(a sermon for April 4, 2021, Easter Sunday, based on Isaiah 25:6‑9 and Mark 16:1‑8)
It really is quite a story, isn’t it?
The whole gospel story, I mean; the Bible is in large part narrative, part of the larger story of God’s relationship with his people throughout the course of history; but I have to say that that which is encapsulated by the four Gospels…well, that’s the stuff of high drama; a tale that even before one considers its greater and deeper meaning, has all the elements of what the British call a “ripping yarn.”
Central to this story is a noble, wise and kind hero who stands opposed to a corrupt and oppressive establishment; who speaks boldly and eloquently of a wonderful and divine realm that is coming soon. Based on this truly “good news,” the hero develops a great following from amongst the people, and they begin to place all of their hope in him; and indeed, for a while great things – some might even say miraculous things – are starting to happen. The blind are having their sight restored; the sick are being healed of their diseases; and the poor, the dispossessed, all those who by worldly standards were ever on the fringes of life… suddenly they’re being welcomed in; forgiven of sin and set free. It was true; whenever the hero was near amazing, life-changing things were always taking place, and before long the crowds around him were growing so large that when the hero made his entry into the city, the event took on the air of a coronation!
But then, the dreams of his followers are shattered when the hero is brutally and unjustly murdered at the hand of the “authorities” of his time; and afterward his friends, whose spirits by now are irreparably broken, flee in fear for their own lives. The hero is dead, and the story is over…
…except it isn’t!
Just when everything seems at its darkest, just when there’s no hope left at all, the hero bursts forth from the grave, victorious and vindicated by none other than God! His followers joyfully discover that their hero is alive; and this realization instills within them new confidence and hope, and they are empowered to go boldly into the world, proclaiming his good news of salvation!
That’s the story of Easter, friends, and you can almost hear strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus” rising to a crescendo as we tell it! Because that’s our story; that’s what all our singing and shouting is all about; and it’s what we’ve all come here to celebrate this morning… it’s Easter, the Day of Resurrection, the time in which Jesus is alive and the whole gospel story comes to an end in joy and in triumph!
Or does it?
Did it not seem to you, as it did to me, that our reading for this morning didn’t really jibe with that synopsis I just offered? To begin with, Mark’s version of the story only allots a scant eight verses to the resurrection; it almost comes off sounding like a mere footnote to the rest of the gospel story. Moreover, Jesus himself doesn’t even make an appearance; and perhaps worst of all, instead of concluding with an air of joy and triumph, the whole thing ends abruptly – mid-sentence, in fact (!) – with the three women fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement. No shouts of joy and triumph to be found in this passage; in fact, there’s no shouting of any kind, as we’re told very simply by Mark that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Not exactly what we’re expecting, and certainly not what we came here this morning to hear; I mean, what an abrupt, awkward and ambiguous ending to such a spectacular story! We should note here that there is a little bit more of Mark’s gospel; but in fact most biblical scholars believe that those words were added later, to “wrap up the story,” as it were, albeit in a rather general fashion. No, most believe that Mark intended the story to end right there at verse eight, with the women running in fear. With no further appearances of the risen Lord; no comforting words of shalom unto the fear-ridden disciples hiding in the upper room; no conversations on the road to Emmaus; no breakfast of fish on the beach with Peter and the others. None of it; just this abrupt, stunned, stupefied, silent, fearful ending to an incredible story…
…which actually, when you think about it, kind of makes sense given the situation.
Some years ago there was a news story about a man who’d suddenly disappeared from his home in Ohio, and after a long and fruitless search, after eight years was declared officially dead. And of course, in the time that passed life went on; his wife and children worked through their grief; she eventually remarried, this man adopted her children as his own, and together they had more children. And then, all of a sudden, the first husband turns up alive and he returns home to Ohio! It was amazing – it was the kind of story you only see in the movies, really – and you’d have thought it would have brought forth some level of joy on the part of his family; but instead there were more questions than there were exclamations. I remember the reporters asking this woman how she was feeling about her husband’s sudden reappearance and all she could say was, “I just wish it wasn’t true. We had gotten used to him being dead.”
Resurrection, you see, isn’t all that easy a thing to deal with.
So here were these three women – “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” – who ventured out to the tomb early on that cold, dark morning so that they might perform one final act of devotion for their departed master; anointing his dead body with aloes and sweet smelling spice. Remember, these were the only ones close to Jesus who dared to do so: the rest of them were still in hiding for fear of their own lives; to say nothing of all their grief in the aftermath of everything that had happened. Despite all of this, however, these women knew that even in death there were things to be done; matters to be attended to. Just this one more thing remained: a decent burial, done according to tradition, and it would all be finished; best to get it done and over with.
So imagine what it was for them to come to the tomb and see that the stone blocking the entrance of the tomb, a stone so huge that they’d already wondered how they were possibly going to move it without help, had already been rolled back! And then, entering the tomb to investigate, to find there “a young man, dressed in a white robe” who as Mark puts it, “alarmed” them, and gives them news that’s even more alarming: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Given that kind of news, it’s no wonder at all they ran from that place in terror and amazement! To put it bluntly, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go! They’d come to pay their respects one last time to poor Jesus; to say good-bye and bring some closure to it all, because that’s what you do when somebody dies. Death is the end, after all; it’s the one great equalizer, the one thing that no one can avoid forever; death represents the ultimate defeat, and Jesus was dead! They’d seen it happen; they were there when he’d been crucified. But now, hearing this strangely heavenly messenger bring news that not only is Jesus alive, but that he’s already gone on ahead of them to Galilee; well, that was more than they could even begin to comprehend.
What were they to do with this… this incredible, inconceivable possibility that Jesus had actually… risen… risen from the dead!
You know what? I think I understand, because the truth is, I probably would have reacted in the same way: scared half out of my wits! “Go, tell his disciples and Peter,” the messenger had told them. Go and tell? Go and tell!? It’s a wonder they could move, much less speak! They were afraid; as simple as that. They were afraid… of Easter!
And that’s where Mark ends the story; with the fear, and with the women unable to say anything about what just happened to anyone. As I said before, that’s not the way we like this story to end; if this were the movies, we’d much prefer the triumphant finish, with “The End” up on the screen in bold, red letters; but once again, right now it seems like we’re still getting those fateful words we talked about getting at the end of the story last Sunday… to be continued. And that’s because there’s more to this story, you see; there’s a sequel in the making, if you will, a new story that begins with the risen Christ, going on ahead of them.
Speaking of movies, Steven Spielberg was once quoted as saying that “stories don’t have a middle and an end. They have a beginning that never stops beginning.” Well, it seems to me that this is our story, friends. For you see, at the center of our story is the truth that God, in Jesus Christ, has conquered death. God has removed the one final barrier of life and living; what Isaiah refers to as “the shroud that is cast over all peoples;” it is “the sheet spread over all the nations,” and it has been destroyed; he has “swallow[ed] up death forever!” By the resurrection of Christ Jesus, there are truly no more “dead” ends; death can no longer have a hold on us, and because of this ours is a story with no end; it’s a story – a life – that is full, abundant, eternal… and keeps on beginning afresh. Christ is risen, and the story goes on because the future is ours now and forever!
Beloved, our salvation does not come in some twisted notion that if we somehow manage to do everything we’re supposed to do in just the right way, we might just achieve righteousness before God. That part has already been done for us; by his death on the cross, Jesus already paid the price of our sin, that is, our not being able to do what’s right before God. Indeed, by his resurrection we are shown beyond any kind of doubt that we are loved and utterly cherished by God now and forever; and alleluia and Amen for that! But this does not mean that the story is over; for the world that God so loves, and certainly not for you and for me who God loves.
Once again this year all throughout the Lenten season we’ve been talking about our shared “journey to the cross” and how that journey ultimately does not end there but eventually comes to the empty tomb. But even there at the empty tomb; even now, as we are confronted with a risen Lord, it turns out that the journey is far from over. Resurrection, you see, doesn’t end the story of our discipleship. Our walk with Jesus is far from finished; on the contrary, it’s just now beginning!
That’s the thing about our reading today; that’s the thing about every telling of this wonderful, amazing, triumphant tale: in every version the disciples eventually encounter the risen Christ, and then, he sends them forth with what that little coda in Mark refers to as “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation,” what we call “the Great Commission.” And so it is for us; we come to this day and this place in Easter joy, but then we are sent out into a needful, hurting and very scared world to be disciples of our risen Savior Christ Jesus, accepting its joy and its cost. This is where the story really begins; with fears transformed, with joy made real, and lives filled with hope and promise… and triumph!
There’s an old story about the little boy who came home from Sunday School and announced that he’d just learned a new song. And when his parents asked which one, he said, “You know, the one about drums.” “About drums?” they asked. “Yes,” he insisted, “you know… Christ the Lord has rhythm today!” Well, beloved, it seems to me that that’s a fitting hymn for this wonderful day; for the risen Christ, in his victory over death, has indeed set a new pulse, a fresh beat for our lives, yours and mine. And in the resurrection, we go forth from this place today telling a story of triumph by our very lives. It’s a story that is still unfolding, even now, with lots of twists and turns yet to be revealed; but it’s a story that you and I can go boldly out into the world and tell with confidence and joy; because Christ is risen, and he has already gone on ahead to lead us forward, both now and in the glorious life to come.
So let us proclaim it today, and tomorrow, and again and again in every day that comes, beloved… Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen indeed!
Alleluia! And AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.