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“Early Morning Run” (John 20:1-10)
Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020
*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience. We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.” It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.
John chapter 20 begins, “Early on the first day of the week.” What do you early in the morning? Hit the snooze button and roll over for 9 more minutes? Take a shower to wash the sleep out of your eyes? How about going for a run to start the day? That’s what Mary did, an early morning run; but it’s not what she had planned.
Other gospel writers report several of Jesus’ female disciples came to the tomb. John zooms in on Mary Magdalene. She was up early because she probably didn’t sleep. She probably spent the entire Sabbath recoiling from the shock and grief of Jesus’ death on the cross. It happened so fast, arrested Thursday; killed Friday; and now the movement was over.
Mary was not thinking about a movement. She loved him. She couldn’t accept it. She went to his tomb. We need that. God did not design us for death. Death runs contrary to how we are made. When a loved one dies, we need rituals; the funeral, the graveside service, and burial. Only with these practices can we have closure, but Mary did not find any closure. She found the stone rolled away from the entrance.
That’s when she started running, all the way back to where Simon and the beloved disciple were staying. How often in ancient Israel did adult women run in public? I imagine it was uncommon.
Today we run for any number of reasons. People love running for fitness; a mile; five miles; and the real runners even do marathons. We mix in all kinds of obstacles; there are mud runs and color runs and gladiator runs. It’s all to get in shape.
People also run in competition. The fastest runners run not just to complete the race, but to win it. The batter hits a ground ball the shortstop has to go deep in the hole to field. That batter sprints down the line to beat the shortstop’s throw. The running backs takes the ball and runs hard, plowing over tacklers. Once he’s past them, then he turns on the speed so as to not get caught.
We run to stay fit. We run to win. Some run to stay alive. If you are being pursued by a tiger or an attacker, you run. Some run for excitement. Kids coming from home school on a Friday will sprint out of the school building, happy to be “free.” Sometimes running is tied to a goal. Candidates “run” for office, intending to be elected.
Mary came to a tomb to grieve the death of her beloved teacher much as you or I might visit the cemetery to remember and say farewell to someone we love who has died. Why did a stone rolled to the side revealing the entrance to Jesus’ tomb send Mary running? What would you think if you went to the cemetery and found your mom’s headstone, but the ground was dug, no coffin? His corpse was supposed to be in there. But the stone sealing the tomb was moved. Now she was traumatized by this: a dead body wasn’t where it was supposed to be. With this new shock she ran for help.
Peter and the beloved disciple set out immediately, back down the same road from which she had just come. Like her, they are running. Commentators remark, in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal son, that it was undignified for a landowner of high class to run in public. But in Jesus’ tale the father didn’t care about improprieties. Overcome with joy at getting his son back, he ran to embrace him. A little like the impulse in school children on Friday afternoons, this father, propelled by excited happiness ignored social conventions of his day and ran to his son.
That’s not what Peter was doing. He did not know what had happened. He and his companion only knew that grief and shame had coldcocked them both and now Mary’s report of a violated tomb raised the level of strangeness and threat. They could be running into some real trouble, but they were beyond reason. They had to know what happened, so they ran.
The beloved disciple outpaced the fisherman, but stopped at the tomb’s entrance. He looked in where he saw linen grave clothes but no body wrapped in them. Huffing and puffing, Peter caught up, and barreled past him into the tomb. They could see clearly; the body was gone. They did not know what it meant. They turned to walk, slowly, I bet, back to the house.
Mary then had her encounter with the risen Jesus. She thought he was a gardener until He called her name. When she heard her name, she was the first to understand. No one, not the temple leaders, not the centurions, no one stole his dead body. His body wasn’t dead. She talked to him as he stood there alive. She watched his lifeless body taken down after being ravaged and dying on the cross. She saw him laid in the tomb. Now, here he was, upright, alive, talking to her. She knew it was real because she took hold of him. The gospel doesn’t say she ran as she went back to tell the disciples what happened, but I bet she at least had a new spring in her step!
Jesus was alive. He had been dead, done and dusted. Now, he was alive. This is where our story leads. Our own individual mistakes, and a world degrading and devolving inevitably leads to death, the very opposite of God’s intent for human beings. From Adam and Eve to Cain and Able to the flood to the tower of Babel to a long, sad history of the chosen people rebelling against God to exile to the decadence of both Herod and Rome to the crucifixion to our day or wars, pornography, greed, sex-slavery, substance abuse, and self-centeredness, the world is unalterably destined for destruction.
Yet, when we turn from death and our own fallen state, repent, and turn in faith to Jesus, something changes. He is alive. On the cross, he took on himself our destruction. Death seemed so inevitable, yet he defeated it. The resurrection means, when we are in Christ, things are different because we are bound for life. People need to know about this!
Why are 26-mile long races called ‘Marathons?’ In 490BC, after a long battle with the invading Persians, the Greeks won a desperately needed victory at Marathon. The residents of Athens, 26 miles away, needed to know what happened. So, a runner was dispatched and he made the long run for one reason: to tell the good news! What he had to say was so important, so needed, so urgent, he ran to tell it. Legend has it that upon reporting his news, he collapsed and died.
We possess news much happier and more important than “Greece defeated Persia.” That message was only happy for the Greeks. The Persians had to slog all the way home as losers. Our news, “Jesus is alive,” is happy for everyone. He has risen! He has risen indeed!
People need to know it and we, his church, need to be running out of the worship gathering on Easter Sunday and every day to tell. The Apostle Paul saw it this way. In the decades after Easter and Jesus’ resurrection, Paul devoted his life to sharing the salvation we have in Christ and planting churches. He is near his end when he writes 2 Timothy. In 4:7 he says, looking back at his life of telling about Jesus, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Jesus is alive. Paul sensed the urgency. This was good news people needed to hear.
It still is and we, today’s Christians, are the messengers. We are driven to run as Paul did. Another New Testament book, Hebrews, written anonymously probably in the 60’s urges that we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1c).
Why so urgent? Because people you and I know and love are dying in sin; the world is bound for destruction. Why so urgent? Because every single person’s course can be reversed and they can join in life, resurrected life, if they turn to Jesus. Why do urgent? Because it’s true. Can you imagine the media firestorm that would hit if it could be shown that someone has truly risen from death, never to die again? We know that has happened!
Tradition teaches that the disciples spread out from Jerusalem all over the world, going out simply to tell people Jesus was alive. Nearly all of them kept at it until they were killed for their testimony because the news is so big and so good, and it is exactly what the world needs to hear. All those disciples who failed miserably in the hours leading up to the crucifixion became witnesses emboldened to bear their testimony about Jesus even to the death. Like Paul, they ran the race.
Now, it’s our time. We don’t run for fear. In Christ, there is no fear. We don’t run to win. That’s fine if you’re playing softball or in a footrace, but this is bigger. We don’t run to stay fit. You might work out to be good shape for the mission, but this mission can be carried out by people no matter what their physical condition is. With my ankle surgery, I’m not running at all right now.
But I am running out of here, and I hope we all here. Christ has risen and in Him there is life. Everyone needs to know. We are the witnesses. God is sending us to tell the news. Jesus is alive!