By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 20: 1-18
In 1969, Joni Mitchell, disappointed at having missed the flight to Woodstock, wrote her now famous song, bearing that title. The song, Woodstock, however, is more than a tip of the hat to the music festival in upstate New York. It celebrates that, despite some rather “suspect” activities during the festival, many were motivated to attend because they were looking for a space with beauty and song, a sense of community and peace. Mitchell’s song includes some profound lyrics. Yet most spiritual were the lyrics of the chorus:
We are stardust, we are golden,
we are billion year old carbon, caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
After all, that mythical Garden of Eden is where life began… a beautiful life, in perfect fellowship with God. God planted that garden and there God breathed into the man he’d molded from the earth, God’s very own breath – God’s very own Spirit. It was our beginning.
That longing for a return to Eden, the Garden of Paradise, is like a golden thread that weaves its way through Hebrew writings and tradition over the centuries. Eden becomes a powerful symbol that captivates our soul and our senses.
Close your eyes and imagine. It was lush, filled with fruit trees that no doubt gave off a yummy aroma. We’re told that, in the evening, there was a cool breeze. Can you feel it? Imagine how refreshing that must have felt. It never rained because water bubbled up from the ground to water the garden. What perfection. And God would join you there every evening for a leisurely stroll. We don’t know; but I imagine the sunsets were breath-taking.
Those golden garden threads of the lost paradise weave through John’s gospel, as well. Now, I don’t want to turn an Easter message into a heavy, deep-dive bible study. But, here are just a couple examples: the Jewish tradition understood that the Messiah would remove the sword that guarded Eden and re-open the gates to Paradise. And, in John, chapter 4, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well. That’s one example, but here’s another: symbols of Eden decorated the Jewish temple walls, the place where God was thought to dwell, and in John’s gospel, Jesus’ first public act of ministry is the cleansing of the temple, through which he communicates that he is now the “dwelling place” of God’s presence here on earth. There’s more, but I’ll stop there.
And so, John’s gospel prepares us to discover in Jesus the one who will get us back to the garden; back to that place where we can walk with God and talk with God and God will reassure us we are his own.
Now, the final verses of John 19, the chapter describing Jesus’ death on Good Friday, tell us that, after Jesus’ death, the Pharisee Nicodemus comes and seeks permission of Pilate to take possession of Jesus’ corpse. Our gospel narrator tells us:
41 Now there was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
So, the setting of that first Easter morning, my friends, is a garden. I mean, yes, it has a tomb. But it is not described as a cemetery. It is described as a garden... explaining why Mary initially mistakes Jesus for the gardener.
But this resurrection story is more than simply a return to the garden. It is a new beginning to life, a genesis… not surprising since both the Hebrew Bible and the gospel of John open by announcing “genesis” – “in the beginning.” Easter morning is a new beginning made possible because of Jesus.
We know that the first beginning in the garden didn’t end well. It was a place of beauty, fellowship and peace. Who could have wanted anything more? The only thing asked of that first man and woman is that they trust God; for, in fact, had they trusted, they would have found it easy to obey God’s one rule of not partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But their trust in God was easily undermined. It didn’t take much effort on the part of the serpent. And then we read that the man and woman (I’m quoting from Genesis, chap. 3):
Genesis 3:8 …heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" 10 He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." 11 God said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" 12 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?"
How sad. Refreshing walks in the evening breeze have now turned into a game of hide and seek. God is seeking; but the man and woman are hiding… no longer walking and talking with God, but fearfully hiding from the one who so lovingly planted them in paradise.
Before this time, it seems that God would come into the garden each evening and walk with the man and woman. What a beautiful way to live, right; strolling each evening through the garden of Paradise with God. “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” What more incredible experience could there have been?
But they blew it and they were cast out of the garden… leaving generations of people to ask how they might get themselves back to the garden; striving to find a place of beauty and peace and fellowship with God. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden… for we are more than elements; more than carbon or stardust. We are God’s children, yearning deep within our souls to be in intimate fellowship with God; to experience paradise once again.
Then Jesus comes; the one who was there in the beginning (the genesis), John’s gospel affirms. Jesus lives and dies and rises from the dead. And it is a new day, a second genesis, a fresh beginning.
On the first Easter morning, Mary enters the garden not to avoid Jesus as that first man and woman did, but seeking him… although never imaging the state in which she would find him. She is broken down by grief – perhaps she moved through all five stages over the course of the weekend. And perhaps, she has even arrived at acceptance… for she has come to the tomb expecting only to find a corpse.
When Jesus speaks Mary’s name, she knows his voice and she knows who this is and what has happened… and she will not hide from Jesus as that first man and woman hid when God called to them. She addresses Jesus as “teacher” for that is who she has known him to be and she is apparently ready to throw her arms around him until Jesus advises her against it. Yet his next words to her change everything forever and not just for Mary. She, too, is not permitted to stay in the garden. But she is not cast out. She is sent forth with a mission. “Go,” Jesus instructs, “to my brothers and sisters and tell them, I am returning to my Father and your Father…” Did you notice that? The promise of the gospel introduction has been fulfilled: by trusting in Jesus, Mary, the gospel disciples, and all of us over centuries since who trust in Jesus have become children of God.
You know, 395 artists have covered Mitchell’s Woodstock. Clearly, a lot of people believe “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” But here’s the truth: we can’t get there on our own; we can’t do it by ourselves. In fact, we can’t do it at all. But that’s OK because on that first Easter morning, so long ago, Jesus did it for us. We need no longer frantically strive to find that place of beauty and peace and fellowship with God. Jesus is that “place.” Through his resurrection and the gift of his Spirit, we can now walk and talk with God everyday and we can hear his voice reassuring us that we are his own.
Can you imagine that garden – that place of beauty and peace and intimate fellowship with God? Well, there’s really no need to. You don’t need to get back there. Jesus has brought it to you.
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