Easter Sermon preached at Preston High Street UCA and Darebin North West Uniting Church for Easter Year B – Mark 16:1-8
Today’s Gospel is strange. It’s Easter, and what we want, or at least what I want, is the triumphant finale to the dramatic story of Jesus. I want to see him robed in shining white, his enemies cowering in fear, completely and obviously vindicated.
What I want, frankly, is the Hollywood version.
Or, even better, the Bollywood version – same as the Hollywood version, only with a huge, choreographed dance scene to really drum it in.
I want to see, in glorious Technicolor, that Christ really is risen.
But instead, while there is a shining figure, it isn’t Jesus, but a messenger from God. And instead of being something spectacular and visible, the resurrection is announced. And instead of joy, we have fear and trembling. And, finally, the story ends in human failure, with the women fleeing the tomb “and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”
This is a strange, unsettling, broken way to hear the good news that Jesus is risen.
But, perhaps, that is exactly the Good News we need hear right here and now.
The story today picks up from the Passion narrative of failure and death. In the verse immediately before the story, Mark notes that the women – Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses – saw Joseph of Arimathea had laid the linen-wrapped body of Jesus. They saw the stone roll across the entrance to the tomb.
They saw the story of Jesus come to an end. All that hope, all that work, all those miles walked and sick people healed and demons cast out and meals shared and all the rest of it – all that hope, invested in this one man. All over and done with and consigned to history, as distant as the Assyrian Empire.
He was definitely dead. Not stunned, not weak from blood loss, not about to recover and stagger out of the tomb.
And, equally importantly, they knew where he was. Mary Magdalene saw him laid in the tomb with her own eyes.
In the horror and rush and the need to get the body buried before Sabbath began, it hadn’t even been properly prepared. The one thing the women could have done to pay their final respects was completely lacking.
Then the blank nothingness of Holy Saturday. No-one knew, that first time, that it was Easter Saturday. All they knew was that something good, something they had trusted, had come to a terrible end.
I think that, as a society, and as a church, we have a sense of that. Church used to be at the centre of things in our culture. It was just what you did. It showed you were a good citizen, it was seen as a basically positive thing to do. It provided a background in front of which people lived their lives. Even if people didn’t go every single week, they were christened, married, and buried in churches, by ministers, in the context of Christian community.
I think that a lot of us feel the weight of that change, and, as a result, there is a lot of unspoken grief about in the church.
We are, in a small way, in our own Easter Saturday.
And it’s not just the church either. We live, I think, in a culture of despair. It’s all superficially quite jolly – focussed on eating and drinking and making merry. But we have the sense that we’re dancing on the edge of a precipice. There’s nothing behind us or beneath us or above us. The universe is doing its thing, with precisely no concern at all for us humans. We feel so completely tiny, and incredibly fragile, clinging onto the shell of a little pebble hurtling through the terrifying, limitless expanse of time and space.
We are haunted by this awareness. Contemporary thinker John Carrol, writing on the topic of Good Friday, describes it as the “consciousness of the vacancy of life, its little consequence when seen in the context of the infinite, eternal nothing.”
The underlying thing is that, as we have worked to de-mythologise the world, to strip it of transcendence and purpose so that we can divide it up into little bits in order to control it, we have lost ourselves.
Or, as someone sensible once said, “what does it value someone if they gain the whole world and lose their soul in the process?”
Jesus came to us. He walked around in Galilee, a prophet and healer and moral teacher of profound insight. And even more than that – Emmanuel: God with us.
He showed us who we really are.
He was the light. And he was bitterly opposed by those who live in darkness, those who hate and fear the truth, who hate everything which gets in the way of self-gratification and self-aggrandizement, anything which shows how tawdry and ultimately pointless our self-serving lives are.
I say “those who live in darkness” as though that’s someone else. But, of course, we all know that it means us too.
All of us are complicit in what’s wrong with the world. None of us are innocent – from the displacement of the First Peoples to the clothes on our back made in Chinese sweatshops. None of us are innocent, none of us.
Or, as John puts it, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
And, at the same time, we are also victims of this gigantic machine – both abused and abuser. Alienated from ourselves and each other we keep the machine humming along, and we don’t know how to stop it.
We do our best to make sense of life, to create sensible social structures. We come up with religions, and Judaism was the best of them, with its balance of ethical guidance and pure worship of the Most High. And, much as we like to condemn empires, the Roman Empire created the safest, wealthiest, and culturally richest situation that the Mediterranean had ever seen, or was to see for many a long year after it fell.
And so, Jesus was nailed to the cross by the ultimate alliance of church and state. By the people who had most reason to welcome him, to do him honour, to listen to him.
Because it turns out that the problem isn’t just that we are afraid that there is nothing behind all this, no transcendent meaning to our lives, no eternal consequences. The problem is that part of us, even a strong part of us, hopes that there’s nothing else. Nothing to throw our tawdry lives into sharp relief.
Because we fear the price.
So here we are. Torn between, on the one hand, our fear that there is no ultimate purpose, meaning, or hope in life, and on the other our fear that ultimate goodness exists, and that because we fear the light, we are going to be called to account.
Precisely the thing which could save us is the very thing which we most fear.
How can we ever be right with God and with one another?
Very early in the morning, just after dawn, the women go out to anoint Jesus’ body. They know the stone is going to be a problem, for, as the narrator points out, it is very large. But they go anyway, hoping for the best, ready to pay Jesus at least this honour, the least that he deserves. A way, perhaps, of ritualising and soothing their grief.
And, when they get there – to their surprise, the stone isn’t a problem. They know it’s the right tomb – Mary Magdalene had been there just the other day.
Gathering their courage, they peek inside.
What were they expecting to see? Not this.
The tomb is empty.
Well, not empty exactly. There is a young man there, dressed in white.
The women are, the story says, alarmed. Amazed. Stunned.
Who is he? We don’t know. But he has a message from God.
And, like all good messengers from God, he begins by saying “do not be afraid.”
He knows what they are looking for – the body of Jesus of Nazareth – and he has something surprising to say: “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.”
What Jesus said would happen, a few days previously on the Mount of Olives, has, in fact, happened.
Why does he tell them to tell “his disciples and Peter”? Why this special mention of Peter?
Because they all failed – they all ran away – but only Peter denied him three times.
So not only have temple and state failed – but even Jesus’ hand-picked disciples have failed.
And now even the women fail. Do they in fact go back to the disciples to announce the good news they have just learned?
No, they do not.
Because they are afraid. Stunned, amazed, overwhelmed by the weight of it all.
They flee. And they say nothing to anyone.
The utterly other has suddenly reached out of infinite space and done something completely unprecedented. Their expectations are completely out of step with reality. Overwhelmed by grief, thrown off balance by this astonishing new reality. They flee.
God has acted decisively. And that is the Good News here.
Of course, they obviously did eventually say something to someone, because, after all, here we all are this Easter Morning.
But why does the passage end this way?
Here is the central thing: the Good News is not about what a good community we are together, or how good the singing or preaching. The Good News, it turns out, does not rely on us at all.
Out of the ruins of human sin, in the aftermath of the failure of the best we can do, the best religious thought, the most sophisticated and stable government, in the midst of the failure of all human hope: God acts.
Mark would not have been surprised by the decline in our churches, nor by the failure of government, nor by our individual unfaithfulness. Mark has seen it all.
The resurrection is not the naïve expectation of a happy ending to human striving. The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead does so in the midst of human failure. God acts decisively to reconcile the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – in spite of our best efforts to stop God.
God has taken the worst thing we could do, and turned it into the best thing to ever happen – the hinge on which human history turns.
God has taken into Godself the contradictions of the human situation – our simultaneous hatred and fear of the light, and our profound need of it – into God’s own self and has resolved them in a way which means that both sin matters and human freedom is possible.
Jesus Christ has borne the cost of human sin, taking on his shoulders in the cross. And God has raised him up.
The act of God does not rely on us at all. We can’t let God down, because we never held God up in the first place.
The Good News about Jesus Christ is entirely independent of our failure. It is God’s doing, not ours.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are sent. Sent with a message.
The disciples – including Peter, who denied Jesus – are sent.
We are sent.
To Galilee – to the fields and lake and everyday reality of our lives. To Preston and Reservoir and wherever we live and work.
And that is where we encounter the Risen Christ in our lived reality. Not as an historical figure who we can have safe opinions about, but as the one who makes us right with God and one another, who calls us and sends us and promises always to be with us.
And that strange, unsettling news is the Good News to us. Announced by an angel, terrifying the women, played out in our daily lives.
Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
 John Carrol, In search of the immortal soul in a modern world, The Australian, 3/4/21https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/in-search-of-the-immortal-soul-in-a-modern-world/news-story/cee26a7352f83e6b679f9aea188994f8
 1 John 1:8
 Mark 14:28
Picture: Holy Women at Christ’s Tomb Annibale Carracci c.1590