11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
— John 20:11-18, ESV
Today is Resurrection Sunday, the highest and holiest day of the Christian year. It is the culmination of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, (Manic) Monday, (Teaching) Tuesday, (Woeful) Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, (Silent) Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday! It is the capstone of the holy gospel: Jesus Christ was born, Jesus Christ died, Jesus Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!
You would think that the most pivotal event in all of holy and human history would be accompanied by great fanfare. There should have been fireworks, bigger and better than any Fourth of July. There should have been camera flashes, more than at any Super Bowl kickoff in history. There should have been victory flags waving, for a win infinitely greater than any Daytona 500.
But except for a small earthquake and a little flash of angel light that scared away a some cemetery guards, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was as subtle as it is certain. So low key, in fact, that the first witness to the resurrection, Mary Magdalene, did not even recognize Jesus when He walked out of the tomb and stood right beside her.
Mary’s Mistaken Identity
“Supposing Him to be the gardener,” the text tells us she thought. “The gardener!” This is Jesus we’re talking about here, Mary, the risen King of kings, the eternal Lord of lords, the Savior who bought us with His blood and rose from the dead. You mistook Him to be a mere “gardener.”
To cut Mary some slack, she had many reasons for her mistaken identity. Her every expectation upon approaching the tomb was to find nothing but the blood of Jesus drained from His lifeless body. Her senses had been dulled by the sadness of the third day back. It was early in the morning, too, just after dawn, and perhaps the sun was not shedding enough light on the Son.
We must also remember that the man Mary saw in the garden did not look anything like the man she had seen on the cross. Mary was one of the courageous few who stood by Jesus on Good Friday. She witnessed what the prophet predicted, “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance” (ref. Isaiah 52:14). But this man’s face was not bleeding. This man’s body was not beaten to a bloody pulp. The man’s hands and feet had scars, but Mary did not notice them at the time.
Whatever Mary's reasons, at first glance she mistook God for a gardener. It is a mistake that somehow keeps repeating itself, over and over.
Many Mistaken Identities
If a prosperity gospel preacher had been there, he would have supposed Him to be a genie. He would have popped him with three wishes for health, wealth, and a new airplane. Instead of calling them him name, Jesus would have said something like, “Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity” (ref. Matthew 7:23).
If a Mormon or Jehovah’s witness had been there, they would have supposed Him to be an angel, a mere mortal, or some other creature less substantive than the Creator Himself. They would not have called upon the name of the Lord because they do not believe Jesus is the Lord, God Almighty. Jesus would have quoted His friend John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (ref. John 1:1-14).
If a liberal clergyman had been there, he would have supposed Him to be a figment of his own imagination. In the mind of many like him, there is no such thing as the virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection, anyway. Jesus would have said something to him like, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (ref. Mark 1:15).
If a progressive politician had been there, she would have supposed Him to be a privileged white male. She would scold him for being resurrected, while so many woman and people of color were left in their tombs. Jesus would have said something to her like, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (ref. Matthew 6:33).
If a CME Christian had been there, he would have supposed Him to be Santa Clause, the easter bunny, or dear old mom. He would thank Jesus, though, for the eggs and candy, and promise to visit Him again next year. Jesus would have said to him something like, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (ref. Luke 9:23-34).
Like Mary for a moment, most people wouldn’t recognize Jesus if He walked right up to them. He is hard to see, impossible really, apart from sovereign grace and saving faith. And in the regenerative workings of grace and faith, one has to hear the Lord before he or she can really see the Lord.
Mary’s Moment of Clarity
“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (ref. John 10:3-4).
Mary’s moment of clarity came when she listened before she looked. The voice must have sounded general the first time she heard it, when He asked her about her tears and fears. But when Jesus spoke to her effectually, “Mary,” there was no doubt about it. This was no gardener. God of very God was calling her very name.
“Rabboni (which means Teacher),” she said, with enthusiasm. This was the first followers favorite title for the Lord Jesus Christ. They loved His every word and took His teachings to be absolute truth. During His earthly ministry, Jesus made sense of what we call the Old Testament and laid the foundation for what we have as the New Testament. To this day, it is the Bible is where we encounter the word of God. And if we listen with a willingness to trust and obey, then we can hear Him calling us by name.
The gospel rarely comes with fireworks, flashes, and flags. Those things would make it too hard to hear. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (ref. Romans 10:17). God spoke, through the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, to Jesus’ first followers two thousand years ago. God speaks to His followers today, through the written word of God, the Bible. Hear it, read it, trust it, obey it, and I promise you will hear God calling you by name.
Gardener or God
Being There (1979) is a brilliant movie about a live-in gardener played by Peter Sellers. When the wealthy homeowner dies and the mansion is sold, he is left to wander the streets. In a perfectly written and comedic series of events, he goes from being a mentally challenged, lowly gardener to a major celebrity, roaming the halls of economic and political power.
I’m sad to say many suggest the Gospels are similar fiction. It was the gardener, they say, or no one at all. Jesus may have gotten Himself crucified, but not He has not risen. The early disciples merely gathered together to concoct a tale taller than ten giraffes to turn a lowly carpenter into the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Now you must decide. Who is this person outside the tomb on Resurrection Sunday. Was it the gardener, or was it God?
I think I’ll trust the word of God and the Gospels, including this narrative of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. I’ll stand my Mary’s testimony, too. By grace, Jesus came to Mary. Through faith, Mary heard and believed the word of God. In Christ, sin is forgiven, death is defeated, and life abundant and everlasting is enjoyed.
This is no gardener, Mary said, “I have seen the Lord.” Make no mistake about it, Jesus Christ is Lord! And Jesus Christ is risen, He is risen, indeed!