The End? – Sermon on Mark 16.1-8

Mark 16.1-8:

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed, But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 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.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”

The day broke gray and dull. The two Marys and Salome methodically packed the spices they purchased from the marketplace, and began the journey to the tomb. Leaving early, they had hoped to beat the heat of the sun, but as it rose the sweat began to bead on their skin. Their walk was slow, arduous, and particularly silent until Salome cleared her throat, “who roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Without responding, the women kept walking in silence, the events from the previous days still spinning chaotically in their minds. When they finally arrived at their destination, they stood amazed before the tomb, noticing that the stone had already been rolled back. Now fearful after discovering the large stone having been moved, they cautiously entered the tomb in order to anoint his body. Before their eyes could adjust to the darkness under the ground the hair on the back of their necks rose sharply as they noticed a young man, an angel, clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. When the young man opened his mouth, the words resonated throughout the tomb, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look there is the place they laid him. 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.” His last words trailed off and were barely audible to the women because they had fled from the tomb in fear as the angel spoke to them. Terror and amazement had taken hold of them, and the chaotic notions in their heads had now taken hold on a single concept: fear. And they said nothing to anyone about what they had seen and heard, for they were continually afraid. The end. The end? Is this really the end? How can Mark possibly think this is the end of the story? There seems to be no resolution, there isn’t even a resurrection appearance from Jesus, how then can this be the end?

For 16 chapters Mark has narrated the story of Jesus the Christ, the Son of Man and Son of God only to come to a conclusion with: and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. The final verse in the gospel has frustrated Christians over the millennia, leading many scholars to posit three interpretations: 1) This is not the end of the story because some of the earliest manuscripts happened to be ripped at exactly the same spot and we have lost Mark’s original ending forever; 2) This is not the end of the story because Mark somehow became incapacitated after he wrote these last words and was unable to finish, some claim that he had a heart attack with the quill in his hand; and 3) This is in fact the true end to the gospel. I believe in the latter proposal; that Mark knew exactly what he was doing when he ended.

This is a strange end, it leaves us the readers feeling uncomfortable, but so does much of the gospel! Mark is the evangelist who can paint a picture of a naked man fleeing the garden of Gethsemane; an episode so weird that Matthew and Luke chose to omit it (14.51). Mark is also the writer who portrays Jesus getting angry with a man who asks to be cured, and then throws him out after he healed him (1.41) Mark is the storyteller who shows Jesus cursing a fig tree simply because he does not find the expected fruit on it (11.12). And finally, Mark’s gospel is the one filled with Jesus performing countless miracles and signs of his messiahship only to continually forbid anyone from telling anything about what they have seen. Indeed this is a strange ending to a strange gospel.

Perhaps more unsettling than the peculiar and abrupt ending, is the fact that Mark chooses to finish the story with fear…

Three days before the women traveled to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, he had been marched up to Golgotha in order to be crucified. He was nailed to the hard wood of the cross and raised up for all to see. This was when the darkness came pouring out over the land. The day of Jesus’ crucifixion was the darkest day, the day that saw night twice. But now, on Easter morning, we are told that the sun has risen, perfectly timed with Jesus’ resurrection; the sun is supposed to show how the darkness of the crucifixion has been reversed. He is risen. Hallelujah! …But the women do not shout out in joy, instead they run away in fear. What then are we to make of this fear?

Throughout the Gospel there is a change within Jesus’ disciples whereby they move from obedience and courage, to fear and anxiety. When Jesus first saw Peter and Andrew fishing on the sea, he simply called to them and they left everything to follow him. The longer the disciples spent time with Jesus however, the more nervous they became; when at first they were content to listen and learn, they soon began to question their Lord. Even though they had dropped everything for Jesus, in the end they were unwilling to pick up their crosses to follow him because they were afraid. It is amazing that Jesus explained everything to them time and time again, yet they remained ignorant to what was taking place. Fear can be a blinding force if left to its own devices.

More powerful than the disciples’ fear are the times when Jesus was afraid. In Gethsemane Jesus was faced with the initial rejections of his disciples; he asked them to stay awake with him particularly in the waning hours of the night when he began to feel distressed, grieved, and agitated; He threw himself to the ground and prayed to God, yet, his disciples could not keep awake one hour. In the same way, as he marched up to Golgotha his disciples and closest companions had abandoned him. As he looked down from the cross with his life fading, Jesus exhibited the greatest moment of fear in his earthly life: Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachtanei?! My God my God why have you forsaken me?! … Just like the abrupt ending of the gospel, the moments where Jesus was afraid make us uncomfortable:

Last semester I took a class here at Duke Divinity with one of the leading world scholars on the Gospel of Mark. As we approached the end of the semester, and therefore the end of the Gospel, we spent one of our lectures discussing the moments of discomfort within the narrative. As we parsed through the Greek sentences describing the scene in the garden and the cry of dereliction from the cross, my professor became very frustrated and animated. We had spent the majority of the class trying to explain why Jesus might have acted or spoke the way he did and finally my professor could no longer take it. “It’s right here in black and white,” he said, “I don’t understand why you and so many scholars have spent their entire careers trying to soften or rationalize Jesus’ fears and frustrations. Why are we so afraid of Jesus’ fear? These moments, when Jesus is in the garden and when he hangs on the cross, they are my favorite moments in the entire Gospel! Do you know why? Because when Jesus weeps on his hands and knees in the garden, and sobs from the peak of the cross, that’s when Jesus is just like me…”

What I think my professor was trying to get at is the importance of what Jesus accomplishes through the cross. In perhaps his most deeply human moment, Jesus cried out in fear and anger from the cross because he had to. As the church fathers used to say, “what has not been assumed cannot be redeemed.” Jesus had to take on every human quality, even fear, in order to redeem humanity through his death. Let me put it this way: Jesus cried out in fear in his death, so that we don’t ever have to be afraid again.

I don’t know what you’re afraid of right now. Maybe you’re like Mary Magdalene and you feel like your life has been wasted and you’re not worthy of being loved. Perhaps you’re more like Peter and you think that you have been following Christ so perfectly all your life yet you continually fall short, and sometimes even deny him. I don’t know what you’re afraid of, but I do know that you no longer have any reason to fear.

The fleeing women at the end of the gospel present us with a vexing situation. Even though they had heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, and even though the angel tells them that the promise has now come to fruition, they still run away from the marvelous news of the resurrection. I think what the women show us, is how not to react. I believe that Mark tells us about their fear to show us how faithful disciples need to have an opposite reaction: instead of running away, we should stand firm and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ no matter what the cost.

I am not saying that fear will never strike us again; in fact I’m positive that it will. But, God’s gift of Christ on the cross has defeated sin, death, and fear. Fear cannot be the end of Jesus’ story.

As we come to the end of Mark’s account of the life of Jesus Christ, I think it is important to notice that there actually is no end. When we look back to the inception of the gospel, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” we can see how the story in fact begins. But here we are two thousand years later, taking part in the good news of Jesus Christ. Our call as Christians is to take up where Mark left off.

This is the end of Mark’s story because it is the beginning of our discipleship.