The Rest of the Story
I’ll bet it felt a little like sleep-walking, or, maybe like making your way through water with heavy weights strapped to your hands and feet.
The Sabbath was over, and three of the women who had followed Jesus for years and who had walked with him all the way to the cross, who had supervised his burial, needed to return to the tomb to finish embalming his body.
So, despite their mind-numbing grief and desperately tired bodies, they got up before the dawn on the first day of the week and made their way to the tomb. You know their feet were as heavy with grief as their hearts. But they did what we all do when grief visits: wake up the next day, take one foot and put it in front of the other, keep doing what you have to do.
I can only imagine the thoughts going through their heads as they walked toward the tomb. What would they find? How would they move the stone? How could they face the body of their friend Jesus?
Their eyes must have been raw from the crying. They’d thought, they’d thought, they’d thought . . . he was the one.
They had believed with every ounce of who they were that he was Messiah.
But Messiah doesn’t die.
When they arrived at the tomb, the huge stone had been rolled away; it looked empty, abandoned. And they peered around the corner into the tomb and saw, not his broken and lifeless body as they’d left it on Friday, but a young man wearing a white robe, the Gospel of Mark tells us. He told them not to be afraid. But, after everything they’d just lived through pretty much the only thing they COULD feel was afraid. Afraid of the government; afraid of the Jewish leadership; afraid of each other; afraid of the future; afraid of this strange man wearing a white robe.
And Mark’s Gospel tells us that the man said to them, “Jesus is risen. He is not here.” Well, the he is not here part was pretty obvious—the stone slab where they’d laid him was empty. But, he is risen? Unbelievable.
So they turned away and left because, our Gospel lesson ends, they were afraid.
Now, let me ask you, if you were going to set out to prove something that seemed totally and utterly unbelievable, what would you do?
The writer of Mark’s Gospel had that overwhelming task, that of telling a dramatic story that defied belief in every sense of the word, from start to finish. The grief and pain, the political intrigue, the deceit and betrayal, the broken promises and shattered dreams, the angels, the stone, the crucified savior . . . arisen?
Well, whatever it is that one should do to tell this story so folks could believe it, the writer of Mark’s gospel does not do it. Here we are on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and Mark’s gospel leaves out all of the embellishments that answer our questions.
I guess I wasn’t the only one concerned about that. If you check any Bible you’ll notice that the text of Mark’s gospel goes beyond the last verse we heard today, but those 11 added verses are not in the original manuscripts; they were certainly added later. Someone thought, like me, that Mark forgot a couple essentials, things like, an appearance of Jesus to Mary near the tomb (you’ll read that in the Gospel of John) or the enthusiastic rush of the women and Peter and John to run and tell everyone what the angels said, that Jesus was alive (you’ll read that in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels). Mark doesn’t even add in post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to underscore the fact that they had hard proof of Jesus’ resurrection (that’s in the longer ending of Mark’s gospel).
Nope, here in Mark there’s one little guy in a white robe sitting in the empty tomb who says Jesus has risen. And the women did NOT run to tell everyone what they knew. Instead, as you heard, Mark’s original text of the entire book recounting the life of Jesus of Nazareth and telling of his time on earth, his death and his resurrection from the dead ends with verse 8, which reads: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
I heard a story recently about a composer. Apparently this composer was a man who created music on the piano, and he worked late into the night on his compositions. Every night he was compelled to work until he could come to a logical stopping place—the end of a movement or the final measure of a piece. And because he tried so hard to bring closure to his work he often spent the whole night working and sleep well into the next day.
This habit drove his wife completely crazy.
She preferred he work on a schedule closer to that of the rest of the world; it was hard for her to run the house, manage the children, cook and clean when she had to work around his sleeping form until mid afternoon most days.
The problem was that this man seemed hard-wired to maintain this sleeping pattern; he just could not calm down for the night until he reached a logical stopping place in his work. No matter what she did his wife could not get him to change his sleeping schedule. Alarm clocks did not work; letting the kids run riot would not work; repairs to the house, the washing machine running . . . nothing seemed to be able to get him to go to bed at a decent hour and get up to begin work with the rest of the world.
One day as his wife was lugging a full laundry basket through the living room she glanced toward the piano, stacked with the tools of her husband’s work, pencils strewn around unfinished scores in piles. He was upstairs sleeping. Then his wife noticed off to the side a piece of music and suddenly had a thought.
She sat down at the keyboard and played the music. She played and played and played until the very last note. . . which she did not play then she went back to her laundry.
Sure enough, a few minutes later she heard her husband clomping down the stairs, rushing to the piano and triumphantly playing that one final note. He couldn’t sleep until it was finished!
Every morning from that day forward, before she began her morning chores, the composer’s wife would pull the bench up to the piano and play for awhile—enough to perk his sleeping ears up—and then she’d get up from the piano without playing that final note. Problem solved.
Why would the writer of Mark’s gospel tell such a compelling story of the life and ministry of Jesus and end in such a way that leaves us hanging? Why wouldn’t he detail like the other gospels every appearance of Jesus, every expression of faith by his followers, every ounce of proof that the unbelievable actually happened?
After all, 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. We want to shake him, “Help us, Mark, because this is just so unbelievable!!”
On this, the most triumphant day of our faith, the day in which we embrace a divine conquest over death and pain, I think it might be worth it to consider that perhaps Mark intended the ending just like he wrote it. In fact, maybe a trailing, open end, telling us 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, a static, encapsulated piece of historical lore that we could pull out once a year, dust off and read one more time, then carefully tuck away until next year.
Mark knew, you see, that the end of his written account was not actually the end of the story. In fact, what happened that morning in the cold breaking of the dawn . . . was just the beginning.
Recall that nobody who found an empty tomb that morning believed that resurrection was even possible . . . 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 . . . when they began to allow the story to reach its way into their lives and change them . . . until they were absolutely and positively compelled to finish the story for themselves, with their very lives.
And today, so far away from the events of the Gospel of Mark, if Easter will mean anything to you and me, just like the first disciples, we’re going to have to finish the story ourselves.
This glorious day is not about new clothes for Easter or ham or Easter eggs. It’s not about lilies or candles or beautiful music. We’re not even here to try to image a Galilean man in rough burlap robes and rustic sandals making his way into our sanctuary, to uncover archeological evidence of resurrection.
We’re here because we’re human and we hurt; because we need hope for our lives; because we believe, we know, that to finish this story means to allow the resurrected Christ to enter our lives, transform our pain and our fear, and give us new life, relationship with God, and healed and whole relationship with each other.
We’re here because in our humanity, like the first disciples, we tend to turn from the tomb in utter defeat and crippling fear. But we have seen the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives and in the world, and what was once so desperately unbelievable has now become an urgent proclamation.
What happens next is the real power of the Easter story. When we turn and leave this place, will the risen Savior take up residence in our hearts, shaping, changing, renewing, transforming, making us agents of healing and hope in the world?
He is not here; he is risen, the man said, but that was only the beginning of the story. The women left, the text says, too scared to say anything to anyone. But in less than 50 years the entire world would be transformed by the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His radical mandate to love God and 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 finish the story.
Now it’s our opportunity to turn from the empty tomb, maybe fearful and probably 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 . . . we can’t rest until the message of Jesus changes us and changes our world.
What an unbelievable story. It began early that morning when three women, exhausted and grief-filled, made their way to the tomb. It began there, but it’s not over yet. Someone has to tell the end of the story, and in fact . . . the end is yours to live.