The story goes that, at the funeral of the great escape artist, Harry Houdini, as two of the pallbearers, Dillingham and Ziegfield, carried Houdini's casket out of the church, Dillingham leaned over to Ziegfield and whispered, "Ziggie, I bet you a hundred bucks he ain't in there."
Apparently at the time of their deaths, Houdini had more believers than our Lord.
Because all four of our Easter gospel accounts are in agreement that, early on that first Easter morning, Jesus' followers had pretty low expectations. In Mark's gospel, it is Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome who go first to the tomb. They go there early in the morning right after the sun has risen.
I don't imagine it was hard for them to get up so early. I'd guess they hadn't gotten much sleep over the last couple of nights. We've all had nights like that, haven't we? When a loved one has died or some great grief has befallen us and it seems as if the only thing darker than the blackness of the night is the sorrow in our souls.
I remember like it was yesterday a September evening in 1997. We’d just finished dinner. The phone rang and it was my dad on the other end telling me that my only brother, 47 at the time, had died suddenly of a heart attack on the way home from work on the train. I remember that first night when I went to sleep. I didn’t really sleep much. But when I did and I’d awake, even before that news registered in my mind, even before I was fully awake, I just had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know some of you, probably many of you, know what I mean.
When I was pastoring in Dayton, Ohio, a 19 year old young lady, who doctors had been treating for tension headaches, had a sudden rupture of a severe brain aneurysm. That first night she hovered between life and death. The next morning when I visited the hospital, I asked the father if he had gotten any sleep. He said, "Oh, I slept like a baby. I woke up every hour or so crying."
Those three women had stood at the foot of the cross and watched Jesus die a slow and agonizing death. No doubt it was an image seared into their minds and not easily shaken from their grief-stricken souls.
And that's how Easter begins – hardly an auspicious start. It began with sorrow and darkness, even despair. And that, perhaps, is a good and healthy thing for us to acknowledge. Because, you know, Easter is more than brightly colored eggs, the holiday ham, and happy children fueled by a never-ending supply of chocolate and sugar. Easter is a holy day, not a holiday that requires us to swallow the lump in our throats, suck it up, pretend that the struggles of our lives don't exist. Church is not a place where we must put on a happy face, like the Eleanor Rigby of Beatles fame, wearing a face that we keep in a jar by the door.
No, Easter may just be the most appropriate occasion of all to admit and acknowledge just how difficult our lives can be.
As those three women of Mark's gospel made their way to the tomb that morning, their minds were troubled. Jesus was dead and, what was even worse, they couldn't imagine how they would move the massive rock that covered his tomb to anoint his body. It was an important religious ritual. But even more than that it was one final opportunity to demonstrate their love for Jesus; something they no doubt needed for closure. But their anxiety about that stone was unnecessary and their worry was needless. For, when they arrived at the tomb, the stone was already rolled away. What's more, as they entered the tomb, they were greeted by an angel. Now, the angel appears to have only heightened their anxiety. Angels generally do. That's why, pretty much anywhere you look in the bible angels have a standard opening line: "Do not be afraid." Next, the angel delivers news too wonderful to even comprehend, apparently. She assures them: they’ve come looking for a dead man. But they’re not going to find him here in this place of death because he has risen from the dead. Jesus is no longer in this tomb of death for he has risen to life.
Then the angel gives the women a commission, a job to do. The angel tells them that they are to GO and TELL because this is news too wonderful, too miraculous for them to keep it to themselves.
But here's where Mark’s Easter story takes a bizarre twist. Because, did you notice how the women responded to the angel's news? Oh, they go alright. But they don't go and tell. Instead they flee in fear with mouths slammed shut. The gospel writer tells us: "They told nothing to any one, for they were terrified."
You know, "fear" plays a pretty prominent role in the gospel of Mark because, strangely enough, when people experience the power of Jesus to sustain and restore life, it doesn’t fill them joy and peace and comfort. It scares the begeebies out of them. It completely freaks them out. They don’t know what to do.
Mark tells us that on one occasion Jesus comes walking across the sea toward his disciples in the midst of an early morning storm. He has power to command the wind and the waves. That’s good, isn’t it? But it just fills them with fear.
In Gerasene Jesus encounters a man with a legion of demons. Jesus casts them out of a man and into a herd of pigs who run off the side of a cliff and fall into the sea where they drown and are destroyed. Not a good thing for the pigs. But what can I tell you? Jesus was Jewish. The people from the village come out to see this man; once completely out of his mind. Now he’s clean and clothed and in his right mind and sitting there listening to Jesus. It’s miraculous. But the villagers tell Jesus to go away; they want him to leave their town… because they're afraid of his power.
When Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured on a mountain and standing in the presence of Moses and Elijah, they are petrified.
And most of all, anytime Jesus tries to teach his disciples about his impending death in Jerusalem, they are horrified. After Jesus is arrested, Peter is so afraid that he denies even knowing Jesus. And none of the disciples can muster up the courage to hang tough with Jesus 'til the end.
But, that was before Easter, right? Didn't Easter change everything? I mean, surely the miracle of resurrection brought all that fear to a quick and thorough end, wouldn't you think?
So how can this be? In this morning’s scripture, these women have received the best news ever imaginable. How on earth, face to face with an empty tomb, can they possibly remain silent? How, face to face with an angelic messenger, can they possibly keep quiet? How, now that Jesus' pre-crucifixion promises have been fulfilled and proven true, how can they possibly keep the good news to themselves?
And, perhaps the biggest question of all, how could our gospel writer have given us an ending so troubling and so disappointing?
Well, if it does trouble you – as it troubles me – I assure you, we are not the first to be troubled by this gospel ending. As a matter of fact, in most bibles today, if you read beyond this morning's verses, you will see editor's notes. They give you information on the amendments to Mark's gospel – a shorter ending and a longer ending. Both of which are significantly more encouraging than this morning's ending. You see, even from the start, Mark's original version seemed to beg for a re-write.
And those amendments to the original provide the good news that someone did tell. And there's nothing hard to believe about that. We could be at Denny’s right now eating an omelette or at home reading the paper with a cup of coffee. But we’re not, we’re here. Look around you this morning. Look around this sanctuary. Obviously someone told. If they hadn't, we wouldn't be here today celebrating the good news that, at least initially, scared those poor women speechless.
But you know, I for one, think that Mark is a better story-teller and a pretty gifted evangelist because maybe it’s not so bad to be troubled a little on Easter. Maybe from time to time, we need to be challenged and we need to ask ourselves: "Did Easter change everything? Did it change everything for us? Did the miracle of the resurrection bring our fear to an end? Did it loose our tongues to go and tell?"
Mark is a gifted story teller, a gifted evangelist, because he draws us into the story. We become more than an audience; we become participants. Mark’s open ended conclusion invites us to pick up the pen, so to speak, where he left off. My friends, in chapter 1, verse 1, Mark tells us that his story is the beginning of the gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And you and I are the builders on that foundation, that beginning.
But some of you here this morning might have come to church carrying your own fears, your own anxieties, your own low expectations. Your morning may have begun in darkness… that’s more than likely since we live at the end of the time zone. But it’s light out now. And Jesus isn’t in that tomb anymore. He is risen. Easter, my friends, isn’t the end of the story; it’s the beginning. This morning’s gospel story is wonderful words of life for you and me because Easter has changed everything. Easter has brought light out of darkness; hope out of fear; power out of weakness; and most of all, life out of death. Jesus’ crucifixion looked like death; it looked like defeat; it looked like the end of the story. But it was just the beginning.
Do you believe that Jesus ain't in the tomb?
If you do, then it changes how we live. And it becomes good news that we cannot possibly keep to ourselves. So, GO and TELL because “Christ is risen!”
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
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