When we come to the resurrection, we first have to consider some questions that many of our friends have and why some believe this account is a fable, a myth, and didn't actually happen. The first reason why we can't believe that this actually happened is simply because we don't believe that the supernatural exists, we don't believe that miracles happen.
The idea goes like this: I have never experienced a miracle, therefore miracles cannot happen. And we just pause right there and say because we have not experienced something presently doesn't mean we can't experience it in the future or that it has never been experienced in the past. All we are saying is we ourselves have never personally experienced something. The nature of these miracles matter for us. After all, we are not talking about a wizard in a hat going around turning men and women into mice or pulling rabbits out of hats. The grand miracles, as C.S. Lewis called them, refer to healing of the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and rising from death. We are not talking about little puppet shows and card tricks, but about the grand miracle of neighbor love conquering that which most devastates us in life.
When we say that no miracles exist, we often turn to science, but science cannot prove that a miracle can or cannot happen. Science merely looks at an event and seeks to explain it from the vantage point of natural causes. Science tells us that things normally happen in a certain, regular way, therefore miracles cannot happen. We say a miracle by its nature is an exception to what is regular and a rule. I learned in English that there are lots of rules for grammar, but then there are the exceptions to the rule. It isn't crazy to assume there is an exception to what is regular. The fact that things are regular upon which we can base our assumptions in the first place should give us cause to ask a question about the nature of our universe: Why are things regular if it's supposed to be the result of random chance? How did random chance produce regularity?
Where does this put us if we say we simply do not believe in the supernatural? It puts us in the position with these eyewitnesses. It is as if we say, as some have, when we come to the New Testament, "Miracles cannot happen, therefore these letters must have been written later because whenever there is a prophecy in the letter that says something is going to happen, because the supernatural cannot exist obviously they wrote these letters after the thing happened to begin with."
Evidence for and arguments against miracles
When these miracles took place for these Gospel writers, it was in a community out in the open, not in a compound somewhere but out in the open, in public, in Webster Grove, Shrewsbury, Glendale, and Rock Hill. It's just like a community, just like this, out in the open. Jesus would walk out on a street, on a hillside. He would walk out in that community for anybody and everybody to see. His miracles were out in the open in front of everyone. Even if these eyewitness accounts were written 30 years later, everybody who lived in Bethany would know whether or not Lazarus is dead in that tomb or if he was raised from the grave. Most of those people 30 years later would still be alive. So if a letter began to circulate saying Lazarus was raised from the dead in Bethany, then a whole community of people would just rise up and say, "No, I was there."
See, if I wrote on the internet right now, "In 1978 at St. Anthony's Elementary School in Clarksville, Indiana, on Tuesday at recess, rose petals fell from the school and a Virgin Mary statue began to cry," two things would happen. Some people would flock to St. Anthony's Elementary School because they are gullible. All of my classmates and teachers and the people who lived in that community would say, "Wait a minute, I don't remember anything like that. I was there."
The first thing we have going on here is we put ourselves in the position of eyewitness accounts: 500 people, thousands of people, whole communities of people saw something happen. It puts us in this position: "I hear your testimony, but it's impossible for the things that you're saying to exist so I discount what you're saying." It's not that we're discounting it at that moment on the basis of the evidence itself, in the face of evidence we're saying "I don't believe because miracles don't happen."
So no matter how many people are saying it happened, some would say those people are deceived because miracles don't happen. It puts us in a position of looking evidence square in the face and dismissing it not on the basis of the evidence itself but on the basis of our prior commitment. On the basis of our faith, we ignore evidence. Jesus never actually died; he escaped into hiding—that's what some other folks would say. It would simply be impossible for an ordinary man placed in a tomb in that kind of condition to move a large stone in the presence of soldiers and sneak away into the night. It takes a lot of faith to believe that a scourged and crucified man would have the ability to do that.
Why didn't he appear after that? Well, some people might say that the disciples stole the body and hid it. That takes faith in my mind because how would the disciples have stolen it? If they did steal the body, how do we explain the account? You see, when the disciples encounter the resurrection, they doubt. Just like us. If I was concocting the story I would have all the disciples immediately believing. When you read the Gospels the disciples don't get it; they're freaked out. They doubt. They're not sure what to make of this. If they stole the body, how do we explain their transformation, putting everything on the line and going out and saying Jesus is alive? Well, Pilate or Caiaphas hid the body others might say. That doesn't make sense because all they would have to do is produce the body to silence this whole Christian movement that was beginning to happen.
Then there's this possibility: We don't believe the eyewitnesses themselves, not the number of them, not the quality of them, not what they've said. In the Gospels there are different perspectives and there are some details that are at odds with one another as it comes to the resurrection. Consider this: When you've watched the news this week about what happened in North County at Lambert Airport, and different eyewitnesses have been spoken to, have there ever been any details that seemed not to coincide with each other? Yes. Does anybody doubt that Concourse C was destroyed by winds? No. Aren't there minor details among eyewitnesses that don't coincide? So how could you believe that it ever happened to begin with? It's the nature of the thing for eyewitnesses looking at the same event from different vantage points to account for different sides of that event. The thing that no one disputes is the tornado, the damage, and the wreckage.
So it is when we come to this passage and these Gospels. No one is disputing that Jesus rose from the dead—they're all trying to account for it from their different vantage points, and a minor detail that doesn't seem to coincide with another minor detail is a red herring. In ordinary life we wouldn't live on that basis of proof, why would we here? The question is did Jesus rise from the grave or didn't he, and why did all these people say he did? That brings us to this passage.
The account of Mary Magdalene
We come to John 20, but I first want to read you something about Celsus and why he didn't believe the resurrection happened.
Celsus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the second century AD was highly antagonistic to Christianity. He wrote a number of works listing arguments against it. One of the arguments he believed most telling went like this: Christianity can't be true because the written accounts of the resurrection are based on the testimony of women.
"We all know women are hysterical," Celsus wrote. Tim Keller notes, "For them, that was a major problem. In ancient societies, as you know, women were marginalized and the testimony of women was never given much credence."
John Polkinghorne says this:
Perhaps the strongest reason of taking the stories of the empty tomb absolutely seriously lies in the fact that it is women who play the leading role. It would have been very unlikely for anyone in the ancient world who was concocting a story to assign the principle part to women since in those times they were not considered capable of being reliable witnesses in a court of law. It is assuredly much more probable that they appear in the gospel accounts precisely because they actually fulfilled the role that the stories assigned to them, and in so doing they make a startling discovery.
If someone in the ancient world wanted to make up a story, in order to pass it off as true they would not have placed women in the leading role as eyewitnesses. To do so would have immediately discounted the story. Why would the Gospel writers tell us about these eyewitnesses? They either wanted no one to take them seriously or it was their desire to write what actually happened. The historical text for our message today focuses on one of these women, Mary Magdalene. Let's see what Mary has to say to us.
Mary persevering in the dark
The first thing we see here through this chapter is that we live in the dark. Mary had a darkened beginning. Verse 1: "On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early while it was still dark." She had a darkened understanding. "While it was still dark" not only recognizes the time of morning but also the condition of heart and mind. For as you walk through, in verse 2, "we don't know where they laid him." Verse 9, "They still did not understand." Verse 13, "I don't know where they've taken him." Verse 14, "She did not realize."
Everybody is in the dark, not only literally but psychologically, spiritually, in their soul. No one knows what's going on. You see, if I concocted the story I don't think I would have put in this kind of mess. I would have created a heroic story so that everyone would immediately follow. But people are confused. They don't understand. They're in the dark.
They're racing in the dark. Verse two: "She ran." Verse four, "They both ran." For some reason it tells us about this foot race between Peter and John, and one's getting there before the other. The other one gets there first but doesn't want to look in, then the other one gets there and is like, "What in the world is that?" It's because they're just noting what actually happened. I know that it creates this picture of disciples scrambling around, out of breath, running, racing, scrambling amid the felt absence of Jesus. You ever race around in the dark?
Mary's weeping in the dark (see verse 10). She continues to weep (verses 13 and 15). When it says that she weeps, it's not trickles of tears. The word here has the idea heaving. If you were in the garden that early morning, near that tomb, you would have heard a woman wailing. Have you ever wept in the dark? I have.
We live in the dark, with a darkened understanding, with darkened beginnings, racing around, weeping. Mary's humbled. She has to keep saying it over and over again, verse 2, verse 11. "We don't know;" "I don't know." "I don't know where they've taken him," "We don't know where he is." She has to ask for help in the dark: verse 15, "Sir, tell me." It's the thing you and I hate the most, being put into a humbled posture by an event where we don't understand everything that's going on.
Sounds like parenting. That's a joke. It's for real though, isn't it? It sounds like tornado sirens going off. When the siren goes off in Webster Grove, does that mean the tornado is 40 minutes away, or is it right around the corner? We don't know. We just know that things are bad out there in the dark and we should get into our basement. We don't know what's going on. Why does a tornado drop down here and skip the house right next door? We don't know. We can give some interpretations to that. When we ask for help it's the hardest thing for any of us to do. It's humbling to be in the dark. Jesus' disciples are there. Mary must have been like a lion heart or something because she says there, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him." I don't know how big Mary Magdalene was. She'd just say, "Look, I'll go get him. Jesus, I want my Lord. He deserves a burial proper."
The contrast between Mary's response and the disciples' response
We see the contrast of Mary persevering in the dark and John is putting himself and Peter into a negative light, and pushing Mary forward. He does this in at least three ways. First, he puts in the subtle rebuke: "Finally, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed" (vs. 8). We think right there that the disciples believe everything Jesus had to say and that they are ready to follow. The thing is, that's not actually the case because in verse nine John tells us "Actually we didn't understand the Scriptures and the point that he must rise from the dead."
The second thing that shows us that this faith wasn't the kind of faith that they would in time have, because after they see the empty tomb they go home. I don't know what's going on. Jesus isn't here? Let's go home. Got some yard work to do. I'm going to go handle something I know what to do with.
Then the next time you see them: "On that evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews" (vs. 19). The next time you see them after they saw and believed, they are afraid, hiding behind locked doors. They went home to do some yard work or whatever and sort of puzzle and talk about it, then they got a phone call from the other guys saying: "Hey, we're all hanging out over here, we've got a good place, pretty good lock on the door. Why don't you come join us?" Sounds good. So they all meet and huddle together in fear. Sounds like faithful people, doesn't it? Did you see the humility of this man, John? He's not rewriting history to make himself the hero. I mean, what a humbling thing for a man in that century to do and in ours.
(Read John 20:8-11)
Did you notice the contrast where it all comes together? Who is this Mary Magdalene? She is a terribly broken woman, notorious sinner in her past. Jesus had met her, healed her, forgave her, restored her to her true identity as the lovely one that she was, as a daughter of the King. Mary Magdalene stood. You see, she's not going anywhere. She's not afraid to cry, she's not afraid to beg, she's not afraid to ask. She's not afraid. She cannot stand to go home with the felt absence of Jesus. These men can. Somewhere along the lines, they can just go home. They can make do without Jesus, but Mary can't. If I have the choice between being like that or wrestling and weeping in the dark, I will stand and wrestle and weep in the dark. The light of Christ breaks into the dark, and John and Peter missed it. There's grace for them. They will receive. But they missed. Imagine if they had stood with her, wrestling, asking, seeking, knocking. It was Jesus who taught that, right? Be asking, be seeking, be knocking. The answer will be given, the door will be opened. Mary found that to be true.
The light breaks into the darkness
There in an unexpected place, the light broke in. The unexpected place was the tomb. Angels appear dressed in white, in contrast to the dark of the morning, and Mary doesn't even blink. Here's the surprising thing: This is a focused woman. This is a surprising thing because you see, any other time in the Bible when someone comes into contact with an angel, they fall down like they're dead. Mary looks an angel square in the face, she doesn't even blink, she just says, "Where is he, do you know where they've taken him?" You see, she is so aware of her own pain, so aware of her own loss, that she does not realize the foretaste of Christ is coming upon her. Many of us are that way.
Mary is asked, "Woman, why are you crying?" Now listen, some of you want to read into that your own voice, with ridicule or sarcasm. There is none of that—no ridicule, no sarcasm. There is only love. "Woman, why are you crying?" This seems like a foolish question to her, but not to them. Why? Because they know. They know something. It's an unexpected timing, there at the tomb, in the place of death, "Woman, why are you crying?"
And then we begin to realize something. The whole time in the garden Mary has not been alone. I don't mean with the other disciples, I don't mean with the angels. There has been someone else in the garden the whole time. How long has he been standing there? How long has he been watching? What was it about Jesus that allowed Peter and John to run past him, look into the empty tomb, and go. What was it about Jesus that allows him to let Mary weep and search and ask and show her heart? I don't know. I know he does this. By the time that Thomas comes, Thomas says, "If I could just see I'll believe," and then it says in verse 26 of the same chapter, 8 days later, "I'll believe if I can see." Jesus says, "Okay, sounds great, I've got some things to do." Eight days of waiting. The disciples by that point are going nuts thinking, Maybe we made the whole thing up?
Why wait? I don't know, I just know that Jesus does because he's able to. Thomas is under no threat. For all the angst Thomas feels in his being, he is actually secure and safe. For all the angst that Mary feels in her being, she is actually secure and safe. It's the kind of thing we say to our kids at night when the lights first go out. Our kids, when they were little, would say, "Daddy, we can't see," and we'd say, "That's okay, Daddy can see you." It's that kind of idea where they are secure because they are seen and held and known just as you are seen and held and known, and that unexpected intimacy where she doesn't know him until he finally says her name, "Mary."
I wish I could hear how he said her name. Wouldn't you want to hear how the One who loves you, has created you, redeemed you, says your name? You get closest to it when someone who loves you, says your name. "Mary"—the lights go on. No one speaks her name like Jesus does. No one speaks your name like Jesus does. He's the Good Shepherd. Mary is experiencing it. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name. Mary is not a number, she is a name, a being, a person dearly loved.
And suddenly we begin to see in the dark a new courage. She is transformed. What changes in Mary's life? Nothing? Pontius Pilate, he's still there. Caiaphas, he's still there. Soldiers, still there. Reason to be afraid, still there. Persecutions, still there. What has changed? Jesus has called her name and that changes everything. The world can't understand that or describe it. It looks at you in the midst of a whirlwind of circumstances going around, and it can't understand why you have courage, why you have faith, why in the midst of tears you keep seeking, you keep knocking, keep asking, why you can humbly admit what you do not know. It's because Jesus has called your name. When that happens you realize it's at the tomb. It's at the tomb, it's at the place of death, it's at the place where dreams die, where hopes are shattered, where loved ones are parted. It was there that Jesus appeared to her, not at the carnival, not on the carousel—at the tomb.
God has so loved the world that he has gone to the thing that scares us and rips us apart the most. He has gone to the worst enemy we have, death, and said, "You, death, will not have the last word." This is what's happened in Mary's life. She's an ordinary, overlooked woman with a sinful past with no rights in that society whatsoever. She comes to preach to the disciples that she's seen the Lord; they don't believe her. She has nothing in that culture except the fear from being identified with Jesus, but she has everything. You see, her sinful past has not had the last word because Jesus called her name. Her searching, her unanswered questions, her weeping in the dark will not have the last word because Jesus has called her name. The disciples' unbelief, their overlooking and condescending of her will not have the last word because Jesus will call their name too. Their fear, hiding in the dark, and their disruption, their unbelief, and their confusion will not have the last word. Caiaphas will not win; Pontius Pilate will not win.
Tornadoes will not win. Tsunamis will not win. Jesus calls our name. He rises from the grave. He overcomes death. It's a fact, and because of that, we go home today, nothing's changed externally. We have the same life we go to that we had when we left this morning. What changes is you and me. When Jesus calls our name we become lionhearted. In our tears we become feisty with faith. We go announce to others what we've seen, and when we are derided we stand. This is grace. This is the resurrection. Happy resurrection day. He is risen.
Zack Eswine serves as Lead Pastor of Riverside Church and as Director of Homiletics, Resident Scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute, at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.