By Melvin Owens, President, Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention, Inc.
While many of us are in preparation for the celebrating of the most important days in our religious year, there are many who are distracted by the darkness of this hour. This distraction causes many to miss the profoundness of this day – that even in the midst of the dismal and dour circumstances of this pervasive pandemic, we are encouraged by the truth of a resurrection that refuses to be obscured by the trials and troubles brought about by a seemingly invincible foe. There is no doubt that our world has changed drastically. What was, is not, and may never be again! What do you do when a prescribed course of action that provides prospects for resolution is rejected by the people it was meant to protect? The vast majority of us are enmeshed in a set of circumstances that at the moment we cannot change. For all of our pronouncements concerning our advancements, truth is, we are still shrouded in darkness.
What does one say to a world confronted by coronavirus, conflicted by differing information from leaders, socially distant from each other and spiritually cynical because our prayers have seemingly gone unanswered? How does one speak of the joy of the coming morning when it seems as if the night will never end? How does one speak of hope when a glance around seems to suggest that hope unborn had died? How does one think of possibilities of tomorrow when the problems of today make it so very difficult to complete? How can one celebrate life in the midst of death? Truth be told, we are teetering on the precipice of the unbearable grief of Good Friday and the silence and loneliness of Saturday without the reassurance and comfort of the resurrection of Sunday morning.
I wondered what words I could say that would convey the profoundness of the resurrection on a day when most of us are distracted by the headlines out of Washington or Montgomery – the update of statistics chronicling the total number of cases within our state and our county – the persons around us who have been directly impacted by this virus – or simply discomfited by the directives imposed upon our way of life. More importantly, I wondered what words of hope could be spoken to those for whom today is just like any other day – another day of dealing with the same old problems that never seem to be resolved. All these things were on my mind as I initially looked at John’s narrative concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As I was reading John 20:1, a fantastic thing happened. Here I was trying to prepare a message of hope and assurance for this Sunday and for the life of me I couldn’t get past the first sentence. It read, “Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” That’s as far as I could get.
I tried to read on to get to the meat of the message – the discovery of the empty tomb, the confusion of Mary and the disciples, the angels, the gardener, Mary’s realization that Jesus was not dead, but had risen from the grave – but I was stuck on one phrase…..“while it was still dark.” Now, it’s easy to think that statement was inserted as a means of denoting the time of the event, so if that was the case, why couldn’t I get it out of my mind? Why was there a block which would not let me move past that statement – and it is as if the Spirit of God spoke to me, Melvin, the darkness which John refers to was not simply a matter of noting chronological time but it was a way of stating it was also spiritually dark. John seems to be saying, on that Sunday morning as Mary moved from her place of safety to journey to the tomb, she traveled not just in physical darkness; her spiritual circumstances were dark as well. Her trip to the tomb was to complete her service to the One who had been the source of her assurance and hope.
Mary had been with Jesus almost from the beginning of his ministry. She had seen lives changed, bodies healed, and eyes opened, but the events that had occurred on a hill that Friday had dimmed her outlook and darkened her view. There on Calvary, Jesus, the Light of the world, had been crucified. Nails had been driven into his hands and feet. A sword had pierced his side. Mary stood there and observed the viciousness inflicted upon Jesus and could offer no help. When He died, her heart was broken. Who could she turn to now? Where would she go? What would happen to the grand plans for the future? This was the man who had come to save Israel, to bring abundant life, to set the captives free. Where was God in all of this? That Sunday morning, as she came to the tomb, her heart was heavy, “…it was still dark.” The future had looked so promising – what would happen now. Sadness, disappointment, and emptiness consumed her. Her soul languished in spiritual darkness.
Truth be told, most of us can probably relate to Mary’s place because during this agony, we all stand with our dreams in shambles around our feet. In the midst of partisan political bickering, inept governmental leadership, self-serving decisions, dwindling financial resources – we confess that it is dark. While we constantly hear of new infections, sparse protective equipment for health care personnel, lack of space for those needing assistance and a reluctance to obey directives designed to reduce the spread – it is dark. Waiting on my test results, bills are due at home and church, trying to keep up my work but can’t go to the office – it is dark. Seems to me life was looking up but now all around is darkness. We find it so easy to believe while its light, but difficult when there is darkness all around. There is something easy about trusting in God when life is good, but when it turns sour the natural inclination is to feel abandoned. Only the faithful can walk in the dark.
That morning as Mary came to the tomb “while it was still dark,” she had not thought the grave would be the outcome. Yet, she walked on to the tomb in the dark and when she arrived, she discovered the tomb was empty – Jesus had already risen. The plan set in motion by God the Father was working according to His will, she just could not see it. Figuratively, the fog lifted when Jesus called her by name. Sorrow was turned into joy, defeat turned into victory, darkness was overcome by light. Mary had a new lease on life. It is the same for us when we stumble through periods of spiritual darkness. Jesus is there, whether we can see him or not. God’s plan for our lives is still moving forward, even when we cannot see a way forward, if only we believe. It was still dark, but through the darkness Mary could see and confirm to the disciples, the Lord is not in the tomb and we do not know where they have laid Him. In the darkness she returned to the tomb and after Peter and John left, she remained there.
There while it was still dark – there, where tears continued to flow – there where the stone had been rolled away. Though it was still dark, she was able to report they have taken the Lord’s body – there where angels wanted to know, why are you weeping – there without benefit of companions – there where it seemed as if it was all over, there we find Mary. And while it is dark, she meets Jesus. While it was still dark, He called her name! (O, I’m, glad He knows my name) The voice of the Lord cuts through her plans of embalming the body and encourages her faith and resuscitates her hope. In the darkness, Jesus called her name and what a difference His voice made. She moved from being a mortician to a missionary. She went from darkness to deliverance. She went from fear to faith. She went from weeping to worshiping.
Though this is a dark night of the soul, all is not lost. There are many who have taken to writing the obituary for our times. Many who are saying our future is bleak and many times it seems as if the pundits view their job as anointing the body for burial. But all is not as it seems – while it is dark – we are still trusting in an amazing Savior. And so, as we gather this Sunday, by whatever means necessary, as sheep who know their Master’s voice, together we let go of that which has been obstacles and barriers to the Light of the Lord. We have seen the One who breaks through death with love and life and light and that is enough for me. Low in the grave He lay – Jesus my Savior! Waiting the coming day – Jesus my Lord! Up from the grave He arose, With a mighty triumph o’er His foes He arose a Victor from the dark domain, And He lives forever with His saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose! AND it happened while it was still dark!