Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 8, 2012

2012.04.08 “Life is Full of Surprises” Mark 16: 1 – 8 Easter 2012

“Central United Methodist Church

“Life is Full of Surprises”

Mark 16: 1 – 8

Pastor David L. Haley


April 8th, 2012

        “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they could embalm him.  Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb.   They worried out loud to each other, “Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?”

        Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back — it was a huge stone — and walked right in.  As they entered, they were startled by a young man sitting there, dressed in white. He said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty.  Now — on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”

        They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming.  Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.” Mark 16: 1 – 8, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


It is great to see everyone this morning!

We have had beautiful Lenten weather, for the most part, even if it has been a little cool these last few weeks. Kathy Shine commented Friday that she doesn’t ever remember lilacs for Easter – beautiful purple lilacs – such as those we that were on the altar Thursday night.

Every holiday brings its surprises, and apart from the weather and the lilacs, we had our biggest surprise this year on Thursday night. The person, who faithfully collects and counts our offering after each service, called me Friday to report that the Holy Thursday offering was accidentally lost. What happened was the bag was put in a coat pocket, while helping a friend get into the car, and upon arriving home found it wasn’t there. Between us, we looked everywhere, inside and out, while we did what we’ve learned to do in church, we prayed. As the book of James reminds us, “The prayers of the righteous are powerful,” and on Saturday morning our follow-up surprise came, when the police called to say someone had found the money in the street and turned it into them. So, Holy Thursday worshipers, your offering has been counted and inventoried by the Skokie Police, where we will pick it up on Monday. That’s not how we usually do our accounting, but we’ll take it in a pinch. It’s not as bad as the Christmas we lost the Baby Jesus, but that’s another story

Whether we like it or not, life is full of surprises. A woman once asked her husband, “Do you like surprises?” I’m sure he wondered what she had in mind, but he answered correctly, “You have to like surprises, because life is full of them.”

Some surprises are good, and some are bad. I do not like bad surprises, like hearing that we lost the offering or the Baby Jesus.  Like you, I like good surprises, as when people give me good news and gifts, or when I win the lottery. I’m sorry none of you won the lottery last week; I know you would’ve given a large part of it to the church.  That would have been a nice surprise.

Life is full of surprises, and so is the Easter story, with a big surprise ending today in Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel written, some 40 years after Jesus. Being the first Gospel, it also has the shortest resurrection account: whereas Matthew has twenty verses; Luke, fifty-three; and John, fifty-six; Mark has only eight.

While Mark’s Easter story begins without surprise, it had been preceded by a very bad one. Jesus whom they loved, Jesus whom they followed, the one they thought would bring God’s kingdom, had been betrayed, arrested, sentenced, and cruelly executed, while his followers watched helplessly. Now he was gone, dead, and buried. With Jesus’ loss, they felt as though they had lost God also, who had obviously not proved to be the kind of God Jesus taught. God’s Kingdom had not come, not for Jesus and not for them.

Given this, Mark’s Easter story begins without surprise. At dawn on the third day, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome headed back to the tomb to finish their funeral duties. Following a death, there is nothing to do, and much to do. My family experienced that just a month ago, following the death of my father. The day after the funeral, we did what these women did – we visited my Dad’s grave. One reason was to gather up what was left of the beautiful flowers you – as a congregation – sent us. Sadly, there were no surprises; the grave was the same, and, even more sadly, my Dad was still dead. It is a sad experience.

On that day, as the women approach Jesus’ tomb, there is one thing that puzzles me: in the last verse of chapter 15, they had watched the tomb sealed with a large stone, as a precaution against grave robbers or overzealous disciples. As they walked, the women wondered, “Who will roll away the stone?” Surely they had thought of that before now?  Did they bring a forklift?  Were they expecting a crew of day laborers to drive by? Did they bring a large lever?

Whatever they may have been thinking, they were not ready for the wave of surprises that happened next. First, the stone WAS rolled away. Second, when they walked in, they were startled by a young man sitting there, dressed in white. It wasn’t Michael Jackson, although it might as well have been for the start it gave them.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. We all know by know in the Bible whenever anybody says, “Don’t be afraid,” you’d better be, because something amazing is about to happen. The young man says:

“I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed     on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now — on your way. Tell his        disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”

Ready for the big finale, the happy ending, when shouts of Alleluia fill the air? [Note: At this point, a small child in the congregation yelled, “YES!”] It doesn’t happen. The final verse of Mark reports what did happen: ”They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.”

Is this anyway to run a resurrection? We hate unsatisfying conclusions, whether a joke without a punch line or a movie with a bad ending.  Maybe we do so, because too many things in life turn out that way:  A marriage that fails. A child who disappoints. A friendship that fades. A job that ends. Loved ones who die prematurely. Diplomacy that fails. Wars with unsatisfying conclusions.

And yet, scholars are clear: Mark’s Gospel ended with verse 8. Early on, it was so unsatisfying, one of the scribes who copied the manuscripts read it and thought “I can fix that!”  And so, if you check your Bibles, you will find there are several alternate endings of Mark, which frankly shouldn’t even be listed, because they are poorly attested. These alternate endings, by the way, have caused no end of controversy in the church. Interested in handling snakes as part of worship? Me neither, although it would be quite a surprise.  It’s here in Mark’s spurious longer ending.

So what’s the deal, what was Mark up to? I believe Mark intended this to be, not the end of a Gospel, but the beginning of a story, a story still being written today.  When Mark says, as he does in Mark 1: 1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” he meant not just verse 1, but the entire Gospel. Even Jesus’ resurrection is not the end, but a starting point. This is consistent with the message they heard: “You’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene . . . he’s here no longer . . . Now — on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he goes ahead of you to Galilee . . . You’ll see him there.”

What an exciting revelation: that Jesus isn’t in a tomb, off in the past, but out ahead of us, where we will meet him. What a comforting assurance, that we shall meet him, not in the places we might expect, in the rituals and institutions we have made to hold him, but out there, in our Galilee, out where it all began, where we live and work and play. Wherever we go, whatever we go through, he will meet us there.

And what of the women’s experience, literally fear and ecstasy, ending in silence; does that sound right to you? Fear: those of you who have spoken in public or read Scripture before the congregation know what fear is; fear of mispronouncing, fear of choking up, fear of losing your voice, fear of falling down, fear of everything. It’s hard to talk when you are deeply affected.  Astonishment: who, in the presence of God, who calls into being things that are not and gives life to the dead, who would not be astonished beyond words? Silence: In the face of fear and astonishment, who’s chatty and glib? And anyhow, in the face of laughter or hostility, who’s going to believe you?  Who would be the first to pronounce these words? Would I? Would you? More of us than not, I suspect, find that in the face of life’s over- whelming mysteries and surprises, we fall silent, ourselves overwhelmed, unable to speak.

Life is full of surprises – and if the resurrection of Jesus means anything – so also is death. Through the infinite love and power of God, who knows – who can speak – of what final surprise awaits us?

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on December 27th of last year, Peggy Noonan attributed the greatest words spoken in 2011 to Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, who died on October 5th of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56.

Jobs himself was a man who loved surprises, unveiling some of his greatest designs well into Apple’s media events: “One more thing,” he liked to say, introducing such game changers as the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad.

Although Jobs rejected his Christian upbringing at age 13, and came to be being highly influenced by Buddhism, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, he professed uncertainty as to whether or not God exists. “He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife,” wrote Isaacson. “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” Isaacson records Jobs saying. “I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.”

In his oft-quoted Stanford Commencement speech in 2005 he once memorably described death as “very likely the single best invention of life.” He said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

But his most memorable words, the ones Peggy Noonan referred to, were his last words, as reported by his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson, who was at his bedside when he died. In her eulogy, she spoke of how he looked at his children “as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze.” He’d said goodbye to her, told her of his sorrow that they wouldn’t be able to be old together, “that he was going to a better place.”

In his final hours his breathing was deep, uneven, as if he were climbing. “Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. His final words were: ‘OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.'”

In her eulogy, Simpson wrote this in all caps, as if to impart a sense of wonder and mystery. Says Noonan, “Oh wow” is not a bad way to express the bigness, power and force of life, and death.  And of love, by which Jobs was literally surrounded.

Noonan wondered, as others have wondered, as we might wonder, what did he see? Was Jobs reflecting on his life while gazing at his wife, children and the space beyond them? Was he experiencing some mystical vision of heaven, a place he told biographer Walter Isaacson he hoped existed? Were his last words simply the final grateful ruminations of a man many see as a creative genius? Did St. Peter meet him at the gate of heaven using an iPad, as one cartoon portrayed it?

Wondering about this, Peggy Noonan sent Ms. Simpson’s eulogy to a number of people and spoke to some of them, and they all had two things in common in terms of their reaction. They’d get a faraway look, and think. And if they had a thought to share they did it with modesty. No one said, “I think I can guess what he saw,” “I know who he saw,” or “Believe me, if he saw anything it was the product of the last, disordered sparks of misfiring neurons.” They were always modest, reflective. One just said, “Wow.” Says Noonan, “Modesty when contemplating death is a good thing. When words leave people silent and thinking they are powerful words.”  (“Jobs, Thatcher and the Force of Life,” By Peggy Noonan, The Wall St. Journal, December 27th, 2011)

The Gospel of Mark invites us to stand where these first trembling witnesses stood, in silence. They 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 either. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters, beside us today in fear, astonishment, and silence, a silence waiting to be filled in by people in every generation, waiting now to be filled by you and me.  (“Beyond Fear and Silence,” Barbara Lundblad, On Scripture,, April 3, 2012)










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