For What?

Easter Sunday Sermon

 This Easter Sunday, or Resurrection Sunday, we turn to one of the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Each of the Gospel writers gives us a slightly different picture of the resurrection and its details. There have been some who have asked if these discrepancies invalidate the story, as if the writers made it all up. Actually, quite the opposite. Think about a trial in a courtroom. If four witnesses appeared on the stand and each told the exact same story, everyone in that courtroom would quickly assume that they collaborated together, that they concocted some story, making sure they used the same words and the same details, thinking it would strengthen their case, when in fact it proves they are false witnesses. An authentic witness like the Gospel writers shares his or her own unique perspective. What we’ll find in the Gospel of Mark is that Mark invites us to offer our perspective as well. Listen for God’s Word, beginning in Mark Chapter 16, verse 1. Read Mark 16:1-8. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Back in 1998 I had the privilege of participating in a two-week study trip to Israel. I was so excited to see the sites of these biblical times that I think I expected actually to see these sites in biblical time. Somehow in my mind I imagined that, when I got on that plane and traveled forward several time zones, I would also travel back in time, back to the first century, and see Israel the way those first disciples saw it, with dusty roads, people walking around in long, flowing tunics and sandals – the whole nine yards. But, of course, it wasn’t that way. Jerusalem advanced those two thousand years just like any other city, with paved interstates replacing dusty roads and with people walking around, not with tunics and sandals, but with cameras and tourist maps. Everywhere we went there were crowds of tourists waiting to see the same sites we were there to see. The longest line was outside the empty tomb. We waited in line for well over an hour just to take a peak inside. If you enjoy people watching as much as I do, this was primetime people watching. It was absolutely fascinating watching people’s reactions to the tomb. Some bowed their heads in prayer. Others shook their heads in disbelief. A few quietly sang a hymn with tears in their eyes. One man walked out of the tomb, turned to his wife, and said, “Well, that was a waste of time. There was nothing to see in there.” When he saw the sign marked “Empty Tomb,” I wonder what part of the word “empty” he didn’t understand…

What’s your response to the empty tomb this morning?

Today our response as a congregation is one of celebration. We’ve gathered together with family and friends, dressed in our Easter finest, to say, yes – alleluia! – there is nothing to see in there! The empty tomb is exactly that – empty! Our Savior is alive! Easter is a day of great joy for us as disciples.

Yet for those first disciples, their reaction was quite different. Instead of excitement, Mark says their response was alarm. Terror. Amazement. Silence. And fear. Then suddenly the story ends, right in the middle of a sentence. In the original Greek, the last verse ends with a preposition: “They were afraid, for…” The end. That’s it? Come on, Mark, you not only clearly failed basic grammar, but you also failed Story Telling 101. What kind of a story ends with an empty tomb and a dead guy who’s M.I.A.?

We all like cliffhanger endings – to an extent. Take, for example, your favorite TV show. My husband and I are loyal Criminal Minds watchers. All week we’ve been asking ourselves: How will the team – or we fans, for that matter – survive without our beloved Derek Morgan? Quantico fans: Will you ever find out who the traitor is? Last season’s How To Get Away With Murder: Who killed the young woman found in that first episode? And finally, House of Cards. Frank Underwood. Need I say more?

We like cliff hangers, but only when we know closure is coming – whether in the next episode of a TV show or the next chapter of a book. We like to have all of life’s dramas to end all packaged up with a pretty bow on top. The biblical writers were no different. Seeing no closure in Mark’s original ending, they would later add, not one, but two endings of their own. After all, they, along with the other Gospel writers – even Mark himself – knew the rest of the story. They knew the women eventually got over their fears. They knew they went on to tell the disciples and to meet Jesus in Galilee. So they took the liberty of finishing Mark’s story for him, assuming that’s what he probably meant to do, but perhaps he ran out of ink or got lazy or just fell asleep on the job.

But what if he didn’t? What if he intentionally finished his book the way he did? Why would Mark – whose task was to write a biography of Jesus, to proclaim his life, death, and resurrection for generations of readers to come – why would he end the story with no sign of the risen Savior and no sound from his disciples?

Let me suggest a couple of reasons. First, fear is not an unreasonable reaction. All throughout Mark’s Gospel, people are constantly responding to Jesus with fear and amazement. So why should this scene of all scenes be any different? When these women who are expecting to find Jesus’ dead body instead find an an empty tomb, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be a little shaken up – because it takes some time to deal with the resurrection. It takes a big adjustment in one’s thinking to believe that someone who was dead is now alive.

Maybe some of you here can relate. Maybe you find yourself struggling to believe, whether it’s a lifelong struggle or just something today is causing you to wonder. Many scholars have offered various proofs of the resurrection over the years. Mark gives us at least two: In the days leading up to his crucifixion, Mark tells us that the disciples deserted him, Peter denied him, and now we’re left with just a handful of faithful followers – and in the end they fail, too. And not just any followers, but women of all people! In a male-dominated culture like the first century, why would you make up a story where failure was the outcome and where women were the first to find Jesus? Such a story would only leave the door wide open to scandal – unless such a story were true, and eyewitnesses made it impossible to say otherwise.

But aside from these and other facts, there’s another perspective to consider: Even if you find it hard to believe the resurrection is true, at the very least you should want it to be true. Because if Jesus has risen, just as he told us, then that means that everything else will happen just as he told us. It means death is no longer the end. Any husband who has ever buried his wife, any mother who has ever lost a child, their grief will one day be swallowed up in God’s glory because of the hope of the resurrection. It means sickness is no longer the end. In our prayer time this morning, we shared about many loved ones who are battling cancer. One day there will be no need for cancer wards because Jesus will resurrect our bodies and make them whole. It means poverty and injustice don’t have the final say, that one day everyone will sit together at a heavenly banquet table that surpasses even the greatest Easter lunch we can imagine.

And perhaps especially important for us to remember this week: It means the violence in Brussels, Turkey, in our own country, and throughout the world – no violence, no evil will ultimately win – because the Prince of Peace sits on the throne.

But there’s more still: The truth of Jesus’ resurrection means that nothing in your story or mine is the end.

The question that dominated the women’s conversation that first Easter morning was, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” It’s a question that speaks to a mindset where miracles are impossible, hope is nothing more than wishful thinking, and obstacles are too heavy to move. But in an instant, when Jesus conquered death, he also conquered that question, for there is no longer any stone in our lives that he can’t roll away.

Easter assures us that all the mistakes we’ve made, all of our failures, all the times we’ve wondered if God could possibly still love us, they’re all dead and buried – because the Savior lives. All the times we’ve turned our backs on God or failed to be faithful – they are not the final chapter of our lives. Easter is not only about Jesus’ victory over the grave, but about his victory over any experience that would seek to rob us of life on this side of the grave.

In fact, the way that we know that our story has no end is because Mark’s story has no end. That’s the second reason I believe Mark finishes his Gospel the way he does. Rather than putting down his pen, he hands it to us and says, “Here. The pen’s in your hands. You write the next chapter.”

So what chapter will you and I write today?

I believe we have three options. We can say no. We can refuse to pick up the pen because life has taught us that either Jesus’ story, our story, or both are nothing more than dead ends. If that’s where you are today, may I invite you to try a little exercise: We said earlier that Mark’s Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence. Try completing the sentence for yourself: “I am afraid for…” Fill in the blank. What’s your greatest fear? Then ask yourself: What would it take for you to trust that Christ could roll away that stone today and for you to take one step closer to him this week? After all, even those first disciples eventually moved past their fears, for they knew there is a big difference between being afraid and choosing to life the rest of our lives in fear.

Or we can say yes. Many of us have said yes, but perhaps we still keep Jesus at an arm’s length. Like a vaccine, we want just enough of the gospel to keep us safe, but not enough to make us contagious. For those of us who say yes, I’d encourage us to try the same exercise by asking ourselves: What fears hold me back from more fully following Jesus? Where do I find myself moving forward in my relationship with him, and where do I find myself coasting? The awkward truth about coasting, as any bicycle can teach us, is that the only way to coast is downhill.

But there’s a third option, one that transcends both the “yes” and the “no,” and it is best summarized in the words of Duke Divinity School professor and author Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas writes: “The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if, in fact, Jesus has not been raised.”

See, when Mark hands us the pen, he doesn’t do so simply so we can check a box – yes or no – as to whether we believe. He doesn’t do so just so we can write the stories of our individual lives in Christ. Mark hands us the pen so that we can re-write the world’s story by the power of the resurrection.

It does take some time to deal with the resurrection. In fact, it takes a lifetime – because Jesus calls us, not just to believe the resurrection, but to live it. To live it by going to those places of death and grief, those places of sickness and poverty and injustice and violence. To go to any place that wreaks of death and decay and declare that the tomb is empty – by daring to live lives that make no sense, save that the Savior lives.

That’s the charge the gospel gives us. It also gives us a promise – the promise that Jesus always goes before us, calling us to meet him in those places, with the assurance that we, too, will see him – just as he told us. Thanks be to God.

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