Sunday, April 27, 2014

At The Sepulchre, Weeping

This is the talk I gave today in my ward, for our Easter program.

The gospel of John tells us that in the early hours of that first Easter Sunday Mary Magdalene went early, while it was still dark, to the tomb of Jesus, to anoint his body for burial.  But instead, she discovered the stone rolled away and the angels proclaiming the strange news: "He is not here: for he is risen, as he said" (Matt. 28:6).  She ran for Peter and John, but they saw only the folded graveclothes and the empty tomb.  The disciples scattered, unsure of what to think.  But John tells us that "Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping" (John 20:11).  For her, the words of the angels were not enough to dry her tears.  She stood, keeping heartbroken vigil outside the tomb of the one she called Master, the one who had been so cruelly taken from her days before, the one whose body had now gone missing.  Where was He?  Who had taken Him?  Why had they stolen His body?   And what would become of her, now that her Messiah was gone?  A thousand questions must have filled Mary’s heart as she stood there.

In the faint light, she saw a figure by the tomb.  It was the gardener, she supposed--and why should she not?  This was the beginning of the work day, after all, and she was in a garden.  His voice called to her,  as Jesus, always teaching, begins his ministry as a resurrected being with a question. "Woman, why are you crying?  Whom are you seeking?" (John 20:15).

Just like that.  No prelude, no words of comfort--just another question to add to the pile.  "Why are you crying?"  She had already answered this question: "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him" (v. 13).  "Whom are you looking for?"  The question hung in the air.  Who was Mary looking for?

The simple answer is that she was looking for her Lord--but more specifically, for the body of her Lord--to perform for Him the last act of dedicated service that one can perform for a beloved friend.  She was there with spices and oil, to anoint His body and to bury it.  Mary was seeking a corpse.  And she could look forever and not find what she was seeking, for Christ was risen.  And so His question, which seems so out of place, changed the nature of her search, and prepared her to understand the glorious fact of His resurrection.  

And when at last Jesus called her by name, “Mary,” and she understood who He was, Mary clung to Him.  The Greek words translated “touch me not” actually mean something more like “you can’t hold on to me forever.”  Mary’s joy had overcome her sense of propriety, and she was embracing the Savior.  And I can understand her excitement.  For here He was, Christ in the flesh again--not the lifeless body she had been seeking when she left her house that morning, but the glorified and risen Lord, alive and robed in majesty.

I wonder how many times we make the same mistake that Mary did, how often we fail to see God's work because our eyes are clouded by tears or by the darkness that comes before dawn.  I wonder how readily we overlook the miraculous beauty of God's love because we are looking for something else, something far less majestic than what God is offering us.  (I know I've done it.)  How often does Christ stand near us, and we overlook Him?  How often does He call to us, and we hear only the voice of a gardener?

Perhaps we should ask ourselves the same question--What are we seeking?

And when God offers us far more than what we sought, will we recognize the voice of the Lord when He calls us by name?  Will we follow the example of Mary, who "turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master" (John 20:16)?  Will we allow God to turn our tears of grief into tears of joy?  Will we cling to Him and worship Him, transformed and comforted by resurrecting love?

At times when we are filled, like Mary was, with the grief of disappointed hope and dashed dreams, when we stand outside the sepulchre, weeping, when we are seeking the living among the dead, perhaps we should ask ourselves, Whom are we seeking?  Why are we crying?  What are we overlooking?

The scene with Mary at the garden tomb reminds me of another scene, one that took place not long before, with another woman, also called Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, daughter of Simon the leper.  Hearing from Martha that Jesus had come following the death of her brother Lazarus, John tells us that Mary “arose quickly, and came unto him.” (John 11: 29), weeping.

“Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.  When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.” (v. 32-33)  They took him to Lazarus’ tomb, where, in the shortest and most poignant verse in all of scripture, John records, “Jesus wept.”  “Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!”  (v. 35-36).  

I never get tired of this story, no matter how many times I tell it.  The Creator and Redeemer of worlds without number stands at the grave of one of his friends and cries. Christ wept because those He loved were sorrowing.  He didn’t say, “there, there, don’t worry about all this, I’m going to bring him back.”  For a moment, for a beautiful, transcendent moment, He just wept.  He mourned with Mary and Martha and their family and friends, legitimized their grief, shared their sorrows, and demonstrated His deepest love.

Some of us have lost brothers and sisters, children, and friends, and I believe that Jesus stands with us at their sepulchre, weeping, and that if we could see him, we would also say, “Behold, how he loves them.”

It is my testimony that Christ knows our sorrows, that in him, the grief of death is swallowed up in victory.  But not just death.  The griefs we live with, big and small, our individual brokenness and longing, our prayers for relief and our cries to heaven are heard.  I believe that when we cry, Christ stands with us and asks us tenderly, “woman, why are you crying?”, and that he listens intently to our answer.  I believe He wants us to come to him with our broken hearts, our weary feet, our piercing wounds, and He will bind up the brokenhearted, he will let the oppressed go free.  He will break every yoke.  He will preach deliverance to the captives, and set at liberty them that are bruised.  And all of us are bruised in some way.  All of us are brokenhearted.

When Christ pushed the graveclothes aside and stepped out of the tomb he overcame more than just death--he showed us that nothing, not even what seems most final, most permanent, can separate us from the love of God.  In “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword...we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37).  Brothers and sisters, I, like Paul, “am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 38-39).

I bear witness that this Christ Jesus is my redeemer, that He was crucified for the sins of the world, and rose again in glory.  I bear witness that He is the crucified lamb, the suffering servant, and our great high priest from whom we can obtain grace to help in our time of need.  I bear witness of a God who weeps, and a God who stands with us as we weep, and a God who dries our tears, and I look forward to the time when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”  “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” Jesus taught.  “But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning.  I bear witness that Christ has overcome the world, and that as we turn to him, our tears of sorrow will be swallowed up in the joy that comes through His perfect empathy, and his resurrecting love.

"Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Friday, March 21, 2014

I Will Not Let Thee Go, Except Thou Bless Me

As Jacob prepared to meet his brother Esau, after their long estrangement, Genesis tells us that he sent his wives, children, servants, and flocks, ahead of him over the brook.  “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24).  It is implied, though not clearly stated, that the man Jacob wrestles in the Lord.  

Jacob’s assailant was unable to prevail, and Jacob wouldn’t give up either, even after the man put his thigh out of joint.  It appears they were well-matched, for they wrestled all night.
“And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh.  And [Jacob] said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Genesis 32:26). And the Lord acquiesced, “and he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed...and he blessed him there” (v. 28-29).  And thus the twelve tribes took on the name, not of Jacob (“usurper”), but of Israel (“he who wrestles [or prevails] with God”).

We bear the covenant of the man who said, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”

During His journey to Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman approached Jesus, begging Him to heal her daughter, “but he answered her not a word” (Matt. 15:22-23).  Not willing to be dissuaded, she continued her entreaties, “and his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away, for she crieth after us” (v. 23).  But she would not be sent away.  “Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.  But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs” (v. 25-26).  Quick-witted, and undeterred by his insulting dismissal, she replied, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”  I imagine that a hush fell over the disciples at this point, their eyes darting back and forth between the two.  Then Jesus, his voice breaking, spoke: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt” (v. 27-28).  That very hour, her daughter was healed.  A woman--and a Canaanite woman at that--had persisted in faith until the Lord granted her desire.  

I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

Enos wrote of the wrestle he had before God, “before I received a remission of my sins” (Enos 1:2)  His wrestle also lasted “all the day long,” and into the night, a day and night filled with “mighty prayer and supplication...and all the day long did I cry into him...and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens” (v. 4).  He describes “pour[ing] out [his] whole soul” and “struggling in the spirit” (v. 9-10) before the voice of the Lord came to him, granting his desire.  “And after I, Enos, had heard these words, my faith began to be unshaken in the Lord; and I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren, the Lamanites.  And it came to pass that after I had prayed and labored with all diligence, the Lord said unto me: I will grant unto thee according to thy desires, because of thy faith” (v. 11-12).  Enos would not be put off, despite the difficulty of his struggle.  His persistence enabled him to secure a promise from God to bless his people and preserve his record.  “And I, Enos, knew it would be according to the covenant which he had made, wherefore my soul did rest” (v. 17).

I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

My experience has taught me that God is not easily grasped, not easily wrestled.  Our wrestles with God may put our limbs out of joint, and leave us limping.  We may feel dismissed by God or his followers, unworthy even to eat the crumbs beneath the table.  We may struggle long and loudly, wrestling in the spirit for months or years, begging, pleading, banging on heaven’s door, asking for mercy, for answers, for relief, until at last we extract a blessing from the Lord, one that, He admits, is only given “because this long time ye have cried unto me” (Ether 1:43).  “Come to God.  Weary Him until He blesses you,” Joseph Smith said, “God is not a respecter of persons, we all have the same privilege...and we are entitled to the same blessings” (Ref.)

My experience has also taught me that the answers do come, the blessings are granted, the revelation does distill.  Often, when it does come, I realize that the Lord had been preparing me the whole time for an answer that, had He given it to me when I wanted it, I would not have understood.  And in the days or months or years when I thought the heavens were silent, God had been drawing me into His bosom, our hearts beating close together as we wrestled on the riverbank until the breaking of the day.

I cherish those wrestles. May it ever be thus.  

“And thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (Isaiah 49:23).