Saturday, April 4, 2015

He is Going Ahead of You

Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday
April 5, 2015
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 him. 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.

This is our big day. The music is big. The flowers are beautiful. The energy is palpable. The announcement is exciting. But I am sure you have just heard it in our scripture text: there is also something awkward about Easter. The women go to the tomb of Jesus – and he’s not there.

Three women get up early when the Sabbath is over. They go to Jesus’ tomb to embalm the body, which was not done due to nightfall on a high holy weekend. They have spent considerable money on spices, and expect to treat his corpse with this final act of dignity. Because of the rush, because of the hour, they haven’t worked out the details for how to get into the tomb. Perhaps their intentions are impulsive.

But nothing could prepare them for what they see. The large stone has been rolled off to the side. It was the very last thing they expected. Somebody had cracked open the tomb. Somebody had gotten in.

Their curiosity pushes them to look inside – and indeed he’s not there. In his place, sitting calmly, is a young man in white. He gives them the most confusing news. So they run out of there in shock, unable to speak. They don't say anything to anybody. Happy Easter.

This is Mark’s Easter story. The tomb is broken into and Jesus isn’t in it. There is no body, crucified or risen. The Lord doesn’t appear to those women and say, “Here I am.” He doesn’t come to them as he does in the Gospel of John, saying, “See the nail prints and the wound in my side.” All we have are the words from the young man in white: He is risen, he is not here, he is going ahead of you.

Risen? They cannot understand everything that means, not then, not now. Not here? Well, that fact is crystal clear. Jesus is not he is supposed to be. And then he is going ahead of you. What does that mean? That may be the most awkward announcement of all.

All of us will lose somebody we love. If you are young and fortunate, maybe you have not lost someone not yet, but you will. One of the terrible facts of life is that it is terminal. It comes to an end. This is one of the most difficult things any of us have to deal with.

Death is hard, hard as nails. Last Tuesday at 7:15 in the morning, I got the phone call that my friend Louie had died. I didn’t expect it. For the rest of the day, I stumbled around in a fog. I bumped into the furniture. Everything slowed to a crawl. Before the hard work of grief, there comes the confusion, the raw questions. How can this be? Why did this happen? And underneath is the really big question of grief:  How are we going to make a way through the world without this person we loved?

Certainly three women were already chewing on the charcoal taste of these questions. They had watched Jesus on the cross. They were there (15:40), they saw him die. They had loved him. Mark says they had provided for him (15:41). They had followed him from Galilee where he had done so much of his work.

It was in Galilee that he had fed the multitudes, cured the sick, and drove out the psychotic spirits. It was in Galilee that he taught about God’s rule over all of life. It was in Galilee where he cleansed a leper, lifted a paralytic back onto his legs, and created a movement to announce that God was right here. They had been with him in Galilee – and when he came to Jerusalem, they watched him die. They were sure everything he had done was now over.

That is hard. The finality is so difficult. The poet W.H. Auden knew death is so final:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come . . .
(He was . . .) My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.  ("Funeral Blues")

The Gospel writer knows we can’t talk about Easter until we start here. We start with the loss of all our hopes. We begin with the conclusion of what we thought would happen. There is no question for me why the women ran away from the tomb of Jesus confused, afraid, not knowing what to say.

And there’s no question why the early church in its awkwardness was not satisfied with that ending. If you read along, you saw the footnotes. There are a few extra versions of how early Christians added to the original story. They took a piece from the Gospel of Matthew (16:14-15), they inserted a story from the Gospel of Luke (16:12-13), they lifted a line from the Gospel of John (16:9) or the book of Acts (16:19). They knew from their experience the story doesn’t end with death or fear or silence.

So let’s pause to say what the story does not say – but what we know to be true. Sooner or later it dawned on those three women to listen to what the young man in white had told them in the tomb. They had run away in fear, but the moment came when they stopped running. They were too scared to talk, but the moment came when they needed to talk. And with nobody chasing them, they stopped and considered if what the man said really is true.

What if Jesus is alive? What if he is really is going ahead of us? What if he is in Galilee, returning to the place where he did his work, the place where people trusted in him? This is Mark’s profound invitation for Easter. What if resurrection happens, not just in the tomb – but in the places where Christ continues to show compassion and build faith? What if the Risen Lord is ahead of us, beckoning us to join him in his work and share in his life? What if there are places we can go where we can discover life is stronger than death, where we can trust that this is the way of the kingdom?

One of the extraordinary things about my job is that I get to spend time with people who are doing remarkable things with their lives. A college student told me how she spends time at a hotline for women who have been abused. Every Friday night, she answers the phone whenever it rings. “The fraternity party scene was really lame,” she said, “and this is a lot more important.” I asked if she was doing this for college credit or as a part-time job. “Oh no,” she said, “I think Jesus wants me to help anybody who is in trouble. He says to all of us, ‘Don’t be afraid.’” That is what she said. She speaks of Jesus in the present tense.

Or there’s that couple who retired a couple years ago. Every Thursday night, they volunteer in their local food pantry. She said, “At first we did it because there was nothing on TV, and a man from the church’s mission committee asked us to fill in.” Her husband pipes up: “I know that probably sounds shallow, but when we kept going back, we started talking with the people who come to the pantry. And we discovered they are hungry for something more than food. They need some human contact, and they feel alone.” She interrupted him and said, “You know something else? When we go to church on Sunday, we are paying a lot more attention to the sermons than we ever did.” Hear that? They sense the connection between the living Word of Christ and human compassion.

Or there’s that woman who used to work all the time. She hated her job, but never quit because it paid so well. And then a friend asked her to volunteer for an agency. “I help senior citizens get the health care that they need. Some of them feel shut out, or vulnerable, or they are afraid to stand up for what they need. So I stand them up with them and together we find the answers.” She paused and said, “I always zoned out when I heard a sermon about justice; now I understand exactly why it is so important.”

Helping the abused, feeding the hungry, standing up for the vulnerable -- do you know where these people live? Galilee. Galilee, Pennsylvania. All of them are testifying in their words and deeds that love is stronger than death, that God is stronger than evil, and that the Risen Christ is ahead of us, inviting us to join in the life and work of God’s new dominion.

Today is Easter Sunday. According to the angel in the tomb, when Easter comes, Jesus does not go up into heaven. He does not go back into Pontius Pilate’s palace to extract his revenge. He does not return to the inner chambers of the Temple and straighten out the clergy. No, Christ goes to Galilee – ahead of the women, ahead of the disciples, ahead of the rest of us. The Easter promise is that we will see him when we go to the places where he continues his work.

If you came today looking for proof of the resurrection, I don’t have any. But if we engage in the life of the kingdom, the evidence of resurrection will be all around us. For Jesus Christ is risen from the grave. He's right there, ahead of us, in the place of greatest need. Do you see him yet? Well, get busy...

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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