the darkness (7). We do a great disservice to ourselves, others, and God when we push the darkness away.
Not all things that happen in the dark are fruitless. Not all things that are or seem dark should be overlapped and embedded with our sense of fear or grief or sadness. Not all darkness, Taylor reminds us, is in opposition to light, but rather in balance with it, working the ways of God (13). So, perhaps our resurrection story needs the dark, just like we do.
Because “while it was still dark” Jesus was coming back to life. “While it was still dark” the work of resurrection was happening. “While it was still dark” the seed that was dead and planted started to crack open. “While it was still dark” the mystery of God’s work began again. “While it was still dark” good things were happening.
God doesn’t require the light of day, God doesn’t need blue skies, God isn’t preferential of our own assumptions about light and dark, God does what God does when and where God does it--and sometimes that is in the dark, while it’s dark, so dark you and I can’t see a single thing around us and all we can do is sit still. But God’s good work, God’s resurrection, is happening in those dark places, in those dark moments.
I think we know this, but it is so hard to remember. We know that a seed must die, it must get planted down in the dark soil in order for it to live and thrive as a full grown plant. We know that looking back at our lives, some of the darkest times were and are some of the times we grew, loved, and experienced love . We know that Jesus’ death is not the end of the story, but it’s a darkness that leads to and transforms even the light of day through his resurrection. We know that in the dark the good work of God is accomplished.
One of the darkest times for the nation of Israel was in exile from around 539 BC. They’d been taken from their homes in Jerusalem to live in Babylon under a foreign empire with foreign food, foreign gods, and foreign culture. After almost a century of this Cyrus of Assyria moved in and took over the Babylon Empire. He began sending the Israelites back home across the desert. Writing about this, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that in their exile, God had “give[n] the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” so that Israel might know God and hear God call them by their name. The darkness, Isaiah wisely saw, had the potential not just for grief and fear, but it also had the capacity to hold treasure.
While it is still dark, before the light comes on, it is not all for loss. Treasures can be found in the darkness.
Is it dark in your life right now? Are you weeping like Mary? Are you searching frantically like Peter for explanations or friends or reasons? Is this world in the dark right now? Our country? Our social structures? Our power dynamics? Our politics? Is it dark right now?
This is when the resurrection happens. This is when Jesus walks out of the tomb. This is when God’s work is done--when we’re confused, blind, and in fear, Jesus is NOT. While it is still dark--this is when God is at work.
Yes we can celebrate and we definitely will celebrate the new life, the light, the blue skies, the deep breath and relief when we hear our names spoken by God. Celebration and light are not any more bad than darkness is. But we have to hold out our faithful hands to both. We have to let them do their work, the work of the day and the work of the night. The solar spirituality and the lunar. The treasures in the Easter eggs and the treasures of darkness. Both speak of God’s name and quietly whisper our own.