Mary

Today and next Sunday we are thinking about the astonishing events that are recounted in John 20. This evening we come to verses 10-18, and my title is 'Mary', as you will see from the outline that is on the back of the service sheet. What happened to Mary that day at the tomb in the garden? And what parallel might there be between her experience and ours? Of course in one way there can be no parallel. Jesus rose from the dead once for all, and the empty tomb could only be discovered once. Mary's experience was unique and unrepeatable. But because Jesus is alive, there is a sense in which we can undergo a similar experience to Mary. What I want to do is to trace through what happened to Mary, and how her thinking changed. And I want us to ask ourselves how our own thinking might at times be similar to hers. Let's recap what has happened so far. Mary had gone to the tomb of Jesus first thing in the morning, before dawn. She found the stone moved and the tomb empty. She ran back and fetched Peter and John. They came, and saw. But they didn't really understand what they had seen, and what it meant. What next? As you can see from the outline, I want to sum up Mary's experience under five short and simple headings. The first is this: MARY WEPT Look at verse 10:

Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying.

What do we know about Mary? Not a lot. We are talking about Mary Magdalene, as verse 1 makes clear. Apart from the resurrection accounts, the only reference to Mary is in Luke 8:1-3, which says this:

After this [that is, the anointing of Jesus by the sinful woman - who was not Mary Magdalene], Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Suzanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Luke numbers her amongst the women who were funding Jesus' mission at this stage, so we can assume that she was a woman of some means. She had undergone a profound experience of liberation from the grip of the Devil and his minions through Jesus, who had delivered her from seven demons. She had become his disciple, travelling with him, and engaging in evangelism as part of his support team. In our terms, she had been thoroughly and dramatically converted, and she was giving her money and her life to the service of Christ. He was her Lord and her Saviour. And two days before her encounter outside the empty tomb, she had watched Jesus die. John says in 19:25:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.

And now, the tears are flowing. Having found everything, she has lost everything. Having found Jesus, she has lost him. It is a feature of modern warfare that we watch it, or parts of it, unfolding before our safely distant eyes. As I imagine Mary that morning, the images and sounds come to my mind of the women coming out of Kosovo, separated from their men, weeping. Do you have an idea how Mary felt? Shakespeare puts these words into the mouth of King Lear as he grieves for his daughter Cordelia:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O! you are men of stones;Had I you tongues and ears, I'd use them so That heaven's vaults should crack. She's gone for ever.

When the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter lost his beloved wife, he described himself as being "under the power of melting grief". And Mary had lost more even than a father or brother or husband or son. She had lost her God. But maybe that is something that you feel you can begin to identify with. The particulars will be utterly different. But have there been times when you have come to the conclusion that Jesus, on whom you have staked your life, has been taken from you? Do you know that kind of spiritual depression, or doubt, or emptiness, that flows from a sense that your faith has been in vain? Do you know what it is to feel that your security in Christ has been cut from under you? Then maybe you are not so far from the experience of Mary. But what happens to her next? My second heading is: MARY IS QUESTIONED Back to verse 11: They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" It is the same question that Jesus himself puts to her a moment later: "Woman, why are you crying?" But why do they ask? Can it be for their own information? By no means. No doubt angels do not know everything. But it is inconceivable that the angels did not know Mary's circumstances. And certainly the risen Jesus knew every thought and every emotion within her. No, the question is not one of information. It is one of challenge. John Calvin describes these questions as "reproof mingled with comfort", and that is surely right. There is reproof here because her despair is, in truth, a symptom of the fact that she has neither understood nor taken to heart what Jesus had been teaching his disciples. The gospels record how, repeatedly, Jesus had told his disciples what would happen to him in Jerusalem. For instance, Luke 18:31:

"We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again."

Quite apart from what Jesus himself said to them, if the disciples had just understood the Scriptures, they would have known that the Messiah must rise from the dead. So John says of Peter and himself, after they have seen the empty tomb, in verse 9:

They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

And the risen Jesus said later to the disciples on the Emmaus road (this is Luke 24:25):

"How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?"

Like Mary, those two travelling disciples were not among the Twelve. It was not just the apostles who should have realised what would happen. It was all the disciples. The truth is that they were not expecting the resurrection because their hearts were hard, their ears were closed, and their eyes were shut. And if we think to ourselves "Well, that's all very well, but I'm sure that if I had been among them, I wouldn't have realised either", then I think the conclusion that we are supposed to draw is this: exactly so; we are just as spiritually foolish and slow of heart as they were. So there is reproof in the question of the angels: "Woman, why are you crying?" But the reproof is mingled with comfort. Underneath their interrogation, the angels are saying to Mary: "Do you not realise that you do not need to be weeping. Your tears flow from your failure to grasp what is going on here. Everything is not as it seems to you. You have been thrown into despair needlessly." It is as if a woman weeps for a husband she thinks killed in action, and someone who knows otherwise finds her and says: "What's up? You don't think your husband is dead do you?" What about us, when the despair and the hopelessness get a grip on our hearts, and they turn to ice, and we begin to think that our faith has been in vain, and inwardly if not outwardly the tears flow? Do we not need to be asked the same question: "Why are you crying?"? Surely when we are thinking like that, we too need reproof mingled with comfort. So Mary is questioned. And then what? On to my third heading: MARY IS CONVINCED Back to verse 13:

"They have taken my Lord away," [Mary said to the angels], "and I do not know where they have put him." At this, she turned around... [Why did she turn, I wonder? Did the angels react to the presence of the risen Jesus in some way and alert her to the fact that there was someone there behind her?] ... she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

"Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

Of course, she is saying that her distress is caused by the fact that the body of Jesus is missing, presumed stolen or moved to some unknown location. But that has only been another trigger to her overwhelming grief at his death. It seems that even an encounter with angels has not been enough to stem the flow of tears, and as she turns to Jesus they are still streaming from her eyes as she accuses him of being the one who has removed from her the corpse which was to have been the focus of her grieving. She must have turned away from him again even as she answered his questions, but then she hears his voice again. Verse 16:

Jesus said to her, "Mary". She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

It is a compelling eye-witness touch that John makes a point of recording the precise word that Mary spoke to the one she now knew to be the risen Jesus. Mary must have told him very precisely what took place. In the end it just took that one word. John tells in chapter 10 how Jesus had told them of himself as the Good Shepherd:

"He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice."

The Good Shepherd spoke to his lost sheep: "Mary". And her ears and eyes were opened, and she knew who was speaking to her. It is the same with us when we are inclined to lose heart and give up. Anyone who has tried to help someone entrapped in the tentacles of spiritual depression and hopelessness will know how desperately difficult it can be to get through. And in the end it is not something that we can do. It needs a work of the Holy Spirit to bring us back to life. But that is what we get. Through the Spirit, the risen Jesus speaks our name and calls us to look at him, not as Mary did with her physical eyes, but with our spiritual eyes. Through the Spirit he opens our spiritual eyes to see again that he is alive. He is with us. And he will never leave us. Mary had been told that Jesus would rise from the dead, and she did not grasp it. We have been told that Jesus has risen from the dead, and at times we don't grasp it either. But it is true. Jesus is alive. And that is not for us a remote theological abstraction any more than it was for Mary that day. He is with us by his Spirit. He speaks your name. When Jesus opened Mary's ears, she heard his voice and knew it was him. When Jesus opens our ears, we, too, hear and believe. And this is not merely a matter of weighing the evidence for the resurrection of Christ and deciding on the balance of probabilities, important as the evidence is. This a matter of meeting the risen Christ. It is being convinced. It is knowing, as Mary knew, that Jesus is alive. And Jesus lifts us out of despair in order to set us to work. Once Mary is convinced, she is given a job to do. So to my fourth heading: MARY IS COMMISSIONED Verse 17:

Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, [presumably she had fallen at his feet and was clinging to him] for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers [by which he must mean the disciples] and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

It is as if he is saying to her, and through her to the others:

"You want this moment to last. But this is just the beginning. I have forgiven your foolishness and betrayal. Your Lord and Saviour lives. You are free. I have made you fellow heirs of all my heavenly riches. But there is a world that does not yet know me. Go. I will be with you by my Spirit whom I promised to send you."

It is always the way that when Jesus sets us free from despair, as he freed Mary from hers, he sends us out to serve him. I remember very clearly in my own experience a time when I was freed from an oppressive and debilitating burden of spiritual depression the like of which I have never know since. The first result was the deep joy of knowing that Jesus was indeed alive and my Good Shepherd. The second result was that I was thrown into active Christian service as I had never been before. 250 years ago, John Wesley as a young man, determined to serve Christ, went as a missionary to American Indians in Georgia. Two years later he returned to England profoundly disillusioned. On the journey home he wrote:

I went to America to convert Indians; but oh, who shall convert me?

He was deeply committed to Christ, and engaged in evangelism, but in despair. He needed to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd call his name. And soon afterwards, that is what happened. He says:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

The Good Shepherd had spoken John Wesley's name, and he could not but hear it. And so began a ministry that was to be instrumental in transforming this nation. Once Jesus has convinced us, he commissions us. None of us is John Wesley. None of us is Mary Magdalene. But each of us, like them, is asked to "go" in obedience to Jesus' command. And what did Mary do when Jesus asked her to "go"? That is my final heading, and on this we draw to a close: MARY WENT Verse 18: Mary of Magdala went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her. Quite simply, Mary did what Jesus asked her to do. It is not complicated. It just requires obedience. So what of us, this Easter evening? This account of what happened to Mary early on the morning of the first Easter Day should stir us deeply. Do you know what it is to give up because Jesus seems to have gone from your life? Have you faced both the rebuke and ultimately the comfort of the angel's question to Mary: "Why are you crying?" Have you heard the voice of the Good Shepherd call your name? Are you willing to accept his commission? Will you go in his service, secure in the knowledge that he is alive, and that he will never leave you?

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