April 8, 2012
“I am the resurrection and I am Life”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
Like many parents, I have often found myself channeling the voice of one my own parents as I dish out profound advice and wisdom to my own children. One’s awareness of the such generativity of parental teaching can be a bit frightening. When one of the kids was banged up on the field and I would yell “run it out”; that was my father’s voice coming through me. Just like this one, “you might be able to stay out later, but the car still has an 11:00 curfew”. My mother’s advice on love and dating: “never touch skin to skin.” I’ve only said it a few times. And this classic from my mother, and I bet from many others over the generations, maybe yours as well; “nothing good happens after midnight.” Or some variation: nothing good happens when you’re out after midnight. Be extra careful when you’re on the road, after midnight. After midnight, it’s not you I worry about, it’s everyone else. Nothing good happens after midnight. Age old wisdom about life when its really dark out.
I took a group of men from my first congregation to spend the weekend at our cabin in the Endless Mountains of Sullivan County Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a retreat. These guys brought all their tools and we worked on the cabin. Given my skill level for such things, they tired quickly of teaching me and I mostly made the sandwich and beer runs. At the end of a long day, the lights were out and we were all tucked in for the night in sleeping bags. One the guys said, “it is so dark in here.” It was rather obvious. But then he said, “it is darker with my eyes open than it is with my eyes closed.” That’s really dark.
In the Gospel of John, soon after Jesus spoke those unforgettable words in the 3rd chapter, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”, just after that promise, that memory verse, Jesus said “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” People loved darkness rather than light. Do you remember that the Lord’s teaching here comes in response to Nicodemus. It’s the same section of the gospel where Jesus speaks about being born again; “very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” According to John, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, came to Jesus by night. That teaching about seeing the kingdom, and the judgment that people loved darkness, that teaching, it all happened in the dark.
Jesus said “those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them”. That’s in John. “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.” Jesus said that in John. “That has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The prologue in John. And as Fleming Rutledge, the Episcopal preacher, points out, when Jesus called out Judas as the one who would betray him, when Jesus dipped a piece of bread and gave it to Judas, as the bible says, Satan entered him after he received that bread. After received the bread, Judas went out. And John, the gospel writer John, puts an exclamation point on it for the reader. John writes: “And it was night.” Everyone assumes that Last Supper/Garden/betrayal scene occurred at night. Every sort of figures, including the other gospel writers. But not John, he has to underline it for you. When it comes to Judas, and betraying, and Satan, and “do quickly what you are going to do”, John has to underline the darkness.
So, when the church finally gets to Easter morning, and John writes that “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb”, you ought not to miss that, or take it for granted, the “while it was still dark” part. The other three gospels are very clear that Easter starts at the break of day; “as the first day of the week was dawning” (Matthew), “very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen” (Mark), “on the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke). But not John, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb”. Still dark. That’s really dark. Nothing good happens when its really dark out.
Clearly darkness in John has little to do with the time of day. Darkness; it has everything to do with all that is opposite to the mighty works of God. All the powers and principalities that work to destroy life; life in all fullness as Jesus said in John. Darkness; the symbol, the sum, the prototype, the theme, the weight, the rallying cry in John for all that works against God, God’s reign, God’s kingdom. In John Jesus said, “I am the bread of life, I am the vine you are the branches, I am the gate, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth, and the life, I am the resurrection and I am life. Jesus said, I am all of this….and that, that is darkness. Darkness is death. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb,”
This isn’t dark as when a theater or concert hall is empty for the evening with nothing scheduled, “the hall is dark”. This isn’t dark as when you are at McCarter Theater for an Anton Chekhov play that is so depressing and there’s so much yelling that you consider leaving at intermission, saying to your seatmate, “it’s too dark.” This is the kind of dark that comes amid the bright lights of a hospital waiting room, when butterflies in your stomach doesn’t begin to describe it, and as you wait for the doctor, you keep trying telling yourself this is all a dream, this can’t be happening. This is the kind of dark that tomorrow brings when it takes absolutely every ounce of courage you have to stay sober today. The dark that comes when your grandchild tells you about the mean kids at school and you can’t find any words to make him feel better. The dark that comes as the person you love like no other names her infidelity. When that walk from the car to the grave in the cemetery you always thought was so beautiful, when you’re the one making the walk because of the absolute finality and boundless reach of death. Sometimes is just darker when your eyes are open.
According to John, the resurrection happened in the dead of night, while it was still dark. John Calvin minimizes the whole dark vs. morning light issue, choosing to argue that Mary started out from home when it was still dark. As indicated by the other gospels, it would have been daybreak by the time she got there. No, it was dark. Jesus rose from the dead when it was really dark; before she got there, before they got there, before anyone got there. That resurrection, promise-fulfilling, salvific, earth shattering moment. It was dark and no one was there but Jesus and God. There’s an intimacy to his resurrection. No trumpet blast, no proclamation. Just Jesus and God and the dark. I wonder what Jesus said to God when it was just the two of them. Clearly they talked all the time. The last thing Jesus said in John was “It is finished!” After his eyes popped open and he drew a breath. His face covered, his body wrapped. Inside a tomb, by the way, that would have been the very definition of dark. I can’t imagine he said in some royal third person fashion, “He is risen!” There in the utter darkness, in a tomb of all places, where death slams the door forever, there just God and Jesus. Jesus must have at least said, “yes,” for the victory was his. The victory was theirs. The victory is ours. He either said, “yes” or he repeated what he said the last time he stood at a tomb. But if he said it this time, he said it only to God, to himself, and he said as he spit at the darkness, “I am the resurrection and I am the life.”
One of the most influential preachers in my life once said this in a sermon on Easter morning:
Ours is a religion of the dawn. Creation begins in the morning. The women come to the tomb in the morning. The morning is when it happens. Lose the morning and you have lost the day. Resurrection is an event of the morning, and when Jesus is raised from the dead it is always morning, always daytime, always the new day….The theme of Easter is that you and I become something new. We are given a second chance to get it right.
With all due respect to a mentor now gone to glory, if the theme of Easter is just a second chance to get it right, if Easter is just one big mulligan, one big do-over for humankind, that’s not enough. Because you and I, humankind, the world, we will never get it right. Before the resurrection is an event of the morning, it is a death vanquishing, life restoring, tomb stomping, event in the dark. It’s a light breaking, shattering, overcoming of the dark. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”
I have stood here before and admitted to turning to ESPN at the end of the day to avoid the world’s darkness trumpeted by way of the news. My response to the coverage of the death of Trayvon Martin has been quite the opposite. I have found myself reading and listening more not less; the cable coverage, the pundits lining up like lawyers, the people who find their way to every camera or microphone, jousting editorials in print still this week in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. “Playing the Violence Card” and “The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin” were the two articles by writers from centers at the New York Public Library and Stanford University respectively. Then I made the unfortunate mistake of reading the blog posted responses to those two contributions to the public debate. Blog postings on the websites of such respected media outlets as the Journal and Times. Oh my goodness. Those anonymous postings, the discussions, the hate, that comes from all sides, it’s like a 21st century version of the crowd that shouted “Crucify him, crucify him!” Talk about a window to humanity’s dark side. God help us. Easter better be about more than a second chance. Second chances aren’t enough when you’re talking about all that is opposite to the mighty works of God. All the powers and principalities that work to destroy life; life in all fullness. Second chance isn’t enough when it comes to the symbol, the sum, the prototype, the theme, the weight, the rallying cry for all that works against God, God’s reign, God’s kingdom. When confronted over and over again by such utter darkness, its not a second chance I need, but rather, the hope, the promise, the God-given Word of a victory. God’s “yes.”
Don’t misunderstand, I have no allusions when it comes to death. I’ve stood next to far too many open graves. Death and darkness abound and are very, very real. But the promise of everlasting life, yes. The hope that death and darkness will be no more, yes. That there will be no need of light there, for God alone shall be our light. Yes. That in the kingdom that comes here on earth as it is in heaven, that gun violence, and bitterness, and the evils of fear and hate and bitterness will be no more, yes. That the city of Jerusalem and all that is the land of Jesus birth would have a future of peace, yes. The earth could live free forever from weapons of mass destruction and the inevitability of war, yes. That abundant life can rise out of the shambles of broken relationships, and a flourishing career can come after the depth of job loss, and youthful vitality can rise from weak knees and tired bones and weary souls, yes. That the brightest of futures can come from the most brutal of college acceptance and rejection, that a fruitful ministry will rise out of failed ordination exam, that a community of faith called to this room over and over again by death would be bold enough to witness and celebrate life, yes. That on Easter Day, the people of God would rise not just celebrating a second chance, but rise to stare down the world’s darkness, proclaiming together that the victory was his, the victory is ours. Yes.
While it was still dark; Jesus opened his eyes, took a breath, and said “Yes.”
“I am the resurrection and I am the life.”
And Mary Magdalene, the other women, the disciples, the followers of Jesus, the church, you and me, and all creation….we stand and shout forever, Christ is Risen!
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