Friday, April 1, 2016

I Have Seen the Lord (John 20:1-18) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Comedian Ken Davis writes about a woman who looked out of her window one morning and saw her German shepherd shaking the life out of a neighbor's rabbit.   Her family did not get along well with these neighbors, so she knew this was going to be a disaster.  She ran outside and yelled at the dog until it dropped the now extremely dead rabbit out of its mouth.  She panicked.  She didn't know what else to do.  She grabbed the rabbit, took it inside, gave it a bath, blow dried it to its original fluffiness, combed it until the rabbit was looking good, snuck into the neighbor's yard, and propped the rabbit back up in its cage.   An hour later she heard screams coming from next door.  She asked her neighbor, "What's going on?"  The neighbor shrieked: "Our rabbit!  He died two weeks ago. We buried him and now he's back!”

Easter as we know isn't really about rabbits; it's about Jesus of Nazareth.  Today 2.2 billion Christian believers, of the 7 billion inhabitants on this earth, are celebrating Jesus' resurrection.  We gather to honor the most stupendous event in history.  No event has changed lives or shaped human history and culture, like the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Which leads us to our story from the Gospel of John.  As Easter dawns we meet Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdala.  She was one of the followers who accompanied Jesus in his ministry to villages and towns. Out of all the women named in the New Testament she is the only one named in all four Gospels.  She provided financial help and support to Jesus and the disciples.   She came from the costal town of Magdala near the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus cured her of a serious illness, and she became one of his most devoted followers.  Mary had witnessed Jesus' crucifixion on the cross.  She saw him die.  She saw him buried in the tomb. She saw the soldiers roll a heavy stone in front of it.   Her beloved rabbi was dead. She was devastated.

Mary went to the tomb in the morning of the 3rd day, broken-hearted, grief-stricken, shaken to the core.  She had gone to anoint the body of Jesus of Nazareth with spices as was the Jewish custom.  She was shocked to discover that the stone had been rolled away.   The tomb was empty.  She ran to tell some of Jesus' disciples what she had found.

Mary's first response at finding the tomb open was that someone had stolen Jesus' body.   A normal human response.  She exclaimed, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Mary didn't believe Jesus was alive.  An empty tomb meant someone had removed or stolen Jesus' body.  Disbelief, doubt, agnosticism, skepticism, even cynicism is a common human response to the question about God's existence and similarly to the Christian claim about Easter, that Jesus arose on Easter, that he is alive, now and forevermore.

From that morning people have debated about what really happened on Easter.   For example, because of her grief Mary went to the wrong tomb, or Mary and the disciples were delusional, or the disciples made up the story of Jesus' resurrection, or someone stole the body as Mary had assumed.  But who removed it?   Jesus disciples?  The Jews?  The Romans?    And why?  An empty tomb, no body, no corpus delicti, would give credibility to the claim of Jesus' followers that Jesus rose from the dead and was alive.

Critics throughout history have vigorously denied the resurrection.  It's been called a lie, a fraud, a hoax.    The problem is if Mary and the others had not seen the Risen Lord, how do you explain the existence of the Church, the existence of the Christian faith, the existence of the New Testament, the record of Jesus' life and the birth and growth of the church, the existence of worship on Sunday, which celebrates Jesus resurrection?   How do we explain changed lives in history and today who attribute their new life to Jesus Christ?

Now let's move on to consider Mary's second response - “I have seen the Lord.”  Quite a contrast from her first response.  Mary saw the Lord, true, but not at first according to our story.  Mary didn't initially recognize Jesus.   She was in mourning.  Suddenly Jesus says, “Woman why are you weeping?” “Whom are you looking for?”  Mary assumed this stranger was the gardener and asked him if he knew where the body was.  Jesus speaks a second time, “Mary,” and Mary replies “Rabbouni,” for in that instant she knew it was Jesus.  Jesus spoke to her in her hour of need, in her time of grief, in her time of searching, in her time of vulnerability, in a moment when she was completely receptive; that's when she truly saw Jesus.

Seeing is of course extremely important.  We are able to see inspiring sights, the skys, the oceans, the mountains, people.  Physical sight is a blessed gift.   The Bible speaks about seeing, about physical sight, yes, but that's not the only kind of sight.  The New Testament also speaks about seeing with the eyes of the heart.  We read:  “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”  A Christian praise song says - “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you.”

The Bible speaks about another kind of sight: insight, intuition, perceiving or perception, discernment, experiencing a kairos or God moment.  Sometimes our eyesight deceives us.   Do you ever find this in your life?  You look directly at something and totally miss it.  You look at something and think it is something other than what it is.  Witnesses are notorious for giving different accounts of the same accident.   My mother used to say, “Alan, sometimes people say, I see, but they don't see at all.”  When Mary first saw Jesus she didn't recognize him.  That recognition was a gift, a moment of grace, a special response to meeting Jesus.  It was a spiritual encounter.   Faith is another kind of seeing.  Faith is another kind of sight.

We need sight and insight in life.  Easter says - “See not only with your eyes but with the eyes of your heart.”   Both are extremely valuable.  For example people are seeing with the eyes of their hearts when they say:

I see God's hand in my life.  I know God was in my experience.  I see that God is active in my life.  I see now that God answered my prayer.  It was a God moment, a God thing.  I see that God is in charge of His world.  I see that no power of evil can snatch away God's final victory.  I see that Jesus is alive.”    Faith is a form of seeing or perceiving.   Mary went from seeing a gardener to seeing Jesus on Easter.

Mary wasn't the only one that day and the days following who claimed to have seen the Risen Lord.  Many followers were distraught because they believed Jesus was dead.  Hear the testimony in the New Testament from the letter of I Corinthians:  The apostle Paul writes: “I would remind you, brothers and sisters of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you, unless you have come to believe in vain.  I handed on to you what I in turn had received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died, then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me.”

Like Mary and the other followers, God often reaches out to us in times of need, like times of fear and anxiety, times where we feel worthless and a failure, where we feel lost or alone, in times of grief.   Because of Easter, followers of Jesus, in a way that can't be totally explained, have in the depths of their being, seen God.

How else do we explain the faith of over 2 billion believers whose lives radically changed and who make a difference in the world.  How else do we explain the faith of people like Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Wilberforce, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie Ten Boom, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mother Teresa, Evangeline Booth of the Salvation Army, or C.S. Lewis, or Pope Francis, or scientist Francis Collins, or Marco Rubio, or Jimmy Carter, or L.A. Pitcher Clayton Kershaw or the late poet Maya Angelou.  You can add to the list.

Rick Warren, whom I highly respect, is the pastor of Saddleback Church and the author of The Purpose Driven Life.   He and his wife, Kay, went through a devastating loss when their twenty-seven-year-old son Matthew took his own life, after battling depression and mental illness for years.  About a year after this tragedy, Pastor Warren said, "I've often been asked, 'How have you made it?  How have you kept going in your pain?' And I've often replied, 'The answer is Easter.'  "You see, the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus happened over three days. Friday was the day of suffering and pain and agony. Saturday was the day of doubt and confusion and misery.  But Easter—that Sunday—was the day of hope and joy and victory.

"And here's the fact of life: you will face these three days over and over and over in your lifetime.  And when you do, you'll find yourself asking, as I did, three fundamental questions. Number one, 'What do I do in my days of pain?' Two, 'How do I get through my days of doubt and confusion?  Three, 'How do I get to the days of joy and victory?'  "The answer is Easter. The answer … is Easter."

How do we measure the gravity of sin and the incomparable vastness of God's love for us?  By looking at the magnitude of what God has done for us in Jesus, the Son of God, who became like a common criminal for our sake and in our place and whom God raised on Easter.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, because Jesus is alive, God has declared an ultimate victory over sin, death, and evil.  God has opened up a promise of new life today and a life everlasting with Him.  Jesus is Lord who makes a promise, “I am with you always until the close of the age.”   The song I referred to earlier is a good prayer for Easter, or anytime, “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you.

Despite the serious issues which we worry about in our nation and world, issues which we are deeply concerned about today, Easter inspires us with hope for today and for the future.  What if Mary really saw the Risen Lord!   What if Easter really is true?  Hallelujah.  Amen!

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