Life has a way of killing dreams, doesn't it? You set out with high hopes—for your schooling, your career, your family, and your golden years. You have plans, aspirations, and expectations. But things don't always turn out the way you expected. Plans fall through. People let you down. You let yourself down. Suddenly the life you're living isn't the life you dreamed of at all; or you find yourself in a place you never expected to be.
Fantine, a young woman from Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, sings a powerful song (in the musical version) as she finds herself in a hopeless place. A summer lover has left her alone with a child. She finds work in a factory, but has to place her daughter, Cosette, in the keeping of some cruel and crooked innkeepers. When it is discovered that she has a child out of wedlock, she's thrown out of the factory and into the streets. She's forced to sell her hair, then her teeth, then her body, in order to pay for Cosette's care. She's falsely accused of a crime, and placed under arrest. And on top of all this, she's desperately ill. And out of that dark place, she sings, "I dreamed a dream in days gone by … now life has killed the dream I dreamed."
Hopefully none of us are in quite that desperate of a place, but we all have dreams that haven't come true. We all find ourselves in places we never expected to be. We know how it feels to be so disappointed, so discouraged, it feels as though all hope is gone. If it's not true for you right now, it's probably true for someone you know, and maybe for someone you love.
"Well, Happy Easter to you, too, Pastor Bryan!" I know that seems like a strange way to start an Easter sermon. Easter's supposed to be about bunnies and chicks, right? New day, new clothes, a new lease on life? And it is! But that's not where it begins. It begins at a grave, with a woman weeping.
So let's begin our journey there this morning, in that dark place, and see if Scripture can lead us to a brighter place, a place of hope. We're going to be working out of John 20:10-18.
Life without hope
The Gospel of John offers us some detail and richness to the resurrection story that the other Gospels leave out. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us what happened. John teaches us how to live in light of what happened.
As we've already read, Mary has already made one trip to the tomb on this morning. When she and the other women found it empty, they hurried back and shared the news with the disciples; two of whom ran out to see for themselves. Mary followed them back out again, but by the time she arrived they had already turned to go home. Which left Mary alone at the open tomb, its yawning emptiness staring her in the face. She did the only thing left to do. She cried.
Now, who is this Mary of Magdala? All kinds of legends have arisen around her. A tradition dating back to the 8th century identifies her as the prostitute in Luke 7, who anointed Jesus with her tears, but there's nothing in Scripture to support that idea. The rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, portrays her as a sensuous woman torn between religious devotion and romantic attraction—"I don't know how to love him," she sings. According to the popular novel of a few years ago, The DaVinci Code, Mary became Jesus' wife, the mother of his child, and the leader of the church after his death.
None of these portrayals have any biblical or historical support. What we are told is that Mary of Magdala was one of several women who became followers of Jesus and helped to support him in his ministry. We're also told that Jesus delivered her from 7 demons. We don't know what that possession looked like in Mary's case. But we know from other biblical accounts that demons could cause a person to cut themselves, throw themselves into a fire, and lose control of their behavior and their emotions. Such people were locked up, typically, or turned out into the streets to live on their own. Whatever her past had been, Jesus, with a word, had delivered her from it. Set her free from those dark forces, and she found life again; a life centered on Jesus.
But now, suddenly, tragically, it seemed, he was gone. "Why are you crying?" the angelic figures ask. It must have sounded to her like the most ridiculous question in the world! Why shouldn't she be crying!? Jesus was gone. Verse13, "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him."
Notice how she speaks of him—as a person, still. Not, "They have taken his body away." But, "they have taken my Lord away." Her teacher. Her Savior. The One who had given her life back. After years of torment she had begun to dream again—of good things for herself, and her people. But life had killed that dream; a Roman cross had seen to that. What now? Would the tigers come again at night? The demons that had once haunted her? What would she do? Who would she be? What did the future hold without Jesus? She might as well have said, "They have taken my hope away, and I don't know where they have put it."
What is hope?
Hope. What is hope, anyway? Wishful thinking? Naïve optimism? "Hope it don't rain," we say. "Hope the economy bounces back." "Hope the sermon doesn't go too long." (That is wishful thinking!) Emily Dickinson tells us it's "the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul," whatever that means.
The dictionary tells us that hope is "a desire with the expectation of fulfillment." So hope begins with a desire for something good, but then adds the element of expectation, of confidence. Without expectation, it's just a wish. And wishes tend not to come true. When we hope for something, we're counting on it.
But hope is more than a word. Hope is to the spirit what oxygen is to the body. Without it, we die. When a team loses hope, the game is over. When investors lose hope, the stock market tumbles. When a patient loses hope, death is crouching at the door.
Viktor Frankl survived years in the Nazi concentration camps. He noticed that prisoners died just after Christmas. They were hoping they'd be free by then. When they weren't, they gave up. He learned that as long as prisoners had something to live for, a reason to press on, they could endure just about anything. But once they lost hope, they quickly died. Dostoevsky said that "to live without hope is to cease to live."
Bobby Knight has a different take on it. Bobby Knight, of course, is the legendary basketball coach who led the Indiana Hoosiers to three NCAA tournament finals, while boasting one of the highest graduation rates for his players. He was also famous for throwing chairs and chewing out officials, players, fans, and anyone in the vicinity. He recently wrote a book entitled, The Power of Negative Thinking. According to Bobby Knight, "hope" is the worst word in the English language. He says it's foolish and lazy to tell yourself that "things are going to be all right." They'll only be all right if somebody steps up and does something.
I don't usually agree with Bobby Knight, but this time he's on to something. Hope needs a reason. Something, or someone, that can change the trajectory; that can get us to a better place. Without a reason, hope is just wishful thinking.
All of which to say Mary had no reason to hope that morning. There was no wishful thinking. No naïve optimism. She expected nothing more than a corpse, badly in need of spices. Remember, she's already been to this tomb once. She heard the angels say, "He has risen." But she's not buying it. She watched him die. She saw him laid to rest. As far as she is concerned, it's over. The empty tomb did not speak to her of resurrection; not by a long shot. So she did what we all do at a fresh grave. She wept—because there was nothing else to do.
Mary had no reason to hope that morning, until, she sensed someone standing there. She turned to see who, and that someone asked her a question. Let's pick up the reading at verse 14:
At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize 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."
She didn't recognize him at first. Maybe it was her tears; maybe it was the dim morning light. Most likely it was the fact that his appearance had changed, as we know from other accounts. "Woman, why are you crying?" There it is again, that question.
I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Jesus' first words after his resurrection were in the form of a question. In all of the Gospels we see him meet people where they are; ask questions; listen, understand, give them time. And here he does the same thing as he teaches us how to share hope.
And it turns out we don't share hope by hitting people over the head with it! Notice, Jesus doesn't say to Mary—"Ta Da! It's me—Jesus!" He doesn't say, "Stop crying, woman. It's all good!" And he certainly doesn't scold her for lack of faith. He meets her where she is. He asks her to tell him about it, and listens as she explains, once again. Have you ever noticed how grieving people need to tell you what happened—again and again? Mary does the same thing.
In fact, let's give Mary credit for staying in the moment. Notice the other two disciples. I hate to say it but they do the typical "guy thing." They race each other to the tomb. Barge right in. Find it empty. And leave the clothes lying there. "Nothing to be done here," they say to themselves. "Might as well get some breakfast." Mary stays in the moment, and Jesus meets her there.
There's a lesson there for those of us who want to share hope with people. Don't rush to good news. When someone is hurting, discouraged, or grieving; they don't need happy talk. And they certainly don't need religious clichés. "Everything happens for a reason." "They're in a better place." "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Don't say it, and definitely don't sing it. Grief is real. Loss is painful. Unemployment stinks. Relationships can break your heart. And we need to say so; we need to feel it. If someone in your world is hurting, if you want to share hope with them, the best thing to do is meet them in that moment. Ask them to tell you about it, and then sit still long enough to listen.
Hope comes from evidence and experience
That's what Jesus does for Mary. But then, when she's ready, he gently, and very personally, reveals himself to her. Verse 16:
Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher.) Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, "I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."
"Mary," he says. And there was something about the sound of his voice; something about the mention of her name, that opened her eyes, and her heart. It was him!
"Rabboni," she says. It's a term of affectionate respect. People around here generally call me, Bryan, and I'm comfortable with that. But I find when I visit them in a hospital room or a funeral home, they want to call me, "Pastor." That's probably how Mary said it, "Rabboni."
And suddenly, she had a reason to believe. Notice that it was not enough for Mary simply to confront the evidence of the resurrection—the empty tomb, the angel's announcement. That wasn't enough to convince her. She needed something more personal than that—a real encounter with Jesus.
And we need the same thing, those of us who struggle with the resurrection. We need evidence. And there's plenty: an empty tomb; written records, both biblical and non-biblical; the transformation of the disciples; the emergence of a brand new faith; the great divide in human history—BC/AD; the changed lives of people you know. But we also need something personal, something experiential.
And that's what the Lord offered Mary, there, at the tomb. Suddenly, he was there. More real, more powerful, more glorious than she had ever known him to be. And because of that, she had hope. Jesus was not only there, with her. He had proven that he was stronger than death; stronger than evil; stronger than all the bad things that can happen in this world.
She must have thrown her arms around him at that point, or taken hold of his feet, or something. Because Jesus says, in the original language, "Stop clinging to me." He's telling her that he's still going to be with her—with all of them—but not in the same way he was before. He's going to return to the Father and send his Spirit to be with them, to be in them, always, everywhere. And he still has work for her to do—a message to share—more life-changing, more earth-shaking than she ever imagined. "Go and tell," he says. Tell my brothers, tell the world: Death is defeated. I am risen! And that's what she did. 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."
Hope is a Who
You see, hope is not a what, or a when, or a why. Hope is a "who." Bobby Knight is right. Things don't get better just because we want them to. They get better because somebody does something. Hope is always embodied in a person. Shareholders hope the new CEO can turn the company around. Citizens hope a new leader can get their country back on track. Red Sox nation hopes a new manager can lift their team out of the doldrums. Hope is a "who." Somebody wise enough, strong enough, good enough, to get us to a better place.
And Jesus Christ is that someone. His resurrection proves that he is stronger than any setback, any failure, any loss, any disappointment—any tiger that comes at night. If life has a way of killing dreams, Jesus has a way of bringing them back to life.
That's not to say we always get what we want, or that every bad thing can magically be un-done. Life doesn't work that way. But it is to say that God can and will do something good with our future.
Notice Mary didn't get exactly what she wanted. Jesus wasn't going to be with her the way he had been. But he was going to be with her in ways she had never dreamed possible. There was still a lot she didn't understand. And she didn't know exactly what the future held, but she knew it could be good, now that Christ had risen.
And that's what hope is. Hope is the confidence that God can and will do something good—in this life, and the life to come. Hope is the confidence that God can and will do something good—in this life, and the life to come. Whatever circumstance you may find yourself in this morning, whatever pain, loss, or disappointment you may be dealing with, God can do something good with it, or in it. That doesn't minimize the pain or loss or evil of it. It simply means the story isn't over yet. God can and will meet you in that place, in that moment—as surely as he met Mary in her dark place. And he is strong enough and wise enough to do something good, something meaningful, something eternally significant.
In this life, we can find joy, beauty, forgiveness, healing, purpose, restoration, and the reality of God's presence in our lives every day. In the life to come, we can look forward to reunion with those we have lost, the restoration of all creation, and to eternal life with God and one another in worlds beyond our imagining.
Hope isn't wishful thinking—it's confident living. It's facing the future knowing that God can and will do something good, in this life, and the life to come.
We left poor Fantine dying in the street. Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables to expose what he called three great evils of his time—poverty, the exploitation of women and children, and spiritual darkness. He pulls no punches. Fantine ends up dying of her illness. But somebody is there. Jean Valjean takes Cosette into his protection; he raises her, and years later delivers her into the arms of a fine young man. And as Valjean dies at the end of a long and good life, Fantine's spirit returns to usher him into heaven. The musical ends in a great re-union of all the characters, singing about a new and better day. "Will you join in our crusade, will you be strong and stand with me. There's a future about to start when tomorrow comes." It's a song of hope.
Victor Hugo had a hard time with the church of his day, but he believed in God, and that gave him reason to believe that good would triumph over evil, that justice would be done, and that there was life and love beyond the grave. For 200 years, his story has given the world hope, hope that is grounded in the existence of a good and gracious God.
If you should find yourself in a tough place right now, have the courage and honesty to stay in that place and invite Christ to meet you there. If you should know someone in such a place right now, someone who's dealing with pain, disappointment, or loss—share hope with them. Ask them how they're doing. Listen to them. Be with them. Pray for them. And when the time is right, point them toward Jesus. Because life has a way of killing dreams, but Jesus has a way of bringing them, and us, back to life! Mary had the courage and honesty to hang around the tomb for a while.