Surprised by Hope

Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18                                                                       
Elizabeth M. Deibert
20 April 2014

Remember back in February, the man in Mississippi, who had been declared dead and then he started kicking inside the body bag at the morgue.   Strange story.  We all wanted to know how this could happen.  Apparently his pacemaker had stopped working.   Then, after getting pulled out of the body bag, he really died, two weeks later.   He and the family got a second chance at saying good-bye.

You know some of the people who lost friends and family on the Korean ferry accident wish they had a second chance.   Many of these victims were high school students – very sad.   Lots of text messages sent just before they died.   As the days pass, hope of finding people alive is much like that of the Malaysian airliner.

But grieving people still want to know what happened and why it happened.   Part of accepting a death is knowing the details.   The events surrounding a significant death are remembered and rehearsed.   In the Gospel stories, Jesus’ death and burial are told with detail, even if the details are a little different in each Gospel.   Matthew and Mark record Jesus crying out “ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   Matthew and John say that Jesus yielded or gave up his spirit while Mark and Luke say, “He breathed his last.”    All three synoptic Gospels have the centurion watching him, and saying, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”   All four Gospels record that the women were there as witnesses of Jesus’ death and that it was Joseph of Arimathea who took his body down from the cross, wrapped it, and laid it in a tomb.  Three Gospels say it was a new tomb, and two say that a large rock was rolled in front of the tomb.

All this is to say, that the Gospel writers were very clear that Jesus was not like the man from Mississippi, who was not really dead.   It was not like the victims of the Malaysian airlines or the South Korean ferry boat, where families held some hope for a while.   The disciples, the women followers, all who loved Jesus, were crushed by his death.   It was real.   The women watched the crucifixion and come to the tomb expecting nothing but to hold their noses while anointing his body.   We are reading John’s Gospel, and he does not mention any other women like Mary mother of James or Salome’ but Mary uses the pronoun “we” which seems to reference the other women.

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.   2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.   5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 

8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."  14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

 16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (NRSV)

Mary is surprised by hope.   She expects a tomb of deadness, and that’s all she can see or hear or imagine.   So naturally she assumes someone has moved his dead body.   “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him,”she said to two disciples.    She says it again to the angels.   “They’ve taken away my Lord  and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.”   She says it again to Jesus, thinking he is the gardener, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him away.”  

Mary is so certain Jesus’ body is dead that she cannot imagine anything other than the need to figure out where his dead body has been taken.   She’s not even able to recognize Jesus at first, so convinced is she that he is gone.   Only when he speaks her name does she recognize him.   He has already asked her why she was weeping?   He even asks her “Who are you looking for?”   Okay, Jesus, You knew who she was looking for?  And you know why she’s crying.  But I guess she needed to confront those questions.   She was looking for a dead man.   She’s upset because she doesn’t recognize you as alive.   It takes a while for hope to creep back in, when we are so convinced that death gets the final word.  

But it doesn’t.   Death is our enemy, but it is now defeated, and hope wins.   Love wins.   Life wins.   We still must face death, and yes, death is still agonizing, but we face it with hope, because we know Christ is bringing new life, and bringing more new life, and working with us to bring more new life.      

As NT Wright says in his book “Surprised by Hope:  Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church”  

“The resurrection completes the inauguration of God's kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God's kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven."

“Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about.”

"The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you're now invited to belong to it.”    That’s what we are baptized into – belonging to hope.

We are not just hoping for a better time when we die, we are surprised to learn that resurrection hope is for now – to inspire us to live now, not die now of despair because the world, as we see it, is so horrible, so full of pain.  No, we are called to be surprised by hope again and again, as we seek, not a dead body but a risen Christ, working in the gardens of our lives, tilling the soil around our feet, making new things grow, trying to ask good questions so that we will notice who he really is.

“Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that [is captivated by] its own fallenness, to announce healing to a world that is [consumed by] its own brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that seems to know only cynicism, exploitation, fear and suspicion...”  (NT Wright)

What God started in Christ on Easter – this surprise of hope – is still happening, and that’s why we must be Easter people.   Still Christ finds us searching around desperately looking for dead bodies, trying to figure out rationally what happened and why.   And Christ says, “Why are you upset? Whom are you seeking?”   And he calls us by name and we realize that he is alive, so death has been transformed, and will never get the last word.

There is always hope (not just for a good afterlife) but for a good life now.   There was a guy here on Wednesday, who was searching in the tomb of death, expecting nothing more.   Twenty-two and full of despair about life.   He was lost, in both senses of the word.   He was without job, without car, without family or friends (at least in the moment), and a dead cell phone.   He was without hope.   I was surprised that in such a busy week I wanted to listen to him.   But I did. 

He was surprised that someone would care to listen to him and give him those powdery doughnuts that Grant had dropped off earlier in the week.   He nearly cried at the unsolicited gift of three dollars for a burger.   I was surprised by the hope I felt in talking to this young man – unrealistic hope, but hope nonetheless.   What is hope but unrealistic?   Trying to read my book about the Resurrection hope, I was given a real life opportunity to open my eyes to be surprised by hope, the hope I felt for J because of what Christ’s resurrection can accomplish in someone’s life here and now.   Easter hope gives me hope, not just for myself, but for all who are struggling to discover hope.   Hope is always there; it is just disguised as a gardener or something we think is not hope.

Easter gives me hope not just for your friend or niece who died, that there is a joyful afterlife where our whole persons (body & soul) are resurrected and reunited.  But it also gives me hope that the grieving, lost in sorrow ones will live here and now.  That death will not have the victory over them, but life will.

“Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.”    (NT Wright)  That very present Hope is still tilling in the garden of our lives life, where the tomb of death is staring us in the face, stirring up questions in us, and waiting for us to discover again the surprise – He is alive, not dead!   You are alive, not dead!   This is such surprising, wonderful news, we need to celebrate a while for the truth of it to sink it.  Easter cannot be over in just one day – how about fifty days!   Yes, let’s have fifty days of being surprised by hope!