Sunday, April 12, 2009

We Have Waited for Him

copyright © 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Easter day, April 12, 2009

Isaiah 25:6-9, Mark 16:1-8

It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God;
we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

It seems that every year when we gather following Good Friday to celebrate the death of death on Easter, we have to admit that death has not taken much of a vacation. It’s not something we like to think about really, but it remains true, death stalks the world as it always has, whether from roadside bombs in Iraq, collapsing coal mines, traffic accidents and disease, or the simple slipping away at the end of life. Since we last thought about the death of death on Easter a year ago, death has not ceased to stalk the world.

When Isaiah declared, “we have waited for [God], so that he might save us,” exactly what did he mean? If we are waiting, how will we know when the saving of God has arrived? What will that arrival look like? Are we saved from something, or for something? Or both? If death continues to stalk the earth, what does it mean to be saved? What are we waiting for? The women who arrived at the tomb on Easter day didn’t wait around all that long to find out, according to today’s gospel anyway.

I have always been attracted to Mark’s account of the resurrection. Its ending is so completely different from the other gospels, it simply leaves you hanging, almost in mid-sentence. “So [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.” That’s it. That is “all she wrote.”1 It’s even more abrupt than the tidy version that translators give us. In the original Greek it simply says, “afraid they were, for.” Is that anyway to end a paragraph, much less a gospel? My high school English teacher, Mrs. Lanier, would not have been pleased. Still, I think I am drawn to Mark’s gospel because it reflects how natural it is for us to react to shocking circumstances the way these women did. They dropped everything and ran from the tomb the same way it appears Mark dropped his pen and ran from his writing desk. Whereas the other gospels report positive reactions on the women’s part (they ran to tell the other apostles what happened, what they had seen and heard) here in Mark they are overtaken by fear and they can say or do nothing other than just run from the empty tomb in a kind of panic. Who among us can say we would have behaved any differently?

Is this any way to end a gospel? It is hardly the best setup for a triumphant singing of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. One New Testament professor shared a story of a student who memorized the whole of Mark’s Gospel in order to present a sort of one man show before live audiences using nothing but the actual words of the gospel. After thorough study, he determined to stay with the original, abrupt ending we heard today, as the most authentic. At the first performance, after he spoke that dangling, final verse, he stayed onstage, standing awkwardly for what seemed like an eternity of silence. He was through, but like most of us, the audience knew other, more satisfying endings of the Easter story and simply were not aware that he was finished. Anxious seconds ticked by until he spontaneously added, “Amen!” and made his exit. The relieved audience applauded appreciatively. Still, as he thought about it further, he recognized that his addition of “Amen!” had actually betrayed the dramatic intention of the text. So at the next performance, after delivering the final words: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” he simply paused for a brief moment and then left the silent audience to contemplate for themselves what that meant. “The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious,” his former professor reflected later, “and as people exited ... the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the nonending.”2

The women at the tomb that first Easter morning weren’t weak or cowardly. They alone had watched the crucifixion on Friday, Mark makes no mention of male disciples at the cross. They were long gone. So here were these women alone again on Sunday morning. Do you suppose they were looking forward to handling a corpse, dead for some 36 hours? These were not giddy women, easily frightened. They were brave, courageous even, in their commitment to do the right thing. In the end, though, the last word was that they were afraid. Even though later manuscripts contained additions to Mark’s original, trying to tidy up that abrupt ending, all the earliest copies have the ending just the way we heard it today. They fled from the tomb in fear.

Now, all these centuries later, as with the women at the tomb, isn’t it true for us that our experience, particularly our fear, gets in the way of understanding more often then we’d like to admit?

I read of two people who sat next to each other on an airplane. In the few minutes before takeoff, they introduced themselves to each other. One was a minister who was taking his first airplane trip. He was as nervous as could be. He kept opening and closing a small copy of the Bible he had with him, wiping his brow with a handkerchief; he was unable to sit still.

Seated next to him was a businesswoman who traveled a lot and wasn’t scared at all. She was reading the Wall Street Journal, totally relaxed, and could not help but see the minister’s anxiety. Finally, she asked him what his problem was and he admitted his fear of flying.

“How come?” she asked. “You’re a person of faith. Doesn’t your Bible have Jesus saying something like, ‘I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth?’ What have you to fear?”

The minister thought deeply about what she had said, reflecting on the woman’s point and knowledge of scripture, and then he replied, “That is very helpful, but, you didn’t get the quote exactly right. Jesus says, ‘Lo, I am with you always ... Lo(w)!’”

Fear can do that to us, make us unreasonable, impervious to a word of hope or help. We often choose familiar ways, even though they are painful, disappointing, self-limiting, because we know what to expect and for many of us, the pain, the disappointment, the failures we know are less fearful than the uneasiness of a future that is open but filled with uncertainties.

The women at the tomb that day were thinking just the way we do, contemplating the physical realities of our living and dying. They went to the tomb the same way we would go to the cemetery, not with notebooks and pencils, hoping a crucified Jesus would awaken and continue to teach them. They brought no one to the cemetery for healing. What they brought, the gospel tells us, were spices, traditionally used to anoint the bodies of the dead. They expected the tomb still to be sealed the way we expect to arrive at the cemetery and still find the graves of our loved ones covered in earth or stone. They anticipated no encounter, no voices, and certainly no instructions to greet them there.

Of course, as we heard, upon arriving at the tomb they found all of these unanticipated things:
  • a rolled-away stone, some living presence sitting in a tomb where no one would expect to encounter anything alive,
  • the absence of the body for which they had gone to the trouble to gather and carry all their anointing spices,
  • A firm instruction about where they were to go, who they were to tell, who they were going to see.
It turns out that the unlikeliness of everything they encountered, along with the very emptiness of the tomb will frustrate our every attempt to possess the man from Nazareth rather than be possessed by him. In order to see Jesus, we must do what the women, the disciples had to do. Go to Galilee. Galilee, the most distant, least interesting district of ancient Israel, represents to us the challenge of the whole world lying beyond the tiny circumference of Jerusalem, the tiny circle of our own experience, it represents leaving behind old thoughts of what is holy, and realizing that Jesus’ dying has sanctified every place, not just sanctuaries and cemeteries but sidewalks, and offices, and buses, and bridges.

Mark leaves his story with us. No neatly packaged ending here, we are challenged to help determine how it will come out. We are invited to become part of the story of the Gospel. No written conclusion could contain Christ, any more than any tomb could. He always goes before us, always beckons us to a new appearance in Galilee of the nations, Galilee of daily life, where there is work to be done, truth to be told, compassion to be manifested, healing to do, justice to be established, Galilee of the other 364 days of the year beyond Easter.

Easter is not a call to believe something. It is a call to do something. And as if to provide an example we can’t refuse, Jesus has already left town to do something himself. Go to Galilee if you’d like to sign on.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 Factoid: The standard theory about the phrase “That's all she wrote” is that it arose during World War II referring to "Dear John letters" received by many service personnel from sweethearts back home bluntly announcing the end of their relationships
2 I am thankful for Tom Long’s sermon, “Dangling Gospel,” in Christian Century, April 4, 2006, for the reminder of this story from the late Professor, Donald Juel.