04/21/19 (Easter Sunrise) “While It Was Still Dark”

John 20:1-18

John’s telling of the resurrection story is so rich in so many ways.  We have Mary’s experience of the finding the tomb empty, her race to tell Peter and John, their trip back to the tomb and lack of understanding about what had happened.  And then of course there’s the heartbreaking scene of Mary weeping in the garden, not recognizing Jesus as he stood before her, until that marvelous moment when Jesus speaks her name.  Those are all memorable scenes in John’s recounting.  But the words that always catch me up short are in the very first line: “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”

“…While it was still dark.”

When we celebrate Easter morning, darkness is the furthest thing from our minds. We typically picture the tomb with rays of light shooting out from it.  We decorate the sanctuary with bright colors that bring gleaming sunshine to mind, even if the day turns out to be dark and rainy.  We celebrate our emergence from the dark hours since Good Friday and Jesus’ emergence from the darkness of the grave.  The resurrection story we celebrate is full of light, befitting the one John describes as the “life that was the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness cannot overcome.”  We put the darkness of Jesus’ passion behind us, and we move into the light of the resurrected Savior.  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

But, John’s account doesn’t begin in the radiant sunshine of a brand new dawn. It starts out in darkness.  “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”  When Mary made her way to Jesus’ burial place in those early morning hours, the sun had not yet lightened the sky.  It was literally dark out.  But another darkness surrounded her as well.  For Mary, the events of the previous couple of days still darkened her heart.  She was on her way to the tomb of her dearest friend.  She expected to see the lifeless and beaten body of someone she loved.  The darkness that surrounded her was the darkness of grief and loss and heartache, and maybe some fear.

We have all experienced that darkness.  We’ve lost people we love.  We’ve watched them suffer from the afflictions of mind and body, or we’ve suffered that pain ourselves.  We may have witnessed rough handling by the justice system or the blows of poverty and helplessness.  We suffer through times when we are fearful of what the future holds wondering when the other show will drop, when everything seems dark and bleak, and the light we once knew seems very far away.

But, “early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”  In spite of the darkness of the pre-dawn hour, in spite of the emotional and spiritual darkness which shrouded her heart, Mary came to the tomb.  She continued to do what needed to be done—to take care of the tasks that fall to the living.  She didn’t allow the darkness of fear and grief to overcome her, either.  While the apostles were still at home, perhaps sleeping away their grief as they had in the Garden of Gethsemane, or avoiding the darkness they expected to face in the days to come, Mary made her way to the tomb, while it was still dark.

And because she did, she was the first to learn of what God had been doing in the darkness.  She was the first to learn that the darkness which had seemed so final, so full of grief and pain, had actually been the incubator of a miracle.  That darkness had been the womb where new life was being born.  That darkness was simply the curtain that darkens the stage during intermission until the second act begins. In the dark hours while all those who had hated Jesus were celebrating and all those who loved Jesus were grieving, God was working.

God was working at removing the grip of sin on our lives.  God was working to show that death has no hold on us.  God was working to raise Jesus from the dead, so that as we die to ourselves we might live eternally in him.  God was working in the darkness to make Jesus’ words a reality: that those who believe in him, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die.

God is working in the dark times and places of our lives, too.  In our Lenten Bible Study, we were reminded of Paul’s words about how all things work together for the good for those who love God.  We were challenged to replace the words “all things” with specific difficulties in our lives—what we might call our own times of darkness. Then, we were challenged to find the ways in which God might use those dark times for good.  What might be born of the darkness of physical or emotional or material or spiritual pain?  How might God be preparing to open the tombs that confine us, allowing the light born out of darkness to shine in our lives?  How might we, like Mary, walk through the darkness to the place where God is preparing a miracle for us?

The first year when I was on the pastoral staff at Epworth UMC during my seminary years, I was asked to plan and lead the Sunrise service.  They hadn’t had one for a while, and my Senior Pastor thought it would be a good opportunity for me to plan and lead a service on my own.  That year, the Religion editor of “The Toledo Blade” was writing a story about sunrise services and called me for a short interview by phone.  He began the interview with this question: “So, how did you get stuck with the sunrise service?”

He didn’t understand that when we, at sunrise, welcome the Easter miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, we have the opportunity to experience first-hand what it means to come to the tomb, early in the morning, while it’s still dark.  He didn’t understand that we, at sunrise, act out our faith in a God who worked in the darkness of Jesus’ tomb and is still working in the darkness of our lives today.  We act out our faith that, from the darkness of Jesus’ tomb, a miracle is revealed: the miracle of Jesus, risen from the dead, with the gift of salvation in his hands, and the miracle of new life for us, free of the power of sin, free of the fear of death, offered to us to accept and live out, now and forever.

“Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” Early in the morning, while it is still dark, we come to the tomb.  We come, trusting in the resurrection of Jesus, who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Happy Easter! Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young