For They Were Afraid (A Sermon on Mark 16:1-8)

Given at Colonial Church on April 15, 2018. You can access the sermon below.

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. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 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. 7 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.” 8 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 16:1-8 (NRSV)

One of the many things you might not know about me is that one of my favorite film genres is spy thrillers. I particularly especially like James Bond movies… which sometimes surprises a few people! So when I saw that there’s a new film coming out with Jon Hamm, Beirut, I paid attention and listened when Jon was interviewed on MPR. I don’t know how many of you know Jon Hamm. He’s an actor who rose on the public scene through the TV show MadMen,which chronicled an era that some of you know more intimately than me (it was set in the 1960s and 70s before I was alive!).

You might not know much about Hamm…so let me tell you some of his story. He had been in Hollywood for many years and he had some small jobs, but he was thinking of quitting and going home. At one point he said it was “soul crushing” to have gone Hollywood, seeking to be an actor, and he is doing random jobs at 30-something that he never would’ve expected. He stayed though because he figured someone had to make it and it might as well be him. Well into his 30s he had the opportunity to play Don Draper in MadMen,a role that would become iconic and propelled him toward Hollywood stardom such that he’s now starring in a major motion picture.

And why am I telling you this story (other than my love for movie thrillers)? Well because I wanted to highlight a case of someone where if you had known him 20 years ago, he would have had a very different story from the one he has now. These many years later his story is the stuff of the victor—he’s a figure now who many of us know. BUT just 15 years ago none of us could have expected this to become his story.[1]

I share this is because where we start a story or where we end it really matters. Sometimes you hear a story of success and triumph and you only hear about the good stuff and the glory. We don’t tell the stories about the times when we started businesses and failed; the times were we were actually terrified and didn’t know what would happen next. We don’t often tell the stories about how we were a sophomore in college and spent a lot of Friday nights crying in our dorm room. We don’t tell the stories about how right now everything looks bleak and hopeless…yet these are parts of our stories. And the reality is that life is actually a lot messier and uncertain. It’s not always so glorious, and we for sure never actually know the ending until it happens.

So we come to Mark 16:1-8 today and one of the reasons that I wanted to focus on just those first eight versus is because if you’ll pick up your pew Bible you’ll notice something unique that you don’t see this all the time in scripture—though Mark 16 ends at verse eight, there in brackets is listed the “shorter ending” of Mark and then the longer ending of Mark (verses 9-19). Then there’s an excessive footnote section that talks about how some of the ancient authorities bring the book to close the end of verse eight.

I wanted to stop at verse eight today for a few reasons. Partially, because textually speaking this ending has the most support of its being the original. Additionally, I think this ending best fits with the story and the theology of Mark. For unlike the other Gospels, this one doesn’t end with the vision of resurrection; we don’t see the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. No, this one ends with the women and disciples being afraid. Finally, I also think ending at verse eight is really good news for us because it preaches a particular kind of gospel…one that resonates with our lives wherein we know what it is to not know the ending, the one in which we are terrified and uncertain about what will happen. So let me talk a little bit more about this.

As I noted, the first reason why I think ending at first eight is the right place to stop is tied to what we call the “Synoptic Problem”. The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means that they share a lot of common stories about Jesus and his ministry in time on earth. The “Synoptic Problem” is the task wherein scholars try to understand the relationship between the overlapping yet differing stories in the Synoptic Gospels in order to understand more of the purpose and narrative arc of each (for instance, Matthew’s telling us about Jesus is different than what Luke says– not that they are totally different, but they are speaking to different communities, they have different aims and themes). If you want to learn more about this, I would encourage you to read through a Gospel at a time and notice and pay attention to the things that one of the Gospels might be uplifting differently than they are spoken about another Gospel—i.e.- what are the themes, etc. (it’s a ton of fun!)?

In looking at the texts, the consensus amongst scholars is that Mark was written first. Mark provides a lot of the material content for what ends up being written in Matthew and in Luke. Matthew and Luke have a lot of the same material that is in Mark plus some additional sections that scholars have reference as source Q.[2]Q may have been some of the sayings or the oral stories about the teachings of Jesus that get added in a Matthew and Luke but are absent from the book of Mark. So in part because Mark is the first book I think it makes sense to have an ending like Mark 16:8 where we don’t know the rest of the story –because Christians are still living in the midstof this story of seeking to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus means for their community.

A second reason why I think ending with verse eight makes sense is because of what we know from textual criticism (I promise that my whole sermon won’t be about very nerdy stuff!). Textual criticism is a discipline where scholars look at the old manuscripts of the Bible to try and ascertain what was in the original version. Textual criticism matters because Christians didn’t have Xerox machines back in Jesus time (!) but humans who transcribed the Biblical texts by hand (called scribes). Sometimes scribes made errors– they would jump lines and miss something, or they changed a few words because they didn’t like what the scroll said, or maybe they had an oral tradition in their community about how a passage was supposed to be understood and they would help to “fix” a written copy.

And with the book of Mark, it seems clear that some early Christian communities thought that the ending of the book needed a better story because who ends a book of the Bible with “and they were terrified. The End.”? It may be that for these early Christians (and others throughout history, including us), there’s a little bit too much absence of resurrection and a little bit too much fear in theending “they were terrified and told no one”, and so they thought they would clean it up by adding to it what they had in other stories like those in Luke and Matthew. Yet when we look at the earliest manuscripts of the full book of Mark, they don’t include these latter verses.[3]This is why our Bibles note in brackets: [oh by the way- there’s some verses here that we know weren’t in the original version, but we know many of you grew up reading these verses in the King James Version and so we list them here for you].[4]

So not only due to the timing of when it was written, and on account of the textual evidence, but I think there is also a third reason that ending Mark at verse 8 can be helpful and important. The reason is that, as I alluded to earlier, each of the Gospels has a different way of bringing us into the story of who Jesus was and is.

In Greek the gospels are not titled “Mattthew” “Mark” “Luke”, but “The Good News (Gospel) according to Matthew (or Mark, or Luke)”.[5]It’s as simple as if Andy (my spouse) were telling his story of faith in Jesus, it’s going to be different than mine because we are different people with different, but overlapping, stories about God’s working in our lives and the world. Likewise, each of these books is speaking to a particular audience—Matthew was written to Gentiles and Luke’s audience was more Jewish. And the good news according to Mark likewise has it’s own story to tell.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, there’s no genealogy given at the beginning of the story, there’s no virgin birth, and it seems that this book was written to a Gentile audience because many of the Jewish rituals are explained in more depth than they are in Luke. In view of this, when we look at Mark and some of the themes in the book, ending at verse eight makes the most sense.

In part that’s because throughout gospel, Mark tells us the story of Jesus as the “Suffering Servant” letting us know that Jesus was the Son of God. Right away at the beginning of the book Mark references a passage from Isaiah—a book that talks about the “Suffering Servant”, making the connection between Isaiah and Jesus. Many commentators think that Mark does this is to counter the notion that Jesus is some miracle man who saves and heals everyone like a magician. No, instead Mark wants to remind the people of the early church (who were probably living under the rein of terror under Emperor Nero) that suffering was part of the life of faith. By referencing these passages from Isaiah it reminds the early church that Jesus is the Suffering Servant, and that as people who follow Christ, Christians should also expect to suffer.

There’s also a notion of the “Messianic Secret” throughout the book of Mark.  Very often in the book of Mark we don’t yet know the fullness of the story of Jesus as Jesus himself frequently tells people not to let anyone know that he is the Messiah: “Shhh, he tells those he heals…” This hiddenness of Jesus’ true identity is woven throughout the entire book of Mark.

Another big theme in the book of Mark is a depiction of what the kingdom of God looks like. As we spoken about on Palm Sunday and Easter morning, the revolution of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God is one that comes in silence.[6]The revolution begins in a mustard seed. The Kingdom of God in Mark doesn’t look like a kingdom that you’d expect; it’s not a kingdom that overthrew the Roman Empire in a moment. Instead this kingdom is headed by the King of the Jews…a King who was crucified.

The Romans say of Jesus is Mark 15: “He saved others but can’t save himself!” “If you’re the King of Israel then come down from the cross that we may see and believe!” Even in Mark 15:34 (unlike the other Gospels) Jesus cries out: “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Thus there’s a sense in Mark more than any of the other Gospels that the kingdom of God comes in silence; it comes secret; it comes in the quiet; it comes where God feels absent. So when we look at the whole of the text and the story Mark is telling us about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, it’s not very surprising that it ends with “they were terrified” because the kingdom of God didn’t appear to have won.

This is a book that’s also focused on the end times, on Jesus as the deliverer of the people (this is what’s called the eschatology of the book). But again, this kingdom looks different than you’d expect….it isn’t obvious that God’s promised coming wins the day.

Another feature of the book of Mark is how often everybody’s afraid. Peter’s denials are predicted and Peter responds with: “Even if I have to die I’ll never disown you.”  And all of the other disciples say the same. But then, of course, they all fall asleep in Gethsemane for “their spirits are willing but their flesh is weak.” And when Jesus is arrested in Mark 14, everyone deserts him and flees and Peter denies Jesus.  Yet in Mark 14, the women–Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joseph, and Salome– are watching from a distance. Joseph of Arimathea places Jesus in a grave, and the next morning (after the Sabbath) the women come to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ body.

We don’t know all of the reasons the women are afraid and trembling, but I wonder at some potential reasons for why: there was a guy in white at the tomb, and Jesus wasn’t there, and they don’t know what’s going on. I mean, I’d be a little afraid. And they probably also thought that God was going to win the day and overthrow Rome, but now Jesus is gone, and they are guilty of insurrection against the Roman Empire. I would be afraid too because you probably aren’t going to have a good end to your life if you’re caught up in all of this. The women don’t know what’s happening; they aren’t sure—and even though the text doesn’t specify all of the reasons as to why, we know for sure that they were terrified and said nothing to anyone.

To sum this up: I think that ending at verse eight is right for because textually it seems to be the case and because it also resonates with the theology of the book of Mark that reminds us the Kingdom of God comes in the quiet, in the suffering—the Kingdom of God doesn’t overthrow the Empire via force and wins right now. Of course Mark ends by telling us they were afraid, for this is the Gospel according to Mark. And now let me say a little bit about why I think that this is actually really good news.

How many of us have been afraid?

I have.

How many of us have known moments in our stories like Jon Hamm who I referenced earlier—where we were “sick to our stomach” because our life wasn’t going the way we thought or hoped it would?

I have.

How many of us thought God showing up in our lives would look like healing?

How many of us thought it would look like the people we love remaining with us?

I have.

The Gospel and the good news according to Mark is that the Suffering Servant is also Emmanuel, the God with us in our suffering. The God with usin our fear. I think that having this as one of the Gospel options can be really good news in those moments when we don’t yet know what happens next. We trust it, we believe the promise…but it doesn’t feel real yet. The tomb is empty and we haven’t seen Jesus. We are filled with longing, but we don’t feel the hope of the promise, we only know the fear. And what good news it is to know that we aren’t alone in being afraid and that God meets us…even in those places of pain.

For me, if I think about being a mom this morning in Syria, what good news does the Gospel speak to my life? The good news that Mark would bring to me is that precisely in the midst of my own suffering and pain, in the midst of a story that is still being written where the terror is present, God still with me. For if God is only to be found in triumph and glory, then as a mother from Syria, this God would feel too far off to care for my suffering. But a God who is good news shows up in the midst of our not yet knowing the end, a God who shows up in the suffering…for that kind of good news I would long.

Yesterday at our Visioning Retreat, we talked about how the life of faith is a risk. It asks something of us. Actually following Jesus isn’t always just glory upon glory, and knowing Jesus doesn’t necessarily makes everything easier. For actually doing the work of discipleship—of giving my things to the poor as Jesus commands, of caring about the pain and suffering in the world– this challenging and often I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to face the suffering. But the life of following Christ invites us into those spaces, it invites us to lose our lives so that we can find them, and it meets us in the fear that we know so well.

Fear shows up in many forms. Sometimes it’s the fear of what happens if I cross the room and you reject me. What happens if I’m vulnerable one more time in a relationship where I have felt unseen for a long time?

The good news comes in and tells us: “I know you’re afraid, but keep going… it’s not the end of the story!”

One of my favorite quote reads like this:

Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.

–Maggie Kuhn

I’ve often thought I could only speak if I wasn’t afraid. I’ve often thought that the way to move into relationships is when I know I’m safe. I’ve often thought that the way forward in my life is when I know I’m in a place of strength.

And the good news of the Gospel reminds us:

we speak even though our voice shakes,

we love even though it’s risky

we move forward together because we are afraid

and God is with us in THIS.

This God who came in on a donkey of peace.

This God whose revolution started in whispers.

This is the God meets us where we are afraid.

As a good Minnesotan, there’s one more thing I want to say about all of this that is tied to the weather: One of my favorite things about blizzards and snowstorms is what happens right after the storm allows us to outside. It’s the moment when those of us the snow blowers blow sidewalks of our neighbors, shovel out the person who’s stuck at the end of their driveway. We all come out of our houses- and for me this energy and excitement at that moment when we get to help each other. And to me this is another promise we have: we might be afraid but we don’t need to be afraid alone.

Together as community we face whatever the weather brings, whatever our lives bring to us. We walk with each other and we remind each other in the darkest moments that God is still with us.

I know you’re afraid. I’m afraid too. But hold my hand and let us walk this path together.

THIS is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus according to Mark: they were afraid, and we are too. AND God meets us in our fear and brings tidings of good news:  You are loved. You are seen, and the God of all things has walked amongst us and knows our suffering and pain, so let’s walk together and face the terror…even as we tremble and are afraid.

[The Good News according to Mark. Amen.]

[1]See: Beriut & Jon Hamm Interview on NPRand “Jon Hamm’s overdue Emmy win is a case studyon how to overcome career failure”.

[2]Q- from German Quelle, meaning source. In Matthew and Luke there is quite a bit of textual overlap that signals to a body of work, probably the oral traditions and stories/teachings of Jesus that were consulted and mined in the writing of these two books.

[3]Scholars are divided on the question of whether the “Longer Ending” was created deliberately to finish the Gospel of Mark (as contended by James Kelhoffer) or if it began its existence as a freestanding text which was used to “patch” the otherwise abruptly ending text of Mark. FYI- Codex Sinaiticusand Codex Vaticanus, the earliest complete manuscripts of Mark. Other manuscripts that omit the last twelve verses include: minuscule 304 (12th century), Syriac Sinaiticus (from the late 4th-century), and a Sahidic manuscript. In addition to these, over 100 Armenian manuscripts, as well as the two oldest Georgian manuscripts, also omit the appendix.

[4]This is an interesting and longer conversation because our knowledge of ancient manuscripts has greatly expanded since the King James Version of the Bible was published. Yet we have these histories of what the texts “say” and so when new translations of the Bible, based on better knowledge of textual tradition and likely original text end up demonstrating differing readings from the KJV, it can cause a lot of controversy. This is why, for instance, even though it is clear from textual evidence that the Israelites didn’t cross the Red Sea, but the See of Reeds in Ex. 13:18, publishers of translations like the NIV will only list this as a footnote to avoid blow-back from people who might get upset about this “new” interpretation.


[6]Rev. Carter preached about this at the Easter Sunrise Service.

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