“While it was still dark.” As soon as we hear these words in John, we should remember other ones as well:
From some of the very first words in the Prologue: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus by night…”
Jesus came to Samaria. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came…”
“Jesus spoke to them saying, ‘I am the light of the world.”
Judas leaves the table on Maundy Thursday to go betray Jesus. John writes, “And it was night.
For John, light and dark, night and day, take on significance. The Samaritan woman, who becomes the first proclaimer of good news in his gospel, is bathed in light, while Nicodemus, who cannot grasp the meaning of Jesus’ presence, comes under cover of night. And so it is in John. Light and dark, night and day are more realities of the soul than the sky.
So when you see that Matthew writes about Easter, “As the first day of the week was dawning…” and when Mark writes, “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen…” and Luke writes, “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn…” and only John, only John writes, “while it was still dark…” we should know, right away, that more is at work here than just the time of day.
For John, Easter happens while it was still dark, while the world was still in the grip of the power that sent Judas out the door; something happened in the midst of the darkness that forever changed it. John’s Easter story is a story of God’s work in the dark.
And it seems as though John doesn’t want to just tell us it was dark. He wants us to experience the dark, telling his story in such a way that we experience the uncertainty that comes with night-time excursions. Why is Mary Magdalene there? She’s not coming to bring spices – John tells us that already happened, even gave us the weight – about a hundred pounds. He says she came alone, but when she runs back to Peter and the other disciple, she says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And how does she know Jesus is not in the tomb. John says she only saw the stone taken from the entrance to the tomb, but didn’t go in.
Peter and the unnamed disciple race to the tomb, and John calls it like the Olympics, taking the time to tell us that the beloved disciple is winning, arrives at the tomb first, but then, inexplicably, looks inside, sees the linen wrappings, but doesn’t go in. It is left to Peter to rush headlong into the tomb, where he sees not only the lower wrappings, but also the wrapping that went around Jesus’ head. Then the other disciple comes in, and, says John, believes. What, exactly, he believes we are not told. The disciples come out of the tomb, say nothing to Mary Magdalene, and just go home. That’s when the angels are suddenly there, and then just as suddenly, Jesus, whom she presumes to be the gardener, is present and the angels are gone.
I think John intends to tell the story in this confusing way, this stumbling about in the dark, because he knows this is how we all of us ultimately experience resurrection – in the dark. And I think he means to tell us that this is a story about what God is doing in the world. Resurrection doesn’t happen because we can accomplish it. The church cannot make it happen. It is sheer gift. Jesus was dead. God raised him, in the dark of night. And this is how it still happens with those of us who follow the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
When John says, “While it was still dark,” we remember what was said earlier in John, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
When Mary makes her way in the darkness to the place where her Lord’s beaten, bloodied corpse lay, we remember, “the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.”
When the disciple Jesus loved sees the empty tomb and believes, we remember, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”
And when Mary strains to see one she supposes to be the gardener and hears him say her name, we remember, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
This is not a story in the end that makes sense – it is a story about God’s light breaking out in the darkness and the confusing, exhilarating, sometimes bumbling and sometimes beautiful ways those who see it are transformed. We cannot grasp this story; it grasps us. We do not understand resurrection; we experience resurrection. This is how resurrection happened, John tells us, and it is still the way it happens – in the uncertainty of the dark, in God’s time and in God’s way.
Back in December, I found myself awake in the middle of the night high on a hillside in below freezing weather overlooking the Aegean Sea. I had recently been trained to use night vision binoculars, and I had them up to my eyes, going back and forth in the way I had been trained, looking for boats – dinghies, really – that might be filled with refugees trying to make their way from Turkey, whose lights I could see illuminated in green, on the other side of the sea, the five kilometers to Lesvos, Greece, and the safety, at that time, of Europe.
It is hard even now some months removed to describe the feeling of knowing that for those few hours on my shift, I and the person working with me had the responsibility and the very lives of those who might dare make an attempt to cross on such a cold night. I scanned the night sea, the waves cast in green by the night vision, looking for human shapes on the water.
My shift ended with no sightings, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I got back into the tent and tried to sleep. “Thank you God,” I prayed, “that no refugees were unlucky enough to attempt to cross on my patrol.”
Sometimes now I think about the world, and all of humanity, as that little five kilometer stretch between Greece and Turkey, imperiled, uncertain, dinghies without a captain. John was right – it is still dark.
And yet, there are these outposts of resurrection. The world is teeming with resurrection life. God’s life has been set loose in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. Even now, he is at work in the world, in places like Lesvos and Damascus and Franklin, through people like you and me. God is at work through us. God is at work in you, flooding whatever darkness you may experience with resurrection life. The light shines in the midst of the darkness. And even though we may grope about, even though all is not yet clear, on this day we know that love is stronger than hate, hope is stronger than despair, life is stronger than death, light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Something has been set loose in the world.
We are an Easter people. While it was still dark, while we were weeping at the empty tomb, staring into the void, we heard our name and the call to follow. There’s a resurrection post out there somewhere with your name on it, somewhere where it is still dark. Whether that darkness is within or without; whether you need the light or need to be the vessel of light for another, today, with Mary, we can turn and hear our name, and know the words spoken at the very beginning are still true – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Let us go, without fear, for Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen.
Preached Easter Sunrise, March 27, 2016