a sermon based upon Mark 16:1-8
Last week we heard the Easter story as told in the Gospel of Mark. Because there were longer liturgical elements and multiple songs on Easter Sunday, I reduced the sermon to fit the internet time frame. This week, I’d like us to return to that same Easter Sunday text as though we didn’t already know how it would end. I want to do so because I think that the characters on that first Easter have yet more insight for us to gain, if we don’t leave the story too quickly. We begin in the graveyard…
The women were coming to the tomb because they had accepted death as a fact of life. These are wise women. They are not in denial. They are not collapsed into a blubbering heap, like Peter (the Rock) was when we last saw him. They are not locked in their rooms in fear like the men are. They go out and face reality after Jesus’ death, to do what they could to give him a decent burial. (These are good women, far better role models for the Church in the 21st Century than those other eleven male disciples, in my opinion!)
What could the women possibly expect to see in that tomb on that morning other than the dead body of Jesus!? They had spent their Saturday evening gathering spices to embalm Jesus’ body, preoccupied so much that the much bigger problem of the immovable slab of stone had not crossed their minds until they were already on the way. (Maybe they should have recruited Peter & the guys to lend them some upper-body strength – by working together, they might have rolled the boulder aside.) What could those women possibly expect to find when they got to the tomb other than a rock that had not moved since it had been put in place on Friday!? They did not expect to be surprised at dawn on that first Easter.
“Oh, yes,” you might say, “as followers of Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry, they would have seen normal expectations reversed many times. They have experienced his miracles first hand. So, why not again be prepared to be surprised by Jesus on Easter Sunday?”
It’s true: we who have read the Gospel of Mark have been surprised quite often by unexpected developments: in Jesus’ teachings, in his healings and miracles, and in how Jesus always seemed to be able to turn the tables on his accusers and the religious authorities. In fact, Mark has often used those same three words -- phobos, exstasis, & tromos -- as the response by the crowd to Jesus’ miracles and teachings. The people were amazed -- fear came upon them; there was trembling and trauma…
But now that Jesus has (for all intents and purposes) been stopped dead in his tracks -- crucified & buried -- what is there to “wonder” about? It’s over! The journey to Jerusalem that Jesus began in Galilee, ended on a Roman Cross. Not only Jesus, but his movement had been killed. The disciples know this, and that’s why they mourn. The women know it, too, and that’s why they are bringing spices to bury him.
They expected death on that Easter morning, but they encountered life! The question I raised last Sunday asks what you believe (what I believe): Can our normal expectations of life & death be opened-up? Will we risk trusting God beyond everything that we thought possible?
Or have we become so convinced that death is the final frontier beyond which there is no life, no further possibility..? Have we become so convinced that death is the “great divide” across which no bridge may span, and hence no possibility of reversal, no exit, no return...? Have we become so convinced that “dead is dead,” that the very idea expressed by the Easter messenger -- “he is raised, he is not here, he goes before you, you will meet him again” -- leaves us (like the disciples in the story) stubbornly refusing to believe... or is there a chance that we will respond to this sudden reversal of our expectations with fear & trembling -- (yes) with ecstasy & awe -- just as we have at every miracle when we see God’s power turn the world around? What do you think? Can we be surprised by God yet one more time? Is the future “open” or is it settled “closed”?
In comparison to these women on Easter morning, I’m sure many of us feel that our faith is weaker than theirs, and we may even think that our discipleship has been more of a failure than those eleven men. (Frankly, I don’t see how any of us can do worse than their sad story, but perhaps we see in their failures something akin to our own faltering faith.)
The women we met on Easter morning were determined to bring the story of Jesus to an acceptable end -- that’s why they prepare the spices in the darkness and make their way to the tomb at the crack of dawn.
Of course, no matter how early or late they came, they knew the body would be there -- it wasn’t going anywhere! They didn’t expect to move death out of their way, but they had hoped to move the stone -- at least nudge it to the side enough to get inside for a few goodbyes. (This whole thing seems kind-of anti-climactic, don’t you think?)
It’s like an epilog tacked on to the life-story of Jesus. When they ask “who will roll away the stone for us?” I’m inclined to say: who cares!? What difference does it make now! I just want to put the book down, and get back to normal life. Following this “Jesus thing” was exciting while it lasted... but by Chapter 16, it’s over. It’s done. The end has come.
I can imagine the people in Mark’s congregation -- after a roller-coaster ride of conflict and suspense, spell-binding action and hopeful signs -- wondering all through the Gospel story: will Jesus succeed or not? Is the way that he lived (and the things that he taught) a true expression of God’s Will (and God’s Way) -- as we’ve been led to believe by Mark throughout the Gospel -- or will Jesus fail in the end… like all the other false Messiahs of Jewish history -- abandoned by God to his fate...? Will Jesus be rescued from death in the final scene, or not?
Well, it looks like failure all around.
The ending of Mark’s Gospel is like a Greek tragedy, high drama, cut short by the death of the hero. (!) Most folks hearing this story of Jesus would start getting up from their seats about now, because they knew the curtain was coming down, and they wanted to get out before the crush of the crowd made for waiting lines in the restaurants. (Just like we would have done on an ordinary Easter Sunday, I suppose, back when restaurants were open.)
But there’s still the burial scene to go, as the women make their way to the tomb... Yes, it may be just a tacked-on epilog -- like the sound-track and credits that scroll up the screen after a movie -- but it gives us (the audience) a moment to linger, to cry in private for the pathos of the tragedy, to get over that “lump in the throat” before we have to go back out into the real world. And so we pause…to collect ourselves, to reflect.
But if we actually stay in our seats and listen to Mark’s Gospel… something happens! In the very last scene, in the closing sentences, the epilog makes an amazing announcement: The hero is not in the tomb! (!) God has rolled the stone away, and raised Jesus to new life… and he goes before you, just as he had promised! So, get going, girls! Tell the others the Good News: Christ is risen, risen indeed! He goes ahead of us!
I can imagine folks half-way standing up, saying: “Huh?” “What’s that you say?” That’s not the way a tragedy ends! What’s going on here? Attention is once more riveted to the story (& they take their seats again, curious about what was going to happen), but the women -- alarmed by this sudden unexpected change -- have run away and the book is closed.(!) “Done!” (?) The story ends with uncertainty, ambiguity, possibility.
This is no way for a tragedy to end -- it breaks all the conventions, it upsets all our expectations, it leaves us hanging -- but obviously Mark thought it was a perfect way for his Gospel to end! This abrupt ending fails to satisfy us, because it leaves the future open!
Many people prefer “closure” as opposed to leaving things “open”.
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