April 8, 2012
William G. Carter
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [the body of Jesus]. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The storyteller warned us this was coming. Just four weeks ago, Dennis Dewey was here. He is a Presbyterian minister who tells the whole story of the Gospel of Mark. Dennis knows the story by heart. With dramatic flair, he cast out the demons, fed the multitudes, and confronted the hypocrites. He portrayed Jesus as a strong man with a mission. And the most amazing thing is how the story ends.
Jesus dies alone on the cross. He is buried in a borrowed tomb. Three women decide rather impulsively to pay their respects. His death had come abruptly, and with the Passover holiday, there was no way to embalm the body. On the way, it occurs to them: who is going to move the stone? When they arrive, it has already been moved. And there is a stranger there, a man in white, seated and making some wild claim that Jesus was alive. “He’s ahead of you,” said the man in white, “gone ahead to Galilee, and you will see him there.”
Here’s how Dennis told the next line. He said, "So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and astonishment had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." With that, he ran out of the room. He didn’t come back. The crowd sat in bewildered silence. Finally I stood up over here and said, “Maybe that’s it.”
Now, we are here on Easter Sunday, so you know there had to be more. Mark ends his manuscript by saying, “The women said nothing,” but they must have eventually said something, because here you are. There must have been more to the story, more that was never written down. Easter according to the Gospel of Mark does not conclude with all the loose ends tied down.
The man in white says, “You shall see him in Galilee,” but we never hear if those women ever saw him. He announced that Jesus went on ahead of them, but there is no record of him slowing down and letting them catch up. On Easter, all they have is an empty tomb and unfinished promise. The sheer shock of it provokes them to run, to run away fast. Raw emotion closes down their vocal cords. They run off somewhere, we don’t know where, terrified, speechless, amazed, and afraid. Welcome to Easter Sunday, according to the Gospel of Mark.
Now, the other Gospel writers were not happy with this ending. They continued the story and took it a good bit further. Matthew says Jesus met the women as they ran away and said, “How do you do?” Luke says they saw him, too, and hurried to tell the men folk – they thought it an idle tale until Jesus appeared in their hiding place and asked if they had anything to meet. John says Jesus kept appearing, first to Mary, then to the disciples, then Doubting Thomas, and then beside the sea. But Mark stops short of any of this. He concludes with the women shaken and silent, with all of us wondering what happens next.
The church that followed Mark was not happy with that ending. If you know about the footnotes in the text, there are at least two or three other endings tacked on to the Gospel of Mark. They sound like the other stories – and we can guess what they are: pious attempts to finish off a story that is unfinished. Easter is unfinished. Something happened inside the tomb of Jesus and it is still going on. That’s what Mark wants us to know about Easter. It is the same message that he has proclaimed from his opening words: God is on the loose.
This is his central affirmation of faith. God did not stay safely sequestered in heaven. On the very first day that Jesus appears, God rips open the sky and spills down on top of him. And then God hurls Jesus into the wild places, the very dominion where the evil spirits hide, and Jesus does battle with them from day one.
God refuses to stay hidden in a dusty temple. Jesus goes into a synagogue to teach and heal, but then goes into a lady’s house to cure what ails here, and then goes into the open country to purify an excluded leper that the temple would not touch. Do you know what that means? It means God makes house calls. God-in-Christ where people are bruised and wounded and have the greatest needs.
Jesus is God’s secret agent. He comes to heal and instruct. He goes into the homes of the holy people but he does not stay there. He eats at the tables of the wealthy who are impressed with his power, but immediately he goes to share bread and fish with those who have nothing. You can’t keep him nailed down. He is God on the move, God on the loose. If anybody knows the story, they know he’s not going to stay dead. He’s not going to stay in a stone-cold grave. Jesus is not going to cash it in, play it safe, or keep it cool.
Just to score the point, at the moment where Jesus is breathing his last breath on the cross, the Gospel of Mark takes us to the deep center of the Jerusalem temple. There is a curtain there that keeps God from the world. Nobody could go inside that place unless they were chosen by lottery. Even then, they never got to see God. The curtain kept God from view. And when Jesus dies, the curtain is ripped apart from the other side. It’s torn in the same way that the sky was torn open at his baptism. God’s not going to stay out of our world, not going to stay confined in some holy place. The old days are over. Now God is on the loose.
Do you know what this means? It means if you like having your life under control, if you like having all your pencils sharpened at the same height, if you like living under the illusion that life is tidy and your children are well behaved, if you like knowing when everything is going is happen. If you like having everything turn out your way, you could very run in a collision course with your Creator. The Galilee ministry of Jesus was never tidy. He shouted down evil spirits, confronted calcified religious people, and reached out to cure the lepers by touching them. There was nothing polite about it. No, no, no – he knew that lives were at risk, and Jesus had every intention to intervene.
This is what happens when you have a Saving God – your God starts saving. And if you are in the way, if your schedule doesn’t have God written in the right appointment slot, well, God is going smash down the wall and get to where the people are in trouble, where the lives need to be saved.
Over and over again, Mark tells how Jesus healed people even if the religious calendar said it’s the Sabbath and healing looks like work. With callous disregard for the rules, especially if there was a person in pain who needed to be healed, Jesus simply did what Saving God has to do. He saved the people, one withered limb at a time, one headache at a time, one untimely illness after another.
And if Jesus the Savior has so much on his plate that he can’t get to you in time, don’t ever despair! He will come and raise you from the dead. “Talitha cumi,” he said to a stricken little girl that everybody thought he had lost. He raised her up, and said, “Get her something to eat.”
This is what Easter is all about. It’s about the ministry of Jesus Christ continuing, about the Word bringing people alive and increasing their well-being. The Crucifixion could not shut him down. Now he is back, stronger than ever, always ahead of us, and calling us to follow. This is a broken, twisted world and there’s plenty of work to do. The Gospel of Mark won’t let any of us sit too long on padded pews and sing self-important songs. There is a world to save, a neighborhood to redeem, and a whole slew of souls to take in for repairs.
So it’s no wonder the women are troubled. No wonder they are too shocked to speak. The tomb of Jesus is busted open from the inside. He is alive again and already at work. That’s a lot to comprehend. That’s almost too much to take in. They were afraid. They were amazed. They had no idea that the God who does so much in secret had that much power, that much authority, that much joy. They ran away afraid, too stunned to say anything to anybody.
But when they find their voices, I am going to listen. And I’m going to follow wherever they are headed. How about you?
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.