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Sunday, April 4, 2021
“The Never-ending Story”
Scripture: Isaiah 25:6-9 & Mark 16:1-8
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
What if Dorothy, Toto, and her crew were following the yellow brick road to Oz, only to have the power go out in the theater? Would we know what happened to Dorothy and her crew? Would she actually get home?
What if Star Wars Episode IV (you know, the first one) cut off when Luke is flying towards the Death Star with his band of rebels? Would the rebel forces save the universe from the dark side and its weapon of mass destruction? We wouldn’t know.
What if Marty McFly was in his DeLorean zipping down the street towards Doc Brown’s setup during the lightning storm only to get stuck in the past? We’d be left imagining whether Marty would have to keep avoiding his teenage parents. Would he make a life for himself thirty years in the past? Jumping jigowatts! We’d be left guessing.
We like our stories, and we like to know their endings. It’s human to want things wrapped up nicely. We even see that in the Bible. Mark’s gospel doesn’t seem to have an ending. There is all sorts of speculation about this because the oldest manuscripts end midsentence. They close with the line “for they were afraid.” Not exactly the stuff that inspires the launch of a new worldwide movement, is it? Some who have studied this issue propose that the ending of Mark got lost – almost like the final reel of a film becoming unusable or someone removing Act V from Shakespeare’s plays. We want our endings.
This drive is so great that the early church provided endings to this gospel that were not original with Mark. Two of them are still in most Bibles to this day, moving on beyond verse 8. I don’t really find the later ending satisfactory. It seems to sum things up just a bit too simply for me. The triumph just seems a bit off in it. It would be like me summing up the narrative arc of the 23-movie Marvel series this way, “The good guys won, and they lived happily ever after.” Doesn’t really satisfy, does it? There’s more gravity there than that quick summary gives.
I actually happen to love that Mark ends midsentence. “For [the women] were afraid” leaves things wide open. Or perhaps this other translation does the trick, “They were afraid because…” Dot, dot, dot. What do they do with their fear? Where does the story go from here? I really don’t care if Mark intended to end midsentence or if, in the strange providence of God, the original ending was lost forever. Why? Because it frees our imagination up to see the mystery and the strangeness of resurrection with new eyes.
So, let’s spend a little time seeing this story through the women’s eyes. They had been part of the crew following Jesus. They were there for the highs and the lows. From a distance these women saw Jesus hung on a cross. This great man – who brought new meaning to their lives, who had the power to heal and help, who had all the right words to say, who made staggering claims about who he was – was meeting a gruesome end. Crucifixion was public. It was brutal and humiliating. They saw Jesus hanging on the cross. What would it mean for this movement?
After Jesus breathed his last, they followed his body to see where it would be laid. They were witnesses to all that had happened to Jesus, who was laid in the tomb before sundown on Friday. Once the Sabbath was over, the women went to buy spices. This would have been Saturday night. Clearly, they were not expecting anything except his body in a tomb. They were there, hoping someone would be there to roll the stone away so they could do what they came to do.
Throughout this season we’ve been using art as a guide into these stories. I have one more for us today that is based upon this text. The landscape does look a lot like Jerusalem. What I find fascinating about this painting is what is in focus and what is not. The olive tree dominates the right side of the painting. It is ancient and solid. It is also in focus, with detail that is absent in the rest of the picture. This tree has seen a lot of life. Given its size, it could have been around Jerusalem even when David was king 1000 years earlier. Unlike the olive tree, the rest of the scene, including the women, is not in focus. You can make out a look of amazement on their faces. There is the glow of the morning sun illuminating the image, a hint at a new day dawning. All three women have their hands in the air as if to say, “What in the world is going on?”
When we encounter something that is mysterious, we experience a mixture of fear and amazement. That’s what happens at the end of Mark’s gospel. Something entirely unexpected and new has occurred. Their expectations were thwarted. They showed up with spices to work with a cold, dead body. Instead, the encountered a tomb with no Jesus but instead a young man who tells them something jaw-dropping. “Do not be alarmed,” he says. As if! “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here….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.” I imagine these women racing out of the tomb as though they had seen a ghost. The fled the scene. Mark gives no report of them finding the disciples to share this strange news. Rather, Mark’s final words echo through the years. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
So, what do we make of this strange ending here on Easter? It all feels so unresolved. But I like it that way. When the story doesn’t tie up neatly into a bow, I think it puts the responsibility back on those who are hearing the story. What will we do with it? Like these women, we are the bearers of the strange and wonderful news about the resurrection. It’s the greatest news ever, but it’s hard news. I think if I were there on that day, I’d be afraid too. I be afraid of those who wanted Jesus to die. They might be after me too. I’d be afraid of a world where the dead don’t stay dead. I think I’d be afraid, too, to share such strange news with a skeptical world. And what if I failed? Would the church die with my failure?
Friends, this is the never-ending story. God is inviting each of us to write the chapters still to come. What will you do with this news? How will you respond? We are part of the continuation of that story, and our story is still being written. What will we do with the reality of Easter in our lives – not just on this lovely Sunday but every day God gives us breath?