Joe Neville

John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday



O Mary, Don't You Weep

“If a man shall die, shall he live again?” This is the haunting question raised by Job as he struggled with one tragedy after another so many centuries ago. It’s the perennial problem of the seeming futility of life. We all struggle to understand how life can be so intoxicatingly sweet and full, while at the same time, it can be so excruciatingly painful and empty.

Andre Gide, the twentieth century French novelist, playwright, essayist, diarist, wrote in 1919 a short meditation on Christianity entitled "The Pastoral Symphony," which was later adapted into a three-act play and motion picture. It revolves around the relational dynamic between a beautiful young woman named Gertrude, blind from birth, and a devout Swiss minister, who rescues her from a hovel and guides her from darkness into light. And yet the light is blinding, more blinding than her blindness. When surgery suddenly enables her to see, two things awaken her soul with crushing pain. One is that "my eyes opened on a world more beautiful than I had ever dreamt it could be...the daylight so bright, the air so brilliant, and the sky so vast." The other thing that struck her powerfully, and that precipitated her death, was the way people's faces were "so full of care," pain and emptiness. She almost wishes that her eyes had never been opened by the miracle.

John Updike writes in a review of Stephen Jay Gould's book, Questioning the Millennium: "One surefire prediction about the future: In a few years, the next millennium will arrive.  No one knows quite what to make of the fact, but it must be, we feel, somehow momentous...I was born in 1932, and one of my first idle speculations concerned whether or not I would live to see the year 2000.  It was nip and tuck, by the actuarial charts of Depression America.  Now the odds seem pretty good and I look forward with irrational expectancy to the ominous and charismatic New Year."

Are we better off being blind to the realities of God’s world and promise?  Is this our goal: simply to survive the 21st century?  “If a man shall die, shall he live again?”

  This, as we all know isn’t a question unique to our time and our contemporary struggles. This question was found on a cave wall dating from 3000 BC, “What difference the virtuous and the foolish?” Indeed, if both the righteous and the wicked end in the “equality of nothingness,” what we do here in this life makes no difference at all unless there is a yes to Job’s question! And, if there is a resounding yes to Job’s question, then how we conduct this life makes a world of difference, an eternity of difference.

The resounding yes has to do with God’s son, our brother Jesus. It has to do with why congregations gather in the spirit they do on Easter Sunday.

When Friday’s death was over, all who knew and loved Jesus were dazed and numb with that cold, chill heaviness that death brings over the human heart.  The horror of it!  The public shame!  The nails and the spear!  The life of Jesus was snuffed out in the heat of the day, and amid the shadows when they fell strangely on the earth, making midday into midnight. About the sixth hour, this young man, draped ignominiously on the cross with his earthly life draining from him, wracked by pain and shame, looking down on his beloved mother and his loved ones, and then on his detractors and tormentors established a dialogue with God in our behalf.  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And, about the ninth hour, writhing in pain for more than three hours, he cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?” And then, crying with a loud voice, Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And he breathed his last. We are confronted by the finality of the end, the death, and the grave.  Is this the end of it?

Now we pick up on our text this morning. Now we pick up on that which makes us a people with an eternal promise. We pick up on a God whose love is brooding and over-arches our today and the wonderfully loving promise of tomorrow.  For it was love that propelled Mary Magdalene to the cemetery early that morning.  When she reached the tomb that Sunday morning and saw that the stone had been rolled away, she jumped to the conclusion that the body had been taken from the tomb. The idea that Jesus had risen from death had not occurred to her. Rage, fear, and ultimate loss enveloped her at once as she turned and raced to tell the others. You can almost feel the stomach constrict and the heart scream as she ran back to the disciples telling them what she had found, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The disciples raced back to the tomb and found that the tomb was empty. Dejected, spiritually lost and empty, they returned home.

The movement of this Jewish sect was dead. The powerful forces had defeated it. Our leader is dead, and they have stolen the body, we don’t know what they did with it. There is nothing more for us to do but go home.

In our life time, we can recall instances were there have been startling new ideas such as Marxism, or the secularist teachings of Nietzsche, Vahanian and Paul Van Buren, who collectively believed that believe in God was intellectually untenable, indeed, meaningless, or in our contemporary understanding, Genetic Engineering, that some people feared would bring Christ and the church to an end.  But the church of Jesus Christ continues to march on.  Men and women are still being saved, communities are still being blessed by churches; salvation’s story is still being told.

Even though the disciples returned home in fear and despondency, Wanting to escape, looking for something, anything, to ease their pain, possibly looking for something mystical to transport them to a higher order of existence — But, Mary is compelled to return to the tomb. She had a kind of love that just wouldn’t give up, a kind of love that keeps going back when it looks as if failure is complete.  We have so many examples of this in our lives. There are people in this congregation who are here because a mother, a father, a teacher, a preacher, a deacon, church members and choir singers, would not give up. They kept on worshipping God and praying when it looked as if nothing was happening. It is out of this persistence that come strong, vibrant congregations greatly honoring the name of Jesus, and redeeming lives.

Mary returned to the tomb with no knowledge of what had happened to the body. Possibly the body was stolen by those who wanted to further desecrate it, or use it to demonstrate that this was just a deranged man with a infectious personality, but who in the end, was dead along with all of his teachings.

One has no idea what went through Mary’s head on that morning. But she didn’t return home. Instead, while weeping, she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the foot. I wonder if these were the angels of Bethlehem, but who now witnessed to a deeper depth of the love and power of God than they saw in the stable at the birth of Christ Jesus. I do not know, but they asked, “Woman, Why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Saying this, Mary turns and asks the man (whom she assumes to be the gardener), if he knows where they have taken the body of her Lord, so she can carry it away.

This isn’t common sense talking. This is love talking. Common sense would assume that the body is gone, and even if they found it how would she dispose of it? How would she carry it and where? How could she, a poor woman, carry the weight of a man’s body? Yet many a poor woman has, in love, carried the weight of a whole family. Through quiet persistence and silent tears, many a woman has carried a weight that would have broken the backs of many. Yes, every now and then a man has carried a nation

Mary was being that persistent follower whose loyalty and love for Jesus transcended her very life.  But Jesus, as the old Negro Spiritual says, “O Mary don’t you weep, O Mary don’t you mourn.”  Because there was now a new covenant in his blood, Jesus, simply called Mary’s name; and, she could not mistake the voice of her teacher.

He spoke to her there in the morning light as he had spoken when he cast -~ seven devils out of her poor, storm-swept soul—The voice that spoke in the cemetery that morning was the same voice that taught the multitudes, the same voice that healed the woman who touched his garment, the same voice that spoke and the blind saw, the same voice that on the stormy sea comforted fearful disciples... The same voice that talked with Moses and Elijah in the heaven-sent light on the Mount of Transfiguration.  The same voice that stilled the storm and made the winds be still and one day spoke peace into Mary’s soul.


That voice must have sounded to Mary like the music of many waters, like the celestial organ whispering its melodic harmony, like a mighty heavenly choir singing its Gloria, like cathedral bells far off and stealing across the hills.


Jesus said to her, do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to God; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my God and your God.  Not under a shroud, not drawn to death, no longer weeping or mourning, Mary out of persistent love went and told the disciples that Jesus the Christ had said these things to her.

In the morning light Mary answered and the stone rolled away from her poor, sorrowing heart…The supreme meeting and dialogue—that between the Risen Lord and one who knows that life can be forever different only when the Lord’s voice has spoken and the enraptured soul has heard it and replied.  Amen.