Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark...
When I was a teacher, one of the things I liked to praise children for was taking the initiative. Perhaps someone had noticed the pencil pots were empty and found some new ones from the cupboard. Or someone else in the class noticed a fellow pupil was upset and went and did something about it themselves, instead of coming to me about it. Then they would be praised for showing initiative. They might even get their name in the Friday Achievement Book for ‘Showing Initiative’.
Quite apart from the fact that it’s a great quality to possess in life, it meant the teacher hadn’t had to notice that thing themselves – someone else was watching out too.
I remember a previous vicar sitting in a chair in our lounge a few years back and rather wearily sharing with us that in the church, there’s never any shortage of ideas, only volunteers to see them through. So many people would come up to him and say ‘I think we should be doing this/that/the other in our church’; and he would sigh and think to himself, what they really mean is ‘could you please do this/that/the other…?’ Just occasionally someone would come to him and say ‘I’m thinking of setting up this/that/the other’ and he would feel truly delighted and blessed!
So initiative can be a wonderful thing.
But the word ‘initiative’ has also suffered somewhat under a barrage of people thinking up things to try and bring freshness to otherwise stale things, and then calling them ‘New Initiatives’…
As a School Governor, I have to admit my heart always sinks when I hear the phrase ‘new initiative’ because it’s bound to be something the Government has thought up, very likely a group of people who’ve possibly never taught in a school classroom, or not for many years, at least, and who’ve sat down one day and come up with yet another new idea to add to the already overcrowded pile of ideas, which teachers, already tired and stressed with 100 other ‘New Initiatives’, will be obliged to implement.
So initiative can be a lovely thing – the independence to get on and do something unprompted, or it can be a rather tired thing – an attempt at revitalizing something which needs much more of a radical overhaul (or which actually needs leaving well alone).
What about God’s initiative?
This morning we’re celebrating the most dynamic initiative ever undertaken on behalf f the human race – the salvation initiative. I hope you take time at home to read the account of the resurrection afresh each Easter – there are four versions to choose from, which keeps it interesting, and this year we’re in John’s gospel.
Each year I read the account of the resurrection, something different jumps out at me, and I usually try and stay with that something, savour it and unpack it slowly.
Some years it’s the sorrow of Jesus that has impressed itself upon me; one year it was the unpredictability of the resurrection – how it was quite unbelievably so different to anything anyone had previously experienced; another year it was all the running that took place on that first Easter Morning. This year what’s jumped out at me is that phrase: ‘while it was still dark’.
When I was a child, I used to be terribly excited by the fact that sometimes our parents would decide to get us up very early in order to go on holiday while it was still dark.
I think it only happened a couple of times in order to get on the motorway before everyone else, if we were driving to Cornwall, for instance, or, when I was even younger, catching a ferry to Brittany. Now I’m older I dislike getting up early to go anywhere, but back then it was the height of excitement. The getting dressed in hushed tones, tripping over the cat as it wondered why on earth there were people up and about at that hour of the morning, piling into the car rather sleepily, covered up with a duvet, and driving off while the rest of the street was fast asleep.
Mary Magdalene thought she’d steal a march on the day on that first Easter morning, and arrived in the garden where the tomb was, while it was still dark.
It was still dark because the sun had not yet risen (that is, the S.U.N.)
She was there because she couldn’t wait any longer. The day before had, of course, been Sabbath, and no devout Jew would go to a tomb and anoint a body on the Sabbath, as that would constitute work; and the Lord God had said ‘keep the Sabbath holy’.
So she had rested at home. If you could call it rest; a mixture of fear and utter listlessness; thoughts darkened by the terrible loss of the Saviour on the day before, the day they nailed him to a cross till he breathed his last.
As Mary came to the garden that morning, it was still dark. In her thoughts, too, it was still dark. In her heart it was still dark. In her grief it was still dark. In her sense of betrayal and disappointment, it was still dark.
In our state as a human race that had lost its way, it was still dark when God decided to take the initiative.
God’s ‘New Initiative’ was not a patch up job. It was not a tired attempt at injecting new energy into an already overloaded system.
It was a plan of salvation which came into being in the Garden of Eden and almost certainly eons before that even. It was a plan which nobody could accurately predict, even though the prophets certainly hinted at it, louder and louder as the Scriptures unfolded, till the Saviour himself would say: ‘destroy this Temple, and three days later I will raise it up.’
God’s initiative was a way through sin and death, no less, and the physical resurrection of Christ the Saviour from the dead, set a divine seal upon it.
God’s initiative was slowly realized by the early Jewish believers in Jesus, like Paul, who would write in Acts: ‘We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’.
And incidentally, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast here - if we were in any doubt as to the actual physicality of the resurrection, here it is: the witnesses to the resurrection ate and drank with the risen Christ. You cannot eat and drink with a spiritual concept.
The whole plan of salvation, then, is God’s initiative. His salvation plan for humanity includes us, living in this place and in this time. Our present reality is shot through with the ramifications of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and with the power of His Spirit which He continually sends upon us, and particularly when we gather for worship.
It’s insidious, though, and I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person, how we can live as though it were rather a good idea of OURS to be a church goer; to be a good person, to start this idea, to volunteer, or to believe a certain set of things…
Actually, what we’re all swept up in is God’s initiative.
In worship, God takes the initiative; in mission, God takes the initiative; in love, God takes the initiative; in guidance, God takes the initiative; in providing for us, God takes the initiative.
It is why the psalmist says ‘you hem me in on every side’! There’s nowhere we can go where the initiative of God hasn’t gone before. ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
While it was still dark…It’s absolutely crucial for our life together in Christ that we enlarge our vision to extend the reach of the gospel message to include those who are still in the dark.
While it was still dark…unless we model a radical, inclusive and open church, people will assume (because culture will do it for them) that you have to be mended and sorted before you go to church.
The complete opposite is true. While it was still dark, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. It is those who mourn, those who are poor in spirit, those who hunger, the meek – those who are still in the dark – those are the ones for whom Christ was crucified and raised from the dead.
Church is for the broken and for those who need healing; those who feel powerless; those who have no voice; those who are still childlike. The Cross and the resurrection are for us all.
While it was still dark…you may be in Church on this Easter morning and it is still dark. Perhaps you don’t understand enough, or believe enough, or have enough love. Perhaps you are afraid, or you worry for someone you love; or you have lost someone, or don’t know if Jesus is for you.
But you’re here, and it’s time to meet with the risen Lord.
Remember, ‘while it was still dark’ – that was precisely the time when He had already risen.