The past few weeks, during the season we call Lent, we’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Mark and through Jesus’ last week. Today we turn to the last chapter of Mark and to the first day of a new week, a day that changed every day and every week ever since. Listen for God’s Word from Mark Chapter 16.
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 tour of Israel. I was so excited to see the sites of biblical times that I think I actually expected to see them in biblical times. 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 and with 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 dirt 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 quick peek inside. If you like 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, “(Harumph) 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 – in person and virtually – 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 today.
Yet for those first disciples, their reaction was quite different. Instead of joy, 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 101, 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 instance, your favorite show on Netflix. How many of us have binge-watched a series on Netflix this past year? You’ve probably binged more than one, right? Why is that? Well, one reason is, of course, that we’ve been in a pandemic. What else did you have to do? But beyond that, TV producers know we like cliff hangers. That’s how they hook us. You start an episode, it ends with a cliff hanger, you think, “OK, I have to find out what happens next,” so you say, “Just one more episode,” and the next thing you know you’ve watched the full series.
We all 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 life’s dramas resolve themselves all packaged up nice and neat with a pretty bow on top, and preferably within a 60-minute segment or less.
Even when it comes to the Bible.
I’ve heard some say they like Mark’s account of the resurrection the least of all four gospels because, unlike the other gospels, Mark doesn’t give us much of a conclusion. Mark’s account is actually my favorite – because, like Mark, life often has more questions than answers. Like Mark, life often throws us more plot twists than predictable outcomes.
Mark helps us consider: What do you do when life goes off script?
Now, if you have a Bible or Bible app open, you might think, “Wait…the story does continue beyond what we just read, and it does have a nice conclusion.” Verses 9-20 were not part of the original ending. The biblical writers were no different than any of us who don’t like unfinished business. Seeing no closure in Mark’s original ending, they would later add, not one, but two endings of their own. They, along with the other gospel writers – including 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 Peter and to meet Jesus in Galilee. So they took the liberty of finishing Mark’s gospel for him, assuming that’s probably what Mark meant to do, but…perhaps he ran out of ink…or got lazy…or fell asleep on the job…
But what if he didn’t?
What if Mark intentionally finished his book the way he did? Why would Mark – whose goal was to write a biography of Jesus, to proclaim his life, death, and resurrection to generations of readers to come – why would he end the story with no sign of the risen Savior and no sound from the 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. Why should this scene – of all scenes – be any different? When these women are expecting to find Jesus’ body and instead find an empty tomb, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be a little shaken up.
It takes some time to deal with the resurrection. It takes a big adjustment in one’s thinking to believe that someone who once was dead is now alive.
Maybe some of us can relate. Maybe you find yourself struggling to believe, whether it’s a lifelong struggle or just something today is causing you to wonder: Could it really be true?
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 Jesus, 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, if you were trying to write a book to convince people of the good news, why would you make up a story where failure was the outcome and where women were the first to discover the empty tomb? 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 also happen just as he told us.
It means death is no longer the end. Any wife who has ever buried her husband, any parent who has ever lost a child…anyone who has lost a loved one to COVID this year…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. One day there will be no need for overcrowded hospitals or quarantines or vaccines because Jesus will resurrect our bodies and make them whole.
It means poverty and injustice do not have the final say. All the hatred and racial injustice we’ve witnessed in our nation or maybe experienced personally ourselves? One day God will turn all of that on its head. One day people of all nations and all races will sit together at a heavenly banquet table that surpasses even the greatest Easter lunch we can ever imagine.
It means violence won’t have the last word. One day there’ll be no more mass shootings. No war or rumors of war abroad or at home, or even in your own home. If, as Isaiah says in Chapter 11, God is able to cause natural enemies like a lion and a lamb to live peaceably together, then surely God can bring peace between unnatural enemies like two warring nations, two divided races, two fighting spouses or siblings, two fighting parents and a child.
And not just a temporary ceasefire kind of peace – that’s the kind of peace that the world gives. Jesus says, “I do not give as the world gives.” His peace is a peace that passes all understanding. If Jesus rose from the dead just as he said he did, then he is able to bring that kind of peace just as he said he would – and is bringing – even now.
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?” There have been some who’ve said that question shows their lack of faith. How many times did Jesus tell them he would rise again on the third day? Yet they still didn’t believe. Instead, they asked: Who will roll away the stone for us?
Maybe their question did show a lack of faith. But as we said earlier, if you’d never seen someone rise from the dead, if you’d expected to find a dead body to anoint, and you knew there’d be a stone at the entrance of the tomb, who of us wouldn’t ask, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”
It’s a question that spoke to their reality, and it’s a question that speaks to our reality: “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 overcome.
But in an instant, when Jesus conquered death, he also conquered that question once and for all. There is no longer any stone in our lives that he can’t roll away.
Easter assures us that none of the mistakes we’ve made have the final say. All 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 to God or to someone else, they are not the final chapter.
Disgrace will not have the final word in our lives. Grace will.
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 we know that our story isn’t finished…is because Mark’s story wasn’t finished. That’s the second reason I believe Mark ended his gospel the way he did. Rather than putting down his pen, Mark hands the pen to us and says, “Here. The pen is 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 or our story or both are nothing more than dead ends. If that’s where you find yourself today, allow me to 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 yourself: “I am afraid for…” Fill in the blank. What’s your greatest fear? Then ask yourself: What would it take for me to trust that Jesus could roll away that stone of fear in my life? What would it take for me to live more by faith and less by fear?
After all, even those first disciples eventually moved past their fears – because they knew there’s a big difference between being afraid and choosing to live the rest of your life 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 Jesus to keep us safe, but not enough to make us contagious. For those of us who have said yes, I encourage us to try the same exercise by asking: What fears keep me from fully trusting and following Jesus? Where do I find myself moving forward in my relationship with God, and where do I find myself just coasting?
Because there’s an awkward truth about coasting. As any bicycle can teach us, the only way to coast is downhill.
But there’s a third option, one that transcends both the “yes” and the “no.” That third option is best summarized in the words of Duke Divinity School professor and author Stanley Hauerwas. He 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 hand us the pen just so we can rewrite 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.
Scripture tells us that the same power of the Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead now lives in us. That’s the great and terrifying comfort of the resurrection. Easter assures us, not only of Jesus’ victory over the grave, but of his victory over anything that would seek to rob us of life on this side of the grave. Easter also challenges us: What will we do with the new life and new power we’ve been given today?
It does take some time to deal with the resurrection. In fact, it takes a lifetime. Jesus calls us, not just to believe in 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 in our community, in our world, in our church, any place in our own homes or in our own lives. To go to any place that wreaks of death and decay and hopelessness and to declare that the tomb is empty – there is hope to be found – by daring to live lives that make no sense…save that the Savior lives.
That’s the charge that 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.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, you once told someone who came to you, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” That person responded, “I believe; help my unbelief!” So we would pray the same: “We believe; help our unbelief.” Help us to believe. Help us to live what we believe. And by our living may the world come to believe in you. Through your powerful name we pray, Amen.