Monday, April 04, 2016

From Despair to Delight (John 20:11-18)

Despair. It is an ugly word that describes an even uglier predicament. It refers to the complete loss of all hope. Hope is the fuel of life. Hope enables us to endure difficult days, prolonged pain, and sorrowful suffering. When all hope is extinguished, despair sets in with all of its dark anguish. Despair is set like a trapper’s snare before us, ready to lay hold of any who wander the path of hopelessness. Its temptation is ever before us, and none of us are immune to falling prey to it. In this fallen world, so infected and corrupted by sin and the effects of its curse, it is no surprise that so many find themselves in despair. It is, rather, surprising that more do not. Our bodies are falling apart from the moment of conception. Our first step is a step toward the grave. And along the way, we are surrounded by suffering. Were it not for hope, despair would be our only alternative. And true hope is found nowhere else but in Jesus Christ.

Mary Magdalene had found that hope, and it lifted her from her despair. Luke 8:2 records it for us in a brief economy of words. “Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.” That is how we are introduced to her in Scripture. “Magdalene” refers to her hometown, Magdala. Prior to meeting Jesus Christ, Mary’s entire existence was a literal hell on earth. She was possessed, not by a demon, but by seven demons. All of her bodily faculties were controlled and conducted by the forces of Satan. In John 10:10, Jesus describes the work of Satan as “to steal, kill, and destroy.” Her life had been stolen; her personality, emotions, and mind had been killed; her life was being destroyed moment by moment, over and over again every day of her life. But Jesus also said that He had come to give life, and that abundantly. Mary met the Lord of life, and He delivered her from her hellish bondage and gave her life, more abundant than she had ever known before. From that day on, she began to follow and serve Him. She and a handful of others began supporting the work of Jesus and his disciples from their own resources (Lk 8:3). She was present at the cross when He died, and when His lifeless body was wrapped in cloths and placed in the tomb (Mt 27:56, 61). It was her love for Jesus that brought her to the tomb to help the others finish the burial preparations. It was her love that gave flight to her feet to go and report to the disciples that His body was missing. It was her love that kept her there when all the others had gone. But love was all she had left. Jesus had been the object of her faith, her hope, and her love. Faith had been put to death, and hope had been sealed into a cold, dark grave. All that was left on that Sunday morning was love. And, as William Cowper (the great hymnwriter who wrestled with despair his entire life) once said, “Absence from whom we love is worse than death, and frustrates hope severer than despair.”[1]

And so it is that we find Mary Magdalene in the garden. She is in despair. But in her despair she is met by the risen Jesus and she moves from despair to delight. I wonder if any here today are in despair? I need not wonder if any have ever been, or may yet be. But if you find yourself there at some point, or if someone you love is there, I suggest to you that (like Mary Magdalene) the Living Lord Jesus is able to transform you from despair to delight as you encounter Him. Let’s see how He does that for her, and how He may do it for us, as we explore our text.

I. The Living Lord Jesus confronts us in the confusion of despair (vv11-15).

We find Mary in our text standing outside the tomb weeping. The Greek word used here for “weeping” indicates a loud and demonstrative wailing of sorts, not the quiet tears of reserved mourning. It is the word used to describe Peter’s bitter weeping after he denied the Lord (Mt 26:75). In another passage, it is used to describe a scene surrounding the death of a synagogue official’s daughter, where there was “a commotion, and people loudly weeping and wailing” (Mk 5:38-39). These are the kinds of contexts in which we find this word that here describes Mary’s weeping. Her grief is unrestrained.

If you have ever grieved, and who among us has not, you know that grief can have a disorienting or stupefying effect on you. It did on Mary. She looked into the tomb as she wept. Had she looked in before? Perhaps; we do not know for sure. But when she looked in this time, she saw something other than the burial cloths which Peter and John had seen. She saw two angels.[2] But, I don’t think Mary understood what she was seeing. I say that because almost always in Scripture, when humans encounter angels, their immediate response is fear. That is why most angelic messages in Scripture begin with, “Fear not,” or “Do not be afraid.” But in the confusion of her despair, Mary apparently did not perceive that she was entertaining angels there in the tomb.

With a hint of tenderness, the angels ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Have you ever noticed how often heavenly messages come in the form of questions? It is not as though God or His angels have need of information. Rather, the questions are invitations for the individuals in these encounters to open their hearts and disclose themselves willingly. These angels know full well why Mary is weeping. They know it is because of the compounded hopelessness of the death of her Lord and the disappearance of His body. They want her to say it. And she does: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Either she was not present when Peter and John inspected the tomb and concluded that the body was not stolen and that Jesus had risen, or the despair was so deeply engulfing that she could not believe it.

Something caused Mary to turn away from the angels at this moment. Was it a shift in the direction of their gaze, the sound of footsteps approaching, or that numinous sense that often arises when we feel that someone is watching us? We do not know, but turning around, she saw someone else standing there. John tells us that it was Jesus, but Mary did not know that. She certainly did not expect to see Jesus there. Some have speculated that tears had clouded her vision. That may be a bit too sentimental. Besides this, we know that on multiple occasions He was not recognized by His disciples after the resurrection. Certainly we can say that the confusion of her despair caused her to be unaware of the Lord’s presence with her. Again He asks, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” And again, of course He already knew. But He wants her to put words to her despair and say that her hopes have been dashed, her faith has been shattered, and that above all else she wants once more to set eyes upon her beloved Lord.

Mary supposed Him to be the gardener. Who else would be out in the garden at this time of morning? Perhaps the gardener moved the body somewhere for safekeeping. Whatever the case, Mary makes a preposterous offer. “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” She gave no thought to the physical impossibility of single-handedly carrying the body of Jesus along with the hundred pounds of spices that had been bound into the linen wrappings. So strong was her love and so deep was her despair that she was willing to do whatever it took to set things right. Little did she know that things were already set more right than they had been since Adam and Eve walked in the Garden. Did she suppose Him to be the gardener? She was more right than she knew, for He had come to rid the world of the curse of sin that had evicted mankind from the paradise of Eden.

When we find ourselves in the confusion of despair, we need to remember Mary. She was not alone in her despair, though she felt alone. Neither was she rebuked for her despair. Instead, the questions invited her to open her heart and her mouth to disclose the secrets of her grief and sorrow. There in that place of death, the Living Lord confronted her in the confusion of despair. She did not recognize Him or the heavenly messengers He had sent. The Psalmist said, “Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there” (Psa 139:7-8). Mary had encamped in Sheol, the place of the dead, not knowing that the Living Lord was right by her side. Friends, when we are in despair, it is hard to remember that we are never alone. When we find ourselves weeping in life’s desolate places, it is hard to recognize the messengers that God sends to us for our encouragement. But even there we find the sandaled feet of the Gardener, beckoning us to give voice to our pain and grief. He already knows. He wants to be welcomed into it that He may lift us from the confusion of despair.

Martin Luther is regarded as a spiritual giant and a hero of the Christian faith. But Luther was often perplexed with depression and despair. On one occasion, when he was particularly downcast, his wife put on a black dress. Luther asked, “Are you going to a funeral?” His wife replied, “No, but since you act like God is dead, I wanted to join you in your mourning.”[3] Mary Magdalene was not acting. Her God had died! Is there a deeper despair than that? But like Brother Martin, in despair we often act as though God had died, and in that moment, we find a companion coming to join us in our mourning. It is the Living Lord Himself who confronts us in the confusion of our despair. That is what He did for Mary, and that is what He desires to do for each of us. And when the Living Lord confronts us in the confusion of despair, if we will but recognize His presence and open our hearts to Him, a transformation begins to occur.

II. The Living Lord Jesus comes to us with the comfort of delight (vv16-18).

Despair does not set in immediately. It is a long, slow, downward spiral. But the journey out of despair does not always have to be equally long and slow. It often is, but it doesn’t have to be. Mary Magdalene is an example of that. Instantaneously, the darkness lifts and the joy of delight breaks forth. Can it happen for us in our despair? And if so, how? We may discover it as we examine how it happened for Mary in our text.

First comes the realization, not only that she is not alone, but that the Lord whom she seeks, whose absence she dreads, is actually present with her. He had been for some time, but she could not detect it. But then comes this moment of tender intimacy when Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!” is all that He said. There is no time spent wondering how in the world the gardener knows her name. All it takes is the sound of her name crossing His lips to make her realize that the One who was dead is alive again.

Jesus said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” He knows all those who are His by faith in a special way. He knows us, and calls to us by name. At the hearing of her name, Mary recognized a familiarity in His voice, and suddenly all is different in her disposition! In our moments of despair, it helps us to know that the Lord has not forgotten about us. The Lord says through Isaiah the prophet, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isa 49:15-16). Those palms have been pierced with nails out of love for you. The Lord Jesus endured all that was inflicted upon Him as He laid down His life in a demonstration of His unparalleled love for you. Look to the cross! Look to the empty tomb! Look to the Risen Lord and behold His wounds! His wounds are ever before Him as tokens of His affection for you. Open your Bible and read it as if it were written specifically for you, because it was! Insert your name into all the precious promises of God’s Word and hear those things spoken with a Galilean dialect as the Lord’s own comforting assurance that He has never left you nor forsaken you.

Mary responds abruptly, “Rabboni!” It is a Hebrew and Aramaic expression, and John translates it for us. It means “teacher.” But it means something even more intimate than this. It means, “My Teacher!” This is the One whom she had loved, in whom she had trusted, and in whom she had placed all of her hopes for this life and the life to come! And she did more than just speak His title, she became physically demonstrative. We may infer from the text that she threw herself upon Him. Why else would Jesus need to say in verse 17, “Stop clinging to Me!” Before we attempt to understand that statement, we need to pause long enough to consider what Mary has done here, that we may emulate her example in our journey from despair to delight! She renewed her faith and hope in Him, and she cast herself upon Him as the object of her utmost joy! From the depths of despair, when all the things of this world have been shaken beneath our feet, we must come to the place where we call upon Him and cast ourselves upon Him. Surely the words of the Psalmist are coming to life in her heart: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psa 73:25). When we come to that place where we realize that all we have is Christ, it is a blessed place, for there we discover that all we need is Christ. And we return to faith, hope, love and joy in Him knowing that no matter how we have felt, the truth of the matter is that He has never left us, never forsaken us, and never forgotten us!

Jesus says, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” I have to confess, this has always been a very puzzling statement for me to grasp. As I sat down to study in preparation for this message, I turned to one of my most trustworthy commentaries for an explanation and found these unsettling words: “This verse belongs to a handful of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.”[4] That was simultaneously both alarmingly uncomfortable and ironically comforting. If the greatest Biblical scholars have had trouble with the passage, no wonder that my mind cannot grasp it. And yet, I think I have come to appreciate something of what the Lord means here. For Mary, clinging to Jesus was a way of expressing, “Do not ever leave me again, or else take me with you!” Jesus’ statement expresses two equally important truths to her. First of all, there was no need for her to cling to Him now, because, as He says, “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” For forty days, He would continue to be present among the disciples, teaching them of “the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Ac 1:3). In a sense He is saying to her, “I’m not going anywhere right now.”

But in another sense He is saying, “I will be going somewhere soon, and where I am going you cannot come at this time.” He is preparing her to loosen her physical grasp on Him. The day will come, six weeks from this point, when He will ascend to the Father. No longer will she be able to touch Him with her hands or see Him with the eye of flesh. She must learn to see Him with the eye of faith. He will still be present with those who are His, but He will be present in the person of His Holy Spirit. Jesus had told His disciples in John 16:7, “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” And Jesus is saying that this is better. How could it be better to have the Holy Spirit instead of the physical presence of Christ? Because He will be in you, able to direct your life from within as you walk by faith with Christ. He will be wherever His people are. In His flesh, if you want to be with Jesus, you would have to go to wherever He is. But by the ministry of His Spirit, He has come to us, to be with us wherever we are. Jesus is saying to Mary, “If you desire to keep Me here, then I cannot be anywhere else. But if I ascend to the Father, then I will always be present with you, and within you, and not only you, but in all of those who trust in Me by faith.” So, in a unique sense that is not applicable to us, Jesus is saying, firstly, “I’m not going anywhere yet, so you don’t have to cling to Me.” But in a sense that is entirely applicable to us, He is saying, “I am going away physically, so that I will never depart from any of My sheep spiritually.” And friends, that is a precious gift from God. The moment we come to faith in Christ, His Spirit comes upon us to dwell within us, and He never leaves. When we find ourselves in despair, wondering where Jesus is in the midst of our difficulties, we need only to remember that He has ascended to the Father, where He is seated at His right hand making intercession for us, and from whence He has deployed His Holy Spirit to be evermore with us in a way that He could not in His physical body. God is with you, and in you, awaiting you to recognize His presence and rely on His power even when we are at our weakest.

Now finally, as Mary journeys from despair to delight, Jesus says to her, “Go to my brethren and say to them, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.” It is at once a comfort and a commission. It is a comfort, for we are told that our relationship with the God of the universe is not distant and strange. It is intimate and precious. He is not merely “God,” but “my God.” The same God that Jesus calls His own is also ours. We belong to Him and He to us. But even more intimately, the One whom Jesus had eternally called His Father has become “my Father.” By His saving work on the cross, Jesus has reconciled us to His Father even while we were once in rebellion to Him. He is the Father of the prodigal who runs to meet His wayward children as we take the first step toward home in response to His beckoning grace. Jesus says, “The One I go to – my God and your God – is My Father, and your Father!” God is not merely present with us, He is intimately affectionate toward us, loving us as sons and daughters through our faith in the Christ who has saved us from our sinful rebellion. What a comfort to know that when all others in this world fail us, we have a Father in heaven who will never fail us, and will always be faithful to us! He is my God and my Father. That is a comfort.

But here is also a commission. “Go and say,” Jesus tells her. Go and tell the others that He lives, that He who died is risen, and that He is going to the Father to be our Great High Priest, bearing our very names in the wounds of His flesh. It may surprise you to know that I have been no stranger to discouragement, depression, and even despair. Is it scandalous for me to admit it? I am not bothered by that. But I will tell you that when that fog sets in, I have found no faster remedy than to retreat to my commission to make known the good news of the Living Lord Jesus to others – be they my brothers and sisters in the faith or those who have yet to come to know Him. In the very telling of this good news of Jesus, the fog lifts and daylight breaks the darkness! And Mary found this to be true as well. She immediately obeyed the commission and came to the other disciples and announced to them, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them all that He had said to her.

George MacDonald, an intellectual influence of C. S. Lewis, wrote long ago concerning the believer who “art in the dark and hast no light”: “Fold the arms of thy faith, and wait in the quietness until light goes up in thy darkness. Fold the arms of thy Faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feelings: Do thy work.” Similarly, three centuries earlier, the Puritan Richard Baxter wrote, “I have known grievous despairing melancholy cured and turned into a life of godly cheerfulness, principally by setting upon constancy and diligence in the business of families and callings.”[5] In other words, get active! Give yourself to the duty of serving the Lord and making Him known, as He has called and commissioned us all. Mary did this in glad obedience to the commission of the Lord, and thus her journey was complete. She had been transported, and transformed, from the confusion of despair to the comfort of delight as the Living Lord Jesus came to her and confronted her.

Listen! Even now, the Gardener approaches. He is whispering your name. His sheep hear His voice, and they follow Him. His footsteps lead us through the valley of the shadow of death, but we do not fear, for He is with us, and will lead us through to the other side with His goodness and mercy following us all the days of our lives. He gives beauty for ashes; the oil of joy for mourning; a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. He transforms us from despair to delight.

[1] Accessed March 31, 2016.
[2] Time does not permit us here to explore the suggestion made by some commentators concerning the position of these angels, “one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (v12). I believe there is something significant here that should be considered further. The position of these angels is reminiscent of the placement of the cherubim upon the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant (see Exodus 25:1-22; Leviticus 16). The mercy seat was the place where God declared, “I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim … I will speak to you….” This was also the place where the blood for the atonement of sin was to be sprinkled by the High Priest. I cannot help but wonder if the position of these angels in the tomb of Jesus depict for us in a symbolic way the truth that Christ, by virtue of His death and resurrection, is the fulfillment of all these promises. It is through the Risen Lord Jesus (and Him alone) that we meet with God, that He speaks to us, and that our sins are fully atoned.
[3] Rudolf K. Markwald and Marilynn Morris Markwald, Katharina Von Bora: A Reformation Life (St. Louis: Concordia, 2002), 139-140.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 641-642.
[5] Both quotes cited in John Piper, When the Darkness Will Not Lift (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2006), 46-47. 

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