April 12, 2020

“Trembling and Bewildered, They Fled”

Mark 16:1-8

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

Easter - April 12, 2020


Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  It feels very different to say these words this year, doesn’t it?   We are separated and unable to be physically together for our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.  But nothing—not sheltering, not social distancing, not having to wear facemasks, not even the coronavirus pandemic changes the fact that Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!—and that is the good news and our proclamation today as people of faith.


Nathan Williams, one of the pastors in the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group said this week, “I always thought it would be fun to put a sign on the church doors on Easter Sunday that just said, “He is not here!” Turns out that’s not as much fun as it sounds.”  No, it isn’t fun, isn’t it?  It’s not fun to have to be separated like we are today, worshipping in our own homes and not all together in the Hahaione School Cafeteria, having eaten a big breakfast and anticipating a fabulous egg hunt after worship. 


But even as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection under difficult circumstances, there is new life emerging, isn’t there?  Maybe we’ve been forced to change our ways to allow new life to spring up among us, but it is new life.  We’re now posting our worship services on Facebook, and people from far-flung places are actually joining us:  friends from Japan, California, Pennsylvania are with us.  And friends we haven’t met yet here on Oahu are worshiping with us.  Women in our church have started a new ministry of sewing face masks for others.  We are praying together via Zoom.  We are worshipping together in the middle of the week through Micah’s posts of praise songs.  And folks are calling, texting, emailing and even writing actual physical letters to each other, sharing life in ways we hadn’t before because we don’t see each other on Sundays.  New life is arising out of this challenging moment.


But underlying this evidence of new life born of the Spirit is fear, confusion and anxiety about what comes next in our life.  When will we be able to go back to our offices; when will the children be able to go back to school?  Will we ever be able to return to worshipping at Hahaione School or anywhere else? 


It turns out that this Easter is more like the very first Easter than most other Easters.  On the first Easter, according to the gospel of Mark, the dominant emotions were bewilderment and fear.  And given our current situation, Mark’s Easter story resonates well.  Mark’s Easter story speaks of how we can live as people of faith in these days of uncertainty.  Our current experience helps us relate to the women who first received the news of Jesus’ resurrection with bewilderment and fear.


After Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, the women went to the tomb.  They are the same ones who were the last of Jesus’ friends and followers to leave his side.  And they were the first ones to go to the tomb as soon as it was possible, after the Sabbath was over.  They went to anoint Jesus’ body, an act of deep devotion.  Only deep love could have motivated such an act, because Jesus’ body would have decomposed for two nights, and the smell would have been overwhelming.


Nevertheless, the women went to the tomb, expecting to anoint the body of their beloved rabbi.  Instead, they found the tomb open—the large stone had been rolled away.  And there was a stranger sitting there, a young man dressed in white who had a life-disrupting message for them. 


He said:  “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.  But go, tell the disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you” (vv. 4-7).


“Don’t be alarmed.”  Angels’ messages from God to people almost always start with a word of calm.  “Don’t be afraid” is the message most often given to God’s people.  “Don’t be alarmed” is in the same vein.  When we have an encounter with the Living God, our first and most appropriate reaction is to be afraid.  But God invites us to calm down, to take a deep breath.  God doesn’t want our fear to get in the way of hearing from God.  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.”  The women were at the correct tomb.  They had seen the burial with their own eyes, and the angel confirmed it.  But now Jesus was gone—raised from the dead.  The tomb was empty. 


This is the message of Easter, isn’t it?  That Jesus, who was crucified, died, and buried, is now alive.  He has risen!  A power greater than death raised Jesus from the dead.  That power is God’s love.  And while the first witnesses to the resurrection didn’t comprehend it, that’s what they needed to know.  Jesus, who died, was alive again.


If that bit of news was not too much for them to digest, the women were given a very important task: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter…” Take this news to Jesus’ disciples and Peter.  Yes, even Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times.  


Peter needed to know that Jesus had forgiven him.  In truth, they all had abandoned Jesus.  The only friends who were present when Jesus died were the women.  Everyone had failed Jesus.  Even these women ended up failing Jesus because they didn’t relay the message to the disciples.  They were too afraid, so they said nothing to anyone.  In all honesty, we all still fail Jesus. 


Yet the message to meet up with Jesus was sent to all the disciples.  “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you.”  On his last night with the disciples, Jesus told them, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 14:28).  The angel reminded them what Jesus had said, to get them going.


Jesus wasn’t hanging around the tomb, waiting around for them to see him.  Jesus was on the move and they had better get going to catch up with him.  Remember when we began our reading of the gospel of Mark, Jesus was always doing things, going places?  The words “immediately” and “at once” appeared a lot in the first part the gospel.  Even after his resurrection, Jesus didn’t stop.  He wanted the disciples to be on the move too.  Go to Galilee.


This is where faith fills the gap between our lack of understanding and taking action.  In Mark’s telling of the story, the disciples would not have solid proof of Jesus’ resurrection until after they went to Galilee to meet him.  On faith, they would have to go to Galilee.  This gospel ends without anyone seeing the resurrected Jesus, but the disciples were nonetheless told to go to meet him.


That was the message, but apparently it didn’t reach the disciples.  At least not right away. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  And that’s how the gospel ends.


Verse 8 is an abrupt ending to the gospel.  Biblical scholars think that because this ending was so unsettling, the scribes who copied the text years later added verses 9-20 to give it a better ending. 


But Mark doesn’t sugar-coat the experience of the women on the first Easter.  Even though Jesus’ resurrection is an amazing, miraculous, wonderful thing, it was really scary.  he resurrected life is bewildering because it is a life we could never think up.  It is beyond our limited thinking and experience. 


The resurrection is God’s initiative, God’s action, God’s breaking into our world.  It reminds us that we are not in control.  It is proof that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.  The resurrection tells us that the coronavirus cannot separate us from God’s love.  Things may be scary right now, but we have been given the promise of Jesus’ presence and of God’s work of redemption in the world, and that gives us hope.


In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has won the victory over sin and evil.  God’s reign is being established here on earth.  And when it is fully established, and Jesus is recognized as Lord of all, there will be no more death, no more suffering, no more injustice, no more warring.  No more COVID-19.  God’s peace will prevail.  That’s what the resurrection of Jesus points to.  And that is the promise we need to lean into, even though the circumstances we face are not easy and are scary.


We would do well to get into the minds of the two Marys, to understand the mystery and awe of the work of God in our lives.  We are not in control—God is.  At times, it is scary to yield to God’s work in our lives.  But God is working for the good of all creation—for you, for me, for all of us.  We need to yield our lives to that loving work of God.


The promise in the message is that if we go to Galilee, if we take steps of faith, we will see Jesus.  He has gone before us and he will meet us in Galilee.  We won’t know unless we start on the journey to Galilee.  But if we do, we will see God at work, we’ll see new life springing up, we’ll celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ, and we’ll have something to tell the world. 


Friends, take heart, and do not be afraid.  Jesus is risen from the dead, and that means new life for us all. Remember this good news, and let it strengthen you for the days to come, even as we fight the coronavirus together by staying apart, by staying home.  Continue to take those steps of faith, by being a responsible community member, and by thinking of new, creative ways to share God’s love.  And as you do so, Jesus will meet you.  Jesus is going ahead of us to Galilee, where we will see new life spring forth.


Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!