When the End is Not the End

In his book In the Eye of the Storm, Max Lucado tells the story about “Chippie the Parakeet.”  The story goes like this. Chippie’s owner decided to cleanChippie’s cage with a vacuum cleaner.  She removed the attachment from the end of the hose and stuck it in the cage.  But, just then, the phone rang, and she turned to pick it up.  She’d barely said “hello” when sssopp! Chippie got sucked into the vacuum cleaner.

            The bird owner quickly put down the phone, turned off the vacuum, and opened the bag. There was Chippie — still alive, but stunned. Since the bird was covered with dust and soot, she grabbed him and ran to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and held Chippie under the running water.

            Then, realizing that Chippie was now soaked and shivering, she did what any compassionate bird owner would do. She reached for the hair dryer and blasted her pet with hot air. Poor Chippie never knew what hit him. 

            A few days later, a reporter who had written a story about what happened contacted Chippie’s owner to see how the bird was recovering.  She said, “Well, Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore — he just sits and stares.”

            I can understand why.  It may be that some of you here this morning have been through some stuff that helps you to relate to Chippie.  Like Chippie, you’ve been hit with one thing after another after another.  And, as a result, you’ve lost your joy.  You just feel lifeless.

            If that’s the case, then you’re not much different from the apostles here at the end of Mark’s gospel.  Up to this point, things had been going pretty well for them. Over the course of three years, they had traveled with Jesus, they had seen him perform miracles, they had listened to his teaching, they had developed a close relationship with him.  And they were looking forward with great anticipation to the coming kingdom. 

            But, as we saw last week in chapter 15, Jesus was crucified.  Which meant that he was gone – dead – never to be seen again. I mean, talk about getting blindsided.  And if you had asked how the apostles were doing after Jesus’ death, I suspect it would have been something like this, “They don’t sing much anymore. They just sort of sit and stare.”

            It’s not hard to imagine that that Saturday must have been the darkest day the apostles had ever experienced.  A dark and dreary day of shattered hopes and broken dreams.  All their hopes for a new kingdom had collapsed around them, all of their dreams for the future had perished with the death of Jesus.  The apostles were absolutely crushed as they tried to live through that dark Saturday with no hope for the future.  They were stunned, and I would imagine that they just sat and stared that day, with every fiber of their being crying out, “What’s the use! Why go on?”

            But then something happened. Something they should have been prepared for, but they weren’t.  Something that would cause their world and ours never to be the same again. It’s told to us in Mark chapter 16.

Mark’s story is told from the perspective of the women who came to the tomb on the Sunday following the crucifixion.  As I mentioned last week, the apostles of Jesus are nowhere to be found in Mark’s version of the crucifixion story.  John tells us in his gospel that he was there, but once the apostles leave Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, Mark doesn’t mention them again until after the resurrection. 

It wasn’t the apostles, but a member of the Sanhedrin — Joseph of Arimathea — who asked for and received the body of Jesus for burial.  John’s gospel tells us that Nicodemus helped him to prepare the body of Jesus, “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.” (John 19:39). 

The Jews didn’t embalm dead bodies.  They simply covered them with strongly perfumed burial cloths to help cover up the stench of decay.  And so, together, Joseph and Nicodemus “took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19:40). 

So, Jesus was placed in the tomb late Friday afternoon.  And then, all day Saturday was the Sabbath when no one would have been out, so it is early Sunday morning that our story begins.  Three women show up at the tomb to add their spices to the body.

Verse 1, “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, 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.  And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’ (Mark 16:1-3).

These three women had followed Jesus throughout his ministry and many times they had taken care of his needs.  They were there at Golgotha and witnessed the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus.  And now these three women bring spices to his grave as a sign of love and respect, in much the same way that someone might take flowers to a grave today.  They went to anoint him.  And they fully expected the body of Jesus to be in that tomb.

But there was a problem.  Evidently, in the midst of their preparation to gather the spices and plan their sunrise visit to the grave, they had overlooked an important detail…..”Who’s going to roll the stone away?” 

This stone would have been a huge rock, four or five feet in diameter.  It would have weighed as much as a ton.  It would have rolled along a track-like groove that would have been cut in the entrance of the tomb, sloping downhill.  Setting the stone into would have been fairly easy because it was rolled down.  But it would have taken a team of strong men to roll the stone away from the mouth of the tomb. And the women had evidently forgotten to enlist the help of someone that morning.

But when they got to the tomb, we read in verse 4, “They saw that the stone had been rolled back — it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.”(Mark 16:4-5).  The seal had been broken, the stone had been rolled back, and the guards had fled.  Incidentally, the stone wasn’t rolled back to let Jesus out.  The stone was rolled back to let the disciples in.  These women had no idea what had taken place, so they went into the tomb, fully expecting to find the body of Jesus.

But, instead, they found a young man inside.  A stranger is sitting in the tomb.  Mark is very specific as he tells us that the young man sat on the right side of the tomb.  And though he is described as a “young man”, it’s obvious that this was an angel or some sort of a heavenly messenger.  Mark tells us the women were afraid.  Which is probably a bit of an understatement. 

Imagine walking through a cemetery late at night, stepping into a cave where you expect to find a dead body, and somebody taps you on the shoulder, and says, “Hey!”  I have no doubt but that these women were terrified, they were scared to death!

So, the young man said to them, ““Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.”(Mark 16:6).  He says,”I know what you expected to find.  You’re looking for the body of Jesus.  But I’ve got some good news for you.  He’s risen from the dead!”  God’s power filled that tomb and gave life to Jesus.  “Look around … there’s no body here.”

The women came expecting to find a dead body, but what they found instead was an angelic messenger who announced to them that the man they had watched die on the cross was in fact very much alive.  Can you imagine how they must have felt?  Imagine the emotions that must have raced through their minds.  Imagine the mixture of fear and joy and, most of all, wondering “can it possibly be true?”  It seemed too good to be true.  But was it possible that this man that they loved so much, this man that they had watched die such a horrible death, was now alive again?

Several years ago, newspapers reported a story that captures just a little of what they must have felt.  There was a young medical student who was killed when the car she was riding in had a head-on collision with a truck.  There was a terrible impact, and the body was mangled to the point where no positive identification was possible.  However, due to several striking similarities, the body was identified by her father as this 23-year-old medical student. 

The next day, the family assembled at her apartment while the funeral arrangements were being made.  Their grief was turned to amazement when the girl they thought was dead walked through the door.  Imagine the look on the faces of the family members that were there to mourn the loss of a loved one.  Imagine the feelings that must have raced through them.  This person that they were preparing to bury was very much alive.

            Now, of course, that was merely a case of mistaken identity.  But it gives us an insight into what these women must have felt when this angel announced the resurrection of Jesus.  They were busy making funeral arrangements for someone who was very much alive! 

The women are commanded in verse 7 to “go and tell”.  “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7).  These three women were given the responsibility of sharing what they had seen with the apostles.  You may recall that earlier in Mark’s gospel, Jesus had predicted that the disciples would desert him, but he told them that he would meet them in Galilee after he had risen.  These women were told to remind the apostles of what Jesus said.  Tell them — Jesus has been raised from the dead!  He is alive again!

It’s difficult for us to fully appreciate what the resurrection of Jesus means, not only in terms of what it means about who Jesus is, but also in terms of what that means for all of us.  We live in a world where people are afraid of a lot of things, but one of our greatest fears is the fear of death. 

To help us to deal with that fear, Jesus could have just told us that we don’t need to be afraid, but I don’t think that would have helped much.   So, he touched a boy and called him back to life, he brought life into the dead body of a young girl, he even let a dead man spend four days in a grave and then called him back.  But that still wasn’t enough to take away our fear.

            So, Jesus Christ allowed himself to be killed, to be buried, only to emerge from the tomb on the third day alive again.  Because of that, we can truly believe that death has been conquered, that Jesus has “destroyed him who had the power of death. that is, the devil, and [he has] deliver[ed] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”(Hebrews 2:14-15).  And if God has the power to raise Jesus, he certainly has the power to raise all of us one day.

            The resurrection of Jesus was wonderful news!  So, the angel told the women to go share this news with all the others.  But they were still afraid.  Verse 8 tells us, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I’m not sure what they were afraid of.  Maybe this is just another way of saying they were in shock.  Or maybe they were afraid because they thought the Roman soldiers might show up and accuse them of stealing the body of Jesus.  Or maybe they were afraid that nobody would believe their story and they would look like a bunch of crazy women. 

            I don’t know.  All we know is that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  And with that verse, we come to the end of Mark’s story of Jesus.  But Mark’s gospel is a story where the end is not really the end. 

You know, Hollywood has perfected the false ending.  You’re watching a movie, and just when you think everything is over and the movie is about to wind up, something happens that keeps the movie going for a little bit longer.  They have a number of different techniques for this, but Hollywood’s favorite technique is the character who refuses to die. 

The villain in the story gets shot or stabbed, and they’re lying on the floor and everybody thinks they’re dead, and it looks like our hero is going to live happily ever after.  But just when you’ve calmed down and you’re expecting the credits to roll, the villain comes back to life again.

And that’s kinda what happens here in Mark’s gospel.  Except it’s not the villain who dies, it’s the hero.  And it’s not just that it looks like Jesus is dead.  No, Jesus is dead.  Completely dead.  As Mark talks about the crucifixion of Jesus in chapter 15, that should be the end – Jesus is dead and buried.  For those who were at the foot of the cross, it seemed certain that that was the end of the story.  But it wasn’t the end at all.  Because Jesus was raised to life again. 

In a strange twist of the plot, the tomb that should have imprisoned Jesus forever is found empty, and the story of the Crucified Christ suddenly became the story of the Resurrected Redeemer.  And so, just when you’ve calmed down and you’re expecting the credits to roll, Jesus comes back to life again.  The gospel story didn’t end that day, it actually just began.

But even here in chapter 16, after the resurrection, the end is not the end.  We saw in verse 8 that the women fled from the tomb and they didn’t tell anybody what they saw because they were afraid.  Now we know from the other gospel writers that these women eventually overcame their fear and reported the resurrection to the apostles just as they were commanded.  But, in Mark’s gospel, this is where the story ends.

In all probability, the gospel of Mark ends with verse 8.  Now, I realize that some of your Bibles contain 12 more verses.  But the best and most reliable manuscripts we have end at verse 8.  The consensus of most scholars, even conservative ones, is that Mark probably did not write verses 9-20 of this chapter. 

Now I’ll leave it to you to study for yourself the debate on this subject.  But, if indeed this gospel ends with verse 8, something doesn’t feel right.  Mark has been telling this amazing story of the Messiah who is crucified and resurrected, but then it ends very abruptly. 

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8).  The end.  It’s like an orchestra building to a crescendo, but then the song just ends. 

And if this is where the gospel of Mark ends, then you get the feeling that he ends too soon — there’s no appearance of Jesus to the apostles, there’s no reinstatement of Peter, there’s no great commission.  You want to say, “Wait a minute, there’s more.  It’s not over yet!”

This abrupt ending to the book of Mark has caused scholars to speculate as to the reason.  In case you didn’t know, scholars really like to speculate about all sorts of stuff.

Some think that something happened to Mark before he finished writing the gospel.  Maybe he died before he could finish the story.

Others suggest that Mark intended to write a second volume.  We know that Luke followed up his gospel with the book of Acts, so maybe Mark intended to do the same.  His abrupt ending would have been remedied by volume 2, a volume that for one reason or another was never written.

In the end, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to speculate.  If indeed Mark ends his story at verse 8 (and not everyone agrees with that assessment), then we can only conclude that Mark ends here because his story is over.

And while it may not seem like it, verse 8 is actually an appropriate way for Mark to finish the story of Jesus.  It may be that Mark didn’t think it was his job to tell the end of the story.   Mark’s job was simply to present all of the pertinent information to us.

Throughout this gospel, Mark has shown Jesus to be what he called him in the very first verse – Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  And as we’ve read Mark’s gospel, we’ve gotten a sense of what the people around Jesus experienced first-hand — the wonders and signs and miracles of Jesus, the compassion and the teaching of Jesus.  All of these things showed that he was indeed the Christ.

But then, Mark showed us what it means for Jesus to be Christ… and what it means for us to be his disciples.  After Peter made the good confession in chapter 8, Jesus began to warn his disciples about what Messiahship would mean — it would mean a cross.  And so, Jesus began his march toward Calvary.  And Mark’s story ends with Jesus dying on that cross.  Perhaps the crescendo for Mark is to found in Mark 15:39 as the centurion in charge of the crucifixion said in amazement, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

But we find out that the end is not really the end.  An angel announces that Jesus Christ is alive again; he has been resurrected from the tomb just like he promised.  And when the women find out, they leave and…..The End.

It’s an ending that puts us on the edge of our seats.  It brings an element of anticipation for what might happen next.  It’s that same feeling that prompts us to let the next episode start playing if we’re watching a captivating series of our favorite show on Netflix.   Sometimes, I’ll tease Sueanne and I’ll say, “Let’s just stop right there”, and she’ll says, “No, no, at least play the first few minutes of the next episode.  I’ve got to know what happens next.”

            And maybe that’s what Mark was trying to do – to evoke a response, for readers to join with the women at the tomb and experience the overwhelming emotions of what such a startling revelation might mean for their lives.  Some commentators argue that Mark leaves us in a moment of suspense on purpose, challenging us to consider how we might complete the story ourselves.

            It must have been exciting for the women to know that “the story isn’t over.”  But that also means, “Wait a minute, the story isn’t over.”  Perhaps that’s why the women were afraid at the tomb.  If the story isn’t over with Jesus’ death, then all of those challenging instructions he gave to them about living in God’s kingdom here and now were still true.  They weren’t “off the hook” from the demanding call of discipleship.  In fact, the empty tomb puts them into an even more challenging way of living in this world — sharing news that seems to be impossible and too good to be true to a world that’s reluctant to hear it. 

            Maybe that’s exactly what Mark intended.  For the resurrection of Jesus to introduce us into a new way of living.  The mysterious young man at the tomb prompts this journey, telling the women to return to Galilee and look for Christ there.  In Galilee, they’re going to be drawn again into this incredible story, and maybe this time they would have a better sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  The open tomb brings with it an invitation to be a part of what happens next.

            The story of God raising Jesus from the dead is amazing. But it’s not the end. It’s a cliffhanger. If God can overcome even death, then there is endless possibility for what God can and will do next.

            And so, Mark doesn’t conclude with the words, “The End”.  Rather, he leaves us with the words “To Be Continued…”  And we get to decide how the story ends. 

            Several years ago, someone got the idea to make a motion picture based on the board game Clue.  Professor Peacock, Colonel Mustard and all the rest of the suspects gathered in the parlor with the lead pipe to decide whodunit.  I never saw the movie, but I understand that there were three endings filmed.  Depending on which one of those movies you happened to be watching, any one of three different people was responsible for the murder.  If you didn’t like one ending, then just go see a different version.  And, in that way, you can decide how the movie ends.

            And perhaps that’s the true ending of the gospel of Mark, because you see, it can end in one of several different ways.  It can end with you hearing the story of Jesus being the Christ, the Son of God and rejecting it, doing absolutely nothing about it, just like the Pharisees. 

            Or it can end with you committing yourself to Jesus, and saying with Peter, “You are the Christ” and with the centurion, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”  I’m ready to follow him wherever he goes.  Let’s see where this journey takes us.

Ultimately, you write the ending to this book.  Mark has written a wonderful story about a wonderful Savior.  But, how will the story end for you?  What are you going to do with this man called Jesus?


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