Terror & Amazement
Some stories just end weird. They aren’t what you think they are and when they’re over, you’re left scratching your head. My first experience with the weird ending was a movie from the Generation X childhood library of necessary films and television. In fact, I think it was the greatest surprise ending for kids of my generation and it came in 1980. I was seven years old and finishing up the first grade. The next to the last week of school a movie came out, a sequel to a blockbuster that many critics have said was better than the original and one of the best of all time. The plot twist was something no one would have guessed and when moviegoers saw it, they reacted. Some of them hated it, some of them loved it, some of them were confused by it, but they all reacted. The twist can be summed up in five words:
No. I am your father.
Those five words, uttered by the legendary James Earl Jones, changed the understanding of a multibillion-dollar film/media franchise in the making and shocked audiences worldwide. The Empire Strikes Back would be one of the most successful sequels of all-time, part of one of the greatest film franchises of all time. Darth Vader would stalk dreams and Halloween costume shelves for the next four decades. And those five words along with the ugly cry face of Mark Hamill would shape the Star Wars script for years to come.
The story of the resurrection from the Gospel of Mark ends weird. Mark’s is the earliest of the gospel expressions, the sharing of Jesus’s life and ministry, and it is somewhat abrupt at times. Some writers and theologians refer to it as a comic book script, all action from beginning to end. Maybe that’s the reason it ends the way it does. It’s supposed to be kind of jarring, kind of uncomfortable. It’s not what you think it will be even though it is what you think it will be.
You might wonder what I’m talking about. Most bibles, especially the King James and other older versions, show twenty verses and no notes. In newer translations, scholars have been able to use older versions of the original manuscript for translation and have found that the original ending stops at verse eight. Many scholars think it was changed because the original ending did not seem to line up with the ending in other gospels. There is no grand and glorious reveal, no Jesus talking with people post resurrection, no meals and proofs. So, scholars think the early church translators added the ending to match the stories in the other gospels.
Modern translations make a note of this and with that in mind, we come to the older version of the story, the original ending. In it, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome have gone to the borrowed tomb, prepared to anoint the body of Jesus. They start thinking on the way and realize they aren’t strong enough to move the stone blocking the tomb. They go on a little further and realize there is no stone blocking the tomb.
At this point, I see terror and amazement. I see three women vacillating between being shocked, fainting, and ugly crying. I see pain at what must have seemed like a heinous, sacrilegious act after all the humiliation Jesus was forced to endure on the cross. Not only that, but some guy in white robes is sitting next to the tomb. The women cautiously move toward him, afraid of who or what he might be. The man tells them,
Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.
And then the writer of Mark’s Gospel says something interesting, “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
The women were terrified.
The women ran away from the tomb.
The women said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.
Hang on a minute, isn’t there supposed to be fanfare, trumpets, angels singing. Shouldn’t the other disciples know what’s going on and shouldn’t Peter in his own terror and amazement be running to an empty tomb? It seems like there should be a lot more hoopla than this or at the very least a little bit of hoopla. Nope. There’s a guy in a robe, an empty nook in a rock, and a handful of scared women carrying spices for a body that isn’t there. No fanfare. No trumpets. Nary any hoopla.
For me, when a writer decides to drop a surprise into the story like this, I wonder what they are saying. This wasn’t an accident. This wasn’t a lazy writer deciding they were tired of telling the story. This was intentional. The story, at least for the writer of Mark’s Gospel, was supposed to end this way. So, why?
To begin with, the resurrection is amazing, terrifying, unreal. It’s shocking! It’s awe inspiring! And it’s supposed to be. Ever see a zombie movie where the kids go running up to zombie grandma give her a hug and ask for milk and cookies? No, the grandkids are terrified. They went to grandma’s funeral and she’s supposed to be dead. Dead people don’t get up. And yet here is Mark’s gospel telling us Jesus wasn’t there, he came back from the grave. The guy on holy tomb guard duty says Jesus is on his way to Galilee, and for that matter, you should be too. Get going. The resurrection should leave us overwhelmed and wondering and fidgety and ready to react in some way. In fact, the early church preached the resurrection more than the cross because lots of people were crucified but coming back from the dead was something worth talking about. Resurrection meant new life, new being; something more, something beyond. This was the great message of the early church: He is Risen!
But it’s also an invitation. The story isn’t over. There’s a sequel and it’s a doozy. Get your tickets now and head to the show. Better than that, join the show. We’ve got plenty slots open for cast members looking to play a part. Jesus is going on, doing more work, meeting the rest of the cast in Galilee. Get to the meeting and find out your part, get your script and be ready for your cues. The resurrection means the story isn’t over. The Holy Spirit is coming, and the church is about to be born. The work started in Galilee now goes on to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the Earth.
What do we do with this? How do we respond to this surprise, open ended story? I see two choices—go to Galilee or go home. The women were given this choice. They ran screaming in terror and chose not to tell anyone according to this gospel record. But they were given the choice to go on to Galilee, go on to the next leg of the mission, go on to continue the work already in progress. We are too. We can have another Easter Sunday where we just sit through the service thinking about lunch and egg hunts and candy and all the other stuff that we have created as our way of celebrating. Or we make today the start of something new. We can meet Jesus at the next location on the journey, get our script and get ready for the next scene. When Jesus yells action, what you going to do?