Not Prepared to Hope

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Sun, 04/16/2017 - 7:45pm

John 20:1-18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 16, 2017, Easter



            It seems strange to us that Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus, the teacher she’d spent a long time with, but mistook him for the gardener. Since we already know the story, we are surprised that when she first finds the tomb empty it never occurs to her that Jesus might be alive. It doesn’t seem to cross the minds of Peter or John, either. They look in the empty tomb, believe what Mary has told them, and go home to hide.

            Mary leans over to peek into the tomb once again, and she sees two people dressed in white, sitting in there on the stone bench where Jesus’ body had been. She has no idea who they are. Maybe they work at the cemetery. They ask Mary why she is crying and she says, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have laid him.” “They” means either grave-robbers or the authorities, who want to treat the corpse with the same disrespect they showed Jesus in death. Mary has a narrative she is operating by: only bad things happen to Jesus. All is lost. No one respects him. God did not protect him.

            Then another person asks the same question as the two people in white: “Why are you crying?” Mary thinks to herself, this must be another person who works here. Only the gardener would be here at dawn, so she sees what she expects to see, and she asks the gardener, “Are you the one who took his body away? If you don’t want it here anymore, I’ll take the body with me.”

            Just then Jesus calls her by name, and she recognizes his voice now, the tender way he says it. It suddenly dawns on her that something completely outside her expectations has happened. Into her moment of despair, Jesus has spoken hope. The one who had been dead—she had seen him give up the ghost, she had seen water and blood coming out of his side—is standing in front of her alive. She gasps, “Teacher!”

            When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb that morning, she was not prepared to hope. She was prepared to grieve, and even in the face of evidence of a miracle, it was hard for her to switch gears and grasp what was right in front of her. How do we recognize what we are not prepared to see? That is the issue when people are quick to believe “alternate facts” and “fake news.” We follow news reports with a preconceived idea of how things are and what motive are, so it’s almost impossible for us to absorb anything different.

            None of Jesus’ followers were prepared to hope. Not one of them expected Jesus to rise from the dead. All the gospels are clear on this point: the disciples were not sitting around waiting for Jesus to come back as he promised. If there were promises, they didn’t remember them. This is not a story of wish-fulfillment as some would have it, arguing that the disciples just wished so hard that they started hallucinating that Jesus was visible in their midst. No, when they heard the news that Jesus was risen, far from saying “of course,” they all said, “What the heck?” The disciples’ response was one of shock and confusion, and even when Jesus stood in front of them they had a hard time processing this information. Mary was just the first.

            Scientists used to think that our minds operated pretty much like cameras. Data in the form of light patterns would enter the eyes and be recorded by the brain as objects and events. The issue in evaluating eyewitness accounts was figuring out who was paying attention and who was remembering correctly. But gradually over the last half-century it’s been pretty well accepted that people actually see different things based on what they expect, and it’s not that easy for people to see objects that don’t fit a pre-established pattern. Jerome Bruner, the father of cognitive psychology, did a famous experiment in 1947 in which people were shown a half-dozen playing cards and asked to tell the experimenters which cards they were. The trick was that sometimes the scientist showed red spades or black hearts, not what they expected. When the cards were shown fast, people didn’t even notice. They could process the unexpected if they slowed things way down.

            By 1998 a book was published called Inattentional Blindness (Mack and Rock) with a series of experiments on this subject. In one, they showed people a small cross on a computer screen, asking subjects to say which arm was longer. After a few times, they would flash a bright red rectangle on the screen along with the cross, and many people wouldn’t even notice it. They were focused on something else.

Other scientists (Simons and Chabris) reproduced an experiment from the 70’s (Neisser) using people watching a basketball game on screen. They were asked to count how many times members of one team passed the ball to each other. While they were counting, many participants didn’t notice a woman who walked through the scene carrying an open umbrella, even though she was on the court for several seconds. My favorite is a follow-up experiment in which they had a man in a gorilla suit walk onto the court, stop to face the camera, and thump his chest, spending nine seconds on screen. Half the observers failed to notice the gorilla!

One practical experiment—which is pretty scary—was when an aviation psychologist (Wickens) worked with pilots in flight simulators. They were accustomed to processing a lot of information projected on their windshields, such as airspeed and altitude. But when the experimenters put something unexpected in their field of vision—like an airplane on the runway in front of them—pilots often didn’t see it. [All studies cited in, Monitor on Psychology, 2001.]

The lesson for us as it ties into Mary Magdalen is that perception is not as straightforward as many people think. We often see what we expect to see and miss things we don’t expect. We see things that are the same and miss things that change. Hope is the confidence that God can do something new, that the world can change, that my life can get better. But if we are programmed, perhaps naturally, to miss change, how can the world get better for us? If we think that God can only do the same thing he did yesterday, will we miss the new thing God is doing right in front of us?

There is one person in the Easter story who is described in Mark and Luke as “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” Surprisingly, it is the rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who boldly goes to Pilate after Jesus’ death and asks for his body so he can place him in his beautiful new family tomb. To wait expectantly is to be prepared for hope, to continue to hope even when things look bad. The question that Mary’s story forces me to ask myself is whether I am prepared to hope. If God changes my reality and turns my world upside down, will I be able to see it or will I just see things the way they’ve always been?

I think few people would characterize 2017 as a time of great hope. Perhaps those of you who voted for the current President are prepared for hope in our national life and are feeling upbeat. But at least in this part of the country, most people voted otherwise, and for them the past few months have been a period of hopelessness. Has there been another period in my lifetime so upsetting to so many? Maybe 1968, 1974, 2001, 2008. I’m afraid that many of us who haven’t given up watching the news entirely have grown accustomed to despair and settled into grief. We are not prepared to hope again, no matter what changes, no matter what God does.

What we need this Easter is to see Jesus, one we never expected to see again. We stand with Mary outside the empty tomb. It may seem to us that someone has taken away the Lord, that he is hidden or we have lost our ability to see him. But if we stay here outside the tomb, if we look into the emptiness, we may hear his voice. His voice is not for anyone else. It’s not the preacher’s voice. It’s Jesus, calling your name. Tapping you on the shoulder, maybe. Turn around. Here I am. And then, contrary to all your expectations, you may perceive that he is right there with you.

The old gospel song In the Garden is based on this moment:

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses;
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me
and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own… [C. Austin Miles]

That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? Not just that he tells me he is alive, but that he tells me I am his own. He calls my name and I know that now I belong to him. I know that there is hope. May it happen to you as it happened to Mary and it happened to me: may you be able to hear when the one you thought was gone calls your name.