Unlock your Heart with Jesus

John 20:1-18

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.  11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

A week ago, we celebrated Palm Sunday where Jesus rode on a colt or donkey to shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches as he celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem.  Then he flipped over tables in the temple and called the religious leaders to task.  We know that he gathered with his disciples on Passover to wash their feet and to gather with them to break bread and drink wine, as he said these strange words about the bread representing his body that is broken open and the wine being his blood covering all of our sins.  We believe the familiar story of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God to take this cup from me.  Judas betraying him, Peter denying him, his disciples scattered and scared.  We believe that on Good Friday Jesus suffered death on a cross beside two thieves.  The sky turned black, the earth shook, and the curtain in the temple ripped.  He died and was placed in a tomb where he was for 3 days.

That’s where our passage starts today.  You may be thinking, Narcie why this review of Holy Week?  The Easter story is familiar to many of us.  It’s a story in all 4 of the Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They all give different details, depending on their perspective, but that to me, is what makes it more true.  If they all said the same thing, I, being a natural doubter, would be even more skeptical.  I think that’s what makes the Bible great – all of these different people, sharing their stories, creating this arch of God’s redemption of the world.  Several years ago in The New York Times Sunday Review, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell wrote that “a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person.” Mankell’s argument was not that the biologists are wrong or that we are not thinking creatures but rather that we are also — and maybe even primarily — storytelling creatures.  We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. Story is how we create meaning, how we interpret reality, and how we come to know who we are and why we are.  Stories have a way of weaving into our psyche as nothing else does.

Our passage is from the book of John.  John is the one who has all of the “I Am’s.”  I am the bread of life.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the true vine.  It has zero parables and no Passover meal or Lord’s Supper.  It’s the only Gospel that has the foot washing instead.  John was the only one of the disciples who was with Mary and the other women the day that Jesus died on the cross.  He was the one to whom Jesus, as he was hanging on the cross, entrusted his mother Mary.  He has a peculiar way of telling a story, a more personal way.  Like with the foot washing.  He had Jesus bowing before each disciple and washing their feet and saying, “I have set for you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  He’s the only one of the Gospels that has Mary interacting with whom she supposed was the gardener, but the reader knows he’s actually Jesus.  The Gospels all explain the transformation of the Resurrected Jesus in different ways, so we get the idea that he is like himself and yet unlike himself.  When he calls out her name, “Mary!”  The text says, “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”  She recognized him as she heard his voice and he called out her name.  John’s is the only Gospel which weaves in this personal touch.  I think it’s important to recognize, there was never a pivotal moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry that John wasn’t an eye witness.  The Transfiguration.  The Garden of Gethsemane.  The Crucifixion.  And also in this Gospel account, the Resurrection.  He was called the one whom Jesus loved and he wrote the most personal Gospel account.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  He was writing not only about his Rabbi and Savior but his friend, and that makes for a very good story.

What were your favorite books growing up?  My favorites were Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Catch-22 and biographies of Dolly Madison, Queen Elizabeth, Abigail Adams and Julia Ward Howe, and my Mom’s old Betty Cavannah books.  Don’t worry I liked more modern stories too – like Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High.  Have any of you read The Secret Garden?  It’s a story of Mary Lennox, who is a sickly and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in India to wealthy British parents who never wanted her. She is cared for by servants, who allow her to become a spoiled.  After a cholera epidemic kills her parents and the servants, Mary is sent England to live with Archibald Craven; an uncle whom she has never met, at his isolated house, Misselthwaite Manor.  At first, Mary is as rude and sour as ever. She dislikes her new home, the people living in it, and most of all, the bleak moor on which it sits. However, a good-natured maid named Martha Sowerby tells Mary about the late Mrs. Craven, who would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Mrs. Craven died after an accident in the garden, and the devastated Mr. Craven locked the garden and buried the key. Mary becomes interested in finding the secret garden herself, and her ill manners begin to soften as a result. Soon she comes to enjoy the company of Martha, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and a friendly bird that she calls Robin.

“Are things stirring down below in the dark in that garden where he lives?” Mary inquired.

“What garden?” grunted Weatherstaff, becoming surly again.

“The one where the old rose-trees are.” She could not help asking, because she wanted so much to know. “Are all the flowers dead, or do some of them come again in the summer? Are there ever any roses?”

“Ask him,” said Ben Weatherstaff, hunching his shoulders toward the robin. “He’s the only one as knows. No one else has seen inside it for ten year’.”

Mary was shocked by how long the garden, this now secret garden, had gone without someone tending it.  She grew fond of the robin who had been the garden’s sole visitor and would watch it closely.  One day, as the robin hopped about under them she saw him hop over a small pile of freshly turned up earth. He stopped on it to look for a worm. The earth had been turned up because a dog had been trying to dig up a mole and he had scratched quite a deep hole.

Mary looked and saw something almost buried in the newly-turned soil. It was like a ring of rusty iron or brass, and when the robin flew up into a tree nearby she put out her hand and picked the ring up. It was more than a ring, however; it was an old key which looked as if it had been buried a long time.

Mistress Mary stood up and looked at it with an almost frightened face as it hung from her finger.

“Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in a whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!”

What happens when she unlocks the door to the Secret Garden?  Not only does the garden experience resurrection, but she does.  A sad, unloved, lonely little girl was loved for who she was, with all of her baggage, in a very personal way. As she spends time in the garden, she begins to be an agent of resurrection.  She got some of God’s Resurrection dust on her, the pollen of new life, sprinkling down from heaven to make all things new.

See Jesus wants to set us free.  Jesus hands us the keys to unlock the gardens of our hearts.  As it says in Isaiah 43:1-3, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”  Jesus calls each of us by name, just like Mary, and hands us the key to our salvation.  All we have to do is turn the lock.

What’s holding you back from taking the key that Jesus is handing you?  Jesus broke free from the shackles of sin and conquered death so that we may have eternal life if we put our hope and trust in him.  What do you need to break free from?  Perfection?  Doubt?  Fear? Loneliness?  What does the Enemy whisper to you when you’re feeling weak or vulnerable?  What are you clinging to?  Pride? Sloth? Envy? Lust? Wrath? Gluttony?  Greed? What?  Think of it as Spring cleaning.  We treat our sins like old familiar sweatshirts, old comfy shoes.  That may fit more snuggly now but they’re familiar.  Throw them out!  They have no hold over you now.  Lay down the pride, perfection, lust, lies at the foot of the cross and LEAVE IT THERE.  When you feel the tug to put them on again, ask Jesus to come and meet you in that moment and ask him to give you the strength not to fall back into the old ways and repent.

As Lutheran Priest, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “That’s the thing about tombs. Sometimes we don’t even know we are in them, until the light breaks from on high. But I know we all have them.

I wonder what it is for you. Is there something buried? Thought to be dead? Something that you have left for dead? What in your life might have been in such darkness that any kind of dawn would feel sudden and unexpected causing you to shield your eyes?

Sometimes tombs are about how we treat things in our life as though they represent the end. This relationship is over. This life of faith has ended. That time of happiness will never return. There’s a big stone covering that thing I used to feel or I used to love or I used to be and anyway, it’s started to smell of rot. That part of me is totally dead, period. End of sentence. But as great African American preachers often say — “where we put a period … God puts a comma.”

Having a God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is.”

That’s the thing about serving a God of Resurrection – God is in the business of making all things new.  Frances Hodgson Burnett, writes in The Secret Garden, “At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.  Did you hear what I said?  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.

Let’s try a little experiment. Close your eyes and empty your mind of every other thought. Okay, now, picture God.

You can open your eyes now. What was the first image that came to mind?

I’ll bet, for most of us, it was an old man with a white beard.

Now let me ask you this. In your mental image, was God smiling?

My guess is, some of you pictured God without a smile. “Stern” might be a good word to describe the visage of the Almighty.

Now, one further question: in your mind’s eye, was God holding anything? If you answered, “a thunderbolt,” congratulations — you’ve just selected most people’s all-time favorite accessory to the divine wardrobe.

Why is it so many of us picture the Lord of heaven and earth as a grumpy old man packing a loaded thunderbolt? We imagine God that way, even though we know better. Sure, God can get angry. There’s ample evidence of that in the Bible. Yet the Bible also teaches that “God is love” — and that God “so loved the world” that we have received as a gift “God’s only son,” that we might “not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Why is it, then, that we so quickly forget these passages, ie. most of what Jesus says, and elevate to such high prominence those dealing with God’s wrath and destruction?  If we only see God as old man punishing us and keeping a record of wrongs, that’s not a full picture of God at all.  I serve Emmanuel, God with us, One who walks with us through life journeys showing us the way, the truth, and the life.  I serve a Savior that wants our resting states or defaults to be love and grace, not hatred and judgment.  As it says in Matthew 19:26, “”With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  The God I serve sent God’s only son, Jesus, to break the chains of sin and death, to unlock the doors of our hearts so we are free to dream the big dreams God has in store for us.  The God that I serve, says in Romans 8:38-39, “38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Jesus seeks to unlock and banish our doubts, fears, hesitations, self-harm, woundings, and says to each of us, you are free indeed.  If you’re still doubting God’s love for you or are you are wondering how to find God, Jeremiah 29:11-13 says, “11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”  God wants to give us hope and a future.  God wants us to unlock the door to freedom from sin and death, freedom from all the things that shackle us and weigh us down, freedom to live the life we were meant to have in Jesus!

Knowing Jesus is like that.  It sneaks up on you.  You may be curious about this Jesus guy.  You may be intrigued.  But he’s the real deal and once you know that, you can’t help but spread that Good News!  You’re part of this massive letter to all of humanity that shouts from the rooftops God loves you, you were fearfully and wonderfully made, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free from the things that bind us and want to choke the life right out of us.  He defeated death, conquered the grave, and gave us eternal life.  Spirit of Truth guide and lead us in discovering what holds us back and rebuking that power over us. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us . . . approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

God goes to some outrageous lengths to share love, shouldn’t we do the same for people?  Remember the eggs in the children’s sermon.  That was and is the biggest, “Surprise!!” the world has ever seen.  Wouldn’t it be a different world if we actually lived like Easter people?  To not only talk the talk, but actually walk the walk in the ways that our Rabbi Jesus taught us.  To give a hurting world the resurrection hope that is real and tangible and sustaining, not withered like two-week old Easter lilies.  Like we mean it!  Like we believe it!

Some of my favorite words to read at a Celebration of Life are these words of grace.  “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.

Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,

and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,

and I hold the keys of hell and death.

Because I live, you shall live also.”

Friends, if we turn the key to the gardens of our hearts, if we trust Emmanuel, God with us, with our salvation, then we too, have the hope of resurrection and we get to actively participate in the greatest story ever told!

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It’s time to turn the key to our hearts and SHARE the key (pun intended!) with the world, so we can together dream the big dreams that God has in store for each of us!

Carrying our Ebenezers Into the World

MATTHEW 28:1-10

28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Any time an angel appears to someone the first words out of their mouths are, “Do not be afraid.”  What a sight they must be!  All of the Gospel accounts put in different details to their particular accounts.  Some have two angels, some have one, they have different conversations, they have different ordering of things, but they all have one critical thing in common – an empty tomb.  The stone was rolled away.  He is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!  In my thinking, the Gospels being so different is evidence they are true stories – to indicate the points of view and the particular audiences they were each writing on behalf.  The one we just read has an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven, and the stone rolled away by the angel.  What does the text say about the guards?  The guards “shook and became like dead men.” Ha!  Again, they must be a sight to behold!  The message the angel relayed to the women made them run “quickly with fear and great joy” as they ran to tell the disciples and Jesus, the Risen One, confirmed the angels message on their way.

What a turn of events!  You may have come to this Easter sunrise service bleary-eyed and numb.  There’s not enough coffee in the world to have me wake up like this every morning – mission trip flights and Easter sunrise is my limit.  Don’t you see the women at the tomb were the same way.  Unlike the disciples, except for John, they had watched the crucifixion.  They had lived and were eye witnesses to Good Friday.  They had mourned on Holy Saturday.  Their Savior, their light in the world, their Rabbi, was gone.  They were grieving and numb as they walked to the tomb that day to bring the funeral spices.  Bleary-eyed just like you and me this Easter sunrise service.  Did you know that some states are outlawing those roadside crosses and those flowers you see along the roadways?  We drive by and with a mere glance, we know that something happened here.

Joyce Keeler knows the pain of losing a loved one in a tragic automobile accident. Nearly 30 years ago, her son lost his life on a rural road in Delaware. For Joyce, driving by the site of the accident is still too painful. She avoids it, even all these years later.

Instead, Joyce goes to the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden at the Smyrna Rest Area near her home. Among the trees, shrubs and flowering plants, is a pathway lined with memorial bricks that bear the names of those who have lost their lives on the roads of Delaware. In the center of the garden is a pond with goldfish, frogs, water lilies and a gurgling waterfall. Tucked amid the busyness of nearby highways U.S. 13 and Delaware 1, it’s a peaceful place to remember and reflect. To honor the memory of her son, Joyce sits quietly near the brick that bears his name.

Patrick Bowers, whose 21-year-old son died in a crash in 2008, also frequents the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden. “It’s not morbid or gloomy, not like a feeling you can get at a cemetery,” he says. “It’s a garden like someone would do in their backyard.”

Delaware is one of several states providing alternatives to roadside memorials because traffic safety officers worry they are a dangerous distraction to drivers, and put those who maintain them in harm’s way. In most states, descansos, what they call the memorial sites, are illegal, but officials rarely enforce those laws. When we lived in Florida they used signs to mark the site of a crash. Others have adopted laws limiting the time a memorial is allowed to remain on the side of the road. Still others offer to plant memorial trees at the sites of fatal accidents.

Joyce Keeler much prefers the garden over the roadside memorial.  “Things like that get old, and the flowers fade,” she says. “But this will never go away.”

The very same instinct that drives people to the site of a crash may have carried Mary Magdalene, a close disciple of Jesus, and another Mary, identified a few verses earlier as the mother of James and Joseph, to the tomb early in the morning.

They came not with a handmade cross and flowers, but with oils and spices.

They came not to set up a roadside memorial, but to care for the body of the one they followed, the one who loved and accepted them when no one else did.

They came prepared to do the only thing they could think of to honor the memory of Jesus.

Another Mary, was grieving the loss of her son.  Who could know the agony she endured from Friday to Sunday morning? Even the care she received from the “beloved disciple,” John, her son’s best friend, could not alleviate the sadness and despair.  It’s not likely, that she ever went back to the place where he died. Not much chance she wanted to sit by a cross, like some mothers might do today. The cross on this hill was the instrument of her son’s most cruel and painful death. She’d been there to witness it. Where would she go to remember?

Did she want to erect a memorial?

Did she want some place she could visit and just think about her son?

Did she want to erect a pillar of stones in his memory in his hometown, Nazareth, or in Bethlehem where he was born?

Did she want to post a sign at the site of some of his most famous miracles?

Did she want to turn the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus into a shrine or museum in his honor?

Surely, the thought crossed her mind: “How can I remember my son? How can we all remember him?”

Her people, after all, had a strong tradition of building memorials or Ebenezer’s. If you pay attention to hymns in church, there is one Hebrew term you will remember singing. It’s in the second stanza of… “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The stanza reads:

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

“Ebenezer.” A Hebrew word.  Hear the word and your first thought is of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the most famous “Ebenezer” in all of literature: Ebenezer Scrooge.

The prophet Samuel took a stone, set it up and named it Ebenezer.   1 Samuel 7:12 memorably says: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.'” Samuel set up a memorial stone. “Ebenezer” literally means “stone of help.” It was a stone set to commemorate the help the people of Israel perceived had been given them by God in defeating the Philistines when they got back the ark of the covenant. … The Scots Bible translator, James Moffatt, translates it literally: “Samuel took a stone … naming it Helpstone.”

What do all 4 Gospel accounts have in common?  An empty tomb!  Jesus is ALIVE!  Death has been defeated. Love wins.  Our God is the God of help. This is the refrain that breathes through the Bible. The Great God of the Universe, our God has gave us the greatest Ebenezer of all – Jesus – our Cornerstone, as it says in our Psalm this morning.  Our Cornerstone is the greatest Ebenezer that the world has ever known!  The one they thought was in the grave is instead on the move. He’s still calling them to follow him as he now calls to us to follow him.

May we do so.  May we be Resurrection people!  May we embody the love of Christ to all the world.  May we not be afraid to share our Ebenezer’s, the times that God’s helped us on our faith journeys and share them with the world.  I ask that you come as you feel led to get one of these stones, symbolizing the stone that was rolled away.   Symbolizing the Great Ebenezer that God sent us in Jesus, our Ultimate Help.  Symbolizing our Cornerstone in Christ.  I’ll also challenge you to take another stone.  Tell someone in the weeks ahead about Jesus.  Share a story of how he helped you.  Tell a story of how he saved you.  It may be awkward, you may stammer and stutter a bit, but what a blessing, and a Help you would be to someone who doesn’t know our Risen Savior.  We’re Easter people after all!  We are called to share this Good News of the empty tomb!  Jesus is Alive!

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