He Has Swallowed Up Death

Text: Mark 16:1-8
Date: Easter
+ 4/8/07

     It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Was it? Here comes the Messiah, the promised deliverer, and we gave him an appropriate welcome when he arrived with cheers of “Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Now was supposed to be a time of celebration as the prophet Isaiah had foretold it: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples…. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples…. The mighty LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” And then that important prophecy, “he will swallow up death forever.” But what happened? What do we see? There is no feasting, and there is nothing but tears on all faces. It seems that He who was to swallow up death has been swallowed up by it Himself. The Messiah, dead? It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

     For three days that seemed like an eternity, the shock had hardly even begun to settle in. We had so much hope. And then everything went wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t have even come to the Passover in Jerusalem in the first place, at least not this year. But now, it’s too late. He’s dead. He’s really dead and buried…. We might as well be dead. There is no more hope.

     It took guts, or more appropriately, a deep, mournful love, for the women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—to get up the energy to return to the tomb with their burial spices to finish the hasty burial of Friday afternoon; to at least give Jesus a decent burial. The only words we hear them speak on their way: “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” Then: they saw, they entered, they heard. They saw the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. They entered the tomb. They saw a young man sitting there, and they were alarmed. They heard him say, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” They came, they saw, they entered, they heard…and then they fled the tomb trembling and bewildered. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. And that’s it. That’s all we have to go on.

     So we gather today expecting good news, great news. “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!” we hear it said, and that’s it. That’s all we have to go on. There is no careful theory or calculation we can use to prove it, no scientific data to support it. No one saw it actually happen when it happened. There is nothing but the resurrection sermon of the angel, “Don’t be alarmed. He has risen!” There is nothing but faith—the witness of the faithful hearts through twenty centuries whose echo of the angel’s sermon brings us to this celebration where we blend our witness into theirs. We have nothing but the word, the promise, Christ himself. He is risen!

     There’s more to it than that, of course. He lived the perfect life of love. We’re told the meaning of his death, namely, that he did not die for himself but for our offenses. He rose again for our salvation. He gave himself for us to set things right with God and bring us back where we belong—inside the family of God who made us for his very own. He gave his life to pay the price of sin. He destroyed the power of death. This is the way God swallowed up death for us, as Isaiah had written. These are the claims of faith. How do we know? The resurrection—Christ is risen! That’s the evidence. The world sees only the lack of evidence—an empty tomb. Only faith can see. Not just any “faith” as you hear people define faith as nothing more than just private opinion based on nothing but feelings, emotions, or logic. The one, true, God-given faith does not hang on a set of proofs incontrovertible, but on the promise and the word of God alone. Which means for you to know and have this saving faith it must be given to you. And it is based on the objective confrontation with the spectacular claims and inspired revelation of God in the Holy Bible.

     Easter is a day of faith, a day for faith. The resurrection of our Lord is an event of faith. The gospel of a risen and triumphant Christ cannot be seen with the eyes but is just that which sustains the faith. And be assured, faith is no formula that fits the facts of life, no logic that establishes the rules. For just about the time we think it is, something unpredictable turns up and God has broken all our rules again and smashed our air-tight, water-tight, fool-proof expectations. Someone close at hand is snatched by death. Christ hasn’t mastered it after all! Everything goes wrong in life. there is no living Lord at all who is available to get the general circumstances squared away and wipe away our tears. The world is full of evil, and all that we can do is shake our heads about it. Where are the signs that anything worthwhile at all was accomplished by his coming long years ago? In many ways we are just like those bewildered women at the empty tomb. But in the teeth of all objections, faith hurls this word, “He is Risen!” And that’s it. That’s all we have to go on. Easter is a day to celebrate. Easter is a faith to celebrate.

     Saint Mark’s Gospel ends on this note—suddenly, abruptly, and almost as though he had been interrupted at this point and never had the chance to finish. As the final punctuation point is put in place, the Gospel closes on a note of fear. The women who had come on resurrection morning to anoint the body of the Master in his tomb found the stone rolled back, they heard the witness of the angel, and we read they fled the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them…and they were afraid.

      Strange, isn’t it, that Mark should end his Gospel with loose ends lying all around? Strange, isn’t it, that he should close his Gospel on a note of fear? Strange, isn’t it, that that’s all there is and nothing more? You see, the most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses we have do not have Mark 16:9-20 with the account of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and his appearance on the road to Emmaus. We accept it all. But, for the moment, let’s go with those reliable and ancient manuscripts and say Mark ended his gospel here, on a note of fear. For, isn’t that where we are stopped, and isn’t this the end of faith—this utterly fantastic, unreal claim the Christian faith hurls at us? We still act like death is final, death is certain, death marks the end, and when a man is buried in his grave, he’s in the grave. No one expects to find him strolling through the shrubbery of the cemetery. It simply doesn’t happen. It started in the days described in Genesis when sin began collecting wages and humanity’s existence became a death march to the grave.

     It has always been that way—a man is born, he lives a while, he raises children, and he dies, and that’s the end of him except for memories. It’s where the kingdom he had spent a lifetime building crashes and his heirs go scrambling for the leavings. We ignore it, we disguise it, we deny it, but death remains the fact of life. But, the prophet said, “He will swallow up death.” And now the message of the angel: “He is risen.” And then the apostle’s words, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

     If that word is true, if God is the God of life and death, and if we are left with only that, what does that have to say about these so-small lives of ours and how they will be overhauled by Him and set on pathways we had never dreamed of? “They were afraid,”—that’s Marks’ last sentence. And that’s exactly where we’re left today.

     “He is risen!” “And they were afraid.” That’s precisely what the Easter gospel is about—not death, but life—and precisely where the Easter Gospel meets us—in our fears. The Easter life that’s ours in Christ right now means to overwhelm the small life we have clung to and confront us with an overhaul of all our values, loyalties, priorities and turn our little worlds completely upside down. It throws us into an entirely new world where it’s no longer possible to spend and be spent in a search for temporary comforts or in nurturing delightful prejudice and judgments that will make us feel a little bigger than the other dirty fellow. The resurrection gospel strips us of our carefully designed defenses and it lays the hand of God upon us for a life much bigger than the one we carve out for ourselves. He is risen…and they were afraid…and that’s all we’ve got to go on.

     That’s where we are today. Bewildered? Yes. Trembling? Yes. Afraid? You bet. But everything that makes the difference hangs on this: He is risen, and we, too, shall rise. The guilt you carry in your heart as you remember wasted years—the resurrection says our Lord has paid for that, so forget it. The chains of evil habit, the cesspool of the heart with the thick, green scum of envy, greed, lust, hatred, jealousy, and selfishness—the resurrection says our Lord has cleansed us from all that. The hungry yearning burning inside of us, the empty void, the dark despair of grief when someone close and dear has been removed from earthly scenes—the resurrection says that Christ has filled that void with hope. The fear of aging, accident, disease, and death, the ticking of the clock—the resurrection tells us that our Lord has made it possible for us to live triumphantly with purpose and determined goal. The uncertainty about tomorrow and the anxious waiting for the medical report, the outcome of a college entrance interview, the application for a job, the fear of the future or of failure—the resurrection says our Lord has wrapped tomorrow into his concern and we are free to live today. The resurrection. That’s all we have to go on. For there, because of the resurrection, we know that Someone has us by the hand from here on out to all eternity, and he will never let us go.

          “The Lord is risen!” And fearful hearts are calmed with that Word; calmed, then enlightened, then fear turned to joy and hope. “The Lord is risen!” That’s all we’ve got to go on. That’s all we need to go on.