Who Is It You Are Looking For?

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”—John 20:11-15

The religious lynch-mob convened an illegal trial, declared an innocent man guilty and condemned him to death. Of course, it wasn’t the first time nor was it the last time an innocent person has been found guilty, but this time was truly a unique, once-and for-all occurrence.

This man was absolutely innocent, in every way. Jesus had never committed any crime. He had never harmed any one. He had never emotionally abused another. He had never cheated, nor had he ever gossiped. His entire life was devoted to serving others, yet he had just been found guilty and condemned to death.

And to cement the assertion that this was a unique, once-and-for-all occurrence, the innocent man condemned to death was the Son of God, God in the flesh.

The death sentence was carried out immediately. There was no ten-year wait on death row while attorneys filed appeal after appeal. No defense attorney would take Jesus’ case and hire private investigators to sift through all of the lies and misrepresentations and biases and prejudices of the religious establishment who wanted him dead.

We know this story, don’t we? We know how Jesus, the Lamb of God, allowed himself to be led away, after he was betrayed by one of his own disciples. We know how he was falsely accused, and how he was beaten, scourged, tortured and finally nailed to a cross. When his body was finally dead it was surrendered by the authorities, and placed in a new tomb, not far away from the site of the crucifixion.

The traumatic and hope-destroying events of Good Friday took the wind out of the sails of Jesus’ followers. All their hopes and dreams for a better life with Jesus as the King were dashed as he died in shame as a common criminal on his cross. Those who had changed their lives—following and listening to him, their Master and Teacher, putting their hope and faith in him—were now disillusioned and hiding in fear for their own lives.

After all, they reasoned, if the religious authorities were able to instigate such false charges against their Master so that the secular authorities had him put to death, would they be next? They were hiding behind closed doors.

We also know the rest of the story, don’t we? We know that it is darkest before the dawn. We know that when the darkness was broken by the first light of day, Jesus rose from the dead, in triumph—victorious over all those who hated him and despised his message. Demoralizing defeat was turned into breathtaking, unbelievable victory.

Jesus did far more than merely “cheat” death, he snatched defeat out of the finality of death and the grave— overcoming the futility of death with new life. In this message we are going to focus on a question Jesus asked Mary just after he was resurrected—a question he poses in John 20:11-15.

“Who Is It You Are Looking For?”

At first Mary thought this was a question someone she didn’t even know was asking her. But it turned out that it was her Master. In a similar way, it’s a question the living Lord of our lives might be asking you and me today. It’s a question Jesus always asks those who are seeking and looking for significance and meaning in life.

“Who Is It You Are Looking For?”

It’s a question we should ask ourselves. Who are we looking for? Why do we claim the name of Jesus? Why is it that we call ourselves Christians? Are we looking to use Jesus as a poster boy for our own agendas? Are we hoping that we can find something about Jesus that will justify the life we are now leading?

Do we know Jesus, or is the Jesus we think we know just someone we have been told about? Are we trying to re-make and re-cast the image of Jesus into an image that is more comfortable for us?

And as far as this sermon, or any sermon is concerned, are we primarily hoping for a sermon that will lift our spirits, perhaps give us a little hope and inspire us—or are we looking for the risen Lord?

“Who Is It You Are Looking For?”

In the first verses of the 20th chapter of John we read that Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb of Jesus on the first day of the week, while it was still dark. Who is it she was looking for? Who and what did Mary expect as she made her way to Jesus’ tomb?

She was on her way to grieve Jesus’ death. Jesus had been buried on a Friday and the sun went down (signaling the beginning of the weekly Sabbath) before Mary had finished preparing his body for burial. She was looking for the dead body of Jesus. She went to the empty tomb to further prepare his dead body, without knowing that Jesus was waiting to prepare her for new life.

Mary knew, like all other humans who have ever lived, that death is final. All human experience dictated the conclusion—if a body had been laid in a tomb on Friday afternoon that body would still be there on Sunday morning.

But when Mary arrived, the stone guarding the access to Jesus’ tomb had been rolled away. The Bible doesn’t say she looked inside the tomb, only that she went running back to Peter and John, telling them the only conclusion she could come to—someone had taken the body of Jesus away (John 20:2).

When Peter and John arrived they saw, with their own eyes, that the tomb was empty—they investigated further, they looked into the tomb, and they could also see the burial clothing lying there. They had no idea what had happened, so they just went back home. They had no idea where to start looking for the dead body of Jesus that someone, for some reason, had taken.

Mary remained at the tomb—crying. She was grieving the death of Jesus. She was convinced that he was dead. She had come looking for his dead body, but it was not there. As she was crying she saw two angels dressed in white, who were sitting where Jesus’ body had been—the angels were not there a few moments before when Peter and John were there—but now they appeared, and they wanted to know why Mary Magdalene was crying.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”—John 20:13

Then Mary turned around, and saw Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him—she thought he was a gardener. Why didn’t Mary recognize Jesus? We don’t know, for sure. But surely the fact that she was not looking for the risen Lord, but for his dead body, had to be a major reason.

If you went to a cemetery to visit the grave of a loved one, and walked past someone who looked like them, would you immediately conclude that your loved one had been resurrected? You would think that you had just passed someone who looked a lot like your loved one, or you might even think you were imagining things. But you would not think you had seen your loved one who had just died.

We see what we’re looking for, and Mary Magdalene had not come to the tomb of Jesus to celebrate his resurrection. She was looking for his dead body. She was looking for a dead Jesus—and did not immediately recognize the risen Jesus.

This man who she had first thought to be a gardener also asked her, as the angels did, why she was crying, and then he said:

“Who Is It You Are Looking For?”

Jesus wanted Mary to admit the truth. She was looking for a dead Jesus. She was looking for a corpse. At that moment in time, even though Mary had come to the tomb of Jesus, she wasn’t looking for the risen Lord. She believed that she once knew Jesus, but she also believed that Jesus was now removed from her life. For Mary, Jesus was a memory—he was a name on a gravestone, in a cemetery, and as far as she was concerned, that’s where he would always be. Mary came to the tomb, looking for a corpse, and she found the risen Lord.

When Jesus called her by name (John 20:16) Mary suddenly recognized Jesus. Perhaps because Jesus miraculously opened her eyes so that she might see him with eyes of faith. Perhaps he pronounced her name with the same tone and inflection he always had. But for whatever reason, Mary recognized him. He was risen! He was alive!

So once again she went to the disciples—but this time she didn’t report that someone had taken his body (John 20:2). She told the disciples she had seen the Lord! (John 20:18). The resurrection of Jesus was good news, of course, but you know, the fact that Jesus is alive is also unsettling. It makes a great Sunday school story—the story can warm our hearts and prepare us for a wonderful family dinner— but at a deeper level, a risen Lord is unsettling. That’s why so many people go to Easter services and see what they are prepared to see—they see only a dead body and an irrelevant faith.

• After all, a dead Jesus, whose story is told in an old book we call the Bible, along with so many other books that sit on library shelves gathering dust, is a safe Jesus.

• A dead Jesus is non-threatening.

• A dead Jesus makes no demands nor does he trouble the status quo.

• A dead Jesus is just where many people want him. You remember those older, small churches in the countryside that have a cemetery a few steps from the front door —that’s where religion wants Jesus. Christ-less religion wants Jesus somewhere where he can be controlled, somewhere where he can be exhumed and hauled out once or twice a year for an inspiring service to one of the biggest crowds of the year, and then reburied back where he belongs.

But if Jesus is alive—if he really did rise from the dead —then death is no longer predictable, and if death isn’t predictable, what is? What other assumptions about our life will we now need to re-examine?

• And if Jesus is alive, then it means he is out there somewhere—for that matter, it means he is right here, right now.

• If Jesus is alive then that means he can get up close and personal—and meet us exactly where we are.

• If Jesus is alive then he is not far off somewhere.

• If Jesus is alive then it means we can’t control him.

• If Jesus is alive it means that as hard as it might try, as it did when it crucified Jesus, religion can’t get rid of him.

“Who Is It You Are Looking For?”

That’s the question Jesus has for you and me today—and every day, for that matter. He asks us to accept the most difficult thing that anyone can ever believe. The resurrection of our Lord means that a dead body can be brought back to life. It means that we now see and believe and know Jesus in a new, transformed way. The resurrection of our Lord means that he’s no longer a Jewish man, known as a rabbi and a teacher, walking the dusty roads of first century Judea. He’s no longer someone his peers could easily see and touch and talk to—he was that, of course—but now he is more, so much more. He was dead, but he is now alive.

“Who Is It You Are Looking For?”

• Easter, the resurrection of our Lord, is about seeing and believing, recognizing Jesus as the risen Lord.

• Easter, the resurrection of our Lord, tells us that our lives in Christ are more than just memorizing biblical verses and more than learning doctrines and creeds. Our lives in Christ are about him. Our lives in Christ are about seeing and believing Jesus, as the one who was alive, died, and who now lives forever and ever…living that we too might live in and through him.

• Easter, the resurrection of our Lord, is about believing in Jesus on his own terms, rather than trying to re-create him in some denominational image.

• Easter, the resurrection of our Lord, changes people. It gives us new eyes and new ears, just as it did to Mary and eventually Peter, John and all the disciples. They were transformed—new men and new women. The risen life of Jesus can do the same for you and me.

• Easter, the resurrection of our Lord, is about accepting Jesus, or, on the other hand, rejecting him. If we accept him we accept him as our Lord. If we accept him we will bow before him and yield our lives to him. If we accept and receive him we will follow him as his servants and serve others in his name.

• Easter, the resurrection of our Lord, is about the call of Jesus, who challenges us to lose the lives we cherish and desperately try to hold on to, in favor of gaining him, and the eternal life that he gives us, by God’s grace.

The story of Jesus’ life does not end at the empty tomb. If we believe in him he lives in us and we live in him.

“Who Is It You Are Looking For?”