04/12/20 “Cliffhanger”

Mark 16:1-8   (Watch on YouTube)

“Who shot J.R.?”

You may remember this question from the season-ending episode of the prime-time soap opera “Dallas,” where J.R. Ewing—the fictional Texas oil baron whom America loved to hate—was shot by an unidentified assailant. For months, viewers speculated about who the culprit might be. It was a real cliffhanger, so much so that on November 21, 1981, 350 million people tuned in to find out who shot J.R.

Our Scripture passage for today is also a cliffhanger. Mark’s gospel goes like this: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body but found an angel instead. The angel explained that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and he commissioned the women to go and tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee as promised and that they should go to meet him there. Then Mark ends his gospel with these words from verse 8: the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

What kind of an ending is that? I’ll tell you what kind: the unsatisfactory kind.  It’s not a happy ending, like the other gospel writers give us. It leaves us with too many loose ends and unanswered questions. It’s a cliffhanger: if the women didn’t tell anyone, who told the story?

I chose this version of the resurrection story precisely because of its uncertainty. It seems to fit the circumstances we find ourselves in on this most unusual Easter morning. Like the women at the tomb, we are fearful.  We’re not sure how things are going to go. We’re poised between grief and hope. But we also have been given an assurance and a promise: that because of the resurrection, we know the ultimate conclusion of our story.

The early Christians were obviously as dissatisfied with verse 8 as the ending to Mark’s gospel as we might be.  By the middle of the 2nd century, they had solved the problem by adding some new endings. You’ll probably find them in your Bibles, enclosed in brackets and numbered verses 9-20. Most scholars believe that these endings are not original and that Mark really did intend to end his gospel with verse 8. Others agree that we no longer have any more of Mark’s gospel, but they think there might have been more that was lost over time—verses which would have wrapped things up more neatly. But, the fact is that our oldest manuscripts end where we did this morning, with the cliffhanger of verse 8. They leave us with followers who were afraid, and who said nothing to anyone about what they had seen and heard.

Why would Mark choose this way of ending his account of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ? It certainly wasn’t because he didn’t know what happened. After all, Mark wrote his gospel some thirty or forty years after that first Easter morning. He knew the message had gotten out, and it had to be the women who told it, because they were the only ones present at the tomb. So, why the cliffhanger at the end?

I think that Mark used this device for the same reason other writers do. It invites us to think about the possible outcomes. It makes us reflect on what we already know. It leads us to trust that the story will have a satisfactory conclusion, and it makes us eager to find out what that conclusion will be.

We’re in a little different place than the viewers of “Dallas.” We already know the outcome of the story. So did Mark. So did Mark’s original readers. But we can still put ourselves in the place of someone who doesn’t know what will happen. We can still ask ourselves, “Who told the story?”

First, let’s consider what we know. The women had gone to the tomb, worried about how to get in, and found it open. They had expected to find Jesus’ body, but found an angel. They expected to mourn a dead friend, but they were told that he lived again.

Usually an angel’s comforting encouragement to not be afraid calms his listeners, but not this time. This time terror and amazement seize the women. Our English translation doesn’t capture the intensity of what they were feeling. Their bodies were literally shaking with fear. Their perception of reality is so upset that they might have felt like they were losing their minds. But they may also have perceived that, in the presence of the angel, they were seeing with their own eyes and hearing with their own ears a revelation from God.

The angel told them to go, and they went.  But they didn’t go as messengers with a purpose. They fled, as though from danger. They fled in order to find safety.

I always wonder how far they had to go to get back to Peter and the others. I picture them running as fast and as far as they could until they just had to slow down to catch their breath. They begin to talk about what they’ve just experienced. Then they begin to feel another kind of fear—the fear of not being believed. (According to Luke, this is exactly what happened.) They’re not even sure they believe it themselves. They hadn’t even seen Jesus. Maybe their imaginations were playing a trick on them—a reaction to the grief and stress they’d been under. Maybe it would be better if they didn’t say anything about at all. So, they keep their story to themselves. That’s part of what we know about the women.

But we also know that these women have been bold and faithful followers of Jesus. They had provided for him during his earthly ministry. When the men made themselves scarce during Jesus’ crucifixion, Salome and the two Mary’s, along with other women, remained to witness Jesus’ death and burial. They had gone to the tomb to care for the body of a man who had been convicted and executed as a criminal. These are not women given to living in fear.  It seems unlikely that they would persist in fearful silence. So, do the women eventually tell the story?

What do we know about the other disciples, including the twelve? At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John had felt the same kind of fear the women felt that Easter morning. That same fear kept them from asking Jesus what he meant when he predicted his passion, and they felt it as they followed him into Jerusalem. It led them all to desert Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and it led Peter to deny that he even knew Jesus. They never even show up at Golgotha, and they are nowhere to be found at the tomb.  We know that the men in Jesus’ circle frequently acted out of fear. But could they have heard of Jesus’ resurrection and overcome their fear? Could they have told the story?

We also know what Jesus promised. He had repeatedly said that after he would be raised from the dead. And, he had promised the disciples, as they gathered around the table in the upper room on the night when he was betrayed, that after his resurrection, he would go before them to Galilee. We know that Jesus and his Father are one, and we know that God keeps God’s promises. We know that human failure and weakness couldn’t stop God’s saving work from being accomplished through Jesus. Did God find another way to tell the story—a “Plan B” for getting the word out if the original followers failed?

How do we resolve the cliffhanger at the end of Mark’s gospel? We don’t actually need to know who told the story after the resurrection. Whoever told it and however it was told, it continues to be heard throughout the world today. The real question is not, “Who told the story?” The real question is “Who will continue to tell the story?” Mark’s gospel really isn’t complete, and he never intended it to be. Mark announces this in his very first verse. He says that his gospel is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark knew that what he began, someone else would continue. And the ones who will continue to tell the story? It’s us.

We are the ones whose lives have been changed by Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection. We are the ones who have been freed from the power of sin in our lives—freed to live an abundant, grace-filled life with our Lord and Savior, freed to live in the sanctifying and perfecting power of the Holy Spirit. We are the ones who can now live free of the fear that death once held—free to live this life fully, and free to hope in the life to come.

Mark wrote the beginning of the story, and he leaves his readers wanting more. The good news is that we are the ones to live the story and to tell it. The story in a nutshell is this: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Happy Easter. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young