4/9/23 Sermon: Dispelling the Darkness

Sunday, April 9, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Easter Sunday
Adapted from commentary written by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks
watch this service online (readings start around 12:52; sermon starts around 19:56)

As those who were gathered here last evening for the Easter Vigil service can attest, I was still struggling to get a sermon hammered out for this morning, even as we were departing the church last night. Feeling stuck and unable to find the words that needed to be said, I did what preachers often do when they’re stuck, and turned to reading commentary on the gospel text. I came across some commentary on this text from John written by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, who is a preaching professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago — and, fittingly for a preaching professor, her commentary already read to me like a sermon. Her words already proclaimed the good news that I wanted to say, and I thought to myself, “Hallelujah! Christ is risen — and I get to sleep!” I’ve rearranged and adapted it a little bit for my voice when reading aloud, and added in some things here and there, but here is a good Easter word mainly from the Rev. Dr. Brooks!

Mary Magdalene sets out in the dark of early dawn, and there is darkness within her. She is full of pain and grief, the darkness of sorrow, having witnessed the death of her beloved teacher, the one who had removed the darkness of seven devils that plagued her – giving her renewed life and light. Jesus, the Word, through whom life had come into fruition in the beginning, “the light of all people” (John 1:4b) had been relegated to the darkness of death and the tomb, and Mary Magdalene, under the cover of darkness, had come to do whatever she could to restore the light.

The story of Mary’s journey to Jesus’ tomb is almost ludicrous. How did she expect to get to the body that had been made dark by being crucified, and put in a tomb that, according to custom, had been sealed to thwart potential grave robbers? The scholar James E. Davison posits that “John understands Mary Magdalene’s arrival in darkness as a sign that she did not yet understand that Jesus was to rise from the dead.” However, as appropriate as that interpretation is, it does not speak directly to Mary’s mind and heart as she set out to do whatever it took to serve her teacher even in his death. 

Mary’s reaction is understandable. She finds herself in a situation that she is unable to overcome on her own, so she immediately seeks help. The second act of the story tells us that she accompanied Peter and “the other disciple” who arrived at the tomb before she did, which may be interpreted as either their agonizing concern, or their disregard of Mary. But they also can do nothing to resolve the situation. John reports that after each went into the tomb, they “saw and believed.” Believed what? All they saw was that the tomb was, indeed, empty. It speaks of their dismissal of Mary’s report, a position in line with the place of women in her society, that only when they had seen the evidence for themselves, did they believe her report. 

[Once they have seen the empty tomb, these men go home – back to their lives, their families, their fishing boats. Mary doesn’t. The bible doesn’t tell us much about Mary’s life outside of her devotion to Jesus. But it does tell us enough about how women and people living with demons were treated by society that we can surmise that she didn’t have much of a life to go back to. Jesus was everything to her. He released her from her demons and gave her back her life; and perhaps more importantly, he saw her life – a woman’s life – as being worth saving. His death on the cross plunges Mary right back into the darkness that was all she had ever known before she met Jesus.]

Mary did not understand, but she was not ready to give up just yet on the light she had come to know. As we find with many people caught in terrible situations, especially women, she appealed to everyone who came into her sphere. First it was the angels, and then the person who looked like he was part of the scene, a gardener. Regardless of the strictures of her society, she spoke to this man, seeking any help that he could give. It is the way of people who find themselves in desperate situations. Mary was desperate to leave the darkness of sorrow and find the light of joy.

Weeping in sorrow, her world made dark by her tears, Mary did not see the light that had already come into her world. The angels spoke with her, but the darkness of despair was thick around her. Yet the light had indeed come and no darkness of sorrow, pain, or grief could overcome it. The light of Christ in his resurrected glory was such that Mary could not see through its brightness to the person of Christ, standing before her. As John had foretold earlier, Jesus had come to his own – in this case, Mary – and his own did not recognize him. It is a common situation with human beings who are caught in the darkness of pain and sorrow and grief. But then Jesus called her by name, and Mary recognized his voice. With that recognition, the darkness rolled away and Mary finally saw the light that had come into the world.

Christ comes to bring light into our lives, to offer ways of overcoming the darkness that has enveloped us, and yet we ourselves often cannot see the light. We who are Christians have made a commitment through our baptism to follow, walk, and live in the light of Christ, yet there is so much that qualifies as darkness in the world that we allow to block out his light. It is true that there is darkness all around, and our tendency to give in to the darkness is also true. In too many cases, we — like Mary Magdalene — are prevented by the curtain of our tears from seeing the light. Yet for us too, that light is already shining.

Jesus is life and light, and when we recognize the voice of Jesus, it can dispel the darkness that infects our lives. Easter joy is based on the realization that death and darkness have forever lost their power, and that because Christ lives, we can live also. Living in the light of the risen Christ compels us to share the joy. Jesus identifies himself to Mary and sends her forth with a message for the world; she goes and announces to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord.” In other words, I have seen the light. That is the message of Easter. We have seen the light. Christ is the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.

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