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Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006

An Awkward Ending
Mark 16:1-8

Prayer of Illumination
O God, light of the minds that know you, life of the souls that love you, strength of the thoughts that seek you: Help us to know you that we may truly love you. Help us to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom. Amen.

What are you afraid of? My son, Nate, asked me this the other day. Rallying all my bravado, I confidently said, “I’m not afraid of anything.” I want to project the image that I have nerves of steel, because nothing seems to freak me out. I barely blink an eye at many of the things that scare the pants off others. If I were a character in a horror movie, I’d be the person walking calmly into a haunted house despite the slamming doors and demonic voices. OK, I may be afraid of a few things: I’m afraid of Shirley Maclaine. I’m afraid of a government-runt website called CIA for Kids. I’m afraid of emotionally scarring toys, like the Dean Martin hand puppet I saw the other day. Seriously, I have a few irrational fears and hang-ups. But nothing like some of the debilitating phobias I hear about. Here are a few: Aerophobia: fear of drafts. Porphyrophobia: fear of the color purple. Chaetophobia: fear of hairy people. Levophobia: fear of objects on the left side of the body. Dextrophobia: fear of objects on the right side of the body. Calyprophobia: fear of obscure meanings. Thalassophobia: fear of being seated. Stabisbasiphobia: fear of standing and walking. Odontophobia: fear of teeth. Graphophobia: fear of writing in public. Phobophobia: fear of being afraid.

Today’s account of the resurrection from Mark is scary, too. Imagine being one of the women who go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for final burial. His dead body is supposed to be in a new grave, with a colossal stone blocking the door. When you get to the tomb, the stone is rolled away. Jesus is gone. And a man in white tells you that Jesus is gone. Verse eight leaves us with a surprise ending to the story: The women are trembling and bewildered. Imagine a chill running up your spine that makes the hairs on your neck feel electrified. Your heart is pounding in your throat, your eyes are bulging . . . adrenaline is racing. This is how the women may have felt when they reached the empty tomb. They run away from the scene in terror. Here is Mark’s strange resurrection narrative. By the way, the fear of tombstones is Placophobia .

If you followed along with me as I read, you noticed there a few more verses in Mark’s gospel. I think a nervous editor in the second century added the final verses because he didn’t think the gospel wasn’t complete without a spectacular ending. Someone added resurrection appearances of Jesus, the granting of supernatural power to the Apostles, and a final scene of divine commands. Even some of the most conservative biblical scholars agree that the gospel ends with the eighth verse which best reads like this: “Overcome by trembling and terror, they went out and fled from the tomb. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Can you imagine being afraid of the resurrection? I can. We hide from it every Easter. We hedge the celebration of the resurrection by surrounding ourselves with a secure wall of bunnies, chicks, eggs and baskets. For some people, a kind-of-cruise control Easter experience is just fine. Sit back and relax and enjoy the ride, not too deep, not too meaningful, but definitely predictable. All too often predictable becomes immoveable.[1]

Today’s text has nothing to do with the predictable trappings of Easter. Instead, we have to deal with an awkward ending to the Gospel in which people flee in terror. We hear about three women who followed Jesus throughout his ministry. They heard his teachings. They witnessed his miracles. They watched and mourned from a distance as he hung on the cross. They loved Jesus. They served Jesus. But now something happened that completely jarred them. Jesus is not where they expected him to be. He’s not in the grave. Jesus said that he would be condemned to death, turned over to the Gentiles, flogged and killed, but that he would rise three days later (Mk. 10:33-34). The disciples didn’t get it then. His followers still don’t understand as they gape into the empty tomb.

The women’s fear at the empty tomb demonstrates their inability to believe the Good News. By the end of the story, when the man in white tells them to go and tell the others what they’ve seen, they are silent. Their muteness represents a failure to comprehend who Jesus really is, and what he has come to do.[2]

At this point, the outcome of Mark’s gospel is left up in the air. The women are told to go to find the disciples and spread the message of the resurrection. They do just the opposite. Their mouths are silenced by fear. They never even meet the risen Lord. What are we to make of this?

This past Lenten season confronted me with my own failure at discipleship. It’s hard to come to grips with, and I share it only because I think that maybe some of you have felt the same way. I know I’ve done things that displease the Lord. I make choices that deny the power of Christ in my life. On a daily basis I go through my routine and I’m faced with choices: do I believe that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior or not? Is my faith going to make a difference in my day-to-day living or not? Am I going to act and speak boldly for Christ, or will I hide away in fear and trembling because Jesus is not who I expected him to be? Some of my conversations with people reveal similar fears.

Some people are terrified to make a serious faith commitment to Christ because of the nagging suspicion that it’s not true. The gospel makes a good story or moral lesson, but it is unrealistic to believe that it really happened.

Others are afraid to get serious about the faith because they’re afraid that following Christ means becoming a “radical.” People will look down on us. We’ll be rejected. We’ll have to go around spouting indefensible views

And sadly, some just don’t care. They’ll say, “Resurrection or not, life goes on. It’s nice to hear about in Church and all, but it has no real impact on my life.”

Like the women at the tomb, we all have some choices to make. We need to decide if Jesus is who he says, or not.

I read a story of a high school science teacher who announced to his class a few days before Easter break, “The Easter story is nothing but a myth,” He proclaimed, “Jesus not only did NOT rise from the grave, but there’s no God in heaven who would allow his son to be crucified in the first place.” A student named Jimmy protested. “Sir,” he said, “I believe in God and I believe in the resurrection.”

The teacher replied, “Jimmy, you can believe what you want to. However, the real world excludes the possibility of miraculous events such as the resurrection. The resurrection is a scientific impossibility. No one who believes in miracles can also respect science.”

“God isn’t limited by science,” Jimmy responded. “He created science!” The teacher proposed a scientific experiment. Reaching into his refrigerator, he produced a raw egg and held it up. “I’m going to drop this egg on the floor,” he stated. “Gravity will pull it toward the floor with such force that the egg will most certainly break. Now Jimmy, I want you to pray right now and ask your God to keep this egg from breaking when it hits the floor. If he can do that then you’ll have proven your point, and I’ll have to admit there is a God.” After pondering the challenge for a moment, Jimmy slowly stood to pray. “Dear heavenly Father, I pray that when my science teacher drops the egg it will break into a hundred pieces! And also, Lord, I pray that when the egg does break, my teacher will have a heart attack and die! Amen.” After a unison gasp, the stunned class sat in silent expectation. For a moment, the teacher did nothing. At last, he looked at Jimmy and then the egg. Without a word, he carefully put the egg back in the refrigerator.
I guess the teacher believed in God more than he thought he did. Many people, like that teacher, deny God exists. They will argue against the power of Christ. Jimmy knew that God wouldn’t strike his teacher dead, but he also knew his teacher wouldn’t bet his life on it. Would you be willing to bet your life on your views? Because Jesus either is Savior of all, or he’s a liar.

Either he died on a cross to take away our sin, or he was a pain-loving, crazy man.

Either Jesus died and rose again to conquer death and make our ruined lives whole, or it’s all a strange bunch of fiction.

Either you run to the outstretched, nail-marked hands of Christ, or run away in fear.

You seek to obey, or you hide.

You live to serve the risen Lord, or you skulk away, afraid that his expectations will be too burdensome.

We have some choices to make, and our answers will decide the quality of our relationship with God. Will we allow ourselves to be fully-dedicated followers of Christ, or will we be spiritually hollow?

Some people wonder why Mark would end his gospel with scared women running away from the empty tomb. Who ends a book on Jesus by writing, “they were afraid”? I think Mark leaves it this way on purpose. By the end of the gospel, we still don’t meet Jesus. Maybe Mark invites us to make our own response to this awkward ending. If we want to see Jesus, then we must follow where he leads. Seeing the risen Lord all depends on our obedient response to his call.[3]

Make no mistake about it – God calls you to follow this morning. I believe that you are all here for more than an entertaining Easter service or a seasonal obligation. I believe you are here this morning because the Lord wants you to experience more out of your spiritual life. Some of you are being invited to get more serious about a faith that you’ve put on the back burner for a few years. Some of you are being called to believe the truth about Jesus Christ for the first time. Others of you are confronted with fear and unbelief and are ready to take a step of faith and follow Jesus where he’s leading you. The choice is yours. No one will force you to respond. No one is going to ask you to sign anything. No one is going to meet with you later and lay a guilt trip on you. Here’s the deal: this is between you and God. Jesus either rose from the grave or he didn’t. You decide to follow where he leads or you don’t. You commit yourself to love the risen Savior, or try to find satisfaction with self-sufficiency.

Look into the empty tomb this Easter. Jesus is not there. He rose from the dead and waits for your response. Are you eager to obey, or are you afraid to believe? Do not be afraid. Go where the Lord leads. He promises that you will see him, just as he told you.

[1]The Rev. Claire Woodley-Aitchison, http://www.dodgenet.com/~ tzingale/sermonb/easter.
[2]Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 387,392.
[3]Hooker, 393.

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