While It Is Still Dark No More

Pastoral Prayer: Almighty God, not one of us wants to be nameless and placeless. We work to make our mark on the world. More often the world makes its mark on us. We experience it in wounded hopes, crushed dreams, and broken relationships. But, the Good News is that though the world left its mark on Jesus, pierced hands, feet and side, you raised him from the dead and by your grace leave a mark on us giving us a name and a place in you. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

John 20:1-18

One million people have been buried on Hart Island. Just off the coast of the Bronx sits an island who’s distinction is as a burial site for those who have died and their bodies have not been claimed. Unceremoniously abandoned to the grave. No casket sprays. No bevy of friends gathered. Only prisoners or contract workers present to cover the pine boxes with dirt, with soil. The location of each of the deceased is recorded. It might be that someone with close personal ties may visit. But if you are like me, the trouble of getting to Hart Island seems more obstacle to any visitor wanting to pay homage to the dead there.

Recently Hart Island made the news. If you are like me, you have never heard of Hart Island. You may have seen the aerial photos captured by drone cameras. Burials have increased five times the normal number during the current pandemic. The idea of such a place seems callous and cold even to those among us that see the end of this life as, just that, the end.

When news broke and images published of the second trench dug for new wood caskets, The Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, sought to quell rumors that the mass burials were temporary. He included this in his Tweet,

Remember, these are human beings. These are neighbors we lost.

How dark is a world where a Mayor finds it necessary to remind us that those who have died without anyone to claim them are our neighbors? The episode calls to mind the story Jesus told of the near dead traveler nursed back to life by a complete stranger in response to the question, Who is my neighbor?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.

Despite the Good News that is about to break as John tells the story of the resurrection, John the gospel writer, provides the setting consistent with the way he began his gospel. He set out to contrast a world in darkness with the true light coming into the world.

Darkness was not only a description of the time of morning Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb, it also served as a metaphor for the condition of the world held captive to the Powers of Sin and Death. No matter your perspective this Easter morning, you too may point to news stories from around the world, from events in your own life or of those you know and love that could well fill out the scene described as, “still dark.”

It had not been that way for Mary from Magdala. Her life had been changed by an encounter with Jesus. Luke relays that she had been liberated, set free, from seven demons. Magdalene had firsthand experience with the Powers that hold the world captive to darkness. Upon her release, her freedom given by Jesus, she had seen the Light of Life. In response, she turned to follow Jesus, who John described as the Light of the World. 

The details of Magdalene’s experience of captivity is only one of the many ways the Powers keep us in the dark. Maybe your experience of darkness does not entail the direct oppressive encounter with evil. Darkness takes many forms in a world captive to the Powers of Sin and Death.

Earlier in John’s gospel he tells how Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, in the dark of night, curious that the words and ways of Jesus indicated that God was with him. However, Nicodemus found it hard to break free from ways of thinking that kept him from grasping that Jesus was the Light for which he had longed to see. Nicodemus found Jesus perplexing, he did not fit his expectations for the Liberator who would free he and his people from the clutches of the occupying Roman forces. It seems that the encounter with Jesus nagged at him even as he was present to the conversations the Pharisees had about trapping Jesus in hopes of silencing him. 

Maybe it was Jesus’ manner in the face of his adversaries and the way he died that proved that first encounter more than just a probing conversation. When we see Nicodemus for the last time he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body down from the cross, prepare his body for burial, even purchasing the perfume used to anoint Jesus’ body at a price equal to seventy-five years of wages. The conversation Nicodemus had with Jesus in the dark had left its mark and now he is cleaning Jesus’ body with its marks of suffering and death, anointing it with 100 pounds of perfume, wrapping it in grave clothes and placing it in a borrowed tomb. While he could not imagine what it meant to be born from above that first night he met with Jesus, he now appears to be devoted to Light the light that shines in his darkness.

The Powers had a way of silencing one of Jesus’ most ardent supporters. Peter, the one Jesus called blessed when he confessed that Jesus was, 

the Christ, the Son of the Living God, 

wilted in the darkness forgetting his pledge to die with Jesus. There, in the night, only lit by the warming fire, Peter denies Jesus three times. Upon realizing his faithlessness, he disappears from the story for a time, hiding in fear and shame. Whether it was the immediate response of Magdalene to Jesus, the slow percolating conversation of Nicodemus, or the apparent lapse of faith of Peter, the death of Jesus left its mark and for them it was still dark.

The scene that follows the setting of darkness is one where Magdalene comes to pay her respects. She did not expect to see what she saw. And, it is often our expectations that keep us in the dark. Magdalene discovers the stone rolled away and assumes the body of Jesus has been taken. She races to tell Peter, who along with the disciple Jesus loved, ran back to the tomb to see what had happened. Once there is seems all that they did was confirm what Mary had told them. Indeed the stone was rolled away and her initial impulse that the body was gone was verified by the two men. Lost on them were Jesus’ own words that he would rise from the dead. They may have believed in an eventual resurrection from the dead. But, they had no expectations that one person would in fact, rise from the dead.

The men leave and we are left with Mary of Magdala. At this point she looks into the tomb to see for herself what Peter and the other disciple had verified. Still looking for the body and an explanation, she turns from the angels who asked why she was weeping to see what she thought was the gardener. Convinced that Jesus was lost to death, her mind would not allow her to see it was Jesus. 

Instead she sees what she supposes is the gardener. 

Maybe we are getting a call back to the first gardener, Adam. There, in Genesis God places man in a garden, Eden. His role, his and the role of his wife Eve, care for God’s good creation. They were to be gardeners. God would teach them, walking with them in the cool of the day. Instead, they, together, determined to learn on their own. Trusting their own instincts they gave into the Powers that would hold human beings captive except for the promise God had made that all would be well.

What Adam would not do, did not do, Jesus did. In faithfulness to the promise God had made that all would be well, that the Powers would be defeated, Jesus stands there before Mary in his body that still bears the scars of battle. Though here, here, Jesus is who we were to be. Who we will be yet. 

Tipping the reader of the gospel off to what follows is a revelation, John includes Magdalene’s supposition as she presumes a truth she did not realize. Turning to plead for the return of the body of Jesus she hears her name spoken as she obviously had heard it before. She got that for which she asked but no what she expected. Now she sees. The Light again drove the darkness from her eyes and she recognized Jesus.

Just as she had given herself to following Jesus upon her liberation from evil, she turns to worship Jesus upon seeing his living body. Magdalene the once possessed Galilean woman who came in darkness to give homage to Jesus becomes the first to announce the Good News, 

I have seen the Lord.

The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus,

was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

Mary, Nicodeums, Peter and maybe even you believed that Death and the Grave were thought to be the end. Maybe there would be a resurrection. But here, on this Easter, we announce again,

He is risen!

Do you believe? Do you?

[Return to John 11 and the question posed to Martha after Jesus announced, I AM the Resurrection and the Life.”]

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.