David A. Davis
April 1, 2018
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I was never very good at memorizing scripture. Actually, I was never very good at quoting chapter and verse either. At my age I figure I’m on the down side of memorizing anything, so I’ve come to terms with it. But I am here to tell you I know every word of every song of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. There is absolutely no reason to be proud of that. Trust me, it has much less to do with me being a child of the church and much more due to the fact that I grew up in the 70’s. So I am actually looking forward to tonight’s live television production of Jesus Christ Superstar (assuming I can keep my eyes open at all tonight).
Youth leaders and pastors in the 70’s worked very hard to make sure every kid knew the theological and biblical problems with the content of what was called back then “a rock opera.” Right at the top of the list of concerns was that there is no telling, no singing, no account of the resurrection. The production ends with the crucifixion and then an instrumental piece entitled “John 19:41,” which since I don’t memorize chapters and verses I looked up again. The verse tells of the body of Jesus being laid in a garden tomb. No resurrection. No Easter. Jesus Christ Superstar ends in death.
So I was caught off guard when I read of resurrection and new life in an article about tonight’s show. The writer asks a few questions to those who have the lead parts. One of the questions was about their own faith. The singer John Legend, who plays the role of Jesus, tells of growing up in the Pentecostal Church and how his whole family was involved in just about every aspect of church life. Then he says, “but I’m not religious now.” Sara Bareilles, also a well known singer and songwriter, takes the role of Mary Magdalene. She grew up Catholic, went to Catholic School. She says that she has faith and a belief in God and that she looks back on the ritual and comfort of the church with fondness but she doesn’t go to church anymore.
Then there was Alice Cooper. He plays King Herod. For those who didn’t grow up in the 70’s and 80’s Alice Cooper is sort of a grandfather of heavy metal and rock music as performance art. To say he was a character would be a huge understatement. Full makeup, crazy costumes, smashing guitars, very loud music. Listen to what Alice Cooper told that reporter. “I was basically the prodigal child. I grew up in the church, went as far away as you could possibly go, and then came back. When I got sober, I started understanding. I had all the fame and the money and everything that went with it, but I started realizing what was important to me was my relationship with Jesus Christ… I study the Bible every morning. I have a Wednesday morning men’s Bible study. I pray before every show. I go to church every Sunday with my wife and kids. I don’t think I have ever been more happy in my life. People say, ‘Think of all you gave up to be a Christian’… I’m not giving anything up. I’m giving it back, to him.” Alice Cooper, for goodness’ sake.
Meaning and purpose found amid the distant loneliness of prodigal wanderings. New life rising out of the vain, destructive trappings of the world’s allure. The tug of a Spirit-filled joy and happiness and assurance that pulls and pulls against the almost insurmountable riptide of the powers and the principalities of this present darkness. Resurrection hope. It is only to be understood when death and darkness are so real. The promise is to be received when death and darkness are winning, when death and darkness carry the day and define the night. Surrounded, confronted, by death and darkness. That’s when Jesus asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” John writes, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” “While it was still dark.” The other three gospels are very clear that Easter starts at the break of day: “as the first day of the week was dawning” (Matthew), “very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen” (Mark), “on the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke). But not John. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” Still dark. Really dark. Darkness in John’s gospel has little to do with the time of day. Darkness; it has everything to do with all that is opposite to the mighty works of God. All the powers and principalities that work to destroy life, life in all fullness, as Jesus said in John. Darkness; it is the symbol, the sum, the prototype, the theme, the weight, the rallying cry in John for all that works against God, God’s reign, God’s kingdom. Mary came to the tomb when it was still dark. In John’s gospel, darkness IS death. Tomb. Dark. That’s death squared.
This isn’t dark as when a theater or concert hall is empty for the evening with nothing scheduled, “the hall is dark.” This isn’t dark as when you are at McCarter Theater for an Anton Chekhov play that is so depressing and there’s so much yelling that you consider leaving at intermission, saying to your seatmate, “it’s too dark.” This is the kind of dark that comes amid the bright lights of a hospital waiting room, when “butterflies in your stomach” doesn’t begin to describe it, and as you wait for the doctor and you keep trying telling yourself this is all a dream, this can’t be happening. This is the kind of dark that tomorrow brings when it takes absolutely every ounce of courage you have to stay sober today. The dark that comes when your grandchild tells you about the mean kids at school and you can’t find any words to make him feel better. The dark that comes as the person you love like no other starts to fade before your eyes. Dark like that walk from the car to the grave in the cemetery that no one can avoid because of the absolute finality and boundless reach of death. It was still dark.
And Mary went alone. Here in John, she went alone. No mention of Mary, the mother of James or of Salome. No reference to the other women. No use of plural pronoun. Mary was alone in all that darkness. She stood outside the tomb all alone weeping. She was not full of fear and great joy. There was no terror and amazement. She was not perplexed. She was weeping. John tells four times she was weeping. Mary stood weeping. As she wept, she bent over the tomb. The angels asked “Why are you weeping?’ The Risen Jesus asked her, “Why are you weeping?” Weeping. Weeping. Weeping. Weeping. She wasn’t crying. This wasn’t shedding a few tears. She was weeping.
When I was a very young boy my brother, who was 21 at the time, was killed in a car accident. I can still hear my mother weeping. I would be outside in the backyard and I could hear her inside weeping. I would wake up in my bedroom next to theirs, and I could hear her weeping in the night. I can hear that sound of weeping like it was just last night. Mary’s tears were the kind of tears you can hear. She didn’t just bend over to look in that tomb. She was doubled over in grief, anguish, lament. Humanity’s brutal force has killed him and now taken him too. He was gone. Everything was gone. It was finished. Mary weeps not just for herself but for everyone, for all, for every single one who has stood alone, surrounded by death and darkness, and who has wailed in the face of the utter absence of God.
And that’s when Jesus asks. He asks “why are you weeping?” The hot take on the question is to assume Jesus is offering a “there, there, there, Mary,” with a pat on the back and a few “mansplaining, Jesus-splaining,” condescending words like “We all know how this going to end. I’ve been telling you forever how this ends. Mary, Mary, you just don’t get it.” A flippant take on the question is to portray Jesus as a frustrated. “Mary, it’s me, I’m here. I’m standing right here! Uh, hello.” The strong take, the faithful take, the compelling take on Easter morning is to realize that the first words spoken by the Risen Jesus in John’s Gospel he asks after her tears. He acknowledges her tears. He hears her tears. Her tears and ours. He asks. Jesus asks.
And only then comes her name. Then he says her name. He calls her by name. With all those tears, and the piercing reality of darkness and death that proclaims the absence of God, the resurrection promise comes with her name. Before Mary offers the first Easter morning sermon, before she says, “I have seen the Lord,” Christ affirms his resurrection presence with her name. No trumpet blast. No angel declaration. No earthquake. Just her name. Standing in the very vortex of despair, death, sin, abandonment, hopelessness, judgement, and hell, the Savior called her by name. God knew her by name. And the message was then and forever announced. That Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Some years, the Easter acclamation is a daring, defiant word of hope unleashed on a world that seems increasingly to look like anything but “thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven.” Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! And some years, other years, Easter’s call and response is a plea deep within, a yearning of the soul, a cry of the heart, between you and the Living God, a longing to hear the voice of Christ Jesus call, that this year, it would be an Easter moment with your name on it. That you would recognize, that you would see, that you would know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! And that you would experience afresh the promise of him asking after you.
The strong take, the faithful take, the compelling take on Easter morning is not about telling people about an empty tomb. It is not about winning some argument at dinner about the bodily resurrection, it is not about pretending death is not real. You and I have been to the grave too many times together to think we can fool each other. It’s not even about trying to convince the world or your cousin Phil that Jesus rose from the dead. No. The strong take on Easter morning is the awareness of the mystery and an acknowledgement of what will never be explained. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.
The strong take on Easter is the gratitude deep within for God’s presence in life and in death. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. The strong take on Easter is the affirmation that washes over you from head to toe that God knows you by name and God loves you. Today and forevermore! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
The strong take on Easter is the bold testimony to the Risen Lord and his presence in your life and in mine.
© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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