Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and 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").
Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news:"I have seen the Lord..." (John 20:11-18 NLT).
When I was a kid I didn't like Easter Sunday. At least not the church part. It was one time a year my brother and I were expected to get "dressed up" for church. We'd shine our little black Sunday shoes that were so stiff because we hardly ever wore them. We had to dig out the old shoe horn just to get them on. We put on belts and clip-on bow ties. We'd ask "Why do we have to get dressed up?" and the answer would be "It's Easter. We need to give Jesus our best."
All we wanted was for the Easter Bunny to give us his best. We knew that after church we'd come home and have a big Easter Egg Hunt. There'd be candy and maybe even some coins to find. But first we had to go to church. I guess it's a parent's way of instilling delayed gratification.
The church part was normal for us. The getting real dressed up wasn't. Easter was the one time a year it seemed that churches had to put on their best show. When I got older I noticed that other churches would bring in some Christian star to speak or sing. It was as if what they usually did wasn't good enough, so they had to do something extra special for that Sunday. Which always struck me as strange. If a visitor came on that Sunday and liked the speaker or singer and came back the next week and got the usual speaker or singer it could really work against them.
As a kid, my problem with Easter was getting all dressed up, looking like a munchkin mannequin, and having all the little old ladies pat me on the head and tell me how handsome I looked. Even at a young age inside I thought, "You should see what I look like after I hunt for eggs." I knew that outside I'd be a little dirty by then. And I knew that inside, well, I was a little dirty there most of the time too.
I wasn't quite sure what Jesus had to do with Easter. At least the Easter of the spiffed up church services, carefully groomed churchgoers, and Easter Bunny. I later found a story of Jesus in the Bible that may made me question even more.
The story is about Mary Magdalene. We know little of her. She first shows up supporting Jesus' ministry and we find out that she previously had seven demons in her and had been healed by Jesus, so she was following him and supporting Jesus financially along with some other women (Luke 8:1-3) . If someone came and commanded seven demons out of me I'd stick close to him too.
Then she shows up in Mark, Matthew, and John near the cross during the crucifixion. Luke refers to "women who had followed him from Galilee" who were standing at a distance, too. Most likely, Mary was one of those women.
She's also found going to the tomb after Jesus had been buried. It's the beginning of the week. Still dark. This Jesus — the one she had been following — had died and was put in a tomb. So when John says it was "still dark" he means the sun had not come up yet in the land, but the sun hadn't come up in her heart yet, either.
You know what that's like, don't you? Rough time at work. Rocky relationship. Routine checkup revealed "something." Then a new week dawns, and with it you hope there is something new, something fresh and full of hope.
That's what Mary found. The huge stone in front of the tomb had been rolled away. She ran to tell Peter and John. They raced like Usain Bolt to the tomb, with John nipping Peter at the tape. They looked in and saw only the linen cloths. John believed. Peter still seemed bewildered. Then they went back home.
Sounds a little like our Sundays today. We dress up and go to church and see something. Then we go back to our homes not quite sure what to do with what we just experienced; but not so with Mary. Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. She hadn't put two and two together yet. Then she sees two angels sitting where Jesus' body has been. They ask her why she's crying. She says, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." She thinks someone has stolen the body. Nothing fresh and nothing full of hope here...
Then something grand happens. She turns around and sees Jesus standing. Not lying down. Not dead. But alive and standing.
I know this about gardeners. I was a gardener once. When we lived in Tyler we decided to grow a garden in our back yard. We plotted out the section. I rented a tiller and churned up the ground. We planted seeds and we watered and we watched things grow. We had a great time with our young boys getting dirty in the garden growing things. New things. But we never wore our Easter clothes when we tended the garden!
Neither does Jesus. You'd expect the resurrected Jesus to be flashing a mega-watt smile, wearing an Armani suit, and modeling manicured nails. Instead he shows up looking like a... gardener. Maybe something new, fresh, and full of hope actually is happening in the garden around the garden tomb!
We mostly hear this story and think the main thing Jesus is saying to us is that he is risen and therefore, someday, we will rise too. We think that because that's what we usually hear on Easter Sunday while we're sitting politely in our dressed up selves, shushing kids until the message is over, then we can all go get Cadbury chocolates and eat them to our heart's content. Which I have to admit is one picture I have of heaven.
But maybe, just maybe, we need to hear Jesus like we've never heard before — like everything is new, fresh, and full of hope. Mary can help us. She thinks he's the gardener. Then Jesus says, "Mary." He calls her by name. He calls to her in her tears — not when everything is right in her world... not when she's all gussied up with a smile on her face and perfectly coiffed for Easter Sunday. He calls her by name when it's still dark — in the garden and in her heart. He calls her by name while she's crying and confused and hanging out alone in a cemetery.
We need to hear that about Jesus on Easter Sunday. He knows us. And he will call to us even when we don't look our best. He called some smelly fishermen and a tax collector and a zealot who wanted to start an uprising. He hung out with prostitutes and the poor. He didn't tell them to go make sure they looked their best before he came to them.
And he didn't with Mary. Jesus doesn't just look like a gardener. This is not some silly mistake that Mary made because her eyes were all teared-up. He is a gardener. He was at the beginning of creation. He created the first garden where everything was new and no one knew sin. So the first thing he does after he is raised from the dead is show up as a gardener again at the new beginning... the beginning of a new week and a new life with something fresh and full of hope to share with us. He reminds us that there is something new, fresh, and full of hope to be done — something to be done even for people who know sin and failure. People like a recovering demon-controlled woman and a disciple who denied him and a greedy tax collector and... and even people like you and me.
Who of us doesn't want something new, fresh, and full of hop in our lives? And if you need something new to grow in your life, you need a gardener. You need someone who knows how to cultivate the soil of your life and plant the seeds of hope for a new life in you. That's what we've missed in this Jesus. He's not there to announce that someday you will be resurrected.
Jesus the gardener takes Mary and gives her something to do with her new life. He tells her not to hold onto him. Don't go back to the old life. Now, because of his resurrection, there is something new, fresh, and full of hope ahead.
Mary understood. And she does what Jesus the gardener tells her to do — take that seed of hope and plant it into others. So she goes to where the others are hiding and tells them she has seen the "Lord." That wasn't just a nice, formal way of talking about him either. It was her telling them that Jesus is who he said he was all along.
And if you're not convinced yet that this gardener can do new things, look no further than Mary. Until now, Jesus had only sent out men. In his culture, women were not considered credible witnesses in court. And now, of all times, he first sends a woman on mission with this great news.
You don't have to be looking your best to bump into Jesus. Look for him like Mary did. When you hear your name, then go live a new life, where everything is fresh and fully of hope!
Come to think of it, maybe that's what all the dressing up for Easter was about. It was a picture that even a grubby little boy could get a fresh clean start. And if that little boy could get a fresh start, maybe we can, too.