“While It Was Still Dark”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 21, 2019 (Easter Sunday)

John 20:1-18


I don’t know about you, but when I think about Easter, I think about colors.  Bright, radiant colors.  The vibrant colors of eggs when you’re patient enough to leave them in the vinegar dye for a good long time…  The lively colors of jelly beans and Cadbury creme egg wrappers…  The rainbow of ribbons you all are waving…  The riot of balloons on the ceiling…  The array of daffodils and lilies and hyacinths…  The brightness of the sunrise—not today, but on a clear morning, when the rays first break over the horizon…  That classic image in our popular imagination of the empty tomb:  stone rolled away, bright white light streaming almost blindingly from the doorway…

I don’t know about you, but when I think about Easter, I think about colors.  Which is why the first sentence of today’s reading feels particularly startling to me.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, John’s gospel says, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

The other gospels also place this event at early morning, but not quite as early.  In Mark, it is when the sun had risen.  In Matthew, it is as the first day of the week was dawning.  In Luke, it is at early dawn.  But in John, it happens earlier, while it was still dark.

While it was still dark.  Not in the warm light of day.  Not as the sun crested over the horizon.  Not under a just-before-sunrise sky streaked with pink and orange and gold.  Not even in the pale blue twilight of early dawn.  While it was still dark.

The moment of resurrection, in John’s telling, was not heralded by trumpet blasts and angel choirs singing in the heavens.  It was not attended by throngs and multitudes.  It was not greeted by thunder and lightning, or by stars falling from the sky.  It happened in the stillness and quiet of night, perhaps as spring peepers croaked or songbirds began to herald the as-yet-unseen dawn.  While it was still dark.


While Mary Magdalene was still weeping, puffy-eyed and red-nosed, replaying the end of her beloved friend’s life over and over and over again, with her heart breaking into smaller fragments with every memory…  While it was still dark.

While Peter was still berating himself, still seeing in his mind’s eye that charcoal fire outside the palace with the soldiers gathered around it, still hearing in his mind’s ear the people asking him if he was a disciple of Jesus, still feeling his own voice through the lump in his throat as he repeatedly, vehemently, denied it…  While it was still dark.

While Judas was still hiding somewhere, all alone in a waking nightmare, knowing that his betrayal had cost his teacher his life, his friends their leader… Sure that he could never be forgiven, certain that his life was no longer worth living…  While it was still dark.

While the other Mary, Jesus’ mother, was still numb with the brute reality that her baby was gone, the bald-faced wrongness of a child dying before his parent…  While it was still dark.

While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away.

And in that first sentence of today’s reading, Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, there is hope for me, for you, for this world.


For if Easter is all rainbows and butterflies, all cute bunnies and fuzzy baby chicks, all sugar and chocolate and marshmallow, all bright, vibrant, radiant colors—then in those times when your life is lived in grayscale, it can feel like Easter is out of reach.  When your eyes have adjusted to the dark, a sudden spotlight is not beautiful, but blinding.  Even resurrection, if it is all shining sunrise light, can feel too bright, too hopeful, too vague, too abstract, too much.

When you, like the Marys, are overcome by grief…

When you, like Peter and Judas, recognize your own failure and are consumed by shame…

When pain feels too deep to be healed and death feels too strong to escape, while it is still dark, the bright, joyful, extravagant promises of Easter can feel out of reach.  They have for me, sometimes.  Perhaps they have for you.


But just as, in the story we tell at Christmas, God didn’t wait for the world to be perfect before God chose to enter into human flesh, to manifest Incarnate Love, to be born into mortal life in the person of Jesus…  Just as Jesus was not born a prince in a palace, with power and privilege, a silver spoon in his mouth and all his earthly needs supplied, but was born to an unwed teenage mother, marginalized because of religion and ethnicity, and living in an occupied land…  So, too, in the story we tell at Easter, God did not wait for a sparkling, sunlit, dew-dazzled morning, surrounded by daffodils and lilies and hyacinths, to roll away the stone and bring forth new life.

No, God did it while it was still dark.  For it is in just those times when life feels like grayscale that we need the living color of the resurrection most.

When resurrection was not even a figment of the disciples’ imaginations, when death was all anyone could hear or see or think of, when there was no way they had the wherewithal to reach out for newness of life—resurrection reached out and took hold of them.

When the stone was far too heavy to roll away for themselves, God was there to move it aside so that Jesus, and his disciples, and this whole world, and even you, even I, could live again.

Even in the half-light when it was too dim to see, even when Mary’s eyes were blurred with tears, Christ was beside her, calling her by name and breathing her back to life, and sending her forth to be a witness to the resurrection that was alive and on the loose.

And the same is true for us.  When new life is unimaginable, God imagines it for us.  When new life is unreachable, God reaches to us.  While it is still dark.

In the gray numbness of grief, resurrection is already there, drawing you step by step into the future God has in store.

In the rock bottom of addiction before sobriety dawns, resurrection is already there, with gentle hands and a cold cloth and a soft voice in your ear.

In the suffocating shroud of depression, resurrection is already there, holding on to hope for you until you can hold it for yourself.

In the stifling dimness of a closet that would hide or deny your true identity, resurrection is already there, shifting the scene from grayscale to technicolor rainbow.

In the shaky silence of stories long untold, resurrection is already there, touching your wounds tenderly and breathing with you until you are ready to speak.

In the gut-wrenching powerlessness of false accusation, unjust conviction, unfair sentencing, summary execution, resurrection is already there, revealing the ugliness and evil of the powers that be and pointing toward another way.


In his birth, and in his death, and in his resurrection, Jesus our Christ shows what is the length and the height and the breadth and the depth of God’s solidarity with humanity.  In his birth, and in his death, and in his resurrection, Jesus our Christ shows God’s particular affinity for suffering hearts.  In his birth, and in his death, and in his resurrection, Jesus our Christ shows that God will let nothing stand in the way of God’s love for God’s people:  not the divide between divinity and humanity; not the divide between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, citizen and foreigner; not the violence of empire; not our predictably, devastatingly human failure of nerve; not any of the cruel things we do to one another; not grief, not fear, not hate, not shame, not doubt, not even death itself.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  And even before she came to the tomb, before anyone was there to see anything at all, God had already rolled back that stone.  Resurrection was already real and alive and at work in the world.  Salvation was already accomplished.  Healing was already underway.  Transformation had already begun, and it would not stop—it will not stop—until all creation is made new, and every one of us with it.

Thanks be to God.


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