A professor at Asbury Seminary told the story of a Muslim who became a Christian. “Some of his friends asked him, ‘Why have you become a Christian? Why have you disrespected Mohammed to follow Jesus?’ He answered, ‘Well, suppose you were going down the road and you came to a fork. You didn’t know which way to go, and there at the fork in the road were two men, one dead and one alive–which one would you ask which way to go?’”
Mary Magdelene did not come to a fork in the road on that first Easter Sunday morning, but to the tomb where she knew Jesus had been placed on Friday. She came expecting to find the dead body of her Lord still there. But she found much more than she expected. He had already surprised her at least twice. He surprised her with deliverance when Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary. Then he surprised her with his sacrifice.
Mary had stood by the cross and watched him die. I know a little of what it’s like to stand by and watch someone die. My father died on Palm Sunday in 2006 after a 6-month battle with cancer. He fought to live more than anyone I have ever known, but what surprised me in all of the battle was how much my father loved my Mom. I knew they loved each other, but I witnessed a greater love between them as Dad was dying than I had ever seen. The only time I ever saw my father cry was when his three sons were standing at his bed on Sunday, December 25, 2005. He knew he was dying but he wept as he said, “I’ve got to fight this. I can’t leave your mother alone.” Even in the agony of cancer, with the hair loss and the horrifying weight-loss (my 6’3” Dad lost to below 120 lbs. before he died) and the nausea and the humiliation that comes with not being in control anymore, my dad demonstrated a love for my Mom that was amazing. Six weeks before he died, when Dad was still able to walk and even climb the steps and sleep in their bed, Mom tucked him in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. She got in bed and turned over to sleep when she felt the bed move and saw my dad get up and come around the bed. “Honey, what are you doing?” Mom asked. Dad said, “I’m coming to tuck you in.”
Mary stood and watched Jesus die, not really understanding yet that his death was necessary for Mary to be delivered again. This time not from her bondage to demons, but from death. This was Friday. She would come to understand it on Sunday. Jesus surprised Mary with her deliverance and with his sacrifice. Then Jesus surprised her with his resurrection.
Jesus was the LAST person Mary expected to see at the tomb. Oh, she expected to see him, all right, but just his dead body. And then, she couldn’t believe it: his dead body was not there! Broken heart broke more as she grieved and wondered who had taken his body away. In her grief she saw someone she thought was the gardener. He spoke to her, asked her why she was weeping and whom she was seeking, and she still didn’t recognize him. But then he spoke her name, and she could see him clearly now. He called Mary by name, and the fear and the grief and the sorrow and the pain all melted away in an instant. Believers, this is our greatest surprise as well, isn’t it? Jesus calls us by name. He said of the shepherd and his sheep, “he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The greatest surprise of each of our lives has been when we first recognized who Jesus Christ really is, when he called us by name.
I remember another time Jesus called someone by name. It was a dead man, a friend named Lazarus whom Jesus loved. John tells us this, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” And when the people at Lazarus’ graveside saw Jesus weeping, they said, “See how he loved him!” But John tells us that Jesus was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” as he stood with his friends. Even though Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, he was deeply moved and greatly troubled. Why? David Mathis writes, “He had righteous anger at the realities of death and unbelief.” D.A. Carson wrote that the words “deeply moved” suggest “anger, outrage, or emotional indignation.” Jesus was shaken up, unsettled as he stood face to face with death. Mathis writes, “He knew what it would take to conquer this foe. He was about to take back Lazarus from its jaws. Next time, he would lay down his own life as the ransom.” And he did. He called Lazarus by name and raised him from the dead. Then Jesus took on death himself, so that he could call Mary by name. So that he could call you by name.
There is no greater surprise than that.