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“Mary of Magdala (by Bob DeGray)”
John 20:1-23

Abigail DeGray

Preaching Date: April 11, 2004
Key Sentence: I want nothing more in life or in eternity than to kneel and give thanks.

Message:
        I was born to a normal family in a normal town on the shores of Galilee, the city of Magdala, not far from here. I have two older brothers, but I was my parent’s first girl child, and greatly loved. My earliest memories are very happy ones. I remember playing in the courtyard of our large home on the hills behind Magdala, overlooking the sea, with the cliff of Arbel always present to the north. My father was prosperous, for he provided the guides and mercenary soldiers to protect caravans traveling on the Via Maris as they passed through the narrow Valley of Doves just north of town. Most of you will know the pass as the Valley of Robbers because of the gangs of brigands that so often plunder passing caravans, but in my father’s day he kept it relatively safe.

        I have some good memories of my childhood, but my bad memories start early. My father was not at that time a worshiper of the Lord, God of Israel, but instead offered sacrifices to Molech, sacrifices the priests of Molech said were necessary to get the caravans safely through the passes. My Father’s torment and mu own started when I was six or seven years old, when the priests told my father his recent bad luck in business was because he had not offered right sacrifices. They insisted on even greater offerings of gold, and pressured him to make a sacrifice that really meant something to him - to be blunt, me. So intense was their pressure, so persuasive their arguments that my father agreed.

        So one horrible night of the new moon he lead me high high up through the hills to the top of the cliff of Arbel. There the few remaining worshipers of Molech met every year to offer the most horrible sacrifice of all. That year there were to be two of us, a little boy I knew from town, whose parents were fanatics for the dying faith, and me. I can’t really remember much that happened that night. I know they offered the little boy to the idols’ fire first, but when my turn came, my father couldn’t do it. He snatched me up and ran from the hilltop. From that day on he turned to the true God of Israel, and was blessed. Even his business recovered and grew stronger.

        But I didn’t recover. My first encounter with demons happened only a month later, on the night of the new moon. My parents thought it was just a nightmare, but it was so real to me - so horrible. From then on the demons began to seize me night and day. I could never remember what happened during these seizures, but my parents told me that I raged and cursed curses older than my years, that I stripped off my clothes and ran screaming through the town, that often I tried to hurt myself with knives or glass or rocks. Once I threw myself in the fire and was horribly burned. I carried the disfiguring scar on my arm for years, until Jesus healed it. After my frenzies I would lie stiff as a corpse for long minutes and then slowly relax into numb consciousness or sleep.
        My parents, of course, were frantic to help me. They spent all kinds of money on great doctors whose cures sometimes put off the demons for few days and sometimes made them worse. We went to the temple in Jerusalem, but the Lord’s priests were unable to free me. We went to healers in the desert, but none could help. So I grew up under the shadow of seven demons and I came to hate my parents for not being able to help me, and eventually my father for not going through with my sacrifice, and sparing me this misery.

        Finally I had to leave home - I was no good to them, they were no good to me. I think I was fourteen when I left. The demons followed me of course, and I often found myself waking up filthy in some strange place, surrounded by sometimes concerned but usually hateful people. I won’t tell you some of the things I did to survive those years - but I will say that I committed enough sin to deserve the wrath of any god, and in particular I knew that I could expect nothing but judgment from the Lord God of Israel. I came to the point where I was guilty of sin, plagued by demons, and utterly cold, hard, filthy and wretched.

The Day Jesus came to Magdala

        But that’s when Jesus came to Magdala. I was living on the streets in the poor part of town, among the whores, thieves and brigands that make up the hidden part of our populations. I hated living in the ditches, but it was one step better than being abused by the outlaws. I believe I was eighteen.

        That day I felt the familiar tug as the demons began to seize my body. I had learned to recognize the signs, and I knew I would wake up before long with no idea what I had done. As conscious thought left me, I saw a group of men walking by, laughing and talking. I later learned that this was Rabbi Jesus and his followers, making their way back to Capernaum after spending some time in Jerusalem and Samaria. Magdala was on their route, and thus I was saved.

        Apparently when the demons seized me they began to rage against Jesus and throw stones at his group. Jesus turned aside and came over to me. They say he rebuked the demons to silence and then said to me ‘Young woman - be healed’. At that moment I returned to absolutely clear consciousness and found myself looking into the eyes of Jesus. “Mary”, he said “Your torment is ended, go to your home in peace.” As the sound of his voice saying my name burned itself into my heart, he turned back to his disciples and continued on through town. I sat blinking in the sunshine. Physically I had nver felt so whole in my life. I looked down at the scar on my arm and it was gone.

        But what was I to do? I felt so clean that the idea of living among the outcasts and lawless ones was a horrifying. Jesus had said ‘Mary, go to your home,’ and almost unconsciously I found myself making my way through the streets toward the villa that I had left four years before, vowing never to return. I probed my heart for the root of hate that had kept me from my parents, but I could find no trace. So when I arrived at the gate, I went in, and found my father among his accounts, and fell to my knees, and embraced him.

“From Whom Seven Demons Had Come Out”

        The year that followed was one of the happiest of my life. Never again did the demons seize me, never again did I wake up in that foul stupor. My father and mother rejoiced and marveled at my deliverance. They showered me with love and care and cried endless tears of joy as they heard my story and considered the one who had saved me. Naturally they were very interested in Jesus and determined that if he ever came back to Magdala they would meet him.

        Their fascination with Jesus, however, was nothing compared to mine. Though I happily returned to home life, I had one compelling need that was not being fulfilled - the need to see the Rabbi again, to express my gratitude. I wanted to know this man who could rescue with a word. I wanted to hear his teaching and know his God. On another level I just wanted hear his voice saying my name again. So even as my joy in my family overflowed, I spent a lot of time in the town square and the synagogue, finding those who had met Jesus and devouring the rumors about him. I learned that he was continuing to minister in the area around Galilee, and that he made his headquarters right here in Capernaum.

        Needless to say I tried to see him. I begged my father to bring me to Capernaum, and twice we made the trek, but both times he was away. While I was here, however, I got to talk with people who were convinced he was the Messiah who would rescue our people from the Romans. I also talked with others who were more concerned about rescue from sin, and said that Jesus had the authority to forgive. Some said that John the Baptist had called him ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. The more I heard, the more anxious I grew to find him, to thank him, and to listen to him.

“Your Sins Are Forgiven” - Luke 7:36-50

        In the end, though, I didn’t need to search him out, for he returned to Magdala just about a year after I’d been healed. When I heard he was entering the town I was overjoyed and ran from the house to find him. I took with me one of our family’s most treasured possessions, an alabaster jar of the finest perfume. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with it, but I knew, somehow, that it was meant for Jesus.

        Running through the streets of the town, I expected to see Jesus again just passing through, but I discovered that he had turned aside at an invitation from Simon, a Pharisees and prominent man in our town. As it was a public meal, I was allowed to enter the banquet hall. To my delight I recognized Jesus immediately - his face was etched into my memory. But as soon as I saw him I burst into tears, remembering the sin, and shame and guilt and horror from which he had rescued me.

        Finally, overwhelmed with fear and gratitude, I fell to my knees, my tears falling on his dusty feet. Then I knew what I had to do. Taking down my hair I began to wash his feet with my tears and my kisses. Then I opened the jar, and poured out the perfume on his feet as well. In my heart my unworthiness to do this battled with my deep gratitude. I knew I was a sinner in the eyes of the town, as I was in my own eyes, but I also knew that however unworthy I was, Jesus was more than worthy of my worship and thanks.

        As I anointed and dried his feet, I could feel the eyes of Simon the Pharisee on me. I could imagine what he was thinking - that if Jesus had any idea who I was he would never let me touch him. Just then Jesus began to tell Simon a parable about two men who owed money; one was forgiven a small debt, the other a great debt. Jesus asked which man would be more grateful. Simon supposed it was the one who was forgiven more. Jesus agreed, and then put Simon to shame by saying that until I came and wept no one had even offered Him the common courtesy of washing his feet. But it was because my great sins had been forgiven that I loved him so much. Than He turned his attention back to me and with joy I was able to look up from the floor and see his face again. “Mary,” He said, “Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you; go in peace."

“Helping to Support Him”

        But I had no intentions of going anywhere. He was right about the faith part. I now believed with my whole heart that this man was sent from God for the forgiveness of sins. Messiah yes, but not the political Messiah the men anticipated. Jesus was much more interested in people’s hearts than their armies, he desired that we learn from him and trust him, not fight for him.

        So from that time forward, as often as possible, I joined those following Jesus wherever he went. I learned that he and his followers lived a very spartan life, often sleeping in the fields with no place to lay their heads. Some others who followed him had the habit of buying the food that he and his disciples needed, and of replacing woren out clothing and sandals. In time I joined that group, and my father willingly supplied part of what Jesus needed. While following Jesus I stayed with some of the other women, including his mother Mary whom I got to know and love.

“Near the Cross”

        Unfortunately, this wonderful time was very short. Jesus had already been teaching for about two years when before I joined his followers, and opposition to him from the Pharisees and others had begun to grow. It continued to the point that most of us felt Jesus could no longer publicly go to the feasts in Jerusalem. Everyone had an opinion about him, and though many of the common people knew and loved him, most of the leaders in Jerusalem saw him as a political threat or a religious heretic, or both.

        All this came to a head in the spring after I began to follow Jesus. He apparently knew he needed to be in Jerusalem, and set out in that direction with plenty of time before Passover. One of the great events of his ministry took place on the way, when He raised his friend Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. I didn’t see that first hand, but I spent a some time afterward with Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha and with Lazarus. I learned that not long before Mary had also anointed Jesus’s feet, and that at the time the Rabbi had said that this anointing was for his burial. Neither of us understood what he meant, but we both knew it was significant. The disciples reported that Jesus kept talking nonsense about going to Jerusalem to be crucified, and about rising on the third day. I wasn’t so sure it was nonsense.

        When we got to Jerusalem, a huge crowd of disciples and city dwellers and pilgrims hailed Jesus along the road, some as Messiah, some as King, some as Son of David, some as Son of God. I wondered what it all meant? Was it only his mother and Mary and I who had no interest in this political thing? Or was there really something more than politics going on here? For the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, of course, it was all politics, and it was not far into the week before we knew that they had set themselves against Jesus, putting him in physical danger.

        Then came the last night, when Jesus retired to an upper room with his disciples. He talked to them at length and gave them the symbols of the bread and the cup. Then he went out to the Garden, where one of them, Judas, betrayed him by pre-arrangement with the Jewish and Roman authorities. The disciples were scattered, and late that night John came to where the women were staying, and told us what had happened. He described Jesus’ trial before the chief priests and told us that he had been handed over to Pilate for judgment.

        Jesus’ mother and Mary the wife of Cleopas and I went with John. We arrived at the Praetorium just in time to see Pilate crumble under the pressure and condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion. Jesus had already been beaten and abused, scourged and bloodied. I could hardly look at him it was so painful to see. Then they made him carry his own cross out through the streets. He was so weak from loss of blood, the cross was so incredibly heavy, he could hardly stagger forward without falling. Finally the Romans lost patience dragged a man out of the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, who carried it the rest of the way.

        When we arrived at Golgotha, they crucified him. Only John among the disciples stayed with us, as close to the foot of the cross as the soldiers would allow. We saw his agony and Mary wept all the hours we were there, but it seemed unreal and impossible to me. After a while Jesus looked over and saw us. He said to Mary, "Dear woman, here is your son," 27and to John "Here is your mother." Later he cried out “Eloi, Eloi, why have you forsaken me?” The cry sounded as if his soul was being torn in two. Then came the long hours of darkness before Jesus finally cried out “It is finished” and gave up his spirit.

        With that, the grief that had been building in us overwhelmed us. It was unthinkable that the one who gave life and forgave sins should die. After all he had done for me, after all that he had promised, how could they kill him? How could his father forsake him? Yet another part of me still wondered and hoped. Hadn’t he said he would be crucified and rise? Hadn’t he said that whoever believed in him would never die? My mind told me “he’s gone”, but my heart wouldn’t accept it, and I resolved to stay close to Jesus, until one or the other was proved right.

        So I followed Jesus to the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee came and took down his body. They partially prepared it for burial, and quickly laid it in a new cut tomb near the place of execution. More needed to be done, but it was dusk, the beginning of the Sabbath. I looked carefully at the tomb through my tears to be sure I could find it again and fled into the city.

        I spent the Sabbath with Jesus’ mother, Mary the wife of Cloepas and Salome. Comforting Mary in her grief was probably the best thing I could have done for myself. She told me the stories of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and of the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth. She told me the promises that had been made by angels and prophets that her son would reign on the throne of David forever. She described the blessing of Simeon, who told her that a sword would pierce her own soul as well. And she agonized because the sword had come.

        We didn’t have any answers, but we held her and wept with her through the Sabbath and the long night that followed.

“Early on the First Day” - John 20:1-2

        Finally day approached. It was now the third day of Jesus’ death: the day of crucifixion, the Sabbath, and now this, the first day of the week. As the long night ended, Mary wife of Cleopas, Salomeand I gathered ourselves and set out for the tomb. We took with us the spices we would need to properly prepare the body for burial. As we approached the tomb we could immediately see that something had changed since Friday. The stone, which Joseph and Nicodemus had rolled with difficulty over the entrance was removed. Salome ran ahead to look in the tomb and cried out “No! It’s gone!”

        Gone! I stopped in horror, sure that the Jews had taken away Jesus’ body. For me, for some reason, this was the last straw, the final blow that broke my will. I had really tried to trust in the loving God Jesus had shown me and taught me, but how could a God of love allow all this to happen to someone as good and pure as Jesus? And then not even let him rest in peace! I turned and fled! Only later did I learn that Mary and Salome, staying at the tomb, were visited by angels and told that Jesus was alive.

        After stumbling most of the way back to the city, I realized that the disciples needed to know what had happened. I ran to where they were staying and found Simon Peter awake, crumpled in the doorway of the upper room. His face was stained by grief, and despite my own pain I hated to add to his burden. As John walked up, I said “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!”

        Peter and John immediately started out running to see for themselves. I followed more slowly; my feet that had been swift with anger were now heavy with grief, and by the time I arrived back at the tomb Peter and John had already been there and gone. The stone was still rolled back, and the morning was quiet and still, with only the sound of swallows to break the silence. I stood there crying because I didn’t know where my lords body was, and on a deeper level, because I was realizing that the one I loved, the one I followed, the one to whom I owed everything, was gone.
        After I few minutes I summoned my courage to stoop and look in the tomb for myself. To my surprise the tomb wasn’t entirely empty. The body was gone, but sitting where it had been were two angels in white, messengers from heaven. When one asked me “Woman, why are you crying?” I poured out my grievance against God, “They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him."

        Then I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned slightly to look and saw a man through my tears. I turned back to look at the angels, and they were gone. Now I could see clearly the linens in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped, and the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. I wondered why they had unwrapped him and placed the cloth back on the table. Did they intend to display his disfigured body to the world?

        Just then the man, who was slightly behind me, spoke “Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he must be the gardener, are possibly an agent of the villains who had done this, I repeated my grievance "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

        Even as I spoke it occurred to me that I knew that voice. And then he spoke again. He said my name. “Mary.” And I knew! I knew with a knowledge as strong as my grief had been moments before, that this was Jesus. I turned toward him and fell at his feet, "Rabboni!" I grabbed him around the ankles and clung to the solidness of his feet, weeping now not for grief but for joy. After only a moments, Jesus reached down and raised me up, looking into my eyes with those eyes of his, his face shining with laughter. “Mary,” he said, “you can’t cling to me. I haven’t even returned to my Father yet. But you go and tell my brothers that 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' "

        I nodded, unable to speak, and even as I did he turned and walked away, though it seemed to me rather that he just left my sight, for when I cleared my eyes again, he was gone. Then for the second time I ran to the place where the disciples were staying. Peter had not yet returned, but John had brought the news that the body was gone and that the linens remained behind. I burst into the room, yelling“I have seen the Lord.” Then I told them all that he had said. A few minutes later Mary and Salome also came and reported that they had seen angels and then the Lord, and that he told them he was going ahead of us into Galilee.

        And he did. We saw him several times during the next 40 days, as he appeared to all his disciples, and to his brother James, and finally to a group of 500 gathered on a mountain. Just as I had been at the foot of the cross, so also was I at Jesus’ feet as he ascended into heaven, and I know he looked me in the eyes with hope and promise, and I know that the first word I will hear when he comes, or after I die will be that wonderful voice again saying my own name.