Easter in July
Christmas in July is a means for retailers to boost sagging summer sales. How about Easter in July as a way to boost sagging summer spirits? Today we remember St. Mary Magdalene, and the text appointed for her festival day is an Easter account. Lutherans don't pray to saints, but we do honor them in 3 ways: By thanking God for His mercy toward them. By having our faith strengthened when we see that God deals with sinners just like us by grace. By imitating the faith and lives of the saints. Celebrating God's mercy and grace toward Mary Magdalene will strengthen our faith and life in the midst of these dog days of summer.
We celebrate Easter today by seeing how a bedeviled Mary Magdalene is saved from herself. Mark tells us that the risen Jesus appeared first to her. But that's probably not what you remember her for. If you're around my age, you remember her as a love-struck fallen woman who pined for Jesus. That's how she's portrayed in the pop musical Jesus Christ Superstar, but it's not scriptural. We don't know if Mary was a prostitute. We don't know if she pined for Jesus unsure of how to love him. What we do know from Scripture is that Jesus cast out 7 demons from her. Luke 8:2 describes her as the one "from whom 7 demons had gone out," and Mark 16:9 says Jesus "cast" them out.
What most people don't remember is that Luke 8:2 names 2 other women and refers to "many others" besides Mary Magdalene. Luke says of all these women that they provided for Jesus and the 12 out of their own means and had "been healed of evil spirits and diseases." So Mary isn't unique in that she was bedeviled, but in how many devils she had, 7.
Why does Luke tell us this point of information? Are we to think of her as some especially malevolent woman? I don't think so. I don't think she was particularly evil but especially strong and self-reliant. That's why she needed saving from herself. As proof, I offer Luke 11:24-26. This is the only other time Scripture speaks of 7 unclean spirits. Jesus says, "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first."
Here's a picture of Mary Magdalene. Like us all, Mary was bedeviled by evil spirits from conception on. It might've been the demon of greed, pride, jealousy, unbelief, lust, fear, worry. That demon left her for some reason. It wasn't cast out by Word or Sacrament. It wasn't driven out by Baptism or sent away by Absolution. It just left. When that happens a person can think they've mastered the evil spirit. O they don't call it an "evil spirit." They call it a bad habit, a weakness, poor upbringing, or even genetic. The world teaches them that by discipline, practice, or medicine they can overcome their problems or habits, and they can for awhile. They can sweep out their life and put it back in order, but you can't sweep away sins or devils.
When an evil spirit is not dealt with by the power of God it isn't driven out, overcome, or even dealt with. It just gives you a respite, a break, but when it comes back it brings 7 spirits more evil than it and your last state is worse than the first. This is Mary of Magdala. She thought she had her demon under control. She thought she'd dealt with her problem, overcome her weakness, cleaned up her act, but now she found herself defiled, overcome by 7 demons who deal with her as they willed.
What did those 7 demons do to her? Both modern and ancient lore make her a fallen woman, but as I said we don't know that her problems had anything to do with sex. Based on what we do know about her, her demons might have had to do with money. She was from the city of Magdala. A very wealthy city. It was one of the 3 cities in Palestine whose taxes had to be sent to Jerusalem by wagon. It was famous for the lucrative business of dying fabrics. We also know that she was one of the women who supported Jesus and the apostles with her own money. Perhaps her devils were greed, worry about having enough money, or trusting in it.
Whatever her demons, a picture of a self-reliant, self-sufficient Mary is consistent with our text. See how she deals with the problem of Jesus' body missing. She doesn't ask angels for help though they sit before her. When she thinks she sees the gardener she demands he tell her where the body is, and she asserts that she herself will go and literally pick Him up. Men would have formed a body picking up committee, debated how best to do it, and eventually got around to it. This strong woman doesn't need or want anyone's help. She will do it all herself now. The demons are baaack
Celebrate Easter with me in these dog days of summer by seeing how a bedeviled woman is saved from self by a crucified yet risen Lord. But first let's see how Mary was saved the first time. Mary Magdalene comes on the scene first in Luke 8:2. The very end of Luke 7 is the touching story of the woman who wets Jesus feet with tears of thanksgiving, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with very expensive perfume. Jesus says the reason she shows so much love is that she knows she has been forgiven by Him for so very many sins.say 7 or 8 demon's worth?
Some in the ancient church identified this woman as Mary Magdalene. Luke doesn't. However, by preceding the introduction of Mary and how she supported Jesus' ministry with this story of forgiveness and its powerful effect in the life of one woman, Luke indicates that forgiveness is what delivered Mary from sin, from death and from the power of her devils into Jesus' Church.
Jesus had that sort of power in her life and your life not because He is God but because He is Savior. God always had the power to send Satan to hell, but if God did that you and I went with him. Satan's standing before God was based on God's Word and our sinfulness. God had promised that sinful souls would die and be damned. This word from God gave Satan access and standing before Him because Satan could demand God keep His promise. God binds Himself to His word so much so that anyone, even Satan himself can appeal to Him on the basis of it. However, to keep His word to punish sinners God would have to give up His love for them.
God could both keep His word and love sinners by sending His only Son. Jesus came into the world, the holy God in flesh and blood to keep all God's Laws and to pay for all the sins of humanity. Jesus kept the laws Mary couldn't keep, and then bought her sins as His own. Jesus silenced the devils always accusing her because what could they accuse her of if He kept all God's laws? What sin of hers could they demand she pay for if Jesus already paid for them all? Mary was forgiven, free, rebornuntil Easter.
From the get-go on Easter Mary accepts that Jesus is dead. Mary is as good as theologian as Paul. She knows that if Jesus isn't raised from the dead, that means God's Laws weren't completely kept or her sins weren't fully paid for. Jesus either failed to keep the law perfectly or to pay for all sins. He remains dead because He's still paying either for His own sins or hers. In either case her sins aren't paid for. So the devils are back shrieking, "You're indebted to us. We own you." No wonder she's crying.
There's a painting of Mary Magdalene crying at the tomb. She's in a heap. Her hair is disheveled hanging down in her face. You can only see part of her face and it's blurred by tears. This is what happens when you lose sight of the risen Lord Jesus, that is, when you don't hear His Word, when you don't cling to His Body and Blood as Jesus here promises you can after His Ascension. The devils come rushing back in bringing your sins, their despair, and the law's pitiless judgment. You're tempted to respond as Mary did in the text: with determination to fix the situation yourself. You don't need the help of God or man. You have the strength to do what needs doing. You'll overcome those devils, rise above the despair, respond to the law's judgment. O no you won't. You'll only end up in a crushed, crying heap.
Only a risen Lord who was crucified in your place can save you from the devils that torment you. Notice Mary didn't find Jesus, He found her, and though she doesn't know Him, He knows her. That's what counts most, not whether we're looking for Jesus, but whether Jesus is looking for us. Not that we know Jesus but that Jesus knows us. It all starts with Jesus not us. Faith is born from Jesus seeking, finding and knowing us.
In just the speaking of her name, "Mary" Jesus reveals Himself to her. He hasn't forgotten about her, or about you. As He knew where to find Mary, so He knows where to find you. As He knew Mary in life and even in His death, so He knows her in the New Life, in everlasting life. Her sins can't stop that. Her despairing can't stop that. Her devils can't stop that. Though we might not even recognize ourselves sometimes, so misshapen are we by our sins, by our despair, by our devils, Jesus doesn't fail to know us in Baptism where He first spoke our name and continues to speak it today.
Easter in July means Jesus is with us in these dog days. We aren't alone with our sins, with our death, or with our devils. Our Jesus is before the Father advocating on our behalf, pleading on our behalf, interceding on our behalf, and surely the only beloved Son is heard by His Father. All of God, all of heaven is on our side against our sins, our death, our devils. But our Jesus is here with us too no less than He was with Mary on that first Easter. The Lord of all sins, of death, and of devils stands with us on earth clothed in Bread and Wine looking weak to the world but is all powerful against the sins that would damn us, the death that would slay us, and the devils that would torment us. We can come away from this altar as Mary came away from the grave saying, "I have seen the Lord." Happy Easter. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Mary Magdalene (20070722); John 20: 1-2, 11-18