A Promise Kept
Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!
Today it’s Easter, everyone dressed in finery, the sanctuary decorated unlike any other time of the year. The music is bigger, the program is bigger, everything is ramped up to celebrate. It’s the biggest day of the year, and I don’t know about you…but I need it. I need a reminder that life comes in the face of death, that God wins in the end, that even the most unbelievable thing can happen—has happened—and has changed the whole world.
Some of you know my friend Stan Hastey. Stan remembers a sermon he heard just a few days after Easter in 1968. He was a student at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated two weeks before. Race riots had broken out in Memphis, and in this city, and in others. A dark shadow had fallen across the American landscape. The students who gathered for chapel on that April day needed to hear an encouraging word. They looked up hopefully as the Reverend Charles Boddie, an African-American preacher from Nashville, Tennessee, made his way to the pulpit. They shifted in their pews and then waited, expectantly, for Boddie to speak. When he did, his voice was little more than a whisper. Pointing back to the Sunday before he said, “Easter, this year, came just in the nick of time.” (Thanks to Jim Somerville for this recounting.)
It came just in the nick of time…when darkness still covered the city and the disciples were huddled in hiding in fear and the women were making their way toward the tomb…something happened. God kept a promise. God kept a promise that God would not leave, that death was not the end, that there would be something more. Just in the nick of time.
We may not be sure it happened, if we’d only had the Mark passage from this morning to go by. Mark leaves us hanging a little bit this morning. You’ll recall that our Gospel reading ends rather abruptly in Mark chapter 16, verse 8. The verse reads: “they (meaning the women) went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Honestly, if I had a few minutes to chat with Mark I would like to tell him that this not a very nice way to end his story of Jesus. All the other Gospel writers put in some nice post-resurrection appearances of Jesus that help to tie everything up as neatly as a bow on an Easter bonnet. But Mark ends here, almost as if he’s been interrupted and the story is not quite done.
In fact, this ending of Mark is so troubling that those who came after Mark amended his memoirs by adding on the remaining verses we find in our modern texts. The language of verses 9-20, commonly known as “the longer ending of Mark” is so very different from grammar and tone of Mark’s Gospel that most would place their addition to the text some 200 years after Mark finished writing.
And, we can understand why! We didn’t work so hard to dye those Easter eggs, slave over favorite recipes or dress up extra nice to be left hanging! We’ve just been through some of the darkest days of the Christian year, days where we pondered over and over again the pain and sorrow of our sin and the horror of Jesus’ death on a cross. We came to church this morning for resolution—for a nice, tidy wrap-up of the story so we can get on with our lives, thank you very much.
We’ve been talking during this season of Lent about God’s promises to us. Story after story after story shows God making promises and keeping promises to people who could never seem to keep their promises to God. Today we celebrate the best promise of all, life in the face of death, and the only thing we can think to do is to join the women, who saw once and for all God’s conquering work…and were afraid.
We need all the help we can get to believe that this man Jesus died . . . dead and crucified, spirit given up and gone, dead, dead, dead, just like we die, and then defied the grave and rose again. But the way Mark leaves things, well, it’s not that easy, is it?
On this, the most triumphant day of our faith, the day in which we embrace what we believe to be a divine conquest over death and pain, I think it might be worth it to consider that perhaps Mark intended to end there.
Perhaps a trailing, open end, with what we know was certainly true—that Jesus’ followers were so desperately afraid for their lives, so confused and so bewildered by this turn of events that they ran away—is really the BEST way to end the story.
Because that wasn’t the end.
If that early morning 2000 years ago was the end, what we would have here is a very nice story about a great man who challenged a political system, loved and healed people and rose from the dead in a way that defied the laws of nature as we know them. What we would have would be a nice fairytale to tell our children at bedtime, a lovely little folktale to use when teaching culture and tradition. What we would have would be a static, encapsulated piece of historical lore that could be pulled out once a year, dusted off and read one more time, then carefully tucked away until next time.
Mark knew that this was not the end of the story. In fact, in order for it to be believable at all, this better had be . . . just the beginning.
The only way those fearful followers believed . . . the only way they came to finally understand that their friend Jesus was, in actual fact, who he said he was, the only way the unbelievable became real to them was . . . by keeping their promises to follow…to keep following…until the story could reach its way into their lives and changed them, until they could summon the courage to believe. That empty tomb was their wake up call—it was what compelled them to get up and finish the story with their very lives.
And today, this Easter, that empty tomb better jar us into awareness, too. The invitation to you and me is clear: we’re going to have to finish the story of resurrection ourselves.
What difference does the risen Christ make in your life? This is not about new clothes for Easter or ham or Easter eggs. This is not about lilies or candles or even beautiful music. This is about the fact that life is hard, that death and pain and uncertainty and fear, injustice and war are tangibly here. Right here, part of our lives all the time. What good is it to go around once a year retelling a fairytale if it doesn’t mean anything?
Well, let me tell you. We’re not here because we want to recount every post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, to try to bring back to life the accounts of those first disciples. We’re not here to try to image a Galilean man in rough burlap robes and rustic sandals making his way into our sanctuary. We’re not here to uncover archeological evidence of resurrection.
We’re here because we’re human and we hurt; because we want hope for our lives; because we believe, we know, that to finish this story means to keep our promises to God, to wake up to possibilities and hope we never imagined before.
We’re here because in our humanity we have turned from the tomb in utter defeat and crippling fear and, despite that, have the end of this story to tell.
We’re here because we have seen the living power of the resurrected Christ in our lives and in our world, and what was once so strangely unbelievable has now become an urgent proclamation, not of a dusty ancient text, but of our immediate, 21st century lives.
Something happened after that morning at the tomb. The women left, the text says, too scared to say anything to anyone. But in less than 50 years the entire world had been transformed by the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. His radical mandate to love each other, his offer of direct connection to God, the healing grace of his death and resurrection changed the women at the tomb . . . and changed the world, because those women had the courage to keep their promises to follow, the courage to finish the story.
And it didn’t stop. No, the story continues. The story of new life and relationship with God is a story that is lived out over and over again in my life, in your life, in the lives of people all over this world who will follow the one who proclaimed that death is not the end, that there is more to this story, and that it is our job to gather our wits about us, our hopes and dreams, our fears, failures and grief, and turn from this incredible sight to live out the ending . . . that death is not the final word and that we have new life in Christ.
“He is not here; he is risen,” the man at the tomb said, but that was only the beginning of the story.
Can we keep our promise to God? Can we gather the courage to turn from the empty tomb, maybe fearful and maybe unsure, and allow the power of the resurrected Christ to enter our lives and transform them, until we are absolutely, positively compelled to finish the story . . . starting right here, in our own hearts?
We can. And, by the grace of God, we will. Because God has kept God’s promise…because resurrection is here…and it has come just in the nick of time. Amen.