Weeping at the Empty Tomb

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Topical Scripture: John 20:11-18

Thomas Jefferson is one of my favorite presidents. Our third president could read seven languages, authored the Declaration of Independence, and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.

However, his faith was not the part of his life I admire. While he believed in the existence of God, he denied the divinity of Jesus and the divine inspiration of Scripture. Late in his life, he compiled his own version of the Gospels, cutting out every reference to the miraculous.

The so-called Jefferson Bible ends with these words, “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus: and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

By contrast, billions of Christians around the world will proclaim on this Easter Sunday, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” We believe that it is true. We celebrate it as fact today.

But tomorrow, if Jesus is not as alive in our lives as he was on that first day, it’s as though Easter is an event rather than an experience, a day rather than a way of life.

In these days of pandemic, how does Easter relate to the crises we face and the fears we feel?

An unlikely evangelist

From Christmas to Easter, we’ve watched Jesus change lives. Today we come to the unlikeliest evangelist of Easter: Mary Magdalene.

Let’s begin with what we don’t know about her: she was not the “sinful woman” who wept over the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:36–38). And despite Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code heresy, she was not Jesus’ wife.

Here’s what we do know. Consider three biblical facts.

First, her first name tells us that she was a woman, of course. Women in her day had no social status whatever. They were the possession of their fathers until they became the possession of their husbands. We have a letter written from a Roman soldier on the battlefield back to his pregnant wife instructing her, “If it is a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, throw it out.”

Second, her last name tells us that she was from the town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. A Galilean, country peasant in the eyes of the city sophisticates down in Jerusalem and Judea. Someone from nowhere special.

Third, Luke 8:2 tells us that she is someone “from whom seven demons had gone out.” Like other demoniacs healed by Jesus, she had been delivered from the enemy. But we don’t know anything else about this fact in her past.

Now fast forward to Good Friday, when Mary Magdalene watched Jesus die on the cross and then watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as they buried his body. She was then in the first group to go to his tomb on Easter Sunday morning: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early” (John 20:1). She came to finish burying Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1).

However, she “saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” Now watch her reaction: she ran to find Peter and John and told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

It did not occur to her or to them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, a fact that contradicts any claim that the disciples stole his body or hallucinated his resurrection.

After Peter and John saw the empty tomb and left, our text picks up: “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb” (v. 11). I have been more than thirty times to the Garden Tomb north of the Old City of Jerusalem, where one must indeed stoop down to step inside.

The text continues: “And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet” (v. 12). Angels often appear in pairs in Scripture, as they did again when Jesus ascended back to heaven (Acts 1:10). And they often appear in white.

“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'” (John 20:13). She still did not understand that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Then, “having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (v. 14). This was not uncommon with the risen Lord: he traveled with two disciples on the road to Emmaus who did not recognize him, either (Luke 24:13–31).

“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman why are you weeping. Whom are you seeking?’ 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'” (v. 15). She even then, in the presence of the risen Lord, did not realize that he was risen.

Then “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher)” (v. 16). He knew her name, just as he could call Zacchaeus by name (Luke 19:5). And just as he knows yours. She now knew him and fell before him in worship.

Verse 17: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for 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.”‘” And “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her” (v. 18).

A life-changing encounter

With this, Mary Magdalene became the first evangelist of Easter. Not Peter, his lead apostle, or John, his best friend. Not a chief priest or Pharisee or member of the Sanhedrin. A woman from a nondescript town in Galilee who had been demon-possessed before she met Jesus.

If he could call her and use her, he can call and use anyone.

But here’s the catch: we have to know who he is. We have to know that he is in fact risen from the dead, that he is as alive as when he first walked the earth, that he is real and he is Lord.

Otherwise, we have a message but no Master. We have a symbol but no Savior. We have a nice story to tell but no good news to share.

So here’s the question: are you Mary when our text begins, or Mary when it ends?

According to a recent survey, only 64 percent of Americans believe Jesus was raised from the dead. Adding to our confusion, only 57 percent say Jesus is the only person who never sinned; 57 percent think he was created by God; 59 percent say the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being.

Now let’s get personal: if Jesus is not the living, life-changing Lord of your life today, it’s as though Easter isn’t real for you.

When was the last time praying or reading Scripture changed your life? That you did something you would not have done or did not do something you would have done?

When was the last time you worshiped Jesus in a way that touched you emotionally as well as rationally? When Peter encountered the divinity of Jesus, he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). When John met the risen Christ on Patmos, he says in Revelation 1, “I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).

When last were you awed by God?

If you are, you will want to tell someone. Like Mary Magdalene, you will want to spread the news. You’ll be the Samaritan woman who told her village about Jesus, or Matthew the tax-collector who invited his fellow tax-collectors to meet his Lord, or the Gadarene demoniac who told the Decapolis what Jesus did for him.

In fact, you can measure the depth of your encounter with Jesus on Easter by the degree to which you tell his story on the day after Easter. And the degree to which you serve others as he has served you, the degree to which you pay forward what you have received in gratitude for such grace.

When our first son was born, no one had to prompt me to tell the story or to show his pictures. It was the same with our second son. And don’t get me started on our grandkids. When you love someone, you want everyone to know. And you want everyone else to love the one you love.

That’s just how love works.


So I’ll close by asking you again, which Mary are you? The Mary before she met the risen Christ on the first Easter, or the Mary after she met him? Is he an old story or a risen Savior for you? Is he a religious subject or a personal Lord?

When last did he change your life? Will you make time with him today for him to change your life again today? Will you share his story and his love tomorrow?

Dr. Samuel M. Lockridge was one of the most profound orators of our day. I love his description of our risen Lord: “He is enduringly strong; he is entirely sincere. He is eternally steadfast; he is immortally gracious. He is imperially powerful; he is impartially merciful. He is the greatest phenomenon that has ever crossed the horizons of the globe.

“He is God’s Son; he is the sinner’s Savior. He is the captive’s Ransom; he is the breath of life. He is the centerpiece of civilization; he stands in the solitude of Himself. He is august and he is unique; he is unparalleled and he is unprecedented. He is undisputed and he is undefiled; he is unsurpassed and he is unshakeable.

“He is the loftiest idea in philosophy; he is the highest personality in psychology. He is the supreme subject in literature; he is the fundamental doctrine of theology. He is the Cornerstone and the Capstone. He is the miracle of the ages.”

Now he wants to be the miracle of our lives. The next step is yours.