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We have come quite a way during these mid-week Lenten services. We began just outside of Jerusalem at the home of Simon the Leper where Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with her expensive perfume a week before His death and burial. We followed Judas to the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter to the High Priest's courtyard, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin to Pontius Pilate's headquarters. And last week we concluded right at the foot of the cross. “So they delivered him over to them to be crucified.” (John 19:16)
This evening, we find ourselves at the foot of the cross where Christ has been crucified. There are several present here. His mother, Mary and the disciple John are here. Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry His cross is here. The two thieves crucified with him are here. The Romans soldier who pierced Jesus' side and made the good confession “truly this was the Son of God,” is here. Several of the women who accompanied Jesus and supported Him are here as well.
It is one of those women whom we want to follow this evening. Her name is Mary Magdalene.
II. Mary Magdalene – 7 Demons
A. Background on Mary
We don't know a whole lot about her. Some people think that Mary Magdalene was the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus defended and told to “go and sin no more.” But there is nothing in the record that connects her to that account at all.
St. Luke gives us the only bit of background that we have on her. In the 8th chapter of his gospel, Luke writes that while Jesus is in the region of Galilee, “He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. (Luke 8:1-2)
From that brief bit of background, we can say a few things about Mary in order to get to know her better. The women whom we meet in the Scriptures are identified one from another in various ways, usually by their husband's name or by a name of a son or daughter, or some other family member. So, the most famous woman is “Mary the mother of Jesus.” Another Mary who was at the cross was known as “Mary the wife of Clopas.” Even the Mary whom we called “Mary of Bethany” is never really called that in the Scriptures. She would have been called either “Mary, the sister of Martha” or certainly after his resurrection, “Mary the sister of Lazarus.”
Mary Magdalene is not known by any personal connection to anyone. There is a village in the region of Galilee called Magdala or Migdal. She is simply known by where she is from.
Luke says that she had “seven demons.”
One of the things that Jesus does from the very beginning of His ministry is cast out demons from the demon possessed. Right after His baptism and temptation in the wilderness Jesus goes to Galilee, to the village of Capernaum where there is a synagogue. As soon as Jesus enters the synagogue a man with the demon cries out, “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him saying, 'Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm.” (Luke 4:34-35).
Later that same night, Jesus is at Peter's mother-in-law's house, and Luke report “when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him and he healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” (Luke 4:40-41).
Keep in mind that all of this happened in Capernaum which is in the region of Galilee, not too far away from the village of Magdala. Maybe a woman from Magdala named Mary was one of those in that crowd, whom Jesus cast the demons out of.
B. Demon Possession
Let's talk about this whole business of 'demon possession.' In our sophisticated and enlightened day, we're not so sure what to make of 'demons' and 'demon possession.' Talk about 'casting out demons' brings to mind 'voodoo' and 'witch doctors.'
So, I'd suggest we think about this like this. The fact that there are indeed such things as 'demons' and that Jesus Christ has the authority over even the 'demons' is perfectly in line with the work of Satan in this world and the work of Christ in this world according to the Scriptures. So that really shouldn't bother us.
But let's also be willing to consider that with the development of modern science, we understand the how the human body and brain works today better than they did 2000 years ago. And what they may have called demon possession then, we may call schizophrenia or manic-depressive or mental illness today. Some of the ways that the demon-possessed act in the bible actually looks a whole lot like the way someone with seizures might act. What they attributed to demons, we might attribute to a neurological or chemical disorder.
Here's my point. Rather than trying to diagnose the specific cause of Mary's problem, whether it was actual demons or mental illness, Mary was living in the darkness like a person held captive by evil forces unable to escape.
When Luke says that she had “seven demons,” he may be using the number seven in a symbolic way as to mean 'completeness.' She might have been so out of her mind that those who had once known her didn't know her at all anymore. It was as though there was nothing of the real Mary. Haven’t we seen or known people with Alzheimer’s of whom we have said just that. “It’s not her.” Mary was lost in the confusion and chaos of forces beyond her control.
But then Jesus came along and set her free. Simply by the word of His command or the touch of His hand, He shattered the darkness. He unloosed the chains that bound her and the prison door came right off its hinges. Jesus came to her and spoke His famous, “let there be light!” upon her, just as He had done over the ‘formless and void’ creation in the beginning. And just like that, the confusion and chaos gave way to order and peace, and Mary was back again.
It is important to notice, that when the gospel writers report one of these episodes of Jesus casting out demons from the possessed, they always say, “he released them.” He didn't “forgive them.” They weren't 'wicked people.' They were 'afflicted people,' prisoners to evil forces that inflicted all kinds of terrible physical and psychological harm on them. Jesus 'released them.'
One of the prophetic signs of the Messiah's coming into the world, you'll recall, was that the Christ would set the prisoners free. The Prophet Isaiah writes about the coming Messiah, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6-7) Mary Magdalene was one of those prisoners for whom the Christ came into the world.
C. What was it like for Mary after she was set free?
So, now we want to ask ourselves, what was it like for Mary after she was set free from the demons? It must have been like being ‘born again.' It must have been like Lazarus’ being raised from the dead.
Jesus gave Mary back to herself. After Jesus cast out her seven demons, her friends must have said, “Mary, your back.”
And what did Mary do when she got herself back again. She gave herself to Jesus. Mary Magdalene becomes one of the most loyal followers that Jesus has.
As she follows Jesus, she sees the crowds coming to Him, just as she once had. And those who are possessed as she was are set free from their demons. Everywhere Jesus goes, she sees the darkness being shattered by the light, prisoners streaming out of their dungeons by the multitudes, The ‘lost,’ those lost to themselves, are found.
The “strong man” was breaking into Satan's house and throwing out the evil tyrant. The Kingdom of God was coming into the world and it was an incredible thing to behold and be a part of.
D. What was it like for Mary at the foot of the cross?
But now we must ask ourselves another question. What must it have been like for Mary at the foot of the cross? John writes, “Standing by the cross of Jesus was his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25).
What must she have been thinking? What was going on inside of Mary when, as St. Mark reports, “when the 6th hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour”? (Mark 15:33)
What was happening? The One who had set her free from her darkness and captivity was Himself taken captive and consumed by the darkness. She had firmly believed that Jesus had initiated the great turning point in the war and that the final victory lie just ahead. But there He hangs. Had the darkness overcome the light after all?
There is something very special about Mary that we want to be sure to notice here. First, Mary doesn't return to the demonic state of mind that she had been in before Jesus released her. We don't see Mary going crazy when the foundations crumble around her.
What we do see is simply that Mary remains there at the cross. She remains right there through the three hours of darkness and the earthquake that immediately follows His death. What is it that keeps her there? Why does she simply stay right there?
What else could it be but her love and devotion for Jesus? He had entered into her darkness and delivered her from it. Now she, in loving devotion to Him, enters into His darkness. She couldn't deliver Him from His darkness as He had delivered her. All she could do is remain with Him. In her total hopelessness and despair, she would remain with Jesus.
At the end of the day, when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the member of the Sanhedrin came to take the body of Jesus down from the cross and place it in the tomb, Mary Magdalene is right there. Mark writes, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.” (Mark 15:47)
E. Mary’s return to the tomb
It is Mary Magdalene who is the first to return to the tomb as soon as the Sabbath day was officially ended. John writes, “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.”
Oh, this must have been deep insult upon deep injury for Mary. The darkness of His death was compounded by an even deeper darkness that His body would have been stolen. Now there was not even a body to remain with.
She runs back into the city where the disciples are all staying and informs them of the terrible news. Peter and John race to the tomb to find it empty. Mary Magdalene is right behind them. The men leave.
But Mary stays. She stays right there at the tomb, weeping. Somehow she summons the courage to actually look inside the tomb. “And she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away MY LORD, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
She did not know what we know. She did not know that Jesus, 'her Lord,' had entered into the darkness in order to defeat it once and for all. She didn't know that what 'her Lord' had done for her He came to do for all people. For haven't we all been taken captive by the demons in one form or another?
The bible says that we are all so completely possessed by our sin that we have lost touch with ourselves. We were created in the image of God. But we are lost to ourselves. Sin and Satan have taken us captive and there is nothing that we can do to free ourselves. The bible says that we are all so totally possessed by evil, that we have fallen in love with the darkness and think that it is good and hate the light and refuse to come into it.
So it's not a matter of Jesus calling us to come out of the darkness and into the light. He must come into the darkness and 'release us' from its grip breaking its hold on us, even against our will.
The great mystery of the faith is that Jesus did not overcome the darkness by waving a magic wand or by speaking into the chaos and confusion. He entered into it. He became as helpless and hopeless in His captivity to the forces of evil as Mary Magdalene was, and as all of us are.
In a way that may relate more closely to Mary Magdalene, haven't we all, at one time or another, to one degree or another, a time when it seemed as though darkness and evil had overcome the world; a time of depression, of grief, or loneliness, or rejection. Worst of all, maybe even the loss of the sense of the Lord's presence with us. Have we ever felt the darkness that covers our society and our culture and seriously wondered if evil has not conquered over good?
Sometimes, like Mary, all that we can do is remain in the darkness and wait, not really knowing what we are waiting for, only that in love for “our Lord,” and faith in Him, it is all that we can do.
It is in Mary's patient 'waiting in the darkness' that she hears a voice from behind her. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Thinking him to be the gardener, she said to him, 'Sir, if you have carried him away tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.' Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
Mary turned, and the darkness was shattered, and the sun (son) had risen, never to set again.