by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts April 11 , 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Scripture Reading: John 20:11-18
11 But Mary [Magdalene] stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." 16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
During his tenure as President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln tended to keep fairly regular office hours, often meeting ordinary citizens who wanted to visit with him. One time a woman came to the White House and ran into the President. Not recognizing him, she said, "I demand to speak to no one lower than the President." To which President Lincoln responded, "Ma'am, there is no one lower than the President." [reference]
Of course this was in an age before television, so we can understand how this woman might not have recognized her own president. But things like this still happen today. Two years ago at the British Open, Tiger Woods had finished a practice round and was heading to the driving range. As he came to a narrow gate, a security guard stepped in his way and wouldn't allow him to pass. Tiger had left his official badge in the car, and the guard didn't recognize him. Tiger, bless his heart, didn't get upset. Commenting on the episode later, he said, "She was doing her job. I didn't have my credential. I left it in the car. I guess I convinced her by saying I won the tournament two years ago." Indeed, that might work! [reference]
Expectations in the Way
In our Bible passage today there's a surprising lack of recognition on the part of Mary Magdalene. On Easter morning, Mary, along with several other women who had followed Jesus, goes to the tomb to anoint his body (Luke 23:55-24:1). But when the tomb is empty, all are confused, believing that someone has stolen the body of Jesus.
As Mary is standing outside the tomb weeping, all of a sudden Jesus appears to her and asks, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" (John 20:15). Mary doesn't recognize Jesus. In fact, she thinks he's the gardener! This isn't a bad guess, if you think of it, because who else would be out in a garden early on the first workday of the week? "Sir," Mary responds, "if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away" (20:15).
Have you ever wondered about Mary's failure to recognize Jesus in the garden? After all, the woman who didn't identify Abraham Lincoln and the guard who blocked Tiger Woods's way had never met the people they failed to recognize. But Mary knew Jesus extremely well. Yet she didn't know who he was at first. Why?
Of course it may be that her eyes were blurred with tears. Or perhaps she didn't look closely at the man she thought was just a gardener. But Mary's failure to recognize Jesus, I think, had greatly to do with her own expectations. She knew that Jesus had died and she believed him to be dead, not padding around in a garden. Moreover, when she had last seen him, he had been beaten beyond recognition. So even if she were to see Jesus' body, Mary would have expected it look much as it had a couple of days ago. Her expectations got in the way of her seeing the real Jesus.
Things like this happen in ordinary life, not just on Easter morning. Have you ever seen somebody out of the normal context and you weren't quite sure who he was? Or perhaps an acquaintance got a new haircut or lost a bunch of weight and you didn't recognize her at first.
I experienced something like this during my freshman year of college. Away from home for three months, I grew a mustache, nothing all that impressive, I'll admit. But, after three months of prayerful effort, I had a bona fide mustache. When it was time to come home for Christians, I was eager to surprise my family members with my new look. I still remember getting off the plane at LAX and walking up the jetway. I saw my brother Gary plainly at the end of the long passageway. He had pushed to the front of the crowd to welcome me home. I walked straight toward Gary with a big smile on my face. But he didn't smile back. In fact he kept peering around me, looking almost bugged because I was blocking his line of sight.
And so it was with Mary. She so strongly expected Jesus to be dead that her expectations kept her from seeing Jesus as he really was.
My friends, we can be just like Mary, failing to see Jesus because he doesn't fulfill our expectations for him. Let's be honest: we've all got expectations for Jesus, no matter what we believe about him. Perhaps you expect him to make your life better, to take away your pain or your guilt. Maybe you want him to be merely a good teacher, though the real Jesus keeps talking about himself as the kingdom-bringing Son of Man - hardly the mark of "good teacher." Or perhaps you want Jesus to be a nice religious antique, something spiritual to stick up on the shelf of your life. But the living Jesus won't stay put. Through his Spirit he comes to confront and surprise and call you to himself.
If you're already a believer in Jesus, may I ask you a simple question? Are your expectations for Jesus limiting your experience of him? Are you trying to keep him safely tucked away in some little religious box, when he wants to be Lord of your life? Are you willing to meet the real Jesus today?
And if you're not a believer, I have a similar question. Are your expectations for Jesus keeping you from getting to know him? Maybe you think you have to get all of your spiritual questions answered before you can put your trust in Jesus. Or maybe you're willing to have Jesus in your life, but only on your own terms. Even if you're not sure you believe in Jesus today, are you at least willing to see the real Jesus if he makes himself known to you?
Jesus Calls Your Name
To finish up my Christmas homecoming story, as I approached my brother at the end of the airway, he kept on craning his neck to look past me. Finally, when I was only about three feet away, I called out to him and said, "Gary!" Startled, he jumped back. And only then did he see who I really was.
A similar exchange happened between Mary and Jesus. She doesn't recognize him until he calls her name, "Mary." The familiar sound of his voice speaking her name breaks through her expectations and she finally sees the real Jesus, risen from the dead.
It's no accident that this happens when Jesus calls Mary's name. In John 10 Jesus himself said: "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice" (John 10:1-4).
Both this passage in John 10 and Mary's encounter with Jesus in the garden remind us of a profound truth. And here it is: Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, is the Good Shepherd who knows your name. He wants a personal, intimate, two-way relationship with you.
Though you and I won't get to hear Jesus call our names audibly - at least not this side of heaven - he still does summon us through his Spirit. There comes a time in life when Jesus calls our name, when we know that he's calling us to himself. Sometimes when this happens we feel ready. But usually, I've observed throughout my years as a pastor, Jesus calls people unexpectedly. You may think you're here this morning for a nice Easter service. But all of a sudden, sometime during this nice Easter service, you'll know that Jesus is calling your name. He's calling you to put your faith in him, to allow him to be your Savior, and to acknowledge him as your Lord.
But even if you already know Jesus and believe in him, he may still be calling to you today. Perhaps he is beckoning you to experience his love and grace more deeply. Perhaps he is drawing you into a deeper and truer relationship with him. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wants you to know his voice. I'm not speaking literally, of course. But I'm talking about your having an intimate, growing, loving relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ. This is what he offers. This is what he desires. And this alone will satisfy the deepest longing of your heart.
The newest addition to the Roberts household is a new puppy, an eight-week-old Golden Retriever named Mandy. She's been with us only a week now, and sometimes it feels like we've added a new baby to the household - especially when I'm up at 4:00 in the morning to take Mandy outside for her personal business. But one of the greatest things about this last week has been watching Mandy get to know us and feel like a part of our family. At first she didn't respond to her name or to our voices. But now if I call "Mandy!" she comes running. She knows her name and she knows my voice.
My friends, I don't want a more intimate relationship with my dog than with my Lord. I want to hear when he calls me. I want to respond to the guidance of his Spirit. I want to experience his mercy. I want to be embraced in his love. I want to live my life so that I might know the voice of Jesus and follow him wherever he wants me to go.
Do you know the voice of Jesus so you can follow him? Will you hear his voice when he calls your name?
Being Witness a Witness Like Mary
"Well, okay," you might be thinking. "But follow him where? What is this going to look like?" I can't fill in all of the details today, but I do want to notice what happens after the encounter between Mary and Jesus is over. She goes and announces to the other disciples that Jesus is risen. She is the first person in history to bear witness to the truth of Easter. She becomes the first one to pass on the good news that Jesus has risen from the dead.
If you'll permit me a brief aside here, I must note how striking it is that a woman is the first witness to the risen Jesus. We can miss the significance of this point, given our cultural perspective. But when we consider that women in Mary's world weren't able to bear witness in a court of law (see Josephus, Antiquities, 4.8.15), then we can begin to see how striking the gospel accounts of Easter truly are. On the one hand, nobody in his right mind would have made up this stuff. If the resurrection accounts had been fabricated, surely men would have taken a leading role. Moreover, the fact that Jesus chose to enlist Mary as his first witness makes a strong statement about the inclusion of women in the ministry of his church.
Mary's action serves as a model for both women and men of how we are to respond to the risen Jesus. First, we turn to him in faith. Then, we turn to others in order to share the good news of his resurrection and what it means.
And what does it mean? It means that Jesus' utterly unexpected plan worked. His death on the cross wasn't the end of his story, but just the beginning. He did indeed bear our sin on the cross, so that we might be forgiven. He was indeed forsaken by God, so that we might be reconciled to God. All of this would be merely pious wishful thinking, if not sheer nonsense, apart from the resurrection. But now, since Jesus is risen, we can have confidence that his death leads to life eternal. As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, "Death has been swallowed up in victory" (15:54) - in the victory of the resurrection.
My friends, this is something we can't keep to ourselves. Even as Mary became a witness to the reality of Easter, so should we. It's our calling and privilege to tell others what God has done in Jesus Christ.
"But," you may think, "I'd be no good at it. I have a hard time talking with others about faith. And there so many things I don't know. How can I be a witness?"
Let me respond in two ways. First, if you want to grow in your effectiveness as a witness, then hang around here a while. Be sure to come back to worship next week and in the weeks to come because I'm going to be preaching on the question: What did the death and resurrection of Jesus actually accomplish? Moreover, I'd urge you to become an active part of this fellowship. Join in a Bible study. Or get connected to one of the dozens of ministries that will help you to know Christ better. Don't sit on the sidelines, but get into the game.
Second, you don't have to be an experienced witness to Christ in order to get his message across. In fact some of the most effective witnesses are relatively new Christians who are simply honest about what God has done in their lives through Christ. So don't feel like you've got to get a master's degree in theology before you can share Christ with others. Simply go out into the world and tell the truth. Be honest and be yourself. God will take care of the rest.
As most of you know, I can get rather excited about the complexities of Christian faith. I did a Ph.D. in New Testament, after all, and I've spent the better part of my life thinking, studying, and writing about Christianity. There are times, I'll admit, when I can lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes when I'm counseling someone I realize that I'm turning a quest to know Jesus into something far more complicated than it ought to be. After all, Jesus himself said that we must receive the kingdom of God like little children.
But, thank God, his Spirit often breaks through my obtuseness. For example, some time ago a woman came to meet with me. She said she felt lost and wanted to find out about God. As I listened to her, I realized that she had a good idea of the basic Christian message. As I was thinking of how to help her grow in this understanding, all of a sudden it struck me that she had never really entered into relationship with Christ. She believed the facts of the gospel, but had never actually put her faith in Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior.
I decided to stick my neck out and I told her exactly what I had been thinking. "You seem to believe the right things," I concluded, "but you've never really given your life to Christ. Is this something you'd like to do right now? Do you want to trust your life to Christ, to accept him as your Savior and Lord?"
She was quiet for several moments. I started sweating big time, sure that I'd just blown it completely by being so simple and direct. But finally she said, "Yes, that's exactly what I need to do." And so we prayed. This woman heard Jesus call her name, and she said "yes" to him, entrusting her life to the One who had given his life for her.
So, in conclusion, dear friends: