“For Terror and Amazement Had Seized Them” – Sermon for April 1, 2018

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“The Empty Tomb” – painting by He Qi, 2001

“For Terror and Amazement Had Seized Them”

A Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 for Easter Sunday, Year B; preached April 1, 2018, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

 

For terror and amazement had seized them.

For terror and amazement had seized them.

For terrorand amazement… had seized them.

Quite the contrast with the triumphant and majestic refrain we just sang from “Thine is the Glory,” isn’t it?  Really, the whole ending of the Easter story as we’ve heard it from the Gospel of Mark today is a bit at odds with what any of us might expect.

I mean, really? … “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”?  That’s what we’re making all this fuss over today, with our trumpets that shall sound and our flowers that shall bloom and our eggs that shall be hunted?

I promise you, though, that I’m not trying to pull an April Fools joke on you today.  I’m not getting ready to say “gotcha!  April Fools!  Now here’s what else Mark actually had to say.”  No, indeed, as best as any of us can determine, what we’ve heard this morning is just exactly how the story Mark wrote down ends.  “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.”

For us, now nearly 2,000 years later, this reaction seems a bit strange.  After all, most of us have some familiarity with the overall Easter story, even if we don’t remember all the specific details that any one of the Biblical accounts contains.  Even for you here this morning for whom today, in this place, you are having your first exposure to the Christian Church in any sort of formal sense, Christianity has had enough exposure within our culture in the Western world that I suspect you came here with at least a vague idea of what we’d be talking about—namely the resurrection of a man named Jesus.  And, after all, by the time you heard the actual scripture reading, we’d already proclaimed that news in liturgy and song and prayer many, many times this morning.

If the tone of those songs and sayings are any indication, then obviously for us today, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is something we celebrate.  But for those 3 women that early morning long ago, “amazement” seems to be the closest they ever get to any sort of celebration.  And even that, truth be told, is a matter of translator’s choice:  one of the most popular English translations of the Bible today describes it as “bewilderment,”[1] and another even calls it “dread”.[2]

Moreover—even if we stick with “amazement”—that quickly becomes overshadowed, doesn’t it(?), by that other feeling they have.  Terror.  They fled and said nothing because they were afraid, we’re told.

Can we imagine, even for a moment, why Mary and Mary and Salome would have greeted their discovery of the empty tomb with terror and fear?  Perhaps could it have been something as simple as the upset of certain expectation?  The shock, if you will, of discovering something you had not foreseen… something you could not have foreseen?

After all, the story is pretty clear:   They came having “bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”  They wondered among themselves about the stone that Joseph of Arimathea had rolled against the door, and how they would get it moved away.  In other words, they were expecting a dead Jesus in a stone-cold tomb.

And understandably so.  The three of them, along with other women who’d come up to Jerusalem with Jesus, had stood looking on from a distance while Jesus hung on a cross and breathed his last breath.  The two Marys, even, had seen right where the body—the dead body—had been laid.

And so, coming to a tomb that was open and empty, hearing the news that he is risen… this was most certainly not what they were expecting that morning.  I’ll confess I’ve had a hard time imagining a situation for myself where I’d have such certain, rock-solid expectation so radically and completely upended—or at least one in which the outcome was ultimately “good”.  I mean, sure, all of us can think of situations of tragedy or bad news that comes out of the blue—accidents and job losses and the like.  But much rarer, it seems would be the truly unexpected, or even seemingly impossible “good” news.  Not even something like winning the lottery can compare, because even though one should not realistically “expect” to win, someone who buys a ticket has probably dabbled in at least a little dreaming about what they’d do with all that money.  Something even as unlikely as that is not, in the end, truly impossible.

Rising from the dead, on the other hand?  Absent what we know in faith from Jesus, that pretty much is.  After all, death is supposed to be the only thing in the world more certain than taxes, right?

So, perhaps the three women—Mary, Mary, and Salome—perhaps they are struck with terror and fear because what had seemed certain, what they had come expecting, had now been so radically overturned.  As the renowned American author Flannery O’Connor once wrote in a short story, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and he shouldn’t have done it.  He has thrown everything off balance.”[3]  In the end, it is a little unnerving, isn’t it?  And imagine that sort of shock amidst an emotional landscape probably still throbbing and raw from all that had already taken place.  Fear and trembling are natural reactions to having so many expectations upended, aren’t they?

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Here’s the thing, though…

I’m not so sure the women found themselves overcome with fear and trembling because their expectations had been turned on their head.  Or, at least, I’m not so sure that was the only reason.

No, in fact, I wonder if the floods of terror and fear washed over them that morning, not because they didn’t expect this—the empty tomb—but rather, because now that they had seen it, now that they had heard the message spoken by the young man, now they actually knew exactly what to expect.

Remember what the young man in the tomb that morning said.  “Go, tell the disciples and Peter that [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will seem him, just as he told you.”

Just as he told them.

Indeed, just three days prior, after Jesus had gathered with the disciples in that upper room and shared that meal together… right after that, as they went out to the Mount of Olives, he had in fact said “You will all become deserters … but after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”[4]

“I will go before you to Galilee,” Jesus had said then.  “He is going ahead of you to Galilee … just as he said,” testified the young man now.

Could it be?

Could it possibly be?

Could it possibly be that all of these things Jesus had been saying all along were actually true?!  He had been saying for so long that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed, and after three days rise again.  But no one really thought he was serious, right?

As the women stood there at that empty tomb, they were confronted with the evidence that what Jesus had told them all along was actually right and true and sure.  And if Jesus had been so right about this one thing—that, in fact, he would die and rise again—then what if he had been right about all those other things too?

What if he had been right when he told the paralytic man that his sins are, in fact, forgiven?  What if he had been right when he called the cares-of-the-world and the lures-of-wealth weeds that choke out the seeds of life?  What if he had been right when he said to the disciples that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”?

And what if they hadn’t simply been dreaming when they watched him heal the man with the withered hand, and the daughter of Jarius, and the woman who was hemorrhaging?  What if it wasn’t just in their imaginations that he could still the storms and feed the hungry multitude?  What if it wasn’t just wistful dreaming in which they found someone who could speak with authority in the face of religious regulations and the institutions of nation and power?

Could it be?

Could it possibly be?

That realization in that moment for these women, that could have been as terrifying for them as the simple facts of an empty tomb and a missing body.  After all, as one pastor-and-teacher has put it, “it is terror at the ‘real’ circumstance that the promise and challenge of Jesus ministry and message has gone forth from the jaws of death into the world, beckoning disciples once again to follow.”[5]

You see, this Easter Day, this celebration of the resurrection, it’s not merely about the reality of someone having returned to life.  Sure, that would be good and worthy-of-celebration—a nice little miracle to marvel at.  But Easter is bigger than that even.  This day is not merely the celebration that someone was raised, but that Jesus the Crucified One was raised.  This day is a celebration of what that fact, that it was Jesus whom God raised, says about the ultimate truths and realities of God and the universe.  As one of my own seminary professors has written, “The resurrection of the crucified is not the ultimate vindication of one who obeyed the rules, who demonstrated piety, who accepted the dominion of the powers of nation and empire.  Rather, the resurrection is the ‘uprising,’ the insurrection, of one who rejected the rules of respectability, the religious laws, the institutions of family and church and state.  It is the resurrection of one who provoked these structures, enraged them, and was condemned by them.”[6]  That it was this one, this Jesus-who-was-crucified, that God raised up, means (as my professor goes on to say) “that the structures and institutions that rejected and condemned him are themselves exposed as the enemies of God.”[7]

No wonder, then, that the women were seized by fear.  In that moment, as they realized that what Jesus had said was true, and that God had vindicated such a one as would say and do what Jesus did, they suddenly knew exactly what to expect.  They knew that the fight was back on… the fight for a world freed form the bondage of violence and the tyranny of respectability.  The fight for a world in which there aren’t any hungry ones to be fed or outcast ones to be welcomed back in.  The fight for a world no longer dominated by dominance or captivated by cash.

The women stood in fear because they knew the fight was back on.  Having followed him from Galilee the first time, they knew the cost of the mission Jesus was on, the costliness of it for Jesus and for themselves, too.  And now, in this moment, they hear that Jesus is back at it.  He’s going ahead to Galilee—to the places where he heals and challenges, feeds and provokes, forgives and calls to account.

So, it’s not over, after all… in fact, it’s just beginning.  The fight is just beginning.  The mission is just beginning.  The gospel—the good news—of what Jesus is up to in the world, it’s just beginning.  And now in it’s silence, the Gospel of Mark has left it up to us to see how it will end.  And if we’ve dared to pay attention, that probably makes for some real terror—and some real amazement—in us all.

 

Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever.  Amen.

 


[1] New International Version.

[2] Common English Bible.

[3] Flanner O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, Three By Flannery O’Connor (New York: New American Library, 1955), 142; cited in Charles L. Campbell, commentary on Mark 16:1-8, in The Lectionary Commentary:  Theolgoical Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, vol. 3 – The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Eerdmans, 2001), 284.

[4] Mark 14:26-28.

[5] D. Cameron Murchison, pastoral commentary on Mark 16:1-8, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B., vol. 2 (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 356.

[6] Theodore W. Jennings Jr., The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto (Chicago:  Exploration Press, 2003), 308-309.

[7] Ibid., 309.

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