A good mystery writer will never want for an audience. That’s because people love mysteries. We enjoy taking the seemingly scattered pieces of a puzzle and trying to put those pieces together to make sense of things.
There is a sense in which we must approach the Biblical accounts of the resurrection much like we would a mystery. There are four written testimonies and on the surface, the stories give us pieces of what happened. Consequently, we have to work to put all the pieces together if we want to understand the events of that morning.
There are some questions we have to answer: in the account in the gospel of John we read about Mary’s encounter with Jesus . . . what happened to the other women? All the accounts tell us that a group of women went to the tomb that morning. We also ask: Did Mary hear the message of the angel to the women that is recorded in the other gospels? If not, why not? If so, why is she so upset in this account?
Here is how the majority of students handle the chronology of that first Easter morning:
- Mary and the other ladies went to the tomb to care for the dead body of Jesus
- They saw the empty tomb
- Mary immediately left to report this “tragic desecration” to the disciples
- The other women stayed and moved closer to the tomb. . . they saw the angels and heard their grand announcement. They went home but didn’t tell anyone because they were afraid.
- Meanwhile, Mary told Peter and John about the empty tomb and they went running to the tomb
- Mary also headed back to the tomb but fell behind the disciples
- Peter and John arrived, saw that it was empty, looked at the evidence and believed that Jesus had risen they rushed back home.
- Mary arrived at the tomb as Peter and John were leaving. She remained and began to grieve over the circumstances of the day. And that’s where our account picks up the story.
I think a careful look at Mary’s experience at the empty tomb will not only give you further information, it will also give you insight for daily living.
God Chooses to Use Unexpected People
This is the first appearance of Jesus after His resurrection. Now if you were planning things, who would you have appeared to first? The disciples? Peter? Pilate? Your mom? Maybe you would have made a public appearance to the masses. But that is not what happens. The first person to see and talk to Jesus is Mary of Magdala. She is an unlikely choice.
Now we can speculate for days on why she was the first person. Was it because she loved Him more than others? Was it because she was in the right place at the right time? We don’t know. What we do know is that God has a habit of using people no one else would have used. Such as:
- Moses the reluctant servant who didn’t speak well
- Amos the Shepherd
- Jonah, a man who hated the Ninevites was chosen to be a Missionary to Ninevah
- David the Shepherd boy became the King of Israel
- Saul was chosen the first King even though he was hiding so he wouldn’t get picked
- a low income family, Mary and Joseph were chosen as parents for Jesus
- a rag-tag group of misfits were selected to be the disciples
- a fierce antagonist of the gospel; Paul – tapped to be the chief theologian
But these are not exceptions, this is the way God habitually works. Listen to Paul’s words:
1 Cor. 1:26-31 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Again, you could say, “So what?” But this truth has some important implications –
- God could use you in ways you would not expect. In fact, I would contend that He is using you in ways you don’t expect or realize. Much like old George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” God is using us to change the course of history in simple but essential ways.
- God could use that person you have “written off” in an unexpected way as well. God specializes in taking the castoffs and working through them. If God doesn’t write anyone off, neither should we. It’s wonderful when people come to worship here for the first time and say they are surprised at who was here . . . a testimony that God is full of surprises.
- Since God is doing such things with your life, we should live life with humility. What happens in our life that has eternal significance is not because of what we do . . . it is because of what God is doing through us. Our boasting should not be in our significance but in His grace.
Second, We See That Most Anxiety in Life is Foolish
We read that Mary was at the tomb crying. She was distraught because the body of Jesus was missing. Perhaps we could even say she was “beside herself”. She looks in the tomb and saw two angels.
The angels ask, “Why are you crying?” She responds that she is crying because the body of Jesus is missing. Now we ask can’t help wondering why the presence of the angels didn’t tip her off to the fact that Jesus had risen. But that’s the way life is sometimes, we miss the obvious because we are so wrapped up in our own misery.
We are not told whether Jesus comes up behind her at this point or if He was standing there all along. But note the irony. Mary is torn apart at the thought that the grave and corpse of Jesus has been desecrated and she is distressed and brokenhearted because Jesus’ body is missing and she doesn’t know where to find it. And all the time Jesus is standing behind her!
How similar to our situation this is.
We jump to unwarranted conclusions all the time
We face a difficult circumstance and immediately feel that all is lost. We despair when we should simply regroup. We conclude that “something abnormal” on an x-ray is cancer and begin to grieve our death when in truth it is just “something abnormal” on an x-ray. We conclude that hurtful words were intentional rather than an unwilling offence. We believe a declined invitation means someone doesn’t like us. We believe inclement weather means a ruined vacation . . .rather than a different experience than we had anticipated. We make huge leaps in logic and assume the worst. We feel alone and defeated and feel God has deserted us . . . while all the time Jesus is standing with us.
We went to the Rose Bowl parade on New Years Day. As we approached that day we dreaded it. Too much traffic, too many people, we probably won’t be able to see anything. For days we grumbled and complained. Phil Waters handled things a different way. Phil knew we were planning to go to the parade and knew what the facts would be and so he did some checking and found a guy who went every year and asked if we could follow him. Guess what? No heavy traffic, no parking problems, and, using the buckets Phil provided, we saw everything without a problem. We jumped to conclusions and made ourselves miserable. Phil addressed the facts and led us to a great time.
Often when I walk into a crisis situation people are all upset and almost out of control. I will ask, “What do we KNOW?” Often I get answers that are conclusions, not facts. In those situations my job is to help people deal with facts without drawing hasty conclusions. I need to remind people not to read more into a situation than is there. Once I’ve done that, I remind them that they do not face the situation alone.
Perhaps you are churning today because you are assuming certain things to be true. Perhaps you have drawn erroneous conclusions that have resulted in shattered friendships, sleepless nights, constant tears, or deep depression. It is normal to jump to conclusions, but it is never profitable. Look at what you KNOW and try not to draw hasty conclusions.
And as you look at the facts, don’t forget the fact that the Lord stands with you. He has promised to never leave you. He has told us that “the one who lives in us is greater than he who is in the world.” He promises us that NOTHING shall separate us from His love. Does that change your perspective? Do those facts make a difference to you? They should.
Did it make a difference to Mary that Jesus was standing there? Sure it did . . .but not until she realized it. That leads us to our third lesson:
Joy Increases As We See Jesus more Clearly
Mary was in the presence of Jesus but did not know joy. She didn’t know joy because she didn’t see Him. Even when Mary was talking directly to Him she did not know joy at first because she did not recognize Him. Now, we ask, “how could that be?” How could she look at him but not see Him?
Have you ever been in a mall and walked right by someone you knew? We all have. We “saw” them but we didn’t “see” them. We were either too preoccupied, we were looking beyond them to something else, or we just didn’t expect to see them. This could have been Mary’s experience.
It could be that Jesus looked different. It might have been that the tears made everything fuzzy.
It could also be that for some reason God kept her from recognizing Christ immediately. On the road to Emmaus Jesus walked with two travelers for a long time. They stopped at their home for dinner. Jesus sat to eat with them. But they didn’t recognize him until “their eyes were opened.” We don’t know why Mary didn’t recognize Him . . . we just know she didn’t.
She didn’t recognize Him until He said her name. What a great moment that must have been. What a great moment that will be when we hear our name from the lips of the Master.
What I want you to see is this: Mary’s joy did not come until she saw Jesus clearly. She was in His presence but still miserable. She looked right at Him and continued to cry. But when she saw Him clearly, the clouds gave way to the radiance of joy. The same is true for us.
We look in the wrong places for joy
- We look to worldly “stuff”( if I could have this thing, live in this place, have this job . . . )
- We look to other people to make us happy (a spouse, a parent, a friend, an entertainer)
- We look to favorable circumstances ( winning the lottery, getting a promotion, sunshine)
These things might make life more pleasant but their “joy” (if you can call it that) is superficial and temporary.
We can stand right in front of Him in the church but can miss joy
- Because we look past Him – We look for joy from structure not relationship. Joy is in the order of worship or in the people we worship with.
- Because we are preoccupied. Our focus is not on Jesus but on us (we figure if we work harder . . . apply the right principles . . . use the right technique . . we can bring about happiness and joy.) We focus on techniques to find joy rather than on the One who IS joy. This is the biggest danger much contemporary Christianity.. The emphasis often becomes self-centered: if we worship the right way, give the right amount, engage in the right behaviors, have the right experience, we can find joy.
The truth however is that joy is not found in us . . . it is found in Him. Joy is not something we produce . . .it is something that accompanies relationship. Our life is the life He gives us.
Our goal needs to be to know Him better. We should pray not to get through our list, but to cultivate a relationship with our Lord. We read His Word not to master a body of information, but because we want to know whatever we can about Him. We obey not to earn His favor but to do what is pleasing to Him. In the times of crisis we must learn to turn not to our inner resolve but to His perfect wisdom and strength. This is where joy is found.
Finally Those Who See Clearly are to Tell Freely
Jesus exhorts Mary to stop clinging and start spreading the good news. Now doesn’t that seem like an odd thing to say? But it isn’t really. Mary must have been holding on to Jesus for dear life. She was not going to let Him out of her sight again. This is admirable. However, Jesus wants her to know that she will see Him again. He will not ascend to the Father for another 40 days. Before that happens there is work to be done.
Again, how like Mary we are. We claim Christ as our Savior and Lord and we join a church. We change many of our activities to church related pursuits (not altogether bad). We like to “huddle together” as much as possible. The fellowship is unlike anything we have ever known. We write our own music. We publish our own phone book. We vow to patronize those we like to huddle with. We develop our own lingo. We form political lobbying forces. We look with suspicion over the wall we have built at everyone outside the wall. Let me ask you . . . what are we doing? We’re clinging.
Jesus makes the same point to us: stop clinging, and go and tell others. We will have an eternity for exclusive fellowship. Don’t get me wrong: we need the times of fellowship. We need each other. But we must not isolate. We must guard against the tendency to hold on so tight that we never leave the safety of the group. We can enjoy the “holy huddle” so much that we keep others away rather than share with them the good news of the gospel.
We can, and should, learn from Mary. In fact, let me draw some concluding thoughts based on Mary’s experience at the tomb.
First, are you unwilling to try something because you feel like you “can’t” do it? Does your natural inability hold you back? Let me remind you, God specializes in using people who felt unqualified. I still shake my head in amazement when I think of the young kid who used to dread getting up in front of people to say the two lines his parents drilled into him. I dreaded it because when I got in front of people I always forgot the lines! I would have broke into a cold sweat if I had known where God was taking me. God is full of surprises. He will surprise you with what He can do through you.
Second, are you churning or fretting about things needlessly? Are you jumping to conclusions? Do you have a strained relationship with someone because you are “interpreting” what they did? Are you despairing because you are looking beyond the present? Are you losing sleep needlessly? Have you forgotten who stands at your side?
Third, where are you looking for joy? Do you look to your own ability? Are you dwelling on yourself or on the Savior? Are you trusting methods or a person? In the times of crisis stop looking at the situation and dwell on the one who holds all situations in His hands. In the year ahead make it your goal to see Him more clearly.
Finally, are you a Christian snob? Are you so wrapped up in the holy huddle that you push people away rather than draw them close? Do you still talk the language of the people or do you talk in holy code? Do you reach out to those who are outside of Christ, or do you throw stones at them? Do you push away those who aren’t part of your group or are you looking to build a bridge? Are you looking to show and share your faith or are you just trying to keep others from “crashing your party?”
You see, life is filled with intriguing mysteries. But there is no mystery about this: no one will ever get to Heaven until they meet Jesus. He asks you to handle the introductions.