Of all the four Gospel tellings of Jesus’ resurrection, I find that Mark’s is the one I least want to be stuck with. And now to be given this one during such a challenging moment in history, if you’re like me, you might be tempted to say, “sure, on top of all that’s going on, this is the gospel we get to work with today?!?” I’ll be honest with you that on first glance, Mark’s telling of the Easter story is pretty disappointing.
Just like the other gospel renditions, the women come to the tomb early in the morning, we’ve got the stone rolled away, we’ve got a missing body, a messenger to explain what’s happened and give instructions, a response of fear, and people running from the tomb afterwards. What’s missing though, is any of the 12 disciples, no mention of grave clothes, no hint of joy, and most importantly, no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Mark’s version ends with the women freaking out and staying silent in shear terror. And no Jesus. He isn’t there disguised as a gardener, or appearing to Peter, or showing up in the upper room or the road to Emmaus. No, he’s just. not. there.
Whoa. Does this make you as uncomfortable as it makes me? We really prefer happy endings. We like tales that end “happily ever after”—the throne restored to the right ruler, the lovers overcoming all odds to be together, the giant destroyed. Mark doesn’t end that way. And we like Easters with trumpets and triumph, glory and Hallelujahs, loud proclamations and yummy shared breakfasts. We love watching parents trying to keep toddlers clean in their Easter finery while they discover gooey chocolate. We love the celebration and the festivity that comes with the glorious reality that Jesus has defeated death—that’s rightly something to celebrate!
But the reality of right now is that, even once the pandemic slows, even once the shutdown is finished and doors open again and people gather again, that it will be anticlimactic, no happy ending, due to the vast numbers of death and lost jobs and closed businesses and many other hard realities. The good news will be that the hardest part will be over, but the loss remains. It’s hard to think of that as a happy ending either.
And don’t you think that right now, of all times, would be a great time to have the reality of Jesus appearing to the disciples, to see Thomas doubting and seeing him, to eat a meal with him, to be called by name as Mary was, restored and forgiven as Peter was.
But dammit, Mark, you leave us with the women running away in terror and silence. And no Jesus. It appears very unsatisfying.
And yet… in spite of that, there is a sense of anticipation and hope in this text, and we’re going to get there. So hang in there.
There are two words from the messenger that I want to look at this morning.
The first is the response to the fear & terror of the women. I can imagine what the women might’ve felt as they crept along in the darkness, arriving at the tomb just as the sun is peeking over the hills outside the city. They’re overwhelmed with grief, shock, anger, fear (anyone else feeling those these days?). Yet they’re determined to honor Jesus’ body. The perfumes won’t do much to cover the stench of a body that’s started to decay over the past two nights and a day. But they still believe that Jesus’ body matters.
The ones who have tended to his and his disciples’ needs over the past three years have come to the tomb for closure. In their grief, they need closure in their personal relationship with this man whom they’ve served and sacrificed for, and they need closure of their dream of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God coming near. There’s a great deal of loss they recognize here, at the end of the dream.
And then. Weird stuff happens. The stone that blocks their way to that needed closure is already moved. And a guy dressed in white was sitting inside the tomb. Like the appearance of angels before—to Mary, to Joseph, to Hagar in the desert, to Daniel in Persia, and later to Paul on a ship in a storm, this angel says Do Not Be Afraid.
Do not be afraid.
Fear is an ongoing theme of Mark. If you can remember way back to February—we looked at three stories from Mark 4 & 5—the disciples’ cry of “we’re perishing!” in the stormy sea, and terror of Jesus when he calmed the storm. The healing of the isolated and possessed man in the Gerasene countryside, and the crowd’s terror not of him but of the man who healed him: Jesus. The menstruating woman who was healed when she touched Jesus’ garment, but was terrified when Jesus caught her doing it. And finally, Jesus’ command to the synagogue ruler to not be afraid, even before Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter.
It seems fitting then, that an encounter—or rather an absence of Jesus’ body would also produce fear and terror.
Fear is a dominant response to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. But it must have also been present in so many of the characters throughout scripture whom God communicates with. According to NT Wright, the command by God or God’s messengers “Don’t be afraid” is the most common command in scripture. More than Love God and neighbor. More than Repent or Listen or Follow. Don’t be afraid.
But you know the reality. We are afraid. We’re afraid of this virus—catching it or spreading it. We’re afraid of the loss of economic stability right now—our own and our neighbors. We’re afraid of those in challenging situations not getting the education they need, those in dangerous situations not being able to leave abusive relationships. We’re afraid of what the world might look like when the pandemic has passed. We’re afraid of death—our own, and those we love.
But if you remember the story of the menstruating woman who was healed, she spoke truth to Jesus in spite of her fear. And Jesus asked Jairus to not be afraid, in spite of not yet having healed Jairus’ daughter. What I see in the women’s fear and silence this morning is that same response, in spite of. In spite of Mark ending with them running in fear and saying nothing, you have to wonder, if that were really the case, how did Mark find out about it?
I imagine it happening more like this: The women run to their separate homes, freaking out. But then, like all good secrets, it’s too hard to contain. One woman’s husband says, “How was your trip to the tomb?” And she replies, “you won’t believe this, but…” Another one hides in her closet and starts texting her best friend: “OMG. The strangest thing happened this morning…” And the third stops at the market on her way home and chats with the produce vender. In spite of their fear, the secret doesn’t stay secret long.
In spite of the angel’s command not to be afraid, the women are terrified. Yet in spite of their terror, they must have gotten the word out about Jesus’ missing body and apparent resurrection.
We can look at the command of the angel at the empty tomb and take heart—don’t be afraid! We can look death in the face and know that God has the power to take away death’s sting. Here’s good news: That Jesus has walked through the doorway of death and emerged alive on the other side. And not only Jesus! In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says Jesus is merely’ the firstfruits of those who have died. The first fruits are only the beginning of the harvest, a sign that more—an abundant amount more—is on its way—like when in the summer you’re showered with too much zucchini or begging people to take your extra tomatoes. An abundance of fruit—all creation is harvested after the firstfruits.
Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have died. 1 Corinthians 15:20-23
And as Paul says in Colossians, like a firstborn child, Jesus has opened up the womb of death, leading the way for all who come after him to emerge into new life. We may not be able to control our fear about death or the future or the unknown, but we can take heart that in Christ we can respond in spite of that fear, with boldness to live in Christ.
Jesus has opened up the womb of death. Colossians 1.15-18
The second theme in today’s text is the other part of the angel’s command, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee”—go back to Galilee.
Go back to Galilee. Why is that important? Well, Back in Mark 14, when Jesus predicts Peter’s denial, he also included the promise, “after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” The messenger is reminding the women, the disciples, and especially Peter, of Jesus’ promise. But why Galilee? Why not Jerusalem—it’s closer! Why not Bethany or Samaria or Jericho, where his last healing miracle took place?
If you want Jesus, you’ll need to go back to Galilee. Back to where Jesus first proclaimed the good news. Where he taught and healed and fed and released—back to where Jesus continually demonstrated God’s power and authority, and proclaimed “the kingdom of God has come near.” Back to the margins where Jesus preached words of hope to the broken-hearted, healed and made whole the captives, the bleeding, and the blind.
The messenger invites the disciples—and us—to go back to the beginning and look at the story in light of its ending: “he has been raised; he is not here.” We’re encouraged to look at the promises of God in the past—to go back to Galilee—and remember God’s continual faithfulness. Back to where Jesus promises to go ahead of us.
Now, more than ever, we need Jesus’ resurrection. When death seems to be crouching at our doors, his resurrection may not be easy to see. It may be hard to rejoice. But think about those who first received Mark’s gospel in the first century—who had seen Jerusalem destroyed, smoke rising from their demolished temple. Resurrection was not obvious to them. Yet Mark invites them, invites us, to not be afraid.
To neither fear the unknown parts of life that we cannot control, nor fear the one who has authority over all things, even death. And Mark returns us to Galilee, to hear Jesus say again to the synagogue ruler, do not fear, only believe. Jesus has passed through to the other side of death, and is now bringing all creation with him to the other side, where all things will be made new.
And so even in dark times—or especially in dark times—we can whisper, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We may feel like hiding like the women, but let’s keep whispering Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
O Blessed Jesus, who,
When the tomb was shut and apparently without hope,
Emerged into life and a command for the women to not be afraid.
May your new life and courage that comes from trusting in your faithfulness be upon us, that we may be bold and courageous to live lives of sacrificial love like you, remembering that you have passed through death into life and lead the way for us.