This is a sermon that I delivered at one of my churches on Easter Sunday 2016. The Bible reading that morning was John’s account of the resurrection of Jesus: John 20:11-18. As a church we had been studying John’s gospel together throughout Lent.
Recognising voices can be hard. If we just hear someone’s voice alone, perhaps calling us from across the street or on the radio, we may struggle at first to identify who is speaking. We can perhaps understand, therefore, why Mary Magdalene initially struggled to recognise Jesus’ voice in our reading. She was overcome by grief and despair, deeply troubled and confused by what she saw at the empty tomb, and clearly not in a fit state to recognise anybody. Many of us have learned a great deal about John’s gospel over the last six weeks, and this passage has all the hallmarks of the author’s wonderful narrative skills: conjuring up so easily a detailed mental picture of that very first Easter morning.
Throughout the scriptures, God’s people have struggled to hear and discern his voice. The boy Samuel in the temple thought that it was his master, Eli, calling him, not God (1 Samuel 3). The prophet Elijah had to struggle to hear the “still small voice” of God speaking on the mountainside, after the raging of the storm and the earthquake (1 Kings 19). Even the apostle Peter had to fall asleep on the rooftop of Cornelius’ house before he could still the noise in his own mind and hear clearly the voice of God telling him to set aside the food laws of the old dispensation (Acts 10).
And there have been many others who heard the voice of God distinctly but did not wish to listen. The prophet Jonah clearly heard the word of the Lord telling him to go to Nineveh but immediately set off in the opposite direction (Jonah 1). At the beginning of John’s gospel, the stiff-necked Pharisees and Sadducees clearly heard the words of John the Baptist – a voice truly crying in the wilderness – but did not wish to hear his disturbing message (John 1). Paul had to be forcibly confronted by the voice and the blinding presence of God before he would heed God’s will and cease persecuting the followers of Christ (Acts 9).
Sadly, God’s people have been trying not to hear God ever since and today’s scripture reading provides us with one excellent example. In our passage, it is Mary – a woman – who first discovers the empty tomb; it is to Mary that the risen Christ first appears; and it is from Mary that the other male disciples first hear the words of jubilation: “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18). No wonder that Mary has often been called the ‘apostle to the apostles’ – that is the messenger to the messengers. Her role, though, and the vital leadership roles played by so many women in Christ’s ministry, was neatly forgotten by the male patriarchs of our church. They refused to recognise that the voice of God spoke through women as much as men because such a shocking revelation scared and disturbed them. Sadly it has taken 2,000 years or so for us to recognise this fault and hear the voices of Christ-inspired women once more in our church and world.
Exactly the same challenge faces us today. How do we hear the voice of our risen Lord? How do we discern the voice of God from the many hundreds of other voices that crowd into our consciousness each day? How do we recognise the voice of Jesus, and not mistake him for the gardener?
There is no easy answer to these questions and Christians have struggled to hear the words of Jesus ever since Mary in that garden so long ago. But let me offer you three (mercifully brief) pointers that I think are relevant to each one of us today.
First, you have to make space to hear the voice of God. Mary went to the garden whilst it was still dark to be alone at the tomb. The gospels tell us that Jesus frequently took time to be alone with his Father, to pray and listen – most notably of course during the 40 days that we commemorate in Lent. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously got up at 4:00 o’clock each morning to pray through his day and make time to listen to God. Where is there time in our lives for God to speak to us? If is a sin of which I certainly am guilty. Too often, we are so busy doing the work of God that we, forget to simply be attentive disciples, waiting for God to speak. Prayer is undoubtedly the most neglected and least understood of all Christian activities – and is certainly deeply undervalued in our modern world: there are no league tables for praying! If Christ the gardener came through our door today, would we have time to listen to him?
Second, if we do hear the voice of God, it will be a voice of challenge. Mary and all the disciples were deeply disturbed to hear the voice of the risen Christ: it made them re-think everything they knew about their world and their place in it. It was so shocking that one of Jesus’ best friends, Thomas, refused even to countenance what he was being told until he was forcibly confronted by the flesh and body of Christ. Peter was challenged on that rooftop to re-think what he knew about the way God wanted him to live his everyday life. Paul was deeply challenged on the road to Damascus to turn his entire life around. The true voice of God very rarely in Christian history has ever said, “You’re just fine. Carry on, carrying on.”!
In the gospels the words of Christ – the living Word of God – very rarely left lives untouched or people untroubled: tax collectors, beggars, politicians, the powerful and the powerless were all challenged to the very core of their being by the voice of God incarnate. And so it should be with us. If we are truly hearing the voice of God, it will challenge us. It may not challenge us to do more – I’m not going to presume that God is automatically telling you all to become a door steward – but it will certainly challenge us to be more. It will challenge our prejudices and stereotypes, our assumptions and our doctrines. It will seek to expand our horizons and our minds. It will call us to be better neighbours and better stewards of God’s creation. It will challenge us to go deeper into God, to study the scriptures, to open our mind in prayer and to enrich our worship. The voice of God, if we hear it clearly, will continually change us.
Third, and finally, the voice of God will never lead us astray or fail us. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:1-5) During our Lenten Bible study of John’s gospel, we looked at the painful subject of Christian anti-Semitism, and how John’s gospel in particular has been sadly misunderstood as a justification for the most horrendous acts of terror and violence against Jews for 2,000 years. Such sins stand alongside countless other acts of violence and hatred that daily shock and appal us – most recently of course the horrors of the terrorist attack in Brussels. Too often, such violence has been justified by claims that the perpetrators were carrying out the will of God: that they were simply carrying out the wishes of the voice of the divine – and on each occasion Christ is crucified once more.
The true voice of God never calls for violence or hatred, it never calls us to strike out, to enact revenge or to harm God’s creation. How I do know that? Because it is the same voice that said, ‘Turn the other cheek’, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ and ultimately ‘Father forgive them’ on the cross of Calvary. The voice of Christ that is faithfully recorded in the pages of our Bible is the same voice that Mary struggled to discern in the garden and the same one that we struggle to hear today, amidst the clamour of the world’s strife and greed. It is the voice of our one true shepherd and Lord, who calls out to those whom he came to save today and every day – who calls us to know in our hearts that we are forgiven, loved and free because of what he has done for us upon the cross – who calls us to life in all its fullness. And it is the same voice which will one day call us all home, as our one true shepherd and guide
This Easter Sunday, then, let us rejoice in all that God has done for us and all that he still has planned for each one of us. And let us like Mary, on that first Easter morning, proclaim loudly and boldly, “We have seen, and heard, our risen Lord.” Alleluia. Amen.
Images: ‘Noli me tangere’ – Titian. Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain. Mary in fine clothes, from a German group of the Entombment of Christ.By © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 3.0. Jesus the Good Shepherd (Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales) – Alfred Handel, d. 1946. Photo: Toby Hudson – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons).