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While It Was Still Dark

Sermon
How to Preach the Miracles
Why People Don't Believe Them and What You Can Do About It, Cycle A
March 7, 1961, was by all appearances an ordinary day. My brothers and I were sledding under the yard light just after dusk on the small hill between the house and the barn. Mom and our little sister were in the kitchen fixing supper. We could tell something was wrong the moment Dad got out of the car. His shoulders sagged and there was no light in his eyes. "Daddy's gone," was all he said, referring to his father, his voice breaking and his eyes filling with tears, as he passed us on the way to the house. Two words, and my whole world collapsed. Death had come home for the first time in my life. I had seen cows die, had buried favorite dogs and cats and attended the funerals of relatives and neighbors, but I had never lost someone I couldn't imagine living without. Grandpa had just retired -- "I'll have time to take you fishing now," he had said.

I'll never forget that awful day or the grief that overwhelmed all of us in the week that followed. I had never seen my strong dad so vulnerable, and would not see him like that again until I sat with him as he lay dying 37 years later.

Mary Magdalene's world collapsed when Jesus took his last breath on the cross. Her beloved teacher and friend was "gone."

The Thick Darkness
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 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."
-- John 20:1-2

Mary must have been reeling as she made her way to the tomb that Sunday morning. She had suffered with Jesus through his painful death, the helpless agony of one who can only watch and wait for the suffering of a loved one to end. Jesus' death, when his life was finally "finished," must have come as a relief, followed by the deeper pain of the finality of his absence.

A young physician once said to me that after watching his father, also a physician, suffer greatly before he died, he had come to believe his father's suffering, as excruciating as it was for him to bear, and for their family to watch, had served a purpose. It made his father ready and glad to leave this world with all its pains and sorrows, and it helped his family to let him go, knowing he would have no more pain.

Many of us know this to be true from painful experience. Still we let our loved ones go reluctantly, fearing they are lost to us forever, wondering how we can possibly live without them, not wanting to live without them. Our hearts ache for years. We are tempted to despair. We feel sorry for ourselves, we are angry with our loved ones for leaving, angry at God for taking them, and angry with everyone else for going on with their lives as if nothing has happened.

"It's not fair!" we want to scream. This is not what we signed up for. When we gave birth to our little ones, we thought we could protect them from everything! When we said, "until death do us part," we thought it would never happen.

When my father-in-law died at 93, he was in so infirm and in so much pain that we gave thanks for his release. But the pain of his absence is no less than if he had passed at a young age. Death wounds us deeply -- and frightens us like nothing else. We all walk the hard path Mary walked as she made her way to the tomb, "... on the first day of the week while it was still dark" (John 20:1).

John wants us to take note of the darkness here just as he does when he tells how Nicodemus "came to Jesus by night" (John 3:2; 19:39), and when he describes the evening the disciples "saw Jesus walking on the sea ... It was now dark" (John 6:17, 19b). Like a movie director setting a scene for dramatic effect, John shows Mary in the situation Jesus warns we may all find ourselves, "If you walk in darkness you do not know where you are going" (John 12:35b).

This is a culmination of the light and darkness theme that runs throughout John's narrative, "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it" (John 1:5), "... people have loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:19), "whoever follows me will never walk in darkness ..." (John 8:12a), "... night is coming when no one can work" (John 9:4b), "... those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them" (John 11:10b), "Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you" (John 12:35a), "I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness" (John 12:46).

We who live in this world know more about darkness than light. Though we stumble along, we cling to the darkness because it feels safer than the light we do not know. Mary represents all of us as she walks alone, fearfully, through the dark, forgetting for the moment that the darkness will not, indeed cannot, "overcome" the light.

Why does Mary decide to go the tomb "... while it is still dark"? Why not wait until first light? Does she want to keep her grief private? Is she afraid to go in the light of day for fear she, too, might be arrested and killed? The text raises more questions than it answers.

Why doesn't Mary wait for others to join her? John is the only gospel that has Mary going to the tomb alone. In the synoptics she is shown in the company of other women, "... the other Mary" in Matthew 28:1; "Mary the mother of James and Salome," in Mark 16:1; and "Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women" in Luke 24:10.

John describes a solitary woman walking through the dark, as we all walk alone when we mourn the death of a loved one. It is not so much that we love "darkness rather than light" (John 3:19), though there are times we clearly do, or that the "light" is not in us (John 11:10b). It is simply that we are blinded by fear and grief. When death comes, darkness takes hold of us for a while. There is something about the dark that is terrifying, that calls up in us the deepest kind of archetypal dread. When children whine about being afraid of the dark and wail about monsters under the bed, they are in touch with a cellular memory of the "beginning" when "... the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep" (Genesis 1:2).

There is also something about the dark that is comforting, indeed, enlightening. This is one of the paradoxes we experience as we come to know the one who was "In the beginning ..." (before there was light) through whom all things "came into being ..." (John 1:1-3). God is in the darkness as well as the light. It was in darkness that God approached the Hebrews fleeing slavery in Egypt:

Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. "... Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended on it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder ... The Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up" (Exodus 19:18-20). "When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us or we will die' " (Exodus 20:18-19).

We are afraid to speak when God comes too close. Like the disciples in the boat, on that dark night during the storm, we are "terrified" at the first sight of "Jesus walking on the sea and coming near ..." (John 6:16-19). Like the Hebrews standing at a distance at the foot of the mountain, fearing for their lives as God's voice peals out in thunder, we are terrified when God comes near. And like them, we are even more terrified by what Moses does next. "... Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was" (Exodus 20:21b).

In his book, Losing Moses On The Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, Chris Hedges writes about finding God in the "thick darkness" in Roxbury, one of the poorest ghettos in Boston. Hedges, a journalist and war correspondent for many years, served a church in Roxbury and worked with inner-city youth there while attending Harvard Divinity School. The seminary administration did not approve: "They had given me a full scholarship, but not, in the words of a dean, to 'be a social worker.' "1

In Roxbury, Hedges encountered hopeless poverty, despair, and hardened government bureaucrats "that regarded the poor as vermin," he writes. "I spent my first few weeks in despair." One day, a ten-year-old boy came to the manse where Hedges lived behind the church, and asked him to come help his mother. He went with the boy to his apartment building:

... climbed the stairs that smelled of urine and pushed open a metal door ... The woman was lying on a couch. Her arm was raw with blood and her flesh torn from rat bites. She had fallen drunk on her floor and become a meal for rodents. The wounds were unattended. She did not respond ... I found dishtowels in the kitchen, which was filled with dirty plates and filth, and wrapped them around the bites. I lifted her onto the couch and left her breathing heavily and smelling of alcohol.2

Despite some good he was able to do in Roxbury, Hedges left feeling like a failure. Despair led to hatred and violence. He discovered a shadow side of himself he did not like: "... my own complicity in oppression, my own sinfulness, how evil lurked within me, how when I was afraid I could turn on the weak and the powerless." And, Hedges discovered something else, "The darkness I found in Roxbury is my darkness, our darkness ... It is knowledge of this darkness that alone makes faith possible ... It is in this fear, this darkness that I found God, even as I thought I was fleeing God."3

Rachel Naomi Remen found something redemptive in darkness while working with cancer patients at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, where she developed a psychological approach to dealing with life-threatening illness. One patient described his cancer as "this black hole in the middle of my life that keeps pulling me in." Remen asked him what was in the hole. "Just darkness," he told her. She suggested he explore the darkness with his imagination. He agreed to go into the darkness and reported, "The darkness is very soft ... gentle ... It supports me. I have no needs here ... (sighs). I am tired. I am at rest ... I can open up in the darkness. Life is everywhere."4

Another patient was experiencing rage at the cancer inside of him, which he described as "unending darkness." Remen invited him to "close his eyes and allow himself to experience it." He, too, was surprised by the comfort he found. "It holds me. I am held in darkness. Wrapped in darkness. The darkness is ... soft ... almost tender (sighs). It's safe here."5

Joan Borysenko found, in her work with cancer and AIDS patients, that healing sometimes begins in darkness, or because of darkness. Answering questions about the soul and the higher self in an interview for a book edited by Rex Hauck, she was asked about darkness. "... we love the stories of light, but we like to repress the darkness ... I think Jung had a great quote; he said, 'You don't get enlightened by imagining figures of light. Essentially the way to enlightenment is to go back out through the darkness.' "6

Light comes, Borysenko discovered, when her patients were going through a dark night of the soul.

Suddenly the bottom of life had dropped out from under them, and when that happens, you come face-to-face with the big questions: Who am I; what is the meaning of life ... Usually it isn't until we get to that really dark moment that we ask these big questions.7

The anonymous fourteenth-century English spiritual director who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing knew about finding God in the dark, saying, "The Divine darkness is the unapproachable light in which God is said to dwell." He warned novice contemplatives:

... in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing ... Try as you might this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God. You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him ... But learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and this cloud.8

We cannot find the light, or be found by light, until we have known darkness. Jesus is "... the light of the world" because he has known, and is known, in both darkness and light (John 8:12b).

The Case For Resurrection
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." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
-- John 20:2-10

The gospel writer sets a tone of urgency in this scene by moving quickly from one action to another. The moment Mary finds the stone has been removed, we see her running away from the tomb to "... Simon Peter and the other disciple ..." breathlessly exclaiming, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have laid him." Then we see the two disciples running to the tomb. "The other disciple," as John always refers to him, outruns Peter and arrives first. He "bends," "looks," and "sees" linen wrappings. Then "Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb and he saw...." The other disciple "also went in, and he saw and believed" (John 20:2-8). We have thirteen actions described in just seven sentences; not quite a Clint Eastwood, knock 'em down, shoot 'em up action sequence, but a lot of action, nevertheless.

When Michael Williams, editor of The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, teaches storytelling seminars, he tells his students to pay special attention to four things as they tell a story: actions, setting, characters, and objects. John certainly knows how to show action.

John also knows how to show a setting that grabs our attention. What could be more dramatic than the setting of an empty tomb with the door open? Who rolled away the stone? Where is the body? What does it all mean? Inquiring minds want to know.

Character development has already been done in previous scenes. Peter is shown a number of times, representing the ambivalence of the disciples (and perhaps the early Jewish church) who express belief one minute and doubt or obstinate blindness the next. Peter expresses belief (John's hope for everyone who hears his gospel) early on, during the calling of the disciples, when Jesus changes his name from Simon, son of John, to Cephas (rock or Peter), and later, when he confesses to Jesus, "You are the Holy One of God" (John 1:40-42; 6:67-69). This is in contrast to Jesus' brothers and the temple police, the chief priests and the Pharisees who do not believe (John 7:5, 45-52). When Jesus is about to wash his feet, Peter says, "You will never wash my feet," but relents, asking for his head and hands also to be washed when Jesus tells him "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me" (John 13:8-9).

John shows the dark side of Peter when he shows him raising his sword to protect Jesus at the time of his arrest, and in the courtyard of the high priest when the "rock" denies Jesus three times (John 13:36-38; 18:10-11, 16-27). It is likely John intends for followers of Jesus in the early church to see themselves reflected in Peter's unfaithfulness and ineptitude.

"The disciple whom Jesus loved" appears twice before the empty tomb scene. He is shown reclining next to Jesus, an intimate relationship (also John's hope for all who read his gospel), with Peter who directs him to ask Jesus whom he is speaking about when he says "one of you will betray me." We also see him at the foot of the cross with the three Marys when Jesus asks him to care for his mother, a sign of Jesus' love for him and confidence that he will remain faithful (John 13:23-26; 19:26).

Mary's deep love for Jesus is seen in her presence with Jesus' mother, and his aunt, Mary, wife of Clopas, at the crucifixion (John 11:33; 12:3; 19:25). This is a faithful disciple who loves Jesus.

There is an abundance of objects interwoven in this series of actions, along with clues to their significance, no doubt a direct response to resurrection bashers who were aggressively casting doubts on the church's witness. If it is true that the devil is in the details, John may be doing a little creative bedeviling here: what Jesus calls being "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16b). A modern defense attorney couldn't have done better. Each object is presented in a way that builds the case for resurrection. John is looking for conviction: believers who will act on their belief that Jesus is alive, as Mary does when she announces to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord ..." (John 20:18).

John begins with the stone, which has been removed, hard evidence that something extraordinary has happened. Who removed it, we wonder? First century readers would have known that stones of the size needed to close the entrance to a tomb could not be moved easily. The tomb is mentioned no less than seven times in these eighteen verses. It is as if John, our defense attorney, keeps holding it up to the jury. Don't miss this; it's empty. The body is gone. Then we have defense exhibits three and four, "the linen wrappings" and "the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself" (John 20:5-7). John piles on the evidence. "See," he seems to say, "the body was not stolen. Tomb robbers would not have taken time to remove the linen wrappings or the head cloth."

John's comment about Peter seeing all of this evidence, but saying nothing about any conclusions Peter might have drawn, and "the other disciple," who "saw and believed," and then his statement, "for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must be raised from the dead" is more problematic, not the smooth summation we might have expected from a renowned gospel defender (John 20:8-9). What is it that "the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved," believed? Confusion reigns. Everyone is still in the dark.

Seeing Jesus
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other 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." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" 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." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because 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.' " Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
-- John 20:11-18

I memorized all of the eighteen verses in this story and recited them on an Easter Sunday, before preaching on this text, some years ago. Committing the words to memory was not as difficult as I feared, though I don't have time to do that every week. Deciding how to say the words, with what inflection and emphasis, was the hard part. The exchange between the risen Jesus and Mary was particularly vexing, especially that pivotal moment when she still thinks he is the gardener and he says her name, "Mary!"

I must have repeated verse 16 about 100 times, trying to imagine how Jesus would have said her name and how Mary would have heard it. Surely it must have sounded familiar, natural, like he said it every day. There is nothing sweeter than the sound of your own name on the lips of one who loves you. And this must have been the way Mary responded, reflexively, without thinking, repeating "Rabbouni!" in the familiar way she had addressed Jesus so many times before.

What John describes so well here is what we have come to call an "aha" event, a gasp of recognition. When Bill Miller, Frank Sinatra's pianist and "closest musical adviser," died in July of 2006 at the age of 91, Frank Sinatra Jr. said, "Bill Miller was the greatest accompanist that any popular singer ever had ... There was no one who had his touch, no one who had his taste." Frank Sr. "... who did not read music, relied on Miller to articulate his wishes to his arrangers." Several months after Sinatra's death in 1995, his son performed a tribute to his father. Bill Miller, who had played for his dad for almost forty years, was brought out "... onto a dark stage unannounced and sat down at the piano. When he began playing the introduction to the haunting 'One For My Baby,' the audience let out a gasp," the Junior Sinatra said. "They were all Sinatra fans and they recognized Bill immediately."9

Seeing Bud
Tyler Pease
I was at work when I received a shocking call from Lisa. She told me that Tom and Lee's dad had died. I thought I hadn't heard her correctly, that someone else in the family had passed away. My marriage to Lee had ended a year earlier, but I had remained close to her father. He was a dear friend to me and we cared for each other.

We all knew that Bud had health problems and that he was suffering from a degenerative muscle disease, but he had been doing somewhat better. I had visited Bud about a month earlier and we had a great visit. I had planned to make another visit in August. I felt shock, sorrow, and emptiness that I was not able to say good-bye.

Bud was raised in large by his grandparents in a time when people did not always tell you that they loved you or cared; you just knew it even though it was unspoken. He was much like that; you could see how deeply he loved his family by the way his eyes sparkled when they were around and the smile he had on his face as he sucked on his pipe. Bud was not a church-goer. I'm not sure if something had driven him away from the church, or if he had just gotten out of the habit of going. We had spoken a few times about faith and I felt he believed in God, but again, he grew up being told those are topics you just don't discuss.

Family members flew in from different parts of the country for the funeral. Most of us were having a very difficult time dealing with our loss and the grief that came so quickly and unexpectedly. I left the funeral unsure of Bud's faith and praying that he did believe. Several weeks passed by, and I found myself feeling like a major chapter in my life had just had the last page ripped out and was unfinished. Feeling depressed was becoming my daily norm; I wasn't sleeping well.

It was the third week after the funeral when I went to bed, exhausted, hoping I would sleep. I had a dream that I was in Bud's shop, where we normally spent our visits. He was a paint contractor and the shop was where he spent much of his time, working and socializing with the many good friends who stopped by often to discuss local events.

I saw Bud. He had on the dark red and black flannel shirt that he frequently wore, unbuttoned, a white T-shirt underneath, and his khaki colored pants. He was standing behind the sawhorse with some woodwork in front of him with a beautiful smile on his face. It was the same grin I had seen often when he was enjoying his family.

I told him I was so sorry that I hadn't had the chance to say good-bye and that I loved him; and then tried to reach out to hug him, but I could not. I don't remember if he spoke out loud, but it didn't matter; I felt his love and I knew that everything was okay. There was an overwhelming sense of calmness, peace, and reassurance. Then I awoke, weeping, not just from letting the sorrow go, but also from finding the peace I had been searching for. It was a flood of emotion, and I said a prayer of thanks to God and slept soundly for the remainder of the night.10

I Heard Dad's Voice
Donna Mrozinski
My father was a UCC pastor, and upon retirement from his last church in southern Illinois, he and Mom settled into the first home of their own in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. There were some happy years, and as their health issues mounted in number, the relationship between Dad and I became more open and stronger than it had ever been. About the same time as Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, Mom started to "not be Mom," which we naively thought was part of her aging process. By the time we were told there was at best a year left for Dad, Mom was having huge mood swings, wandering away, forgetting many basic everyday things, such as how to set the table for lunch, and becoming increasingly paranoid. At the time we didn't know that now well-known word ... Alzheimer's.

Because Mom refused to consider an assisted living situation, we did our best to keep Dad and Mom in their own precious little house. Dad asked me to give him my word that I would care for Mom after he was no longer with us. When we had time alone, we talked about everything under the sun, leaving nothing to chance as to how he felt about things. One horrible June morning he called me saying he felt like he was drowning -- and he was! His lungs had collapsed and were filling with fluid. After two weeks in the hospital, and two weeks with Mom staying in my home, I was told to make arrangements in a nursing home for both of them. He still had a drain tube in his lung and was very weak; Mom had run away from us trying to find Dad. Going against everything in my heart that said, "No," I had to do it: the hardest decision of my entire life.

Seven months later, Dad was once again in the hospital, this time with a cracked rib from a fall. He spent his ninetieth birthday there. That evening, over a Pepsi, we talked. He told me what I should have him wear to be buried in. He realized he could no longer be strong for Mom. I told him I would be so lost without him. He said he knew where he was going, and was so curious to see what it would be like, but was not afraid. I asked him to let me know if he could. It was a strange but beautiful time we had that evening.

One week later Dad passed to his peaceful reward. A few days after the funeral, the children had all returned to their homes and the house was quiet as I began the morning. The sun was shining and with a cup of fresh coffee in hand, I was walking to my "prayer corner" at a window looking out on the backyard. Without thinking, I said out loud, "Well, Dad, is it as wonderful there as you had hoped it would be?" I could feel the warmth of a hand lightly touching the top of my hair as he said, "It is." He always was able to say so much with a few words. That was in February 1998, and I can still hear him as if it were yesterday. This "happening" gave me great comfort, and I shared it with many others as a comfort to them.

Then in June, on Father's Day, after participating in some special music during our church service, then relaxing into the sermon, a flood of overwhelming grief hit me and I was unable to control some really hard crying! As I stuffed tissues into my mouth and face, I heard Dad's voice a second -- and last -- time, saying "It is good!" as if he was telling me, "Okay, stop crying for me, this is great!" I never heard his voice again. Occasionally, I would see him in a dream, giving a smile or a wave.

Then, after a hard, long journey into the no-man's-land of Alzheimer's, I was keeping vigil at my mother's deathbed in April 2001. I must have nodded off for a while, and saw Dad sitting in his armchair, just staring into the distance with a very solemn look on his face. During that night she murmured his name, as if she might have seen him. Later that morning, she joined him. As I thought about all this a bit later, I realized he had been sitting there waiting for her.11


What would it be like to hear your name spoken by someone you knew to be dead? Through the fog of sorrow and the drowning darkness of death, Mary heard her beloved teacher speak her name. It was like one of those dreams where something startling occurs and we wake up shaking. In one shocking moment of recognition Mary knew Jesus was alive, though it would take years for her, and the church, to assimilate this new reality.

There is no more intimate or dramatic scene in all of scripture. John is showing us the instant everything changed in Mary's life and in the lives of all humankind for all time to come. The church may have been born on Pentecost, but the conception of the new body of Christ occurred in that split second Mary ceased relating to Jesus as someone dead and gone -- and began a new relationship that would never end. Her response to this transformation is the essence of the gospel. John writes: "Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord ...' " (John 20:18).

John wants the readers of his gospel to experience both the emotional and intellectual impact of the paradigmatic shift that occurs as one who knew Jesus best began to respond to this startling new reality. His account of the resurrection has the same effect as Jesus' parables. You cannot enter into the story and come out the same person you were when you went in. Just hearing this "good news" of Mary's encounter with the living Christ can be transforming, life changing for the hearer as it was for Mary.

After the debut of his 1988 film, Paris By Night, David Hare wrote:

People walk around thinking they know what they believe about things, but ... they rarely examine the reasons for their beliefs ... when they are confronted with a real work of art then they discover that they don't believe what they thought they believed all along.12

John's gospel is a powerful new art form that he and the synoptic writers created, of necessity, to carry the message of a new age in which Jesus would show himself again and again.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
-- John 20:19; Luke 24:36-43; 1 Corinthians 15:5

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them....
-- John 20:26a

... Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius; and he showed himself in this way ... Just after daybreak Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "... Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord.
-- John 21:1-12

John's concluding words foreshadow the many more occasions to come when Jesus would show himself in this world: "... there are also many other things that Jesus did; if everyone of them were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25).

In her book, Ashes Transformed, Tilda Norberg tells about the death of her parents in a plane crash when she was sixteen years old. She was waiting at the airport to meet them on an Easter Sunday, after worship, and witnessed the horrific, fiery crash that killed all 47 passengers instantly. In the midst of the shock and the pandemonium all around her, Tilda experienced an unforgettable, comforting presence:

Then I saw Jesus. He stood directly in front of me and gazed at me with great love. I don't mean I saw him with my mind's eye, as I have many times since. I saw him with physical eyes, perceiving him in the same way I see my dog curled up at my feet. His clothing glowed, and I knew that I was seeing his resurrected body. Jesus spoke to me, and I heard seven words with physical ears. "Don't be afraid; I am always with you." He repeated these words many times as if to make sure that I understood and would be certain for the rest of my life that he had indeed spoken to me.13

I received a phone call from Paul Tulppo a few weeks after doing a vision program at his church in a neighboring Milwaukee suburb. He told of seeing Jesus while in the company of two friends when he was a child in Detroit:

Back in 1946, when I was eight years old, I was returning from a day in the woods on the far west side of Detroit with my friend, Jim, who was my age, and his brother, Anthony, who was two years older. As we headed toward home, the brothers suggested that we stop at their church so they could show me, a non-Catholic, how they blessed themselves with holy water when they entered the church.Back in 1946, when I was eight years old, I was returning from a day in the woods on the far west side of Detroit with my friend, Jim, who was my age, and his brother, Anthony, who was two years older. As we headed toward home, the brothers suggested that we stop at their church so they could show me, a non-Catholic, how they blessed themselves with holy water when they entered the church.

I followed them into their church, we all put our fingers into the holy water, and they crossed themselves. Then we knelt in the very last pew. When we looked up, we saw the Lord Jesus Christ standing on the altar, about 25 feet away. His arms were outstretched and there was a beautiful glow completely surrounding him. The three of us were in complete awe. We jumped to our feet and ran out of the church, and we didn't stop running until we reached home and told our mothers what we had seen.
14

Paul told me his vision of Jesus was still a source of comfort and hope 67 years later. He said, "I remember that vision as though it happened five minutes ago." An encounter with Jesus is life-changing and can also be deeply disturbing.

The Glasgow Sunday Herald, a small Scottish newsweekly, ran a story in January of 2006 about a woman named Naomi Wolf who was overwhelmed one day by the presence of a divine being she concluded was Jesus:

It wasn't this crazy theological thing. It was just this figure who was just the most perfected human being -- full of light and love. It was complete joy and happiness and there were tears running down my face ... But the visitation wasn't entirely euphoric. When I came out of it, I was absolutely horrified because I'm Jewish.15

Naomi Wolf is a well-known American feminist author. It occurred to her that other liberal feminists would think she had lost her mind. Nonetheless, Ms. Wolf now has full faith in a higher power:

I don't want to be co-opted as the poster child for any religion or any agenda ... There are a lot of people out there just waiting for some little Jewish feminist to cross over. I don't claim to get where this being fits into the scheme of things but I absolutely believe in divine providence now, absolutely believe God totally cares about every single one of us intimately.16

Belief in life after death is outside the officially sanctioned concept of reality. Those who dare to speak of their encounters with the holy do so because, like the disciples, they can't help themselves. The news is too good not to tell. Once you have caught a glimpse of the eternal, you are never the same.

Phyllis Tickle, known for her devotional books, tells about a transforming near-death experience after a miscarriage, in her autobiography, The Shaping of a Life.

I was up in the corner of the room just above my bed ... something or someone had caused me to move to my right; and there in the spot where there should have been only more ceiling, there was only light ... it radiated out in sweetness from a marvelous tunnel that was green like summer grass ... and the light at the other end was sending out the blessing of that place, and it said, "Come."17

Tickle tells how she was "irrevocably changed by this event, living for decades after with no fear of death, viewing it as a 'state to be anticipated, hoped for....' " Still, since that year, 1955, when she was a young bride, she has developed some doubts, perhaps like those the disciples must have had as time separated them from the events surrounding the resurrection. Tickle writes, "... although I am increasingly convinced I experienced a physiological event that I interpreted simplistically for years, I am not to this day sure enough of that conclusion to go on record as saying so without some caveats ... There is in those brief encounters, all the sureness of acceptance and sustaining, unending being that the soul has ever longed toward...."18

Joan Borysenko wrote of a remarkable dream/vision experience she and her son shared at the time of her mother's death. It happened about three in the morning as they were praying.

I was a pregnant mother giving birth to a baby, but I was also simultaneously the baby ... I was coming out through a dark tunnel, and I came out into an experience of ineffable light ... my entire life with my mother made sense, and it seemed perfect that she had birthed me into this world, and it seemed that I had just birthed her soul back out of the world ... When I opened my eyes, the room was literally filled with light ... my son weeping, tears just pouring from his eyes ... looked at me and he said, "Can you see the light in the room? ... It's Grandma; she's holding open the door to eternity for us so that we can have a glimpse."19

In this portrait of Mary and the risen Christ, John is "holding open the door to eternity for us so we can have a glimpse." His masterfully crafted words reach out over the centuries, drawing us toward "the true light," which the darkness can never overcome (John 1:9a, 5).

My Nightingale Song
Alice Rippen
In 1993, I met my "first love." We were very close, and absolute best friends. We always assumed that we would marry someday, but we were very young. Five years after our relationship began, George decided to pursue a career dream in New York, while I stayed behind in Arizona. For the next two years, we were involved in a long-distance relationship; however, it became clear that he was never going to return to Arizona, and being a small-town girl myself, I had absolutely no desire to move to New York. I was very close with my family, and could not imagine being that far away from home. Neither of us could change, so we determined that, in spite of our great love for one another, perhaps we weren't "meant to be" after all. We decided to try our best to maintain our friendship, as neither of us could imagine life without the other.

Time passed, and we both dated other people. George called one evening and told me that he was miserable without me, and that he was actually physically sick over the ending of our relationship. He mentioned a few symptoms he was having, and what he said concerned me. I urged him to see a doctor. A couple of weeks later he called and said that he had been diagnosed with an extremely rare and fatal form of cancer. I was stunned and devastated. I immediately made plans to fly to New York. I went to the clinic with him where he was to receive treatment. The doctors there were honest with us, and told us that his chances of being cured were practically nil, that history has shown this to be a fatal form of cancer. He was only 22.

I had to return to Arizona because I had a job and an apartment here. George had given me his two cats to take care of when he went to New York and, of course, they needed me as well. For the next five months, I flew to New York as often as I could, while George dealt with treatments, and the side effects of chemo. I did everything I could to take care of him, and keep him comfortable. He lovingly called me his Florence Nightingale.

On my last trip out, George was in the hospital, and the doctors had said that he would not go home. He was very, very sick. His body was so ravaged from the cancer and the chemo. We begged his doctor to release him for one afternoon and night, so that we could spend that last time together. His primary doctor agreed to sign him out, but was very reluctant to do so. He wanted a private conference with me. He was very kind, but explained to me what could happen while I was with George. He explained that George was on very toxic chemo in an effort to control the tumor growth, and that this chemo was very hard on the heart and other major organs. I think he wanted to be sure I understood that George could pass away in my presence, and wanted to know if I would I be able to handle it if that were to happen. I assured him that I was prepared for anything, and I was. I honestly don't know where I found the strength, but I knew I could handle it. That last time together was just too important for me to let that fear get in the way.

We went to my hotel, where we stayed up all night talking, inasmuch as he was able. He confided that he was very confused, as there had been people from nearly every denomination coming to his hospital room and trying to "convert" or "save" him. He was not raised in a church, and had no idea what any form of religion was all about, and now he was looking to me for answers. This was something we had never discussed before. I was raised in the Lutheran church, but had kind of slid away from the whole issue of religion. Not that I didn't believe, but I was busy with my life, and my career, and I just didn't give it much thought anymore. But all my dormant beliefs sprang back to life that night, and the words poured from me. I still don't know where they all came from, but I know I spoke with absolute conviction. It surprised us both. He had so many questions, questions I didn't even know I had the answers to, but I did. By daybreak, he understood, and accepted Christ. He had no doubt.

He had such peace from that time on. He told me that when he passed, he would try to find a way to let me know that he was, indeed, with Jesus. I didn't believe that this was possible; I believed that when a person died, all earthly bonds were cut, and they were exclusively with God from that moment on. I told him I would be watching for a sign, but secretly, I didn't have high hopes. Maybe that is why I didn't recognize it for what it was when it came.

We said our last good-byes, and I returned home to Arizona. Since I was so upset that I could barely function, I had temporarily moved back in with my parents. They had always sheltered me, and this was no exception. I had never had to deal with anything even remotely like this in my life, and I felt like it was the end of the world. Nothing made sense anymore. I prayed, but I could never get back that feeling that I had in the hotel room that night: the feeling of being enveloped by God. I felt physically cold and abandoned. My teeth chattered all the time, and I ached all over. Every time the phone rang, I nearly fainted. Nothing I say could ever adequately describe the utter devastation I felt. I could not imagine life without my best friend. Worst of all, I knew I had made my last trip to New York; I would not see him again. I had to return home or lose my job. My employer had been very understanding, but business was business. George asked that I not return to New York again. He did not want me there when he passed. He felt that I had been through enough, and he had this newfound peace and didn't really need me anymore. Selfishly, I was glad. The strength that I had felt that night at the hotel had deserted me, along with the conviction that I could handle anything that happened. Now I wondered how I would be able to go on.

We spoke on the phone a time or two, as he was able, but neither of us had much to say, we had already said it all. We were both exhausted: he physically, me mentally and emotionally.

I awoke from a sound sleep one night when George's cats jumped off my bed and onto the windowsill. It was a dreadfully hot night in August, and my parents' air conditioning had chosen the day before to break down, so I was sleeping with my windows and drapes open, trying to catch any breeze. The cats both rubbed their faces on the window screen, and made the same tiny noises of affection they sometimes made to me, sort of a chirping sound with purring. I tried to raise up to see what had caught their attention, but strangely, I seemed to be paralyzed. I could raise my head slightly, but that was all. In the meantime, the cats were almost in a frenzy, rubbing on the window screen. I began to panic -- why couldn't I move? There was a feeling of pressure in the room, I could hear it as well as feel it. It was like diving suddenly into very deep water. That pressure was keeping me pressed flat against my bed.

For some reason, I turned my head to look at my bedside clock. It was 3:32 a.m. I noticed that the room was beginning to fill with light, and it was coming through the window. The light became very bright, and I have a vivid recollection of seeing dust motes floating in the air. I forgot to pay attention to what the cats were doing, I was so mesmerized by this light. I was in total disbelief. What was it? I had crazy fleeting thoughts: UFO's, nuclear attack, or maybe I had died, but why? Or was I just dreaming? I had never had a dream like this. I panicked, and struggled to get out of the bed, but I couldn't. It was as if a huge hand was pressing me down, and I felt that my ears would pop if the pressure in the room continued to increase.

As I lay there trying to make myself wake up from this bizarre dream, a bird began to sing. I had never heard a bird that sounded like this. The notes were clear and bright, but not shrill. And it was loud. For some reason, I stopped being afraid, but I still didn't understand what was happening. The bird sang and sang. It occurred to me that the cats might tear through the screen to get at that bird, and it sounded so close I was afraid they might be able to get to it and kill it. But they were lying on the windowsill, content. I couldn't believe that they weren't reacting to any of this. The air pressure alone should have been enough to send them running. This was such a surreal experience, and it seemed to go on forever. I raised my head to look at the clock again. It was 3:33 a.m; -- only a minute had passed. I don't have any recollection at all as to what happened after that. I don't know if the light faded away or went out abruptly; I don't know when the bird stopped singing, I don't know when the pressure in the room returned to normal, either. As unbelievable as it seems, I must have fallen asleep in the middle of this experience.

The next morning, the cats were asleep on my bed as if nothing had happened. The night before was so vivid in my mind (and is to this day), but I just had to chalk it up to a stress-induced dream. When I went into the kitchen for breakfast, my mom was sitting at the table with her usual cup of coffee, but without her customary newspaper. It appeared she had been waiting for me. She gave me a look that I couldn't quite read, and said, "You know that phone call will be coming today, don't you?" It felt like the floor fell out from under me. She had witnessed everything I had. Her bedroom windows were on the same side of the house as mine. I said, "It wasn't a dream, was it?"

"No," she said. "I saw the light, and I heard a bird singing. I haven't heard a nightingale sing since I was a little girl. I didn't think there were any around here." A nightingale. That's how George chose to show his Florence Nightingale that he was okay, and he even gave me a witness, so I would know it wasn't a dream. When I did get the phone call, I was told George passed away at 6:32 a.m. New York time: 3:32 a.m. by my bedside clock.20

____________

1. Chris Hedges, Losing Moses On The Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America (New York: Free Press, 2005), p. 28.

2. Ibid, pp. 17-18.

3. Ibid, pp. 36-37.

4. Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 310.

5. Ibid, p. 311.

6. Rex Hauck, editor, Angels: The Mysterious Messengers, "Joan Borysenko, Ph.D." (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), p. 61.

7. Ibid.

8. William Johnston, editor, The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Doubleday, 1973), pp. 48-49.

9. Elaine Woo, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 20, 2006. (Originally in Los Angeles Times.)

10. Tyler Pease is a member of Wauwatosa Avenue United Methodist Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, where he is active in the church praise choir, "Agape." He is a native Wisconsinite who grew up in a small town, and is the proud father of one daughter, Sarah. Tyler is a sales engineer in the packaging industry and enjoys volunteering for both non-profit professional and academic organizations as well as being involved in faith-based groups. tosa@tds.net.

11. Donna Mrozinski is a member of Wesley United Methodist church in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where she and her husband raised four children. She is retired from the County Department of Social Services and enjoys her seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Donna says, "As the years have gone by, there has been one truth learned over and over again. It is to listen. Many of God's answers come as just a whisper."

12. David Hare, "Paris By Night," Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1988.

13. Tilda Norberg, Ashes Transformed: Healing from Trauma, 43 Stories of Faith (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2002), p. 18.

14. John E. Sumwalt, editor, Vision Stories: True Accounts Of Visions, Angels, And Healing Miracles (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 2002), p. 166.

15. Torcuil Crichton, Glasgow Sunday Herald, January 22, 2006, http://www.sundayherald.com/53687.

16. Ibid.

17. Phyllis Tickle, The Shaping of a Life: A Spiritual Landscape (New York: Doubleday, 2001), pp. 210-211.

18. Ibid, pp. 217-218.

19. Op cit, Rex Hauck, pp. 57-58.

20. The writer of this personal story, "My Nightingale Song," prefers to remain anonymous. Alice Rippen is a pseudonym. Her name, the other names, and the locations in the story have been changed at her request.
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