April 5, 2015 Easter Sunday

posted Jun 24, 2015, 11:30 AM by David Hawkins

"Who Will Roll the Stone Away?"

*New Testament Scripture: Mark 16:1-8             (Liturgist)

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.

Sermon: "Who Will Roll Away the Stone?"  Rev. David Hawkins

If you happened to be following along in your pew Bibles during the reading of the Gospel, you may have noticed that there are some funny notes regarding different endings of the Book of Mark. I don’t want to spend too much time on what is a pretty dry subject, but there are some compelling reasons to think that Mark ends with verse 8 of chapter 16, rather than verse 20.

Probably the most accepted reason for these markings and different endings, is that the oldest and most authentic manuscripts of Mark that exist stop at verse 8, while other, less reliable manuscripts had slightly different endings. Most Bible scholars think that someone else besides the author of Mark wrote what are identified as the shorter ending and the longer ending that make up verses 9-20.

Because of the differences between the many different sources and manuscripts that form the book of Mark, modern-day Bible translations will have some sort of editorial markings indicating the three different endings of Mark: They will indicate the abrupt ending at verse 8, the slightly extended version that goes until verse 9, and then the longer version which is identified as verses 9-20.  

None of these endings alter in any way the core tenets of our belief: that Jesus Christ died, that Jesus was buried, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And the only reason I bring this whole subject up is that it can be a little weird to see that our Bible has different versions of the same scriptures.

To put it into today’s language, The Gospel of Mark is almost like an ancient version of a movie DVD with bonus features: it’s got the theatrical release, it’s got another version with alternate endings, and, of course, it’s got the director’s cut. Mark was just way before before his time. And if we continue to stretch that metaphor, I guess what I’m getting ready to do is the voice-over commentary that comes with the bonus DVD.

I am pretty convinced by the textual evidence that suggests that the original version of the Gospel of Mark ends at chapter 8. But there’s another reason I like the abrupt ending that we read today. And that is because the Gospel ends the same way it begins. It starts in the middle of a fantastic story, and it ends in the middle of a fantastic story.

You see, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin leisurely, with long genealogies, and then they go into the birth of Jesus and the stories of his early life. The Gospel of John begins his story even before the beginning. Mark, on the other hand, introduces us to Jesus with the story already in full gallop. And then today, he stops just when things start to get really interesting. Mark leaves the beginning and the end to be filled in by the readers. We need to finish the story for ourselves. Mark isn’t going to do if for us. And I like that.

Mark begins his account of Jesus with Jesus baptism in the Jordan and he ends it with the resurrection. There is no extraneous material. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four Gospels, and most scholars think it was written first, well before the other Gospels. As I’ve said many times before, it reads like an action adventure story, and it doesn’t waste any time getting to the point.

And so today, we are brought back into Mark’s breathless story about Jesus Christ. It’s the day after the Sabbath, the first day of the week. It’s early Sunday morning. Jesus died Friday, a couple of days ago, and he was buried shortly after. He has been in the tomb for more than 36 hours. We know what starts to happen in that time to a body.

And so do the woman who are slowly making their way to the tomb. They know what awaits for them when they get there. We know these women, we’ve met them before: Mary Magdalene, the woman cured of demons by Jesus, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Salome, who, according to some sources, is the mother of James and John. They were the ones watching Jesus at the crucifixion. They know that they are going to be greeted by death and decay.

They are all that’s left of the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. All the shouting, the cheering the waiving of palm branches, all that is just a bitter memory. All the expectations of a messiah, of deliverance from military occupation are forgotten. The crowds are dispersed, the Romans have washed their hands of Jesus, the religious leaders have retreated into their churches and their doctrines, the disciples are scattered, and now, the only people left who care about Jesus are these three woman.

And what can they do? They brought spices for anointing, but they know it’s really too late for that. And besides, how are they going to even get to the body? There’s a stone in the door to the tomb, there’s no way that we can push that out of the way. Who will move the stone away?

And yet, even in the face of such grief and hopelessness, they walk on. They go through the motions of their faith, doing what they are supposed to do, doing what their people have done for thousands of years. They go to pay their final respects, even if their journey is sure to be too late, and all for nothing anyway.

But when they get there, they see that everything has changed. The door is opened. The stone is rolled away. And Jesus is gone. Instead of a body, they are greeted by an angel. Instead of a stone wall, they see empty linens. Instead of death, they find life.

When these three women at the tomb discover that Jesus is not there, they react in a what might seem to be a surprising way. They are terrified. They are speechless. They run away, to afraid to even say anything about what they saw.

It seems weird, but it’s actually understandable. They had faced their grief head on. They had finally gotten to a point where they had accepted Jesus death. Maybe in some ways, they were relieved. Jesus had faced such torture, such torment. In a cruel way, it was better that he didn’t have to suffer any longer. It was sad, but at least it was over.

But now, everything they thought they knew about life and death has been flipped upside down. Nothing makes sense anymore. Jesus is alive? How? They watched him die. Jesus is not in the tomb? Where could he possibly be?

If Jesus is not in the tomb, if the stone has been rolled away, then we have been shown the power of God over death. We have been shown the power of love over hate, of grace over punishment, of good over evil. We have been shown that we truly can live a life of trusting in the power of God, and this is a frightening thing for any of us.

It means that everything that Jesus said about feeding the poor, about humility, about service, about sacrifice, about love and forgiveness for our enemies, all of it is true, and that is terrifying. To live life as though the kingdom of heaven were already here is not for the faint of heart. And when  we see the full power of God unleashed before our very eyes, it is convicting and overwhelming.  

There are times in our own lives when everything seems dark, when the world has closed in around us. There is no hope, and we’ve run out of options, of resources, and friends. We feel lonely, and helpless, resigned to a life without joy.

This dark place can happen to the best of us, at any time. If it happened to the mother of Jesus, if it happened to the mother of his disciples, if it happened to one of his dearest friends, it can happen to anybody. It has probably happened to some of us here today. Life is not fair, in fact it is often cruel and capricious. Without warning, we can find ourselves in a very bad place with no idea how we got there.

And we know very well the question that the three women have asked themselves: “Who will roll the stone away for me? Who can possibly roll the stone away from the problems I am facing?”

And that’s when we start going through the motions. Doing what we do because that’s what we do. Saying what we say, feeling nothing, because we need to keep up appearances, walking up the hill to the tomb with no expectation of anything ever getting better.

But then, without warning, everything changes. We lift our eyes to see that the stone has been rolled away, Jesus is risen, everything is made new, we have been redeemed, forgiven, welcomed and reclaimed by God. We are not forgotten, indeed, we are literally re-membered, made members of Christ’s body, re-knitted into the family God. It’s enough to stop us in our tracks, frozen with wonder and awe, paralyzed by the realization that God really does love us enough to die for us.

And nothing can ever change that. Once that stone has been rolled away, it can never be rolled back into place. God has once again, and forever, remembered his covenant with his people, to never abandon them, to always save them, and to be with them until the end of the age. Because Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed!

All authority and power and dominion
be to the name that is above all names
--Jesus Christ our Lord—
now and in the age to come. Amen.