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While it was still dark
An Easter sermon for those who wait in the dark
Raleigh Mennonite Church
April 9, 2023
The Scripture we heard from John’s gospel could not be more different from what we experienced this morning. That first Easter there is no potluck brunch and no shouts of Alleluia. Instead, we are greeted by screams and sweat, adrenaline and weeping. Early on the first day, while it was still dark.
It has been three days since the crucifixion. Three days since the agonizing death of Jesus through torture and asphyxiation. Three days since all but all but handful of women fled. Three days since they took his body down from the cross, and sealed it inside a cave with a massive bolder.
Three days. Three nights of deep darkness, when the moon glows and the black air is thick with sleep. Three nights of a cool, rough wall and a stony silence.
I have wondered about those three days. They are obscured in our story by grief and fear and absence. We don’t know what happens inside the tomb in the dark but this hasn’t stopped informed guessing over the centuries.
In one Christian tradition during these days between cross and resurrection Jesus spends his time freeing the saints in hell from the power of death.
In another Christian tradition, this one portrayed in Eastern Orthodox icons, Jesus is not alone in the tomb. He sits in the grave comforting Adam and Eve, or at times is comforted by angels.
But what if Jesus spends those days waiting in the dark?
There may be something to this. One of the images the New Testament writers draw on is that of Jonah – the prophet who waits in the belly of the great fish for three days. Jonah huddles in the smelly, wet dark. Perhaps Jesus does, too. Many of the church’s earliest Holy Saturday liturgies draw on images of rest and sleep.
The idea of waiting in the dark is not something I find especially pleasant. My own lack of desire to sit in the dark finds it roots in growing up in a house with a basement, a house where you had to turn off the light in the basement before coming upstairs. That meant the basement was pitch black with one puny lightbulb at the top of the stair. Because of this you had to flick the switch at the bottom and then sprint up the stairs before you were snatched by the Zombie or Monster who lived under the stairs.
As it is, I know that darkness can frighten. But I also know that darkness offers gifts. For those of us who are sighted, the dark leads us to rely on our other senses. We are given the opportunity for misperception, allowed to attend to what may not be possible in the clear light of day. Night is a time of imagination, hopefully beyond a zombie or monster in the basement.
And so it is that we are invited to imagine him, Jesus, waiting in the dark as with a friend, tending to flowers and doing a bit of weeding around the graveyard (don’t forget, there in the darkness, Mary Magdalene mistakes him for a gardener).
And of course, we cannot forget her. Mary Magdalene. She also is a night creature in this story. She comes to the tomb empty handed. Alone in the dark, Mary Magdalene winds her way through the streets of Jerusalem to the outskirts of the city. We can imagine that she’s come to mourn. In my experience, the dark is a good place to cry.
It is here, at the center of her grief, the ground zero of her shattered hopes where she finds the tomb empty, the stone rolled away.
We only know of the resurrection because Mary woke up before there was light and trudged with her sorrow in tow to the tomb. And there she discovers that Jesus is alive in the same way he has always lived. He forces no encounter. He is waiting for his friends to come to him, to come to him with their heavy grief.
When I was younger, I thought, or at least hoped, that this Christian life might help me avoid grief. After all, if death is defeated forever, what could go wrong? A lot, it turns out. Much to my surprise, following after the Jesus meant finding myself also trudging towards a soul-emptying grief. My Christian life unfolded in emergency rooms and prison cells, at homeless encampments and in the parking lot of a for-profit migrant detention center. There were so many graves.
On Easter we are confronted with a question about the life we want. St John of the Cross might put it this way: “do you want ‘spirituality’, mystical experience, inner peace, or do you want God?” Because here in the dark, you will meet God but this encounter will also break open your life. It will lead you towards disquiet and suffering. We can only encounter the God who returns from the dead if we are willing to pull up a chair by a tomb.
My first job as a pastor was with the Moravian church here in Raleigh. Our Easter worship began in the graveyard at Oakwood Cemetery. That’s where you’ll find the Moravians this morning and every Easter morning. I remember my alarm blaring at 4 am, and driving down dark streets until I arrived, shivering and bleary-eyed at the cemetery.
The service began at the top of a hill. Moravians are known for their brass bands so a boisterous tuba was happy to make sure we were fully awake. After saying the first part of the Easter liturgy, we processed down to the Moravian section of the cemetery, to God’s Acre. But first the band director sent half the brass band ahead of us. It’s a sort of Moravian version of surround sound. As we walk the band plays a call and response.
In the darkness we couldn’t see the part of the band that went ahead, he could only hear them. And for a couple minute, just for a moment I could imagine that those instruments were played by people raised from the dead, that we would arrive to find graves split open and someone great, great uncle playing the slide trombone. It was dark and I could, just for a moment, imagine it.
I don’t need to tell you that we find ourselves in darkness. It is difficult to see the shape of our future, the threat of climate change is so immense. I can’t find the path before me when there is so much destruction and hatred aimed at trans people, so much hatred for teachers who have the conviction that we need to tell the truth to our children about racism. Tyre Nichols is dead at the hands of police. Tortuguita is dead also at the hands of police, for protecting the forest he loved.
Easter doesn’t make that go away. We aren’t being offered a distraction. Easter points us to the graveyards. Easter points us to the most raw and vicious pain we carry in us. And then we hear our name. Or I should say your name. Because Mary is greeted, recognized, named by Jesus in intimacy, all by herself. Eventually Jesus will gather others, say the names of others. But this moment is for her. She is known. There is life here among the dead.
We are invited to travel with Mary Magdalene, in the utter silence and the deep dark to the place where we are told to expect only death, only devastation. And there we will find an empty tomb. There we will hear our name being called. There, the risen Jesus waits in the dark.
 Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement : Sermons and Addresses, Darton, Longman & Todd LTD, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/duke/detail.action?docID=4462783.