Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
April 8, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
We Christians so love to celebrate Easter. It’s the biggest celebration of the Christian year. It’s the biggest celebration of the Christian life. It really is something to celebrate. Jesus the Christ, the one whom we confess to be our Lord and Savior, was dead; and then somehow he wasn’t. It wasn’t possible, of course. It was just true, that’s all. Jesus Christ rose up from the grave. The grave couldn’t hold him. Death couldn’t stop him. What could be better than that? Nothing! Nothing at all could be better than that. So we celebrate, and rightly so.
But did you notice something about our reading of Mark’s version of the Easter story just now? Did you notice how it ends? Mary Magdalene and two other women come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices according to the burial customs of their time and place. To their amazement the large stone that had sealed the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away, and a young man dressed in white tells them that Jesus isn’t there, that he is risen. Then he tells them to go tell the disciples that Jesus, the risen Christ, would see them back in Galilee. The women see that Jesus’ tomb indeed is empty. Then Mark says: “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.” Mark 16:8
Here’s something you need to know about the Gospel of Mark, if you don’t already. That’s how the Gospel really ends, with the women who witnessed the empty tomb saying nothing to anyone about Jesus being raised from the dead because they were terrified and amazed. If you look at the end of Mark in any Bible you will see that there are more verses there after Mark 16:8, but it’s real clear that someone else added those verses later. The way the author of Mark originally told the story it ended with an empty tomb and the women who saw the empty tomb saying nothing to anyone for, as Mark says, “terror and amazement had seized them.”
And here’s another thing about Mark’s Gospel to put alongside that odd story of the women being told to tell of Christ’s resurrection but not doing it. In Mark’s telling of it, during Jesus’ lifetime Jesus tells several people who have experienced him as the Messiah not to tell anyone, but they do. Very early in the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus cures a man with a skin disease. After he does he says to the man “see that you say nothing to anyone….” But Mark then tells us that the man whom Jesus had cured “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word….” Mark 3:43-45 In another story Jesus restores hearing to a man who was deaf. Mark says that Jesus ordered the man who had had his hearing restored and those who had witnessed the event “to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” Mark 7:31-37 In Mark, during Jesus’ life he told people not to say anything about him, but they did. After he had risen from the grave a heavenly messenger told the women to say that he had risen, but they didn’t.
It’s odd, isn’t it. We ask why? Why did people Jesus had healed tell about him though he told them not to but the women at the empty tomb didn’t tell about him though they had been told to do so? I don’t claim to be certain about why Mark told the story that way, but here’s an explanation that makes sense to me. Perhaps it will make sense to you too.
People proclaimed Jesus during his lifetime, though they had been told not to, because then, during his life when he was healing people, he was the kind of Messiah they expected, and the Messiah they expected wasn’t scary. He did good things for people without making any real demands on the people he healed, only that they not tell anyone about it. He was safe. He wasn’t scary. He did wonderful things for people; and his request that they keep quiet about him didn’t make any sense to them, just as it doesn’t make much sense to most of us. So they talked. So they proclaimed him to all who would listen.
The women at the empty tomb didn’t proclaim his resurrection although they had been told to proclaim it because, I think, they knew that while the Messiah they expected wasn’t scary, the Messiah they got was. Mark tells us as much. He says the women said nothing because “terror and amazement had seized them.” The amazement part is easy enough to understand. It isn’t every day someone who is truly dead gets up and walks out of the grave. The amazement part is easy to get, but terror? Really? Terror? Why terror? The Greek word that is translated here (in the NRSV) as terror means something like “trembling with fear.” (In some translations the word is translated as “trembling.”) The women said nothing because they were too afraid, too shook up, to talk. That can only have been, it seems to me, because they knew that this Jesus rising from the grave wasn’t just something to celebrate. It really was something to fear.
Why was it something to fear? Because it was precisely Jesus who rose from the grave. Jesus, the one who healed people, yes; but also the one who taught the people a new vision. A new vision of God as One who demands justice for the poor. Who demands that we beat our swords into ploughshares and learn war no more. Who got himself executed as a threat to the Roman Empire—a threat to all empire—with his vision of God’s alternative realm of compassion, justice, and peace. The women were afraid because they had known Jesus all too well during his life.
And now there could be no more doubt. God had raised Jesus from the grave. They knew what that meant. It meant he really had been the one. Yes, he had been executed as a common political criminal; and that should have meant he’d been wrong, that they had been wrong, that he wasn’t the promised one they had thought he was. But now, now he had risen; and that had to mean something. It had to mean a lot. It had to mean he truly was the Messiah, God’s chosen and anointed one. The one who really did show us God in the flesh. Who really did show us God in a new way, a powerful way, a way that couldn’t be denied any longer. A way that changed everything. A way that absolutely demanded a response. That demanded nothing less than transformation. Transformation of their lives and transformation of their world. That meant they couldn’t go on living as before. They lived in the Roman kingdom to be sure, but now they knew that they had to live the kingdom life of the Kingdom of God, a life very different from life the way the world knows it. A life that denies the claims of the world and its kingdoms, that subverts the kingdoms of the world by showing life the way God intends it to be as opposed to the way it is in the kingdoms of the world. No wonder they were scared. We would have been scared too.
I recently read a suggestion that instead of saying “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” today we should be saying “Oh No! He’s Back!” (In Robin Meyers book The Underground Church.) Yes, Christ’s resurrection is great good news. Yes, Christ’s resurrection is God’s assurance to us that death is not the end. We’re right when we sing in the great hymn with which we began this service (Christ the Lord is Risen Today) “Where O death is now thy sting? Where thy victory O grave?” If that’s all there were to the empty tomb we’d have no reason to be afraid. We could just celebrate the great gift God has given us in Christ’s resurrection with no second thoughts.
Mary Magdalene and the other women who saw the empty tomb knew better. They knew that that’s not all there is to Christ’s resurrection. That’s why they were afraid. They knew that Christ’s resurrection had turned their world on its head. Everything was upside down now. Death had become life. The executed one had become God’s Messiah, God’s prophet of a new and radically different way of life. Death had lost its sting, and now they had no more excuses. Now all the reasons they could give for not following Jesus into the transformed life of the Kingdom of God rang hollow. Now they knew what they had to do.
They had to do what we know the earliest Christians in fact did do. They had to live a different life. They had to care for the poor. They had to refuse to worship the Roman Emperor. Their men had to refuse to serve in the Roman army, or in any army. They had to proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord! And they knew that when they did they were also proclaiming “And Caesar isn’t!” Caesar wasn’t going to like that, and Caesar killed people he didn’t like. Oh, there was plenty of reason for the women to be afraid.
There is plenty of reason for us to be afraid too, for us to say “Oh No! He’s Back!” along with our “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” There’s plenty of reason for us to be afraid too because all of those things that the women knew Jesus’ resurrection meant for them, Jesus’ resurrection means for us too. Jesus’ resurrection means life. It means life beyond this life, but it also means a radically transformed life here and now. It means that we too have no excuses for not living the life of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of the world. It means that we too have no excuses for not living lives of justice and peace. Lives of working with the Holy Spirit to make the Kingdom of God real on earth. To live into the prayer we say every Sunday: Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Like the people Jesus ministered to during his life we may want a safe Messiah who only heals and saves. The Messiah we got heals and saves to be sure, but he also expects. He also demands. He expects and demands a lot. And that’s scary. And so we shout Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! And if we really know what the means we also whisper Oh No! He’s Back! Amen.