April 16, 2022 (Easter Vigil)
You know what’s really fun? Getting to be in on a surprise. There’s something wonderfully conspiratorial about knowing some really great thing that’s going to happen to someone else, and you know before they do, so you get to anticipate how they’ll react. It’s even more fun when you’re the one who gets to spring the surprise—whether that’s a super awesome gift, or a surprise birthday party, or even a surprise visit from a beloved relative. Surprises are fun.
But I think “fun” isn’t the first word that would come to mind for Mary when she had this incredible surprise to tell. Earthshaking, sure. Mind-blowing, of course. Indescribably good, definitely. Because for a moment, there in the garden, standing with the newly-risen Jesus, Mary was, for the first and last time, the only human being on the planet that knew the surprise. Literally no one else knew—have you ever thought about that when reading this resurrection story? I’ve read it—preached on it—six years now and it just dawned on me this time around!
She knew. No one else, no other human being, knew. And she alone was the one who got to spring the surprise. She alone got to be the first one to tell. She alone was the carrier of the whole beautiful, world-altering good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death. She had this surprise all to herself, and like any good surprise, she could not wait to tell others. She got to reverse the sadness and mourning of the past few days. She got to turn on the sun again in the lives of the disciples. She got to start this movement that has been radically transforming the world for two thousand years.
And to think, she had no idea who she was talking to at first. She was so grief-stricken that she didn’t notice there were angels sitting in the tomb where her Lord had been laid. She was so wrapped up in the horrible events of the past few days—all the awful things that had happened, how quickly it had all happened, how she hadn’t really even had time to grieve properly, and now with his body missing—the gardener? She figured he was the gardener because they were in a garden and who else would be here this early?
But maybe it wasn’t quite the mistaken identity we’ve been led to believe. Jesus was laid in a tomb, but that tomb was in a garden. And we heard about another garden tonight, didn’t we? We heard the story of a garden from long ago, long before Jesus left the empty tomb behind. By pointing out that Jesus’ tomb was in a garden, John the evangelist was deliberately getting us to make this connection. God started creation with a garden. God dwelled with people first in a garden. God had set up paradise where everything was right in a garden.
And here we are, again, in a garden. With the gardener.
The resurrection wasn’t just one more in a long line of saving acts that God has done throughout history. It wasn’t just the spectacular victory over death that was going to change the world. It wasn’t just the turning point when the world would be pivoted toward redemption. It was the first act of a new creation. God started the first creation story in a garden, and God started a new creation story in a garden too.
From this garden, we would once again be put into a right relationship with God and with one another, because God was making all things new. From this garden, real and whole life could be gotten by all people, no matter who, because this new creation was recreating the goodness of the first creation. From this garden, the good news of eternal life could be seen not just as something happening way off in the future, but something that was happening now, because the new creation is happening now. And who else would Jesus be but the gardener, the one who tends the garden, makes things grow, gives life to a new creation? Mary didn’t completely mistake Jesus’s identity, she just didn’t recognize the fullness of who she was talking to.
But when she did, boy did she realize. She was completely overcome with how good this good news really was! It was the greatest surprise anyone could ever offer! It might not say it but you just know the whole “don’t hold onto me” bit was Jesus telling Mary she needed to stop hugging him now and go and tell the others. You know how, when you get absolutely incredible news, your brain kind of short circuits and you’re too overcome to make sense of what to do next? That’s what was going on there. But when she got her instructions, when she was told through smiles and tears of joy that she got to tell the world the good news, she ran. She ran as fast as she could through the garden, weaving through the streets of Jerusalem, past all those familiar sites where Jesus had been teaching and preaching and miracle-working. She ran as fast as she could to the door and threw it open, and before any of the startled disciples could say a thing, she shouted:
“I have seen the Lord!”
Y’all, we have seen the Lord. We’ve seen him when we gathered coats and shoes and mittens for the winter coat drive. We’ve seen him when we saw blue and yellow flags being coupled with prayers for peace and support for those welcoming refugees from Ukraine. We’ve seen him when food shelf donations kept right on coming the past two years, even when times got hard. We’ve seen him when forgiveness won out over vengeance in so many big and small ways around the world. We’ve seen him in the joy of gathering together after a long pandemic kept us apart. We’ve seen him when there was faith and hope in the midst of tragedy. We’ve seen him when the world has shown kindness, and sought justice, and brought peace, and chosen love over hate and bravery over fearmongering.
This is the best surprise the world could ever know. We may not be able to have Mary’s privilege of being the only one to know in the whole world, but we do get to share in her privilege of sharing this surprise with others. So tell the world about the good news of God’s new creation that is making everything right even as we speak. Share the joy of meeting the gardener who tends the garden that welcomes us into eternal life. Give hope where there is darkness, and speak justice where there is oppression. Let God proclaim the new creation in the way you live and love and serve and celebrate. Because this is a surprise that it just too good to keep to ourselves.
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Amen.