Selected highlights from this sermon.
Mary Magdalene was the last woman at the cross and the first woman at the tomb. And this troubled woman, who had seven demons cast out of her, was brought from darkness to light, from gloom to hope, in the presence of the resurrected Jesus who died for sinners just like you and me.
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There is a fable that circulates in the Middle East about a Bagdad merchant who wanted to send his servant to the marketplace one morning for an errand, and when the servant was there he came around a corner, and he was met by Lady Death. And he was so startled when he saw her, and she had such a look on her face. He hurried back to his master and said, “I met Lady Death in the marketplace today and she had such a fearful look I want your fastest horse so that I can ride all the way to Samara tonight to get away from her, so on his way he went. That afternoon the merchant himself went to the marketplace and met Lady Death and said, “Why did you startle my servant the way you did this morning?” She said, “Well I didn’t intend to. It was I who was startled. I don’t know what he was doing there in the marketplace in Bagdad this morning because I have an appointment with him in Samara tonight.”
One way or another, death is going to come to us. We don’t know the time. We don’t know the date. It might be much earlier than many of us ever suspect, but come it will, and at a time like that what we will need is a Savior to save us from our sins, someone who has redeemed us and will bring us into the presence of a holy God, and only Jesus qualifies.
Today as we think of the Resurrection story I want us to think of a woman who was prominent in the life of Jesus. Her name is Mary Magdalene. Now I know that she got a lot of press during the days of the DaVinci Code. No, she was not married to Jesus, but yes, she was a very devoted follower of Jesus and loved him with all of her heart. She is indeed a remarkable woman and the first time we meet her in the New Testament is in the Gospel of Luke. It says that she was part of a delegation of women that actually followed Jesus and helped support him in his ministry, and then it includes her and it says, “Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons.”
Now there are some people who look at that text and they think, “Well, these are surely seven psychological scars.” No, in the New Testament you discover that these are actually demons. Demons do exist. They are created beings but fallen beings. They are evil beings. They are deceitful spirits, and sometimes they like to harass people, and sometimes they even indwell individuals if they have specific permission. These are foul spirits. In the Bible they are called unclean spirits. We don’t know how it is that Mary Magdalene had these spirits. We have no idea. Was it because she was into occultism, which sometimes leads to that kind of invasion of spirits? Was it because she lived a life of unrestrained immorality? We’re not sure of that. Sometimes she has been called a prostitute, but we do not know that she was a prostitute. Whatever it was, there it is in the text, “Mary Magdalene, one out of whom Jesus cast seven demons.”
Can’t you just imagine what it was like for this woman to finally be clean, that Jesus speaks the word and the demons leave? Her sin, which had harassed her, also is gone. The voices of self-condemnation and self-hatred left her, and for the first time in her life she sensed a cleanness, a wholeness, and an ability to be able to relate to this world with joy. Jesus gave that to her.
I suspect that Jesus was probably the only man she ever met who she could possibly trust. He was a man with impeccable purity, a man who was able to minister with such a sense, without manipulation, without false motives. She never had to hear a suggestive remark from his lips, and because of the deliverance that she experienced, she loved him and loved him deeply.
The next time we see Mary Magdalene is at the cross. Now I have to tell you that the cross and the crucifixion site was no place for a woman to be, and really no place for any person to be, and yet the Bible says that even though the disciples forsook him and fled, Mary Magdalene and a number of other women (we don’t know how many) hung around the cross. God bless them because they loved Jesus. Very interestingly, in Mark’s Gospel it says that after everyone had gone, Mary Magdalene and another Mary - there are actually six or seven Mary’s in the New Testament because it was a very common name - were around until the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and they went and they saw the tomb, and they saw where his body was laid. What a remarkable story, and that leads us to a few comments I want to make from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel.
What happens we read in chapter 20 starting in verse 1. “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” God bless her. She was the last woman at the cross and the first woman at the tomb after the Sabbath. She comes while it is still dark. The other women come later She comes and she notices that the large stone had been taken away from the tomb. What is she thinking? She’s thinking grave robbers she’s thinking that the enemies of Jesus have now not only killed him but now they want to desecrate his body. Now they want to take him and do something else with him so that the disciples don’t know where he is laid. So she’s distressed, and the Bible says in verse 2, “She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved (we know that that is John), and she said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Well, these two are in distress now too. It says, “So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together but the other disciple (that is John) outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.” Trust Simon who was always somewhat impetuous, always having his foot forward. “Then Simon,” the Bible says, “came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.” Then John goes in after Peter does and he sees and he believes.
Wow - because the disciples didn’t understand that the resurrection was coming. Jesus had told them but they didn’t get it, and there they are in the tomb, and why is it that the napkin that was about his head was folded nicely off by itself? There is a tradition that says that there were servants and masters of course in those days, and the servant would always watch the master to know whether he was done eating because if he wasn’t finished he didn’t want to go and clean up the table, and if the master took his nap cloth and simply and threw it on the table and it was all bundled up, then you knew he was finished, but if he left it folded, that was a hint that he was returning again. Maybe it was that. Maybe it was just the orderliness of the tomb. John goes in and says, “This is not the work of robbers. This is not the work of enemies. They’d have come in and they would have desecrated the place.” Jesus was raised from the dead John believes.
Now get the picture. These disciples, the Bible says, go home. Mary Magdalene then comes, because after all, they had run, and apparently they do not meet, and now we have her before the tomb alone before anyone else gets there. Verse 11 says, “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting there where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’”
Why is it she wasn’t startled with the angels? We read this story and we think we’re moderns. Do angels exist? Yes, angels exist. Angels were very much connected with the Christmas story, and whenever God does something great in history we sometimes have angel stories as recorded in the Scriptures, and you have to remember also that angels oftentimes appear simply as men. In fact, they are described that way in other Gospels. So she is weeping. She is not interested in to whom she is speaking. All that she can do is to say, “My Lord is gone. Where can I find his dead body?” Has any woman ever wept like this woman? Has any woman ever loved like this woman? Has any one ever cared as deeply as this woman did? And so she is in despair.
Now the Bible says that she was standing next to Jesus and didn’t know it. Verse 14 says, “Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will come and take him away.’”
Mary is standing beside Jesus in her gloom and in her despair. She does not recognize him. She thinks he is the gardener. Isn’t it wonderful that Mary didn’t find what she was looking for? She was looking for the dead body of Jesus. It would have been tragic if she had found what she was looking for. God had something else in mind for her, namely not a dead Christ but a resurrected one, and you may be here today and not find what you are looking for. You may be looking simply for a sermon that inspires you, or beautiful music that inspires you, and you didn’t know that God brought you to this moment, to this hour, to the seat in which you are seated, to give you something much better than you thought you would ever get, and that is to connect with the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Why was it that Mary didn’t recognize him? Well, she didn’t recognize him because she was so overcome with her grief and so overcome with her gloom that she couldn’t see Jesus, though he was beside her. It’s very interesting that she tells Jesus, “Tell me where you have laid him and I will come and take him away.”
I mean Mary, get real. You’re going to take him away? Honestly? Did she actually think that she had the physical power to be able to take the dead body of Jesus? My friends, this is love being optimistic. This is love saying, “I love him so much I can do the impossible,” and so she asks the gardener where he put him. Right then Jesus says to her, “Mary.” “Oh, the voice. It is he. I remember him. It is Jesus,” and the Bible says that Mary puts her arms around his legs and will not let him go because she has found the Savior. Interestingly she said to the gardener “They have taken away my Lord.” She still called him Lord at that time, though he was dead. God bless her. But now he’s alive and she says, “Rabboni,” which is to say master. It’s a strengthened form of the word rabbi, and she holds him there.
It’s interesting that Jesus says to her, “Mary, stop clinging to me because I have not yet ascended to my Father.” What Jesus was really saying is, “Mary, you need to understand something. You need to realize that I’m still going to be here because I haven’t ascended to my Father.” Jesus knew that he was going to do that in 40 days time, so what he’s saying is, “You simply must realize that you’ll have an opportunity to see me, but Mary, there’s something else you have to learn, and what you need to learn is that our relationship is going to change. No longer are you going to think of me as an earthly person. You’re going to have to think about me as a heavenly person.”
*So I would say, first of all, that this experience for Mary was a learning experience. She had to realize something - that when Jesus would ascend into heaven to be with his father he would then send forth the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit would give us the same intimacy with Jesus that Mary had when he was here on earth. The work of the Holy Spirit of God is to bring the reality of Jesus not just to one person but to people scattered all over the world, whether in China or India or the continents of Europe or South America. Wherever they are found, if they believe in Jesus and trust him, they can have the same kind of fellowship that Mary had, so “Mary, you have to realize here that our relationship is beginning to change.” It was a learning experience.
But let me tell you that it was also a very affirming experience. This ought to bless anyone. Notice what Jesus said. He said first of all, “Woman, stop clinging to me (in verse 17) for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.’” Wow! In effect he’s saying, “I want you to be the first witness, really, to the resurrection. I want you tell my brothers - that is to say my disciples - that I am raised from the dead. I want you to tell them what I’ve just told you, that I’m going to be ascending to my Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus was so radically countercultural when it came to women. In those days the testimony of a woman was not even accepted in court, of all things. They were definitely second class citizens and here Jesus says, “I am entrusting to a woman the most important message that the Church will ever hear, namely of my resurrection.” Now, of course, later on the disciples met Jesus for themselves, but at this point it was given to Mary, a woman, and not just any woman but a woman who had been very troubled at one point in her life. Can you imagine the affirmation? But it doesn’t end there. Jesus said, “Go tell my brothers that I am ascending to your Father and my Father.”
Now if you and I share fathers, if we have the same father, we are brothers, and what Jesus was saying to her is, “Yes, my disciples are my brothers, most assuredly, but you now, Mary, are my sister. You are my sister because I am ascending to your Father, and my Father.” I don’t know whether or not Mary Magdalene had a family. The Bible doesn’t indicate that she was married. I don’t know whether or not she had siblings. I don’t know whether or not her parents were alive and if they were, whether she was living with them, but at this moment that didn’t matter that much because she had become a part of a more important family
Obviously also it was a very redeeming experience, wasn’t it? It was redeeming. We have to back off for just a moment and ask ourselves, “How did Mary Magdalene get from point A to point B? How does a woman who is inhabited and struggles with voices and darkness and evil spirits get from point A to point B, being a daughter of God and being used by God? How does that process work? I’d like to suggest that there are some elements that are very important because we need to know how the process works because we’re in the same predicament. Oh, our details may change but we need to know too how we can be reconciled to God.
First of all, her relationship with God was a very honest relationship. She knew who she was. She knew that there was no way that she could cure herself. She had no way to get rid of the demons, no way to have her conscience cleansed from her sins, no way to have the self-condemnation and the self-hate stop. She would need help. She would need a Savior, and I’m speaking to you very candidly today. If you and I think that we do not need a Savior, if we have learned to manage our sins, and if we are content with the way we are, then Jesus is of no value to us because we bear our sin on our own and it becomes a messy, ugly experience. So she was very honest. She knew that she had a need. There was no question about it.
Secondly, I would say that her relationship was very personal. Don’t you love that Jesus spoke her name? Jesus said, “Mary.” Talk about a personal relationship. And I need to tell you today that if your relationship with Jesus is not that personal, you will not be saved. Oh, we don’t hear our names. I’ve never heard my name spoken by Jesus, but I know through the study of the Word and my own fellowship with God that Jesus and I are intimate and there are hundreds and hundreds of you who can say the very same thing. You see, people don’t get saved in bundles. It’s not something that you grow into. It’s not something that you are baptized into. You must personally receive Christ as Savior as an individual, understanding what you are doing. That’s the way in which we are saved.
One day a man came to me and said, “You know, my father is dying in a nursing home. He’s in hospice care. He’s gone to church all of his life. He’d listened to sermons. He has sung songs, and now when it comes to die he is terrified and doesn’t think he is ready to meet God. How can I give him comfort? I am trying to comfort him.” And I said, “Maybe one of the worst things you could do is to give him comfort because it might be a false comfort.” Whenever somebody has doubts as to whether or not they are ready to die, always take those doubts seriously because there may be a reason why they are doubting. They are doubting because they have good reason to doubt because they aren’t ready. What you do with somebody like that is to help him to understand that no matter what has happened in the past, if he now embraces Christ as Savior, and if he is saved and receives Jesus as a sin bearer he can have that assurance right now, no matter where he is in his path of spiritual experience. Christianity, by the way - just bottom line = has to do with the possessive pronoun. Think for a moment about the phrase, “Jesus is a Savior.” I would think that the majority of people who are listening would say, “I agree with that. Jesus is a Savior,” but I do need to remind you that even the devil can agree with that too. He can say, “Jesus is a Savior.” But think of how different it becomes when we say, “Jesus is my Savior because I have received Him as my sin bearer and will participate in his victory.” Think of how different that statement is.
So it was a personal relationship that she had. It was also a God-given relationship. It was a God-given experience. You see, only God can really show us the truth of what I am preaching here today, and only God can open our hearts, because when we receive Christ as Savior, it is not just that our sins are forgiven and our consciences are clear. Thank God for that, but it’s even better than that. God works within our hearts and changes us so that we begin to love God. We can’t turn love for God on and off like a faucet. You can’t wake up and say, “Well, today I’m going to love God.” What happens is when we receive Christ as Savior that love is birthed in our hearts as God changes our desires. Something else happens, and that is something that Mary might not have fully understood, but it’s clear in the later pages of the New Testament, that what God has to do is to supply us with the kind of righteousness that God accepts so that we can stand spotless in God’s sight. And only that can be given to us by Jesus. There’s nobody else out there. There’s no other teacher, no other guru, no other prophet and no other leader. Jesus stands alone. He’s the only Savior this world has. Whether it’s east or west or north or south, there is nobody else out there with the qualifications to be a Savior.
Now I’ve told this story and some of you have heard it before, but I need to tell it again. It’s a true story. A number of years ago when I was in Washington, D.C. with two of my daughters (Rebecca could not be with me at that time) I was speaking at a church and a secret service agent was there and asked me later if I would like to see the president’s Oval Office on Monday. It was at the time when the first President Bush was president, and it was a time when security perhaps was not as heightened as it would be today. Well, you know when he gave that invitation to see the Oval Office I never even prayed about it because there are some things that are so clear you don’t even have to mess with it. You just say, “Yes, we’ll be there.”
That day we went there and as you know, there are little huts where the secret service agents are and they saw us and then they saw that we were with this agent and they, in effect, said, “Well, okay, if you are with him you can go on in.” When you get to the door of the White House there are more agents, and there were some agents who looked at us and they saw that we were with this secret service agent and they recognized him and they said, “Okay, if you are with him you can go in.” Inside in the halls of the White House there were more agents and they looked at us and then they looked at him and they said, “Okay, go in.” When you get to the Oval Office, standing right at the door there was one more agent standing at attention but he did glance at us and he glanced at the agent whom he knew and so he said, “You can go in,” but we could not go to the president’s desk. We could only put our foot into the Oval Office.
What I’d like you to do is to use your imaginations for a few moments. Let us suppose that all of us were to die together, and that’s easier to understand after 9/11, and let us suppose that we were to find ourselves on the other side of the curtain and there on the other side the resurrected, triumphant Jesus meets us to take us all the way to the Father’s house. After all, the Bible says that he alone can do that. He’s the way to the Father.
So there we are, and I want you to also visualize that along the way there are centurions there are groups of angels positioned along the way to guard the path to the heavenly city. And I can imagine that we are now with Jesus and the angels look at us, and then they see Jesus and they say, “Oh, you’re with him? Go on in.” And then we get to another group of angels and they say to us, “Oh, you’re with him? Just go on in.” And then in the distance we begin to see God. Now God exists everywhere but there he is localized. In the Bible it says unapproachable light. We see God as we have never seen him with such clarity and beauty and holiness. We can scarcely imagine it and when we see how holy God is we say to ourselves, “We can’t go in,” and we begin to have flashbacks because among us there are some men who have committed crimes and sexual sins that are horrid, and among us there are women who have aborted their pre-born infants, and those of us who perhaps have been spared of such sins, when we think of our thought life we discover that we too are unworthy to go in. And as we begin to think about our past, prior to accepting Christ as Savior, we say to ourselves, “We just can’t go in because God is so holy,” as we are reminded of our sins. But there’s an angel there who looks at us and says, “Well, you’re with him? Go on in.”
And there we find ourselves in the presence of the living and holy God, and the Son says to the Father, “Thank you so much, and these, oh Father, are your sons and your daughters, and I am their brother.” And I can imagine the Father saying to the son, “Thank you so much for dying for them, for redeeming them, and thank you for bringing them to me because I love them, and I have thoroughly inspected them and I find no fault in them. I see no sin in them.”
You see, that’s why we as Christians sing, “Clothed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” God says, “In the place of their uncleanness I accept the beauty and the holiness of Jesus. In the place of their deceit I accept the truth and the voracity of Jesus. And in the place of all of their sins I accept the sacrifice of Jesus, and in the place of their death (which they should die eternally) I accept the resurrection of Jesus, saved by his grace on his behalf.”
But it’s not automatic. You don’t grow into it. You don’t kind of drift into it. You receive Christ by faith. As many as received him to those he gives the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe in his name. Mary Magdalene did that. You can do that too to be brought from darkness to light, from gloom to hope, in the presence of the resurrected Jesus who died for sinners just like you and me.
Let us pray. Before I pray I want you to bow your head. If you are here today and you’ve never received Christ as Savior, wherever you are, if the Holy Spirit has spoken to you and you know that you are a sinner and you stand in need of a Savior say, “Jesus, save me.” Tell him that. It has to be personal. It has to be honest that you are accepting what he did for you. You tell him that right now where you are seated or where you are listening.
Father, we love you because you first loved us. We love you because your son died for us. We love you because we will belong to you forever as we participate in his triumph. We ask that the Holy Spirit would work mightily and that many people today will believe and be saved. Amen.
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