Monday, April 6, 2015

"Good News for Uncertain Times": A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church

The Sabbath day has passed and it is the dawn of a new day.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus.  For the disciples, it has been a long and painful Sabbath.  The women had seen Jesus’ body placed hurriedly in the tomb late Friday afternoon.   Now the three women are headed back to the tomb, wondering among themselves, who would roll back the large stone that covered the door.
            Their relief at finding the stone rolled back turned to fear when they step through the door.  Jesus’ body was gone.   Instead, there’s a young man, dressed in white, sitting next to where Jesus’s body had been.
"Don’t be alarmed;" he says, "you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.   He has been raised.  He is not here."
The three women are not only alarmed—they’re terrified. They flee the tomb, and they say nothing to anyone.  In the original Greek, Mark uses a double negative to emphasize:  “They said nothing to nobody.”
            On this Easter Sunday in the year 2015, can you relate to their response?  What do you feel when you hear the news of the resurrection?  Are you confident and joyful?  Are you read to go and tell?
            Maybe. Maybe not.
            I suspect that there are a lot of people in the pews of churches-- and outside the church--  this Easter Sunday who feel like they’re living in a Good Friday kind of world.   People who struggle with grief over the loss of a loved one...  people who know the sting of failure.   Some who are angry and disillusioned about how their life is going.   Some who are struggling with anxiety...  or depression...  or confusion… or addiction.  
            Some are struggling to keep going in spite of chronic, debilitating illness.  Some are facing frightening medical diagnoses... and battles against the power of disease.  Some are distraught over the way things are going in the world today...  or in their family.   Some are unemployed.  Some are among the working poor, working full-time, maybe more than one job, trying to make ends meet.  These are people who need some good news.
            If you feel like you've been living in a Good Friday world, you can probably relate to the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning.  They're stricken with grief...  disillusionment...  bitter disappointment.  They'd hoped that Jesus was going to be the Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman oppressors.  Things haven't turned out the way they'd hoped.
            They go to the tomb to grieve their beloved friend and leader.  But
instead of finding Jesus' body, they find the young man sitting there, and hear him saying,  "Don't be alarmed.  You're looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.   He has been raised.  He isn't here.  Now, go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going before you to Galilee.  You will see him there, just as he told you."
            They flee from the tomb, filled with terror and amazement.  They say nothing to anyone, for they are afraid.   Mark’s gospel ends here, almost mid-sentence. In fact, in the original Greek, it’s even more abrupt.  
            This unfinished story bothered people in the early church enough that they wrote two different endings to tack on.  It's bothered a lot of scholars over the years--  so much that some of them developed theories about how the last page of Mark's gospel was lost…  or how it wore out and fell off.
            However, the consensus of New Testament scholars today is that Mark did indeed end his gospel with verse 8.   In Mark’s gospel, there are no joyfully amazed women rushing back with news of the empty tomb…no awestruck exclamations to the disciples that “he is risen!”   There are no reassuring appearances by the risen Christ himself.   We have to read the other gospel accounts that were written later to find these things.
            The end of Mark’s gospel doesn’t feel satisfying, so we can sympathize with the scribes or monks or whoever it was who decided to take matters into their own hands and add an ending they thought was better and that sounded more like the other, later gospels.  And so our Bibles have what have come to be called “A Shorter Ending to Mark” and “A Longer Ending to Mark. ” 
            But let’s think about why Mark left his gospel hanging on this moment of failure and disappointment.  Why would he do that?
            I agree with Professor David Lose when he suggests that Mark knew that no story about death and resurrection could possibly have a neat and tidy ending.  Lose observes that there’s a recurring pattern in Mark’s gospel.  Those who are closest to Jesus and should tell others about him often don’t.  One of the themes in Mark is that the disciples just don’t get it.
            Three times the disciples had heard Jesus predict that he is going to have to suffer and die and then be raised again-- but they end up dazed, confused, and arguing about who’s the greatest.   Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah--  but completely misunderstands what that means, and actually rebukes Jesus when he explains.  Again and again those who should understand just don’t understand what’s going on and fail to share the good news.
            Judas betrays Jesus.  Peter denies him 3 times.  The disciples desert him.   Finally, even these women, who up to this point had proved to be faithful disciples,  are too afraid to go and share the good news. And so Mark ends here, right here, inviting us all to pick up where the gospel leaves off.[1]
            The story isn’t over.  With the first disciples, we need to leave the empty tomb and go back to Galilee.   Like the first disciples, we can’t understand the story the first time.  We need to go to the cross and to the empty tomb… and then read the story again and find ourselves in the story.   We need to go back to “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[2]   This time, we need to hear the gospel with post-resurrection eyes. 
            When we go back to Galilee, we see Jesus healing and teaching and casting out demons, but always being misunderstood, even by those closest to him.  Mark is telling us that the saving action of God in the world is always hidden and ambiguous. 
            When we read Mark with post-resurrection eyes,  we see Jesus breaking through into human life as one who is powerful,  but also as one who will suffer and die.   We see a God whose power is a strange, suffering, self-giving power.  
            We go back to Galilee, and the second time around every story in the Gospel of Mark is a post-resurrection appearance.  What we see is a God who surprises us at every turn in the road,  a God whose power is expressed finally in weakness.[3]
             Mark wrote an open ending to his gospel in order to invite the disciples and everyone who reads it to jump in and take up our part in continuing it.   You see, the story of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb.   It’s only just getting started.  
            Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redeeming work in the world.  The gospel is about what God has done and is still doing for the world through Jesus the Christ and through those who follow him. 
            Mark intentionally left the story unfinished--  because it isn't just a story about something that happened long ago.  It's the story of the church, and the story isn't finished.   That first Easter, the whole urgent, world-changing story was hanging on the testimony of witnesses who run away in fear and silence. 

            “Go and tell my disciples—and Peter.”   The Risen Christ made a special point of extending his reconciling grace to fearful promise-breakers like Peter.   God’s grace invites us to go back home and to live life as people who have changed by the events of Easter.

Go.  Tell.  As disciples of the Risen Christ, we are called to live into the joy and freedom of the new creation and to share the good news with anyone who needs to hear it.  What happens next in the story depends on us.
            God's redemptive purpose for the world will prevail through those who answer Christ's call to follow him and carry on his purpose and work.
            The good news is that we are not alone.  We don’t have to do it on our own power.  The way our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith” puts it:  In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.[4]
            That’s how the rest of the story continues.
            We are called to carry on the story.  It's our choice--   yours and mine.   Think about all the people who haven't heard the Easter story in all its fullness and power.  Consider all the lonely souls out there who long for hope...  comfort... healing… and meaning.    Do we care about them?              What will happen next in the story for them?
            Will someone tell them the good news of the Resurrection  and the new, abundant life we can have here and now through our faith in the Risen Christ?   Will they see peoples' lives being transformed by the love of Christ?  Will they see your life being changed?  Will they see the light and love of Christ reflected in what Littlefield Christians do and say?  Will they look at the church and know we're Christians by our love?
            The story continues.  What happens next is up to us.    
            The women at the tomb were terrified and amazed.  Yet they must have gone to Galilee and seen the risen Christ.   They must have proclaimed the good news to the others--  or we wouldn’t be here today.  

            Go.  Tell.  As Christians, we are called to take risks...  to make ourselves vulnerable in love...  to share with strangers...  to dare to challenge unjust power.   We are promised lives of  joy and abundance--  as we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.
            God calls us to live beyond our fears and doubts.  In the resurrection, God showed us his amazing, life-giving power.  We know that the story of our life with God has a joyful ending.
God, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, is making all things new.   So   go.  Tell.

Christ is risen!   Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

[1] David Lose, “Only the Beginning, March 30, 2015 at

[2] Mark 1:1
[3] Thomas G. Long, “Dangling Gospel”,

[4] Brief Statement of Faith

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