“Did God say,” the serpent asked Eve in the garden. “Did he really?” And that’s how it starts. A simple question. Is this really true? Can this really happen? Does this really make sense? In a garden at the beginning of time, the doubt was real.
With darkness caving in upon him, Jesus cries out from the cross, My God, my God why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 45)? There are moments in life so terrible, so painful, and so difficult that God’s silence, or apparent absence, leads us to question his very existence. Moments thick with pain that seems too much for a good God to be conceivable.
From the foot of the blood drenched cross, Mary Magdalene heard the cry. She also saw his body go limp and lifeless after he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). She saw his body removed from the cross. She saw him wrapped it in burial cloths. She heard the large thump made by the stone as it closed the entrance of the tomb. Her rescuer. Her rabbi. Her friend. He was dead.
We are told, “While it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene came to the garden and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. It was dark. The sun had yet to shine. When she saw the stone rolled away she didn’t shout, “Christ is risen!” Resurrection was the furthest thing from her mind. The first visitor on the first Easter morning was bringing her questions, her doubts, and her suspicions to the garden. Before the exuberant shouts of “He is risen!” there were quiet doubts.
Some of us carry it like a rock in a shoe. It is there. It is annoying. It bothers off and on. For others, it is a splinter underneath the skin. A constant reminder. For some, it is a rip tide that pulls further out to a sea of confusion. Doubt. Is this really true? Can I believe? Can I trust?
Pollsters tell us less and less people are believing. Less of us are attending church. And most of us are attending less often. The reasons are many. The church is irrelevant. The church has caused a lot of damage. The church is boring. Life is busy. Priorities have shifted. Or, is it something else. Is it that we are just being honest with ourselves? We find a lot of the church’s message hard to believe?
Some of you today are fumbling through songs that you don’t believe. “Because he lives I can face tomorrow . . . Because he lives all fear is gone,” you are just not sure. Not wanting to upset the family you allow your parents to drag you here today. All while not believing a word that is spoken.
You wish you believed. You wish you could sing, “Chains have been broken, eyes have been opened” with as much passion as the person sitting next to you. You wish that the belief was strong that you could say with confidence, “death is defeated.” But you can’t. There are too many questions. The doubt is too strong.
I know folks that wake up many mornings “while it is still dark,” and they are not sure they can out run the shadows of doubt and uncertainty. You are not alone. This morning if you are one of those persons who heard, “We haven’t seen you here in a while. It is great to have you back,” don’t take it as a criticism of your lack of participation. Instead recognize it as genuine care and an invitation to join us even in your doubt. At least in this place, we welcome your questions. We think it is okay to bring your doubt to church.
Faith cannot be forced. But unfaith can be challenged. Sometimes just showing up is all it takes.
From the perspective of the Gospel of John, we don’t know why Mary is showing up at the tomb. Jesus’ body had already been prepared for burial. The stone had already been put in place. For some reason, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. She sees the stone that closed off the tomb from the outside has been taken away, and she comes to the only conclusion that seems reasonable. Running to the disciples, she says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”
Peter and the unnamed disciple rush to the tomb. The unnamed disciple runs faster than Peter. He gets there first. But doesn’t go inside. Peter enters the tomb first, sees the burial garments of Jesus. He walks out. The unnamed disciple, goes in, he sees, and he believes. They return to their homes. Mary is still standing outside the tomb weeping.
One sees and believes. Peter sees the same thing and there is no indication that he is convinced. Remember Peter is the one who walked on water. He is the one who first called Jesus Lord. But he was also the one who betrayed Jesus. He denied being a follower. He walked away. It wasn’t that his rational mind kept him from believing. For Peter, it was that his heart kept him from believing.
When you sit with your questions and doubts, it helps to be honest with what is it that keeps you from believing. Is it that you don’t find it rational believable? Or is it that your heart is cold and refuses to let yourself believe? Maybe you have been hurt by the church. And you are not going to let yourself be that vulnerable again. It is easier to say, “I don’t believe” than it is to let yourself be loved.
Maybe, you are ashamed. You are carrying around this guilt for past mistakes. Instead of being open to the possibility that you can be forgiven, you find it easier to not simply believe. It is not that your mind is keeping you from believing, it is that your heart doesn’t have the capacity to believe.
Mary stands weeping. Through the tears, she looks into the tomb. She sees two angels. Treating the angels as if it is two men having a picnic inside an open tomb, she cries, “They have taken away my lord and I don’t know where they have laid him” (John 20: 13). She turns to walk away. She sees what she believes to be a gardener, a body stealing gardener. “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).
Three at the tomb on that first Easter morning. One sees and believes. One has a heart that won’t let him believe. And for the other, none of it makes sense. I am grateful on this Easter morning God has room for each of us. For the one who sees and believes and sings “Alleluia, He is risen!” with a gusto and passion, God welcomes you. For the one who comes with a mind that wants to believe but a heart that holds back, God welcomes you. For the one who comes with questions and doubt, God welcomes you.
This is why this is Good News: somewhere in the shadows of your life and my life, a truly risen Savior is lurking, bursting in new life. Belief in the resurrection moves us beyond the realm of a normal experience. Resurrection belief moves us beyond the realm in which we can understand and manage. It moves us into the sphere of the impossible. Believing in the resurrection requires the same type of belief that is needed to believe in love and hope. Love cannot be explained rationally. Hope doesn’t seem realistic. And yet, we know we can’t live without a sustained hope or an enduring love.
With her doubts, her questions, her fear, her tears, Mary stands staring down an empty tomb. Easter is more than an empty tomb. The power of the resurrection is not ultimately in the empty tomb. Instead, the power of the resurrection comes from a personal encounter of the risen Christ. When Jesus calls her by name, her eyes are opened, and she begins living into the impossible possibility of a new life. She brought her darkness of doubt to the empty tomb and she was met by a risen Jesus who called her by name.
And he knows your name, just as surely as he knew Mary Magdalene’s name. No matter the reasons you doubt, listen for the voice calling your name. Because he is calling. Easter happens as Jesus appears to those who have given up hope. He appears to people who have been swallowed up by doubt and uncertainty.
Believing in the resurrection moves us beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a new way of living. It means we see possibilities of new life in every death, sees light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair. I agree it is a leap of faith. But so is most things worth believing.
This morning you have an option. You can approach the resurrection and life as a problem to be solved. A problem can be held at arm’s lengths. It can remain distant. It doesn’t have to be personal. Or you can approach it as a mystery to be explored. A mystery is inexhaustible. We are embraced by mystery. A mystery refuses to be kept at a safe distance.
For Mary the moment the empty tomb turned from being a problem to a mystery was when she heard her name spoken by Jesus. All her questions about the empty tomb were not answered. But her encounter with the risen Savior gave her back hope. Only her name. Then we remember what Jesus said before, “The sheep here his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). A problem becomes a mystery when she hears her name. The impossible becomes possible when she hears her name. Unfaith becomes faith when she hears her name. Hopeless becomes hope when she hears her name.
Some years ago retired professor from Candler School of Theology, Tom Long told the story of Mary Ann Bird. Mary Ann had it rough growing up. Born with a cleft palate and a disfigured face, Mary Ann also had lopsided feet and so an ungainly way of walking. Naturally, she was the target of all school-age cruelty the other children could muster. “Did ya cut your lip?” they’d sneer. “How come you walk like a duck?” Mary Ann lived in a dark world.
One year her teacher was Miss Leonard. Miss Leonard was short and round and a little doughty but she shined with kindness. Back in those days teachers were required to administer a kind of homespun hearing test. The teacher would call each student up to her desk, have the student cover first one ear and then the other, and the teacher would whisper something to see if the child could hear. Usually the teacher would say simple things like “They sky is blue” or “You have on new shoes today.” Well, Mary Ann dreaded this test because she was also deaf in one ear and so this test would be yet another chance for her to be singled out for her deficiencies in life.
On the day of the test when it came time for her turn, Mary Ann waddled and shuffled forward. She covered up here bad ear first and then, as Miss Leonard leaned in close, Mary Ann heard words that would change her life. Because for Mary Ann’s hearing test, Miss Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.” And through those words and in the midst of her personal darkness, Mary Ann heard the voice of Jesus the voice of love, the voice of grace. And it changed her. Mary Ann grew up to become a teacher herself, and now she shines with kindness and grace for her students. And it started when Mary Ann heard Jesus call her name through the voice of a middle-aged teacher.
Mary Ann heard it through a teacher. Mary Magdalene heard it through a gardener. Jesus is speaking your name as well. It may come through an unexpected place or person. It may be coming from here today. Maybe you mustered up enough courage to bring all your doubt and questions to this place, and in doing so resurrection faith is about to burst through your heart. He is calling your name.
I been asked, “How can I really believe all this stuff?” And my answer is always the same, “Because I have heard him call my name.” Because he lives I can face uncertain days. Because he lives I can face tomorrow. Because he lives I don’t have to fear. Because he lives life is worth the living. Because he lives. And I know, because he called me by name.
If you hear your name being called today, it is time to respond. If you are here today and ready to respond to your name being called, will you join me in this prayer?
Jesus Christ, I put my trust in you. Forgive my sins. Wash me clean, and make me new. Take my doubt and my questions and bury them behind the stone of the empty tomb. Thank you for the hope I find in you and for helping me to see the love of God. I wish to live as your disciple. Help me to follow you. Thank you for the gift of faith. In Jesus name. Amen.