All of the ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end with these words: “Entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, ‘Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Recognize from the outset that these women who fled from the tomb of Jesus were not cowards. Mark’s text states that it was Jesus’ female disciples, not his male disciples, who gathered to watch his crucifixion. It was the women who came to honor his slain body with burial spices. But what they found at the tomb that Easter morning overwhelmed their capacity to cope. The great stone was moved, and there was no body. No Jesus. No corpse. Instead, they found a young man dressed in white who said to them, “Don’t be afraid! You seek Jesus who was crucified – he is not here! Go tell the disciples he will meet them in Galilee!” But the women did not obey. The Scriptures say they felt “phobos,” fear, from which we derived the word “phobia.” They experienced “tromos,” quaking, from which we get the word “trembling.” They felt “ecstasis,” from which we get the word “ecstasy,” which means in this case, not joy, but a fright that literally scared them out of their wits. Ecstasis! Though they were charged with sharing the most extraordinary news the universe had ever heard, these women ran from the tomb and said nothing – because they were afraid.
Fear can be a healthy, positive state of mind. Psalm 111:10 tells us that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Of course, fear by itself does not make us wise. Rather, fear is the beginning of wisdom. I think back to my horrible, wonderful freshman year in college when I awakened every morning in a state of terror. In one sense I was living a dream. I had received an athletic scholarship to run for the University of Georgia, competing in the most prestigious athletic conference in America. (Amen!) Yet I awakened every morning with fear! For while I was a good high school student, up until that time in my life I had never taken my studies seriously, and I knew that if I didn’t perform academically I would lose my scholarship and bring an end to my opportunity. So I threw myself into my school work out of sheer fear! To my amazement, I found that I loved learning! Enjoyment begat a discipline. Discipline begat a passion for knowledge that has remained engrained within me. Fear for me was the beginning of wisdom. Fear was the catalyst that spurred me to engage in discipline, and discipline morphed into enjoyment, and enjoyment became a passion that has turned into a lifelong pursuit.
But fear can also be catalyst for failure. The kid who walks into the batter’s box fearing that he will strike out, is going to strike out. The student who enters that final exam fearing that she is going to fail, will surely fail. The speaker who approaches the podium afraid of misspeaking will surely misspeak. Fear creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear can create spiritual paralysis. What is the Easter fear that grips these women? It is not, as some scholars have held, that this is Mark’s way of showing that the female disciples failed Jesus just as miserably as did the male ones. No, these women who had received the greatest news the universe had ever heard kept silent about Jesus’ resurrection because they feared they would fail in their mission. They were afraid of failing in the privileged task of sharing news of Christ’s resurrection. They were afraid no one would take them seriously. They were afraid the disciples would call them crazy. They had been given the most exalted mission – to proclaim the resurrection of God’s Messiah – but they were afraid they would fail in so doing. And fearing they would fail in their mission, they failed! Fearing they would fail, they kept silent and did not fulfill the task with which they had been entrusted.
Obviously, in time these women put aside their fear. They eventually broken the power of their paralysis. In time, their love for their Lord Jesus and their love for the disciples caused them to break out of their Easter fear and share word of the resurrection, proclaiming, “He is risen!” How do we know this? Because we are here! For what is the Christian church but an unbroken line of communication whereby one person passes the Good News of Easter on to another person! What is the church but one friend telling another friend, ‘I have experienced the risen Lord; you can experience him, too.’ What is the church but one parent or grandparent telling a child, ‘I have experienced the risen Lord; you can experience him, too.’ What is the church but one neighbor telling another, ‘I have experienced the risen Lord; you can experience him, too.’ What is the church but one generation of believers telling the next generation, ‘He is risen! He is risen, indeed! You can experience him, even as we have.’ Those women broke their silence and declared to the disciples, The cross was not God’s final word! Our God is a God of the living and not the dead! Such is the privileged task that every generation must fulfill for the next, sharing the news of the risen Christ.
Some say that Mark never intended for his Gospel to end with the words, “for they were afraid.” Some surmise that perhaps Mark died before he ended his Gospel. One scholar suggested that mice nibbled the end of the manuscript, the ultimate “the dog ate my homework” excuse. Other scholars suspect that somehow the early church lost the original ending of Mark’s Gospel. But I wonder if Mark didn’t end his Gospel exactly how he wanted to. I sometimes wonder if Mark wasn’t holding a mirror up to our own lives. I think he wanted to give us the vivid image of these women who were given the greatest news the universe has ever heard – and then they sat on it – they didn’t not share it. Our first reaction is to wonder, ‘How could they be silent? They have been given the most joyous news – how could they keep quiet about it?’ But then Mark seeks to remind us that we, too, have been given the most extraordinary news, the news of Christ’s resurrection. We have received the electric intelligence that the resurrection power of God has been manifested in Christ. Yet, so often, we keep silent about it! We do not share it as we should. We encounter a life broken on the wheel of bad choices, a life without purpose or direction, and we keep silent. We encounter a life that seems to have no purpose or direction, a life that seems isolated and cries out for a word of invitation – yet we keep silent. We encounter a life that seems profoundly wounded, yet we offer no word of healing. We who have received the very news that those women heard at the Easter tomb – our God is a God of resurrection power! — we often do not share that needed word of hope, grace, forgiveness, love and inclusion. We encounter lives that desperately need the banquet table of God, but we issue no invitation because we are victims of Easter fear ourselves – we fear that we might fail in our mission to share the news of God’s redemptive work. So, fearing that we will fail, we fail. That, I think, is Mark’s subtle and sublime point.
Some years ago I happened to see an interview with the man generally accounted as the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretsky, shortly after he had made an improbable game-winning shot. He admitted to the reporters gathered around him, “I started not to take that shot because I was afraid I would miss. But I remembered my father saying, ‘A shot not taken can never go in.’ ” The greatest player in hockey history was afraid he might miss! But a shot not taken can never go in! So, too, an estrangement not challenged can never be reconciled. An invitation not issued can never be received. A loneliness not engaged can never been dispelled. A wound not acknowledged can never be healed. An Easter promise not shared can never be enjoyed by another. A shot not taken can never go in! How many of us in our own way are victims of Easter fear?
I would only add that Easter fear takes many form. Some of us here experience Easter fear because we hear the summons of God calling us to deeper discipleship, to stronger stewardship, to increased investment in God’s family, and we know that answering that invitation would mean rearranging our priorities and reshuffling our lives – and we are afraid. When those women went to the tomb, they encountered a reality that called them out of their comfort zone. They experienced “tromos,” trembling, “phobos,” fear, “ecstasis,” a fear that stunned them out of themselves. Some of us fear that the summons of the living God to engage in deeper discipleship would pull us out of our comfort zone into a more spiritually disciplined and committed life than we have lived heretofore. There are many forms of Easter fear. Yet God is calling you – I promise you – out of your comfort zone toward your greatest and truest and best self.
Some years ago I went to go fishing at a friend’s private lake and found his canoe swamped by the heavy rains we had recently received. I managed partially to empty the canoe and tug it to shore, only to discover that a large school of minnows was swimming in a small pool left in the canoe. I tried dumping the fish back into the lake, but the more sharply I angled the canoe, the more stubbornly the stupid minnows strove to stay in the canoe’s little pool of water — what they thought was their whole world! They feared and resisted my efforts to save them. Finally I turned the entire canoe upside down and vigorously shook it upside down until I had dumped all the dumb fish back into the lake. It occurred to me, this is how many people respond to God. We all live stuck in our little pool of prejudice and fear and habit and custom, thinking our provincial little world is all there is. We fear God’s efforts to save us, though God is trying to call us into the larger lake of life. We stubbornly strive to stay in our stagnant little pools. Because of fear! If I had let the minnows have their way, they would have died a short jump away from the great lake of life. But they were meant to live in the larger lake! How many lives die in cloistered little pools of their own making, though they are meant to live in the great lake of the Kingdom of God, where they will ultimately thrive! How many lives stay misdirected because they resist the efforts of God to shake them into the great lake of life for which they were intended! How many of us are gripped by Easter fear?
On this Easter Sunday I think of one of my favorite stories, a West African tale about the Sky Maiden. It seems that a large tribe was upset because their cows were not giving as much milk as they should, so they hid a young man in the bush to see what was happening. To his amazement, the young man saw an extraordinarily beautiful girl riding down to earth on a moonbeam, milking the cows, then returning back to the heavens. He set a trap and caught the girl. She identified herself as the Sky Maiden, sent to earth to gather food for a tribe that lived in the sky and had nothing to eat. The young man said he would let her go only if she agreed to marry him. She agreed to do so on the condition that she be allowed to return home for three days. When she returned to earth she brought a box with her, and she told her husband, “I will love you and be a great wife for you as long as you never look in this box.” For a couple of years the young couple was fabulously happy, and the husband kept his promise. But over time this young man’s fear grew that there was something in that box that would keep his beautiful bride from loving him forever. So, finally, he couldn’t resist temptation any longer, and he looked in the box. There was nothing in it. It was completely empty. He looked up to see his wife looking at him peering in her box. She said, “Now I must leave you.” “Why?” he asked, “the box was empty.” “No,” said the Sky Maiden, “it was full of sky. When I went home I filled that box with everything that was precious to me, with all the specialness that reminded me of home. It was full of sky. Now I must leave you. For how can I love you when all that is precious to me is mere emptiness to you?”
To look upon the empty tomb is to see all that God holds special. We see represented in that empty tomb all that God holds precious, his display of resurrection power that death cannot stymie, nor evil ultimately thwart. We see in that empty tomb the embodiment of the fact that nothing can separate us from God’s love. To look upon the empty tomb is to see that God is a God of the living and not the dead! But if you can look into that empty tomb and see nothing, feel nothing, understand nothing, believe nothing, then your life will be invariably tragic and sad. For then all that God regards as special is mere emptiness to you. The young man’s testimony at the tomb was not only spoken to those women, but is directed toward us as well: Come out of your comfort zone! Treasure all of the great Easter truths that God treasures! So live your life that others know by your words, by your deeds, by the very orientation of your being, that Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Happy Easter to you all!