I thought it might be profitable for us to take a few weeks to look at the lives of some characters from the Bible.  Looking through the life of another, we gather encouragement for our lives.  I would like to begin our series today with a woman we know from the New Testament as Mary Magdalene.

          Mary Magdalene is one of those exceptional characters.  Mary is exceptional because more has been written about Mary Magdalene in the four gospels than is written about a few of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus.  We hear nothing of Jesus’ Apostles named Simon the Zealot, James the son of Alpheus, or Thaddeus.  But we do here of Mary Magdalene in 13 accounts across all four gospels.

          Mary Magdalene is an exceptional character because she has been written about extensively in every age from the early church through the Middle Ages and into modern day.  The vast majority of what has been written about Mary Magdalene is in error or is just pure fiction.  One of the most glaring examples of erroneous stories of Mary comes from the Roman Catholic Church.  On April 25, 590, in a sermon, Pope Gregory I declared Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who repented before the presence of Jesus.  Labels given to people stick and for centuries Mary was portrayed in song, poetry, art, and literature as a prostitute.  The Roman Catholic Church did not change its view of Mary Magdalene until 1969.  Other ancient and modern writings claim that Jesus did not die on the cross but was revived in the tomb.  After being revived, Jesus and Mary Magdalene became husband and wife and settled down to live a quiet life together.

          Who then was Mary Magdalene of the Bible and what might we learn from her?  In short, Mary was an unwavering witness whose enduring testimony was that Jesus had risen from the dead and was rightfully her Lord and Savior.  I say those words as high praise and words that each of us would welcome hearing said of us.

          How did the story of Mary begin?  Mary’s story begins in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 8. Jesus was in and around the countryside of Galilee.  He had been to Capernaum and then to Nain.  Luke wrote, “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve [The Twelve Apostles] were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3).

          Luke gave us our first reference into the life of Mary (called Magdalene).  Mary was a woman who had been exceptionally ill.  Luke said Mary was demon-possessed by seven different demons.  Every person we encounter in the New Testament who was possessed by demons was in grave condition.  Luke described a young boy, likely Jewish, possessed by a demon who would scream suddenly, go into convulsions, foam at the mouth, and would be involuntarily thrown to the ground by the impure spirit.  Luke also described a demon possessed man, likely a pagan, who had to be bound with chains, yet the man had the strength to break those chains.  The man lived in a cemetery screaming and shrieking throughout the night.  When Jesus healed this man, the man begged to go with Jesus.  But Jesus sent the man away saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39).

We do not know the manifestation of demon-possession of Mary, but we do know that Mary would have been unable to function in life and considered by her family and friends to be beyond hope.  Yet somewhere in Jesus’ travels from village to village, Jesus encountered Mary, perhaps in the Galilean Jewish village of Magdala, from which she receives the name Mary Magdalene.  Adding the name of Mary’s town to Mary’s identity was important because at this time ¼ of all women in Galilee were named Mary.  Another ¼ of all women were named Salome.  It was in that encounter somewhere in Galilee that Jesus drove the seven demons out of Mary.  And like the man who was cured of demon-possession, Mary must have begged Jesus to allow her to go with him on his journey.  This time, it appears, that Jesus said, “Yes” and Mary became one, if not the first woman, who accompanied Jesus in his public ministry.  Mary had become a central witness to the ministry, the presence, and the power of Jesus Christ.  From a practical sense, we also learn that Mary used whatever resources she had or skills she had to provide financial support to help feed and house Jesus and others as they traveled.  Mary was “all in” for Jesus.

From this brief introduction to Mary Magdalene, we learn that Mary was once powerless to the forces of darkness and evil that entrapped her body, mind, and spirit. Yet in the presence of Jesus, the seven spirits had no choice but to flee.  Once the evil spirits were removed, Mary was again able to make decisions of her own free will.  But Jesus said there is at that moment of new freedom, a huge risk.  Jesus said, “43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45a).  The impure spirits had been ejected from Mary, her house was in order, swept clean, and put in order.  Something or someone must fill that space to prevent the return of the impure spirits.  Mary, now able to make decisions of her own free will, invited Jesus into her life making her house, her life, occupied, full, and in order.  Jesus healed Mary for sure by rescuing Mary from the darkness of the impure spirits.  But the full restoration of Mary, Mary being saved, did not occur until Mary also received Jesus to fill her life.  And the same is true for each one of us.  Jesus did not come to rescue us that we would be left “unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.”  Jesus came that we would receive him, that his Holy Spirit would take up residence filling the unoccupied space of our spiritual life, keeping things clean and put in order.  We do not want to be of a mind that says, “I am living a better life, a more orderly life, therefore, I good the way I am.”  No.  I know too many people who have behaved that way. The changed the way they are living to a better lifestyle believing that in doing so they were saved.  They were not.  They were simply, “unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.”  Where are they today?  They are not here because other forces came along and filled the emptiness of their lives with worldliness.  Mary Magdalene stands out to us as a brilliant example that we must be swept clean and accept fully the spirit of Jesus Christ to lead our life.

What did Mary do with that new life filled with the spirit of Christ?  We have learned Mary did two things right away.  First, Mary sought to hear the living Word of God so as to mature her life.  Mary traveled with Jesus from the point of her acceptance of him as the Messiah until the very end.  Now we believe that Jesus is not at this moment physically traveling the countryside sharing the word of God so we cannot go on that trip.  But Mary’s life teaches us that we can still travel with Jesus and listen to what Jesus said through the reading and study of the Bible, particularly the Gospels.  Jesus’ words speak to us of comfort, conviction, peace, hope, faith, love, compassion, identity, and destiny.  Everything we need to know to stay focused on the essentials of life with God can be found in and through the God’s Word.  But we must open the book.

Second, Mary entered the broad role of being a minister.  Mary ministered to Jesus’ physical needs for food and shelter.  But Mary also began to become known as the most significant woman among Jesus’ disciples.  How do we know that?  We know Mary was the most significant woman disciple because whenever names are given in the Gospels of Jesus’ women followers, Mary Magdalene’s name is usually listed first.  In ancient and modern writing, the most important character is listed first.  Mary Magdalene’s standing as the foremost woman disciple was not based upon her assignment by Jesus, it was because she held nothing back from Jesus or from those who followed Jesus.  Mary Magdalene was first because she was last, she was a servant to others.  We would do well to imitate Mary’s example by always looking for ways to minister to others.

The movements and activities of Mary Magdalene are not given to us until the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The Gospel writer Matthew recorded for us that at the cross, “55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matthew 27:55-56). Mary Magdalene was at the cross of Jesus.  Then after Jesus had died and his body was being placed into the tomb, “61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb (Matthew 27:61).  Mary was a faithful witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, his death, and his burial. For Mary Magdalene and others who had followed Jesus, it was for them the day hope died and was buried in the rock cold tomb.  And yet, Mary Magdalene remained faithful.

Mary Magdalene was not only grateful for her salvation through Jesus, but she was also faithful to the life she had through Jesus.  When it had become dangerous to be associated with Jesus, Mary persisted in being faithful toward Jesus.  Mary stayed when Jesus’ apostles ran.  Mary watched over Jesus even though she could not change Jesus’ circumstances.  Mary witnessed for Jesus so that He would not be alone.  Mary taught us that our presence is worth much, much more than words.  Our presence communicates to the other that he or she is valued, precious, and loved.  Our presence brings not only the gift of ourselves but also in and through our presence we bring the gift of God.  We, therefore, should follow Mary’s example and be Christ to others even if it is uncomfortable or we might be subjected to mocking for being Jesus’ disciple.

Finally, we read in the Gospel of John an extensive story of Mary Magdalene.  John’s gospel often presents a situation from the perspective of one person as representative not of just that person but also other people like that one.  For example, in Chapter 3, we have a discussion between Jesus and one Pharisee, Nicodemus.  Chapter 4, we have the exchange between Jesus and one Samaritan woman.  Chapter 5 we have Jesus and one-man seeking healing at the pools of Siloam.  Chapter 8 involves Jesus and one blind man.  So in Chapter 20, John wrote as though Mary Magdalene going to the tomb alone but as we know from other gospels other women were present.  But John found the interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was best to describe the actions and the theological message.  And so John wrote, “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. 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!” (John 20:1-2).

Mary went way back to Jesus’ tomb to care for his body.   There is little doubt Jesus’ apostles knew Mary was going to the tomb but they would not go with her.  The Apostles must have thought, “Why go and see a dead body.  Why go and risk being exposed as one of Jesus’ disciples.  Why go and be reminded that hope had died and had been buried?”  But Mary thought differently.  Mary went in love to Jesus’ tomb.  When Mary got to the tomb, the body of Jesus was not there!  Mary ran to find Peter and John and share the news that Jesus’ body was gone!  At that moment, Mary, thoroughly distraught, did not know she was the first person to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

For their part, the bewildered apostles Peter and John ran to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty as Mary had said. We are told that the Apostle John saw the empty tomb and the strips of burial linen and believed Jesus’ body not present in the tomb was a God had intervened on Jesus’ behalf as Jesus had said he would.  But John did not understand the absence of Jesus’ body meant God had brought Jesus back to life, a resurrected life.  The apostles left and returned to hiding.  Mary stayed by the tomb.

When alone again, Mary would come face-to-face with her teacher, her Rabboni, her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Hope had not died, nor had hope been buried.  Instead, in a marvelous display of power, God caused hope to spring forth from a tomb in person of Jesus’ Christ.  Mary, now overjoyed at seeing the resurrected Jesus, ran to Jesus’ apostles with these words, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18a).  And with those words the good news was made known to all and with those words, the Biblical story of Mary Magdalene came to an end.  We never hear in the New Testament further mention of Mary Magdalene.

Could there be better words than “I have seen the Lord!” upon which to end Mary’s story?  Mary was once powerless over the forces of evil and darkness. So dire was her condition that seven impure spirits controlled her life.  Then as our hymn from earlier today said, “Then the hand of Jesus touched her, and now she is no longer the same.”  Jesus healed Mary bringing her out of the darkness and into the light.  Mary served and cared for others.  She experienced pain and suffering at Jesus’ death and confusion at the disappearance of Jesus’ body.  But once she met the risen Christ, Mary Magdalene’s final role was to proclaim loudly and clearly the good news, “I have seen the Lord.”  Mary would serve as an inspiring example for us to follow as we each seek to be a faithful believer of our Lord.  Amen and Amen.