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The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010. The text for this week’s message was Mark 16:1-7.
In the previous weeks leading up to Easter, we’ve talked a lot about how the Christian faith is often like a journey. There’s a definite beginning. You don’t just look around one day and realize that you are a Christian. It’s an intentional decision that you make which flows from the recognition that Jesus Christ is Lord and has been raised from the dead. Along the way, we come across important times in our lives when we have to decide if we are going to continue following Jesus, or if we are going to go our own way.
The Christian journey is a very interesting one because it is one that actually begins with an ending. Let me explain that a little. When we read through the gospels, we are reading pieces of literature that were written simply because what happened at the end. It’s not like the disciples were writing their accounts as they traveled alongside Jesus. Rarely do we realize the historic times that we live in while we are living in them.
In this case, in the case of the Christian journey, the reason why we have the gospels isn’t because the writers were documenting history as it was happening. No, the reason we have the gospels is because of what happened at the end. What we may not realize is that there were a lot of people in the first century that claimed to be the Messiah. But each and every time, when the leader was killed, his followers disbanded, and they were never heard from again.
And that’s what would have happened to the disciples of Jesus had not something significant taken place. The proclamation of the Christian faith is that Jesus lives. It’s not that Jesus lives on in his teachings. It’s not that Jesus’ ideals are passed on through his disciples and his memory continues. The proclamation is that he lives. And that proclamation, no matter how unbelievable it may be in our experience, is the reason why the gospels are written in the first place.
Consequently, the reason why we are here is that same proclamation: He lives! If the resurrection never happened, the disciples would have gone back to their boats, and we would never even know their names. But something did happened on that morning. And because something happened on that morning, four gospels were written. Because something happened that morning, the disciples were scattered all over the known world sharing this message of a resurrected Jesus. Because something happened that morning, somewhere, someone shared the message with you, and that’s why you are here this morning.
It is a familiar story, even for those who have never, or rarely, darkened the door of a church. So, if I just stood up here this morning and told you about the resurrection, you would yawn, maybe nod off because you’ve heard the story. It’s not an unfamiliar message. Hearing the message isn’t typically the problem. For many, the problem comes in believing the message. You probably think that you have heard the message in every way possible, but I can almost guarantee you that you haven’t heard it the way the Mark tells it.
Because as important and central as the resurrection is for the writing of the gospels and for the beginnings and growth of the Christian church throughout the centuries, Mark doesn’t really give us a whole lot of details about it. The most important event in human history, and Mark spends just seven verses on it. The resurrection is why the gospel was written, and it is the reason why you are sitting here this morning, and yet, Mark gives us nothing. Why is that? Why do we have so little information from Mark’s gospel about the resurrection?
I really struggled with what gospel text to use this morning because all the gospel writers have something important to tell us about the resurrection. Two months ago, I was going to use the account found in John. A week ago, I changed my mind and decided to pull from Luke. But this week, due in part to preparing for last Tuesday’s Bible study. I couldn’t help but rest in the Mark passage. This passage has torn me up this week. And it is a difficult passage because Mark leaves us in a very odd place. Mark stops where the other gospels take off. Mark doesn’t give us a lot of details. In fact, he hardly gives us any details.
Pull out a pew Bible if you’d like and look at the passage. Mark doesn’t give us the disciples in his final words. And if you look a little closer, you’ll notice that he doesn’t actually give us the presence of the risen Jesus. Now, it’s not surprising that Mark doesn’t give us a lot of details because it is the shortest of the four gospels. But to not even have Jesus or the disciples on the scene at the resurrection? It seems odd, but if we follow the story of Mark from 1:1 until now, it’s really not surprising. So, that’s where I would like to start this morning, with Mark 1:1 and really work through the entire gospel. Okay, not really, I’m just pulling your leg there.
One thing that is clear as we read through the gospel of Mark is that Mark is very concerned with discipleship. When we read Mark, he wants us to put ourselves in the middle of the story. There are a lot of stories in Mark that maybe don’t have the resolution that we are looking for, and that’s exactly what he wants to do. He doesn’t want to tell us what to believe, but he wants us to make the decision as to whether or not we are going to follow Jesus. When we are in the middle of the story, we don’t get resolution; we get left with decisions that have to be made. And that’s where he leaves us in his account of the resurrection.
What Mark does is very simple. He gives us some very basic information about what happened, and then just walks away. Mark’s story of the resurrection begins in a similar fashion to the other gospels. The women were coming to the tomb early in the morning to anoint Jesus’ body. They couldn’t do it the day of the crucifixion because it was getting dark and the Sabbath began at sundown. They couldn’t do it the next day because it was the Sabbath, and you couldn’t work on the Sabbath. So now, on the third day, they go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.
There is one constant throughout the last couple chapters of Mark’s gospel – the women. We are told that they stood at a distance while Jesus died. They saw where Joseph of Arimathea laid the body. And now, on the morning of the resurrection, the women are present again. Having the women present is actually very important for Mark’s audience. According to Jewish law, a woman’s testimony was not sufficient evidence in legal proceedings. In fact, early critics of the church pointed to the fact that women were the first witnesses as a reason to not believe the story. However, if we think about it, just the opposite is true.
If the disciples were going to make up a story that they would expect people to believe, they would have left out the fact that the women were the first ones to see the empty tomb for the simple reason that their testimony would not have been taken seriously. If you are going to make up a story, you are going to say something that makes you look good, and pointing to women as the first witnesses of the empty tomb would not make the disciples look all that good. In fact, throughout the gospel, there are several instances where the disciples don’t look very good. The only reason for the disciples to say that the women were the first to see the empty tomb was because it was the truth. They have nothing to gain by saying it, so why would they say it if it wasn’t the truth?
As the women are walking up, the thought occurs to them, “Who will roll away the stone from the tomb?” The way the tomb was set up, there was an opening cut into the rock that would have led to the burial chamber, and a large stone would have been placed in front of the entrance. Sometimes this stone would be at the base of a slight incline, which would make it very difficult to move. And in this case, as Mark tells us, the stone was very large. But just as soon as they say it, they look up and notice that the stone has already been rolled away.
I can imagine that they already would have been on their guard, having seen that the stone was rolled back, but when they enter the tomb, they don’t see what they expected, and they do see something they wouldn’t have expected. Inside the tomb, there is no body, but a young man dressed in a white robe. He looks up at them and says something that far exceeds anything they ever could have imagined. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who has been crucified. He has risen. He is not here.” And with those short phrases, the world was changed. That’s the resurrection story in Mark.
In the other gospels, we have so much more detail. In Matthew, there’s the great earthquake because an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and rolled back the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb. The guards who have been posted at the tomb report back to the chief priests what happened, and they are paid off to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body in the night while they slept. And then we are charged with the Great Commission to go make disciples. That’s how a gospel should end, right?
What about Luke? In Luke, we have one of the criminals being crucified with Jesus, who turns to Jesus, asks Jesus to remember him when he is in his kingdom and Jesus tells him that he will be in Paradise. It’s an awesome story of redemption. When the women come to anoint Jesus’ body, they are met by two men in dazzling clothing who tell them of the resurrection. Shortly after that, two of Jesus’ disciples are on their way to the town of Emmaus when Jesus joins them. They don’t know it’s him until he breaks bread with them, their eyes are opened and he disappears. And then he appears to the disciples. Luke doesn’t say much about the Great Commission, but at least he writes another book, the book of Acts, to tell us what happens next.
At the cross, John gives us the touching story of Jesus entrusting the care of his mother to the writer himself. Mary goes to the tomb, finds it empty and asks the gardner what they did with the body only to find out that she was talking to Jesus. Peter and John hear the news from Mary and race to find an empty tomb. Jesus appears to the disciples in the middle of a locked room, and then comes back to show himself to Thomas, who I think gets a bad rap sometimes because he is just saying what the rest of us are thinking.
But we don’t get any of those stories in Mark’s gospel. Mark has the shortest, and most unsatisfying, resurrection story of all the gospels. And I absolutely love it. Again, to recap, Mark’s resurrection story – “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. Tell Peter and the disciples to meet him in Galilee.” Boom. Done. Six phrases. That’s it. That’s all we get from Mark. Just this open-ended, what happens next, we don’t know, kind of ending. That’s not an ending, that’s a beginning.
It reminds me of the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. At the end of the movie, he is at the crossroads, literally. He pulls over, gets out of his truck and starts looking at the map. Then he just walks out to the middle of the road, looks in all the directions, and we don’t know what happens next. That’s exactly where Mark leaves us – standing at the crossroads having to decide where we are going to go next.
Mark even brings the abrupt stop out in his grammar. In Greek, there’s not as much concern over word order as there is in the English language. Often times, the way a word is constructed tells us the important grammatical points that we need to know, and the word order serves other purposes. In the way most English translations put it, you would think that the Greek sentence ends with “they were afraid.” But it’s not like that in the Greek. If we translate verse 8 in the word order as it appears, it would end like this: “and they said nothing to no one (before the English majors cringe, double negatives are all right in Greek, they are used for emphasis, anyway); and they said nothing to no one, they were fearing, for…” Then Mark drops his pen and walks away. That’s it. It feels incomplete, and the final picture that we are left with is completely unexpected.
Our final picture in the gospel of Mark is simply a call to follow Jesus to Galilee. If all we had was Mark, we wouldn’t know what happened next. Did the women relay the message to Peter and the disciples? Did Peter and the disciples go on to Galilee to meet Jesus? We don’t know. We want to know, but it is really unsatisfying. And that is exactly where Mark wants to leave us.
Now, for those who still have your Bible open and are wondering why I’m saying that this is how Mark ends his gospel when there are 12 more verses sitting right there, let me give you an explanation. If you look at the Gospel of Mark, you’ll notice that there actually is a little bit more, verses 9-20, but in the earliest manuscripts that we have of the Greek version of Mark, those verses don’t exist. The 4th century Christian historian Eusebius testified that in his day, the most accurate copies of the gospel ended at what we call verse 8. Somewhere along the way, somebody wasn’t satisfied with the ending of Mark and tried to round it out. But the truth is, the gospel ends exactly where Mark wants it to end. He is trying to force us to make a decision.
By ending the gospel in verse 8, Mark effectively gives us the information, then walks off the stage. And look where he leaves us. If he wants us to put ourselves in the midst of the story from the very beginning, then at the end of the story he is also going to want us to decide whether or not we are going to follow the instructions to go up to Galilee where Jesus is waiting.
If Mark gave us the rest of the story, we wouldn’t be faced with such an important decision. We could put a bow on the gospel and call it done. But the way he leaves it, we can’t do that.
He wants to leave us in a position of having to decide if we are going to follow Jesus into Galilee, even though we haven’t seen the risen Christ; even though we don’t know who this young man in white is; even though it goes against all of our expectations and experience to hear that a dead man is now alive.
That’s where we sit today. I think it’s probably fair to say that none of us here has physically seen the risen Jesus. But according to Mark, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not you are going to make the decision to follow the instructions of this young man in white to meet Jesus in Galilee. Whether we like it or not, we have to decide where we are headed. The way Mark writes his gospel is to make us a part of the story, and indeed we are.
We are a part of this story, and we have to decide. Do follow Jesus, even though we haven’t seen him? Or do we just write it off and go back to our lives as if he was never there in the first place? Ironically enough, Mark’s ending is just the beginning. It is the beginning of a movement that will shake the foundations of the world to its very core.
Beginning next week, we’ll be starting a three part series entitled “Seismic Shift.” A seismic shift is something that happens in the earth that causes drastic changes. We are going to look at what happened in the aftermath of the resurrection. We are going to see how the world was changed. And it all starts right here. Because, again, what we see here, at the close of the Gospel of Mark, is not an ending, but a beginning.
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