Running on Empty
It’s 2 o’clock in the morning on a warm September night in 1989. Three young men in their late 20’s are soaring down the I 5 freeway through the central valley of California in a 1986 Silver Chrysler LeBaron convertible. They had made the spontaneous decision, just a couple hours earlier, to leave a party in Santa Monica in order to drive to Berkeley for a football game the next day at 12:30 p.m. They are having the time of their lives—laughing, telling stories, even at one point singing along with the radio as Bruce Springsteen sang: “Baby we were born to run.”
The three young men rolling down the freeway that night were a young lawyer, Ted Lindquist III, and his cousins, two young pastors, Bob and Peter Crouch. The convertible was my brother Pete’s girlfriend’s car. The young women we were dating thought our sudden little trip was crazy—yet they still married us!
We were having the time of our lives that night until we weren’t. At one point as we are cruising along the engine makes a sudden sound and I glance down at the gas gage.
“No way!” I say out loud. With mild panic in my voice because we are in the middle of nowhere on the I 5, I exclaim: “Guys, guys, we’re out of gas! My brother immediately said: “Bro, please tell me your joking!”I can’t repeat what my cousin said. I then said: “Pete, We are literally running on empty!”
Our hearts sank. The thought hit all three of us at once that we could be out here for hours!!
None of us had a cell phone! Triple A? Not one of us had a card. Phone booth? Nowhere in sight. Strangely, there wasn’t even any traffic—no one to stop and give us a hand. We were in the twilight zone. And then it dawned on me that we were going to hear some loud “I told you so’s” from our future wives to be!” They had warned us, “You guys need to think this trip through.” We had laughed and said: “We’ll be fine! What could go wrong!”
Out of gas we were now coasting. But at a pretty good clip. Thankfully we were on a slightly downhill stretch. And in that moment, I kid you not, I thought of one of my favorite songs from high school by Jackson Browne which includes these lyrics:
“I don't know when that road turned into the road I'm on running on empty running blind
running into the sun But I'm running behind…”
Friends, just when we thought all was lost we suddenly experienced a moment of grace. Ok, amazing grace! As we coast along the freeway, suddenly, through the fog, I see lights ahead. I think to myself, “OMG!” And then say out loud: “Guys, is that a gas station!?” Then all three of us said at once like a choir of school boys: “Nooo way!”and we began to laugh at our luck and high five each other. And sure enough up ahead of us less than a mile away was a gas station and it was open in the middle of the night! Thanks be to God! And, believe it or not, we had enough speed to coast onto the exit of the freeway and up halfway over the overpass before my brother and my cousin jumped out and pushed us the remaining 50 yards to salvation.
Friends, I share this story with you because on that first Easter morning there would be several people who would find themselves “running on empty, running blind…” Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the person identified mysteriously as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” woke up that morning on empty.
Their hearts had been broken by the cruel death of Jesus on the cross. They were on empty, spiritually and psychologically. They were empty of all joy in the present and of all hope for the future--the glorious future they thought they were going to enjoy with Jesus before his arrest and crucifixion.
Yet, even though she was on empty Mary Magdalene went to Jesus tomb. That to me says a lot about her character. Exhausted by her grief, she could have stayed in bed all day but even though she was on empty she forced herself to get up. John’s gospel says that it was very early in the morning when she went to the tomb—still dark—eerie?
Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus was unmatched by any other woman in the world except for Jesus’ mother, Mary. (Just a reminder, Magdalene, was not her last name—she was from the city of Magdala.) Mary Magdalene had cried so many tears that night over Jesus’ death that she didn’t think she’d ever cry again. But then, to add insult to injury, she arrived at Jesus tomb and to her continuing despair she discovered that the stone which had covered the entrance of his tomb had been taken away. She did not go inside in that moment—she assumed Jesus body had been stolen. She must have thought to herself something like: “My God, my God have they no shame? Someone has taken his body?
Now Mary is surely angry amid her grief and the gospel writer says “she runs.”My friends, she is running on empty—running blind. She runs to the two people she believes will take her seriously: Simon—the man whom Jesus had declared was his rock thus renamed him, Peter, which means rock, and, secondly, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Her heart beating wildly from her run, Mary Magdalene takes a moment to catch her breath. And with anger and despair in her voice she finally says to Simon Peter and the other disciple: "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
Interesting that she uses the word “we”—it suggests someone else was with her that morning as the other gospels state. The two disciples are stunned by Mary Magdalene’s words—how could they not be. They thought the nightmare was over—it was not to be.
So, in the next moment, they too run—they’re running on empty, running blind, empty of all hope and joy, they made their way in haste to Jesus’ tomb.
You know, it’s amazing how fast a person can run when their either scared or angry.
These two men probably felt a little of both—angry and scared. The disciple whom Jesus loved runs faster than Peter and beats him to the tomb. As they run surely thoughts race through their mind too horrible to ponder—but they likely couldn’t help it. Thoughts such as, could Jesus, even after his horrific death on the cross, have suffered this further indignity?
How dare they not at least let him rest in peace!
The two men arrive at Jesus’ tomb and realize, yes, Mary Magdalene has spoken the truth—the tomb is open and Jesus’ body is gone. After both disciples had looked into the tomb--angry, exhausted, grief stricken, they do what most people would do in this situation. They go home. What else is there to do?
Jesus is dead. John’s gospel says: “for as yet, they did not the know the scripture that Jesus would rise from the dead.” All hope is lost. Their dreams crushed. A situation Simon Peter thought couldn’t get any worse—just did. They are so physically and spiritually spent that neither of the men realize after they leave that they have left a weeping Mary Magdalene behind at the empty tomb.
She’s all alone. Mary doesn’t leave. Despite an impulse to run away from this empty tomb as fast, and as far away, as she can, Mary doesn’t leave. I think her love for Jesus keeps her there. In fact, she can’t help but look into Jesus’ tomb in the hopes that this has all been just a bad dream. Finding her courage—weeping still, she stoops to look into the tomb. And what she sees has to blow her mind: Where Jesus body had been now sit two angels in white. One where Jesus’ head had been and the other at his feet. The angels notice the tears flowing down Mary’s face and ask her: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
And moments after she tells them the same thing that she had told Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, she hears a sound and turns around. This stranger, whom she presumes to be the gardener or caretaker, asks her the same question: Woman, Why are you weeping? and then he adds: “Whom do you seek? Questions, questions, Mary thinks to herself, I’ve had enough of this. She feels like she’s being tested. Maybe she is. So now she looks at the gardener, or whoever he is, suspiciously. And then, according to John’s gospel she stands there but turns away from him. And with a question that could have put her in danger, if indeed this man standing before her had taken Jesus’ body for some nefarious purpose, she finds the nerve to say to him: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
What happens next would take Mary from despair to hope, from tears of sorrow to tears of joy. What happens next would fill Mary Magdalene’s empty heart with overflowing love—the kind of love that can change the world. Hearing the stranger say her name, Mary’s expression changes and she turns toward the man for now she suddenly recognizes his voice. No one said her name quite like He did: “Mary.” With wonder and amazement in her voice she cries out: Rabboni! which is the Hebrew word for teacher. Some highly respected scholars remind us that “Rabboni” is also at times used as the word for “husband.” No matter what form of intimate relationship they have—Mary Magdalene immediately reaches out to embrace Jesus.
And then we are reminded that things have changed. Jesus is alive, but in a different way--In a new way. Jesus is no longer her teacher or husband--He is the resurrected Christ who is still ascending,who now will live forever in Mary’s heart—just like those we love who now dwell in the heaven of God’s eternal love, including: Nancy, David, Betty, and Gerry. [Note to reader: these four dear people are the most recent members of our church family to pass away.]
Filled with new hope—joy—Mary is no longer running on empty—no longer running blind.
She finds the disciples, and as God’s first evangelist on earth, gives them an Easter message that they would never forget: “I have seen the Lord.”
Now I know some of you have been feeling lately as if you’re running on empty.
Mary Magdalene’s proclamation that she has seen the Lord, that He lives, is for you as well—for if Jesus lives, hope lives! If Jesus lives, Easter is more than an idea—it is a reality.
Now, it’s one thing to be running on empty in a Chrysler LeBaron convertible on a freeway in the middle of the night—but imagine running on empty in a submarine.
That being said, I want to close with a brief story which contains the hope of Easter—and reminds us of what God calls us to do as an Easter people. “In the early part of World War II, a Navy submarine was stuck on the bottom of the harbor in New York City. It seemed that all was lost. There was no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. In one last attempt to rescue the sailors from the steel coffin, the U.S. Navy sent a ship equipped with Navy divers to the spot on the surface, directly above the wounded submarine.
“A Navy diver went over the side of the ship to the dangerous depths in one last rescue attempt. The trapped sailors heard the metal boots of the diver land on the exterior surface, what a glorious sound that must have been--and they moved to where they thought the rescuer would be. In the darkness those trapped inside the submarine tapped in Morse code, "Is there any hope?" The diver on the outside, recognizing the message, signaled by tapping on the exterior of the sub, "Yes, there is hope."
Friends, the glorious message of Easter is captured in that simple phrase: “Yes, there is hope.”
Despite the anger and dismay you may experience daily due to the leaders of our nation—there is hope. Despite the physical or spiritual challenges you or someone you love are dealing with—there is hope. Despite the ignorance which is passed as knowledge--despite the continuing existence of greed and corruption—there is hope. Despite the rise of white nationalism and bigotry masked as patriotism—there is hope. Despite the horrific violence in Sri Lanka that destroyed 3 churches and hotels and killed hundreds, there is hope.
Indeed, in whatever condition or circumstance you find yourself in this morning, running on empty or running full, the message of Easter comes to us in music and scripture and it says to each one of us: Yes, there is hope. Never give up. Open your heart and mind this morning to believe the unbelievable:
He is Risen!