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Sermon: Easter Sonrise service

Text: John 20:11-18

Easter Sonrise

In the summer before my last year of seminary I was appointed to two small churches in Southern New Jersey – the West Creek and Warren Grove United Methodist Churches. The West Creek church, the larger of the two, was surrounded by several other churches – Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Baptist, non-denominational, and just a 5 minute drive to the south would have you arrive at a fairly large United Methodist Church.

One of the great blessings was that the pastors of the churches had formed a ministerial association with monthly meetings. We supported one another in our ministries, did some missions together, and even formed a food pantry that supported those in need in the community.

We also tried hard to worship together. We had community worship services at Thanksgiving, a pulpit exchange, and one of the highlights of the year was the Community Easter Sunrise service. It was an outdoor service held under a pavilion at a lake that was central for the community. The tradition was that the newest pastor to the community would preach. My first year in the community, my first Easter as a pastor, I was called upon to preach the community Easter Sunrise worship service. I worked really hard on that sermon, knowing there would be more people there than would be at the church I was pastoring later that morning. This thing was a masterpiece. I had all of these references to Jesus the Son rising on Easter, and the sun rising behind me; about a new day, a new dawn; about light and warmth.

I woke up Easter Sunday to a phone call from one of the organizers, letting me know that the service had been moved indoors because of the rain. And this was not just rain, this was a downpour. It was one of those Jersey Shore storms where the day is just dreary and gray. Ed Carl, who was the other Methodist pastor in our ministerial association teased me for quite some time with lines from that day like, “and if we were outside and the sun were shining…”

It was then that I learned that surprise on Easter is part of the deal. Easter should be a little jarring, a little out of the routine, a break from business as usual. After several years of healing from that less-than-stellar sermon, I began to value the parts of Easter that bring us to that point of surprise. This is one of the reasons I enjoy attending and leading the sunrise service.

When we come here in simplicity and the quiet of morning, when all of the pomp & circumstance of a large, formal Easter service are stripped away, I am ready to reflect upon and receive that which God has to speak to me.

Mary to the Tomb a Second Time

Because we have been going through this series We Would See Jesus that has been following interactions Jesus has with different people in the Gospel of John, I approached today’s text differently than I had in the past. As I had come to the text of Jesus turning water into wine looking not at the miracle but at the conversation between Jesus and his mother; and the text of the healing of the man beside the pool of Bethzatha not focusing on the miracle but rather on the man’s interaction with Jesus and the authorities; so too today I come to this text not so much focused on the miracle of resurrection, but paying close attention instead to Mary Magdalene – the first to see Jesus after his resurrection. In doing so, I noticed something I had overlooked before. Mary comes to the tomb twice.

She comes early, “while it was still dark,” John writes. As she approaches the tomb in the garden she notices that the stone “had been removed from the tomb.” Without any further investigation she takes off to find Peter and another unnamed disciple which appears to be John himself. They run to the tomb, go inside, find it empty and then go home.

Mary comes back with them, but when they decide to go home, Mary lingers. I can relate to Mary in this moment. She wants to stay close. She wants to be alone in her thoughts and grief, her worry and concern over the death of her mentor and friend, and the loss of his body. She is not ready for life to get back to normal yet. She seeks out a little alone time. She had come there that morning to care for Jesus’ body, or to at least be close to him one more day. Even though the tomb is empty, she wants to be there.

Mary was one of Jesus’ closest followers. She is not named among the formal 12 disciples probably more because of her gender than her faithfulness. Only a handful of people remained by Jesus through his death. At the foot of the cross, John tells us, were Jesus’ mother, his aunt (one of Mary’s sisters), another woman named Mary identified as the wife of Clopas, the disciple Jesus loved (whom we traditionally understand to be John), and Mary Magdalene. The rest of Jesus’ followers had scattered. They were fearful for their own safety. Some may have come to doubt that Jesus was who they had thought he was. Mary was one who had never stopped trusting Jesus, believing in him. So she stands just outside of the tomb in her grief, weeping over the one who had given her life meaning and purpose.

Finally she musters up the courage to get even closer the place where Jesus had been, and sticks her head inside the tomb. There she sees two angels at opposite ends of the slab where Jesus’ body had lay – signifying that something of God was happening in that place. They ask her why she is crying and she replies that she is upset that Jesus’ body has been taken, and she doesn’t know where it is. She wants to be close to him again. That’s why she came back.

Sensing there is someone behind her she turns, and there is this man. He asks her the same question the angels asked – maybe her first answer wasn’t as in touch with the raw emotion she was feeling – “Woman, why are you weeping?” She doesn’t try to answer the question, but instead tries to get information out of him. Maybe he knows something. Maybe he saw someone trying to steal Jesus’ body. Maybe he has heard something. So she asks, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him and I will take him away.” She is longing to be close to him.

The man calls her name, “Mary!” and immediately she knows who it is. This is no ordinary gardener, this is one through whom the original Garden of Eden was created. This is Jesus.

Mary apparently approaches Jesus to embrace her “Rabbouni,” teacher, her friend. Jesus quickly discourages her saying, “Do not hold on to me.”

Insufficient Faith

Mary who had returned to the tomb a second time to lingering in the garden hoping to be near Jesus by being near his body, is also lingering on her old image of Jesus. Mary who has been so focused on her relationship with Jesus that ended through his death on the cross, is being asked to turn her attention forward rather than back. She wants things with Jesus to go back to the way they were, but Jesus is sending her forward.

Peter and John looked in the tomb, and John writes that, “as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). The empty tomb told them that something had happened but they did not yet know what. Mary, lingering outside of the tomb weeping, means that she too did not yet understand what had happened. When she is asked about what she is doing, all of her responses have to do with Jesus’ body.

One commentator writes this, “this story shows that belief in an empty tomb is a necessary but insufficient faith” (Witherington III, Ben. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel 326). Knowing about Jesus, knowing about Easter, knowing about resurrection is necessary but insufficient.

The same is true for us. You and I can read about the empty tomb and believe as factual the testimony of Peter, John and Mary. You and I can travel with Pastor Bob to the Holy Land this fall to walk the streets where Jesus walked, see the place where Jesus was crucified and the tomb in which he was place. You and I can know all kinds of Bible trivia and believe with our whole heads that it is true. This story points out that is not enough.

My questions about resurrection

When I was a high school kid it might not surprise you to learn that I was a bit of a church-geek. I was an every Sunday attender of worship from the age of five, whether I wanted to be there or not. I was also in Sunday School every Sunday, and my mom has the attendance pins to prove it. I sat in front of my kindergarten Sunday School teacher in worship every Sunday until I graduated high school. I was in youth group every week. I knew this stuff forward and backward.

In high school though, having heard the Easter story every year, I began to feel that there was something more to Easter than I was being taught. What I had heard through the years that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s seal of approval on Jesus, that Jesus was who he said he was. I heard that God raised Jesus from the dead so that we, his followers then and now, would listen more closely to what Jesus had taught, and would believe that what Jesus had done on the cross for the forgiveness of sins was for us.

I struggled with that. I remember talking to my Sunday School teachers and youth leaders about that. They were confused. I just kept saying, “That can’t be it. There has to be more to this.”

It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I began to see something else. In my youth I had always celebrated Easter as an historic event – something that happened in the past that we were commemorating. I celebrated it like Christmas, that Jesus came. I celebrated it like an anniversary, a remembrance of something that happened in the past. Not much more than a birthday, or The Fourth of July.

Maybe it was that Community Sunrise Service in my first church that turned the tide in my heart. When all the things that were to make it special were taken away, I learned something new. I learned that the message of Easter is not about the sun, it is not weather related at all. I began to understand that the message of Easter is not simply about an empty tomb. The Easter message is not just about an event that happened 2,000 years ago far away in Jerusalem. I learned the Easter message is not that Jesus was raised. It is not that the tomb was empty. It is not that Jesus appeared to Mary, Peter, John, the rest of the disciples, and many more. I learned Easter is not simply a celebration of an historic event, but a celebration of a present reality. Almost every Easter since, my sermon title has been “Jesus Is Alive.”Â  Present tense.

As we gather to worship today, we celebrate the present reality that Jesus is alive. That we have an opportunity to be in relationship with him today. And in order to do that we, like Mary, cannot cling to the past, but must move forward, sent to continue the share Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God.

Mary’s faith is made complete, as is ours, when she meets the resurrected, living Jesus.

The garden

If you have been with us throughout out worship series in Lent centered in the Gospel of John, you are fully aware that John sometimes speaks in almost poetic language. He writes in a way that allows his material to be read on more than one level. He makes allusions to other passages of the Bible, most notably to the Creation Stories found in Genesis.

He does this very deliberately through word choice and the inclusion of details. Sometimes they are subtle hints, sometimes not. Not so subtle is that he begins his book with the same words that Genesis begins with: John writes, “In the beginning.” He then goes on in John 1 to share with us that Jesus was the “word,” the very presence of God, co-creator with God, one with God, who became flesh and “moved into the neighborhood” (The Message).

Throughout the gospel you will find hints at Genesis. I pointed one out in a sermon back in March where John begins the story of Jesus turning water into wine with “on the third day” – again sounding a good bit like Genesis.

Here in the resurrection story we read a detail that Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not include. Whenever we hear that our ears should perk up to find what the symbolic connection might be. John writes, “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid” (19:41). The word garden appears twice in that sentence. John tells us that Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected in a garden – a detail that the others do not share. Then when Mary first meets Jesus John writes, “she did not know that it was Jesus… Supposing him to be the gardener” (20:14-15). It is easy enough to simply read this as a fact and move on. Or we could take a look at what John might be saying here.

The creation stories in Genesis also talk about a garden, the Garden of Eden. Adam, the first man through whom all of humanity traces our heritage, is “put…in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). He is the gardener of the garden of Eden. John is symbolically pointing us to Jesus as the new Adam. That in Jesus crucifixion, burial, and resurrection a new creation is being brought forth. The Kingdom of God that Jesus so often taught about is coming in its fullness through these events. A new day has come.

That is why Mary cannot cling to Jesus. Something new has happened. So Jesus sends her to be the messenger of the new thing.

Easter is not about looking back on what has been. It is about moving forward to the new creation that has come and is to come.

In the death of the old, in Jesus there is always hope of resurrection.

Life Wins

The story is told of a Christian man who was struggling to come to grips with the diagnosis of a terminal illness he had received. He did everything the doctors told him to do. He received all the treatments no matter the pain of the side-effects. No progress was being made. He felt hopeless, depressed.

Then one night he went to one of his favorite places in the world to be alone, to linger. As he sat under the stars, in the shadow of his favorite mountain, beside his favorite stream, he began to reflect upon all he would miss when the time came for his life to be over, including this spot, this mountain, this stream. Then the thought came to him:

Long after this mountain crumbles into dust, I will still be alive, for I am in Christ.
Long after this river ceases to flow to the sea, I will still be alive in Christ.
Long after the stars fall from the sky, I will still be vibrantly alive,
for Christ has given me abundant and eternal life” (Witherington 336).

For it is not death that wins, but life. It is not death that has the final word, but life. It is not death that claims us all in the end, but new life through resurrection.

What do you need to leave here?

A couple of nights ago on Good Friday, we gathered as a congregation to remember the crucifixion of Jesus. After hearing the message of Good Friday from the Gospel of John movie, we closed our worship with an invitation for all present to reflect on the places in our lives where we are broken – our sin, our worry, our fears. All were given the opportunity to come forward and write our brokenness in a few words, on pieces of cloth. Then with hammer and nail, we nailed those issues to the cross in thanksgiving for the sacrifice Jesus made to free us from that bondage. We recognized, as the Scripture says, that it is by his wounds and brokenness that we find healing and renewal.

This morning, we burned those pieces of cloth, and the flame in the lamp that we followed into the sanctuary had come from the burning of our brokenness. We were given the opportunity to leave all of that back at Good Friday, and to start new life today.

But all to often we cling, we linger. We cling to those old behaviors, those old anxieties, those old worries. I know that within just about an hour, I found myself feeling those same feelings I had nailed to the cross. I wanted to leave them there, but I was clinging to what I knew.

But if we linger in the garden just a little while, as Mary did, we can meet the resurrected Lord.

Every day we have a choice. We can choose to cling to the tomb of the old life where there is sin, worry, and fear. We can cling to our addictions, our illness, our mistakes. We can allow our past to define who we are. We can allow those negative voices to tell us who we are, or are not.

There is another option. We can choose instead to be Easter people. We can choose each day to “hail [the] gladdening light” and hymn the Father, Son, and Spirit (“Joyous Light” see lyrics here). There we find grace, forgiveness, and healing. There we find new life. There we find resurrection. The light has come into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it.

What do you need to leave behind today? What do you need to leave in the dark at the tomb?

Every day we have a choice, as Mary did, to cling to the old or go forth in the new. May our Easter worship today be more than a remembrance of something that happened long ago. May it be our day of declaration to be Easter people, to live a new life of resurrection every day.


  1. […] I had the privilege of preaching at the 7am Easter Sonrise Service. The focus of the message (which you can read here) is that on Easter Sunday, Jesus turned Mary Magdalene’s focus from backward to forward. Mary […]

  2. 04.26.2011 « Tues Thots
    04.26.2011 « Tues Thots April 26, 2011

    […] I had the privilege of preaching at the 7am Easter Sonrise Service. The focus of the message (which you can read here) is that on Easter Sunday, Jesus turned Mary Magdalene’s focus from backward to forward. Mary […]

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