The Empty Tomb: What Happened? John 20:1-18, 3/31/13

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Mar 312013


Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church


1Early 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.

11But 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. (John 30:1-18, NRSV)


Gravesites are sacred places.  I have memories of visiting the cemetery where my father was buried after he died when I was very young.  Even as a child, nobody had to tell me that when we visited his gravesite it was time for me to be as respectful as possible.  There was just a weightiness about that place which just made it clear that I was on sacred ground.


As a pastor I have had many opportunities to stand with families at freshly dug gravesites as they gather to read scripture, say prayers, place roses, shed tears, or simply stand in silence to remember and honor the life of a loved one who has just died.  In every single case those have been holy moments honored by everybody in attendance.  And even after all the official words have been spoken, people linger as long as they can before crawling back into their cars to go home.  Many people return time and time again to those sites, to bring flowers, to say prayers, to sit and remember.  Gravesites become, in a way, places where we try to hold on to what we know has been lost.


Try and imagine if you can what it would be like to go and visit the sacred gravesite of a loved one a few days after they have been laid to rest.  Your heart is heavy with grief as you make your way through the headstones to the one bearing a familiar name.  As you approach the spot, however, you are shocked to see that the grave has been opened.  Just three days ago you stood at this very spot and watched as the cemetery workers lowered the casket into the hole and then filled it with dirt.  After they replaced the sod, you could hardly tell that the ground had been disturbed at all.  But now the sod is torn away and the hole is gaping once again.  What’s worse the casket itself has been removed from the grave and sits open on the grass, and not just open but empty.  The body of the loved one you just laid to rest is gone.


Can you even begin to imagine how you would feel if that happened to you?  If so, perhaps you have some sense of what Mary Magdalene experienced when she came early to the tomb that Sunday morning and discovered, to her horror, that the sacred gravesite of her beloved Master and friend had been desecrated.  The massive stone had been rolled away from the entrance and the body was nowhere to be found.  Not only had they brutally executed Jesus, now they had violated his tomb.  Even in death, they wouldn’t leave him be.  For her this was salt poured into an open wound.


In a panic, Mary runs to tell her friends what has happened.  Two of them rush back with her to confirm her story.  Seeing that it’s true, they leave immediately and go to their homes leaving Mary, once again, at the empty tomb alone.  At that point, the scriptures tell us that all she could do was stand outside and weep.  The Greek word used here indicates that these weren’t quiet tears.  This is a woman wailing in sorrow.  The crushing loss and despair have finally become too much to bear and the grief pours out of her like a flood.  And if you knew all that this woman had been through, you’d understand.


Some of you may remember that earlier in her life Mary had been a woman who knew what it meant to lose all hope.  We don’t know all the details, but we do know from Luke’s Gospel, that Mary was one of a group of women whom Jesus had cured at some point from evil spirits and diseases.[1]  We’re told that Mary, in particular, had at one time been possessed by seven demons.  I can’t imagine living with one demon.  How about seven!  One top of it all, tradition has it that Mary was a prostitute, which meant that she would have been one of the most scorned people in Jewish society at that time.  All this is to say that there was an earlier point at which things must have seemed pretty desperate for Mary.


Then she met Jesus and everything changed.  In that encounter Christ filled her life back up with meaning, and dignity, and wholeness, and grace.  So much so that, as the scriptures tell us, from that day forward she devoted herself to him, following him wherever he went, even using her own resources to help support him and the other disciples.


You see, once you know a bit of Mary’s history you begin to understand what a crushing blow it must have been for her when the One who saved her life and the lives of so many others was forcibly taken captive, unjustly sentenced, brutally tortured, and then nailed to a cross.  Even in Jesus’ death, however, Mary remained devoted to him.  The scriptures tell us that when nearly all the other disciples deserted Jesus, Mary had the guts to stay.  She was there in the background as Jesus hung and died on the cross.  She was also one of the few people present when they put what was left of Jesus in the tomb that Friday night.  Since she was not allowed to visit the tomb on Saturday since it was the Sabbath day, she gets up first thing Sunday morning, even before the sun is up, and comes alone to that sacred place.  In part, she comes to try desperately to hold on to all that has been lost.  So much has been lost.  The One who lay dead in that tomb was not only her beloved Master and Teacher, but the one in whom she had placed all her hope.  And not only her hope, but the hope of all her people.


I tell you all this because I want you to try your best to stand with Mary in that place this morning, just there outside the tomb.  For many of us it won’t be hard to do.  Our whole church, in fact, has had to stand there with Mary on several occasions recently.  In this season when our church has already experienced so much loss, we will gather again this coming Saturday for yet another memorial service to grieve the loss of yet another dear brother.


Many of us, many of you, know what it’s like to weep bitter tears because death has come and coldly snatched away what we hold most dear.  And so I want you to know that even on Easter it’s okay for you to stand there with Mary in this moment, grieving the loss of someone or something in your life.  A home, a husband, a wife, a mom or dad, a child, a marriage.  Your rights, your dignity, your work, your health, your youth, your hopes, your dreams.  The world’s grief, our grief, is all bound up in Mary’s grief.  Are you able to stand there for a moment and weep with her for what has been lost or for what you dread will one day be lost?


As we stand there we hear a voice.  All of a sudden we hear a voice coming out of the empty tomb.  “Why are you weeping?” somebody asks.  “What is the reason for your tears?”  Looking into the tomb we see what appears to be two angels sitting peacefully in the place where what has been lost once lay.  And immediately we wonder if angels are stupid.  Or if not stupid, maybe they’re just oblivious.  How is it possible that they do not know the reason for these tears?  How can they even ask?  “Why do you think I’m weeping?  I’m weeping because they have taken away what is most dear to me in life and I do not know how to get it back!”


And then Mary turns.  I hope we can turn with her.  She turns away from the empty tomb and away from the question which only reminds her of her despair.  And turning she discovers that there standing near her is somebody she never noticed before but who apparently has been there all along.  Not only did she not notice him before, she doesn’t recognize him now.  Even when he speaks she still doesn’t recognize him through her tears.


“Why are you weeping?” he asks.  Why am I weeping?  What else can I do?  Are you suggesting that in this moment there is something I can do besides weep?


“Who are you looking for?” he persists.  Who am I looking for?  Who else would I be looking for?  Are you suggesting that there is somebody else I should be looking for?  You know who I’m looking for.  Quit playing games.  If you have taken him away, if you have disturbed this sacred space, tell me where you have laid him and I will go and I will bring him back.


That’s when it comes, one word which changes everything.  Jesus says to her, simply, “Mary.”


It’s one of those times in scripture when the black and white word on the page doesn’t quite do it justice.  If only we could have heard the tone of his voice, the way he spoke her name, full, I suspect, of peace, full of familiarity, full of grace, full of life.


Hearing her name, Mary turns back around at once and as she does it’s as if the whole world shifts on its axis.  As one writer put it, in that very moment history itself moved imperceptibly from B.C. to A.D.[2]  A second before here is a woman in the deepest imaginable human despair as she stands in the presence of an unconquerable death which has stolen away everything she holds most dear.  A second after, however, here is a woman who finds herself at the pinnacle of human elation as she now stands in the presence of One who has turned everything upside down and inside out by triumphing over death itself.   Words can never describe the rush that must have come over this woman in these two seconds.


Though we may not be able to describe it, some of us here know that rush.  Though Mary was the first to experience it, this is a turn that has repeated itself countless times since.  So many people over the ages have stood at that place of despair outside of one tomb or another where what once was most cherished has been lost.  But by the grace of God, many of those people have turned and in a moment found, to their utter astonishment, One standing there who calls them by name and invites them to come and receive back many times more than all that has been lost.


Speaking personally, there was a time in my life when I turned and found God, in Christ, standing there with me and heard him call me by name.  Believe me when I tell you that when I have heard his voice it has not been full of judgment or disappointment as I might have expected, but instead it has been full of grace and friendship.  I have experienced that moment when you realize that everything you thought would ultimately undo you has been ultimately undone by one who has known you by name before you were even named.


And not just me.  I could show you 100 people here right now this morning who have had this experience as well and whose lives have been forever changed by it.  If you are not among that number, my prayer is that God will help you to listen this day more carefully than ever before.  Listen for your name.  You may never have before heard the voice which speaks it, but that voice, when you finally hear it, will still be familiar to you.  As He speaks your name it will be, all at once, a greeting, a comfort, and an invitation.  Hear Christ call your name and know his love and experience his healing today.[3]


When you hear the God who conquers death call you lovingly by name you will find that you are only able to react in the way Mary reacted.  You will cling to him.  All at once you will throw yourself at him.  When Christ brings hope into the places of life where before you only had despair, all you can do is throw yourself at him.


When Mary does so, however, Jesus surprises her, and us.  “Do not hold on to me,” he says.  “Let me go so that I can ascend to my Father in Heaven.  Then go to my brothers and give them this message from me.  Tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”


Yes, Jesus permits Mary to embrace him for a time.  It would have been cruel to have denied her that.  But he does not allow her to hold on for long.  For while Mary may have been the first to bear witness to the life-changing power of the Risen Christ, she was not meant to be the last.  The resurrection was not just for her; it was for the whole world.  She had moved from that place of deep despair to deep joy but there were plenty of others still stuck back on the other side.  Now it was time for her to go and proclaim to them the reality of what had taken place.


It’s a trivial example by comparison, but for the sake of illustration let’s say that our dog runs away one day.  As some of you may know, our dog Tawnie is much beloved in our family.  If she were to be lost, there would be great sadness and worry.  There would be tears, I promise you.  We’d be frantic to find her.  I can easily see all six of us fanning out over the neighborhood looking for her, calling out her name as we went, asking everybody we could find if they had seen her.  There would be no rest until she was home again.


Well, imagine that I was the one fortunate enough to find her.  I come across her just wandering down some side street.  She’s scared as she tries in vain to find her way home again.  And when I see her, and she sees me, it’s a great reunion.  Lots of licking and sniffing and wagging.  And she’s excited too!  I decide to take her immediately to our favorite park to spend the rest of the afternoon, just the two of us, running and playing fetch and lying in the grass in the sunshine.  We are out there having the time of our lives.  But not my family.   All the while my family is still out roaming the streets in a desperate attempt to find the lost dog I know has already been found.


Now, before any of you get too worked up let me remind you that this illustration is entirely hypothetical.  I don’t want to receive any e-mails about this tomorrow.  In fact, I hope that you can’t even imagine that I or anybody else you know would do such a thing.  When you suddenly find such good news that you know will instantly transform despair into joy in others when they hear it as well, it is only the unimaginably cruel or self-absorbed person who does not go and share that news immediately.


Jesus’ command to Mary to let him go is not cruel but is, on the contrary, compassionate.  There are others who desperately need to hear the news which Mary has now just heard.  Jesus is alive!  Christ has risen!  Death, once final, has finally met its match.  Hope is restored.  Life is possible.  Forgiveness and grace are real.  Reconciliation with God has been achieved.  Christ’s Father has now become our Father, his God our God.  And Mary, the first person to ever hear the news, is now commissioned by Christ to be the first one to ever declare the news.


A writer named N.T. Wright points out that this fact alone gives great validity to the Gospel accounts.  If somebody in the 1st Century wanted to invent a story about people seeing the Risen Christ they never would have given the star part to a woman, let alone a woman like Mary Magdalene.[4]  John and the others, however, weren’t inventing a story.  They were simply testifying to what happened.  And as much as they never would have imagined it would play out this way, this is how it did play out.  Mary, of all people, was chosen by God to be the first to share the Good News of the resurrection.


She was, however, not to be the last.  The reality of the Risen Christ is a message meant for the whole world.  And those who don’t believe that the resurrection of Christ is true should at least wish that it were true.  Because if it is true, if it really did happen, then the whole world shifts on its axis.  If it is true then there never needs to be another time when any one of us ever again must be left weeping tears of hopeless despair beside another tomb.


Yes, there will be times when we weep.  Yes, there will be times when the world will take from us that which is most dear.  Yes, there will be times when we do not know how we will go on.  But even then, even in those dark places, if we listen carefully enough we will hear a familiar voice ask this question, “Why are you weeping?  What you expect to find here is no longer here.”  And then we will hear our name, spoken to us from a place of eternal kindness and grace.  And then the darkness which moments before seemed all-consuming will now appear only as a shadow, a shadow fading fast in the light of the rising Son!


This is not just news for us.  This is news for the whole world, for every one of you and for every person you now know or will ever meet.  When we are saved by Christ we cannot simply cling to Christ.  He calls us by name but he does not call only us by name.  We are called to go out and to bear witness, as Mary first bore witness, to the hope that we have found in Christ which is extended to all who would believe.


Flannery O’Conner once wrote this about the resurrection of Christ.  “He’s thrown everything off balance.  If he did what he said then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow him, and if he didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.”


Thankfully, he did what he said.  As Mary first testified that first Easter morning I testify to you this Easter morning and charge you to testify to the world:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!






The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application



Read John 20:1-18.  Even if this is a very familiar story to you, try to notice something new.


Why do you think Mary went to the tomb early that Sunday morning?  Why does anybody go to visit the gravesites of loved ones?  What are they looking for in those places?


The angels, and then Jesus, ask Mary, “Why are you crying?”  Is this a cruel question to ask?  What do they mean by it?


Are you able to find yourself standing there with Mary and weeping beside the tomb?  What “dead” and hopeless places in your life have left you in despair?


Has there been a time when Christ has met you, even called you by name, at your deepest point of need as he did with Mary?  What happened?


When Mary embraces Jesus he tells her, “Do not keep holding on to me.”  What do you make of this?


Do you believe that Jesus Christ is truly raised from the dead?  Why?  Why not?


How are you heeding Christ’s command to share the good news of the resurrection with others in this world who have no idea?



Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.

Monday:              Psalm 118 ~ Matthew 28:1-10

Tuesday               Psalm 66 ~ Luke 24:9-12

Wednesday:         Psalm 67 ~ John 20:11-18

Thursday:             Psalm 68 ~ Luke 24:13-32

Friday:                   Psalm 69 ~ I Corinthians 15:19-26

Saturday :             Psalm 70 ~ Acts 10:39-43

Sunday:                  Psalm 71 ~ Colossians 3:1-4


[1] See Luke 8:1-3.

[2] Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 1152.  I’ve borrowed these and other descriptions in this paragraph from him.

[3] I’m borrowing language heavily here from N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 146.

[4] Wright, p. 147.