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. (John 20:11–18)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Behold the man who died and who now lives. His heart was stopped but again pulses with a new rhythm and vigor. His veins spilled their crimson contents all over the Golgotha ground but now course with a fresh supply of warm, red, oxygenated blood. His lungs were deflated and flat after that loud cry with which He yielded up His Spirit but now they expand and fill with the perfumed, stale, air of the tomb. His eyes were closed in death but now open and squint to take in the sites. His hands had been nailed but now they spread all ten living fingers open before picking up the grave cloths and folding them. His feet had dragged lifelessly as His body was placed into the tomb but now they reach to the ground and plant ten living toes into the cool dirt. His skin had cooled to the ambient temperature of the stone-and-dirt grave but now radiates heat and warmth, though it still possesses five distinct wounds from nails and a spear. His brain had been still and dead but now electrons dance and synapses and neurons sparkle. His stomach, which hasn’t eaten since Thursday, growls and suggests somewhat urgently that the Lenten fast is over. Behold, the man, Jesus, God and man, lives. He rises triumphantly from the dead and strolls out of the grave into His creation.
And Mary mistakes Him for the gardener. It’s an honest mistake, really. She was understandably confused. She showed up first, while it was still dark and the disciples were asleep. But she probably hadn’t slept for days. As soon as day began to break after the Sabbath had ended, she went to the tomb. When she saw that the stone had been taken away, dislocated from what she knew was its permanent resting place, she ran and told the disciples. She found Peter and John first, and the words came crashing out so quickly, it’s any wonder they understood her at all. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
They all went back to the tomb, Peter and John sprinting. John doesn’t bother to tell us whether Mary Magdalene ran or walked. But when the men wandered away bewildered, she was there. She stayed outside weeping, grieving at the double loss. First the One she called Lord was crucified. Now His body was missing. The angels are perplexed at her weeping. “Why?” Her distress is wrong, not part of her honest mistake. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Then she turned around and beheld the Risen Lord. He asked her the very same question as the angels: “Why are you weeping?” and added, “Whom are you seeking?”
Of course, she supposed He was the gardener. This was an honest mistake. It’s not a mistake to confuse Jesus with a gardener. It’s a mistake to confuse Jesus with this gardener, the caretaker of the cemetery. He is no caretaker of cemeteries. In fact, He is quite the adversary to anyone who wants to keep cemeteries neat and orderly, who wants graves undisturbed, who wants peace and quiet maintained. There is a gardener, a caretaker for those things. But this man is not he.
There are many caretakers for the cemetery of the world. Maintaining this cemetery is the peculiar pastime of the world. I don’t mean, of course, the tending to real cemeteries or the peculiar business of operating a funeral home.
Ironically, the funeral industry thrives from shielding you from the stinging reality of death. First, there’s the cutting, draining, embalming, stuffing, plugging, sewing, and otherwise disguising the cold reality of a dead body to make it look as close as possible to the picture you provide the undertaker. Then there’s the casket, the liner, and the vault, because who wants to deal with the reality of ground that sinks as bodies decompose? And then the euphemisms: “He has passed on.” “She’s in a better place.” “He’s watching over you.” “Heaven needed another lady in its bowling league.” Finally, the funeral in the church has been replaced with the “celebration of life” in the mortuary. That’s all exceedingly odd and out of touch with the reality that death is a rupturing of God’s perfect creation.
It’s only in times of national emergency like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or pandemics that the terribleness of death is noticed and we don’t know how to deal with it when human lives (or at least some lives) become precious.
It’s a sad fact that our culture often promotes death. The strong are encouraged to eliminate the weak. Mothers are persuaded that it is more convenient to kill their unborn children rather than shouldering the burden of being a parent. As soon as our elderly show some sign of slowing down, we want to scuttle them off to care facilities rather than take the time to grow old with them. And if our elderly are indeed too infirm to live at home, we do not take time out of our busy life to visit those who gave us life. Vengeance is yours. Suicide is noble. Divorce makes sense. Happiness at all costs. War is just. Kill or be killed. Efficiency is our idol. And nothing is more efficient than death.
The Didache, a first-century compilation of the teaching of the apostles, describes the culture of death like this:
And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse: murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rapines, false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing requital, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him that is in want, afflicting him that is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.[i]
There is nothing new under the sun. Who has not bought into this evil way of thinking? Repent. Death does not become you.
The culture of death is not an American innovation, though we’ve made this idealized and idolized morbid production more efficient with every new technology we embrace. It is as old as creation, minus maybe seven or eight days. It was a culture of death that drove the first humans to rebel against the source of life, their Creator. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” dyingly die, forever be more inclined toward death than life, see death as the unavoidable end to your lives, kill and fight, destroy both the Creator and His creation. You will die.
And then what happened? They fled from the gardener. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden, and they hid, fearing for their lives. The God who had created them with His Word; who had scooped Adam out of the fresh, fertile adamah, or earth; who had planted a garden called Eden and put His humans in the garden to care for it and tend it; who still had the dirt of His creation under His fingernails, having indulged yesterday in the perfect Sabbath of His good creation, now strikes terror into the hearts of these be-your-own-gods rebels. And He should. He is life. They chose death. Adam became the first gardener of death, and the mere existence of the gardener of life made him afraid for his life.
Since then, the tension between Creator and men has been a clash of life versus death. But it didn’t stop the divine gardener from taking the occasional stroll in His creation, from tending His garden. So it should be no surprise to us that when the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus, when the Creator took an extended stroll in His creation, He exercised the skill and patience of a master gardener as He walked the rows.
Behold the man who tends His garden, who, everywhere He went, pulled the weeds of blindness and paralysis, leprosy and death, unbelief and rebellion. Behold the man who sowed the seed of His Word, the news of the new, irresistible reign of life, swallowing up the regime of death. He promised life, but it would come through death—specifically, His death. The death of this man at the hands of the caretakers of the culture of death, the gardeners of a dying world.
And so when Mary Magdalene beheld the man who created the Garden of Eden, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and who was dead and buried in a garden, she made the honest mistake of assuming that He was just another man, just another gardener in the gardens of death. But He is not.
He is a gardener, but of a completely different sort.
So here we are, at the dawn of His resurrection, in the fresh rays of a new dawn, basking in the glow of life, overcoming the shadows of death, and undoing a culture of death through sacrament and song, beholding the man who rose from the dead to obliterate death’s stranglehold in His good creation.
Join with Mary Magdalene in her pious mistake. Suppose the crucified and risen Christ; the grain of wheat fallen dead into the grave, buried in infertile ground, and broken forth in the bloom of new life; the eternal sower; the gardener of Eden; the new man, to be the Gardener. He is the gardener of His new heavens and new earth, the caretaker of the culture of new, resurrection life.
Behold the man who gives life. Believe in His bodily resurrection and your own, already begun in the waters of Holy Baptism, but not completed until His return. Behold the man who answers the culture of death begun by the first man by immersing Himself into it and dying at its hands. Behold the man whose death has destroyed death. Behold the man—the only man—with the authority to take His own life back up again. Behold the man who emerged from the grave and was immediately confused for the gardener. Behold the man whose resurrection means your resurrection. Behold the man who feeds you with the only body that rose from the dead in victory over death. Behold the man. And in Him, behold yourself, holy and whole, forgiven and free. In Him, behold the man or woman you are now and will be fully when He raises your very flesh from the grave.
Jesus’ resurrection is not just for His sake. As His death was for us, who are bodily dying as the consequence of our sin, now His resurrection is also for us, over whom death was thought to have the final word. Jesus rose bodily; His body and soul were knit back together eternally. And He promises the same bodily resurrection for us—not some disembodied rest for our souls with Him. Our lungs will breathe again. Our hearts will beat warm and strong anew. Our eyes will see; our ears will hear. Our lips will be freed from their lifeless rigor mortis to join the unending Te Deum of the eternal Bride of the resurrected Christ, His Holy Church. Our bodies will rise, as His is risen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
This sermon is adapted from a sermon series by Jeffrey Hemmer published by Concordia Publishing House.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Didache [The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles], Ch. 5: “The Way of Death,” ANF 7:379.