Warring emotions: how faith wins out

Scriptures: Mark 16:1-8; Acts 10:34-44

Our Gospel lesson today from Mark is, I must admit, not one of my favorite Easter texts. Perhaps that is why for several times when it has come up, that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel has surfaced to be read on Easter morning, I have chosen an alternate Gospel text, from John’s Gospel primarily. The song that I sang at the sunrise service, “He’s Alive,” actually comes from that passage in John.

It is a better story. After all, don’t we want to come to worship on Easter morning, and hear from the Gospel that at least one of the disciples actually saw the risen Christ? But given the sermon series we are in the middle of, and the times here in America today, I believe that it is now time to visit this text.

According to Mark, three faithful women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, who were there at the cross to see Jesus die, went and bought spices to anoint his body, which had been hastily buried because of the coming Sabbath. We can assume from this detail that these three women truly loved Jesus, in spite of the fact that he had been executed as a criminal.

Early Sunday morning, these three women set out to the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid. They made this journey, not just to give Jesus a proper burial, but to assuage their grief. And as many of us know, grief has a way of causing us to not think too clearly, to ignore the practical situations of life, to be wrapped up in our own darkened world. Thus, in the midst of their journey, it dawns on them that they were not able to roll away the stone that sealed the entrance to the tomb, in order to gain access to Jesus’ body.

That stone is something that we need to understand. This was not a stone that you skip across a lake. It wasn’t even a boulder. They estimate that it probably weighed almost two tons. That’s four thousand pounds. The way they would do it with these tombs, was that right in front of the opening, they would cut a groove, then they would have a round stone rolled into it.

And as any of you who have managed to get stuck in the snow know, and you’ve spun your wheels a bit and you have a nice groove in there, it can prove really difficult to get out, even with rocking. So they weren’t sure how they were going to manage to get this stone out of the way.

But they kept on with their journey, and when they could see the tomb, they were surprised that the stone had already been moved. When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, just sitting there, and they were alarmed. Who among us wouldn’t be frightened to death on encountering such a situation? Even if the man did say, “Don’t be afraid,” it would take a while for the adrenaline to return to normal levels.

But their shock did not end with the mysterious young man’s admonition to be calm. He also told these grieving women that the body of Jesus that they came to anoint was not there, that he had risen from the dead, and that they should go and tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where Jesus would meet them.

But instead of jumping up and down with joy, instead of singing joyous hymns of praise to God, as we do this morning, Mark tells us that these women left the empty tomb, being seized by terror and amazement, and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. And with these words, most scholars believe, the original Gospel of Mark ends.

Many translations have further verses, another ten or so verses. If they are well-researched, they’ll be in italics or in brackets or something like that, to set them apart. The best manuscripts that we have, the oldest manuscripts that we have that are complete, don’t include the verses that came afterward.

But the Gospel of Mark ending there is a tough ending. What are we to make of this text? What are we to get from it, that it ended there without Jesus? Apparently it disturbed somebody enough that they wrote an alternate ending. It’s disturbing enough that frequently I chose another text.

First, I believe that we can assume that the women who went to the tomb early that first Easter morning came in grief, but left in fear. Such an experience would be enough to unnerve the calmest among us. When a person whom you had seen die, is buried, and you go to the tomb, you expect that the remains of that person would still be there. We would not expect to see the grave open, and a strange person dressed in a white robe tell us that our departed loved one had risen from the dead. That sort of thing just does not happen – except in the zombie apocalypse!

Of course, eventually, these three women had to have overcome their fear, and begin to share what they had experienced with others, or the church of Christ would never have been formed. I believe that anytime we experience something out of the ordinary, it takes time for us to process it, but eventually, we need to share it. And what these women experienced that day had to be a totally unworldly experience.

And it was, according to Mark, not just fear that these women experienced, but also terror and amazement. There is a difference between fear and terror. I had a dog whose name was Honey. She was part German Shepherd, part yellow lab. She died at a slim, trim ninety-one pounds. She was about a hundred to a hundred ten pounds most of her life, and stood about this tall.

She was a lovely dog, a loving dog, but when she came rushing to the door when somebody knocked, with her growl and her bark, I saw more than one person step back, because they were afraid. Then when they came in and sat down, and she proceeded to try to climb in their lap, because she wanted to be a lap dog like my parents’ Sheltie, then they knew terror.

These words of Mark, I believe, really grasp the heart of the situation that confronted the women, and us. Think with me for a moment, about the significance of what the young man in the white robe proclaimed to the women. “You are looking for the crucified and dead body of Jesus. He is not here. He has risen from the dead and will meet you and the disciples in Galilee.”

Clearly there would be amazement that God had intervened, and raised his Son from the dead. In so doing, it would have vindicated Jesus, not only to be God’s incarnate Son, the promised Messiah, but it would have given credence to all that he said and did and taught. Clearly, the resurrection of Jesus attests to the fact that at the very least, his ministry found favor with God.

But where does that leave all His disciples? Could it be that the terror the women felt that day was the thought of meeting the risen Christ? I know we often sing about what a joy it will be and what a wonder it will be, and I’ve seen pictures recently where a person jumped into the arms of Jesus when they meet him. But there’s a song that mentions, what would I do when I first see Jesus, would I fall down on my knees, or would I fall down on my face? I suspect that that would be more likely to be the case, at least initially.

Think of all the ways that the disciples failed to trust Jesus. All through his ministry, the disciples seemed not to grasp what Jesus was trying to do. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and two of his disciples were plotting to secure the top two positions in Jesus’ kingdom, to sit at his left and at his right, the brothers James and John.

The Pharisees, the scribes, the priests, all of the religious leaders of that day, turned their backs to him, even deriding him as a heretic. And all of his disciples, perhaps with the exception of John the evangelist, deserted him in his hour of trial – even Peter, who denied Jesus three times. Which, by the way, is why, I think, that the young man in the white robe told the women to go tell the disciples and Peter. He had set himself aside because he was so ashamed, he was not with the rest of them.

Those women who left the empty tomb that day, according to Mark’s Gospel, left seized with terror and amazement. And when I think about my own life, and the times that I have not been a true witness to my faith in Christ, the times that I have deserted him, the times I have denied him, I understand the terror, as well as the amazement, that these women experienced at the empty tomb, hearing that Jesus was raised from the dead.

Mark ends this Gospel of his at that place for a reason. All through the Gospel of Mark, he has asked this question, “Who is this man?” Nobody seems to get it right. When we face the empty tomb and the vindication of Christ, like the women, we’re faced with a choice.

Do we stop in terror at the thought of the risen Christ, that we haven’t seen yet, and take a step back, or maybe two steps back, and hold ourselves off from committing to Christ, from committing to the church and the worship with His people?

Or do we stand, dumbfounded in amazement, not sure what to do, not sure what to make of this fact, this news, just kind of going along with the flow, as people come and people go, just doing what they do, because maybe they know what they’re doing and maybe they know what they’re talking about?

Or do we let our faith overcome our fear? Do we let our commission overcome our emotion? Do we take that good news of the empty tomb, even not having yet seen Jesus, and go out, as the angel in the tomb said, and share that good news with others?

That is the challenge of Easter. It’s one that each of us has to make a choice about. My prayer for you is that you would experience the joy and assurance of knowing that Jesus Christ died, Christ is risen, and that Christ will come again.

That with all the people in the church, you will say “Alleluia” at the end of that. That you would take this news, experiencing that joy, and you would move forward, not back. Move forward, not stand in place – because life never stands still – and begin to share that good news with others. Begin to share the reason we celebrate Easter today.

It’s a hard passage to read. But it gives us a very clear discussion of what we need to do. May you do what God is calling you to do.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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