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1 April 2018 Sunday Message – MARY AND THE GARDENER

Reading: John 20: 1-18


We went to a memorial service recently. On Waitangi Day actually. We were able to take some of our friend’s ashes and scatter them in the garden of the church in the city.

The interesting experience for me happened when we first arrived. We were walking around the grounds and I passed the gardener who was on his haunches digging away in one of the beds. Amazing – I thought – on a public holiday too. He had an old floppy hat on, and typical non-descript gardening gear. Not your Sunday best.

When I walked past him a second him he got up – and I discovered I knew him very well. And had done so for over ten years.

I couldn’t help at that moment thinking of Mary at the tomb.

“Thinking he was the gardener…” (v15) – she asks Jesus where his body was.

It raises questions for the curious mind. What was Jesus wearing?

His burial gear was in the tomb.

She doesn’t recognize him at all.

Did he look like a gardener?

Or is this the stuff that happens when you’ve lost a loved one and your mind plays tricks on you.

Grief does strange things. I remember a good friend who died at 19. I was his youth leader. Yes, I know you find that strange – I was young enough once to be a youth leader.

I’d seen Duncan after he died. I went with his parents to support them at the viewing.

So, I knew my mind was playing tricks when I thought I saw him a couple of times in a crowd. Or in public place.

It’s like a fog when you grieve.

The responses of all the disciples are understandable over that weekend.

They knew he was dead.

It would have torn their hearts in two.

Sometimes we live in that kind of fog – of protracted grief and sorrow – not only because we mourn our loved ones – because we have all kinds of losses we still mourn.

  • For immigrants – the country of our birth.
  • For those of us who feel the weariness of aging – we mourn our youth.
  • For those whose marriage had died – there is mourning for lost love.
  • For those who feel alone – there is grieving for the years when we really enjoyed intimate close friends.
  • For those who suffer – we mourn the loss of those care free days when getting out of bed was pain free and worry free.
  • For children changing school or moving home there are real losses too.

They all have their own kind of fog – those emotions.

Which makes the Easter story even more powerful. Even when people in their pain cry out that God is unfair and that if he were so loving he would understand our agony and do something about it – Easter tells us that he does and that he did.

He does understand, and he did do something.

Jesus took all this mess and agony on the cross.

He really does understand our pain.

And like Mary in the garden – our focus can be wrong.

Mary didn’t need to go to Specsavers.

You often see what you expect to see. Or you don’t see what you have ruled out as a possibility.

What changes this?

He calls her name.   

Joh 20:16  Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

It is one of the most beautiful moments in the whole of Scripture.

In her complicated life hearing Jesus speak her name before was a sacramental moment of grace – she was drawn into a new life and community by this amazing appealing attractive man who drew all kinds of people to himself – the ones needing healing, the ones who made holes in the roof – those Greeks who were wanting to see him – tax collectors, outcastes, rejects.

Many heard him speak their name.

“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5)


She knew that voice. No wax in those ears.

This is that intimate voice and a personal address.

Not a distant cosmic Lord but a close, loving address from someone who knows our deepest needs, our histories, our dreams and our losses.

It sounds a bit like John 10 – that passage about the Good Shepherd:

“The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Thereafter the Good Shepherd says, “I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).

It’s not surprising that Mary recognizes the risen Christ when this Good Shepherd’s voice is heard calling her name.

Let Jesus call your own name, and the name of whoever you’ve brought with you, whoever needs his love and healing today.

Maybe for the first time – or maybe if it’s a long time since you heard his voice.

He really is alive and speaks today.

For Easter to be real we all need to hear the good shepherd speak our name.

Personally. Intimately.

We become part of this Easter community. That is what church really is.

A people of the resurrection who know Jesus now. And who know His voice.

A people whose grief is healed, whose fog is lifted, and who know what their purpose is – glorifying God, enjoying Him forever, and sharing the good news of Easter every day.

  • That Christ has died.
  • Christ is risen
  • Christ will come again.

For now, we live in that waiting zone, living for him until he comes. –



Sunday message 27 March 2016 Easter Sunday – The gardener

READINGS: Acts 10:34-43;   John 20:1-18


So how’s your garden coming along?

Anything like Eden yet?

It all started in a garden. Eden. That perfect place of friendship – paradise. I doubt that there were weeds and thorns at the beginning. In fact, listen again to Genesis 3:17-18:  To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.

Gardens are these interesting places – potential for chaos, lots of things that die – but life comes through their death. There are even experiments where electricity is being generated in cemeteries. And crematoria are being plugged into the electricity grid in some countries. Bizarre as it may seem.

When our children were young we lived in a place called Oslo Beach. And to get to our house each afternoon we had to drive past a crematorium and cemetery.

Our daughter used to pester me – “when can we visit the grave garden”. After weeks of this I turned into the place after school and we visited the old man who ran the place. And looked inside the oven. No it wasn’t occupied at the time. There were some questions about granny and what had happened to her when she died. And home we went. No more requests after that. That was our visit to the grave garden.

Today we read about another grave garden.

It’s not surprising that we find life springing from this garden. The other gospels don’t mention the garden or a gardener.


It’s not really surprising that Mary assumes Jesus is the gardener. (The word “gardener” is an example of hapax legomenon. You don’t find the word anywhere else in the New Testament or LXX.) (κηπουρός –  garden warden in John 20:15. In John 15:1 the word is γεωργός – soil worker)

It is unique to John – as is Mary’s encounter alone with Jesus.

The most intriguing line is this one in verse 17:

“Don’t cling to me” is the best translation it seems. The word means to fasten – in a reflexive sense to attached yourself to someone or something. Cling is a good word.

I remember an old lady at a funeral I conducted who held on to her husband’s coffin as it was being lowered into the grave. Don’t cling to the past?

Not touch. It would be okay for Thomas to do as much touching as he wanted – poking around in the holes made by nails and spear.

But not for Mary. She had to focus on a new beginning.

She knows he is not the gardener when he says her name. Suddenly she turns from looking to a body to looking at the man. The one of whom Pilate said: “Behold the Man!” (John 19:5).

  • This is the second Adam – who unlike the first resists temptation.
  • The Man Jesus who is the one to whom we all must turn.

He speaks her name – and she turns. Listen to verse 16 again:  Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Memories of his teaching flood back for John’s readers from John  10:27  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. And John 10:3 He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

The word “turn” is also subtle. It can also mean convert.


Don’t cling to me.

The reason he gives to her is this: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them… (v17)

Not yet returned to the Father. Literally Jesus was “not yet ascended.” What does this mean? Clearly his day was part of a greater story which we summarised on Friday in the saying together of the Apostle’s Creed. Did you notice which line was left out?

Mary is unmoved by this concept or idea of why she should not hold onto him. Once she hears Jesus’ voice she focusses on his words

She is Apostle number 14 really. “Go to my brothers and tell them…” She is the apostle to the apostles!

And the message is fascinating. There is a new opening in the family now through Christ’s death and resurrection: ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

 John is taking his readers back to the beginning – to chapter 1:

Joh 1:11  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Joh 1:12  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—

Joh 1:13  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

 And then back in chapter 19 verse 18:  Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary does not seem offended by being rebuffed by Jesus. It’s all about getting word out.

And she does. She is a witness to the resurrection and sent by Jesus to tell the boys.

The irony in this passage is that they are still a bit muddled in this way. Listen again to verse 12: Joh 20:1  Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. Joh 20:2  So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Joh 20:3  So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb.  Joh 20:4  Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

They’re still competing – typical boys. It’s quite amusing really – how John points out who won that race.  The “other disciple” is John! He is speaking about himself.

One of the early church fathers had a more delightful explanation of this race: “Ishodad of Merv traces John’s greater speed to the fact that he was unmarried.” Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John XIII – XXI (New York: The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1970) 985


It takes more than one look in the garden. Mary saw the stone was rolled away. She assumed grave robbers were at work.

It took his voice to get her attention to notice other possibilities.

Peter and John have their race – John wins but only sticks his head in to look. Peter goes right in. Typical Peter!

There is something challenging about walking into a place where the dead are kept.


Our tombs are not empty – that makes it really hard for us when we face death. We have to hold on to hope and be prepared to wait to see our loved ones again.

We were not witnesses of this resurrection. But remember what Jesus said to Thomas: Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe (to Thomas) Joh 20:27  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Joh 20:28  Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  Joh 20:29  Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”


The shift in relationship because of the resurrection is the key. Tom Wright puts it like this:

This passage gives us a moment like that. It’s a moment when it becomes clear, to the careful reader of John’s gospel, that something extraordinary has taken place, not only to Jesus –though that’s extraordinary enough– but to the way the world is, the way God is, the way God and the disciples now are. Up to this point Jesus has spoken about God as ‘the father’, or ‘the father who sent me’, or ‘my father’. He has called his followers ‘disciples’, ‘servants’ and ‘friends’.

Now all that has changed. Feel the force of verse 17: ‘Go and say to my brothers, I am going up to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’ Something has altered, decisively. Something has been achieved. A new relationship has sprung to life like a sudden spring flower. The disciples are welcomed into a new world: a world where they can know God the way Jesus knew God, where they can be intimate children with their father. (Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 2: Chapters 11-21 Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (Kindle Locations 2346-2353). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

  • Jesus is the new gardener
  • There is a New Eden
  • New cultivation of the fruits of the spirit will begin
  • And a new family!

Wright continues: Mary’s intuitive guess, that he must be the gardener, was wrong at one level and right, deeply right, at another. This is the new creation. Jesus is the beginning of it…

Here he is: the new Adam, the gardener, charged with bringing the chaos of God’s creation into new order, into flower, into fruitfulness. He has come to uproot the thorns and thistles and replace them with blossoms and harvests. (Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 2: Chapters 11-21 Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (Kindle Locations 2367-2372). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

It’s a new creation. And it’s for everyone. The reading from Acts today is Peter speaking at the house of the Gentile Cornelius. This family is all inclusive. This is how the passage ends:

Act 10:39  “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree,

Act 10:40  but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.

Act 10:41  He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Act 10:42  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

Act 10:43  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

It’s a tree that he was hanged on – says Peter. A new source of life, offsetting the consequences of the fruit from the forbidden tree.

The 8th century Old English Poem (written therefore before William the conqueror and genuinely Anglo-Saxon) called “The dream of the Rood” has the poet describe the Rood – the cross –  in his dream like this:

It seemed to me that I saw a very wondrous tree (v5) lifted into the air, enveloped by light, the brightest of trees.”

Later the cross is described as the “tree of glory, on which Almighty God suffered for mankind’s many sins…”

At the end the poet continues:  May the Lord be a friend to me, (v145) who suffered here on earth before on the gallows-tree for men’s sins; he redeemed us and gave us life, a heavenly home.  Joy was restored with blessings and with bliss…

What do we take with us? You can opt for a chocolate egg if you like.

But the crosses we made last Sunday speak more to me. A new tapestry – a weaving of colour and beauty – comes through that cross.

When I survey the wondrous cross – “Forbid it Lord that I should boast save in the death of Christ my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”



Sunday 3 March – Jesus the teacher digs deep

Reading: Luke 13:1-9

Jesus the teacher digs deep

There’s a great story of a teacher who got arrested for a traffic violation and appeared before a judge who said: “Teacher, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time”. “Will you sit down over there and write five hundred times, ‘I will not go through a red light again.’”

There are all kinds of ways of getting your message across. I threatened to take our home groups books in to mark them this week – to see how many people had answered some of the questions. Or any. It’s the teacher in me – it was said in jest of course.

Teachers also get asked interesting questions – some of which it is best not to answer. A great strategy is to ask the students questions in response – because they have to learn to learn through inquiry themselves.

In this case people come to Jesus with bad news. I suppose no TV and internet meant you were the news people.

In verse 1 of chapter 13 people in the crowd tell him that Pilate “mixed the blood” of some Galileans with their sacrifices. They were murdered one assumes when at worship. Various theories exist as to who and why. The point is they were killed.

Jesus – perhaps sensing that people were fishing for his thoughts on the matter – or just seeing a teaching opportunity – creates the questions for himself and gives the answers!

The issue is the age-old problem of suffering – the question of theodicy – the justification of God’s existence or fairness in the face of the suffering of the world. The question about WHY people suffer – why “GOOD” people suffer, and whether this is all a punishment we deserve anyway. Or is it “random?” – another word that is complex because random things are not very random at all.

Here’s a bizarre one this week – that poor man who was killed by a shark (or more than one shark) – the headline at the bottom of the screen on Thursday on TV one said something like this “not to worry about this (talking I assume to would-be swimmers) – it was a case of mistaken identity”.

That is odd! Who was that shark after then?

So in another place (in John 9:2) his disciples asked this question:  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That question was settled with this response:

 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:3)

Of course we also would like a cause – someone to blame – for the tragedies we see.

They would – in Jesus’ time – still have seen disaster as a punishment for sin. So if it was a great disaster, perhaps it reflected really bad sin or lots of sin in the people’s lives.

And so in this passage Jesus responds with a sobering thought:

To the question he raises about the Galileans murdered by Pilate – “Do you think they were worse sinners? – the answer is No.”

And to the question he poses about the people who had a work accident – with a tower falling on them: “Were they worse sinners? – the answer is No.”

In both cases he is very direct, and even more so in verses 3 and 5 which are identical:

“But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

We are all sinners who need repentance.

As Paul was to say later – in Romans 3:23:  “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

We are not really good at this repentance thing. There are mixed views:

  • Some of you love it when I mention the word. I get good feedback.  In every church I have been in there are always those who love the preacher preaching hell fire and brimstone.
  • Others avoid repentance. They’d rather not deal with it – for some it seems a bit too old world perhaps.

Repentance is not a one-off thing. I’ve mentioned before that the word in Hebrew means to turn as in change direction- and in the New Testament Greek it means a change in mind or a change in our thinking. They both apply. Turning and changing.

In my personal readings last week I revisited Jonah and found this amazing passage about the repentant people of Nineveh. Perhaps we will learn more about repentance through example. Listen to the proclamation of the King of that city: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.

Jon 3:8  But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.

And it started with him – the King: Jon 3:6  When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.

They had been given 40 days to sort themselves out. His response seems quite quick – but I’m not sure whether it was immediate. It must have been early on in that 40 day period.

Sackcloth and ashes were the way. It certainly sent a message to those who witness the transformation. It meant a prolonged period of reflection and remorse.

As we have seen in the gospel reading today: Jesus said to his learner audience:

“But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Sobering. Perish is a strong word. There are sins all around us in our city that lead to death. Like the seven deadly sins.

Even more sobering this week was the study released on the seven deadly sins in New Zealand – showing where the badest (worst!) places are for lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, wrath, greed and envy.

Have a look if you want to see the maps on line:

Auckland scores top in 4 of the 7. Like to guess which?

Yes you were right. Lust, pride greed and envy. Repentance in our city may be more urgent that we think.

In this passage Jesus our great teacher doesn’t end it there. The parable that follows is a parable of grace. Here it is again from verse 5:

Luke 13:5  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Luke 13:6  Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any.

Luke 13:7  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

Luke 13:8  “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.

Luke 13:9  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

1 – The tree

The use of a tree to measure growth and fruitfulness is common in the bible. The very first Psalm goes like this:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (verses 1-3)

In this parable the owner of the tree is unimpressed with it’s performance. Here’s verse 7 again: Luke 13:7  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

2 – The axe

is about to swing!

John the Baptist’s message also makes this connection: John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. (Luke 3:7-8)

John the Baptist continued with this line as well: The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)

In the parable of the vineyard there is only really one main point. You’ve not producing – you’re wasting the soil.

No pressure – but that is us. So how are you – tree person? Are you rooted right – fed properly – and bearing fruit? Are you growing at all?

The gardener or caretaker– in this allegory – asks for time. One more year.

3 -The gardener of grace

This is the gardener of grace. Grace means that although we don’t deserve it we are being given time. Don’t waste that time!

The gardener of course does not just want time. That would assume that the tree would somehow suddenly grow figs. Why would it if the three previous years were unfruitful?

He says: Luke 13:8  “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Luke 13:9  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

There is the digging and the manure! They are very specific. The translation is a bit understated really. “Fertilize it” is not the application of modern fertilizer, but the application of animal dung.

4 – The dung

Digging and dunging is the term people use. We need God to do that. Some have suggested that the dung – is a sign of humility (Augustine). The digging and dunging means that we are dependent on the gardener.

Repentance is not saying sorry I WILL DO BETTER next time. It’s saying – I can’t do this. It’s about grace – God doing it in me and through me. Despite me!

Some have talked about the dung as something warm in a cold garden bed. They did not have what they needed in bags then. It was pretty fresh and smelly. Humbles us doesn’t it?

As individuals and as a church – perhaps God is speaking to us today!

  • About grace! God giving us time!
  • About getting help through digging around in our hearts and minds (which need changing and renewing)
  • About some manure/dung – how deep and how much for each of us?
  • About fruitfulness!

5. Fruitfulness

God’s grace giving us time and our openness to the Lord’s digging around in our lives and applying what we need for our growth is the key to bearing fruit. And there are various biblical references to fruit bearing – like Galatians 5 in which Paul contrasts the acts of the sinful nature with the fruits of the Spirit: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:23).

John 15:16 is a great reminder though that this all begins with God who works in our lives and brings us to repentance, and chooses us for his purposes. Jesus says: You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.

Amen. May it be so in your life and in mine.

(Note to on-line readers around the world: I hope you enjoy reading these messages. If you have questions feel free to post them here or contact me via the website More importantly we believe that you can know the Lord who we write about – that Jesus is alive and at work in our lives. May you trust Him as your Lord and Saviour and find a local church where you can grow in your faith journey. Robin.)