by James Nieman
1 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.
2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen,
they went to the tomb.
3 They had been saying to one another,
“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4 When they looked up,
they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
5 As they entered the tomb,
they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side;
and they were alarmed.
6 But he said to them,
“Do not be alarmed;
you are seeking Jesus, the Nazarene, the crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.
Look, there is the place they laid him.
7 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.”
8 So they went out and fled from the tomb,
for trembling and amazement had seized them;
and they said nothing to anyone,
for they were afraid.
Mark 16.1-8 / April 6, 2015
There’s quite a long tradition of Easter preaching not tied to the scripture read on Easter. Maybe you heard such preaching yesterday. I guess the idea is that we already know the story of Jesus’ resurrection and have no further need for it. Far better to offer an ode to springtime renewal, or a pep-talk on how to face bad times like Jesus did, or (as my NYU daughter heard yesterday) a book review of how a best-selling novel explains the true meaning of Easter. Sure, these messages can be inspiring, maybe even memorable. They just don’t have anything to do with the scripture read on Easter.
I’d like to follow this same venerable tradition today, but with a different aim. I want to talk about something other than this Easter story – something you did not hear this morning, because it shows a lot about what you did hear. Did you know that the Mark’s gospel has not one but four endings? Of course, there’s the one I read that stops at verse 8, accepted by most scholars as authentic because it’s the oldest and most widely-attested in ancient manuscripts. Besides that, though, are three other versions, cleverly known as the “shorter ending” (which adds to the authentic one), the “longer ending” (which adds onto that version), and the “longer ending, augmented” (which blathers even more).
Why we have this mess has a lot to do with what you expect from Easter. Remember the story I read earlier? It began with all the things we usually expect in resurrection accounts: women headed to the tomb, the stone rolled away, and a mysterious visitor who said Jesus was not here but raised. And then … it pretty much stops, and in a most unsatisfying way: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Now wait a minute! Fleeing in terror? Silenced by fear? What kind of happy ending is that? Jesus is risen; something more must have happened. And we’re not the first to think so – thus, the other three endings.
Now to scholars, those versions are pretty sketchy. They’re one or more centuries later than the authentic ending, with words and style found nowhere else in Mark, let alone the New Testament. Ahh, but what a story they tell, action-packed and exciting! Unlike what I read to you, in those versions the risen Jesus appeared three different times, corrected the disciples and taught some new theology, sent them to evangelize not just every nation but the whole creation, gave amazing power over demons and sickness, snakes and poison, and then with a final flourish ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God while the disciples went off to preach and perform wonders! Now that’s the way to end a gospel, with splash and dazzle – not slinking off quietly with your trembling tail between your legs.
Like I said, a lot depends on what you expect from Easter. Evidently, even our ancestors in the faith could not abide an abrupt ending of wordless fear, so they added more words to fill what seemed a gaping hole. Are we so different? If the story of Jesus is going to be acceptable, let’s wrap it neatly with a big bow on top. We want Easter to be like sweet frosting spread over the bitter sorrow that preceded it. The spurious endings of Mark do just this, insisting the story end not with a whimper but a shout, with exclamation marks for added effect. But what if such expectation is all wrong? What if our desire for neatness and sweetness and upbeatness leads us away from God’s richer promise? Again, it’s all about expectations.
So recall just what Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome expected on that first day of the week. These three watched Jesus die and saw where he was buried. So when they returned to that tomb after the Sabbath, they knew what to expect and were in no hurry to arrive. They took time to buy spices, waited after sunrise to leave, walked and worried about that stone someone would have to move. They expected only to fulfill a duty, care for a corpse, and return home. They knew all the facts. Bright hope dies young. Empire always wins. Death is the last prison. Even when they saw the stone rolled away, still nothing had changed. They still expected a dead body, just easier now to reach and embalm.
When did it change for these women? When did they glimpse something new? Even after they saw the young man in white, they were alarmed – but not transformed. No, I think things only changed when the young man spoke, when he patiently dismantled their carefully crafted expectations. They sought the body of Jesus “the Nazarene” – the slur for a rural nobody – and Jesus “the crucified” – the fate for enemies of Rome. The young man knew they expected only Jesus the failure. But then came that little interruption: “He has been raised” – not “is risen” as if Jesus did it himself, but “has been raised” because God alone acted. The human failure they expected was the righteous one God approved, restored, vindicated.
No wonder Jesus wouldn’t be found in this tomb. He was already out there, on the way to Galilee. This is where he would meet the disciples who first fled, even Peter who denied. This is where he had promised to see them again, where good news was first preached. And by now, the women got what they never expected. They were to go and tell, to proclaim good news as the first evangelists. So when they fled the tomb trembling and amazed, it wasn’t some faulty response. No, they responded just like every other time in Mark’s gospel when God’s power was at hand. When demons were cast out or the sick were healed, when storms were stilled or the dead raised, when Jesus taught and with authority, whenever God’s presence broke in, the consistent reaction, the proper response was trembling and amazement.
How else could it be? On hearing that Jesus had been raised and awaited them, could the women have said, “Nah, not today. We’d rather return to our old expectations.” Good grief, they just heard the world-rearranging power of God who vindicates the righteous and opens a way to mercy and healing. That changed everything! Trembling and amazement seized them! And when that happens, you’re not going to bother with how to get a refund on the spices. No, you’re going to run in silent awe because there’s no room for idle chitchat with a message that big to share. Leave the tomb, head down the road, finish the resurrection story in your own life because, as Mark will plainly tell you, it can’t be confined in a book.
It bears repeating. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t a great big bow around our religious package, the sweet frosting on our pious layer cake, or a string of exclamation marks to drown out all who find Easter just a bit implausible. Instead, in Mark’s telling, that first Easter was an interruption, the crumbling of expectations, the opening of unforeseen hope. And still today, if this brief, weird tale suggests any punctuation, it’s not an exclamation mark – it’s an ellipsis, dot-dot-dot, the open-ended story that waits to be completed in your life and mine. Jesus has been raised by the power of God. The diminished expectations we have for our lives and labors have all been overturned. And when that Easter story interrupts our story, then comes the trembling, the amazement, the awe as that new ending unfolds.