The story goes on

Mademoiselle Gachet in the Garden/Van Gogh

TEXT (Mark 16:1-8):  When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But 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." 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.

To see all the texts for the Vigil service at which this sermon was preached, click here.

Not everyone loves the way that the evangelist Mark finishes his story that started off with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We like our stories to have a nice ending, with everything neatly tied up, but Mark stopped with these verses where the women fled from the tomb, terrified, and told no one what they had seen. The end. 

Of course it wasn’t the end, but that’s how Mark finished his book. Some later folks disliked this ending so much that they added more verses, including some about snake handling, which I am not sure is any improvement. But again, it wasn’t the end anyway. Because it it were, then we would not be here this evening.

The story of God doesn’t have an ending, you see. Tonight we have heard many stories - how God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, how God showed the prophet Ezekiel that God could breathe new life into what was given up for dead, how God will provide for those who have waited for salvation and give us new hearts and new spirits, how God will restore those who have come through sorrow and disaster. The story of Jesus is the continuation of those stories, seen in the context of them. The story of Jesus is a story, like those that came before, that shows how God from time to time intervenes in the world to liberate God’s people. It is, like those Old Testament stories that came before, about salvation.

And the way that the Gospel reading tonight stops reminds us that the story is not ended but must continue, now that we get it about who Jesus is and what God has done in him. Now it is our turn to continue the story ourselves because Jesus has gone on ahead, and calls us to look for him and to follow him, too.

I have to tell you, though, that in that call to look for Jesus and to follow him, it’s not meant to be easy. All of these stories we’ve heard tonight admit that life is hard, that there is disaster and sorrow and loss of hope and even death all around. That young man who greeted the two Marys, sitting in the tomb, wearing the white robe of a martyr had good news - Jesus has been raised! Death could not hold him!- but it wasn’t the part about Jesus being raised that terrified the women. It was the martyr’s robe. Jesus had told them all that following him meant that they must take up their crosses, and this young man was confirming it. 

And so they ran out, terrified. Just as the male disciples had run out of the garden, terrified, when Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane. Just as Peter went away weeping after he denied Jesus three times. This doesn’t feel like good news, it feels like hard news.

But the young man had other news as well and there is no ambiguity there - there is pardon and restoration for even those who deserted and denied Jesus. Tell the disciples and Peter - the ones who scattered and left Jesus alone to his fate - Jesus is keeping his promise even when they haven’t been able to keep theirs. That’s the great thing about God, and about Jesus who shows us God. The Divine promises are kept no matter our ability to always stay faithful.

And the story is not ended. The women did tell, of course, and Peter and the disciples were forgiven, and they did continue to follow Jesus. They’d had a hard time understanding Jesus up until now, because was more to him than what they had seen so far. His true identity wasn’t revealed until after the crucifixion and resurrection.

And this is why I love the way Mark decided to close his narrative - because if all the players come out ok in the end and forever after, they regather in Galilee where it all began, have a happy reunion sort of like the Hobbits did in The Lord of the Rings, and everything is all tied up neatly, then we can just sit here in our chairs and feel gratitude and then we can go home and watch a movie and head off to bed, content that the long ago and far away story is done.

But the story is not done. We are expected to respond. The young man was not just talking to the women, and he wasn’t just asking them to convey a message to the men who had deserted Jesus. He was also conveying a message to us. We, too, are expected to look for Jesus and follow him. We have to keep the story moving forward, and when we fail we too will be forgiven.

This is a story that is asking us to become disciples. This is a story that is asking us to respond to the suffering and death that Jesus underwent, and to respond to the fact that he was raised and we are raised with him to new life. And at the same time, this is a story that does not shy away from the cost of discipleship. We are not being invited into a fantasy. We are being invited to become disciples of the Holy One of God, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, died, and raised, and to follow him in this world, now, as it is, now, to bring life and hope, now, into a world that is more interested in power and wealth and violence than striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being.

God has raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead after his great ordeal. The powers thought they had gotten rid of him, that they could go on, business as usual, but they were wrong. The resistance to those powers goes on, as it has from generation to generation, and we are the ones to carry it forward now. We are in the story now. We are the disciples.