[Somewhat longer than usual: this is what I preached on Easter Sunday 2010.]
There’s a song called ‘Wake Up Dead Man’ by U2. It’s a great prayer of a song, in which Bono sings ‘Jesus: I’m waiting here, boss; I know you’re looking out for us, but maybe your hands aren’t free. Wake up, dead man!’ Echoing Psalm 44 (especially verses 23-26), he cries out in the midst of the suffering and despair of the world, asking God: ‘Why won’t you do something about this?’
I expect most of us have felt like that at some stage. Times when all seems lost. When all have abandoned you. When you feel broken, alone, and lost, with no idea how to find your way again. That’s the way of this world, and there are plenty of causes for such pain. The personal tragedy of broken relationships. Massive injustice. Mental illness. Accidents and natural disasters. Death itself.
At these times we may well want to cry out to God: ‘Father: I know you’re there, but it feels like you’re not interested. Are you there? Are you watching? Why won’t you do something about this? Have you abandoned me?’
I suspect Jesus’ followers felt something like this on Easter Saturday.
Jesus’ death could mean only one thing to his followers: he was wrong. Jesus’ disciples and the women who cared for them had followed him for around three years. They had come to believe that Jesus was the “Messiah”: the great king from God that Israel had been waiting for; the one who would set the whole broken world right again. But a dead Messiah wasn’t a Messiah at all. If the so-called Messiah was instead humiliated and killed, then it showed very clearly that he was not Israel’s promised king.
Jesus’ followers had seen him betrayed, flogged, mocked, ridiculed, and finally brutally crucified. They were there, and saw him hanging from nails on planks of wood, bleeding and broken. Had he failed? Had he been wrong?
I can’t help but think that Jesus’ followers might have been asking: ‘Has God abandoned us?’ I can imagine them, in turmoil and confusion, crying out: ‘What are you doing, God? Why have you let this happen?’
In John 20:1-18 we encounter Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ tomb. Jesus had released Mary from seven evil spirits (Luke 8:2), and that since then she had been part of the group of women who travelled with Jesus and his followers caring for their needs. She was present at Jesus’ crucifixion. Like Jesus’ disciples, she had come to believe he was God’s promised king, the one who would set everything right. Jesus was her teacher, her healer, and her friend.
So then, on the first morning of the week, she went to where he was buried to mourn. Probably feeling abandoned; confused; alone; full of grief and sadness. Her whole world had been turned upside-down.
When she arrives, things only get worse: Jesus’ body is gone! She assumes someone has stolen it (not an uncommon occurrence at the time). She runs to Jesus’ disciples to tell them, and they don’t know what to do either (although John suspects something incredible has happened); and so, they leave. Mary stays behind at the tomb, weeping.
And then, into the midst of this despair & confusion, into this world-turned-upside-down, walks the resurrected Jesus.
You can hear the relief in Mary’s voice when she hears Jesus speak her name. Earlier in John’s book , Jesus calls himself the ‘good shepherd’, and says that the good shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name…and his sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10:3-4, 14). Here Jesus calls Mary by name, and she recognises his voice, and cries out ‘Teacher!’
And she clings to him. In verse 17 Jesus says to her ‘Don’t cling to me.’ The original Greek phrase literally says ‘Stop touching me!’ When Jesus when calls her name, Mary turns to him with such overwhelming surprise and relief that she falls down before him and clasps her hands firmly around his feet—making sure he’s really there, clinging to him in the fear that he might now disappear again, in the fear that Jesus might once more leave her.
Jesus’ response—‘Don’t cling to me’—is, I think, a word of comfort. He is saying to her, ‘I’m not abandoning you. I’m not leaving you. Don’t fear. I’m here for you.’ Mary has not been abandoned.
Mary did not need to fear. That Jesus isn’t dead means that he has not failed! All the things Mary and Jesus’ disciples had hoped and believed about him were not destroyed, but proven true—he was who he had said he was, and who they had believed he was!
A risen Jesus means that he is the great king who God’s people were waiting for. It means Jesus is the one who will set this broken world right again. It means he is in control, because he has defeated even death itself. Life’s full-stop is instead made a new beginning.
A risen Jesus, then, means that God has not abandoned his people.
Jesus instructs Mary to take that same message to his disciples, who, like her, must have been reeling from the shattering of all their hopes and beliefs about their Lord. Jesus has not abandoned Mary; instead, he has called her by name.
Nor has he abandoned his disciples. Jesus now calls his disciples ‘brothers’. Verse 17 again: ‘But go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father—to my God and your God.’
In John chapter 1 we are told that the Word, Jesus, gives to all who trust in him the right to be called children of God (John 1:12). Here, in John chapter 20, Jesus instructs Mary Magdalene to tell his the disciples, whom he calls ‘brothers,’ that he is returning ‘to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Here, finally, as Jesus is vindicated as the promised king from God by being raised from the dead, those who trust in him are called the children of God. God has not abandoned his people: in Jesus, he has made them his own children!
What, then, does Easter Sunday mean for us? If Jesus has risen from the dead—if the resurrection truly occurred—then God has not abandoned his people! If you have trusted in Jesus Christ, he has called you by name, and he is your brother. And, as we read in the rest of the New Testament writings, he is at work as God’s promised king to set things right in the world—he will do so once-for-all when he returns.
Knowing that God has not abandoned us frees us from fear, to be there for people as he is for us. If we trust that God is with us, even in sorrow and distress, we can go out and love others, humbly serving them as Jesus has served us, seeking their needs above ours.
Jesus has been raised to life. God has not failed. He has not forgotten us. He has not abandoned us. He is not dead, but alive! When in the midst of despair and distress we cry out to Jesus, ‘Wake up, dead man!,’ he replies: ‘I am awake. I hear you; I’m with you.’ Jesus, the crucified saviour has been brought to life! God did not spare Mary and the disciples from the pain of Jesus’ death; but in the midst of their despair he shows that he has not left them alone. So with us: Jesus doesn’t promise that we won’t experience pain in this world; but his resurrection shows that God has not abandoned us! He is not dead; he is God’s king, who is at work to make the world right again, and will do so. As we wait, he calls tenderly to us by name, our brother and our teacher, just as he called ‘Mary!’ on the first Easter Sunday.