Good News!

Sunday, March 31, 2024, The Resurrection of the Lord
Readings: Isaiah 25:6–9, Psalm 118, 1 Corinthians 15:1-28, John 20:1-18

On this first day of the week, in the still quiet before dawn, there’s a Spring chill, perhaps a trifle damp, in the air. The night animals have gone to bed. The cricket orchestra rests. The dawn chorus waits. The Milky Way and the waning gibbous moon,  no longer full, light Mary Magdalene’s way through the garden, past daffodils waiting for the first brush of the sun. She had watched Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemos lay Jesus in the tomb. She had stood at the foot of the cross when he died. 

She seen one she loved betrayed, mocked, scorned, tormented, flogged, killed. She had followed him. Where could she be but the depths of despair? But she awoke that morning to come to the garden before dawn.

In Mark and Luke’s telling, Mary Magdalene and the other women came to garden to wash and anoint the body for proper burial, but John does not tell us what she came to do: “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark.” (John 20:1)

There are great thematic cycles in the Bible’s stories of God acting in historical time. Not exact repetition, more like the spiral shell of a Nautilus or a repeating fractal pattern, echoes or ripples. The seasons and feasts of the Church are a reminder that these things happened in time. A slow day-by-day, year-by-year, reminder that they are real — not a fiction, not a binge-watched show where all the time the drama takes collapses together in a tired haze.

This is less explicit in the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions than in, for example, the Anglican and Roman Catholic. Each Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is a celebration of the Resurrection, 52 times a year. Around that basic remembrance of new life, other traditional observances have grown up as further reminders of the story of creation: the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, Christmas, Advent to prepare for Christmas, Epiphany, Lent to prepare for Easter, this past Holy Week.

The congregation in Anglican and Roman churches actively participates in the reading of the Passion of Christ: we are the crowd. It is we who cry “Save us!” as the Son of David enters Jerusalem. It is we who clamor for his death and demand his crucifixion. We the disciples who can not stay awake. We who flee and abandon him. We who, with Peter, deny we even knew him. We who are guilty.

The memory embodied in these observances ties us back to the beginning of time. When, the timing of a thing, should help us remember. The crucifixion and resurrection happen during the feast of the Passover on purpose. The identification of Jesus as the Paschal lamb is explicit. More than a title, this should draw our attention to the story of the Exodus and the journey to the Promised Land. If you recall, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, making bricks and building Pharaoh’s monumental pyramids. The cries of the people rose up to God, and he called Moses to do his work:

When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt. … Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” ((Exodus 3:4,10; 4:22–23 ESV)

It took some encouragement: ten plagues. The first nine would have done for me, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The tenth plague is a whopper:

[4] So Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, [5] and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. [6] There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.

Exodus 11:4–6 (ESV)

The people of Israel can avoid this devastation, through the sacrifice of a lamb: “the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12–13 ESV)

This is not all. The people of the Lord must remember forever. And must forever after sacrifice every firstborn male to the Lord. Their sons they must redeem, or buy back, with a substitute sacrifice. Thus we say, Christ, our Passover Lamb, is sacrificed for us. Christ, the firstborn of all creation, has redeemed his people.

The Exodus did not happen overnight. Before the people of Israel wander forty years in the desert, they had to escape Pharaoh’s revenge. Remember the Passover, we remember the Exodus. Remembering the Exodus, we remember that God saved his people from Pharaoh’s armies with a flood. Remembering the saving flood, we remember that God saved Noah’s family from the capital-F Flood. Remembering that Moses talked with God, and Noah walked with God, we remember Adam and Eve, walking in the garden with God.

And hiding in the garden to their shame.

They — and we — have trouble remembering even with all this structure to help us:

Remember, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, [17] but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) Remember the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Do this in remembrance of me.

Our failure to trust goes back to creation, to our time in the garden. God’s constant reminders throughout the Old Testament, and from Jesus in the New, are lost in the onslaught of our enemies, in the depths of our despair, and in the blur of our busyness. We forget. We forget to rest. We forget to trust. We forget God saves, though the reminder is right there in Jesus’s name: Yeshua: God saves.

Let us return to Mary Magdalene crying in the garden at the tomb. What will be in this garden that is not Eden? 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1) And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3,5) 

“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark.” A light breeze rises with the approaching dawn. The birds begin to wake. Mourning doves cry. And the Gardener asks, “Woman, why do you weep? Whom do you seek?”

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Jesus said, “Mary.”

And such joy explodes in her heart. A cry of recognition escapes: “Rabbi!” And, since Mary is not from around here, she smothers Jesus in her arms, enough so he says, “Do not hold on so tightly!” The risen Son is real, solid, flesh Mary can embrace. 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Later Thomas will place his finger in the wounds, and cry out in ecstasy and recognition, “My Lord and my God!”

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it in his 1864 poem “Christmas Bells”: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” He lives! Christ is risen! A new dawn, a new creation, has touched the earth that day in the garden. What does this mean?!

The Psalmist writes, “I shall not die, but I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord. … This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The Lord makes every day. This is the day. Today. Now. Let us rejoice! Sing out with joy for we have hope. It is never too late. We can turn from our errors with contrite hearts and find amendment of spirit each day.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The builders used their own flawed judgment and rejected the way, the path, the Lord’s law. And yet, now, today, the way, the truth, and the life has become the guide for all our future work, so that whomsoever shall trust in him shall not perish but have eternal life. As the prophet Isaiah writes, “He will swallow up death forever, so that he might save us.” Paul argues in his letter to the Corinthians that the Resurrection has destroyed death, the payment for our sins, the consequences of our disobedience in the first garden.

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

Good news! We are no longer bound by sin. We are saved through no work of our own. Our help is in the name of the Lord. Full of thankfulness Paul asks in Romans 6:1, “How then shall we live?”

Everyone God addresses by name is given a task. In the garden, Jesus tells Mary, “Go and tell the others.” In the coming days he will give us all the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19–20)

I do not understand how Christ atoned for our sins, the need for his sacrifice, how his death on the cross reconciled us with God, or how it turns God’s wrath from us, but I trust that some day I will. As we sing in the hymn, “Great is thy faithfulness. Great is thy faithfulness. Morning by morning, new mercies I see.” “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

How then shall we live? We find our guide in God’s law. And in John 21:12 we find a start:

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

(as delivered at Beulah Presbyterian Church, Mill Gap, Virginia)