First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

He Is Not Here…

This morning we used an age old greeting and response for Easter Day: “Christ Is Risen! He Is Risen, Indeed!” Each year, on this Sunday, and on many others, we proclaim this good news directly. But, indirectly, the very fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians (including us) changed the day on which they worshiped from Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) to Sunday (the day of Christ’s resurrection) proclaims the resurrection of Jesus week by week, silently, by their very meeting together.

Now, although, today and often, we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, it is not his own act, as if he simply got up from a good night’s sleep all by himself. Jesus’ resurrection is primarily God’s act; an act that vindicates Jesus’ life and death. In the Gospel Lesson this morning the young man who spoke to the women at the tomb did not say that “Jesus rose from the dead.” He said, “He has been raised.” He meant “raised by God,” as Peter made abundantly clear in Acts 10 when he said,“ God raised him on the third day.” In Jesus’ resurrection God was witnessing that the divine character was still as the Prophet of the Exile had painted it in our Old Testament Lesson:

But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Stop being afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you walk through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

For those of you who are finding the world a pretty difficult place right now, going through water and fire is an apt description of life, and even at these edges of our experience, God is the God of eternal presence, who swallows death up in victory by the words: “I am…your Saviour.” That God is the powerful one who grasps us by the hand and supports us is the first thing we ought to remember about the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Peter sets forth the second thing to remember in the Acts Lesson. He said:

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears (respects) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.

Peter went on to rehearse the story of Jesus which is an illustration of how this impartial creator and redeemer is present through waters, rivers, and fires. The resurrection is the act of God the Creator and Redeemer who shows no partiality.

As I said a few moments ago, these images of fires, rivers, and waters, remind us of how life can be for us. To get to the Gospel story, these images also remind us of how life was for the women at the tomb on the first Easter morning.

Mark’s resurrection account is undoubtedly the least popular of the four. Most ministers would never choose it on their own, and I know a few of my colleagues who never do, exercising the option every third year to select the reading from John instead. Matthew, Luke, or John – or even Peter in the Book of Acts – all seem to have much more to say. One reason for this is because the authentic text of Mark ends with verse 8. After that most Bibles contain two alternate endings added fairly early in church history (maybe the 2nd or 3rd century), but clearly not from Mark. The authentic text of Mark bring us up short, and leaves us with people hastily abandoning the tomb, as the disciples had fled in the Garden, too terrified even to speak.

The authentic story in Mark seems too short. It tells us of no appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, even though he had said, earlier in the Gospel, “When I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (14:28). This saying is confirmed by the young man at the tomb (16:7). Why do you think we have Mark’s version, when our other sources seem to do so much “better”?

I would suggest to you that one value of Mark’s story is its early witness to the claims of resurrection day. He says that three women went to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath was over (Saturday at sundown). They went to anoint his body, which would complete the Jewish burial ritual that they couldn’t do on the Sabbath because it was work. On the way, they spoke of who might move back the stone from the door of the tomb so they could get in. When they arrived, they found that the stone had already been moved, and on looking into the tomb the women saw a young man dressed in white. Now the other gospels all identify this person as an angel. Luke and John say it was two angels. Matthew adds some special effects: it was an angel with an appearance like lightning and clothing white as snow, who descended from heaven in an earthquake (28:2-3). Mark has one young man. Period. No editorial comment.
The young man said several things: First he said, “Stop being afraid.” Then he validated their experience, “You’re looking for Jesus who was crucified.” Yep, right address. Then he said, “He has been raised; he is not here.” “Come in closer and see where he was.” Mark never says whether they did. The young man then told them to go tell the disciples (including old Peter who had denied him three times) that Jesus was going ahead to Galilee as he promised, and they’d see him there. Mark doesn’t elaborate much, but his claims are about the same as those of our other Easter sources. And he leaves no doubt what he thinks happened. So: Value one: Mark puts the Easter claims clearly and simply at an early date.

But Mark’s Gospel can also help us to grasp that just being confronted with the claims of Easter isn’t enough. As I suggested last week, Mark allows us a good deal of room to question, think and “come into” this astounding story. Let’s look at it again. The situation, as Mark portrayed it, was not very comfortable. The women were alarmed by the presence of the young man at the tomb The word “alarmed” is used only by Mark in the whole New Testament and indicates deep awe before that which cannot be explained by natural means. So they were “awe-struck.” It only gets worse. Mark also uses words for fleeing, terror, amazement, and the last words of the Gospel, “for they were afraid.” In short, Mark does everything he can, within a few words, to build up our sense of the women’s anxiety at the sight of this tomb of Jesus, which Mark implies (and the other Gospel writers make clear) was “empty.” The young man claimed that this tomb was good news about Jesus, but was it? Jesus was not there! What did it mean that he was gone? There was terror, not only before this young man (who might just be an angel, who knows?), but also probably because they might just be wrong about this whole Jesus business.

Then something awful happens, the end of a marriage, the death of a child, or a spouse, or physical or emotional abuse – you can fill in the blank with all your horror and disappointments – and how many of us have looked for God only to find an empty tomb, a dead end? What does it mean? People tell you it’s good news, but is it? Even when we do the best we can, we sometimes wonder, Where is God? Am I simply looking into an empty tomb? Is that all there is? I think Mark is patient with such a process. Given that all we find in this earliest Gospel account is an ambiguous “He has been raised, he is not here,” is it any wonder that we also have folk today who run, dumbstruck, from that empty place today, and don’t want much to do with God? Think about how you are as your own fear can turn to anger.

This is probably the reason, more than any other, why Mark’s resurrection account is so little read and valued. It is because Mark refuses to “fix” the terrified fleeing from the felt lack of Jesus’ presence. The other disciples had already fled, and now, so do the women. Who is left? What if the tomb is just empty? Is it also because Mark chose to end his story this way that the other Gospel writers chose to “enrich” Mark’s story with so many accounts of the risen Christ? They show that, beyond the fear and the silence, God was the one who didn’t give preferential treatment, but accepted all those who honour and revere God and do what is right (Acts 10), and that God is, indeed, the creator who upholds through waters, rivers, and fire (Isaiah 43). That’s very important, but, Mark honours the process. And, as hard as process is sometimes, it’s important in its own right!

Further, I think that this is why Mark’s Gospel itself was expanded by those who wanted to make sure that everyone knew that the young man really had good news of great joy. As I said earlier, we have at least two different “endings” of Mark’s Gospel that seek to report the end of the process.

In actual fact, what those expanders of Mark did in the 2nd or 3rd century (or whenever they wrote), is exactly what we must all do with the gospel in our lives now. We “write” our own ending to the story. In fact, the reader of Mark’s gospel is the only one left who has not run away? How will we write that story? How, beyond the fear and silence, through rivers, water, and fire, has God’s presence neither left nor forsaken us? To make it in the world we must do more than convince ourselves that Jesus was raised a long time ago. That doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t necessarily do much for us on this bumpy ride we call life. To do that, we have to experience the God who raised Jesus and who is with us. It’s not that we don’t pass through the waters, we do; it’s not that we don’t wade up to our neck and over in the rivers, we do; it’s not that we don’t walk through fire; we do, but we know that, whatever happens that God is with us every step of the way. Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed!

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN.