John 20: 11-18
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
How many of you have heard of or know what a steel magnolia is? I am not talking about the movie “Steel Magnolias” but the phrase used to describe people. The phrase originated in the southern United States and is used to refer to a woman who exemplifies both traditional femininity as well as an uncommon fortitude. The term comes from the strength of the magnolia tree, prevalent in the southern states. The term refers to a woman who is strong and independent yet very feminine, a stately lady.
I came to understand the quiet strength of the magnolia tree during my sophomore year at Wake Forest. At Wake, classes were rarely cancelled. During the fall of my sophomore year, Hurricane Hugo passed through North Carolina. They did not cancel all classes but they left it up to individual professors. Professor Leon P. Cook believed if he could climb water towers in a three-piece suit as an auditor for a CPA firm, his students could walk to class in a storm. So my friend Erin and I loaded our backpacks with as much as we could carry to weigh us down, linked our arms and headed out of Babcock dorm, down the sidewalk and then across Magnolia Quad towards Babcock Hall for our accounting principles I class. The scene outside looked like the tornado scene of “The Wizard of Oz.” There were large, rubber trashcans flying through the air along with small tree branches and anything not tied down. The trees were bending and swaying, rain was pelting down. And then we reached Magnolia Quad. Things were still flying through the air but the magnolia trees were only gently swaying. Their large branches gently bouncing up and down, not bending or breaking. The leaves even seemed content to just stay on the trees. Strength and beauty.
Will you pray with me?
Almighty God, give us the strength and the fortitude of a magnolia tree. Help us to be steadfast in our commitment to you and ever strive to remain faithful. Open our ears to listen and our hearts to hear. Amen.
So you may be thinking, what does all of that have to do with Mary Magdalene. A lot as it just so happens. Mary Magdalene may not have been from the southern U.S., but she was a source of strength throughout Jesus’ ministry and, as you heard in today’s scripture lesson, was the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.
Today’s lesson is just one of fourteen times Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels. From references to her, we can see clearly what she did and how she did it. In eight of those mentions, she is with other women, but she always heads the list.[i] She seems to have been the leader of this group of women who followed and served Jesus from the outset of his ministry in Galilee to his death and beyond.
For a woman to be mentioned fourteen times in the gospels, we can only surmise that she was present with the group for the majority of their time. We also see in her interactions references to previous events that took place in Jesus’ ministry.
Mary Magdalene has been characterized as an apostle, not just for being present at Jesus’ resurrection but for the many things she did before and after it. Mary was among those who followed Jesus on his last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Mary was present at the trial of Jesus, where he was found guilty of a crime he did not commit. Mary and the other women listened as Pontius Pilate pronounced His death sentence of crucifixion although he had found no fault in Jesus. She witnessed and wept as Jesus left the hall to be spat upon and ill-treated by the crowd thirsting for His blood. Then she saw Him led out to Calvary’s fatal mount to be nailed to a tree. Mary was one of the sorrowing group of holy women who stood as near as they could to comfort Jesus by their presence in the closing agonies of the crucifixion. At the crucifixion, when the men fled, Mary and the women stood steadfast, wanting to be as close to Jesus as they could be.
Mary listened with a broken heart to His bitter cries and watched through those dread hours until at last the Roman soldier thrust his spear into the Savior’s side and declared Him dead. Mary and the women remained until the bitter end. There was nothing for them to do but watch and pray and grieve. It must have seemed the greatest possible disaster, to have the One whom they loved and trusted above all torn from their midst so violently. There Mary stood, in a crowd of bloodthirsty fanatics who were screaming for the death of her beloved Lord. But Mary never shrank away completely. Mary stayed close to Jesus’ body and was there when they had to decide what to do with the body. Mary watched as Joseph of Arimathea sealed Jesus’ body inside the tomb. And she and the other women were the ones who prepared the spices for a proper burial of the body. Such was the magnetism of Mary and the other women’s loyalty and love for Christ.
Mary Magdalene had remained longer than any other disciple at the cross. Then she was also the first to reach His tomb on daybreak on the first day of the week. Her devotion was never more plain than in her response to His death, and she was about to be rewarded in an unimaginably triumphant way.[ii]
Mary goes to the tomb early on the morning of the third day. She was the first one there at the garden tomb and the first to witness the most important event in history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene is not thinking about resurrection. In true Steel Magnolia fashion, in the midst of her grief, she is going to do what needs to be done, to properly anoint the body and prepare it for final burial. But surprise of all surprises, Jesus’ body is not there. It is actually the risen Jesus who is present. At first, Mary Magdalene does not recognize him. But when he speaks her name, just as earlier in John when it says the shepherd knows his sheep, he calls them by name and they recognize his voice, Mary recognizes Jesus’ voice.
By her interactions with Jesus at the tomb, we can come to more fully understand her relationship with Jesus. The two names Mary speaks to Jesus, Rabbouni and Lord, recall Jesus’ own words at the Last Supper and also confirm that she was one of Jesus’ disciples. The use of the word Rabbouni, meaning teacher or master, is a personal address or form of endearment. Mary isn’t merely speaking to someone she has seen, she is speaking to someone she knows and to someone with whom she is close.
It must have been a moment of joy. But encountering Jesus was not the end of Mary’s story. It was merely the beginning. Once Mary Magdalene realized who she was talking with, then things started to change even more. I want you to think about this for just a moment. Jesus’ first appearance after his resurrection was not to one of the twelve. It wasn’t even to a man. His first appearance was to Mary. And not only that, he commissions her to go out as the first evangelist. He tells her, “Do not hold on to me but go and tell my brothers,” meaning the disciples, “that ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” And Mary went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
I don’t know about all of you, but I love that she is the one Jesus comes to first after the resurrection. It is not one of the male disciples but Mary Magdalene. I do not say that as “YAY women!” I say that as the coolest of all plot twists. You expect Jesus to come to one of the disciples and make his presence known, and eventually he did. But first, he appears to Mary and then sends her out to proclaim the good news. It is evidence that Jesus can and will use the most unlikely of people as the ones to share the news about him. That unlikely person being used for good is what makes Mary Magdalene a hero. And again, in true Steel Magnolia fashion, Mary takes the twist, the unexpected and doesn’t let it slow her down. She goes about doing what Jesus has asked her to do.
There are two things I want you to remember about Mary Magdalene that apply to all of us. We all have a quiet strength in us that will get us through the roughest of times. We all can be steel magnolias. And, number two, God can and will use the most unlikely people for His purposes.
Mary Magdalene is a witness to Jesus’ death, to the empty tomb and in seeing the risen Christ. Can you imagine the roller coaster of emotions? Can you imagine how she must have felt? Mary Magdalene speaks to the quiet strength that most women have. My friend Stephanie put it this way, “Most women love fiercely even if it means watching loved ones go through painful experience, they are just there, they don’t run away from it.” Mary Magdalene was there and she didn’t run away. Mary Magdalene was a steel magnolia. She used the strength inside herself to deal with the difficult events going on in her life and around her. She did not let those things keep her from being faithful to Jesus. Do you know any women who are like Mary Magdalene, who do not let the difficulties of their lives get in the way of their faith? Do you know any steel magnolias?
I would call my mom a steel magnolia. She has continued to love fiercely and live faithfully through many difficult times including the death of my father, losing both of her parents, and an illness that almost took her. There are many steel magnolias right here, today.
One of the steel magnolias of our congregation many of you know. If you do not know her, then take the time to seek her out. That person is Judy Osborne, or Ms. Judy as most of us call her. Ms. Judy was born into this congregation and has been here her whole life. Judy has a quiet strength about her that I have seen many times in the eight years I have been here. No matter what is going on in her life, she does not let it get her down, she does not use it as an excuse to give up and she does not let it stop her. As some of you know, Judy is the person who sets up communion every month for all 3 services. The day before, she and some of her family come up here and get everything sorted out and set up. If she has something else to do that day, she comes earlier or later but she never fails to get it done. She also helps me during Holy Week each year putting in just as many hours as I do to make sure all of our special services go off without a hitch. And she never waivers or complains when I throw her a last minute curveball. And man does she love fiercely. She loves her children and grandchildren, she loves her sister and her friends, she loves this, her church, and above all, she loves God. And yes, she has seen many of those people go through very difficult and painful experiences. Through it all, she has that quiet strength we are talking about today, that strength that we see in Mary Magdalene. One of my personal stories of Ms. Judy’s quiet strength happened about 5 years ago. Our flight back from Italy was cancelled and so we had to re-book everyone. As so happened, 30 of the 32 people were able to get re-booked to come home the same day. Judy and her sister, Curtis, were the two we had to leave behind to catch a plane the next day. I was nervous. I knew Judy’s girls were not going to be happy about me leaving their momma in Italy. And leaving Judy and Curtis behind was like leaving my own mom behind. Judy never complained, got upset or wavered. She said, “We will be fine,” and she soldiered on.
I was not here when Judy’s late husband, Ron, was going through all of his health concerns but I have heard about it from many in this congregation. What I have heard is that even though she watched him suffer, knew he was in pain, and eventually knew his life would soon end, she never let it break the strength that was inside of her. I have heard stories of her going up against the doctors in the hospital, of doctors trying to get her out of the hospital room and her saying, “No, I am staying right here.” I have heard stories that even during those difficult times, she continued to serve this church and to take care of the rest of her family as well. Judy is a steel magnolia, a woman of great outer beauty with fortitude of steel. I am not telling you all of this about Judy to say she is above or better than anyone else. I am telling you this to give you an idea of what a steel magnolia is and give you an idea of the steel magnolia within you. I can look out across this congregation and start naming off others who are steel magnolias, others who have the quiet strength to stand tall, love fiercely even when they or their loved ones are going through painful times. And, all of you along with Judy, are some of those people that might seem unlikely, but God will use you.
A “steel magnolia” is a woman who is strong and independent yet very feminine. She is the backbone of her family, in good times and bad; and “family” means so much more than just blood kin to her – it encompasses anyone to whom she is tied by heartstrings. She takes great pleasure in being there for those she loves, and in filling their needs. She will even put her own needs on the back burner to do this, and never give it a second thought. And it doesn’t matter to her if she’s filling a need that will earn her recognition and praise or if it’s so “behind the scenes” that no one ever even knows who filled it. She has such inner strength that comes from her faith.
Mary Magdalene’s faith and fortitude were that of a steel magnolia. She was there from the trial, to the crucifixion, death and burial. She never wavered. And then, she went to properly say goodbye to her loved one. Even in pain and grief, she did what she needed to do. And because of her faithfulness, she was rewarded with the presence of Jesus.
Each of you has a quiet inner strength. When it is grounded in God, you, too, will be able to stand strong even in the most difficult times. Be like Mary Magdalene, be a steel magnolia and let your faith keep you strong. Amen.
[ii] “Twelve Extraordinary Women: How God Shaped Women of the Bible and What He wants to Do with You,” John Macarthur, Nelson: 2005.