God’s Story, Our Story: Living a Better Story

Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Mark 16:1-8

It’s such a strange and abrupt way to end the story, don’t you think?  With women running out of the cemetery, their dresses hiked up to their knees, scared out of their wits because of what they’d just seen and heard.

What kind of ending is this, anyway?  I feel this every time I come to the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel.  We’ve been in Mark’s Gospel since early January.  After sticking with Mark’s fast-paced, action packed story for 15 chapters, we come to the real climax of the story, the resurrection, and then in 8 short verses it’s done.  There’s no closure! Mark leaves us hanging! Then what?  We wonder.  What happened next?

Biblical scholars disagree on whether or not this is how Mark’s Gospel really ends, or if some of the original manuscript went missing.   Could it be that at some point, early on, the original conclusion on the scroll got destroyed or was torn off by accident? 

It’s possible.  But what all biblical scholars agree is that the “extra endings” were added later by copyists who must have thought the conclusion got lost and it was necessary to fill in the gaps and wrap up loose ends.   You don’t need a Ph.D. in New Testament to read the shorter and longer endings of Mark and pick up right away that this doesn’t sound like Mark’s voice at all.

The original manuscript of Mark’s Gospel cuts off here at verse 8 with an empty tomb, an announcement from an angel that Jesus has been raised, and women running scared with their lips sealed, saying nothing to anyone.

The story feels unfinished, doesn’t it?  Whether or not this is how Mark intended to end his Gospel, in the providence of God this is the way the story has been preserved and handed down to us.  But as it turns out, it’s actually quite an effective way to end the story.  I’ll say more about that in a little while.

But first, let’s look at how the last chapter begins.  It begins with three women walking to Jesus’ tomb at the crack of dawn after the Sabbath.  These three women had watched their Messiah get crucified two days earlier, and two of them saw him placed in the tomb borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea.  Now, on the first day of the week, they were on their way to that same tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices.

Let’s just be clear.  As they made their way to the tomb by early sunlight, they were not expecting to find the tomb empty and their Messiah resurrected.  They had no idea than any such thing was even thinkable.  They were going to complete the burial.  That’s what the spices were for.  This was a sad task, but a necessary one, both to honor the deceased and also to cover the stench of decaying flesh as other bodies would be buried in the same tomb according to custom.

The question that concerned them as they walked along was this:  “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”  It was a massive stone, much too large for them to roll away on their own.  How would they get inside to carry out this burial ritual?

When they arrive to the tomb, they get the shock of their lives.  The stone was already rolled away.  A young man in white, presumably an angel, is seated where Jesus’ body had been, and they are alarmed.  The angel says to them, “Don’t be alarmed.”  But how can you not be alarmed at seeing a messenger of God?  The women were about to discover, however, that the messenger wasn’t nearly as alarming as the message he had for them: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”  The angel says.  “He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him…”

These women come looking for Jesus with their spices in hand. They are preoccupied with death.  They watched him die.  They saw his dead body wrapped in linen. They have come to take care of his body in the place they expected to find him--a sealed tomb.

But what have we seen all throughout Mark’s Gospel?  Jesus is not a tame Messiah!  You can’t constrain him or hold him captive!  Not even the cross could ultimately nail him down, nor could a tomb seal him up, no matter how large the stone you shove in front of it or what kind of political seal you stamp on it.

How did the 9th century bishop and poet Prudentius put it?  I remember: “Neither the stone nor the bolts of the tomb / could hold Christ a captive;/ Death lies conquered by him, he has / trampled on Hell’s fiery chasm.”

I wonder if we’ve made Easter into something far too tame.  We’ve made it primarily about bunnies and bonnets and colored eggs and little girls in cute dresses.  Do we really understand what it means that Jesus has been raised, and in him, that God’s power is on the loose in the world?  No wonder the women went running out the cemetery so afraid!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

It is God’s power that has done this.  It is God’s power that has rolled the stone away.  God’s power that has raised Jesus from the dead.  A power that defeats death.  A power that forgives sins.  A power that heals wounds and assuages guilt and melts away shame.  A power that breaks addictions and wipes away tears and transforms lives.  A power that has the complete restoration of this whole world in its scope. 

Then comes this next part of the angel’s message: “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.”  Go tell the disciples and Peter.  All of them, in the hour of need, abandoned Jesus.  Peter, who insisted that even if the others become deserters, he would not.  But then, when it was all on the line, he was no better than the rest and went running into the shadows to hide.

But the story doesn’t end here.  Not with betrayal, abandonment, a horrible cross and tomb.  Jesus is alive and on the move! On the move where?  Back in Galilee.  Back in the place where Jesus began his ministry.  Back on their home turf, in the place where the disciples lived and spent their time and were first called to follow Jesus.  

Even though the women fled the tomb in fear and their lips were silent, they didn’t stay afraid, nor did they stay silent.  At some point, when their knees stopped shaking and their tongues began to loosen, they must have told the disciples and Peter.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Mark’s Gospel if it ended in silence.  We wouldn’t be here today if it ended in silence. 

Which leads us back to our question about Mark’s strange and abrupt ending.  What is Mark doing by leaving the story open ended?  He’s drawing us into the story!  We are called to pick up where verse 8 leaves off!

Here’s the thing: God has rolled the stone away from the tomb not so Jesus could get out but so that we can get in!  Get into what?  Get into God’s Story of redemption and new life—the story in which we find our truest selves and the life we’ve been looking for.

One of my favorite movies this past year was the Martian, based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir.  Matt Damon plays the fictional character Captain Lewis, an American astronaut who gets left behind by his crew on the planet Mars.  Lewis knows that his chance of survival is slim, being that he doesn’t have enough food supply to last until NASA can send another shuttle to rescue him.  When he establishes contact with his crew who are heading back to earth, he emails one of his crew mates:

I may need you to do something for me.  If I die, I need you to check in on my parents.  They’re going to want to hear all about our time here on Mars.  I know that…it will be hard talking to the couple about their dead son.  It’s a lot to ask.  Which is why I’m asking you.  I’m not giving up.  I just need to prepare for any outcome.  Please tell them, tell them I love what I do.  And I’m really good at it.  And I’m dying for something big…and beautiful.  And greater than me.  Tell them I said I can live with that.

Isn’t this what we all want?  We want our lives to count for something—to really matter.  Isn’t this why our hearts are so restless?  We want to live and die for something big and beautiful—something that is greater than any one of us.  And this is the good news of Easter.

Jesus has died for something big and beautiful—for the sins and brokenness of each of us and all of us and this entire world.  And he has been raised, the stone has been rolled away, so that we can enter into his life and be caught up in his story—a story that is bigger and more beautiful than a story where we’re at the center.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus draws us into a better story where he is at the center and we join in the work that he is doing in the world.

Don’t you see?  Mark’s Gospel, and the Easter Story, goes on with usIt goes on through us.   We take our place with the women and the disciples.  The Easter story continues in the ordinary places and in the ordinary relationships where you and I live and work and play and struggle and laugh and cry. “He is going ahead of you,” the angel says to us. “There you will see him, just as he told you.”   

The Easter story goes on every time someone realizes that they’re not in control of their lives, and that it is in losing your life to Jesus that we find it.  It goes on every time a sinner is forgiven and broken relationships are mended. 

It goes on when the hungry are fed and the homeless are given shelter and when the lonely are embraced.  It goes on when the sick and the prisoner are visited, and those in grief are comforted.  It goes on when parents press on to raise their children faithfully, when husbands and wives strive to honor their vows, when business people do what is right regardless of the cost.    

It goes on every time we give up on our own selfish agendas and take up God’s agenda in the world—seeking peace, advocating justice, caring for the poor, standing with those who suffer, and calling people to put their trust in the Crucified and Risen Savior who is turning the world upside down and right side up.

Think about that.  Your story right now, no matter how insignificant or ordinary or even tragic it may seem to you, is part of Jesus’ story.  You can live a better and more beautiful story. Jesus has been set loose and is at work in your story, in your life.  He’s already gone ahead of you.  Into your marriage.  Into your home.  Into your neighborhood.  Into that difficult situation at work.  Into the classroom.  Into the waiting room at the hospital.  Into even the painful and disappointing and scary moments of your life.  He’s already there, one step ahead of us.   And he promises to bring light where there is darkness, life where there is death, healing where there is brokenness, and hope where all hope seems lost.

No, Mark never intended to end the Gospel.    In you and me, the story goes on!  So, in the power of the Holy Spirit, let us get into the Story and live this Story out for God’s glory and for the sake of the world.

Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  

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