John 20: Mary – Rejoicing Tears at the tomb of life

This weekend we will finish our journey through the Gospel of John and complete the Easter story.

Our big theme is metamorphosis.
The dictionary says this means “a complete change.”
In biology, metamorphosis is “transformation from an immature form to an adult form”.
Like when a tadpole becomes a frog,
Or a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.[1]

At the first Easter, Jesus died on the cross.
His body was put inside a dark tomb.

Two days later, the tomb was empty.
Jesus had risen to life.
The butterfly had flown out into the light!
That was the big metamorphosis at Easter.

This weekend, we will see three people who met the risen Jesus.
When the resurrection of Jesus touched their lives,
They experienced a personal metamorphosis.
Their lives were changed.

The Bible says,

Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
(2 Corinthians 5:17)

That’s a good description of resurrection metamorphosis.
A new creation transformation.
This weekend, I pray the risen Jesus will change us too.

Weeping in the Night

As Jesus died on the cross, some women were watching and crying (Luke 23:27-28)
His mother was there, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).[2]

Two good men took Jesus’ dead body.
They wrapped it in cloth.
They put it in a tomb in a garden and rolled a big stone across the door.

Two days later, Mary came to the tomb.
Let’s meet her now in John 20.

1 Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. 2 She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. 4 They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, 7 while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. 8 Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— 9 for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in.12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.
“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”
She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”
16 “Mary!” Jesus said.
She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).
17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

I can see Mary, coming down the path in the moonlight.
She loved Jesus, and all she had left was his body.
Then she saw the grave.
It was open, empty.
Even his body was gone.
It was too much.

After the others came and went, Mary stayed. [3]
She walked around the garden in tears. [4]
It began to grow lighter.

Maybe she heard a footstep.
She turned around and saw a man.
I like to think the rising sun shone in her eyes.
Her tears sparkled so she couldn’t see.

It must be the gardener.
Come to cut the grass, pull out the weeds, plant new flowers.
She says, “If you’ve taken Jesus’ body away, sir, please tell me where he is.”

Joy in the Morning

Sometimes our whole life can change with one or two words.
What is the most important word you ever heard?
Maybe you asked someone to marry you.
You held your breath… he or she said…

I can guess the word that Mary never forgot.
The one word that stopped her heart beating, and set it racing for ever.

Jesus had said,

“I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own sheep and they know me.  I call them by name” (John 10:3,14)

That morning in the garden where she cried in pain,
She heard the Good Shepherd call her by name. “Mary!”

Her eyes shone like pearls, and the whole picture changed. [5]

Jesus said to his followers the night before he died.

You will cry and be full of sorrow.  You will be sad, but your sadness will turn into joy. A woman giving birth to a baby has pain. But when her baby is born, she forgets the pain because she is so happy.  That’s the way it is with you. Now it’s your time to be sad. But I will see you again. Then you will be full of joy.  (John 16:20-22.)

Now Mary experienced that transformation,
From pain and sadness to joy and happiness.

Jesus also said that night, “I will not leave you alone like orphans. I will come to you.”  (John 14:18)

Now Mary found that was true.
The Good Shepherd had returned to care for his sheep.[6]

Weeping may last through the night,
but joy comes in the morning! (Psalm 30:5)

Mary forgets her grief.
Her heart soars like a butterfly.
New joy is born. [7]
It’s a resurrection metamorphosis!

Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeThere’s a picture of this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S.  Lewis.
The great lion Aslan is like Jesus.
Two girls, Susan and Lucy, watched the evil witch kill Aslan,
As Mary Magdalene did.
They cried over his body all night.
Full of loneliness and sorrow.

The sky got lighter.
Birds started to sing.
They walked around the grass and came back to Aslan’s body, and it was gone.
What have they done to him now?  They ask
The sun rises behind them and they hear a voice.
It’s Aslan!
They laugh and dance and jump for joy
Aslan is alive.

The First Day of New Creation

At the start of the Bible, God made a wonderful world,
The beautiful Garden of Eden.
He made the first people.
In the evening, God walked through the trees and talked with them.

Then they turned away from God, and that brought death.
Flowers fade.
Trees lose their leaves.
People we love grow old and die.
Sometimes we cry like Mary at the grave.

Jesus cried too, when his friend Lazarus died (11:35).
God cries over his beautiful broken creation,
His wonderful, wounded world.
God shares our grief.
Tears can be prayers, and God notices each one.
One prayer in the Bible says to God,

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle.  (Psalm 56:8)

Jesus himself was a man of sorrows.
But he said that sorrow would turn into joy.
Like for a woman who gives birth to a child.

It was true when Jesus rose from the dead.
And it’s true on a much bigger scale.
The Bible says,

All creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time…
With eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. (Romans 8:18-25)

I love that passage!
I may cry like Mary,
When I lose people I love or my dreams are broken.
But my sorrow is part of a much bigger story.
My tears are part of the tears of God’s whole suffering world.
One day God will set it free from death and disease and destruction and decay.

I imagine Mary looking into Jesus’ eyes that Easter Sunday morning.
The first rays of the sun touch the ground and turn it into gold.
Dew drops sparkle like diamonds.
Spring flowers open and smile.

Again God walks through the trees and talks with his people.
The gardener has returned to plant the Garden of Eden again.
The resurrection of Jesus was the first day of a new week.
It was the first day of God’s new creation.

WrightThere’s a wonderful book about the resurrection, Surprised by Hope.
Tom Wright says,

Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of that new life, the fresh grass growing through the concrete of corruption and decay in the old world…

One day God will do for the whole world what he did for Jesus at Easter.  (N T Wright)

I love that last line.
All creation will experience a resurrection metamorphosis! [8]
On that day, the Bible says,

God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain…  And he will say, “Look, I am making all things new.”  (Revelation 21:4-5)

Personal Transformation

That was my favourite verse as a teenager when I felt lonely and depressed.
And that’s our big hope for the future.

It’s also for now.
That metamorphosis, that big change,
Can begin in our lives today if we meet the risen Jesus.

Do you remember what happened in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe after Aslan rose from the dead?
He jumped into the castle of the evil witch.
It was full of statues – animals that her evil magic had turned into stone.
Aslan breathes on each statue.

One by one, the hard stone grows warm,
Cold white turns to bright colour.
Silence turns to singing.
The dead statues start to live and breathe and walk around.
That’s a picture of resurrection metamorphosis! [9]

That’s the sort of thing God wants to do in our lives.
Have you experienced that?
I’m a shy person.
I mostly don’t like parties – I’m happier with a book.
I never thought I could speak in public.
That’s been a small transformation in me.

hinds-feet-on-high-places-coverI still sometimes feel lonely and afraid.
One book that helps me is Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard.[10]
It’s an imaginary story about a woman called “Much Afraid.”
She is changed by the Good Shepherd, who is Jesus.

It’s a metamorphosis when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.
There is another example in this book.
The Shepherd says,

I don’t know anything more exhilarating and delightful than turning weakness into strength, and fear into faith…  turning a jellyfish into a mountain goat.  That is My special work,” he added with the light of a great joy in His face.  “Transforming things.”

Someone like a trembling jellyfish, full of fear,
Becomes a strong goat jumping on the mountains!
That’s the sort of thing that God loves to do.
That gives him great joy.
Will you let the Good Shepherd transform you?

Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new creation.
The old has gone, new life has come.  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Stories of Living Hope

Jesus said we’d have sorrow but it would turn to joy.
So when we lose people we love, the Bible says,

We grieve, but not like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Here is how Gary Habermas discovered this.
He has a PhD in theology and philosophy.
He debates atheists about the resurrection.
Then his wife Debbie got stomach cancer at 43 years old.
They had four young children.
He said,

I knew if God were to come to me, I’d ask only one question: “Lord, why is Debbie up there in bed?” And I think God would respond by asking gently, “Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?”

I’d say, “Come on, Lord, I’ve written seven books on that topic! Of course he was raised from the dead. But I want to know about Debbie!”

I think he’d keep coming back to the same question – “Did I raise my Son from the dead?” “Did I raise my Son from the dead?” – until I got his point: The Resurrection says that if Jesus was raised 2,000 years ago, there’s an answer to Debbie’s death in 1995…

If there’s a resurrection, there’s a heaven. If Jesus was raised, Debbie was raised. And I will be someday, too. Then I’ll see them both. [11]

As his wife died, he was thinking of verses like this:

God will raise us from the dead by his power, just as he raised our Lord Jesus from the dead…  Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  (1 Corinthians 6:14, 15:54) [12]

One of the most painful things about life
Is that human love can be cut off so easily.[13]
But nothing can break our relationship with God,
Because his love is stronger than death (Song of Songs 8:6).

buechner-eyes-of-the-heartI love the author Frederick Buechner.
His dad committed suicide when he was 10 years old, and he spent his life trying to understand.
In later life he wrote,

What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death there ever was set next to life would scarcely fill a cup. (Frederick Buechner)

Death in a cup, all swallowed up.
Isn’t that good news!
The resurrection of Jesus, God’s promise of new creation.
These things gave Buechner hope after losing his Dad,
And gave me great hope when I lost mine.

In 2010, my father had cancer. [14]
He had radiation and got better for a while.
Later that year, it came back.

On the last night of Dad’s life I sat by his bed in the hospital.
He couldn’t talk, so I took his Bible.
I read out verses he had underlined.[15]
From Isaiah, I read these promises – of things we’ve seen today:

God will swallow up death for ever, and he will wipe away tears from all faces.  (Isaiah 25:8)

God will comfort his people… and will make the wilderness like Eden, the desert like the garden.  (Isaiah 51:3)

God says,

I will create new heavens and a new earth…  Be glad and rejoice for ever! (Isaiah 65:17-18)

Early the next morning, while it was still dark – in the words of John 20:1
I sat by dad’s bed, holding his hand.
As his heart stopped beating, the sun began to rise.
I helped the nurse wash dad’s body – like Jesus’ friends did for him.
Then I took dad’s Bible again.

I turned to his favourite book: the gospel of John.
I read out some verses we have seen this year.
Jesus gives rivers of living water,
He said “I am the bread of life”.
He shines like light in the darkness.
But my goal, what I wanted to reach before the funeral director came,
Was John chapter 11.

I learnt the verse when I was young at Sunday School,
And now it meant so much more.
Now it really gave me hope.
Jesus said,

I am the resurrection and the life.  Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die… (John 11:25-26) [16]

            Because I live, you also will live.  (John 14:19)


What was the happiest moment of your life?
When was your saddest time?

What helps you in your sorrow?
How can the resurrection give us hope?

What are some examples of metamorphosis?
Have you experienced it yourself?

This was one of three talks on “Metamorphosis: Meeting the Risen Jesus”,
for the 2014 Global group of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle.
You might also like the other two messages:

John 20: Thomas – Believing Scars and faith in the night
John 21: Peter – Following Failure with the Rocky Shepherd

[1] In Mark 16:12 in Greek, Jesus appeared in a different “morphe” or form.
[2] She was one of the women who supported Jesus while he travelled around (Luke 8:2-3).  Jesus had set her free from seven evil spirits.
[3] Asking why the male disciples didn’t see anyone inside the tomb, Tom Wright touchingly suggests “maybe you can only see angels through tears”.  Jesus was crucified between two thieves and rose between two angels, possibly recalling the cherubim that flanked the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10-22).
[4] It’s an old story: a woman cries at the grave of a man she loves.  I imagine Eve crying over the body of Abel, washing away his blood with her tears.  Rizpah watched over the bodies of her sons, so the wild animals couldn’t eat them (2 Samuel 21:10).  Mary weeps at the grave of her brother Lazarus (John 11). The mothers of Bethlehem weep over their baby boys killed by Herod.  Millions of women have wept over the bodies of their husbands and brothers and sons, who went off to war so strong and brave and came back in a box.  Many could echo the Psalm, “Day and night I have only tears for food” (Psalm 42:7)
[5] Now it’s another old story: new love and rejoicing in a garden.  In the Song of Songs, a woman looks through the streets all night. She says, “I will search for the one my heart loves… So I looked for him but did not find him (Song of Songs 3:1ff).  She asks the city watchmen, “have you seen the one my heart loves?  Do you know where he is?”  At last she finds him, her love, her King.  He comes in a garden, perfumed with myrrh and spices (Song of Songs 3:6, 5:1) – as was the body of Jesus.  She says, “I have found the one my heart loves.  I held him fast and would not let him go.”  (3:4) – like Mary here.  The Christian mystic John of the Cross begins one poem with, “Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me groaning?”
[6] NT Wright said in an Easter Sunday sermon:
“Mary in the garden becomes for a moment Eve, weeping for her lost innocence and her lost Lord, and then discovering that the one she thinks is the gardener really is the gardener, the one through whose healing stewardship the whole creation will be dug afresh and planted with the Tree of Life.”
[7] Then Jesus says, “Don’t cling to me” or “Stop touching me” (20:17).  In Latin this is “noli me tangere”, the title of many classic paintings, often showing Jesus with a spade, gardener’s clothes, or even a wheelbarrow.  What did he mean?  Explanations range from the comical (his wounds were still tender – “ouch!”; he left his clothes in the grave, so it was quite improper for a woman to touch him) to the ritual (touching a “corpse” would make her unclean; being touched by a woman would make him unclean) to echoes of the fall (in the Greek version, Genesis 3:3 uses the same word for “don’t touch” the tree of good and evil) to the comforting (he’d be around for a while, don’t worry) to complex scenarios of ascension timing (he is trying to rise like a hot air balloon, but she’s holding him down) to textual amendments (he actually says, “don’t fear”).  More likely, Jesus means don’t hang on to the good news for yourself.  Go and tell the others that I’m alive.
The other main interpretation is more bittersweet.  It had been a precious three years of talking with Jesus face to face, physically leaning on his shoulder when they felt weak.  Now that season has passed, as Jesus returns to God the Father. From now on he will be present as God’s Holy Spirit.  It is a change from outward companionship to inward communion, which Jesus in fact said would be better for us (John 16:7).
[8] The final restoration of all things (Acts 3:21).  See my sermon on the Bible’s grand story of new creation “A Tale of Four Colours: From Creation to the Golden Age”. God rested on the seventh day after completing creation, so perhaps Jesus rested on Holy Saturday after completing redemption. In 2007, NT Wright gave a series of Easter sermons at a dilapidated ex-mining town in Britain, suffering widespread dereliction and unemployment, where an explosion earlier killed 83 miners (published as Christians at the Cross: Finding Hope in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus). Expressing the hope of resurrection metamorphosis, he said,
“When we bring our griefs and sorrows within the story of God’s own grief and sorrow, and allow them to be held there, God is able to bring healing to us and new possibilities to our lives… When you bring things to the foot of the cross, the music of Jesus’ death transforms them in ways we can’t predict or explain.”
[9] When he first gave life in Genesis, the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground.  He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.”  (Genesis 2:7).  In the next chapter of John, Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22), recalling the first creation and also Ezekiel 37, where God’s breath/wind/spirit (the same word in both Hebrew and Greek) brings dry bones to life.
[10] I wrote a review of Hinds Feet on High Places here.
[11] Quoted from The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, 1998, p326.  Habermas tells this story at The Truth – And the Comfort – of the Resurrection
[12] “He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own.”  (Philippians 3:21)
[13] As someone said, “Grief is the tax we pay on the loves of our lives.”
[14] I wrote about books by NT Wright and Frederick Buechner and others that spoke to me when my dad died here.
[15] I finished that night with Psalm 150.  It talks about praising God with all different instruments, like drums and trumpets and guitars.  Dad loved classical music so the last thing I said to him that night was, “It sounds like a big orchestra dad.  You’ll like that.”
[16] The time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear my voice. And those who listen will live…  and they will rise again. (John 5:28-29).  “Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”  (Ephesians 5:14)