Shoshana Johnson joined the Army so that she could serve her country while at the same time gain some skills to help her obtain her ultimate goal of becoming a chef. She knew when she signed-up that anything, including war, was possible, but she never dreamed that she would actually be called upon to go to war. Like so many of our brave men and women, when the deployment orders came, Shoshana responded like a champion even though she could hardly bear the thought of leaving her 2 year old daughter behind.
Shoshana came from a military family. Her father, Claude, was retired from the Army and Shoshana’s sister, Nikki Johnson is a Captain in the Army now. The Johnson family has served its country well.
It is easy for civilians like me to see the war on television and come to the conclusion that every person in fatigues is a trained fighting machine, but that just isn’t the case. When Shoshana deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas she and her buddies in the 507th went to work in support of the 11th Defense Artillery Brigade. The 507th is not considered a combat unit. They are mostly made up of mechanics that keep the diesel tanker trucks rolling, fixes generators, and keeps the mechanical parts in good shape. Shoshana was the unit’s cook and was “cross-trained” for a maintenance unit in support of the infantry.
On March 23rd, Shoshana was driving with a group of about 20 members of the 507th on their way to An Nasiriyah to supply the 3rd Infantry Division in its push to Baghdad in central Iraq when they made a wrong turn and were ambushed near the city by civilian clothed Iraqi forces.
Shoshana had been shot through both feet, but she was more concerned about her captors killing her than the pain she felt in her feet. As her captivity continued it became more and more difficult for Shoshana. The days were long and the nights were almost unbearable. Shoshana said, “I was getting to the point where I believed they would have killed us.” Even though she was scared, Shoshana held on. Shoshana was unable to help herself. She couldn’t overcome the Iraqi’s that held her prisoner, her feet were wounded so she couldn’t have run away even if the opportunity presented itself, and she was helpless to bring about her own liberation.
What do you do when you know that you are can’t help yourself? What do you do when days turn into nights and no one comes, nothing seems to change, and there doesn’t appear to be an avenue of escape? You hold on and believe in your heart that help is on its way. Even though help doesn’t come on the first day or the first week – you hold on!
I’m so glad Shoshana held on because three weeks after she was taken captive her liberators arrived. The three long weeks that Shoshana was held as a prisoner of war were long and hard weeks, but Sunday came! Freedom arrived! Shoshana’s scared feet will serve as a constant reminder to her of those who risks their lives so that she could be free.
The three weeks that Shoshana and her buddies were held captive were three long, dark weeks, but they were nothing like the longest day the world has ever experienced. The Disciples had been through a lot of dark nights, a lot of difficult days, but there was never a day that was as dark as the Friday when they watched their Savior, their Lord, their best friend hang in agony, writhe in pain, and cry out in anguish on a crossÉa cross reserved for criminals and thugs in society. Can you imagine? Jesus hanging with criminals? Who could have seen it coming?
The darkest day the world has ever known was that Friday long ago when Jesus hung suspended between Heaven and Earth on a rugged, bloodstained cross. He had endured more than any person has ever had to endure as the authorities of His day had beaten, mocked, and ripped His body to shreds. When they drove the nails in His hands and feet all of Heaven shrieked at the ghastly sight of God’s own Son writhing in pain. Why? Why? Why? I’m not confused about why they did it. The depths of depravity that sinful humanity will sink to will never amaze me, but why did He choose to endure it all? There have been hundreds of theories, but God’s own Word tells us that He did it for our freedom. In writing about our sin and the price Jesus paid for our freedom, Paul wrote in Romans 6, 22 “But now that you have been set free from sinÉ” The scars that Jesus bore in His own body were the scars of victory, the scars of freedom for you and me.
Up until Easter morning when Jesus was raised to life by the mighty hand of God, all of humanity was held captive by sin. There was nothing that could be done about it. You and I do not have the power to overcome the sin that so easily entangles us apart from resurrection power. But on Sunday, when the sun began to shine and the birds began to sing a new song of victory, prison gates opened wide and the shackles of sin began to drop like rain on a spring day! Sin was defeated as Jesus took the sting of death into His own body for you and me. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57 NIV)
For those who live in the resurrection power of Jesus today, the power of sin holds no power to destroy us. The sting of death has been swallowed up in eternal security and the rest of Almighty God. This is the power of God, the glory of Easter, for those of us who live in the year 2003.
The sad reality is that there are many who know the story of Jesus’ resurrection, but have never experienced His salvation, and His power to unlock the shackles of sin so that we might leave our prisons of deception and deceit. There are many of us here this morning, seated in a sanctuary on Easter morning, but dragging the ball and chain of sin’s captivity with us into the pew. Satan has convinced us that Easter’s resurrection is only a story to be told once a year and not a reality to be lived each day. Satan has convinced us that we will always be held captive. We will never break free from the chains of sin and death. Satan has convinced us that we will always be alone, we will always fail, and we will always fall back into our old ways. I’ve got good news for you today. Jesus is alive, He knows your name, and He can open your prison door and set you free this very morning! Step out of your prison and into His grace. He knows your name.
I wish my sister Mary Magdalene was here this morning to testify before you. Mary knows the prison that sin can be when life is lived apart from Jesus. We find her name popping up over and over again in Scripture. The first time we run into Mary we learn that she has had seven demons cast out of her. Luke writes,
1After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; (Luke 8:1-2 NIV)
Now nobody knows what the demons had done to Mary Magdalene, the nature of her demon possession, or how she had suffered because of them. We do know that she had been delivered. Her deliverance from seven demons didn’t clear her record because even to this day there are rumors circulating around town about Mary Magdalene. There will be preachers who will stand up in their pulpit this morning and preach about the first person who saw Jesus after His resurrection and her sordid past. They have arrived at that conclusion from reading Luke 7, the chapter right before Mary Magdalene is introduced to us in Luke 8.
In Luke 7, a woman who has lived a “sinful life,” a woman many say was a prostitute, came to Jesus and wet His feet with her tears before she poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. There is no doubt that this took place, but nowhere in Scripture does it say that this woman was Mary Magdalene.
Mary was a sinner, there is no question about that, but the stories that have circulated about her throughout the centuries have been rumors, unfounded rumors stinging stories that pierced her soul. Maybe you can relate?
You know that you are a sinner, but the stories that are going around school about you hurt you more than they will ever know. You know that you have fallen short of God’s best, but the stories that they tell about you at the Country Club, or the Women’s Circle, or the luncheons, or the break room at work, or the Sunday school class parties are not who you really are. Oh, you know that you don’t have it all together; you know that you need a Savior, but you swear you aren’t as bad as your husband makes you out to be. You know that you are a sinner, but you try to be a good mom, a good dad, but your kids can’t see it and they continue to tell all of their buddies how horrible you are. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm meÉ” Those are the words of nursery rhymes, you know that words can’t break your bones, but they can sure break your heart. They pierce you like a knife.
Mary Magdalene knows how you feel, she has been there, and she felt their words cut her to the core. They talked about her then and they still talk about her to this day. Maybe that is why Mary Magdalene found more than a Savior in JesusÉshe found a friend. He was someone who loved herÉfor who she was. Jesus was someone who welcomed her, set her free from their words, and much, much more.
Jesus left such an imprint upon Mary Magdalene’s life that while the other disciples were running for their life, Mary couldn’t take her eyes off of Jesus. Mark tells us,
33 At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”-which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 36 One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. 37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. (Mark 15:33-41NIV)
Would there ever be anybody again who would ever understand her like Jesus understood her? Would there ever be anybody who would stand with her while the whole town made fun of her and called her names? Would there ever be anyone who could set her free from the guilt that was her evil, best friend? Would there everÉ? She watched Jesus hang on the cross knowing that if she identified herself with Him that she could be badly punished or even killed and yet it didn’t matterÉwithout Jesus life would never be the same again.
She couldn’t get Jesus out of her mind. She thought about Him throughout the day as her mind raced through all of the experiences she had had with Jesus. Finally, after He had taken His last breath and died, Joseph of Arimathea asked to take Jesus’ body and prepare it for burial. Through the whole ordeal, Mary never left. She was right there, brokenhearted, but with her Lord. Matthew tells us,
57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb. (Matthew 27:57-61 NIV)
Did you notice? She is still there. Jesus’ lifeless body is laid in the tomb, Joseph has already gone home, yet Mary Magdalene will not leave. Why would she? While the rest of the town knew her as the woman who had been possessed, Jesus’ love had possessed her. Jesus didn’t remind her of her past; she was honored and loved by Jesus.
Maybe you can relate. Does your past follow you around like a stray dog that won’t go away? No matter what you try to do to gain a new start there is always somebody from your past to dig up the dirt and throw it in your face. You’ve failed your kids in the past, but you want to be a good dad now. You’ve given your life to Christ and you want a fresh start, but they keep reminding you of how you let them down. You’ve been through a broken marriage, but you don’t want to stay broken. Yet your ex-wife or ex-husband won’t let you start again. You sowed your wild oats when you were young, or maybe when you weren’t so young, and yet you want to close that chapter and live a life of integrity. Your old buddies want you to take another walk on the wild side. They say, “Oh, are you too good for us now? You weren’t too good for us when you wanted us to share our drugs with you. You weren’t too good for us when you were sleeping around. You weren’t too good for us when you were drunk out of your mind and needed a ride.” Will it ever end? Is there any hope for a new life, a fresh start, a new beginning? Mary Magdalene knows how you feel and that is why she clung to Jesus, even when He had died.
For all of us Mary’s that are here this morning you need to know that Easter has come! The Savior is alive and a new beginning is waiting for us, if we will but step out of our prison cell of insanity and sin and step into His wondrous grace. Let me tell you the story that is found in John 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. 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!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11 but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:1-16 NIV)
The same Mary Magdalene who thought that life was over is the same Mary that first saw Jesus alive! When Mary realized that her Savior was alive, then she knew that she would live as well. And so it is with me, and so it is with you. He is life! Not only eternal life, but abundant life right now for those who will trust in His resurrection power to free us from the shackles of slavery to our old life and free us from the cell of sin and death.
There is one section of John’s story that grips me like none other. It is found in verse 15-16. Listen as I read it to you.
15Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
Jesus knew her name. She heard His voice! Mary Magdalene was free! She was free! Jesus knew her better than anybody had ever known her in her life and yet He called her by name. He knew her. He loved her. The Good News for you and me this Easter is that Jesus knows us as well as He did Mary Magdalene. He knows the deepest secrets of your heart, He knows the things about you that you would like to forget, but this morning He is calling your name. The scars of brokenness, sorrow, and pain that have disfigured your heart and darkened your soul do not have to be scars that keep you imprisonedÉtoday they could be turned into scars of freedom.
In the future, from this day forward, those things that have hurt you so deeply can be reminders of the great price that was paid for your freedom. Your hurt can lead you to His healing this very morning if you will cry out to Him for your freedom.
The first step that we must take is to face the truth of who we are, sinners in need of a Savior. We must realize that like Shoshana Johnson, we are prisoners with absolutely no hope of liberating ourselves. Our only hope for the Liberator to come and free us from our captivity. We aren’t being held by the Republican Guard or a cruel boss or any other human captor, but we are being held in captivity by sin. If we will allow the Lord to reveal to us the sin that is imprisoning us then we can lay that sin at the foot of the cross knowing that Jesus can swing open the gates of captivity and set us free from the sin that seeks to destroy us.
I want to invite you to spend the next few minutes in prayer. Allow the Lord to show you the true condition of your heart and confess to Him the sin of your heart. Ask Him to forgive you, cleanse you, and set you free! Jesus has never failed to liberate those who knew about their captivity and cried out for freedom. Won’t you invite Him in?