Here is my Easter sermon from this morning at First Church of Christ Congregational of East Haddam, Connecticut.
“They Were Terrified . . .’
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 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.
It’s an odd way to end the story, don’t you think?
Listen to the last sentence again: “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.”
The oldest copies of Mark’s gospel that we have end there. Others came back later and tried to add some closing thoughts, but Mark stopped at the empty tomb, with everyone trying to figure out what happened. Though we have two thousand years of explanations, in many ways every Easter morning leaves us trying to figure out what happened, and what it means to say Christ is risen indeed.
The first words of Mark’s gospel read, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” I have a friend who says the words are the title of the gospel rather than the opening sentence. The whole story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the beginning of the gospel. We are still writing it.
If we go back to the ending with that in mind, then it is not such an odd thing that Mark ends with their fear and amazement at the empty tomb. Perhaps he never intended to wrap things up neatly. He wrote the beginning of the story, and then he left room for what was to come after it. Mark wanted to make sure we understood coming to terms with Jesus’ resurrection was not as simple as a happy ending. Whatever the women had thought of Jesus, the fear that gripped them when they found the empty tomb tells us it might have been the last thing they were expecting. And the trembled in fear and amazement.
An acquaintance told me a story about her neighbor’s dog. She said she was sitting on the front porch of her duplex, when the next door neighbor’s Labrador came out of the yard across the street with a rabbit in its mouth. The across-the-street neighbor had a rabbit she kept in a cage. She called the dog’s owner and he got the rabbit away from the Lab, and they talked about how to tell the neighbor who was not yet home from work. They decided to clean the rabbit up and put it back in the cage. Then, when the woman came home, they would go across and tell her.
They watched the woman pull in her driveway and go in her house. They heard her back door open as she went outside. And then they heard a horrific scream. They ran across the street, trying to act surprised. “What happened?” they asked her.
She almost couldn’t talk. “I don’t know,” she said. “My rabbit died two days ago and I buried it. Today I came home and it was back in the cage!”
Trembling and amazement.
The women came to the tomb because they thought Jesus was dead. They came to mourn. When they got there, the tomb was open and someone other than Jesus was inside, telling them Jesus had gone on to Galilee. They didn’t see him. Jesus had told them what was coming time and again, but it had not sunk in. They had not been able to hear it. Instead, they were shocked and scared, and then silenced by their fear.
And yet, here we are telling the story. Someone spoke up. Someone kept telling the gospel of Jesus Christ that Mark began. Fear and trembling were not the last words. Jesus did meet them in Galilee—in the flesh. He was risen. Risen indeed.
A number of years ago, Ginger, my wife, and I were in Greece as they were celebrating Orthodox Easter. When we got to our hotel, the concierge greeted me by saying, “Christos anesti.” Then he leaned over the desk and said, “And you must answer, ‘Alethos anesti.’ I am saying, ‘Christ is risen,’ and you answer, ‘He really did it.’”
Yes, he really did.
So what, then do we do? How will we respond?
That those who were close to Jesus were devastated by his death is no surprise. We could go around the room here telling our stories and find that most us are acquainted with grief. But to come to the tomb and find that Jesus had really done what he said—that he was alive—changed everything.
Once resurrected, Jesus went back to Galilee. “He’s gone on ahead to meet you there,” the messenger said. Jesus had already gone back to daily life. He was waiting to see what they would do next. Maybe that is part of what terrified them. As hard as it was, they knew how to go back to life in the face of loss, but how could they stay the same if Jesus was alive? What did it mean for them to know that the love of God was stronger than death, or desperation, or hopelessness?
On this Resurrection Day, the questions are the same for us. How will we turn our terror and amazement into compassion and courage in the name of the Risen Christ? To say the love of God is stronger than fear or death doesn’t make either of them go away. To be courageous is not to be fearless, but to act through our fear. To trust God is not to be unquestioning, but to act without demanding certainty. To be hopeful is not to be optimistic that everything will be okay, but to make meaning in our suffering. The empty tomb did solve everything. Maybe that’s what Mark stopped where he did. Or, maybe, he stopped there so that we would have to be the ones who showed, by the way we live out our faith in Christ, that fear is not the last word.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen.