“… and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Not what any of us expected to hear on Easter! You and I have come to this Easter service from many different places, many different points of view, differing needs and differing attitudes and differing emotions – but fear is not generally one of them. We have come because someone asked us to be here. Some have come out of habit. Some have come for the music. Maybe you are a parent visiting an adult child, or a child visiting a parent. Or maybe the Easter music on the radio or TV woke you at 6:30 and you said to yourself: “Well, why not!”
But all in all, I’m not concerned with all of that. What I am concerned about this morning is not how you have come to Easter, but the way that you will leave Easter! For you see, just as there is more than one door out of any sanctuary, just as there is more than one way to leave the cemetery, there is more than one path that leads from the empty tomb.
This is the way that the Gospels speak of Easter. In more than one way!
Matthew, Mark and Luke do agree however, that it was the women who dared to venture out to the cemetery on that first Easter Sunday morning. Three women. And I suspect that it was still dark as they made their way through the cold, dark streets of Jerusalem. Streets that were quiet, at last, after a weekend of violence and crucifixion.
These women risked much. After all, the soldiers who had crucified Jesus and then ordered to guard his tomb, might well do the same thing to them that they had done to Jesus. Everyone else was in hiding.
Yet, on this dark, forlorn early morning, these three women went out to the cemetery to perform one final act of devotion for their dearly departed as the sun came up – to dress his body with sweet-smelling spices.
But, when they got to the cemetery, that place of death, the stone before the opening of the tomb had been rolled away! And there was a young man, they did not know, sitting in the tomb.
Luke says that two were there “in dazzling apparel.”
Matthew says they met an angel.
Mark simply calls him a “young man .. dressed in a white robe.”
And we are told that ‘He gave them the news, the startling, unexpected news, that Jesus of Nazareth … is risen, he is not here … Go, tell his disciples … that he is going before you.’
Matthew says that the women ran back to town with great joy and began to tell everything that they had seen and heard. The risen Christ even met them on their way back.
Luke says the women ran back and excitedly told everything to the apostles (who considered the women’s testimony “an idle tale” until Jesus appeared to the men on the way to Emmaus and again at breakfast).
But you see, Mark tells the Easter story differently, and perhaps more truthfully. Mark is believed to be the oldest of the Gospels, and Mark ends his Easter story abruptly, … even awkwardly, … ambiguously, … particularly in comparison to the other Gospels.
The last words of Mark’s Gospel are words about the women, the women who have just seen the empty tomb and heard the words, “He is risen, he is not here … he is going before you to Galilee …”
And Mark says of the women, that “… they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And then the Gospel of Mark simply ends.
What a let down! What an abrupt ending to such a spectacular story. Where did the women go? Did they ever work up the nerve to tell what they saw? What happened on Easter Monday?
It is no wonder that, by the second century, helpful preachers added a few more verses to the ending of Mark. Your Bible at home may have twelve more verses at the end of Mark, but most New Testament scholars agree that Mark originally ended here at verse eight. “And they went out and fled from the tomb; … and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Mark tells of no further appearances of the Risen Lord, no suppers on the way to Emmaus, no reassuring words to the women on the road back to Jerusalem, no breakfasts on the beach.
It would be very difficult to write an Easter hymn on the basis of Mark’s Easter. You couldn’t inscribe these words over the gateway to a cemetery or carve them on a tombstone. And yet, they do touch a chord. And I suspect that Mark does a better job of expressing how many of us feel about Easter than do the more elaborative, refined and reassuring words of Matthew, Luke or John.
And so, if you and I want the resurrection explained to us, if we want Easter done in Technicolor, pounded into us in the sure and certain words of earnest conviction, argued scientifically, or presented poetically with talk of crocuses, and butterflies emerging from a cocoon, and such, forget it. For these three women have only to tell, that is, if we can get them to tell it, of Easter fear, … and trembling, … and silence.
In fact, they were so frightened that they couldn’t obey the directives of the young man, to go and tell, at least not immediately.
And, once again, Jesus had given them the slip. They had come out to the cemetery to give him a decent burial. But Jesus would not stay nailed shut; he would not stay as some sweet memory. As always, he had gone on before them, out ahead of them, into the future; out of death, and into life.
And it scared them half out of their wits.
Now, I wonder, have we come here to worship this morning, as those women came out to the tomb? Have we come to pay our respects to Jesus, Jesus who lived so long ago? Jesus who did, and said, some wonderful things, but is no more? We may have come to nail down our own faith, to be reassured once again that we are certain.
“Resurrection? Right? Got it all nailed down, secure and certain. No problem. Amen. Alleluia. Stand up and sing the final hymn.”
Well, my friends, that is not the way the Risen Christ does business. What he offers is not always certainty – more often than not, it is wonder, … and awe, … and stupefied amazement, instead.
Mark never got around to putting the finishing touches on his Gospel and the whole point of the empty tomb is just that, for this story is open-ended. Like the women at the tomb, we see something, we hear something, but nothing has been explained. And you and I must decide.
And, if you and I came out to the place of death this morning wanting proof, we get no proof. What we get instead is life, a living Lord who is way out there ahead of us … in our own Galilee, whatever and wherever that may be.
And maybe, just maybe, those well-meaning second century preachers – who added those twelve more reassuring verses to the end of Mark’s Gospel, maybe they weren’t all that misguided after all! Because that is what each of us must do with Mark’s story of the women at the empty tomb. We must finish the story in our own lives.
We, too, have been told that he is not here, that he will not stay nailed down, sealed shut, all tied up and secure! He will not be held by death. So, if we would follow him, it will not be to places of deadly certainty. If we would follow him, it must be forward, into the future, out into whatever Galilee to which you will go on this Easter Monday – and every day thereafter!
Because that’s where he is, that’s where he’ll meet us. And that good news is far more than a little scary. It is awesome! No wonder the last word in Mark’s Gospel is about fear. “They were afraid.”
And now, what are you and I supposed to do with such a story? Well, my friends, that is our problem. After all, we’re the ones who came here today looking for Jesus. But he isn’t here. We just missed him. You see, by this time of the morning, he’s already in Galilee – our Galilee. He’s gone before us – and will meet us there!
So, go! And tell!