April 5, 2015
Do you like surprises? I wonder if Mary Magdalene liked surprises. I imagine her journey to the tomb in the pre-dawn darkness was not really that exciting. She could not have been expecting anything good to happen in that garden, least of all any surprises. It’s unclear why she was going to the grave, at least as John tells it, but the last thing she probably expected was to find it empty. She knew the situation—how much the religious leaders had hated Jesus, how they would go to any length to get rid of him. So when she found that the stone had been rolled away, her first thought was that this was one horrible surprise. Not only did those people have to stir things up to get Jesus killed, now they (or someone else) had broken into his tomb and taken the body. Where was the justice? How could this happen and make this horrible day even worse?
She raced back to tell the men. Surely, they would be mortified by this surprise, too. But they were not, it seems. They did run to look at the tomb, and their more thorough inspection than Mary’s showed them a grave that did not look robbed. They looked inside, and then they left. It’s kind of a strange story. We never quite get to know what they may have understood, or not. They didn’t even seem all that surprised by this strange surprise.
But Mary was. Whatever the men may have decided to go and do next, Mary remained in the garden, surprised and saddened by what she did not understand. And then, what she least expected to happen, did. And we don’t expect it, either, I suppose, if we really admit it. We pride ourselves on being reasonable people. We know how life and death work. What dies stays dead. Once the heart stops, it’s over. Once the lungs give out, it’s done. That is how living and dying work. No negotiating. No surprises. This is what we know.
This is what Mary knew, standing there, in the middle of a garden. Then, a man approached. She didn’t recognize him. [The narrator lets us know who it is—a surprise for us, but at least we’re informed!] She spoke to him; all she wanted was to know where she could find her Lord. She did not want any more surprises.
But then, what do you know?! Surprise! It wasn’t the gardener Mary was talking to, after all. And there was nowhere to look for her Lord, except right in front of her! There he was! Surprise! The one she had thought was gone forever was standing right there! Surprise!
The surprise was almost too wonderful to be believed! She had scarcely imagined this could happen! What was dead was supposed to stay dead, but oh how she had wished that he was not dead! She had left on Friday thinking this could not be possible—things could not end this way…and now, she knew things had not ended that way! Surprise!
Does Easter surprise us? Does it catch us off-guard? Are we so intent on looking for a Jesus we thought was dead and gone that we miss him standing right in front of us? This is the good news Mary experienced in the garden that day, that Jesus was right there with her, had not left her and the others alone after all, and was not overcome by the evil and sin of those in power. And this is the good news that we celebrate on Easter—not only that death is overcome, and not only that God does indeed reign over all things, but that we are claimed by resurrection, too. We are part of this story. We see the empty tomb. We see the risen Savior. Our names are called and we are invited to share the same news that Mary does: “I have seen the Lord!” What looks like the end is not the end, any more! Surprise!
Surprise! This is our story! This is the end of the story that we have been waiting for, for two days…for a week…for a lifetime! The ending is not what we had expected, perhaps. It doesn’t make sense, by the standards of science and biology that we know. Life doesn’t end with death, now. The dead doesn’t stay dead, now. The stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty. Surprise! Is this what you were looking for when you showed up? Maybe not…
Much of life actually does surprise us. Things don’t work out the way we want or expect. Life takes us by surprise. Death takes us by surprise. God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Sometimes, things fall apart. Sometimes, things hang together when we think it’s all over. Surprise! Often, we are reminded of how little we actually control, despite our best efforts to control it all! Surprise!
Easter is about surprises. The story is one big “Surprise!” right here at the end of it. Maybe it doesn’t take us by surprise any more—we’ve read and heard it for so long. Maybe it seems like it’s just another old, old story. And well it should be. Because it is the reason for our hope, the surprise that we depend on happening, the unexpected that makes all our endings less final. Death does not win. Evil does not prevail. Sin is not the victor. Surprise! Resurrection is possible! And we are resurrection people—we receive the promise of resurrection, even when we have “good Friday” days in our lives. Even when we stand looking into the grave, we are resurrection people. Surprise! The promise is ours, too, because we are claimed by Christ, the resurrected Christ, and we look forward to what life is like in resurrection, not death and dark tombs.
“I have seen the Lord!” Really? What are you talking about? That can’t be! But it is! Surprise! “I have seen the Lord!”
You have come to meet him here today…and surprise! He has come to meet you, too! Now, you go and tell others, “I have seen the Lord!” and don’t keep this surprise to yourself!