"TRUTH" - Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8


Easter – April 1, 2018

            It is an interesting twist of the calendar that Easter, this year, falls on April 1, a day more known for pranks and attempts to catch us off guard and take advantage of our naiveté.

            I did a quick search of best April Fools jokes. One of them was to take black construction paper and make cut-outs of spiders and bugs and tape them to the inside of lamp shades. Your favorite people would think the house has been taken over by bugs. Another April Fools prank was to hang Kim Jung Un’s picture on the staff photo wall at the office. Another one was to affix an air-horn to your co-worker’s seat.

Any good April Fools joke, or any joke, for that matter, only works when a person’s expectation in undermined by a TRUTH they did not see coming, leaving them surprised and undone, even laughing.

            Isn’t that what happened on that first Easter? What was expected was undermined by a TRUTH that no one, . . . no one saw coming.

            I suspect that most of you have heard the Easter story. But listen again – and pay attention to some of the subtle details. It comes today from Mark’s gospel – Chapter 16:

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. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But 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. 7But 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.” 8So 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We started this service with the familiar words of Easter: “Christ is risen.” “Christ is risen, indeed.”

We have also sung about this great truth – “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia.” We have special music, and decorations, and lots of affirmations about this wonderful Easter promise of God.

But when we take the Scripture passage seriously, when we listen carefully to the story from Mark, the story really lacks the confident affirmation; it lacks the loud certainty that we might want and expect on Easter. It even ends with these words – “for they were afraid.”

Think about this: First, three women – and they are mentioned by name, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – are the only ones there. Everyone else has fled the scene, namely all the men disciples – like Peter, James, and John, and others mentioned a lot more frequently in the gospels. The official leaders are absent too, and the soldiers, and everyone else who might have a whole lot more credibility than three women who had bought spices so they might go and anoint their beloved Jesus, this one who was mocked and crucified and hung on a cross to die.

            Second, these women are NOT even close to singing their “Alleluias!” They looked on from a distance when Jesus died. One of them, Mary Magdalene, had been present when the guy named Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body and wrapped him in linens and laid him in the tomb. These women got up very early to go anoint his body; and they are worried about one thing: “who will roll away the stone?” All of this is a picture – not of confidence and courage on Easter – but of sadness and grief, death and loss, and stumbling around in the darkness – both real and figurative darkness. That was the reality of these women.

            Then, there is more. When they neared the tomb they saw that the stone had been rolled aside. But even then, they didn't shout “Alleluia.” Even after they heard the young man in white tell them that Jesus had been raised, they didn't say, "Christ is risen!" They didn’t sing, “Jesus Christ is risen, today!” That's what we want them to say, but they didn't behave as we would like. They fled from the tomb for “terror and amazement had seized them." The words are even stronger in Greek: tromos - trauma, and ecstasis - ecstasy. Trauma and ecstasy had seized them. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Most scholars agree that the verses following verse 8 were added much later, probably by people who did not want the story to end with “for they were afraid.” Mark's gospel ends in silence and Jesus never appears.

            If we are going to listen carefully to the text, this is very interesting. Mark's story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood. Those three women didn't see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn't hear Jesus call their names. Neither have we. They weren't invited to touch his wounded hands. We haven't touched Jesus' hands either. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters. (see B. Lundblad, Day1.org)

            I want to invite us to think more today about TRUTH.

            So much TRUTH is in this story. The very idea of a body being raised from the dead – even though Jesus mentioned this to his disciples several times – is almost impossible to grasp. This is not our experience. Dead people stay dead. Tombs are generally one way, with a body going into a tomb – not going out. So the news of “He has been raised; he is not here,” leads to terror and amazement. We should understand that quite well. The news leads the women to flee from the tomb saying “nothing to anyone.”

            But from the leaving of the tomb, and to the writing of Mark’s gospel, the women were able to speak, and the trauma and ecstasy did evolve into words, into stories, into something that gives us this wonderful Easter promise. And here is something else to think about – if it were not for those women witnesses, those women preachers, Mary and Mary and Salome, we would not have an Easter story. From the trauma of the moment, from the uncertainty of what was happening, from the grief and darkness and the stumbling around, a deep and important TRUTH is revealed.

            That TRUTH looks like this – grief and heartache and death are very real. There is no denying that these difficult aspects of life come to all of us. But while grief and death and heartache are part of life, there is another TRUTH – God gets the final word, and it is spoken here by God’s emissary in the tomb: “Do not be alarmed; he is not here. He is going ahead of you – you will see him.”

            The gospel of Mark is not trying to describe it as convincingly as it can, but as truthfully as it can.

            That TRUTH looks like this – hatred and evil are real. Hatred and evil in the world are best revealed in the persecution and death of Jesus. This compassionate, wise, loving, healing, Spirit-filled person – certainly as god-like as anyone ever – is mocked and ridiculed and nailed to a cross. Hatred and evil are so real in our world. But hatred and evil do NOT have the final word. The final word is spoken by the guy in the tomb, on the right (not the left), who says, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here.”

            Hatred does NOT have the last word. Violence does NOT have the last word. Bigotry does NOT have the last word. Sin, evil do NOT have the last word. The last word is God, and God is love. That is the TRUTH.

            The TRUTH looks like this – life is often full of fear. What is your greatest fear in these days? Is it the disease that seems to lurk around and in our bodies or in our loved ones? Is it the personal issues that haunt our lives? Is it the cultural problems that plague us – like gun violence, or injustice, or something else? Fear is certainly a part of life – but fear is never the last thing; trauma is never the last thing. The last thing is God – that is the TRUTH revealed in this Easter story. The last thing is Life. The last thing is hope. The last thing is this – nothing can separate us from God’s love. The last thing is this –nothing is too much for God – not violence and hatred, not fear and death, not confusion and despair. God prevails. God gets the last word. Whether we live or we die, we belong to God. That is the TRUTH of Easter.

            The way Easter happens, especially in Mark, the TRUTH is depicted, not in a blaze of glory, but more like a candle flickering in the darkness. If they were making this whole thing up, they would have likely given it far greater splash – like heavenly angels singing, and a big flame of glory, and lots of credible witnesses to verify it. But no, it is just three women, and a guy in white, and simple words – “do not be afraid; He is not here; Go ahead . . . and you will find him.” And they left in trauma and ecstasy.

            All of this is a wonderful invitation for us to lean in, to listen carefully, to let it seep into us – for the TRUTH is real and so very important. But it is okay to doubt; it is okay to have the faith flame flickering – because we know fear and doubts are real too. Yet, we keep leaning in, listening, opening our hearts, and the TRUTH makes more and more sense. Whether we live or whether we die, belong to God. The world is tough, life is complicated. Life includes setbacks and sorrows. But God has the last word. That is what the resurrection of Jesus affirms so clearly. Nothing can separate us from God. That is the TRUTH in which we live.

And that news empowers us, enthuses us, to live for God – to live serving God in the world, to live working alongside God for the things that God cares most about – not selfish joys, but sincere justice, not personal pursuits but purposeful lives that promote healing and light everywhere. We belong to God. God holds us, and all life, forever. So we live with kindness. We live encouraging others. We live seeking to help and heal, not hurt or harm.

Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. And what does the Lord expect of us? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)

            Here is the TRUTH – grief and suffering are never the last thing. Fear is never the last thing – trauma is never the last thing – the last thing is God – the last thing is hope. The last thing is life! That is what the Easter story is about! God prevails. Nothing is too much for God. We are to lean – and keep leaning our lives – into God and God’s intentions.

“He has been raised.” Trusting God, we seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Alleluia. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O God; help our unbelief. And lead us to faithful lives of love and service following Jesus, the risen Lord. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Easter Sunday morning worship on April 1, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.