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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Don't Hold Onto Me

Taken from Preacher's

This sermon is presented by Philip McAlister. Philip has served as pastor and district superintendent and is currently field director of the North Europe field on the Eurasia region for the Church of the Nazarene.

When I was ready to propose to my wife-to-be, I decided to do it the old-fashioned way and first ask her for Dad’s blessing, permission, or whatever degree of affirmation he could give me. I stopped by their house and made up an excuse to get him outside away from the rest of her family, so we could talk.

I don’t even remember how many times I rehearsed my “speech” in my head before I ever actually spoke it. I kind of stumbled my way through it, and thought I had made myself clear. But I will never forget his response. The first word out of his mouth after I paused to let him reply, his first word was, “Well,” followed by a long pause.

What followed didn’t help my anxiety level much. “You know, our daughters are probably our most treasured gifts.” That was followed by a lengthy talk about what a wonderful young lady Liz was, and how important she was to them.

Just when I thought he was about to give his answer, he’d talk a little more about what a great person Liz was, and how much they loved her. It felt like being in an airplane that’s just circling the airport. Every time I thought it was about to land, it would pull up and circle some more. His answer was finally good news; he said “Yes,” but it just took a long time to get there.

John’s account of Easter is something like that. It’s good news, but John takes his time in getting there. It seems slower than all the other gospels.

In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, there is more action, and Matthew gets the good news announced quicker. There is an earthquake, then an angel descends in dramatic fashion. The angel rolls the stone away, and as an exclamation point on it all, he perches on top of the stone. The first time the angel speaks, he spells everything out: “I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6). In just a few verses, the message has been proclaimed. Christ is not here! He is risen!

Mark and Luke both get to the point pretty quickly too. The followers of Jesus head to the tomb and right away they encounter someone who tells them, “I know you’re looking for Jesus, but He’s not here. He is risen!”

But not John. John’s account begins with a lot of details without revealing much. John tells us Mary Magdalene gets to the tomb and finds the stone is rolled away. It’s an interesting detail, but it doesn’t really tell us a lot. It makes you wonder why the stone was rolled away. Earlier in John’s Gospel, at another tomb, the stone was rolled away in order to get Lazarus out. This time, though, it seems more like an invitation for those on the outside to come in, to see that it’s empty. But Mary doesn’t go in at first.

Instead, she runs away from the tomb to tell Peter and the beloved disciple that the body is gone. Now, standing on this side of the story, we assume that should have been a clue to the resurrection. We know the dead body is not there because Jesus had risen. Mary just knew the body was not there, and it deepened her grief. She thought someone had stolen the body. In her frame of mind, an empty tomb means a tomb has been raided.

She was there when the body was placed in the tomb. To have seen the body put into the tomb and then to discover it’s missing—I assume that is as difficult as when families have lost a loved one, but the body has not been discovered. We hear it all the time on the news: a grieving family, they know their loved one is dead, but the body has not been discovered. They need a body to bring “closure” and to walk through the grieving process.

But Mary Magdalene says there’s no body. It has been stolen. So Peter and the beloved disciple look in and confirm: Mary’s right! There’s no body here.

Then John adds more details. The strips of linen used to wrap Jesus’ body have been left behind, and off to the side, neatly folded, was the cloth that had been around his head. But there is still no body. And there is still no figure in the story who gives any helpful information. This story is just barely creeping along, with lots of little facts, but no real plot development.

The others disciples head back home, John tells us. But not Mary. Mary stays and cries. She finally musters up enough courage to poke her head inside the tomb to see for herself. This time, instead of just seeing an empty tomb and grave clothes, she sees two angels seated there: one where Jesus’ head had been laid, the other at the foot of where the body had been placed. Angels usually bring dramatic announcements. But there are no grand announcements from them, only a question, “Woman, why are you crying?” Through her tears she says it’s because they have taken Jesus’ body, and she doesn’t know where they’ve put Him.

The body is still gone, but that doesn’t mean resurrection. As the story unfolds in John’s Gospel, we’ve got an empty tomb, a lot of running back and forth, believing without yet seeing anything, and then tears. Buckets of tears. But still no body. Mary had come to find a body.

As the angels speak to her, they seem to see someone standing behind her. Mary turns to look over her shoulder, and she sees a man. She thinks He is the gardener. “Woman, why are you weeping?” He asks. “Who are you looking for?”“If you’ve taken him away, tell me where, and I’ll take him away.”

I’m not quite sure how she thought she would be able to move His body, but that’s what she said.

Then the man calls her by name, “Mary!” His sheep know His voice, He had said, and it’s true. Even when she doesn’t recognize His appearance, she knows His voice. Mary hears the voice that stilled the storms, the voice that called Lazarus from his tomb, the voice that brought multitudes into the very presence of God, the voice that spoke forgiveness, even from the Cross. He speaks her name; He knows her by name.

“Rabbi!,” she says, remembering Him as He used to be.

So many of us long for the way things used to be. We face difficult times and we just wish we could go back to some stage in our life and live it out again. A failed relationship. An illness that has changed the course of our life. A career that hasn’t gone as we had planned. If I could just rewind the tape and have a fresh go of it. To re-do the failures, or to re-live the successes. We want to hold onto the familiar times. That’s what Mary wants. If only she could go back to those moments when she was part of the crowd that heard Jesus teach. So she clutches Him so He can’t get away.

But Jesus says to her, “Don’t hold onto me.”

“Don’t hold onto me” sounds kind of harsh, but it reveals the truth of the resurrection. Resurrection is not going back to a time when things were better, and starting over. Resurrection is when the past is dead and we have a whole new life.

Resurrection always looks to the future, the new things God wants to do. But there is no resurrection without death.

Resurrection is good news, but at the same time, it’s sometimes painful first because there is death involved. Before the power of the resurrection can take hold in our own lives, we’re called to die to sin, to die to self. We may even have to die to our own dreams, so God can do what He wants to do in our lives. Resurrection is about seeing our world in a new way. Early that Easter morning, Mary saw things clearly, but she saw nothing clearly. She could rattle off the details, but nothing added up. Mary never did find what she came looking for that day, the dead body of Jesus. But she found something better than she could ever have imagined: the risen Jesus.

Sometimes, in our search for God’s presence in our lives and our world, what we think we want the most, we cannot have. What we get instead is an experience of God’s new ways of working in the world. That’s resurrection power. And when those moments come, then we, like Mary can’t help but spread the news: We have seen the Lord!


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