April 18, 2021

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Last Sunday's Sermon

 

"Words of Faith and Hope" Mark 16:1-8

Let's suppose a grandfather calls his granddaughter over and says to her, "Sweetie, I have a special surprise for you. Out in the back yard is a new bike!" Upon hearing this good news the little girl would no doubt run outside to see the new bike. If she does, we might describe her as sprinting from her grandfather, maybe bounding to the back yard, or perhaps, dashing out of the house. You would probably not say about her, "Upon hearing about the new bike, the little girl fled from the presence of her grandpa." Would you?

   Fled? End of story? That would be very weird. Not a typical response to a special surprise. Not much of a happy ending. The first Greek word of Mark's Gospel is the word αρχή, meaning "beginning." "The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ" (NIV). Then, in the syntax of the Greek sentence, the last word is the word γαρ, the word translated "because" or "for." The beginning of Mark seemed very promising. "The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ" (1:1). But what about this ending? And then, "They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid" (16:8).

   Mark also tells us in verse 8 that, "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb." They simply ran away with no skip in their step. They were bewildered. They were trembling. They told no one a blessed thing, because, as Mark tells us in the end, they were "afraid?" The 8th verse really is the end of Mark, as there is now near-universal agreement among biblical scholars and commentators that verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were not written by Mark. They were added by someone later on who clearly believed Mark had not given a proper ending to his gospel. My Greek professor in college told us that it's not unusual for a Greek sentence to end with γαρ the way it would be in English, so grammatically maybe we shouldn't make too much out of this final Greek word in Mark 16:8. But the sense of incompleteness does persist, even so. "Because they were afraid." Really? That's the End? Where are the words of faith and hope?!?"

   Mark concludes his gospel with the bewildered silence of these women who were too afraid to speak. But why? Mark must have known what profound "words of faith and hope" they could have spoken. Surely Mark knew these women would not remain silent forever. If they had, how could he have written chapter 16 into his gospel account? Mark was not there in person but somebody told him this story eventually and if it was not the women themselves, then it was someone (perhaps Peter, who may have been Mark's source for this gospel) whom the women did tell. They did not remain silent forever. That much we know. So why end the gospel in silence? Maybe it fits a larger theme Mark is working on. One of the most striking features of Mark's telling of the Easter story is how it is framed by motion. The women begin in verses 1-4 moving toward the tomb, and they end in verse 8 moving quickly away from the tomb. Indeed, that last verse depicts them almost hurtling outward from an explosion.

   Verse 8 is almost like some freeze-frame which catches the women in mid-flight. Picture them with eyes wide in surprised terror, mouths hanging open in shock, their arms outstretched like an Olympic sprinter racing for the finish line, their feet a blurry picture of rapid motion. They flee the tomb, and Mark snaps a photo for us, freezing the action, showing the women in motion.

   But in between this to-and-fro movement of the women is still more motion: Jesus is also on the go. The women arrive at the tomb and encounter a young man who says, "You are looking for Jesus, the Nazarene who was crucified." Ah, yes. They were. Since he was, as the young man admits, "crucified," it made sense to look for Jesus in a cemetery. But he's not there.

   "You just missed him," the young man says as much. Well, why couldn't Jesus have waited? Why do the women need to deal with a proxy, a stand-in, whose only purpose seems to be to tell the women that, yes, they just missed Jesus. He's gone, on the road, moving right along to Galilee. "He's going ahead of you into Galilee," the young man says. So if they want to see Jesus, they need to get going once again themselves. For some reason Jesus did not hang around to be encountered at the tomb. Easter morning, according to Mark, is not about running over to where we think Jesus is and sitting down with him for coffee and a friendly chat. Easter morning is not about throwing a party. It's about Jesus in motion. It's about us being in motion, too, if we hope to catch up with him and see him.

   Jesus was not there that morning because there was, it seems, too much work to do! A dying world was in need of the renewing grace which only the resurrected Jesus could give. This was a task that could not wait. Jesus could not and would not hang out at a tomb he no longer needed, just to greet his friends and have a little surprise party. He had to go on ahead of them, expecting that if they wanted to see him, they'd have to get moving, too.

   So why does Mark end so enigmatically? Why this puzzling final image of bewildered women, silent in their fear? Well, certainly fear was an appropriate thing for these women to feel. Not only did something totally unexpected take place, but this particular unexpected thing was totally cosmic. It shattered reality. It changed everything, and the first people to ponder that mind-blowing fact were right to feel a little afraid. Any other reaction would have been downright weird!

   But what about Mark's story that leaves them that way? Why this snapshot of them fleeing in fear as Mark's final word? Well, at the very least it creates some tension, a challenge for all of us, in case the Easter story has become too familiar, too comfortable to us. We see the silent and fearful women and exclaim, "But the gospel can't end in silence! There's just got to be more to the story than this!" Wait just a minute. The gospel cannot end in silence. Yes. That is so. Then perhaps this is where we come in. Mark agrees, nods his head, looks at the reader and then as much as says, "I know. The gospel should not and cannot end in silence! So what are YOU going to do about it?"

   Computers are powerful tools. Most people under the age of 40 can't imagine what it was like back in the days of typewriters when every correction or revision of a paper required a bottle of white-out or re-typing the entire thing. Now we store our documents on hard drives, thumb drives or in the "cloud," even if we have already printed them. One of the advantages of producing documents is something called "global replacement." Let's say you had written an essay in which you used the word "society" repeatedly, but when you finished you realized that you really should have used the word "culture." With global replacement you can tell the computer to find each place the word "society" appears and automatically change it to "culture." Even if you used "society" 200 times, the computer will change every one of them to "culture."

   Churches sometimes use this tool for documents that get used a lot. A while back I read about a church office that had stored on its computer the standard funeral service. Each time a funeral was held the office administrator would tell the computer to find the name of the deceased, replacing it with the correct name for this individual's funeral. So one week Mary Smith passed away and the secretary had the computer put Mary's name into all the right spots, such as when the minister says, "We remember our dear departed sister Mary" or "Lord, receive Mary into the arms of your mercy."

   The next week Edna Jones died and so the secretary made the appropriate global replacement of names. But it was quite a surprise at this particular funeral when, in the reciting of the Apostles' Creed, the congregation learned that Jesus had been "born of the virgin Edna"! That's a true story, but if it struck you as humorous, it did so because it concludes with a surprise ending that catches us off guard, just as Mark 16 does.

   "He is not here...He is going ahead of you into Galilee" said the young man dressed in a white robe, and when the women saw him, "they were alarmed." Well, of course they were. Jesus is risen, but they are directed to go to Galilee. Where exactly is Galilee in Mark's gospel? Mark 1:14 says, "After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God." John the Baptist is imprisoned and Jesus launches his ministry in Galilee It is where we hear the good news of God! And it is where Jesus proclaims "the kingdom of God has come near" (1:15).

   I'm thinking Mark may have ended his gospel this way to say to us—the hearers and readers of his gospel—that we need to return to the beginning of the gospel and read the whole thing again. Now that we've been to the cross, we have an understanding of what Jesus the Messiah is really like. Therefore, we need to go back and read the gospel again—the whole story. We need to hear Jesus' parables afresh; to see his miracles anew.

   We need to re-consider every word of Jesus and act in light of the cross and the empty tomb. Because only then will we, by the Spirit, truly see and understand the kingdom of God. Only then will we see that the kingdom is about who God sent into the world, what God has given to us, and why God never gives up on us.

   Now that we've seen Jesus suffer on the cross in our place and carry the agonies of our death, surely by now, we should understand. And if we think we can make it on our own, we haven't really learned anything about the kingdom of God, nor have we heard the words of faith and hope.

When the story began, Jesus' said, in his own words, "the kingdom of God has come near."

   That very same good news is true at the end of the story.

      And it's true today.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.