Text: Mark 16:1-8
A Happy Easter to all of you, gathered from New Hampshire to Colorado to New Jersey to Washington state to Illinois to Minnesota, and of course to all of you at home here in Ames. Lucky me, I became a televangelist just in time for Easter!
When we think of Easter, we think of Easter egg hunts and gathering with family and friends. We think of Easter breakfast with Barbara running the kitchen, John Whitaker’s biscuits and gravy, and of course Wallace Sanders’ grits. (I recommend cheese and hot sauce on your grits, by the way.)
We may think of the church filled with lilies and tulips and daffodils. When I think of Easter, I think of great, stirring choir anthems and the church filled with people and filled with sound. And I have to admit that I also think of going to a nice Easter buffet after church, and then a big nap after the exhaustion of Holy Week.
With the possible exception of an afternoon nap, hardly any of that will happen this year. This Easter is unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes. Around the world, Christians are staying away from churches on Easter Sunday.
We are used to Easter being a big production. We are celebrating that Jesus rose from the dead, that Christ is alive. We are celebrating new life. We are celebrating resurrection. This is at the core of our faith, and if we can’t make a big production out of that, we have a problem.
But the celebration is different this time around. It is not going to be flashy. But I would dare to say that this Easter may be more like that first Easter morning than any we have experienced before.
This morning we read Mark’s account of the resurrection. Compared to the other gospels, it’s very short - only 8 verses. It is sparse. There is not a lot of detail. It is uncertain. We are left with a lot more questions than answers. It is not a big production.
But we are living in a sparse time, an uncertain time, and maybe this is exactly the word we need for today.
We are told that three women head to Jesus’ tomb early on a Sunday morning: Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James. Mary the mother of James may have been Mary the mother of Jesus – Jesus had a brother named James and maybe Mark was underplaying the fact that this was Jesus’ mother - but we don’t know for sure.
Jesus was buried in a stone tomb. This was generally the way that wealthy people were buried; poor people were buried in the ground. But Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council and a person of means, went to Pilate and boldly asked for the body. This no doubt raised some eyebrows. It was Joseph who provided the tomb.
The women had gone to the tomb early that morning to prepare the body for burial. They would wash the corpse and prepare it with spices. This was a very tender, very personal and intimate act of caring. Of course, by this point the body was already buried, so what was the deal?
Well, the circumstances dictated this. Jesus died on a Friday afternoon and was hastily buried before the Sabbath began. The Sabbath did not end until Saturday evening, and they would not do this at night, so early Sunday morning would have been their first opportunity.
Besides the timing precluding such preparation before the burial, there was also the not insignificant fact that Jesus had been executed as a criminal, guilty of sedition against the state. What these women were doing was potentially dangerous. But preparing a body for burial in this way was an important practice in Judaism, and this was a final act of love.
So the women went to the burial place early that morning, as soon as they could after Jesus’ death. But they had not thought through everything. On the way they worried about the stone that closed the tomb and how they would move it.
But when they arrived, the stone had been moved. They entered the tomb and saw a young man dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed, to put it mildly. I mean, you would be too. He says to them, “Do not be afraid.” This is nearly always the way that angels address people. “Do not be afraid. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
We continue reading: “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.”
That is the way that the Gospel of Mark ends. Right there. Just like that. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
It is no surprise that Mark is probably the least read gospel on Easter Sunday. Things are just left up in the air. And in fact this was such an unsatisfying conclusion to Mark that early Christians added some explanatory verses. Your Bible probably has in brackets a so-called shorter ending in verse 9 and then a longer ending that goes on for 11 more verses. These verses are not found in the earliest manuscripts we have of Mark, and the original ending was apparently verse 8. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Today, we see Easter as a great celebration. We celebrate because we know the rest of the story. We know the meaning of the empty tomb and its promise for us.
The women did not have that. They were unsure. The last few days had been a nightmare, and all they had was an empty tomb and the word of a young man, possibly sent by God, telling them that Jesus had been raised. They were at the same time filled with hope and scared to death.
At this point, Jesus’ followers were on lockdown. They were in quarantine. They were afraid to venture out.
What if the women went and spread the news? Who would believe them? And more to the point, would they be likely to suffer the same fate as Jesus? Would the same guards who arrested Jesus come and arrest them? No, they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
What kind of a way is this to end a gospel? Maybe it is exactly what we need. It ends in uncertainty. The story is unfinished. But if we go back to the very first sentence of Mark, which we read back on the first Sunday of January, this is what we read: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Those words are not just describing the first couple of chapters of Mark. This is a subtitle for the entire gospel. The whole thing is just the beginning. And in a sense, what comes next is up to us.
The young man in the tomb told the women that Jesus had gone ahead of them to Galilee, and that they were to tell the others. The message is, “Get yourself up to Galilee and Jesus will meet you there.”
In two thousand twenty, the year of quarantine, the year of the coronavirus, on this Easter Sunday as we, like those first disciples, are gathered in our homes under lockdown, the message for us is this: Jesus is not to be found in the grave. He has been raised. He has gone ahead of us.
“Jesus has gone ahead of you to Galilee.” I wonder – where is Galilee for us? Where is Galilee today?
Jesus has gone ahead of us - to nursing homes where families visit loved ones by waving through a window
- to intensive care units where patients struggle for life
- to clinics and hospitals where staff lacking proper protective gear care for patients
Jesus has gone ahead of us to homes where those out of work wait on hold on the phone for hours, trying to sign up for unemployment
- to children who miss school and miss seeing their friends
- to young people who can’t take the test for their driver’s license or have a senior prom or a commencement ceremony
Jesus has gone ahead of us to be with those who are suffering and yet having to put off medical procedures
- to grocery stores where teenagers and employees who can barely make ends meet are keeping the country running
Jesus has gone ahead of us to factories and warehouses and job sites where folks are doing essential work, but social distancing is a foreign concept
- to homes where parents are trying to work, children are trying to do lessons, and everyone is stressed
Jesus has gone ahead of us to communities of color where people are dying from the virus at alarming rates
- to rural communities – places like Galilee – where health care is lacking and ICU beds are few and far between
Jesus has gone on ahead – even to people like you and me. Jesus has gone to all of those places and all of those people who are desperately in need of hope.
And because Christ arose, because God’s love is greater even than death, we have the promise of new life, abundant life, beyond all of the hurts and pains and disappointments and injustices and heartaches and deaths of this world.
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… he is going ahead of you.
Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed. Alleluia!! Amen.