Preached at St Andrew Memorial Church, London, Ontario.
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Well, here we are at the end.
Lent is over.
The eight short verses contained in our gospel reading this morning are, as determined by biblical scholars, the final original verses of the gospel of Mark: The gospel of Mark is over. We have reached the end of this too.
The end of the gospel of Mark begins with the equivalent of a Biblical all-nighter: The Sabbath has ended with the going-down of the sun on Saturday, but it is too late to do anything about Jesus’ body tonight. So, the women conclude, we may as well just try and sleep a little.
It has been an emotional and heavy week – Jesus: friend, leader, and hope, has been killed.
The women – Mary, Mary, and Salome – these faithful women who have followed Jesus from a distance all through his ministry and then, even when none of the other disciples remained, followed him right up until his death.
They watched while their friend Joseph from Arimathea collected Jesus’ body from the cross, wrapped it in linen cloths, and then laid it in a stone cold tomb. The stone door was rolled in front and that was the end.
The Sabbath began and everyone rested. Though I imagine it was more restless than it was rest: All of Jesus’ ministry has been building, working towards this point, culminating in Jerusalem where it would be launched and recognized by everyone around them, the oppressive government would be overthrown, social injustices would be righted and our nation would finally be restored to God’s favour.
And then it failed. Jesus is killed so dishonourably that nearly everyone fled and went into hiding, and those who did stick around, like the women, did so from a distance.
I can imagine the women deciding that though Jesus did not fulfil their hopes for their nation, they still loved him and he was their friend and leader and they aren’t about to leave him, even in death.
So they wait until the sun goes down and the day of restless rest ends. Then, they head out to the market to find spices. They’re not prepared with all of the ointments and spices that you would anoint a body with at death: In their mind, Jesus wasn’t supposed to die so why would they have them on hand?
Since this rest is so restless, they probably don’t sleep much that night. Up all night pacing, waiting to finish their duty to their friend and then fade back into obscurity when they return to “normal” life. Then tossing in their beds, watching time tick by:
3:48 am: I should really get some sleep
3:49 am: I can’t believe Jesus is dead!
3:50 am: It must be time for the sun to rise soon; I want to get this done with.
How much, in a time before battery operated flashlights or iphone flashes, we depended on the sunlight of day to get us through.
5:10 am: Never mind sleep. I’ll just get up. The sun will be rising soon anyway.
5:11 am: Oh no! I forgot about the stone door. Who will roll away the stone for us?
For some reason, the women set off anyway, without any plan about how to actually get to Jesus’ body in the rock tomb on the other side of the stone door.
Perhaps it is some unconscious remembrance of Jesus speaking to the disciples while he was alive: three times the gospel of Mark has Jesus tell his disciples that he will go to Jerusalem, be condemned to death, be mocked and beaten, be killed, and then that he would rise again in three days. But I don’t know if the women actually heard, understood, or remembered this, after all, in the gospel of Mark everyone who knows Jesus and should know what is going on, don’t get it. Jesus keeps telling them and they keep not understanding, so it isn’t too surprising that the women would be debating about how they would roll the stone away from the door of the tomb to get to a body.
And so the women arrive at the tomb, expecting to find death, even though they have been promised life, in order that they might anoint Jesus’ body.
However when you are looking to find death and you find life instead, amazement and surprise are pretty natural responses.
Not only is the stone door moved and no longer covering up the opening to the rock tomb, but there is, what is described as a young man dressed in a white robe, just sitting to the right of the opening.
Sounding a little bit like the office administrator for a busy CEO, he says: “Oh, you’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, you just missed him.”
Perhaps realizing that the women are, understandably, a little freaked out, the young man, who scholars think is an angel, says what all angels tend to say when they encounter a human: Do not be alarmed.
Then: He has been raised; he is not here.
These two phrases pack some pretty major punches:
First the angel says, He has been raised, like this is the obvious one that the women should know and understand.
He has been raised.
I am told that it was normal for people from that time period to speak of resurrection like it was a more common event. The Caesars were, in popular lore, apparently resurrected to be gods when they died.
The women lived during this time, they heard Jesus speak about being raised after three days, and they’re still surprised. But then again, this isn’t popular folklore that we’re talking about.
Either way, when you’re expecting death and you find life, amazement is a pretty natural response.
I mean, if any of us were to go to the cemetery and find graves open and bodies gone, we’d be, at the very least, surprised.
He has been raised: We can say with the apostle Paul, Death has been swallowed up in victory!
Death has been swallowed up in victory. Jesus is alive and with that resurrection he has broken any of the power that death might have held on us. Death is not the final answer. In the ultimate inversion, the final answer is not death, but life.
The women went to the tomb expecting to find death when they had been promised life. How often do we go through life expecting to find death when we, too, have been promised life? In the liturgy of baptism, [which we will all participate in this morning with Kathy as she is baptised,] we thank God for the water of baptism, because through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death and then also share in his resurrection, being reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, the angel tells the women, He has been raised: he is not here.
He is not here.
This second phrase is just as terrifying as the first. At least with He has been raised we can talk about resurrection.
But He is not here? If Jesus is not in the cold, dark box where we left him, where is he?
It might have been simpler to have a safe, contained, and predicable God who stays put, right where we left him.
If we have learned anything these last weeks of Lent, it is that Jesus does not stay put. That following God is not simple or safe – and certainly not predictable.
After all, we are talking about the one who whipped corrupt moneychangers out of the temple, who spoke back to unclean spirits before casting them out, who healed a disciple’s mother-in-law, and who challenged us to take up our crosses and follow him.
Take up our cross and follow him. That is so much more poignant this side of Good Friday. Suffering, death, resurrection, life.
Follow him to life.
So when the angel says He is not here do we stop and peer into the empty tomb and wonder where God is?
It is certainly understandable that we might do that, with violence in Kenyan universities, discriminatory legislation being passed in the United States, and financial injustice and extreme economic disparity on display in our own city.
But then we might remember what else the angel said to the women: He is going ahead of you to Galilee there you will see him, just as he told you.
And if we decided to go back to Galilee, we might leave the end of the gospel of Mark and turn back to the beginning. Going full circle to read, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God … In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee …
So it isn’t the end: this story is not over.
It is only the beginning and we have a part to play.
It is only the beginning and, if you wonder why there is still so much pain and distress in the world, it is because God isn’t finished with it yet.
It is only the beginning. Mark is inviting us to get off the bench and get into the game, sharing, with everyone we meet, the good news of Jesus’ complete identification with those who are suffering and his triumph over injustice and death.
It is only the beginning and we are empowered and equipped to work for good in all situations because we can trust God’s promises that all will, in time, come to a good end, even when the only evidence of that we can see in the moment is a cold, dark tomb.
Death has been swallowed up in victory! Where, O death, is your sting? Where, O death, is your victory?
Well, here we are at the beginning…