John 20:1-18 “He Must Have Been the Gardener”
It is Easter Morning, over two thousand years ago, that actual morning. It is still dark. Perhaps with a shadow from the setting moon, the singular silhouette of Magdalena moves through the quarried stones of the sepulchers in that garden. She is utterly alone. She knows the dangers involved. She should have come with a male escort of some kind. At the least she could of come with a group of women. No, she is alone.
I recall last Easter feeling a certain loneliness as we were not able to meet at all in person. I was new to the idea of simply talking into the lens of a video camera. Honestly, it was lonely. Easter does not feel like Easter when you are alone. Yet, John in his Gospel portrays a lonely Easter when a solitary woman comes to the tomb.
I had never really thought about this in all the years of being a Christian until we came into this pandemic. This scene from John is perfectly Covid-19 restrictions compliant. Magdalena is keeping six feet distance from others while being outside. And, in all likelihood she was covering her face as was the custom then. This is the perfect Gospel for a Covid-style Easter! And, I hate to say it.
Is Magdalena alone however? Were we ever really alone this last year in all the struggles we have faced. The way Saint John tells this story for us creates a contrast between the men, the disciples inn hiding, and this singular woman, Magdalena. In a group the men are fearful and confused. Yet, in singular faith Magdalena summons the courage to proceed through a graveyard in the dark to find Jesus. The men do not see the angels. The men do not see the Lord. All they see are the worried faces of their fellow disciples.
Magdalena, is as we discover from Saint John, indeed alone yet she discovers that there are angels also with her as she looks into the tomb after Peter and John leave again. Then, she turns around to discover Jesus himself has been with her all along. At first she presumes him to be someone else, yes, the gardener. She finally recognizes him for who he is when he speaks her name. How would the gardener know her name? She finally sees Jesus for who he is in her presence.
I just need to point out something interesting in this telling of the Easter story. It is to this point. Saint John in writing this goes to great lengths not to mention his own name. Nor does he use the first person pronoun “I.” He refers to his own presence in the story as “The disciple whom Jesus loves.” He does this throughout his gospel to really keep the focus on Jesus rather than himself. WE never see Saint John in his own telling of the story except as how Jesus sees Saint John.
All of the first person pronouns, the “I’s” if you will, are reserved for Jesus. This is to show that Jesus is the “GREAT I AM” that is foretold in Jewish prophecy to be the Messiah of Israel. Yet, at the end of our Easter text we seem to have an interesting break from that rule as Magdalena finds herself exclaiming to the others in hiding: “I have seen the Lord.”
Something else is happening in the original Greek that needs to be pointed out. Magdalena is sent by Jesus to tell the others. That word for “to send” in Greek is αγγελίζω. She is sent very much as an angel is sent by God to carry divine messages back to us mortals. So, for that moment she is also allotted the divine “I” to speak to them, saying that holy message: “I have seen the Lord.”
Too many times in our lives, in our loneliness, we miss the fact that God is absolutely present with us. We just do not see that right away. How is that possible that we do not see Jesus in the happenings around us? Why do we always seem to mistake Jesus for the gardener—over and over again. How is it that like Peter and John we look into the empty tomb and only see emptiness—unlike Magdalena who looks in and sees the angels?
Last Thursday the online study of Job concluded. Those who attended can confirm that it is a very long Book of the Bible. It is in fact 42 chapters in length. The story is about a wealthy and devout man loses everything, yet maintains his faith in the Almighty. His friends come to console him, but really they do not help him in the least. They are more of a bother to him. They seem to just burden him further. Then, in chapter 38 of the story, over 90% of the way through the Book of Job, Job finally hears the voice of God speaking over his life. To be sure, God was there the whole time through it. To be sure, Job never lost his faith during that first 90% of his life’s story. Yet, it was in that time that he was alone, all of his friends had left him at that point, that God makes God’s presence known directly to Job.
Why did Moses have to go up Mount Sinai alone? Why did Elijah have to go hermit himself in a cave to hear that “Still small voice”? Why did Jesus himself go up the mountain alone after feeding the 5,000? Why do we still sing that hymn “I come to the garden alone?” when we need to be assured once more of God’s presence in our lives?!
When your life seems to be crashing down all around you and nothing is going right—when it seems as though your friends have all forsaken you—or maybe everyone else seems to be in hiding—approach the tomb of Jesus! Jesus was alone on the cross. Yet, we know that God was with Him. He cries out to God “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” Then, as we can read in Luke 23:46, “Then, Jesus crying in a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He breathes his last breath.
Why has it been mostly in my life when I have found solace in Christ in also experiencing great loneliness? At Christmas 1979 I was living in Germany as youth. It was Christmas Eve. The rest of the family did not want to go to the midnight service at the little protestant church in town. I decided I would go by myself and walked along the frozen railway tracks as a shortcut. It was in that time of the loneliest moment of the loneliest Christmas of my life did I see the presence of Christ in my life. The heavens opened up, and I saw the light! I dedicated my life that night to serving Jesus. That probably would not have happened if I had stayed home that night with the family.
So, we should consider this quite seriously: What if Magdalena had not gone alone to the tomb that morning? What if she had gone but not been able to see the angels because her spiritual eyes were not opened? What if she looked and only really just thought she saw the gardener?
I will let you in on a little aside: Too many times people have come to this church here while I have been in my work clothes and have asked me: “Can you tell me where the pastor is?” I now try to dress a little better when I am working. I am tired of the looks I get sometimes. “You cannot be the pastor. . . .look at how you are dressed.”
I love the fact that Jesus is mistaken for the gardener! He did not appear is some angelic form. AS he himself points out to Magdalena, “Do not touch, I have not yet ascended.” It is like what happens after I have been working, and I say, “Hey stay away from me because I have not yet showered!” Again, Jesus is also being very Covid compliant! Look around you carefully. Angels are there to help you. Jesus is present and watching. Listen for him to call your name in your times of loneliness.
Okay, here comes the part that is really all about the joy of Easter! What happens to Magdalena that she finally leaves her state of loneliness? She actually meets the gardener—that is to say she meets Jesus, and she realizes that it is not the Gardener. It is Jesus who speaks her name! This changes her whole perspective of life actually. Now she knows for sure what God had intended with Jesus’ dying on the Cross. There is eternal life standing right in front of her. The door back to the Garden of Eden is opened once more to all humanity and there stands the Gardener himself.
I think Magdalena might have been quite clever to keep that good news only to herself. She could be in heaven with her Lord and not have that beautiful garden so crowded up with the rest of us! Yet, she realizes that this good news is not just for her alone. It is for all of us!
I want to point out something that is inherent in this text as we read it that might not jump up at you: Remember when Magdalena first sees the tomb empty and she goes back to find Peter and John? The two of them have a footrace back to the empty tomb. Please note that when they get there, Magdalena is also somehow mysteriously there with them again! Right? Because they leave her alone again, we know that she must have been running along with them and was obviously just as fast in step with the men! Amazing right?
So, just as fast as she was keeping up with Peter and John, she races back to where they are hiding. Now she has a great reason not to be tip-toeing around Jerusalem. Now she is able to run like the wind to share the Good News. That is the joy of Easter—not being alone anymore because you have good news you have to tell others! The bad news is out there already. Jesus was crucified. Everybody has heard the bad news, so here comes the Good News! You can keep the bad news to yourself, but really good news you have to share out.
“I have seen the Lord” she cries out to the others. They are scared. They are in hiding. They are distraught. And, in that moment everything turns to joy for them!
It is a happy Easter after all. Thank you Jesus. You are risen. You are alive. Amen