TEXT: John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb … (John 20:1)
Here’s a different kind of Easter story. It’s about an American submarine called the USS Squalus, commissioned on March the first, 1939. On May 23rd of that same year, she was in the Atlantic, not far from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The Navy submarine carried a crew of 59—five officers, 51 enlisted men and three civilian inspectors.
On that day, she was to conduct a test dive—a rapid emergency descent. This capability would be important in wartime, because—once submerged—a submarine could easily hide from enemy aircraft.
At 08:35 hours, the test commenced. However, just after the Squalus submerged, her engine room began to flood. Somehow, the main induction valve—a large opening that brought air to the diesel engines when running on the surface—had failed to close.
The submarine’s after compartments quickly filled with water, drowning 26 sailors. The Squalus settled to the bottom, where the water was 243 feet deep and only a few degrees above freezing.
In the forward compartments, sealed behind watertight doors, 33 men remained alive.
Seawater began short-circuiting the boat’s two batteries, arranged in 252 six-foot-high cells lining the keel. Lights flickered and went out, plunging the crew into darkness.
In the pitch-blackness of their steel sepulchre, the survivors trembled, damp and cold.
In desperation, they began firing signal rockets from the sub to the surface. After four hours, the sixth rocket was launched—and another American vessel noticed the smoke.
Before long, two other ships arrived, and commenced planning a seemingly-impossible rescue.
But those men confined in darkness beneath the waves knew nothing about these labours on their behalf. After what seemed like an endless night, their oxygen supply was running low, and was being rationed by the skipper. Carbon dioxide was building up, and making them drowsy. Their doom appeared imminent.
Then, suddenly—a surprise! From outside came the clanging of lead-weighted boots, as divers in pressurized equipment began walking about on the hull, looking for signs of life.
Hearing those sounds, the trapped sailors used a hammer to bang out a message from inside. Listening carefully, the divers recognized the dots and dashes of Morse code, spelling out four words: “Is there any hope?”
It was an urgent—and desperate—question. Never before had survivors of a submarine sinking been rescued from such a depth.
Waiting helplessly in the darkness, the men of the Squalus knew they could do nothing to save themselves. Their salvation depended upon someone coming down from above to rescue them.
Just before dawn on May 24, the navy ship USS Falcon came upon the scene, carrying a McCann rescue chamber—a large diving bell intended for deep-sea rescue.
However, the McCann device had never before been used in an actual rescue attempt—only in testing and training.
The nine-ton chamber looked like an inverted tumbler. It submerged itself by means of compressed air, ballast tanks, and a watertight hull.
Using air-driven power and winches, it was supposed to lower itself to the disabled submarine’s deck, where a rubber gasket would seal the chamber to an escape hatch, through which the bell’s two operators would take aboard the Squalus’s crewmen.
That, at any rate, was the idea—and, thankfully, it was an idea that worked.
All 33 surviving crew members were rescued in the first-ever underwater operation of this type.
So … why do I call this an Easter story? What does all this have to do with Easter Sunday?
Well, it strikes me that, sometimes in life—perhaps, too often in life—we may feel like those men aboard the Squalus. Your situation appears beyond hope—and you find yourself plunged into deepest darkness.
Like the darkness before the dawn on that first Easter morning. John’s gospel tells the story of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb of Jesus “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark …”
“While it was still dark.”
To be sure, John meant it only as a reference to the time of day, but—with some inspired imagination—that phrase can lead us to a deeper understanding of the text.
Mary Magdalene. As surely as were the twelve men, she was a close disciple of Jesus. Following him, she had seen lives made new, bodies healed, and eyes opened.
She had listened to the complaining of the disciples and the accusations of the religious leaders. She saw how the lowly ones adored Jesus—and how the rulers despised him.
She had witnessed the adoration of the people as they waved palm branches for Jesus on Sunday—and she beheld their hostility when they stood before Pilate at the end of the week. She had heard both their joyful hosannas … and their vengeful cries of “Crucify him!”
Mary of Magdala. She had watched in anguish as her Lord was nailed to the cross … and she stood beneath it as his life drained away. Now, her heart was broken. Now, it was all over. She had come to Jesus’ tomb to mourn for him, and—in her soul—“it was still dark.”
We know that darkness, don’t we?
We know that hollow, desolate feeling—that sense that the bottom has dropped out of your world. Like the despair you feel when your soul-mate has died—and now you have to go home and clean out the closet.
Or like the forlornness of a professional hockey team once the NHL season has been cancelled.
No Stanley Cup for them. All they can do now is empty their lockers, carry out Johnny Gaudreau … and wait for golfing weather.
Mary keeps vigil beside the empty tomb. What will she do now? Peter and the others could go back to fishing—or tax-collecting! They could start their businesses again. Perhaps they could have a reunion in ten years’ time, and talk about the good old days.
But what will Mary do, now? Sadness, disappointment, and emptiness had been her companions since Friday. It had been a good three-year run, she thought … but now, it was all over.
We know what it’s like (don’t we?) to stand with our dreams in shambles around our feet. Our children go badly astray. We get the pink slip from our employer. Our blood work comes back from the lab, confirming a grim diagnosis.
These things happen to good people … as well as to those who … haven’t been so good.
Still, we ask, “Why me, Lord?”
We protest, saying: “I attend worship regularly. I volunteer in the Sunday School. I tithe. I even serve on the Board!”
My future seemed oh-so-bright … but now I sit in darkness.
Let’s face it: when the sun is shining, faith is easy. But in the darkness, faith becomes extremely difficult. When things are going our way, we readily proclaim that God is good. But when life turns sour, we feel rejected or resentful or guilty. As someone has said, “Anyone can walk in the sunshine—only a saint can walk in the darkness.”
Consider once again our gospel text. Consider once again Mary’s sorrow as she stands near Jesus’ tomb, weeping. Then, suddenly, a surprise—the risen Christ calls out her name!
While it was still dark, God was labouring on her behalf—making a way where there was no way.
Have no doubt about it, my friends, when things get tough—and they will—it does not mean that God has abandoned you. When darkness comes upon you, God is still working on your behalf, calling you to remain faithful to him as you wait for the sunrise. To remain faithful to him as Mary did.
Unlike the trapped sailors of the Squalus, Mary could have walked away from the scene of her disaster. But she did not. She would not leave Jesus, nor would she deny him. She remained devoted to him—even while it was still dark.
I have been a pastor long enough to know that there is a heartache inside each one of us—and I also know that most of us suffer in silence. No one is immune to heartache. Rich or poor, old or young, we all stagger beneath heavy burdens. And in the darkness, we stumble.
Yet, whatever weight we carry through the gloom, God is labouring on our behalf.
Even if—like the sailors on the Squalus—we do not at first realize it, he is working to shine light into our darkest predicaments. The good news is not only that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that the character of God is revealed in him. He is light—and he is also love.
Mary does not immediately recognize Jesus when he appears to her in the graveyard. But once she realizes who he is, she calls him by the name most familiar to her: “Rabbouni”—“teacher.” Nothing could pierce her darkness—neither discarded grave clothes, nor angels in white. But when Jesus calls her name, she responds.
In her darkness she is ministered to—and then her life assumes new meaning when Jesus calls her to go and tell the others. The first command of the risen Christ is to tell a woman to carry the good news to his male disciples, who have shrunk into hiding. And so Mary becomes “the apostle to the apostles.”
What is this good news she is to carry? She is to proclaim that Jesus is alive.
He is risen! We need live no longer in darkness, for our light has indeed come. Our salvation is at hand. God pierces Mary’s darkness—even as he pierces our own. He not only greets her—he gives her a commission: “Go and tell the others.”
We are given the same marching orders: “Go into all the world and spread the good news” (Mark 16:15).
And we are able to do that, because the same power which was given to Mary—the same power which rolled away the stone from the mouth of Jesus’ tomb—that power is available to us, as well. It is the power of resurrection. It is the resounding “YES!” to our desperate questioning: “Is there any hope?”
Yes. Yes, there is. For Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.