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04.20.14 The Disguised Jesus John 20:1-18 Sermon Summary

by on April 23, 2014

God loves to disguise his presence among us. Even God’s most particular revelation in Jesus Christ came in disguise. What disguise do you suppose God is wearing in your life right now?

Summary Points

  • Looking for Jesus in the darkness
  • Looking for Jesus when things aren’t as we expect them
  • The two existential questions of our lives
  • What happens when the questions cease
  • The point of this post-resurrection appearance
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

For Christianity, the most specific revelation of God comes in Jesus Christ. But even in Christ, God comes in disguise: The baby Jesus—born to poor, unwed parents, and in Bethlehem! To the Samaritan Woman, Jesus said, “If you knew who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would give you living water.” Pilate failed to recognize Jesus for the King he was. Those present at the crucifixion didn’t recognize him either, saying, “Let God deliver him if he wants him, for he said ‘I am the Son of God.’”

In the post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, Jesus is in disguise. But what Mary teaches us throughout, is that it pays to keep looking.

First, John tells us when Mary went to the tomb, it was “still dark.” We could take this literally, but throughout the Gospel of John, darkness is contrasted with light. To cite just one of many examples, Jesus says, “Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.” (John 12:35) So that Mary came while it was still dark must be taken metaphorically also.

We would expect Mary to be “in the dark” on just the third day following the execution of her friend. But to John’s original audience, some 60 years after the resurrection, who were in their own dark, this would be a comfort. And it is a comfort for us still today.

Our darkness today may be grief over some loss, perhaps a lost childhood, a lost loved one, or a lost dream. Or we may be in the dark through some disorientation resulting from a sudden turn in our life. Or we may have anxiety over the forces of darkness that continue to threaten us. No matter what the nature of our darkness, Mary Magdalene encourages us to keep looking.

When Mary arrives at the tomb, things don’t look they she expects them to. Jesus isn’t where she thought he would be. This happens to us also, when religion has had the unintended consequence of making us complacent. We do the same rituals, read the same verses, and sing the same hymns. We know where Jesus is supposed to be. But one day we show up as usual and discover Jesus is missing. Or perhaps we show up even though for us, as for Mary, Jesus has died. What Mary teaches us is that when Jesus seems to have disappeared or died, it pays to keep looking.

For this is what Mary does. She lingers at the tomb, after Peter and the other disciple have gone home. She remains, crying, and continues to look into the tomb. We can assume she is crying out of a mixture of emotions: grief, confusion, frustration, fatigue, and loneliness. Here is how she puts it: “They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have put him.”

Listen to the pathos! “They”: some unidentified force, perhaps the government, or the religious authorities–some authority greater than I, some “one out there” has done this to me. And “I don’t know . . . It’s confusing. I don’t understand. I’m out of control.”

In this situation, when we find ourselves the victim of forces greater than ourselves, confused and out of control, perhaps the best thing to do is follow Mary’s example: not to look for answers, but to begin listening to questions.

Life is always presenting us with challenges to overcome, producing problems to solve, and asking us questions. Some of us only realize this when we slow down and pay attention. The questions are so important that if we don’t do this, God does it for us. I think our getting sick and eventually dying has something to do with this. God is slowing us down, getting our attention. Asking us questions.

Mary is asked two questions: “Why are you crying?” and “Whom are you looking for?” These are the existential questions of our lives. Why are we crying? What causes us grief? What causes us pain? What problem in our lives are we trying to solve? What is the purpose of our living?

The answer to “Why are we crying” will lead us to the question “Whom are we looking for.” If we are crying out for truth, we’ll look for the right teacher. If financial security, we’ll look for the right boss, or the right investment. If it’s personal security, we’ll look for the right commander in chief. If a lost childhood, we’ll look for a parent. What we cry for determines whom we look for.

Mary Magdelene was looking for Jesus, because she was crying for what was lost. And Jesus is present to her, but she doesn’t recognize him. She sees the gardener. Maybe he bore the marks of hard labor. He likely smelled of flowers and spice. It stands to reason that this man is the gardener. Mary makes the best with what she’s got. That’s all any of us can do. Jesus was dead. The body was gone. This was the gardener. The reasonable thing is to ask where the body was taken, so she says to him, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have placed him, and I will go and get him.”

We make the best with what we’ve got, but the problem is, we think what we know is all we’ve got. But reality is never only what we know. It includes what we know, but it is never only what we know. There are things about reality that transcend what we can know. Yes Jesus was dead. And yes, Jesus comes to us as gardener—if we find ourselves in a garden. He comes as a physician if we are in poor health. He comes as a shepherd if we are lost. And he comes as a savior if we are caught in sin.

All this is true, but there is more. There is more to how we see things, because we always see things out of our needs and ignorance. But there’s also the way God sees things. God doesn’t see a dead Jesus, but a risen Christ. He sees not just a gardener, but someone who can soften the hardened soil of our hearts and make it fertile; someone who can sow seeds of life among the weeds that are strangling us.

And God sees more than just a grieving, confused woman, crying and looking for something lost. God sees Mary Magdalene, and he calls her by name. For eventually life stops asking us questions. The questions cease, and what we hear is our name. Spoken not as a question, but as an answer. The answer to all we’ve been crying about. The answer to all we’ve been looking for. The way, the truth, and the life of our lives, speaks to us and calls us by name. When life’s questions are hard, Mary Magdalene encourages us to keep listening.

And what happens next is the point of the story, I think. Just when Mary recognize Jesus for who he is—different yet somehow the same—he tells her she can’t hold on to him, but to go and tell others. Eventually we realize that God can’t be contained—not in a church, not in a doctrine, not in a tomb, and certainly not in our understanding.

God is disguised in all these things, but as soon as we figure it out, God changes disguises. God does this to continually lead us deeper into the divine life.

When God changes appearance, Mary Magdalene encourages us to talk with others, so that we can seek and find that which we’ve lost—together. For what Mary Magdalene discovered in the garden that first Easter morning is that in God’s hands, all that is lost, will once again be found.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  • If it’s true that God leads us more deeply into the divine life by approaching us in a disguise, what are some of the disguises God may be using in your life right now?
  • Where are some of the “dark” places in your life? Not places of hidden sin, but places of confusion, fatigue, of feeling lost? In what ways could you look for God in that darkness?
  • Think of times in your life when Jesus wasn’t where you expected him to be. You returned to church, the Bible, the traditions and rituals, and didn’t find Jesus there? Where did you eventually find him?
  • As you think about your life, what is the source of your “crying”? If this isn’t immediately known to you, think about what it is you’re looking for. What we cry for determines what we look for. These form the basis of so much of our lives. What’s motivating your life today?
  • When we look at our lives, we do so through eyes of need and ignorance. But God sees us through the resurrected Christ. What might God be seeing in your life that through eyes of faith, you might also be able to see?


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