Encountering the Living God

John 20:10-18

[READ John 20:10-18]

The Easter story begins with Mary Magdalene weeping; the other disciples came to the tomb, also saw it empty, and went away worried or afraid. But by the end of our story, Mary is overjoyed! Jesus’ resurrection is not only the start of a new life for him, it is the start of a new life for Mary and for all the disciples. When we hear stories like this one, when we read about moments like this one, we sometimes think that Jesus’ resurrection solved everything for Mary and for Jesus’ disciples. But it didn’t, of course. There’s much more to each of their stories. The story of Easter and the story of Jesus’ resurrection is not a story about Jesus making his disciples’ lives easier; it’s a story about giving his disciples’ lives meaning and purpose.

What about you: do you want an easy life or do you want a meaningful life? How we answer this question dramatically changes how we engage with the world around us, how we solve our problems, and even what seems to us to be a problem.  If you are looking for a life full of meaning, Jesus is your perfect guide! But if you are looking for an easy life, Jesus will disappoint you. In fact, everyone and everything will disappoint you. That doesn’t stop us looking, of course. We can begin from any starting point, but whether we are looking for a meaningful life or an easy life, we will quickly go in different directions. This is also true when we choose to pursue a life of meaning, but difficult times come—and we question our choice. We wonder whether an easy life would be better.

There are three swirling realities this Easter for most of us:

  1. We have lost something.
  2. We feel stuck or limited.
  3. The speed of life feels increasingly out of control. Many things feel out of our control!

Maybe you only feel two of the three. Maybe you’re one of the “lucky” few who experience only one. You can use whatever analogy or word picture you like, but these three forces have come together to build up a kind of malaise. You can call it stuck in a rut, you can say you are overwhelmed, you can pretend that, “life is just a little busy right now, it’ll be better soon”—even if soon doesn’t come.

Here’s the thing: if you are looking for an easier life, these experiences are going to make life very hard for you. People will often be kind and encourage you to keep on going: “Just push a little harder!” “It’s only a little longer and then you’re there!” But malaise hits because these forces are unrelenting. They push us to our limits and beyond, to our breaking points and beyond. And there will always be another challenge, another loss, something else that picks up speed. Our situations are often difficult—and trying to change our situation or escape our struggles often adds stress and adds struggles, rather than actually helping. This is the story of the Prodigal Son, which Jesus tells earlier in his ministry. The young man thinks that he’s in a bad situation, so he runs away…but his problems go with him, and in a new place, he is ever worse off, far away from the help, the support, and the community that was back home (with all of his problems). 

If you’re here hoping for a little Easter cheer, don’t worry—it’s coming—but we only see good news for what it is when we realize our present situation for what it is! We cannot run away from our problems, our grief, or our stress. Often we cannot even solve or fix them on our own! So what can we do?

Well, today, we have heard and pictured in our minds this story about Mary and Jesus. And allow to be so bold as to suggest that you are here either because you believe in resurrection and new life or because you want to believe in resurrection and new life, even if you can’t. 

What if this story could help in some way? 

Before we return to Mary in the garden, let us remember Jesus. When we gathered on Thursday night to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, I said, “Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, denied by another, and abandoned by all the rest. He was tortured, then killed in the slowest, most painful, and most shameful way possible.” From a human perspective, Jesus lost everything. When Mary entered the garden that morning, all she had was her own, human, limited perspective. She saw the betrayal, heard about the denial, and watched Jesus’ tortured and killed. She saw his dead body before they took his body to bury it. For Mary, Jesus’ life was done and she was grieving. She was stuck. She must have felt distressed and overwhelmed.

But in her moment of desperation, she first sees angels, then she sees someone she thinks is the gardener. But the gardener is Jesus. And Jesus called her name. And Jesus’ words have power! Jesus’ words immediately transform Mary’s perspective so that she does not see the gardener from her limited perspective, but she sees the son of God, from God’s perspective!

There was another time in the Bible when a gardener spoke words of power and the world was changed. Into the chaos of the world, God spoke words of power and a garden was created and filled with good things. In that garden, God blessed his people and he told them exactly who they were and what their purpose was. These words were particular to the first people, yet they were also connected to the universal truth about who God is and who all people are created to be. This was the beginning of the world, without these words of power from God, nothing would have been possible—not the good, not even the bad, and not the redemption of Jesus Christ.

In this place too, the Gardener speaks. He speaks powerful words to Mary Magdalene that were specific to her. These words called Mary to a great honor and to a big task, but also connected with the universal truth of who God is and who Jesus is,. Jesus’ words were part of his message, but we see from Mary’s reaction that the main part of Jesus’ message was not his words. Instead, the main part of Jesus’ message to Mary was his existence. His resurrected body. His actual life. Jesus did not just say God’s message to Mary, Jesus was God’s message to Mary.

Jesus was God’s message to Mary. Mary tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” 

Mary, of course, shared Jesus’ words with the disciples, but they too waited eagerly to ENCOUNTER Jesus, to see him and touch him and experience how he was God’s message from heaven for them too! 

When Mary and the disciples encountered God, they not only saw Jesus from God’s perspective, they also saw the purpose of their own lives from God’s perspective. Their lives were totally changed by that encounter with Jesus, with God. They not only saw Jesus from God’s perspective; they also saw themselves from God’s perspective. 

Mary’s life and the disciples’ lives did not get easier after Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, history tells us that most of the disciples were killed by enemies of God, just as Jesus was killed. But they went from being lost, being stuck, and feeling out of control to being confident, brave, powerful, and joyful! How is this possible when their situation did not change or improve? How is this possible when they did not become rich; or politically or socially powerful; or even generate crowds of thousands of people, the way that Jesus did? None of us here today think that their lives were wasted or lost. What happened?

The disciples remained in the same situation—the chaos around them did not go away, in fact, it became worse—but their minds were transformed and their lives were transformed because they encountered God and his power, embodied in Jesus. Because they encountered God, in Jesus, they saw Jesus and they saw themselves from God’s perspective. God shared his power and perspective with them—and this new power from God and this new perspective from God gave them new life for the rest of their lives!

What about you? 

Do you see yourself only as you are? If all you can see about yourself is the difficult situation you are in, then you will always remain hopeless. Even if you drag yourself out of one difficult situation, another one will come along. But this Easter, God is inviting you to stop. To listen to the gardener who is creating new things in you, even while our world is full of chaos. 

He calls you by name. He says, “You are not lost. You are not stuck. You are not out of control. I am with you. I am your God and I am leading you. I am in control.” He says to you what he said to all of his disciples: “Follow me.” 

God’s goal is not to make your life easier, but to bring you face to face with him—to bring you to an encounter with himself, where he will introduce you to his power, to his provision, to his direction, and to the love of his Father! You may expect that when you encounter Jesus, everything in your situation will be okay (immediately, or eventually). But when you encounter God, he will speak words of purpose to you. In fact, he is always speaking to you through his Word and through his Holy Spirit.

Like Mary and like Jesus’ first disciples, we are not always seeing, not always listening, and not always understanding. Too often we come to God, we ask for some thing, we run away again and go about our regular business. Then we return to God: we ask for the same thing again! We get frustrated, we grieve. We feel stuck. We feel overwhelmed and out of control! We run away again and go about our business. We try harder. We return to God, we ask for the same thing, and it gets worse. You might even think that God is ignoring you!

But God is always speaking to you. If you can slow your heart and your mind enough in order to hear him, you will want to hold onto him (just like Mary)! You will never want to leave, never to let go. But Jesus will share his presence with you and his perspective with you—so that if you spend more time with God and if you spend more time with people who have spent time with God, then you will begin not only to see Jesus from God’s perspective, but you will also begin to see yourself from God’s perspective. You will see how you are growing and learning; how God is using you to care for and bless others; you will learn to love your story, not becauseof your situation, but because of how God is powerfully with you in your situation.

There are many stories I can tell about the power of encountering God and the power of God’s purpose in our lives, but I want to close with a very small one and a very recent one. Earlier this week, Kaylee and I shared a meal with friends who are wondering about a relationship with God. If and when they encounter God, right now in their lives, it may only be through us. Over supper, we shared our stories as couples about what brought us each to Calagry—the good parts, the difficult parts. And after we told our story, our friends said, “Well now you cannot leave! We love having this connection with you and we don’t want to lose it.” 

As we drove home, Kaylee and I agreed that part of God’s purpose for us in Calgary is to love those people. None of our problems are solved. We still are in exactly the same situation. But we are clear on that topic. And having confidence that we are experiencing God’s purpose for us makes all the difference.

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