Mark 16:1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark, chapter 16, v8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
I have, I think, buried enough people. It is a sad fact of life but it is unavoidable. I have buried 4 grandfathers, two of my own and also both my wifes. I have buried not only great-uncles but an uncle whose life was cut short in his late 40s. I do not think there will be a person sitting here in this place who does not know the chilling touch of death. We have buried fathers, mothers, husbands, wives. Perhaps you have even had the extraordinarily difficult task of burying a child.
Woody Allen may have joked that only death and taxes are certain, but there is really no joke in death, is there? That death is never a laughing matter came most starkly home to me in October 2002 when I was working in a church in Singapore and we had the sad privilege of leading a memorial service for the Singapore Cricket Club who had lost 8 members of their rugby team in the Bali Bombing.
As I spent that week talking to young men and women who were my age and yet were mourning their friends the words of Mark 16, v8 had never been more resonant. Trembling. Bewildered. Afraid. Here I was surrounded by my peers and they were having to stare death straight in the face and they could not cope. And who can blame them? I do not know how any person can cope with death when it comes with all its brutality.
Now, if all this seems a little bit dark for Easter morning then do turn with me again to look at our reading from Marks gospel for it is a very, very dark reading. Mark narrates the resurrection of Jesus in quite a different way to the other gospel writers. They all introduce us to the risen Jesus with his new incredibly real body. But there is no body in Marks gospel. Certainly, the tomb is empty but Jesus is not there.
And the reaction of the women is not the joyful exuberance of the other gospels. Here they are trembling, bewildered, afraid.
And yet, surely, this is the climax of the Christian story!!! Easter Sunday is the greatest day of the Christian Calendar. We greet each other with a heartfelt Christ is Risen and respond with an equally joyful He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!
So why does Mark, instead, leave us with such a dark scene? Lets spend some time together seeing why as Mark takes us to the edge of the open tomb, invites us to look inside and, in so doing, forces us to look inside ourselves.
Mark 16:1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
Jesus has been dead for 2 nights. He was killed on a Friday afternoon and then hurriedly laid to rest before the Sabbath began that very same evening. There was not even time to prepare the body for burial so he was wrapped in linen and interred. It must have been a wretched Sabbath for these three women. Jewish Law prevented them from doing any work, not that they would have had the emotional energy for it. Rather, from sunset to sunset they would have mourned for Jesus who had promised so much but had died such a tragic death. As the sun set on that first day they went out to buy the necessary spices to embalm the body the next morning. Who knows if they even slept that second night, such was their grief and disappointment. But even the longest dark night of the soul has some semblance of a dawn and so, v2
2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
The mood of hopelessness continues. They are on the way to tend to the body but they havent the faintest idea how the stone will be removed from the entrance of the tomb. The stones used to seal up such tombs would be five to six feet across and weigh at least 2 to 300 kilos. They have no chance of doing it themselves so it is, essentially, a futile task which they set out upon that morning.Like so many of us faced with the finality of death we want to make a difference but there is nothing we can do. The Reaper has already arrived, the stone is already over the tomb and we are shut out. This is the futility of death for death itself is the great grave-robber. It steals from us our loved ones, it abruptly closes off for us cherished relationships and we cannot roll the stone away.
4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.
This, however, is no ordinary death. The stone, which was very large Mark is keen to remind us just how impossible such an event should be has been rolled away and for the first time we get a hint that there is something more happening here. Quite what is happening is not clear to the women.
But that does not mean that it is not clear to us. One of the striking marks of the gospels is the clarity with which Jesus predicts the events leading up to his death and resurrection. Mark is no exception to this. As a church we have been reading together through Marks gospel on Sunday mornings and we have seen that on 3 occasions Jesus predicts it all with increasing accuracy.
Mark 8:31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
Mark 9:31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
And once more
Mark 10:32And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
So, as readers, we know what is happening here. It is not just that we can look back knowingly but if we were reading this for the first time there would be this rising sense of anticipationfor Jesus predicted that not only will he be killed but he will rise from death. And now it is the third day and we see that the stone has been rolled back. Could Jesus repeated prediction actually be true?
But the women, even though they would have also heard the predictions that Jesus made, seem to have forgotten them.
5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
Who would not be alarmed at entering the tomb of a loved one and, instead of seeing the body lying there, you encounter a young man just sitting there. It is almost as though he has been waiting for them. And so they are alarmed. The word here has a sense of being greatly disturbed. This is not just surprising, it is distressing for them. It is like arriving for the funeral only to find that the coffin has been taken away.
But the young man has nothing but good news from them.
6“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
He is risen!!! All that Jesus had promised was true. And the women should be left in no doubt for Mary Magdelene had been there at the burial 2 days earlier and that was certainly not an event she would have forgotten in a hurry. But now the tomb is empty, Jesus is not there. And the young man goes on.
7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'”
Just as he told you. And told them he certainly had on the Mount of Olives the night he was arrested. Mark has recorded it for us
Mark 14:27And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”
And if the womens task had seemed futile before it is now shown to be utterly misguided for they are in the wrong place!!! Jesus had told them he would rise and he had told them that he would meet them in Galilee. So what are they doing at the tomb?
There can be only one conclusion; although they loved Jesus they didnt really believe him. If they had believed him when he spoke the promises then they would not be here at the tomb. They would be on the road to Galilee.
They are pious, of that there is no doubt, but they are not persuaded and their piety counts for nothing. More than that, it leaves them in despair. See how Mark concludes.
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
The young man in the tomb told them to return to the disciples and tell them the wonderful news that Jesus was alive but, instead, they tell no-one for they are afraid.
They are afraid.
Now, in Marks gospel this is not the first time someone has been afraid when confronted with the reality of Jesus. In fact it is a common theme and it will be helpful for us to trace how Mark presents fear.
We see it first towards the beginning of the gospel in chapter 4 and the famous story of Jesus calming a storm. I wonder if you know it? The disciples are in a boat with Jesus when a furious storm blows up and the boat almost capsizes. But Jesus is asleep so they wake him up with the amazing question teacher, dont you care if we drown? Of course he gets up and with only a word calms the whole storm. Then Mark records the following:
40He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Now that is striking. Mark only uses the word fear once the storm has been calmed, not before. The thing that really frightens these hardened fishermen, the thing that shows they have no faith that they do not understand and trust Jesus – is Jesus calming the storm. He calms the storm and then they are terrified asking who is this?
Again, in chapter 5, Jesus casts a whole legion of demons out of a man and so the townspeople come to investigate. Mark tells us:
Mark 5:15And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.
The fact that Jesus has made this man more sane than hes ever been terrifies them!!!
In the next chapter the disciples are out on a boat on their own and Jesus walks on the water towards them. Again, Mark records:
Mark 6:50 …they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
And so on.
Time and time again throughout Marks gospel people are confronted with the reality of who Jesus is and, because they do not understand who He is, they are afraid. And so, as we return to the tomb to watch the 3 women fleeing we understand their reaction. They still do not understand who Jesus is. They have witnessed his most powerful act, He has defeated death itself, and yet because they do not understand it they are still afraid and flee into the mist.
So what should they have understood? Well, nothing more than we have already seen. Nothing more than Jesus had Himself told them that he would be killed and be raised again. But encompassed within that is so much more. It is the certain and sure establishment of Jesus as the Christ, the King, the Saviour, the Son of God. It is the achievement of all that he set out to do and the proof that he has done it and that He truly is God.
In dying he took upon himself the sins of all who would trust him and was punished in their place.
And then, in order to demonstrate that the stranglehold of sin was broken he rose from the dead. For sin always leads to death but now, with sin defeated, death could no longer lay claim to him and so he was raised and ushered in a new reality not just life but eternal life; both forgiveness of sins now and the presence of God for eternity – he ushers it in for all those that will simply trust him. For all those who are convinced by His words and His actions and turn to Him in faith.
Not for those who are simply pious, for piety in and of itself will save no-one, but for those that are persuaded and act.
The three women were not persuaded.
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Faced with the reality of the risen Jesus they could not yet accept his words and so all that was left was bewilderment. Jesus might as well still have been dead, they certainly acted as thoughhe was. Without a proper understanding the shadow of death still hung over them as they fled.
So what about us? What brings us to the open tomb this morning? In a sense it is too late for that question. Whether we have come because we are persuaded or because we simply think it is the pious thing to do we are here and the tomb is empty. What matters now is not so much how we arrived but how we will leave.
For, to come here today and to leave again without being persuaded is to return trembling and bewildered into the cold morning air. Nothing will have changed. We will still have to bury our dead without confidence, we will still have to face our own mortality with fear. We will still not really understand the world that we live in for we will still not understand the one who created it. That would be a terrible way to leave, friends. To come this close to the open tomb and then to leave like that.
But, if we embrace the empty tomb, recognise it for what it is the proof of who Jesus is and what he has achieved for those that trust him, if we do that then there is confidence. For the great enemies of death and the judgement that lies beyond it; they no longer hold us. Their chains are broken apart are surely as the stone is rolled away. And so we can venture out into the morning and, perhaps even this morningfor the first time, there will be no trembling, no bewilderment and no fear.