After the Ending, a New Thing

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California

April 4, 2021

Mark 16:1-8

Isaiah 43:14-21

Mark’s account of Easter morning is noticeably different than the other 3 gospels. Jesus makes zero resurrection appearances here. He isn’t mistaken for the gardener, as he is in John’s gospel. He doesn’t walk on the road to Emmaus, as he does in Luke. He doesn’t appear to the disciples or to the crowds.

We just have a messenger in white, sitting in the tomb, waiting for the women to arrive. He tells them, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

And their response?

They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

And here Mark ends his gospel. In the Greek, it even ends on a preposition, causing Mark’s 8th grade grammar teacher to hang her head and weep!

Your bibles have some other verses after this ending—both a shorter and a longer ending. But scholars agree that these endings were added on by editors trying to help Mark out. “Surely he couldn’t have meant to end there?”

Yet, it appears that he did.

Does this unfinished ending leave you wanting more? A friend says it’s like the ending of the second movie in a trilogy. You will only be satisfied after you’ve seen how they wrap up the story and end it.

This morning, I want us to consider endings, even unfinished ones.

Because, no matter what happens next for the fleeing women and the disciples, there is a real ending taking place in this story. Jesus is dead. They were headed to the tomb to anoint his dead body with spices, after all, not to take him a sandwich and a change of clothes. He had died a horrific death on a cross and they were witnesses to his death. He was dead, dead, dead, as the prophets Monty Python said.

And as you know from dealing with death in your own lives, to pretend that the death hasn’t happened is not helpful. To move on from death to happy ending too quickly is also not helpful.

I appreciate Mark’s willingness to remind us to pause—even if it involves terror and amazement—before we move on to the good news of the resurrection.

Because we are dealing with loss and death and I worry we’ve become so inundated by it that we haven’t paused to grieve it.  Millions of people have died from the coronavirus. The economy is uncertain for many people. Our country’s racism is still leading to attacks, harassment and death. There is much we need to mourn these days.

It turned out the women didn’t need their burial spices for Jesus, but maybe we do. As we prepare to emerge from this pandemic, are there things we need to leave behind in this tomb of a year, as we prepare for whatever new thing God has in mind for us?

Your church staff is busy trying to figure out how and when to return to the building. And while some of it will feel familiar, much of it will be different. We are working to be intentional about noticing what has been life giving during the lockdown and seeing how to nurture that. We are also noticing what we didn’t miss at all during the pandemic and asking ourselves if, or how, it needs to come back.

What needs to be acknowledged as dead and anointed with burial spices in order to be ready for the New Life God is planning?

Two of my boys have graduations next month. One from college and one from law school. I was thinking about what I treasured about my graduations and it was time with family, celebrating with my friends, crossing the stage and hearing my accomplishment acknowledged.

What I could have done without was a too long ceremony with a speech by someone I’d never heard of and can’t remember a thing about. We’re trying to make sure our boys’ graduations include the good stuff, even if adapted for pandemic times, and hoping their schools let some of the rest of it go.

In truth, that’s my hope for our whole society, as we emerge from this pandemic—I pray we will not cling to the grave clothes of things we need to leave behind.

The women didn’t need burial spices for Jesus, but maybe we need them, so we can leave behind what doesn’t give life. Racism, crippling wealth inequality, gun violence, and misogyny—what if we could leave those things dead, dead, dead and move into a safer, and more just, future?

Why do we cling so desperately to an old past that isn’t working for us? It’s human nature, I think, to trust the bad news we know when the good news is as yet, unproven. Yes, our ______________(fill in the blank—economy, health care system, Sunday morning worship schedule— doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me and I don’t know what would happen if we made big changes.

Right? It’s human nature.

In the reading from Isaiah we heard this morning, God says this:

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

God reminds people of what has already happened—a path in the mighty waters, which is a nod to the Exodus story—and then tells them to leave the past in the past because God is going to do something new.

This new thing will be unrecognizable for them. It will have rivers in the desert, which is a reverse of the Exodus, and will have jackals and ostriches bowing down to honor God, which is a reverse of earlier in Isaiah, chapter 34,  when they are the agents of chaos and destruction. Now, even the jackals and the ostriches will join in God’s new thing, as part of God’s wholeness, God’s shalom.

New Life conquered death in ways we do not understand and still hesitate to believe are true, yet we’ve had glimpses of grace that help us live in faith and hope.

I wonder if the fear and terror and amazement that caused the women to flee was, in part, because this new thing is terrifying. As painful as death is, we know how to respond to it. We show up with our burial spices and mourn what we have lost.

New life, however, where we thought we would only see death, is unexpected and startling.

Many of us have been celebrating Easter our whole lives. We’ve heard about the empty tomb and the resurrection.But think about the last time you experienced a new thing. A really different, earth shattering thing. It is unsettling and disarming. You feel like everything you thought you knew is up for grabs. Do you remember the first time you heard about email or the internet? Watch this clip from the Today show in 1994.

Can we believe God will do a new thing? Right now. For us. Do we dare to believe this is possible?

The good news is that the tomb is not the final resting place.

The women get to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body and they meet an angel. The man with the message offers the women words to point them to belief.  He reminds them of the reality of the death “He was crucified and there is the place where they laid him”.

He also points out a new reality. “He has been raised. He is not here.” And then he reminds them of Jesus’ own words to them. After the Last Supper, Jesus told the followers, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.

He gives them the information they need to know the truth.

He doesn’t tell them the death didn’t happen. He just tells them that the ending of one story allows for the beginning of another one.

Think of a seed. In order for new life to arrive, for the plant to be born, the seed has to die.

In order for us to become the church God is calling us to be, the church we used to be has to die.  We have to accept an ending to live into the new beginning.

But there is a lot of denial out there about what is dying. There are a lot of people who faithfully believe that if we just return to a moment in the past, that all of our problems will be solved.

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Sometimes the past wasn’t all we thought it was. I think our memories betray us when we think of the former things.

I’m a big fan of Wonder Woman. I loved the show in the 1970s and saw recently it was available to watch on HBO now. I started to watch it and couldn’t make it past the second episode. It was terrible. The sexism, the misogyny, the bad acting, the laugh track. Terrible. Broke my heart. Especially when I realized that the sexism and misogyny had been so prevalent in the culture at the time that I hadn’t been able to recognize it as a bad thing. I had, as a kid, incorporated that into my world view.

You expect me to believe that on an island without men, lingerie is what the women would walk around wearing?

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Sure, there were good things in the past too.  But God doesn’t call us to live there.

Howard Thurman, in his book Meditations of the Heart, writes this:

“The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit. It is a good song, measured to a rhythm to which I am bound by ties of habit and timidity of mind. The words belong to old experiences which once sprang fresh as water from a mountain crevice fed by melting snows. But my life has passed beyond to other levels where the old song is meaningless. I demand of the old song that it meet the need of present urgencies…

I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words, born of all the new growth in my life, my mind, and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, (so) that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody—how I shrink from the harsh discords of the untried harmonies.” (pp 206-207)

Are we willing, as a congregation, to live into a new thing God is preparing for us? Are we willing to learn a new song that God is writing?

Let us loudly proclaim what has “expired, passed on, and is no more”. We should pause to acknowledge an ending. Put those burial spices to use.

And then we prepare for what is coming.

And there are signs of this new life all around us, even in this year that has been.

It won’t be the same. Life after the risen Jesus is different for the disciples than it was when he was there, walking down the road with them or teaching them in the synagogues.

Friends, Mark has ended his gospel, by sending us out to Galilee, in our terror and amazement, to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. He ends his gospel inviting us to join in the work of the new beginning.

And perhaps he ends his gospel as he does so that we’ll remember that we aren’t in charge. We don’t get to write the story we think God should be telling. It is not our faithfulness, our obedience, or our brilliance that will keep this story going. It is God’s faithfulness.

And when we experience the faithfulness of God that completes this story, we are reminded that we are called to faithfulness as well.

We are called to love even when it will make our lives uncomfortable and puts them at risk.

We are called to stand for justice, not just in what we say, but in what we do.

When we become part of God’s family, we are called to see the people we meet as brothers and sisters, even, especially, the people we don’t want to call family.

And when God is busy trying to bring about a new thing, we have to get out of the way and not cling to the grave clothes of old patterns, old habits, old melodies. We have to have the courage to let things die, even when they are things we love. No matter how scary that is.

We are called to speak of the amazing things we have seen and to share GOOD NEWS of God’s love in a world that is sorely in need of comfort, blessing, and love.

As we go out into an Easter world, where death has been defeated, let us live in hope. Because living in the reality that God’s faithfulness, not ours, is what will bring about this new beginning allows us to move past our terror and amazement. Like the women, we are free to live into the confidence to tell the story we have been given. There is a new story waiting to be told. A new song to sing.

Amen and Amen.

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