April 5th, 2015 “The Miracle of Good News” Rev. Heather Jepsen
No matter which account you read, it was women who came that first morning. The men had fled earlier, abandoning Jesus long before he hung upon the cross. The men are public figures; they have more to lose if they are identified with Jesus’ rebellious movement. Like Peter denying Jesus in the courtyard, the men know that their lives are at risk; so they remain hidden, they remain in the shadows.
Women though, are of little concern to anybody. No power, no authority, no resources. They remain at a distance as Jesus is paraded through the town, and they watch from the sidelines as he gives up his spirit upon the cross. They are there when Joseph of Arimathea takes down the body and wraps it in linen. They are watching as he moves the remains of their beloved leader to a tomb, hewn from the rock of a hillside. And so, after the Sabbath is over, it is the women who rise early to pay their final respects.
It is really no surprise that it is women who come. Men are tough, all bravado and brute strength; but women are tenacious and we often work in the messy underbelly of life. Women are the ones who throughout their lives wipe endless butts, clean up buckets of barf, wash truckloads of laundry, and prepare and clean up years and years of countless meals. Women are the workers that keep life moving, and so women are the ones who head out to do the dirty work of tending to Jesus’ body that morning at the tomb.
Mark sets the stage with three friends; Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They rise before the sun and prepare the spices for anointing the body. Although many would say that they have been more faithful than the men of this story, their actions beg to differ. They are preparing the elements for a body that they assume will be there. Their lack of belief in Jesus’ promise of resurrection is apparent.
As they shuffle down the trail that morning, already they carry with them an air of futility and failure. Spices will do little to cover the cloying stench of a body that has been rotting for three days. They hardly even believe they will see the body, as they wonder about how they will ever get the stone moved that blocks the entrance to the tomb. They are without hope, without faith, and yet still they come; looking for some closure to what has certainly been a most painful portion of their lives.
We know well the Easter story, no matter which gospel we are reading it from. The women come and to their surprise they find that the stone has already been moved. I am sure their hearts began to pound the moment they realized the tomb had been disturbed. It is not excitement or joy that flows through their veins; rather it is pure unadulterated fear. Perhaps the women are not as safe and anonymous as they thought themselves to be. Perhaps this nightmare with the Roman and Jewish authorities is not over yet.
As they hesitantly enter the dark space, they are shocked to find a figure in the tomb waiting for them. A young man, someone they don’t know, dressed in a white robe. We assume when we read the story that it was an angel. I often wonder what the women assumed. What did they think as they looked into the face of a stranger, surprising them in a frightening place? I imagine they continued to be afraid.
The young man though, tells them not to be afraid. Clearly he has been waiting for them specifically, and he has a message to share. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, this is where the body was. Now go, and tell his disciples that he is going to meet you in Galilee, just as he said he would.”
All of the other gospels tell tales of the women running off to share the good news, and they tell stories of Jesus appearing before his followers. In the gospel of Matthew, the women see Jesus and hug him before they even get back to town. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus and to the disciples in Jerusalem. And of course in the gospel of John he hangs about for weeks appearing multiple times behind locked doors and at the sea shore. But here in Mark, the first gospel written, the oldest narrative of the empty tomb, the story doesn’t go that way.
Mark says the women ran out of the tomb in terror. Terror. They are so afraid of the message that they have heard, they are so afraid of the things that they have seen, that they say nothing to no one. Our NRSV corrects the language but in the Greek we find a double negative and I think author of the gospel of Mark writes that on purpose. They are so terrorized by the empty tomb, that they say nothing to no one.
Now, nobody likes that ending. That is why all the other gospel writers tell a different story, and why early copiers of the gospel of Mark added their own endings as well. Look sometime in that pew Bible and you will find two different endings that have been added to smooth out the story.
It makes sense that we don’t like the way Mark ends the story because it’s not the Easter story. Without joy, without good news, without resurrection appearances of the Christ, we feel shortchanged. Honestly, you didn’t come here this morning for a story about how, “they said nothing to no one because they were so afraid.”
But you know what, I really like Mark’s ending. Somehow it seems more believable to me; and I am pretty sure I am not the only one here to think that. You see, this story of an empty tomb, is one of those stories we tell in the church that can often trip people up. This is one of those “just take it on faith” things, that works for a lot of people, and also doesn’t work for a lot of people. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the empty tomb and I believe the miracle of resurrection. Obviously, in this line of work, Easter is my business. But, I understand, when people struggle to believe this story.
And that’s why I like this gospel ending. It leaves room for everybody, which is especially great on a Sunday like today when the church is full of old friends and new visitors alike. Those who see and believe, those who are filled with joy, can go out from the tomb, can go out from this Easter morning worship service, and share the good news of resurrection with the world around them. Praise God for this amazing good news. But those who aren’t so sure, those who are afraid of what this story may bring in their life if it were to be true, they are welcome here as well. Even if you are more comfortable singing “Jesus, remember me” than singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” you have a place in this story. You have a place with these women.
For believers and struggling believers alike, I think silence can be an appropriate response to this story we gather to celebrate each year. If we do believe this happened, then we must believe that the women were afraid, and that the women didn’t know what to think. That is a common human response when our world is turned upside down.
I am sure many of you have had those moments that literally rock your world. Those times when the axis of the world seems to shift and what we thought was reality suddenly isn’t. I see this happen for people when they find out a loved one has died suddenly. Something you thought was stable and would be there forever is suddenly vulnerable and gone. It happens to people as well when they face their own vulnerability and death. It shakes you to your core.
This happened to me when I was in a serious car accident in high school. No one was severely injured, we all walked away, but the car was completely totaled. Suddenly, at age 15, I realized I had been flying down the road in a death trap for years and never noticed it. I could hardly get in a car after the accident. Everywhere I looked I saw potential for disaster. One inch here, one swerve there, and these giant metal beasts crunch together and we are crushed by their speed and their weight. The world hadn’t changed, cars were always and still are very dangerous. But my reality, my way living in the world, had changed a lot. My world’s axis had shifted and it took a long time to recover. I was almost 17 before I had the courage to get my own driver’s license.
If we examine Mark’s story through that lens, things begin to make sense. Can you imagine a world changing event like an empty tomb? Can you imagine a world where death isn’t death? I’m not sure that we truly can. It is something we can hope in, it is something we can believe, but I am not sure we can really imagine it. Just as I am not sure that we can really understand what happened to the women that day. I do think though, that we can understand how terror, shock, and fear might prevent them from speaking of the event.
One of the wonderful things about the way that Mark tells the story is that he leaves room for an extra, untold miracle. The miracle of resurrection is there of course, but hidden in the story is the miracle of good news. If this really is the way things happened that first Easter, then how come we know the story? How come we have told this tale over and over again for two thousand years? That’s the work of God, and that’s the second miracle. Even though we are too afraid to talk about it, even though we struggle to believe, the good news spreads. God makes sure of it. The story lives on, whether we are in a space to believe it or not.
And so today, as you go out into the world on this beautiful Easter Sunday, I encourage you to celebrate. Celebrate this story we tell, of an empty tomb, of life conquering death, of fear eventually becoming joy. And celebrate the fact that even if you as an individual aren’t able to tell this story today, God will make sure the story gets told anyway.
No matter how we approach the service this morning, we can celebrate the fact that God invites us into this amazing story. God encourages us to believe in a world where empty tombs are a reality. And God will always initiate the miracle of good news.
Praise be to God for new life. Praise be to God for Easter morning. Amen.