Unfinished Story? — Sermon for Easter Sunday 2015

Mark 16:1-8

The TV show M.A.S.H. ran for eleven years. It first went on the air when I was starting high school and it ended the year Cheryl and I were married.  In between, we hiked into the M.A.S.H. set on our first date.  The series ran nine years longer than the war it portrayed. There were numerous cast changes over the years, but those of us who loved the show enjoyed them all.  It was fitting then that the show closed by bringing the war to an end, and the parting of ways. It was a celebration of peace and the bittersweet nature of going one’s separate ways. The final episode gave the writer
s the opportunity to bring closure to the story and tie up loose ends.
One by one, beginning with Father Mulcahy, the characters depart for their new lives. In the final scene, after Colonel Potter rides off one more time on his cavalry horse Sophie, only Hawkeye and BJ remain. Hawkeye is frustrated that B.J. won’t say goodbye. In the final moments, Hawkeye boards a helicopter and B.J. heads off on the motorcycle that once belonged to a group of Chinese soldier musicians.  As the chopper rises into the air, Hawkeye looks down on the hillside, where B.J. had written with rocks the word Goodbye.  With that the show that so many of us loved went off the air.
The finale offered us an opportunity to say our goodbyes. While the ending might have been bittersweet, this is the way we prefer them. But, sometimes shows just go off the air, leaving the story hanging. You want to know how things end, but that isn’t in the cards.  Of course, you might try to finish the story in your mind, but you’re always left wondering how the writers would have ended it.

The kind of endings we like most are the happy ones. So, aren’t you thankful that Disney always allows us to go away from one of its classics knowing that everyone lived happily ever after?  Well, almost everyone!

Each of the four gospels tells the Easter story in its own way. You may have a favorite.  Many like the story of Mary Magdalene running into Jesus in the garden. She’s not sure who this man is at first, but then Jesus reveals himself to her and sends her off to tell the rest of the disciples that he’s alive (John 20:1-21).  Mark doesn’t tell the story quite like that. He takes us to an empty tomb, where a group of women encounter an angelic messenger. The messenger gives directions, but we don’t see Jesus. The body is missing, and the three women who visit the tomb are alarmed, terrified, and afraid.  It appears that Jesus is alive, but we have to take that on faith.  This probably isn’t what we expect from an Easter story, but that’s the way Mark tells it.  Perhaps that’s why several attempts were made to write a sequel.  Later Christians tried to fill in the gaps.
Last year I preached on one of those efforts – what we call the longer ending of Mark.  It’s a rather interesting story that picks up pieces from other gospels and does so in rather dramatic fashion. But for some reason the original version of this Gospel seems to end suddenly, begging for a sequel.  How can the story end with the women fleeing the tomb, afraid?
While the other gospels offer us a more complete story, what is Mark asking of us this morning?  How do we move from being afraid to being disciples?  There are some interesting elements to this story.  First and foremost there are the references to alarm, terror, amazement, and fear.  These are common emotions for us when we encounter the unknown. I find it interesting that Mark pairs terror with amazement.  There are both fear and wonder in this event.  This mixture of emotions speaks to our own experiences of life.
Think about the birth of a child. It can bring both terror and amazement to parents.  They can be terrified about the future, especially if this is the first child.  Am I ready for this? Am I equipped for this new role?  What have I gotten myself into?  But then the nurse presents the baby – all cleaned up – to the parents, amazement replaces terror.  Of course, at that very moment parents start thinking – what happens next?
What was it like for these three women to encounter the empty tomb?  The body of Jesus was supposed to by laying in the tomb, with a stone sealing the entrance.  But the stone has been displaced and the body is gone. Not only that, but there is this angelic presence.  Whenever an angel appears, the people to whom the revelation is made, are afraid or alarmed.  In this case, the women flee the scene.
There is something fascinating about the way Mark tells the Easter story. When the rest of the disciples flee from the crucifixion scene, a number of women stick close by. Among these women Mark names Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. You will find them at the cross (Mark 15:40-42). You will find them witnessing the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Aramithea (Mark 15:47).  Then, on Easter morning, these women come to complete the task of burial. They’re not sure how they’re going to move the stone covering the entrance to the tomb, but they go anyway.  They’ll figure it out when they get there. What they find is unexpected. Yes, Jesus had told them that he was to die and be resurrected, but in that moment their memories of Jesus’ instructions failed them.  They proceed, faithfully, out of their love for Jesus.  What they find terrifies and amazes them.  So they flee, telling no one.  They keep the message to themselves, because it doesn’t make sense. Faithfulness turns into faithlessness.  But, can this be the end of the story?
Disciples biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa suggests that “only God’s faithfulness will complete this story” [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 2, 357]  It is the God who splits open the heavens and tears apart the curtain in the Temple, who remains faithful to the promise of Easter. We may run away, but God remains present. Although Mark doesn’t give us any reports about Jesus’ appearances, It would seem that Jesus will reveal himself to the disciples. Mark doesn’t tell us when or how, though the angel gives us a hint.  In Mark, it is in Galilee that Jesus will meet the disciples.  Back home, away from the distractions of Jerusalem, there Jesus will complete the journey, and provide us with a message to live and to share.
Easter completes a story that begins with Christmas. The savior was born, and the savior died.  But the savior was also raised to life again by God.  We are the ones who are blessed by this message, but what is the message?
Next Sunday I’m going to begin a sermon series on the meaning of salvation. I’m going to begin the series with a reading from 2 Corinthians 5.  The message of salvation is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.  Ultimately that is the message of Easter. That is where Mark wishes to lead us, but first we must go to Galilee.
Edgar Dewitt Jones, the founding pastor of this congregation, offers this word of wisdom for our Easter consideration:

Eternal youth should ever characterize the church of Christ. The church should always be young in the sense of faith, venturesomeness, her willingness to take risks for Christ’s sake. [The Pulpit Stairs, (Bethany Press, 1936), p. 175].

The journey ahead, the one Mark only hints at, is an adventure in the Spirit. We don’t know all the details, but even if amazement is sometimes paired with terror,  alarm, and fear, is this not a risk worth taking?