Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
April 1, 2018
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; 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.” So 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.
On June 10, 2007, the final episode of HBO’s series The Sopranos aired. While the concluding episodes of most long running series tend to be a bit disappointing to loyal fans, the last episode of The Sopranos elicited a surprisingly massive negative response. Near the end of the final show, Tony Soprano entered a diner. Because there were only a few minutes left in a show that had aired for years, I supposed the audience was ready for a solid ending, perhaps one with questions answered and plot points resolved. I think it is safe to assume that a majority of viewers thought that Tony would somehow be “taken out” in that diner, thus ending the show with accustomed blood and violence. In the last three minutes, viewers saw Tony meeting his family and discussing everyday family concerns while eating onion rings. The camera showed lots of suspicious characters in the diner, people you would imagine might be responsible for a hit on Tony. Yet there were also Cub Scouts and young lovers in the booths, people lost in the midst of ordinary life. The Journey song “Don’t Stop Believing” was on the jukebox. Daughter Meadow was outside the diner, having a difficult time parking her car next to the curb.
Suddenly, during a close up of Tony’s face, the screen went blank. Some viewers thought that their power in their homes went out. Others thought that someone in the room had unplugged the television. Perhaps some thought they had forgotten to pay the cable bill. Indeed cable providers reported that they received many phone calls from angry viewers thinking that somehow they were responsible. But that is how the show ended, in the mystery of the screen going blank.
Eleven years later people still want to talk about the final episode of The Sopranos. If you google it, you will find pages and pages of theories and explanations. You will discover thousands of viewer who are still frustrated at the bad ending. In my research this week I read an interview with David Chase, the creator and director of the series. He was the one responsible for the so-called “disappointing” ending. What he said I found most interesting. Chase said that he wanted to close the long-running show with a “big moment.” But he also wanted the viewers to understand that the “big moment” was not necessarily something expected, clear or well-defined. He wanted the “big moment” to be the audience anticipation of what might come next. The “big moment” was the mystery, the possibility of something always out there waiting, perhaps coming in the next moment.
We all like a good ending to stories. We like it when the loose pieces of what has happened before, come together. We prefer to have the problems of the plot resolved and the end of the story bring something which satisfies our hopes and dreams for the main characters. We are not fans of bad endings.
The Easter story, according to the gospel of Mark, is a lot like that final episode of The Sopranos. For many in the community of faith, the ending is just plain bad. Mark describes the two Marys and Salome going to the tomb to tend to the body of Jesus. They are worried about how they will roll the heavy stone away to even get to the body. When they look up, they notice that they stone has already been rolled away. Then they see a young man in a white robe who tells them, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus has been raised. Go and tell others that he has gone ahead of you into Galilee and there you will find him.” And Mark closes this Easter story by saying, “So 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.”
Mark’s resurrection story is the only one in the Bible where the risen Jesus never actually makes an appearance. If you read along with the Scripture lesson in your pew Bibles, you will notice that there are at least two alternative endings to the gospel of Mark. But just about every scholar believes that the real Mark ends at verse 8 and that what follows is endings written by separate authors, offered perhaps a generation or two after the original. These early Christians were so dissatisfied with Mark’s Easter narrative that they tried to tie a neat little bow around all of the unanswered questions and uncertainty. I think of Hemingway, of whom it was said, had written 47 different endings to his classic novel “Farewell to Arms.” When his friends and advisors couldn’t reach a consensus on any of those potential endings, Hemingway went back to his first words and kept the original ending, even though it seemed uncertain and disappointing for those who first read it.
An empty tomb without a resurrected body? No words of the Risen Christ to offer explanation and comfort and inspiration? Witnesses filled with fear and terror? Women given instructions to go and tell the other disciples yet who flee the tomb and say absolutely nothing? Not only is this a bad ending, it is a description of failure. As readers, we expect Easter to come to a better end!
This week I saw a clip posted by several Facebook friends, a video of a man named Lee Strobel offering proof of Jesus’ resurrection. Strobel, a one-time legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and former atheist, is now a committed Christian, having accepted Christ in 1979. Strobel is a proponent of what he calls, “evidence based Christianity.” In the clip, Strobel presented a great deal of historical and scientific evidence that he said demanded belief in Jesus’ resurrection. While watching the clip I noticed that Strobel did not mention the gospel of Mark’s Easter account. I can only imagine that his search for evidence finds frustration in Mark’s bad ending, which offers only an empty tomb and fearful witnesses.
Let’s look back at Mark’s Easter story. What kind of resurrection proclamation is this? Listen again to the words of the young man in the white robes who tells the women, “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.” Throughout the gospel, the disciples and followers of Jesus didn’t seem to understand what Jesus said and what he taught. They didn’t seem to catch on to the principles of sacrifice and serving. They continued to seek glory and honor while he exampled humility and mercy. They scratched their heads when Jesus mentioned that he was going to be put to death and would rise on the third day. What he talked about with Peter and James and John just didn’t seem to resonate with their worldly experience.
Now to understand the meaning of the empty tomb, to understand what Jesus was really talking about, these followers are told to remember the beginning of the story- when Jesus preached and taught and healed and announced the coming of God’s Kingdom. They are told that Jesus has gone ahead of them, into the times and events of their own lives, to meet them just as he promised. The resurrection will be found, not in physical evidence of the day, not in the certainty of historical record, and not in a happy ending. Resurrection will begin by finding Jesus in the midst of our ordinary experiences.
The empty tomb is a place of either hope or fear. Yet, it is the place that we tend to live in each and every day. We walk that fine line between achievement and disappointment. We teeter between faith and uncertainty. Some days we see the world as a pretty reliable place and our lives as meaningful. Other days we are frightened by life’s tenuous nature and frustrated when we are boxed into corners by our failures.
I have always found Mark’s Easter story to be my favorite. Perhaps it is because it isn’t so certain or so clear. Mark’s telling of Easter puts a great deal of responsibility upon our shoulders and our lives. The resurrection is real when we take the risk of living with hope, fueled by our belief that God has acted to bring death to an end and the reign of God to our awareness. Mark’s ending is a powerful encouragement for living in faith even in the face of unanswered questions and unknown future. There is work to be done, risks to be taken, dangers and disappointments to be faced, but Jesus will be there with us- having already defeated these things.
Easter is a game changer. The tomb is empty. Death has been bested. Possibilities are born again. We no longer linger in hopelessness. Jesus is risen and he has gone again of us. We will find him in the extended endings of his story that are lived out in the story we write for ourselves, in the situations of life that we cannot predict. As Brennan Manning writes, “the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.”
The promise of Easter has come. The story has never ended. It is up to us to leave the empty tomb and continue to seek the promise of the Risen Lord in the story in our lives.