YOU KNOW how you can read a story you think you know and then you read it again and see something you’ve never seen?
You know how you can read about the same event 100 times and then on the 101st hear something so striking and new that it makes you wonder if you slept through the other times?
Maybe it’s because you started in the middle of the story instead of at the beginning. Or perhaps it’s because someone else reads it aloud and pauses at a place where you normally wouldn’t and POW! it hits you.
You grab the book and look at it, knowing that someone copied or read something wrong. But then you read it and well-how-do-you-do. Look at that!
Well, it happened to me. Today.
Only God knows how many times I’ve read the resurrection story. At least a couple of dozen Easters and a couple of hundred times in between. I’ve taught it. I’ve written about it. I’ve meditated on it. I’ve underlined it. But what I saw today I’d never seen before.
What did I see? Before I tell you, let me recount the story.
It’s early dawn on Sunday morning and the sky is dark. Those, in fact, are John’s words. “It was still dark …” (John 20:1).
It’s a dark Sunday morning. It had been dark since Friday.
Dark with Peter’s denial.
Dark with the disciples’ betrayal.
Dark with Pilate’s cowardice.
Dark with Christ’s anguish.
Dark with Satan’s glee.
The only ember of light is the small band of women standing at a distance from the cross—watching (Matt. 27:55).
Among them are two Marys, one the mother of James and Joseph and the other is Mary Magdalene. Why are they there? They are there to call his name. To be the final voices he hears before his death. To prepare his body for burial. They are there to clean the blood from his beard. To wipe the crimson from his legs. To close his eyes. To touch his face.
They are there. The last to leave Calvary and the first to arrive at the grave.
So early on that Sunday morning, they leave their pallets and walk out onto the tree-shadowed path. Theirs is a somber task. The morning promises only one encounter, an encounter with a corpse.
Remember, Mary and Mary don’t know this is the first Easter. They are not hoping the tomb will be vacant. They aren’t discussing what their response will be when they see Jesus. They have absolutely no idea that the grave has been vacated.
There was a time when they dared to dream such dreams. Not now. It’s too late for the incredible. The feet that walked on water had been pierced. The hands that healed lepers had been stilled. Noble aspirations had been spiked into Friday’s cross. Mary and Mary have come to place warm oils on a cold body and bid farewell to the one man who gave reason to their hopes.
But it isn’t hope that leads the women up the mountain to the tomb. It is duty. Naked devotion. They expect nothing in return. What could Jesus give? What could a dead man offer? The two women are not climbing the mountain to receive, they are going to the tomb to give. Period.
There is no motivation more noble.
There are times when we, too, are called to love, expecting nothing in return. Times when we are called to give money to people who will never say thanks, to forgive those who won’t forgive us, to come early and stay late when no one else notices.
Service prompted by duty. This is the call of discipleship.
Mary and Mary knew a task had to be done—Jesus’ body had to be prepared for burial. Peter didn’t offer to do it. Andrew didn’t volunteer. The forgiven adulteress or healed lepers are nowhere to be seen. So the two Marys decide to do it.
I wonder if halfway to the tomb they had sat down and reconsidered. What if they’d looked at each other and shrugged. “What’s the use?” What if they had given up? What if one had thrown up her arms in frustration and bemoaned, “I’m tired of being the only one who cares. Let Andrew do something for a change. Let Nathaniel show some leadership.”
Whether or not they were tempted to, I’m glad they didn’t quit. That would have been tragic. You see, we know something they didn’t. We know the Father was watching. Mary and Mary thought they were alone. They weren’t. They thought their journey was unnoticed. They were wrong. God knew. He was watching them walk up the mountain. He was measuring their steps. He was smiling at their hearts and thrilled at their devotion. And he had a surprise waiting for them.
At that time there was a strong earthquake. An angel of the Lord came down from heaven, went to the tomb, and rolled the stone away from the entrance. Then he sat on the stone. He was shining bright as lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The soldiers guarding the tomb shook with fear because of the angel, and they became like dead men.
(Now, read carefully, this is what I noticed for the first time today.)
Why did the angel move the stone? For whom did he roll away the rock?
For Jesus? That’s what I always thought. I just assumed that the angel moved the stone so Jesus could come out. But think about it. Did the stone have to be removed in order for Jesus to exit? Did God have to have help? Was the death conqueror so weak that he couldn’t push away a rock? (“Hey, could somebody out there move this rock so I can get out?”)
I don’t think so. The text gives the impression that Jesus was already out when the stone was moved! Nowhere do the Gospels say that the angel moved the stone for Jesus. For whom, then, was the stone moved?
Listen to what the angel says: “Come and see the place where his body was” (v. 6).
The stone was moved—not for Jesus—but for the women; not so Jesus could come out, but so the women could see in!
Mary looks at Mary and Mary is grinning the same grin she had when the bread and fish kept coming out of the basket. The old passion flares. Suddenly it’s all right to dream again.
“Go quickly and tell his followers, ‘Jesus has risen from the dead. He is going into Galilee ahead of you, and you will see him there’” (v. 7).
Mary and Mary don’t have to be told twice. They turn and start running to Jerusalem. The darkness is gone. The sun is up. The Son is out. But the Son isn’t finished.
One surprise still awaits them.
“Suddenly, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings.’ The women came up to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my followers to go on to Galilee, and they will see me there’” (vv. 9–10).
The God of surprises strikes again. It’s as if he said, “I can’t wait any longer. They came this far to see me; I’m going to drop in on them.”
God does that for the faithful. Just when the womb gets too old for babies, Sarai gets pregnant. Just when the failure is too great for grace, David is pardoned. And just when the road is too dark for Mary and Mary, the angel glows and the Savior shows and the two women will never be the same.
The lesson? Three words. Don’t give up.
Is the trail dark? Don’t sit.
Is the road long? Don’t stop.
Is the night black? Don’t quit.
God is watching. For all you know right at this moment he may be telling the angel to move the stone.
The check may be in the mail.
The apology may be in the making.
The job contract may be on the desk.
Don’t quit. For if you do, you may miss the answer to your prayers.
God still sends angels. And God still moves stones.