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"The Ending is Still Being Written"
Scripture – Mark 16:1-8
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015
In the prime of his life at 54, Harvard professor James Kugel received crushing words from his doctor: "You have an aggressive form of cancer." Kugel describes his journey following the dreaded diagnosis and shares an image that captures his experience. He writes: "The main change in my state of mind was that – I can't think of a better way to put it – the background music suddenly stopped. It had always been there, the music of daily life that's constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence." His daily routine was drastically altered. It became planned around pills and appointments, finding quicker routes to the hospital and the best places to park. Regardless of the task at hand or the people by his side, he could not shake the feeling that the background music of infinite time and possibilities had turned to silence."1
Perhaps that describes the state of mind of the three women who trudged to the tomb of Jesus in the early hours of the morning. For the past couple of years they had been riding a tsunami of excitement as they walked along with their master encountering people in towns and small villages, out in the countryside and along the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Following every step of Jesus, watching his every move and catching every word, they witnessed his power to heal and soaked up his wisdom. Experiencing a rush unlike anything they had ever felt, they plunged deeper in their spiritual lives connecting with God as never before. The background music of their lives was jubilant, the harmonies soared.
But their enchanting journey took a radical turn when they followed Jesus into Jerusalem. Abruptly, the music turned discordant as the religious and political leaders set in motion their fiendish scheme. In a mere handful of days, the maestro was murdered and the background music stopped cold.
His terrified followers scattered and hid behind bolted doors. The three women stayed together, but lost touch with the others. Friday was the darkest day of their lives; their master was executed and their dreams crucified. To borrow a lyric from Don McLean, it was "The day the music died." Saturday was not much better. The women could not eat as the reality of their numbing nightmare began to sink in. Saturday night they went to bed but could not sleep because the ugly images kept tumbling over in their minds.
Staying indoors was suffocating, so early on Sunday, they decided to breathe some fresh air and to perform one last act of love for their fallen leader. Gathering anointing oil, they dragged themselves to the tomb and wondered if anyone would be able to roll the stone away from the entrance. But as they drew near, they could see that the stone had already been rolled away. Various thoughts zipped through their minds. Had the tomb of Jesus been desecrated by vandals? Were the Romans piling on one more insult? Was this some sort of a trap? Should they turn and run?
They held hands to give one another courage, then stooped and entered the tomb. The body of Jesus was nowhere in sight, but there sat a stranger. A young man dressed in a white robe said, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here...but go, tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." And then, the cryptic final verse of Mark's Gospel. "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."
What kind of ending is that? The women flee and do not tell a soul. Jesus does not appear to anyone. Wasn't there more to the story? Why does Mark fall silent?
The ending of Mark's gospel has perplexed people from early times. It is hardly any wonder that within a century, someone added an ending that was similar to what we find in the other three gospels: the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and his disciples. But scholars have concluded beyond a doubt that this longer ending was added later. The earliest manuscripts of Mark end at verse eight with the women not telling anyone because they were afraid. Period.
Various interpreters of Mark's gospel have attempted to explain the odd ending. Some suggest that there must have been a more satisfying ending in Mark's original manuscript, but it was somehow lost. Some suggest that very early in the process of transcribing copies of the gospel, the last page of the original somehow fell off and disappeared. This strikes me as about as likely as the student who tells the teacher that his report is incomplete because his dog ate the last page.
Even more amusing, one melodramatic interpreter suggests that Mark was in the process of writing the final sentences, when suddenly he dropped dead!2
I'm not buying either of those far-fetched hypotheses. I am intrigued by the comment of literary critic, Frank Kermode, who states, "The conclusion (of Mark's Gospel) is either intolerably clumsy; or incredibly subtle."3
Those familiar with Mark's gospel know that the author is a gifted writer who employs sophisticated literary techniques. His abrupt ending was no accident. He left the story hanging for a reason.
I am convinced that Mark ended his gospel as he did because he intended to deny his readers any sense of closure. He did not want us to read his gospel to the end, snap the book shut and say, "Well, that was quite a story; and such an uplifting ending!"
No, Mark wants us to realize that the story of the risen Christ did NOT end with appearances to his first followers; did NOT end with his appearance to the Apostle Paul; did NOT end with the birth of the church. The story of the risen Christ was not the conclusion of an amazing story. It was the beginning.
Mark tells us this in the opening line of his gospel. Matthew begins his gospel with a long genealogy to demonstrate that Jesus was descended from King David and Father Abraham. Luke opens his gospel foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. The Gospel of John opens with the lofting hymn proclaiming Jesus as the Word of God. But, listen to Mark, chapter one, verse one. "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Mark does not narrate a story with an introduction, a main body and a clever conclusion. His entire story is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Remember what the young man in the tomb said to the women? "He has been raised. He is not here...he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him." Why Galilee? Because Galilee represents where they live their ordinary lives. Galilee is not a specific geographical location. It is where they work, where they live, where they raise their families, where they carry out their daily routines.
We might expect the young man in the tomb to say, "Jesus is risen, he will see you later in heaven." That's not what he says. He says, "You will see him in Galilee." The author of Mark's gospel wants us to realize that the resurrection of Jesus is not only a promise of life after death, but also a calling to life before death.
Scott Black Johnston, the pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church will receive a phone call this afternoon. His phone will ring and the voice on the other end will say, "Jesus is on the loose," and then the call will end. The caller will not identify himself, but Scott knows who it is because he receives this call every Easter. It is his roommate from seminary and this is his quirky way of saying, "Christ is risen." But not risen and seated on a throne in some other dimension we name "Heaven," but on the loose in our world. He is out there ahead of us in Galilee – which is Wilmington, Hockessin, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, homeless shelters, battlefields and refugee camps.
We meet the risen Christ in the Lord's Supper as we experience the love and forgiveness of God. We meet the risen Christ in the healing that follows the death of a loved one. We meet the risen Christ in the reconciliation of a friendship that had been destroyed. We meet the risen Christ in the lives of people who had been given up for dead.
Pastor Donovan Drake had a tiring week of work and was not looking forward to spending his Saturday touring the mission projects in his city. He knew where they were located and he was well-acquainted with their mission. But, he had signed up for the bus trip and others were counting on him. He arrived late and quickly climbed onto the bus. He sat across from a man who, after the bus pulled out of the parking lot, stood up. Because of his enormous height, he could not stand erect. He had to curl his body over which put his face just a few inches from Donovan's head. The man had an expansive smile which revealed a golden front tooth.
In a deep voice, he introduced himself: "Hi, I'm Alphonso." Then he launched into the story of his life. For years, alcohol and cocaine had him in their grip. When he was kicked out of his house, he went to live with his mother. She gave him a second chance so many times she lost count. Finally, she kicked him out of her house. His brother took him in, but eventually Alphonso exhausted his brother's patience and he kicked him out. He stayed at his sister's house until she couldn't stand it any longer and she kicked him out. The cycle repeated with his aunt. "Pretty soon," Alphonso said, "there was no other house to get kicked out of and I was on the street." No other house to get kicked out of. For Alphonso, the background music stopped.
But then Alphonso said, "A stranger got me into the Phoenix house." And that's where God brought him back from the dead.
He said, "God never gave up on me. I landed a job, and a job gave me a home, and a home gave me a family. God is so very good."4 Alphonso was as good as dead, but the God of resurrection gave him new life.
Each time the background music stops and there is a deadly silence, you can bet that God is at work creating opportunities for new music to emerge. The story of the risen Christ declares that the final word is not death, but life. The final word is not darkness, but light. The final word is not slavery, but freedom. The final word is not oppression, but justice. The final word is not violence, but peace. The final word is not a rigid, set-in-stone path, but a future alive with bright possibilities.
Keep your eyes peeled every day and wherever you are because Jesus is on the loose and he is resurrecting the dead.
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