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April 16, 2017

Light Greater Than Our Darkness

Text: John 20: 1-18

 

Listen to this quote from John’s gospel. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has overcome it.” The darkness has overcome it. That’s what I said. The words are familiar and most people just thought I’d said them the way I should. A few people close to the front have quizzical looks on their faces. It’s Easter. We’re reading from John’s gospel once again. John understands. Listen to how he begins. “Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark…” Jesus was born in darkness. He rose in darkness. Often God’s best work is “done in the dark. For me there’s great hope and comfort in that truth. You and I spend a lot of time “in the dark”, “wrestling with the dark”, or “finding our way through the dark”. Easter assures us that God is there also.

I recently read a story about Sara Touchton who was a Presbyterian elder in South Carolina. During a rather routine medical procedure she received some blood in the hospital. It was the mid-1980s. Protocols to protect the blood supply from HIV were lacking. Sara contracted HIV. It quickly became AIDS.

In those days, the only thing worse than the disease was the stigma and fear it generated. One Sunday, Sara walked to the front of the Sanctuary and stood before her Church family. She said: “I have AIDS and it will kill me. I don’t have long now. I thank those of you who are praying for me. You may not know this, but in the early church, those who were sick and dying, those who were facing great suffering, would often stand before the congregation not only to receive prayers, but to give testimony.

That’s why I am here. I hate what’s happened to me. I want you to know I trust in Jesus Christ. I’m at peace. Jesus suffered greatly and he’s shown us that suffering won’t have the last word. My faith isn’t shaken and I’m not afraid. When it comes to you; and suffering will come to you, remember that I was here, and don’t be afraid”.

Sara’s witness is Easter’s word.  Don’t be afraid. Easter doesn’t say: there’s nothing to fear. It says: don’t be afraid. Whatever comes; whatever life brings or takes from us, don’t be afraid. Remember: he is here. God’s light is “greater than our darkness”. The promise of the Christmas stable is fully realized in the Easter garden. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has NOT overcome it.” Mary comes to the tomb. The stone is rolled away and the grave is empty. Her first thought isn’t “Resurrection”, it’s “Desecration”. She isn’t thinking “He Is Risen” but “He is stolen”. Despair and sorrow, not  joy, sends her running to tell the others. Peter and John return with her. When they enter they see only the linen wrappings. The text says they looked and they “believed”. Then they left. (I could write a whole sermon on that one line.) Mary stays in the Garden weeping. Her world has been shattered and her dreams destroyed. The tomb is empty, so is she. She looks inside again. Maybe she’s hoping to see something she missed before; some clue to help her understand. Two angels are sitting there. They ask. “Woman, why are you weeping?” She answers. “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.”

We’ve shed Mary’s tears. We’ve wept for ourselves, our friends and for the world. We’ve wept because there was something we could have done and didn’t and because there was nothing we could do. We’ve wept for innocents who die, and lives taken by violence, disease, accident and war. We’ve wept and wondered why God seems so absent and our prayers aren’t heard. We’ve wept simply because we didn’t know what else to do. “Why are you weeping?” We could give many reasons.

Mary turns around and sees someone standing there. She assumes it’s the gardener. He too asks, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Then he adds, “Who are you looking for?” She tells him why she’s there. He speaks one word. “Mary” he says. She hears that familiar voice call her name. It’s Jesus. He’s not dead. He’s alive. Everything changes. “I have seen the Lord,” Mary says. Her sorrow is now joy. Her despair turns to hope. That would be a good story even if it ended there. It doesn’t. Easter’s promise is that what happened for Mary will happen for us. When we least expect it and most need it; Jesus will be there.

A teacher was directing a children’s Easter play. She wanted each child to be comfortable with their role. One boy baffled her. He kept insisting he wanted to be the rock in front of the tomb. “Don’t you want a speaking part?” she asked. He shook his head. When it was over, she asked him why he wanted to be the rock. He smiled and then said, “Because it felt so good to let Jesus out of the tomb”.

Easter is about how God “let Jesus out of the tomb”. It’s also about letting God get us out of ours. It’s about rediscovering God’s power to change death into life. It’s about how God can transform our fear to courage and bring a word of hope into the fearsome realities of our lives.

Adam Hamilton, a friend of mine, is a Senior Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. On Palm Sunday in 2013, two of his members, 14 year old Greg and his grandfather, Bill, were killed by a gunman on a rampage. Every year since then Rev. Hamilton has ended his Easter sermon this way. He mentions that people will ask “Do you really believe this stuff? You’re a smart guy. Do you really believe Jesus rose from the dead?” Adam’s response is always the same: “I not only believe it. I’m counting on it.”

In an interview just after the shooting he said, “Easter suddenly seems so much more important to me and for our Church and community this year as we remember on that day that neither evil, nor hate, nor even death has the final word in our lives”.

Easter doesn’t end all suffering. It doesn’t stop death. It doesn’t make everything that’s wrong with us or the world suddenly “right”. What Easter does is offer us courage, comfort and hope. It assures us that God is stronger than all that faces us. It anchors us in the sure promise that God will always have the last word. God’s word is one of love and peace, grace and mercy, light and life. Into every circumstance of our lives, that word will be spoken.

Tom Are is pastor of Village Presbyterian Church. He shares this Easter witness. He writes:

During seminary, I was an interim campus minister at Clemson University. I led the student fellowship group. At our meetings, students took turns leading devotions. Most of their devotionals had the same plot: “I was in trouble, failing, girlfriend problems, parent problems — but then I prayed, and all was well.”

One winter evening, Linn asked if he could do a devotional. Linn was the faculty advisor. A couple of years before I met them, Linn and his wife Kay lost their elementary-aged son, Ashley, to leukemia. Linn shared his story. He spoke of weeping through the night in a hospital room, lifting pleading prayers to a silent ceiling: “God, heal my son.” Morning came, but there was no joy. Ashley was dead.

Linn said: “I’ll forever carry the scars of grief in my heart. I want you to know that resurrection isn’t just for those who have died. Somehow God brings new life even to those who hurt so badly, so unbelievably badly, that our greatest fear is that we’ll never die. There will be a day when I will see Ashley again, but neither he nor I have to wait for that day for resurrection. I’ve been to hell, but bit by bit, heartbeat by heartbeat, God is resurrecting me. I am alive again.”

Easter isn’t just about our dying. It’s also about our living. It gives us power to do both. Jesus entered the darkness of our sin, despair, hopelessness and death. He went there so we don’t have to stay there. His resurrection means that in no part of our life can darkness remain in charge. It can enter. It can’t stay. It can’t overcome us. God’s light is always greater than our darkness.

Is there some “dark place” in our lives right now? Is it despair…fear…doubt? Is it anger…guilt…regret? Does some broken relationship need mending? Was the diagnosis a bad one? Are we facing a surgery or hard treatments? Is it a broken relationship or a broken heart? Have we wandered far from God and wonder if there’s any welcome back? Are we looking ahead to the future and seeing a tunnel with no light at the end? Are we struggling with questions and not finding any real answers? Do we need a second chance and think we’re facing a closed door? Do we need to make a change in our life and we’re not sure we can?

I’m not asking these questions to make all of you sad or mad or have you feel bad about yourself. I’m asking them because if you and I can acknowledge where it’s “„dark” in our lives; if we can name and speak the truth about our brokenness, our need, our hopes and our longings; that’s   just where the light of God, the light of Easter, is waiting to break through and bless us. Just where we thought we had only an ending, God will show us a new beginning. Just where we thought God was most absent, we discover God there.

Here’s another example of this and how one woman experienced that truth. Her name is Norma. She lives in Vermont.

My mother loved the color purple. A purple dress with matching purse and hat was her favorite Sunday outfit. Even her fine china was an exquisite shade of eggplant. She’d set it out on a lavender tablecloth with matching napkins and a centerpiece of lilac-tinted lilies.

When Mom died last year, I was devastated. No matter what I did, grief tugged at me from every corner. I missed her laugh and her presence. Easter was the hardest. It was her favorite holiday. Everywhere I looked, I saw her favorite color: Purple ribbons on Easter baskets, lavender colored marshmallow chicks and chocolate eggs in shiny purple tinfoil. Mom still seemed so far away.

Dad and I went to Church together on Easter. We sat in the front pew waiting for the service to begin. I noticed a mysterious lavender circle of light dancing on the altar. I looked around trying to see where it originated. There was no stained glass window or anything else that could have reflected that color on the altar. “Look, Norma”, Dad whispered. “Do you see that light?”  The lavender glow remained there dancing on the altar the full hour of the service. “Hallelujah” I sang with the congregation. I was reminded; Easter means that even death can’t separate us from those we love.

Was it just some random unexplained light? Was it God’s way of reminding her and us that we aren’t alone? We haven’t been forgotten. I’ll take it as a promise. Because of Easter I’ll keep looking for and expecting such signs to come.

It was Sunday afternoon. A father and his young son went out for a drive. Passing a cemetery they saw a newly dug grave. There was a large pile of dirt beside it. The boy looked intently at the hole. Pointing to it, he said excitedly, “Look, Dad, one got out”.

One got out. Yes, he did. That’s what we celebrate today. Death couldn’t hold Jesus. Darkness couldn’t overcome his light. He is Lord of life and he is Lord of death. He is risen that we may know it.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can’t, won’t, will never, overcome or extinguish it. It’s the Christmas promise. It’s the Easter truth. God’s light is always greater than our darkness. Believe it. Claim it. Live by it. Alleluia. Amen.

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