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Rev. Amy Butler
I’ll bet it felt a little like sleep-walking, or, maybe like walking through water with heavy weights strapped to your hands and feet. You know how it is when you’ve been through something so emotional that you’re almost numb?
The Sabbath was over, the day of rest and worship, and three of the women who had followed Jesus for years and who had walked with him all the way to the cross and supervised his burial were up early to return to the tomb to finish their work. The process of embalming a body was time-intensive and involved the use of large amounts of oil and spices; it was a big job.
So, despite their mind-numbing grief and desperately tired bodies, they got up before the dawn on the first day of the week and made their way up to the tomb where they’d left Jesus’ body.
I can only imagine the thoughts going through their heads as they walked toward the tomb. What would they find? How would they move the stone? How could they face the body of their friend Jesus?
If you’ve ever experienced grief you will know that heavy feeling, almost a feeling of disbelief (this cannot be happening to me!) and you will know that what you do is wake up the next day, like they did, take one foot and put it in front of the other, keep doing what you have to do. Period.
But their eyes must have been raw from the crying. The desperation and disbelief must have engulfed them . . . they’d thought, they’d thought, they’d thought . . . he was the one.
They had believed with every ounce of who they were that he was Messiah.
But Messiah doesn’t die.
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Messiah does not have a human body that needs embalming, that needs a tomb. And so, this errand, this situation in which they found themselves that morning . . . well, it was unbelievable.
If they’d given it any thought they must have been worried about what they’d find at the tomb. They were not stupid; they knew the Romans and the Sanhedrin were aware of the power of a martyr to galvanize the people. It really should not have surprised them that something had happened during the hush of the Sabbath. But their grief translated to surprise nevertheless; they were not ready for what they saw. The huge stone had been rolled away; the tomb seemed empty to them.
They were scared before—they’d been scared for some time now, actually. So what was a little more fear? They peered around the corner into the tomb and saw that, while his broken and lifeless body was not there where they’d left it on Friday, there was someone there—a young man wearing a white robe, the Gospel of Mark tells us. He could see they were scared and he told them not to be afraid.
After everything they’d just lived through pretty much the only thing they COULD feel was afraid. Afraid of the government; afraid of the Jewish leadership; afraid of each other; afraid of the future; afraid of this strange man wearing a white robe.
And Mark’s Gospel tells us that the man said to them, “Jesus has risen. He is not here” (v. 6). Well, the he is not here part was pretty obvious—the stone slab where they’d laid him was empty. But, he is risen? Totally unbelievable.
So they turned away and left because, our Gospel lesson tells us, they were afraid.
Let me ask you, if you were going to set out to prove something that seemed totally and utterly unbelievable, what would you do?
The writer of Mark’s Gospel had that overwhelming task, that of telling a dramatic story that was unbelievable in every sense of the word from start to finish. The grief and pain, the political intrigue, the deceit and betrayal, the broken promises and shattered dreams, the angels, the stone, the crucified savior . . . arisen?
Well, whatever it is that one should do to tell this unbelievable story so folks could believe it, the Gospel of Mark does not do it. Here we are on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and Mark’s gospel leaves out some essential points of the story.
If you have a Bible you can turn in your Bible to Mark chapter 16 or check the text in your bulletin and notice that we read through verse 8. In most Bibles the Gospel of Mark continues through verse 20, and this section of the text is commonly known as the “longer ending of Mark”. Almost every scholar on the planet would assert that these verses, verses 9-20, were added later. You can tell because most of the earliest manuscripts do not have this section of the text included, and the language and style of writing is vastly different than the rest of Mark’s Gospel.
This means, of course, that the original text of the entire book recounting the life of Jesus of Nazareth and telling of his time on earth, his death and his resurrection from the dead likely ended with verse 8, which reads: “They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid” (v. 8).
No wonder someone went back and added a few things in!
Mark forgot a couple essentials. Things like, an appearance of Jesus to Mary near the tomb (you’ll read that in the Gospel of John) or the enthusiastic rush of the women and Peter and John to run and tell everyone what the angels said, that Jesus was alive (you’ll read that in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels). Mark doesn’t even add in post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to underscore the fact that they had hard proof of Jesus’ resurrection (that’s in the longer ending of Mark’s gospel).
Nope, here in Mark there’s one little guy in a white robe who says he’s risen, and the women did NOT run to tell everyone what they now knew. They didn’t tell anyone, because they were afraid.
Of course they were afraid!
Because everything they’d been through was totally and completely overwhelming, and because what they’d seen and heard was, frankly, unbelievable.
What was Mark thinking? All along he’s been telling the story of Jesus with such enthusiasm. Remember, he’s the one who repeatedly uses the words, “immediately” and “again” to convey a sense of urgency, to propel the story forward. There is nothing static about Mark’s account of Jesus’ life; it’s all racing toward the end! He tells the story of Jesus with an enthusiasm that is sure to catch the attention of anyone reading, to make you want to, at least, tag along and see where this might take us.
But the very end of his Gospel reads: “They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid” (v. 8).
A friend was telling me a story the other day about a composer. Apparently this composer was a man who created music on the piano, and he worked late into the night on his compositions. Every night he was compelled to work until he could come to a logical stopping place—the end of a movement or the conclusion of a creation. And because he worked so hard to bring closure to his work he often spent the whole night working and slept well into the next day.
This habit drove his wife completely crazy.
She would prefer he work on a schedule closer to that of the rest of the world; it was hard for her to run the house, manage the children, cook and clean when she had to work around his sleeping form until mid afternoon most days.
The problem was that this man seemed hard-wired to maintain this sleeping pattern; he just could not calm down for the night until he reached a logical stopping place in his work. No matter what she did his wife could not get him to change his sleeping schedule. Alarm clocks did not work; letting the kids run riot would not work; repairs in the house, the washing machine running . . . nothing seemed to be able to get him to go to bed at a decent hour and get up to begin work with the rest of the world.
One day as she was slugging a full laundry basket through the living room his wife glanced toward the piano, stacked with the tools of her husband’s work, pencils strewn around unfinished scores in piles. He was upstairs sleeping. The wife noticed off to the side a piece of music and suddenly had a thought.
The thing that kept her husband awake all night was the compulsion to finish a piece, right? She sat down at the keyboard and played the music. She played and played and played until the very last note (KEVIN PLAY EXCEPT THE LAST NOTE). . . which she did not play then she went back to her laundry.
Sure enough, a few minutes later she heard her husband clomping down the stairs, rushing to the piano and triumphantly playing that very last note (KEVIN PLAY THE LAST NOTE VERY DRAMATICALLY). He couldn’t sleep until it was finished!
Every morning from that day forward, before she began her morning chores, the composer’s wife would pull the bench up to the piano and play for awhile—enough to perk his sleeping ears up—and then she’d get up from the piano without playing that final note. Problem solved.
Why would Mark write such a compelling account of the life and ministry of Jesus and end in such a way that leaves us hanging? Why wouldn’t he detail like the other gospels every appearance of Jesus, every expression of faith by his followers, every ounce of proof that the unbelievable actually happened?
We need all the help we can get to believe that this man Jesus died . . . dead and crucified, spirit given up and gone, dead, dead, dead, just like we die, and then defied the grave and rose again.
But the way Mark leaves things, well, it’s not that easy. We want to shake him, “Help us, Mark, because this is just so unbelievable!!”
On this, the most triumphant day of our faith, the day in which we embrace what we believe to be a divine conquest over death and pain, I think it might be worth it to consider that perhaps Mark intended to end there.
Perhaps a trailing, open end, with what we know was certainly true—that Jesus’ followers were so desperately afraid for their lives, so confused and so bewildered by this turn of events that they ran away—is really the BEST way to end the story.
Because that wasn’t the end.
If that early morning 2000 years ago was the end, what we would have here is a very nice story about a great man who challenged a political system, loved and healed people and rose from the dead in a way that defied the laws of nature as we know them. What we would have would be a nice fairytale to tell our children at bedtime, a lovely little folktale to use when teaching culture and tradition. What we would have would be a static, encapsulated piece of historical lore that could be pulled out once a year, dusted off and read one more time, then carefully tucked away until next time.
Mark knew, you see, that this was not the end of the story. In fact, in order for it to be believable at all, this better had be . . . just the beginning.
The only way those fearful followers believed . . . the only way they came to finally understand that their friend Jesus was, in actual fact, who he said he was, the only way the unbelievable became real to them was . . . by allowing the story to reach its way into their lives until it changed them . . . until they were absolutely and positively compelled to finish the story for themselves, with their very lives.
And today, so far away from the events of the Gospel of Mark, I’m afraid the only way we’re going to be able to believe the unbelievable is just the same.
We’re going to have to finish the story ourselves.
What difference does the risen Christ make in your life? This is not about new clothes for Easter or ham or Easter eggs. This is not about lilies or candles or even beautiful music. This is about the fact that life is hard, that death and pain and uncertainty and fear, injustice and war are tangibly here. Right here, part of our lives all the time. What good is it to go around once a year retelling a fairytale if it doesn’t mean anything? What good is it to preach a story that is just downright unbelievable?
Well, let me tell you. We’re not here because we want to recount every post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, to try to bring back to life the accounts of those first disciples. We’re not here to try to image a Galilean man in rough burlap robes and rustic sandals making his way into our sanctuary. We’re not here to uncover archeological evidence of resurrection.
We’re here because we’re human and we hurt; because we want hope for our lives; because we believe, we know, that to finish this story means to allow the resurrected Christ to enter our lives, transform our pain and our fear, and give us new life, relationship with God.
We’re here because in our humanity we have turned from the tomb in utter defeat and crippling fear and, despite that, have the end of this story to tell. We’re here because we have seen the living power of the resurrected Christ in our lives and in our world, and what was once so strangely unbelievable has now become an urgent proclamation, not of a dusty ancient text, but of our immediate, 21 st Century lives.
In fact, maybe Mark had it right. We’re a little like the women at the tomb that morning. We’ve heard the message . . . he is not here, he is risen! We feel the compulsion to look around at each other in disbelief—how can this be?
But that’s okay, because what happens next is the real power of the Easter story. When we turn and leave this place, will the risen Savior take up residence in our hearts, shaping, changing, renewing, transforming? You see? Christ is risen; the story continues.
Something happened after that morning at the tomb. The women left, the text says, too scared to say anything to anyone. But in less than 50 years the entire world had been transformed by the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. His radical mandate to love each other, his offer of direct connection to God, the healing grace of his death and resurrection changed the women at the tomb . . . and changed the world, because those women had the courage to finish the story.
And it didn’t stop there because the story continues. The story of new life and relationship with God is a story that is lived out over and over again in my life, in your life, in the lives of people all over this world who believe so much that death is not the end, that there is more to this story, and that it is our job to gather our wits about us, our hopes and dreams, our fears and failures, and turn from this incredible sight to live out the ending . . . that death is not the final word and that we have new life in Christ.
“He has risen. He is not here,” the man said, but that was only the beginning of the story.
Now it’s our opportunity to turn from the empty tomb, maybe fearful and maybe unsure, and allow the power of the resurrected Christ to enter our lives and transform them, until we are absolutely, positively compelled to finish the story . . . we can’t rest until the message of Jesus changes us and changes our world.
What an unbelievable story. It began early that morning when three women, exhausted and grief-filled, made their way to the tomb. It began there, but here’s the most unbelievable thing of all . . . the end is ours to live.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Amy Butler. Used by permission.