Our Chains are Gone April 16, 2017

Text: John 20:1-18

Prayer:    O Risen Lord, we come like Mary, some confused, some experiencing life‘s traumas, some with joy, but we come to this text to hear a word of hope. Speak to us where we are at in our lives that we might receive your word with joy. Amen.

Country music star Kenny Chesney sings a song that contains this refrain:

Everybody wanna go to heaven;

Hallelujah, let me hear you shout;

Everybody wanna go to heaven;

But nobody wanna go now.

Deep in our hearts we know it’s true. We talk about heaven, but regardless of how wonderful we have heard it described, most of us are not eager to make the journey.

We’re like the man who was sentenced to death. He was asked if he had any last requests. He said that he loved to sing and wanted to sing his favorite song one more time. He was asked what his favorite song was. He replied, “One Billion Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

We don’t know how long it would take to sing all the choruses to “One Billion Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but suffice it to say, he wasn’t eager to face death.

At the death of Nikita Khrushchev, the former leader of the Soviet Union many years ago, a humorous story circulated in political circles. The Communist party that had cast Mr. Khrushchev aside was uncomfortable with the idea of burying his body on Soviet soil.

They first called the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, and asked if the U.S. would take Khrushchev’s corpse. Nixon had his own problems at the time and declined.

Then the Soviet leaders tried Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel. Mrs. Meir was agreeable but she added, “I must warn you that this country has the world’s highest resurrection rate.”

Well, she was right; Israel does have the world’s highest resurrection rate. In case you’re curious the world’s highest resurrection rate is one. And that is why we are here today.

The time was Sunday morning just before dawn. The setting, a garden not too far from the place where Jesus had been cruelly crucified. In the garden was a tomb, freshly hewn from rock. A giant stone once sealed the sepulcher, but that morning it had been rolled aside.

Some grief stricken women made their way to that lonely spot. Of these women John’s Gospel identifies only Mary Magdalene. Among the names included in the other Gospels are Mary, the mother of James, Joanna and Salome. Undoubtedly the silence of the night and the solemnness of the occasion caused them to move quietly toward the place where their Lord’s body had lain. They brought spices with which to anoint him.

It must have been disconcerting, perhaps frightening to discover the stone already rolled away from the tomb and the tomb empty. He was not there. What did it mean? Had his final resting place been desecrated by grave robbers? Did his enemies fear and despise him so much that they had seized his broken body? The women quickly scattered to tell their families and friends of this disturbing event. Mary rushed to inform Peter and John. They hurried back to the tomb with her but they were as mystified as she. They returned to the safety and seclusion of their homes. Mary was alone now with her grief. She stood weeping quietly just outside the door of the tomb. In vain desperation she stooped and allowed herself one last look down inside the burial vault.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb. Imagine her dismay when she saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”  “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”  Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Whether the sun was just beginning to peep sleepily over some nearby Judean hillside at this precise moment we do not know. Tear swollen eyes combined with pre‑dawn darkness could explain Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus immediately.

Undoubtedly, however, when he called her name, there was a sunrise in Mary’s heart. “Rabboni!” With a sudden surge of emotion she sought to embrace him. It was the natural response of deep and grateful love. It was Jesus who had made a new woman of Mary Magdalene.

Tradition has painted her to be a woman of the streets. Whether this is so is a matter of speculation. What is not a matter of speculation, however, was Mary’s devotion to this humble Jewish rabbi. Impulsively she reached for him. Jesus stopped her, however, with the explanation that he had not yet ascended to the Father. Mary Magdalene will have to be content to hold him in her heart. That is exactly what she did. Later she would testify to his disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

What does Mary Magdalene’s experience on that first Easter Sunday have to do with your life and mine? Are there tombs in our lives into which we may be peering with a sense of helplessness and despair? Finally, is there a sense in which each of us can come through a crisis of doubt and uncertainty and be able to proclaim victoriously, “I have seen the Lord.”

These chains of helpless, despair, fear, uncertainty are broken by the resurrection of Jesus.

We should note, first of all, the sense of hopelessness that had enshrouded all those who followed Jesus after his crucifixion. If actions speak louder than words, those first disciples made it abundantly clear that they no longer believed that Jesus was the hope of the world. Easter Sunday is a day of bright colors, joyful music, and enthusiastic worship for us. We cannot appreciate the Easter message, however, if we cannot understand that the first Easter was born in total darkness.

His disciples had believed that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to deliver Israel, but now he lay in a borrowed grave C his side with a deep gash from a spear, his hands and feet disfigured with the mark of nails, his brow a tangled mess of hair and blood where the crown of thorns once mocked his supposed kingship, his back a terrifying grid of open wounds from the 39 lashes.

One would not want to see a dog die like Jesus died, much less a human being. There was no dignity in it at all. He hung there naked while soldiers jeered him and spat upon him.

Where were the 10,000 angels who could come at his beck and call? His followers cowered now behind closed doors, their emotions a mixture of cynicism and despair.

Perhaps you have been there. Maybe you have lived for a while behind closed doors. Many good people have.

I was reading recently about a young lawyer who descended into the valley of despond. Things were going so poorly for him that his friends thought it best to keep all knives and razors away from him for fear of a suicide attempt. In fact during this time he wrote in his memoirs, “I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell. I fear I shall not.” The young lawyer who unleashed these desperate feelings of utter hopelessness? His name was Abraham Lincoln

The two nights following Jesus’ crucifixion were the longest nights that those who loved him would ever endure. Perhaps you have gone through your own long night. The words of a doctor, “I’m sorry, it is malignant. There is nothing we can do.” A phone call in the night, “Mrs. Jones, there has been an accident. Could you come to the hospital?” The words of your accountant, “Bill, if you sell your assets now, you might be able to recoup part of your investment. Otherwise you stand to lose everything.” A parent to a young child: “You know, dear, Mommy and Daddy have not been getting along lately. We have decided to try living apart for a while.” Many of you have had your own dark night. Easter was not born in the brightness of the day. The women came to the tomb while it was still dark.

But listen. We need to know that help is closer than we think. The darkness of the moment and our tear‑swollen eyes may blind us to a friend who is standing quietly in the shadows nearby. Softly, he asks, “Mam, why are you weeping? Sir, why are you in such despair?” After listening to our complaint, he whispers our name, “Mary, Jack, John, Cindy.”

And we recognize that he has been there all the time. He is not dead, he is alive! Christ is alive and because he is alive we discover that the sun rises again and birds sing and joy begins to creep back into our life. Our chains are gone!

All of nature speaks of such a possibility. The rhythm of nature declares not only the glory of God but the victory of life over death, hope over despair, light over darkness, joy over fear.

That remarkable naturalist‑poet Loren Eiseley once put it so beautifully. He said that we live in a world where “even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun to a star.”

New life appears all about us as spring bursts into full blossom. The bud that appears on the rose that has seemed for a season lifeless and drab is God’s whisper to us, “You can make it through. I am nearer than you imagine. I will not let you fall.”

A poet wrote that “hope springs eternal.” And it does! Hope is another way in which God whispers our name. As long as you believe that there is an answer, an answer will be found. I cannot recall any appearance of the risen Christ to an unbeliever. Your greatest ally in the long, dark night of the soul is your faith and your hope. “I am here,” he says, “I will never forsake you.” Our chains are gone!

This brings us to the final thing we need to say on this Easter Sunday morning.

The victory of Easter is a gift available to anyone who will receive it. The New Testament was not written by Greeks who believed in the immortality of the soul. It was written by Jews who believed that when a person dies, he or she really dies. But because of their experience with the risen Christ these first Christians knew that a gracious, loving God grants new life, eternal life, to all who will receive it.

As Christ was resurrected from the grave, so may you and I experience new life through him.  That is the gift he longs to give each of us. It is the opportunity to experience victorious living here and now.

In the words of Chris Tomlin song: Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

My chains are gone

I’ve been set free

My God, my Savior has ransomed me

And like a flood His mercy rains

Unending love, Amazing grace

Pastor Tim Zingale tells about a pastor standing at the door of his church on Easter Sunday. “I’ve never seen such a crowd in church,” a woman exclaimed.

The pastor didn’t know her, but apparently she was impressed by the number of people at church for Easter worship. Then, as she was shaking his hand and moving toward the outside of the church, she added  “Do you suppose it will make any difference?” He held on to her hand so she couldn’t get away, “What do you mean?” he said. “Will what make a difference?” “Easter,” she shot back. “Will Easter make any difference for all these people, or will life tomorrow be the same as it was yesterday?” Will it make a difference?

It certainly made a difference in the lives of those first disciples. They knew that Christ had conquered death and that caused them to give everything they had, including their own lives, to get the word out to others.

Has Easter made a difference in your life? Wouldn’t you like to have the kind of confidence in the power and purpose of God that those early followers had? You can, you know. It is God’s free gift to all who will receive it.

Are you peering anxiously into an empty tomb, this morning? Don’t give up. There is a friend closer than you think. He is calling your name. He is offering you a gift; it is the gift of abundant and eternal life. And it is available to you and to me.

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Prayer: O Lord, come to our world to release us from fear, from discouragement, from sin and death, from hopelessness and despair. Bring the light of your resurrection into our lives in a new way that we might live with the joy of knowing you call us each by name. May we hear it and embrace you in our hearts as did Mary. Amen.