by David Baer, March 27, 2016
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Are you a binge-watcher? It used to be that when you got sucked into a great television series, and an episode ended on a cliffhanger, you had to wait a whole week before you could find out what happened. Now, in the era of online streaming, studios will drop an entire season on the Internet, and so if you really love “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black,” you can settle in and blast through all the episodes in the course of a long, long day. Now, my life being what it is, with kids that need feeding and bathing and supervision, I can’t do that. The most I can manage is a couple episodes at a time. But I get it. Maybe you’re a binge-watcher, or maybe you’ve come across a book or two you just can’t put down, and you keep turning page after page into the wee hours of the night. When you’re caught up in a really good story, it bugs you to leave the thing unfinished.
Mark’s story of Jesus is an unfinished story. Just listen to the way our passage ends: “[T]hey went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What kind of ending is that supposed to be? There’s an empty tomb, a mysterious man in white saying Jesus is risen, and three women too terrified to tell anyone what happened. But there’s no Jesus here. And though there’s this astounding good news—Jesus the crucified one is risen!—it inspires fear and silence, rather than joy. There’s got to be more to the story! And yet in the earliest and best ancient manuscripts of the gospel of Mark, that’s where the story of Jesus ends. You want to track down Mark, grab him by the lapels, and demand to know the real ending: “What happened next?! Did they tell the disciples? How do we know the man in white was telling the truth? Was he really alive? Did the women see him?” This is really no good. There are too many loose ends. A good story deserves a good ending, don’t you think? And some ancient readers of this story must have thought so too, because in the later manuscripts you find not one but two different endings, written in language that sounds nothing like the rest of the Mark’s gospel. Somebody thought the story needed an ending, so they wrote one. Maybe Mark forgot to finish it. Maybe he was too lazy. Maybe the original ending got lost. We don’t know why the gospel of Mark is an unfinished story, but it is.
There’s something in us that wants an ending, a conclusion, a certainty. Even a sad, tragic ending is at least an ending. When the women came to the tomb that morning, they were looking for an ending to their story with Jesus. They expected an ending, and they were prepared for it. Anointing his body with fragrant spices was supposed to be their final act of service and devotion to the man they had loved and followed and invested with so much hope. His touch healed. His words brought new beginnings. He even raised the dead. But the people who run this world were scared of him, so they put him on a cross and killed him. They brought Jesus’ story to an end. All the hopes of his friends and followers were dashed. And the women, though they were grieving, accepted that this was the end—the end of their relationship with their teacher, the end of all the new beginnings he had promised. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” they asked, because they knew that once the stone is rolled into place, once the body is in the tomb, it’s over. Death is final. The story is finished. It’s done. There is no more.
You probably have your own finished stories. Rich and lifegiving relationships that withered from hurt or neglect. Something you said that can’t be un-said, or did that can’t be undone. Losing the full use of your body to chronic illness. Losing someone you loved very much. So many tombs, so many stones, so many endings, and no one to roll them away—done, finished, the end. Perhaps like the women who came to the tomb of Jesus, you have learned how to stare the hard truths of life in the face and accept that when good things come to an end, as they must, you grieve, you finish the story, and then close the book.
But God un-finished the story. The stone was rolled away. Jesus wasn’t there, where he was supposed to be. The women were unsettled and afraid, and why wouldn’t they be? In an un-finished story, anything is possible. But even though they don’t yet see Jesus, there is hope in this newly unfinished story. The man in white said Jesus would meet his friends somewhere else. That’s a promise. It opens the way to a future. It means Jesus is not finished. His story is not yet settled. And it means his friends have to live in the uncertainty of his unfinished story. They have to decide whether they are going to trust the promise and live by it and see whether Jesus is as good as his word.
And it’s not just Jesus’ story that God un-finishes. “Go, tell his disciples,” says the man in white, “and Peter…” Peter, the denier, who abandoned Jesus, is no longer numbered among the disciples. He was Jesus’ rock, the first one to recognize him as the Messiah. But his story came to an end in cowardice and betrayal. Their relationship was over. His days as a disciple were over. He had denied his teacher and friend.
But God un-finished the story. The white-robed man invites Peter to come with the others to meet Jesus in Galilee. Is he forgiven, or is he going to be punished? We don’t yet know. But we do know that Jesus wants to have a relationship with him. It means their story is not yet settled, not yet finished. And though Peter will need to live in the uncertainty and ambiguity of that invitation, at least until he gets to Galilee, he possesses something he didn’t have before: a future with Jesus.
Easter is not a happy ending, at least not yet. It’s an empty tomb, a promise, an undoing of the tragic endings we’ve come to expect and accept. It doesn’t answer all of our questions or put our fears to rest at last. Because Jesus is risen, our old sad and painful certainties are called into question, our old stories of hurt and guilt and loss have been un-finished. Easter is not a happy ending. Easter is a new beginning.
We need new beginnings, especially this week. The attacks in Brussels, Belgium on Tuesday brought an outpouring of sympathy from around the world, but also weariness. How long will people going about their daily business have to fear religious extremist violence? Closer to home, the historic First Presbyterian Church in Englewood lost its sanctuary to fire Tuesday evening. Some of our members raised children in that church. Many of us have gathered there for church leader training, where we’ve been inspired with energy and ideas for our own church. To see such a beautiful space gutted and burned was incredibly heartbreaking for me. And yet… In the aftermath of the fire, just about every synagogue in town offered the church the use of their facilities this Sunday. Despite centuries of hurt and discrimination against Jews by Christians, the first instinct of these communities was to reach out a helping hand to their neighbors. The pastor of the church, my friend, the Rev. Richard Hong, says he’s touched, but it’s really not surprising to him. He writes, “My town, to a large extent, is a model of diversity—diversity that our church reflects. We are a town with no single ethnic majority. Orthodox Jews walk past our church to their synagogue every Sabbath. We have a mosque, a Mormon temple, a synagogue that meets in a church. We hope that through this devastation there can be a powerful statement of unity made to a divided world.”1
That is what resurrection is about. That is what Easter is about. It doesn’t turn a tragedy into a happy ending. It doesn’t put an end to every hurt and division, not yet. What God does in resurrection is to un-finish the story, to make a new beginning.
And so, by God’s grace and mercy, your story too is un-finished. The hurts you’ve suffered and the hurts you’ve done to others, the burdens you carry in your flesh and in your spirit, the painful relationships you’ve given up all hope on—every period at the end of a tragic sentence is erased. You are un-finished, living in the new light of resurrection, where the old hurts have lost their power to contain and define you. What possibilities, what promise, what hopes have you given up on, in your life, in your community, in our world? Can you start to see a new beginning there? How are you going to chase it, lay hold of it, live it?
Is this the end of all worrying, all questioning, all wondering and waiting? No, it’s not. But turn on and tune in, because in Christ God has just written a new chapter, God is streaming a new episode. Easter is not a happy ending, but—thanks be to God!—it is a new beginning. And so with Easter people throughout the world we say, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Amen.
Richard Hong, Facebook post, 24 Mar 2016. https://www.facebook.com/richhong60/posts/10154018197952594. Accessed 25 Mar 2016.