Scripture: John 20:1-18
Thursday as I was driving across Kansas I drove into an inferno of flames and smoke. Flames were sprinting across the prairie consuming the dry brown grass until all that was left was the charred black earth. The smoke was billowing into the sky and wafting across the interstate to the point that it was becoming difficult to see. There was a sense of danger and beauty as you observe the grass fires of Kansas. If one did not know what was occurring you would be gripped with fear not knowing what type of a hell you may be driving into. But these fires are ignited every spring. When people first began to settle the prairies the constant fires scared them, they would ignite and spread rapidly devouring everything in their paths. They would try all they could to contain and stop the fires but still they would rage, and often through their efforts the fires would only intensify. After years of study they found that the periodic controlled burning of the grasslands was the only sure way to manage the danger of the prairie fires. If they would start small fires and burn a bit at a time they would be able to minimize effects of a raging uncontrollable wildfire. Through the observation they also found something else, the burning of the grassland had a positive effect on the environment. After the blaze in the spring, the various grasses would emerge more vigorously. They then began to study why this happened, they tried safer methods like mowing off the dry grass, but nothing seemed to work quite like fire. Because through the flames, that dreadful orange serpent that slithered across the hills, something almost magical happened, the flames removed the old growth and also heated the ground causing the seeds to germinate and then out of the char new life emerged stronger, thicker, and healthier than before. No matter what they have tried the risk of flames brought about the greatest life.
Without that knowledge the flames are scary. The fire is something that most intend to prevent. In the early days the preserves and national parks spent time preventing fires, but even in the forest they found that fire, though it is something destructive and something to be feared, can bring about awesome changes in the environment. Without careful observation humanity in its attempts to preserve nature can at times cause greater disaster. Every summer we hear reports of wildfires burning out of control across the western states. Families get displaced, cities are gripped with fear, the grand forests of our national parks are threatened but we can minimize the damage of most of these raging wildfires with disciplined, controlled, systematic burning to rid the earth of the dry dead plants that only kindle the flames.
Nature often speaks volumes to our spiritual conditions; this is part of the natural law. There are cycles of life and death, destruction and rebirth throughout nature. It is no wonder that the ancient religions built mythologies around the changing of the seasons and why the church used these natural laws of nature to share the gospel. But nature does not tell the complete story. It speaks in a language that we cannot fully understand, and it is only a reflection of a deeper truth that can only be revealed in the light of God. This is why Christ stands above all other religions because in Him all things have are made complete.
In today’s passage we meet again with Mary, this young woman whose life had been dramatically affected by the relationship she had with Jesus. Scripture says that she had been possessed by seven demons and was released from that bondage by a word from Jesus and she had seen Jesus restore life to her dead brother’s body, she had been the recipient of some of the most miraculous events in the life of Jesus. As a result she devoted her entire life to this man whom she believed was the Christ, they Messiah sent by God. Mary had an idea, an image, of Jesus, she thought that he was going to bring heaven to earth and restore the kingdom of David and the promise to Abraham. Yet as we meet Mary, rejoicing is not on her lips. Instead we meet her with tears streaking down her face, because two days prior, on a day we call Good Friday, the man she placed all her hope in was executed on a tree, and she had just spent the Great Sabbath, or Black Saturday, not in praise but mourning. Everything in her life, the escape from the bondage of demons, the restored life to her brother and benefactor, was no longer sources of hope. Her world was a char blackened scorched earth. It was as if a raging fire slithered its way through all her hope and dreams, consuming everything in its path leaving her with nothing but the cold tomb and a lifeless savior.
I want us to consider the emotional pain Mary is going through in this passage before we move forward. Pain is part of life. A friend of mine, a friend that has endured much pain and hardship, has tattooed on his arm “we cannot learn without pain.” There is truth in that statement, a depressing truth. We do not like pain, nor do we seek pain out willingly, but without the risk of pain we cannot grow. Love always carries a risk of pain. Success always carries with it the risk of total devastation. Life carries with it the risk of death. We can never remove that risk completely, when we attempt to something far worse often results.
Without the risk of pain in love, without making ourselves vulnerable to loss and emotional pain, we would never fully know love. Love is found in vulnerability, the shedding of our facades. But often in our attempts to save our own skin we build walls around our vulnerability, keeping the threat of pain at a safe distance only to find ourselves locked away, isolated, and alone never understood and never understanding. Living as a sheltered shell of a human.
Mary has experience the most heart wrenching pain that one could experience. She lost one that she loved. To her Jesus was everything. She spent hours sitting at his feet, she wept and anointed his feet with her tears and costly perfume. To her Jesus was more than just a friend; she risked her entire existence to be with him, as did the rest of her family. They risked their name, their house, their very lives to be part of his disciples. Now all they invested is buried. She lost a brother, a potential lover, a king, and hope. All that she had left was to anoint his body and to attempt rebuild a destroyed life.
What she does not know is that on the other side of pain is something better. Just beyond the smoke something just below the surface of her reality is beginning to take form. Just as the fires that consume the prairie give rise to the next season of grass. Sacrifice, pain, and struggle often give birth to the greatest reward.
In the Garden of Eden, God told our first parents that if they eat the fruit of the tree that they would die. God created the world with a potential of loss. Some would look at that potential as being a sign of an unloving God, but without the risk of loss is there really love? We know love because of the sacrifice and effort. The process of bringing life into the world is filled with danger, even from the very start of the process. Yet for each of us to be sitting here today someone took the risk. Our mothers risked their bodies to bring us into this world, for some the risk was so great that it nearly took their lives, or their lives will never be the same afterward. For a few they gave their lives completely just to participate in the creation of life. Yet there is not a mother in this room that would have had it any other way. The opportunity to participate in the creation of life was worth the risk they took. Love is sacrifice.
For Abraham, God promised him a great nation for a price, he would need to leave his homeland and go to the place that God lead him. The risk Abraham took was great, the reward was greater, he left everything that he knew, a life that he had build and extended family that he loved, and he walked out into the wilderness. For years he lived on that promise and that nation he never saw until the birth of his son at a time when all hope was lost. Yet he clung to the promise, he made the sacrifice, and he became the father of a great nation. Throughout history we see testimonies of sacrifice and success, both in a spiritual sense and in the secular arena.
Mary risked her comfortable life, and lost it all, yet behind a stone something amazing happened. Mary walked to this tomb to finally seal and conclude her dreams yet when she got there the stone was removed. She lost it all and suddenly it felt as if someone was pouring salt on an open wound. She ran to the others in a panic that words could not begin to express. Sure all her hope was gone but the tomb where they buried her dreams was tampered with. A crime regarded so heinous that the penalty was death. She cried to the others and they ran to see, only to find a mystery. Everything was there, the grave clothes and the head covering, but the body was gone. The clothes were where they knew the body once was. There is no mention of the condition of the clothes, except for the head covering, which was rolled up by itself. They make no mention that anything is amiss about the clothing other that one fact, everything else was as it should be except there clothes were empty.
They were all at a loss. The flames had consumed the last bit of hope they had, and they were all left devastated. The men returned home, Mary stayed to weep over the grave that once held her greatest friend. And then two angels visit her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” they ask. Every ounce of hope she had was now gone she was left there broken and as empty as the stone tomb she was standing in front of, and two beings ask her why she was crying. She took a chance and by all accounts she failed. The only activity her body could muster was for tears to flow. Then someone walks up behind her and she turns, again the same question is asked. Irritated and hurt she lashes out at the man and says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Through our pain and hopelessness we will often lash out and cry. Saying things to people we care about that we do not intend to say. It is part of our emotions, and part of our defenses. I imagine that Mary screamed at this man that she thought was a gardener. Darkness was shadowing everything in her life. All was lost and in her mind there was not even a glimmer of hope left. Until the man before her spoke her name. The smoke lifted and the sun shown all around. Suddenly new green grass emerged through the charred scorched earth. Hope returned with one single word.
Why is this day the crowning glory and completion of all things? Hope returns. In nature winter turns to spring, in the prairies life emerges from the ashes, in this moment in history in Judea 2000 years ago life was restored to the dead. All of creation groans and the trees clap their hands because through sacrifice and death life returns. Love emerges triumphant, fear and death no longer has a grip on those who put their faith in Jesus, because He emerged from that grave once dead but living again.
Do we understand what that truly means? Do we grasp what power we really have in that knowledge? I do not think we have begun to experience the fullness of what the resurrection has in our lives today. But we do get glimpses. William Penn once said, “The adventure of the Christian life begins when we dare to do what we would never tackle without Christ.” The adventure begins when we dare, when we put ourselves out there to attempt to do things that our worldly wisdom would never allow, risking it all because we have hope in the power of the resurrection.
St. Patrick prayed this in his prayer, “Against the demon snares of sin, The vice that gives temptation force, The natural lusts that war within, The hostile men that mar my course; Or few or many, far or nigh, In every place and in all hours, Against their fierce hostility, I bind to me these holy powers. Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, Against false words of heresy, Against the knowledge that defiles, Against the heart’s idolatry, Against the wizard’s evil craft, Against the death wound and the burning, The choking wave and the poisoned shaft, Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.” He understood the power in Christ resurrection, the power that even when we face risks of greatest proportion we can live without fear, and it is that life without fear that won the hearts of the Irish.
Mary began bound in hopelessness, with a word she was freed to life. Again was brought low in despair, but with a word was given a power to testify before the apostles and her testimony was recorded for all of history to see as being the first to see the risen Lord. Love sacrifices, Love loses, Love risks, and Love conquers. The love of God for His world sent his son to give himself so that we could be freed from the fear of death, and restored to love other. An adventure has been set before us, an adventure to go and make disciples of all the nations, beginning here in our community. Our community like the days of St. Patrick is a society that is bound by fear; people have been so driven to remove that fear that it has crippled us from being able to even live. That is the destruction of sin. That is where the power of the resurrection can bring new life into our often-scorched earth.
As we enter our time of Holy Expectancy and communion as Friends. Let us imagine the emotions of Mary, let us imagine the power of St. Patrick’s prayer over the fears that bound the land he was called too, and let us imagine and embrace the adventure Christ is urging us to embark.