If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably experienced that first visit to the cemetery after a loved one has died. And you know that it can be pretty hard to take. Someone you dearly loved, someone who was a big part of your life, someone you talked with, and laughed with. Someone who had hugged you, and helped you through many-a trial, is gone. It’s hard for that harsh reality to sink in. And then you find yourself standing in a place where the body of the person you love has been buried in the ground. How is it possible? The stark separation is too much to bear. It’s a pain that no Bible passages about eternal life can soften. A few days ago, this person you loved was alive and now, they’ve been planted in the dirt.
Three women are on their way to visit the grave of their beloved rabbi and friend. They come to perform the ritual act that is traditionally done before sealing a body in a tomb. Since he died just as the Sabbath was beginning, they had to wait, but now, at the first sign of daylight, it’s time. They come to comb out Jesus’ hair, to sponge away the dried blood and to massage precious myrrh into his skin. As they walk, they realize that they have no idea how they’re going to get into the tomb because there is a huge stone blocking the entrance. They know this because they hid and watched while Jesus’ body was laid to rest so they would know where to find him. So how are they going to move that stone? They’re discussing this as they arrive at the tomb and discover that the problem has already been solved. The stone has been rolled away! What’s going on? And then comes the real shocker. They look inside and the body of Jesus is missing.
Now, how would you feel, if you went to visit the grave of someone you love for the first time after they’ve died, and when you get there, you find a big hole in the ground with the coffin opened and the body gone? Terrified!
The women stood by and watched in agony as Jesus died on the cross. They knew he was dead. Now this was their last chance to pour a little compassion on his broken body. And just when they think things can’t possibly get any worse, they witness the final insult of this whole horrible mess. First, Jesus' life is taken, and now, even his body has been stolen away.
Well, if that’s not troubling enough, there’s this guy waiting for them in the tomb. He tells them not to be alarmed. Ha! Fat chance! The women do what any of us would have done in that situation. They run like hell!
And that’s where Mark ends his story.
There’s been a lot of debate over Mark’s non-ending through the years. Some translators have been so uncomfortable with it that they’ve added endings of their own. If you look in your Bible you will find a couple of different alternate endings. But these aren’t a part of the original text. So far as we know, Mark’s gospel leaves us hanging: “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.” That’s it. And, actually, if you read it in the original Greek, it’s even more abrupt. Literally, the gospel of Mark ends like this: "To no one anything they said; afraid they were for..." It reads like the author of Mark had suddenly been jerked away from his writing in midsentence.
Mark ends his gospel with women who were scared out of their wits. Despite the mission to which the young man charges them-- “Go tell his disciples and Peter “, the women had one simple mission of their own in mind -- to put as much distance between them and that empty tomb as possible.
This is unsettling, to say the least. It’s like going home from a play before the final act, viewing a movie where the projector breaks down with 15 minutes yet to go, watching a tied football game on TV and the power goes off during the last two minutes… We can’t stand to be left hanging like that. We want to have all the loose ends tied up. We want answers. How could Mark do this to us?
But, you know, if you go to the other three gospel accounts, they might give us a narrative about what happened after the tomb was found empty, but they don’t much help. In fact, the story of the resurrection only becomes more confusing because the gospels are all different in the details. Who was there at the empty tomb isn’t the same in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Nor do they encounter the same thing when they get there. That leaves us wondering, what exactly happened?
Maybe, when it comes down to it, Mark’s gospel is the best account after all. Because, we don’t know what happened. And maybe what actually happened isn’t all that important. By faith, we can live without all the answers. We can live with the mystery. And we can grab onto what really matters.
What really matters is that our God is a God of resurrection. And by that, I don’t just mean that someday when we die we’ll all go to heaven. Resurrection is so much more than that. We are resurrected people, even while we live.
We know the empty tomb is found at the end of a path that first leads us through a graveyard. The way to a new life is always through the death of an old life. That’s not just the way God operated on Easter morning, it’s the way God always works. We read about it in Bible stories, we hear about it in the lives of God’s saints, and we experience it in our own lives.
Resurrection is feeling utterly defeated and being surprised by a victory. Resurrection is coming to the end of your rope and letting go, only to find a new beginning waiting for you. Resurrection is having every good reason to despair, and finding a better reason to hope. Resurrection is facing an empty tomb in terror, and running right into the arms of someone whose love will never let you go.
A Presbyterian minister, Scott Black Johnston, tells about an annual Easter greeting that he receives from his roommate from seminary. Every year, on Easter day, his phone will ring. The voice on the other end will say, “Jesus is on the loose” and the man will hang up. Jesus is on the loose.
I like it. It may sound like another way of saying, “He is risen!” but it’s more than that. Not only is Jesus risen, but he is living in the world around us. He is present among his resurrected people. As one of my favorite Easter hymns says:
Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.
Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine,
But saving, healing, here and now,
and touching ev’ry place and time.
In ev’ry insult, rift, and war,
where color, scorn, or wealth divide,
Christ suffers still, yet loves the more,
and lives where even hope has died.
That’s the story of the resurrection. Death is no match for him. A tomb can’t hold him. Nor can he be contained within the pages of a book. Or within the confines of geography or time. He is alive in the world around us. He is alive in us and through us. Jesus is on the loose!