See Him and Believe
There are rare times in this life when God cracks open a window into glories beyond description and we see things more clearly than we have ever seen them before. For a fleeting moment it feels as though God could not be any closer, any more real. Much less rare are the times in which God feels a million miles away, as though we are walking in the arid atmosphere of a vast desert. Sometimes there is a deep longing for God’s presence, even just the softest whisper in our ears from him. Sometimes there is just a spiritual numbness, enduring each monotonous day like driving through Kansas; no peaks, no valleys. Just endless miles of the same scenery. I don’t think there is reason to deny that we have these times. It makes total sense to me. We serve an invisible God as creatures who interact with reality by seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and feeling. It makes sense that there would be times in which this invisible God just doesn’t seem present. Followers of Jesus walked this desert for a short time, from Good Friday to Easter morning. But what lacked in duration was certainly made up for in intensity. Think about these followers from the moment Jesus died on that Friday, through Saturday and into Sunday morning. We have the benefit of knowing what happens. We have the account to which we can refer and fight, by faith, against the dry desert wind. But these followers saw Jesus die. They saw his lifeless body placed in a tomb. They experienced Jesus’ absence. You can turn in your Bibles to John 20. We will read verses 1-18. While you are turning there, I’m going to pray. The Resurrection 20 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. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes. Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 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.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 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 take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, 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, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. 1 Jesus died Friday evening. Now it’s Sunday morning. John says that Mary Magdalene went to Jesus tomb. While John mentions only Mary Magdalene, it is certain that she was not alone. If you look at verse 2, when Mary went and told Peter and John about what she had seen, she said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Aside from that, all of the other gospel writers say that Mary Magdalene had company. So why does John just refer to this one woman. I don’t know what John was thinking here, but it actually strengthens the evidence for the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Think about it. If you were writing a story and trying to create a movement through that story, wouldn’t you use the most credible witnesses you could find to support your story? Women were not considered the most credible witnesses in the first century. Yet Jesus’ resurrection was first revealed to women. More than that, the woman John chose to name was a woman with a troubled past. She had seven demons driven from her by Jesus. She had been possessed. Her life probably looked a lot like what we call mental illness today. If you were trying to convince people of the truth of a story in first century Israel, you would probably have chosen just about anybody above a woman with a history of mental illness and demon possession. So why would John highlight this woman? The answer has to be because it’s the truth. There’s no other explanation. Mary Magdalene and the women with her arrive at the tomb and find the stone covering the entrance was rolled away. This tomb was a chamber carved into a large stone structure, like a mountainside. A large stone was placed over the entrance to seal the tomb shut. On top of that, in this case, Roman soldiers were placed to watch the tomb, to prevent the body from being stolen by Jesus’ followers. But the entrance to the tomb is open and John doesn’t even mention Roman soldiers. And how did the women react? They freaked out. They assumed that the body was stolen. It’s a fair assumption. Dead people don’t just get up and decide not to be dead anymore, right? And even if he did, the stone covering the entrance was huge. And even if, somehow, he removed the stone, there wasn’t a violent bone in Jesus’ body. What happened to the soldiers? Surely a group of people came and overpowered the guards, rolled away the stone and took Jesus’ body. We have a tendency to interpret present events by our past experiences. In all of history, human experience says that when a person dies, he pretty much stays dead. Yes, Jesus raised some people from the dead. But that’s different. He did it. The dead people didn’t just get up and leave their tombs. Jesus called them back to life. And, yes, there have been people who were declared legally dead that came back to life. But the time between death and coming back to life was minutes not days. These women saw the empty tomb and their past experience led them to interpret what they saw as, “They have taken Jesus’ dead body.” And it magnified their feelings of mourning and distress. They had been without the presence of their Messiah, and now the darkness of his absence is intensified. When we enter into those times in which the silence of God is deafening, it is really easy to catch the grasshopper syndrome. Do you know what the grasshopper syndrome is? When the Israelites were getting ready to enter into the Promised Land, they sent twelve spies into Canaan to take a look at the land and see what was there. They were on a fact-finding mission. When they returned, ten of the men spoke about how great and fortified the cities were and that the men were so large they felt like grasshoppers in their eyes. The Israelite spies were limited by their perception based on experience. A small nation of agricultural people who are of small stature don’t win battles against large people with great militaries. We can’t go in there. They’ll just squish us. When God seems to be absent, our obstacles appear daunting and insurmountable. The stack of bills looks taller than it has ever looked. I barely had enough money to cover last month’s bills and now the car needs repairs. Or, we’re just a small church in lightly populated part of Missouri. We’ve tried this and we’ve tried that, but our past experience says that this is just the way it is. We can do what we can do, but we can only do so much. Past experience can end up imprisoning us into a life that settles for less than what is possible in Christ. It can do battle against our prayer lives because, after all, I have prayed about this 1000 times and nothing has changed. It can fight against faith because I have believed that God is able, but he hasn’t done what I have believed him for. Our past experiences can shrink our dreams and goals down to where they are manageable by us, no need for divine intervention. Mary and the other women run to tell Peter and John what they seen. Peter and John have a foot race to the tomb. John outruns Peter, but he stops at the entrance of the tomb and looks in. Peter, on the other hand, blows by John and runs right inside the tomb. Just seems like a very Peter thing to do, doesn’t it? They see burial cloths. They see a cloth that would have covered Jesus’ head. But they do not see Jesus. Look at verse 9. “for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Peter and John’s issue in the absence of Jesus was their lack of understanding of the Scriptures. Peter and John knew their Bible, the Old Testament. They would have grown up learning the Jewish religion and its Scripture. They probably had large chunks of it memorized. So we’re not talking about biblically illiterate people here. While they had a knowledge of the Bible, they didn’t really get the message of the Bible. We can this at play often, especially with Peter. The idea of Jesus dying was completely foreign and distasteful to them. They didn’t understand the prophecies and the foreshadowing rightly. They interpreted and applied the Scriptures wrongly. And because they didn’t understand it rightly, the empty tomb was not, at first, a joyful sight. It was confusing and disturbing. The Bible wrongly understood can really do damage. That’s why I hate the so-called prosperity gospel. There have been people with serious health issues who have needlessly suffered because they bought the lie that faith could heal them. They just needed to believe more. There are people who give money they can’t afford to give to hucksters that take it and buy private jets. They are willing to do so because they are promised a financial blessing for their giving. What happens when God doesn’t come through with the healing and the financial blessing? Many turn away from God altogether because he didn’t show up when he was supposed to. These people suffer because they don’t understand the Bible rightly. If we don’t understand God’s message in the Scriptures, we can end up expecting things of God that he never actually promised. Or we may not know what to expect so we don’t see him working out what he has promised. Then, we wonder, “Where is God?” He seems absent. He seems to be ignoring our prayers. There are surely other things that contribute to our feelings of the absence of God. For example, we can become preoccupied with lesser things. We can have sin that we are holding onto and it blocks our desire for God. Busyness certainly can contribute to the darkness. But whatever the cause, there is but one cure. Look at verse 8. “Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” After Peter went rushing into the tomb, John followed, and he saw. What did he see? He saw what he had misunderstood. He saw the empty tomb and he saw what the Scriptures were really saying, and he believed. Fender, I think, I hope, you know that I place a great importance on studying the Bible. We have to know God’s Word. We have to always be knowing it more and more, and better and better. But, if we are to know the presence of God in our lives and be assured of it, he has to open our eyes to the Bible’s truth. John didn’t have a Sherlock Holmes moment in which he masterfully put all of the clues together and solved the mystery. John had a Holy Spirit moment in which all of the Scripture that he already knew made sense to him. It fit like it had never fit before. John saw the truth clearly. He saw the empty tomb and the grave clothes with his physical eyes, but it all made sense when he saw the whole picture with the eyes of his heart. Bible knowledge alone won’t cut it. The Pharisees are evidence of that. They knew the Scriptures forward and backward. But they knew nothing of real communion with God. We must study. We must dig into the Bible, deeper and deeper. But until the Spirit of God illuminates the truth of God, we won’t see him. We are utterly dependent upon God. When you open your Bible to read it, confess to him, “God, if I am to have any profit from your word today, you must open the eyes of my heart to see and cherish what I read.” He overcomes our lack of understanding and causes us to see the reality that is hidden beneath the physical world. What about Mary and her past experiences? Verses 14-16 and verse 18. Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 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 take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. It is obvious that Mary’s seeing the Lord wasn’t just a physical phenomenon of light reflecting off of the body of Jesus, entering into the eye and interpreted by the brain as Jesus. She thought he was the gardener for goodness’ sake. She saw him with physical eyes and thought he was a gardener. Then Jesus said her name. And in hearing her name, she saw her Savior. Really saw him with the eyes of her heart. The prison of past experience was thrown open. It didn’t matter that she had never seen nor heard of a dead man deciding not to be dead anymore. Her past experiences were insufficient to explain what is happening now. It may never have happened before, but it’s happening. When your God happens to be the Creator of everything, what has always happened has no bearing on what is happening or what will happen. God created a universe when no universe had ever existed before. The Bible is full of things God has done that had never been done before God did them. Don’t let your past experience limit your view of what God can accomplish now. You may have prayed for something 1000 times. Maybe God just wants to see if you will come to him 1001 times, or 2000 times. Just because he hasn’t doesn’t mean he won’t. In the middle of the darkness, in the midst of the silence, keep seeking. Yes, Mary and Peter and John didn’t see until God enabled them to see, but they were looking. They were looking. And they found the unexpected. A Savior risen from the dead. Because Jesus is alive, we can keep searching, even if it’s groping in the darkness, in hope that he will show himself to us.