Sermon: While It Was Still Dark

John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday

April 17, 2022

First Christian Church

Mahtomedi, MN


There is a scene in the movie Selma that is incredibly memorable and the odd thing is that is had nothing to do with Selma.  The scene takes place two years earlier, not in Selma, Alabama, but in Birmingham.  We see four black girls walking down the interior stairs of a church.  They are talking about various things as we see them pass in front of the screen and then out of the scene. We will hear their voices carrying on with the conversation, until…


BAM!  A bomb explodes and the screen is filled with flying wood and glass.  What we saw was the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  Those four girls were all killed by the bomb.  I knew what was going on and I knew what was coming.  And yet, I still jumped.  I don’t know why the movie starts with this event, but my guess is that it was meant to get us into the mood for what was about the come.  We had to understand the darkness that pervaded the film and to understand it you had to start with what seemed to be a nice normal scene.


Easter never starts in daylight; it always starts in darkness.  Mary Magdalene is going to the tomb of Jesus.  We aren’t told why she’s going to the tomb, but she was on her way expecting to visit a dead Jesus.  The text opens with the phrase, “While It was still dark.”


While it was still dark.  We don’t think about that when we think of the Easter story, but here it is in black and white the day of resurrection starts in darkness.  Mary makes her way sensing the darkness.  There is no hope at all.  She was healed by Jesus and she saw others being healed by this same Jesus.  Jesus had become a friend. Then out of nowhere, Jesus, her friend of many years was put to death by an uncaring empire.  Another good man was executed by the state. She resigned herself to believe she would never see this man again. 


While it was still dark meant that sin and evil are in power.  God feels distant if not absent.  Mary was feeling had to feel like God was distant.  Where was God when Jesus was on the cross?  Did God care? It’s hard to believe in God when it’s dark.  


While it was still dark.  The darkness that was depicted in Selma and what Mary felt in her heart is present in our world. This past week, the New York Times presented an in-depth story about the atrocities committed by the Russian army in the village of Bucha.  They tell the stories of various Ukrainians who lost their lives during the Russian occupation.  There was a woman who simply opened her door and was shot dead.  A month later her body still lays in the doorway.  A middle-aged man went out to get a loaf of bread made by neighbors.  He was shot and his body was found in the middle of the street.  It would be days before his family could reach the body and send it to the morgue.  A gentleman comes back to his home only to find it ransacked.  He goes downstairs to find a woman, dead clad in just a fur coat.  Two bullets to her head put an end to her life.  There were signs that this woman had been sexually abused before the Russians killed her.  


There are other stories not just in the Times but in other publications that talk about the brutality of the Russian soldiers towards Ukrainian civilians, many of which are far too disturbing to share here. As Ukrainians prepare to celebrate Easter, they see that darkness.  While it was still dark truly means something to them.


In my native state of Michigan, there is uproar in Grand Rapids over a police-involved shooting of a black man.  A traffic stop over expired tabs ended up with the black motorist shot in the head. 


It’s in this world that something miraculous happens.  Mary comes to the tomb expecting to find a stone sealing the entrance.  It was still dark, you know.


But she comes to find the stone is rolled away.  She is shocked and after a while, she asks a stranger to help her find Jesus’ body.  It was bad enough that a good man had to die, but now his body is gone?  Then Jesus says her name, “Mary.” In a moment, Jesus reveals himself as the Risen Lord.  The darkness that was so prevalent was now gone. Light pierced the darkness and everything changed.


We live in a world that is still dark.  What I shared from the Times proved that, but I could share something from the news each day to find proof that there is darkness in this world.  This darkness, this evil seems to be everywhere these days.


Why do we celebrate the resurrection?  Why do we praise something that seems to defy logic; a dead person rising from the dead? Why should we do what Mary does and tell others that Jesus is Risen?  We tell these stories to remind us that while Easter starts in darkness, it doesn’t end in darkness.  Sin and evil are real in our world, but the powers of death never have the last word.  There is darkness in our world today.  It’s found in Ukraine, but it’s found close to home as well.  Sometimes right through our hearts.  On Thursday, it was found in Judas as he sought to betray his friend.  On Friday, it was found the Roman officials sought to kill an innocent man.  But on Sunday, while it was still dark, Jesus arose and death was lost.


For those of us who believe, and who follow Jesus, we know that the light has come. We believe Jesus is no longer in the grave.  The disciples were not simply inspired by Jesus’ death, they believed that Jesus rose from the grave.  We who follow Jesus believed Jesus was dead and then came back to life.  We also believe that one day, we too will be resurrected showing that death will be ultimately defeated.


Maybe this morning you are dealing with your own form of darkness.  It could be bad news in your life, a marriage breaking up, a lost job, a bad diagnosis. Maybe you are the depths of depression, an internal darkness. Whatever it is, all you know is that it is dark. But Jesus’ resurrection tells us that this darkness can’t stand.  It has already been defeated through the cross and the empty tomb.  


You will notice that among the lilies this morning you will find a few sunflowers.  They’re up there for a few reasons.  First, it is the national flower of Ukraine, and this is a way of showing solidarity with Ukrainians.  Second, the formal name of a sunflower is Helianthus Annuus.  The name comes from the Greek word for sun, which is Helios and anthos which means flower.  The sunflower is a heliotropic plant meaning that before it is in full bloom, parts of the plant seem to follow the sun.  When it has bloomed, the flower then faces the East to welcome the rising sun.  Finally, the sunflower is a symbol of hope and peace.  In better times when Ukraine and Russia were on friendly terms, sunflowers were planted at a Soviet base in Ukraine as a symbol of peace.  They were planted at the site of nuclear accidents such as Chornobyl and Fukushima as a sign of peace and hope.  Strangely, the sunflower can pull out toxins in the ground, so the planting of sunflowers is a hope to clean up the ground in nuclear contaminated areas.  


Sunflowers are a reminder that hope is here.  For Christians that hope is in the Son, the Son of God.   The Risen Jesus reminds us that this is a hope that never dies and that darkness will not always rule.


In the life of our church, it has felt dark.  We’ve lost members and we wonder if we have a future.  We are selling our building and moving to a new place, but we wonder if the move will change anything or will we just decline in a whole new location?  It has been dark in our lives, but we serve a Risen Savior.  Someone that has a little experience coming back from the dead. We believe God will see us through this time and lead us to a new place where we can be a witness to our community.  Especially if we face the Son, we will experience light and life even when it seems like darkness is all around us.


Our usual greeting on Easter is that Christ is Risen.  We say every Easter, but do we really mean it?  Because today, in my life and in your life.  Christ is Risen.  Death is defeated.  Life and light shine.  Christ is Risen, my friends.  Christ is Risen indeed and for that we say, Alleluia!  Thanks be to God. Amen.

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