“Hallelujah Anyway” Colchester Federated Church, April 12, 2020, (John 20:1-18) Easter Sunday (**Virtual Worship)

“Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”[1]  Are we paying attention yet?  Are we on the edge of our seats yet?  Do we feel goosebumps on our arms yet?  Because we might have been rapt with attention, on the edges of our seats, with goosebumps were we the earliest followers of Jesus and we heard those words.  Because the story could have ended on Friday.  It could have ended at Chapter 19 in the Gospel according to John: “There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.”[2]  That could have been the end of the story—Jesus’ dead body being laid in a new tomb in a garden in the place where he was crucified.

Though a new chapter begins and onto the scene once again comes Mary Magdalene, one of the most devoted followers of Jesus who did not abandon him when the Apostles (with the exception of John himself) fled the scene, who stood beside Jesus’ mother, Mary’s sister (also named Mary), and John at the foot of Jesus’ cross.  She’s there at the tomb early in the morning while it’s still dark.  In the other Gospel accounts, Mary and some of the other women followers of Jesus journey to the tomb in order to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  After he was crucified, his body beaten and blooded, he was laid in the tomb.  But his body hadn’t been properly washed and anointed with oil, an act of love for those who died that women would often perform to honor that person’s life.  John’s Gospel doesn’t explicitly say that it’s what Mary got up early in the morning while it was still dark to do, Mark and Luke tell us that.

Perhaps John just leaves out that detail because he figures that we would know about women anointing the bodies of those who died.  Or perhaps Mary is there because she just can’t sleep, every waking moment is haunted by seeing her beloved Teacher and Friend on a Roman cross.  Perhaps Mary is there to pray for Jesus because it will help to honor his life to be near where his lifeless body lay.  Perhaps Mary wakes up and goes to the tomb because she just has a feeling that it’s where she’s supposed to be.

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone in John’s Gospel and she sees that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance of the tomb and she runs to get Peter and John.  You see Peter and John were behind closed doors, probably grieving.  John must have been thinking about his promise to Jesus while he was being crucified that he would take care of Jesus’ mother Mary.  Peter must have been thinking about how he could go from being Jesus’ right-hand man to denying three times that he even knew him.

That first Easter wasn’t exactly the joyous occasion that we celebrate today in the Christian Church.  We often hear the soaring “Hallelujah Chorus” and trumpets proclaim that “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  (And we’re so grateful that Ethan was able to perform that hymn to cheer us up this year as we worship physically apart and for Janine performing special music which you will hear after this sermon.)  On Easter, Christians have packed sanctuaries full of Easter Lilies, tulips, and all sorts of beautiful spring flowers.  We have Easter Egg Hunts and Easter Baskets, Easter brunches and dinners.  We sometimes possibly torture our children by forcing them to wear uncomfortable Easter outfits and take family photos.  Easter became a joyous and big celebration, with lots of pomp and circumstance.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong about that.  Though it’s not exactly how the first Easter happened.

This year, in 2020, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem—the site where Christians believe Jesus was both crucified and risen—is indefinitely closed to the public.  This is the first time that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been closed indefinitely due to disease in nearly 700 years.  Thousands of pilgrims normally flock to Jerusalem to celebrate Holy Week.  Though this year, the narrow cobblestone streets in the Christian Quarter surrounding the church are nearly deserted.  As difficult as it is for us to not be celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ together in person on the shores of Lake Hayward and in our own historic sanctuary—it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the historical site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ being closed to Christian pilgrims on Easter.  The Israeli Government is allowing small groups of clergy only to go inside the church to observe our holiest day.[3]

Though if there’s anything that can give us some hope this year, it’s that on that first Easter people were still heartbroken from the events of Friday.  Their eyes still red and sore from crying.  Locked up in homes out of fear.  Mourning and crying and full of pain in their hearts.  Thinking that the years of following Jesus and all of his teachings and healings and signs that pointed to the glory of God were all for nothing.  That the person who they believed to be the Messiah was dead and gone and everything he embodied was over.  That first Easter was hardly a big celebration.

Mary found the tomb empty and she runs to get Peter and John.  John arrives at the tomb next and takes a look inside to see the linen cloths lying there, but he doesn’t go inside.  Peter arrives last and enters the tomb, seeing the linen cloths and the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ bloody head after the crown of thorns had pierced him.  And he sees that the face cloth wasn’t with the others, but was folded up in its own place.  John goes inside and sees and believes.  Though both John and Peter return to the place where they’re staying.  How anti-climactic is that?

They don’t go running through the streets declaring that Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen indeed!  It’s Mary Magdalene who is the first person to encounter the Risen Christ in that garden and she’s the one who leaves that holy place and announces to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.”[4]

But there’s no Hallelujah Chorus or trumpet sounds from on high let alone an Easter Egg hunt or brunch or beautiful Easter dresses.  The disciples are locked away and afraid, not fully understanding that Jesus somehow miraculously has risen as he said he would.  That Resurrection is real.  That new life is not just on the horizon, it’s here.  That death didn’t have the last word.  That love always wins.  As hard and as strange as this Easter is in 2020, as difficult as it is to know that Christian pilgrims aren’t packed inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today (let alone the faithful folks of Colchester Federated Church standing beside each other at Lake Hayward or sitting beside each other in our full sanctuary)—this Easter may help us to understand how that first Easter would have felt for the followers of Jesus who were locked away behind closed doors because they were afraid.

Don’t get me wrong—Friday marked the 9th Anniversary of my Ordination into Christian Ministry (on April 10, 2011)—and I hope and pray that there will never be an Easter like this one again.  A Holy Week where I’m sitting at my house days before the big day recording this worship service to share with our congregation in the hopes that it will give you a small sense of comfort.  Nevertheless, this year let’s say Hallelujah anyway.

Hallelujah is used to express praise, joy, or thanks to God.  It means “God be praised” or “Praise the Lord.”  And we can still praise God, we can still say our Alleluias because Christ is still risen.  Christ is risen indeed.  Christ is risen even if our church buildings are closed to the public.  Because the church isn’t closed, the church has been sent out.  Christ is risen even on those days where we are home and we are afraid.  Christ is risen because the miracle of Resurrection doesn’t wait for perfect circumstances.  And we Christians are an Easter people, even though it sometimes feels like a Good Friday world.  We are the people of Resurrection.  My friends, Hallelujah anyway.  Praise God.  Stay home and stay safe as much as you can.  And Happy Easter.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 20:1, Common English Bible.
[2] John 19:41-42.
[3] “Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre Closes Amid Coronavirus Fears,” Reuters, March 25, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-jerusalem-church/jerusalems-church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-closes-amid-coronavirus-fears-idUSKBN21C2NZ
[4] John 20:18.