There were no streetlights, headlights, or even flashlights. There was just darkness, and some women walking through a big city on the way into some woods. Mary, the woman from Magdalene, was probably asking herself, If only he hadn't come in to Jerusalem during this time of trouble. If only his disciples had hidden him somewhere else. If only there wasn't all of this tumult going on in the empire right now. If only Peter had been able with his sword to fight. If only.
Mary was probably trying in her mind to do what all of us try to do at some point or another: To reverse the past, to go backward in the story. That's what some of you are doing today. Some of you have parts of your story that are horrifying. Maybe even parts that only took just a second or a minute or a split tick on the clock. You're saying to yourself, If only I hadn't been fiddling with that radio in the car that one moment. If only I hadn't gone to that party that night. If only I hadn't slipped that hotel card into that keyhole. If only I had told her, I love you. Or if only I hadn't.
Some of you have questions in your mind, you have an image of something you would love to reverse, to erase. Some of you may not have that moment yet but you will. Because all of us will one day find ourselves hearing the whirring of machines around us, the beeping of monitors, the pulling of ventilators, the rustling of cords. All of us will experience what we cannot imagine now: The primal fear that we are slipping out into the night of death.
They tell me that the moment before that happens, they say your life flashes before your eyes. I don't know if that's true but I know if it is this is why: Because we are asking could I turn it back, could I reverse the course of this story. Every human being asks that question because your little story and my little story is part of a much longer, a much older, a much bigger and a much deeper story telling us why the things around us just aren't right. The story in Genesis three is a story of something that wrecked, something that went wrong in a garden at some point in history. A wreck that you and I have then repeated in all of our lives.
This woman named Mary, thinks that she is facing a personal crisis. She thinks that it is a coincidence that she winds up in a garden but Scripture tells us that what she is facing here isn't just a personal crisis, she is facing an ancient curse. As this woman stands in this garden, what she sees is not just a happy ending to a story she has been playing out to herself. What she sees is God reversing the whole story of the universe. I want to call us to this garden.
God reverses the corruption
Notice first of all that in this garden, God is reversing the story of corruption. Scripture tells us here that Mary goes into a garden that is also a grave place. It says that Jesus after he had been crucified was taken down. No one wanted to haul this body a long way so they laid him in a tomb, in a borrowed tomb of a rich man there in a garden. Now, we tend to misunderstand this because when we think of grave and garden, we think of the fake gardens that we have constructed for graveyards all around us, memorial gardens, rolling meadow gardens in which you have people coming through with weed eaters and keeping everything looking green and stately. But that's not the kind of garden that Mary found herself in. It was a working garden. It would have had vegetables growing, perhaps grapes growing. Mary walks into this garden and she thinks that she is encountering a grave robbing. She walks up and she sees that the stone has been rolled away, and she sees there cloths that would have been used to wrap up a corpse. She would have seen the images there of corruption and she wonders and she asks, "Where have they taken him, someone has come in and robbed the grave, someone has taken the body of this man whose words I believed, this man that I left everything to follow, and his dead body has been taken." She was wrong.
The text says that after Mary goes back and she speaks to the disciples, "Somebody has taken him." After they run back to the tomb and they see the fact that it is now empty, the Bible tells us that she looks and sees angels sitting there in the grave that point her outward into the garden. Mary is seeing, although she can't understand what is happening, God taking that path that you and I are on toward corruption and turning it back.
The Bible tells us that at that beginning point of history, in that other Garden, when the woman ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and when the man ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, a curse came up on the universe in which their bodies were turning into dust, in which the world that they live in is full of thorns and of thistles. What the gospel of the resurrection tells us is that Jesus took that curse upon himself. Those thorns that God said would appear on the ground were crushed down onto his head. He, the King of all the universe, was taken down off of the cross, purple and bloated and drowning in his own blood with water pouring out of his side. He was a dead body, he was a corpse, he was under the bondage to corruption and decay, and Mary expected to find him in that condition.
She was bringing with her some spices. She was bringing some embalming stuff to try to keep him preserved just a little bit longer, but she doesn't find him there. She doesn't find the corruption of that first Garden there. Instead, she finds angels, just as angels had been present from the very beginning. In the first story, the angel was there outside the Garden with a sword because God said, "I do not want my children who have turned themselves corrupt. I do not want them to eat of the tree of life and to live that way forever and ever and ever without hope." This angel speaks to the woman and says to the woman, "Go out into the garden." He points her out of that grave. As she runs out of that hole in the ground, she runs into what she thinks is a stranger.
God reverses the alienation
Notice also that in this garden God reverses the story of alienation. Mary is standing there, in verse 11, outside of the grave. She thinks that she is alone in the garden and she is sobbing and crying. She thinks that her whole world has come to an end when someone speaks to her and says, "Why are you crying, why are you upset, what's wrong?" The Bible tells us that she thought that this was a hired worker who was there tilling the ground in the garden, and she turns and she starts sobbing to him. She does not know who he is until he speaks her name.
Part of what has happened to all of us is that when sin comes into our life it alienates us from one another, and it alienates us from God. The story is told that in the very beginning, when the woman ate of the fruit and the man ate of the fruit, suddenly they realized they were naked and they started to hide from one another. The community that they had had was now broken. The Scripture tells us that in the cool of the day that God would come and he would be there in the midst of the human beings. When he came that day, after sin, after death had entered the world, Scripture says that the man and the woman were hiding. They were hiding in the Garden. So that when he calls their names—Adam, where are you, Eve, where are you—they shrink back, they don't want to see him.
In this garden something is different. Jesus looks to her and he calls her by name. When she grabs him and starts crying the same way you would if you thought that your child had been in a car accident or if you thought that your husband or your wife had been in a fire. If you thought that your brother or your sister had been killed, you would grab that person and say, "Oh, I'm so glad you're alright." She starts to do it. But what does Jesus say? He speaks to her words that are so magnificent I can hardly even say them. "Go to my brothers." Those brothers, they were hiding up in a room somewhere. Go to my brothers. Jesus walked into her story and into my story and into yours. The kind of sin and fear that keeps us hiding from one another and hiding from God, Jesus walks right out and turns it around. He reverses it.
God reverses the condemnation
God also reverses the story of condemnation. When Mary grabs him and she says, Oh, Lord, I'm so glad you're okay, oh, teacher, I'm so glad that you're here, I saw them crucify you, I saw the nails, I saw you drowning, I saw all of that. Jesus says, "I have not ascended to my God." Why does Jesus say this? Because Jesus is not like you and me. Jesus does not have anything to hide. There is no blackmail against Jesus who has perfectly kept all of the law of God. There is no break in the fellowship between Jesus and his Father. Jesus says, not only am I not hiding in the bushes, Jesus says, I am walking right into the presence of God.
The Bible says the only ones who can ascend to the hill of the Lord, the only ones that God will receive are the ones who are righteous who are like him, and God will show you who those people are by opening up their graves and bringing them out of the grave. On that Sunday morning before dawn, the roll was called up yonder and there was only one name on that roll. Only one human being was able to walk away from condemnation, walk away from the rule of death, and walk into the presence of his Father.
Every one of us in this room has been under that sentence of condemnation, and everybody in this room has been hiding. Some of you still are. Just as the first man and the first woman slowed their breathing down and they stilled their movements down, hoping that God would not notice them behind those leaves, some of you are doing that right now. It's not behind bushes but it's behind the world that God has created for you. It's behind the life that God has given to you, and you are living that life as though God does not notice the rebellion that is there in your heart. The painful truth is you are guilty and you know that you are guilty, and there are beings that will accuse you. They will call you out of hiding and they will point to you on the Day of Judgment and they will say all of these things are true, and you know that they are true. But, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has already stood in that condemnation, and Jesus has already taken all of that damnation upon himself, every bit of hell that you deserve and every bit of hell that I deserve, and Jesus so completely absorbed all of that that he is able to walk out of the grave and say, I am ascending to my Father, I'm not afraid to be in his presence. The great news is he is also not ashamed of us. He says, "Go and tell my brothers I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."
Now, some of you in this room are still under condemnation. Some of you in this room don't know what it means to have the kind of confession that this Middle Eastern woman has. When you trust Christ, when you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, when you believe with your heart that God has raised him from the dead, the reason that God calls us to believe that is not because it is something that is unbelievable and he wants to test our faith. It's because when I believe that, I am confessing I don't deserve to be alive. Only he deserves to be alive and in the presence of the Father. The only hope that I have before God is that Jesus shed his blood for me and that God raised Jesus from the dead. So the reason that we are brothers and sisters of Jesus is not because we get our life cleaned up, it's not because everything is turned around in our life; it is because we are asking God to count his death as our death. Father, count his resurrection as my resurrection. We look and we see him and we say, I want to follow him even through death and out to the other side, Lord, have mercy upon me.
Any one of you who understand and know and agree that God is right about what he says is pitiful in your life, any one of you can cry out right where you are in the silence of your own mind and heart, "Lord, let me share in the death of Jesus, Lord, let me share in the life of Jesus," and he will hear you. He reverses that story of condemnation.
God reverses the deception
Notice finally that he reverses the story of deception. Jesus speaks to Mary and what's really significant in this garden is that he is speaking to a woman. Scripture tells us that in the beginning of the story the serpent came to the woman and he deceived her. The story also tells us that this woman used the relationship that she had with her husband in order to speak to him, to say to him, "Join me in this rebellion." God says, "You listen to the serpent and you listen to the voice of a woman and both of you, all of you, are deceived." But notice what happens here. This woman is not deceived. Jesus shows himself to her. All of the lies that have been told to her, Jesus turns those things away and Jesus shows her the truth and then sends her to tell the truth. The word of God is like that.
But Mary wasn't the only one who had been in that garden. The Bible tells us that there were soldiers who pulled the spikes out of Jesus' body. There were soldiers who went home and washed the blood out from under their fingernails, of Jesus of Nazareth. Who washed the water that had spattered out of his abdomen onto their faces, and who went and had supper and played with their children and grandchildren before going to bed. Scripture tells us that there were guards watching the tomb who saw that body come out of that hole in the ground, and they took a sufficient sum of money to say it was all made up. What is a sufficient sum of money? The issue is that part of what the serpent holds us with right now is by blinding our minds to what is true and right in front of us, and some of you will be able to hear the proclamation of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and you will be able to walk out of these doors thinking about anything other than that.
Maybe you can tell yourself somebody really did take the body. Maybe there never was a resurrection from the dead. Maybe, just maybe, all of these cringing, fearful followers who were willing before the crucifixion to deny him and to hide would somehow be willing to go all the way to the point of having their throats slit, having oil poured over their bodies, having the skin peeled off of their bones rather than simply say the words, "We never actually saw him alive." Maybe you can say to yourself that is the case. But deep in your heart of hearts you know the awful truth that if Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, then you will stand before him one day in judgment.
The good news is that this same resurrected Christ is willing to stand for you in the presence of his Father because he is reversing that story we all want to live. Jesus reversed that big story of Adam, but he reversed Mary's story too. Mary isn't a cardboard cutout figure in the Bible. She was involved in the occult. She lived a hard life. Scripture says when Jesus first met Mary she had seven demons within her. She was the kind of woman that if she were at that point in her life to have walked into this congregation, all of us would be scared of her. Jesus knew her and Jesus loved her. Jesus redeemed her, and Jesus chose her to take that story to the disciples. "Go and tell my brothers," he said, and Mary went and took it to those men, who then took it to other people, who then took it to other people, who then took it to other people, who then took it to other people, who took it to someone who told it to me, and I'm telling it to you. He used this former demonized, occultic, hopeless woman to save the world through the message of the gospel. He reverses that story of deception.
Some of you are still under the curse. There are a thousand different stories in this room, but there are really only two. One walks from a garden into a grave, and one walks from a grave into a garden. Some of you can leave and you can go home and eat and you can say to yourself, It's nothing. But if you do, keep in mind whose voice you're hearing. Others of you hear him, and he's calling you by name. It doesn't matter how awful the story is that you have written for yourself. It doesn't matter how terrible the story is that you have enacted for yourself, he can reverse it. He can turn it back. He can conform you to Christ and he can give you life through his blood. But you must hear it. You must listen to it, because you can't claw out of a grave by yourself, and you can't come to this garden alone.
Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.