Still Rolls the Stone

(Psalm 117; Mark 16:1-8, Romans 6:1-11)

I saw a quote a while back from an older pastor, his spirit clearly broken, who had come to believe that funerals were the only worthwhile thing he did. He said, “The first couple I married is now divorced; the first person I led to Christ has left the church. But the first person I buried is still dead.” My first thought when I read that was, “How sad!” That’s someone who’s lost faith. There’s no resurrection there, no Easter hope, only the wisdom of the modern world: people die, and they stay dead, and that’s it. That’s why you see cars with the bumper sticker, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”—because what’s to play for except to make life as fun as you can while it lasts? That’s why you see T-shirts that say, “No one gets out of here alive,” or, “Life is a terminal condition.” For many people, the future fact of death overshadows the present fact of life, and anything that can be done to stave it off or deny its approach is worth doing.

However people choose to deal with death, most agree that it’s one of only two certain things in life: when someone’s dead, they’re dead, and that’s it. The great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton has one of his characters, a Prussian general, say this to explain why he had ordered the execution of a poet: “Highness, . . . he would be deified, but he would be dead. Whatever he means to do, he would never do it. Whatever he is doing, he would do no more. Death is the fact of all facts; and I am rather fond of facts.” And because it is the fact of all facts, the fact which can silence all other facts, it’s the fact to which tyrants and brutes have always resorted in order to keep the upper hand. If someone becomes too much of a problem, you can always kill them; and then whatever they are doing, they will do no more.

And so the Pharisees saw the crowds following Jesus, then looked at each other and said, “This isn’t doing any good—see, the whole world has gone after him.” But they had one more hammer to use; and a few days later, they and the chief priests had manipulated the Roman who ruled Israel into sentencing Jesus to death. Whatever Jesus meant to do, he would not do it; what he was doing, he would do no more. Death was the fact of all facts; and they were very fond of facts.

Along with that fact came a few more. Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb; the stone used to close that tomb was a giant disc, a great stone wheel, perhaps six feet across and a foot or two thick. Once the body was inside, the stone was rolled down into a slot in front of the door that held it firmly in place against the rock wall of the tomb. You can imagine the horrible grinding noise that must have made, a sound like the death of all hopes; you can imagine how that sound must have echoed in the ears of Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, and the others gathered there, and how they must have felt it in their very souls, as if the stone were rolling within them, crushing their hearts.

Still, there was nothing to do but go on, somehow; and as Jesus’ burial had been hurried, his body had not been properly anointed, so that needed to be done. That was something they could still do for Jesus, small as it was. And so after sundown brought the Sabbath to an end, they went out and bought the spices, and early the next morning, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome went down to the tomb. They left home while it was still dark, so they could be sure to arrive at the tomb at first light. As they walked, they fretted about the stone; after all, it weighed thousands of pounds, and would have to be rolled uphill to get it out of the way, and it all seemed too much for them to do. Plus there were those Roman soldiers set around the mouth of the tomb, who might be willing to help, or—not . . . you never could tell with Romans.

When they got there, though, they found the stone already rolled away, and no one there except an angel sitting in the tomb. Mark doesn’t use the word “angel,” but that’s what he means; you can tell from the clothes that shone white in the dark tomb, and from the women’s reaction: they were terrified. We have this Victorian image of angels in the back of our minds, of pretty young men and women in soft focus with beautiful golden wings and gentle expressions on their faces, but real angels aren’t like that. God’s angels live in his presence, they’re saturated in his glory and his holiness, and when they show up undisguised, they radiate that glory; it’s as if a small sun suddenly started burning right here in this sanctuary. Their presence is stunning, blinding, awe-inspiring, overpowering . . . terrifying. God is not safe, he isn’t tame, he isn’t comfortable, and neither are his servants. That’s why the first thing angels always say is, “Don’t be afraid.”

If the angel’s appearance is staggering, however, that’s nothing compared to his message. He tells them, “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He’s been raised; he isn’t here. Look, there’s the place where they laid him. 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.” And how do the women respond? They run. They’re beside themselves with some crazy combination of fear, and joy, and disbelief, and awe; this is just too big, too much, too far beyond their experience for them to handle. Their emotions overwhelm them, and they run; they don’t know what else to do.

And here, Mark stops, creating incredible heartburn for generations of Christians, including the writer of the extended ending you have there in your Bibles. He doesn’t give us a resurrection appearance, he doesn’t show the women telling the disciples Jesus had risen, he doesn’t give us any of that; instead, he leaves us with the women running away in fear, saying nothing at all. Mark knows that they did in fact tell the disciples, that the word did get out; why doesn’t he tell that story, too? Why stop here?

It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems to me that this ending does something important: it drops the whole question in our laps. The other gospels end with Jesus appearing to his disciples and teaching them, and those accounts are important; but in wrapping up the story, bringing it to a conclusion, they allow us to stay outside it, if we choose. When Mark leaves us hanging, with no resolution, with the command to go tell the others still unfulfilled, it pulls us in and leaves us to finish the story. We don’t know, from Mark, what the women make of what has just happened to them, or what they’re going to do with it; as we wrestle with that fact, it brings us smack up against the question of what we make of it, what we’re going to do with it.

Which, for our lives, is the question that matters. I’ve known people who believed intellectually that the stone was rolled away and Jesus rose from the dead—they considered it to be the only historically plausible conclusion—but it didn’t matter to them; they saw it as just another odd historical fact that had nothing at all to do with their lives. And that’s not the Resurrection the Scriptures proclaim. Yes, they teach the Resurrection as an historical fact—Jesus physically died, then physically came back to life, got up, left the tomb, and went on about his work—but not only as an historical fact. It’s not just that the stone was rolled away from the tomb, but that the stone is still rolling; it’s not just that one man who was God came back from the dead, but that because he rose from the dead, so we, too, have risen from the dead and will rise from the dead.

The question is, do you believe that? Do you believe that this is your resurrection? Do you believe that in Jesus, you have risen from spiritual death to new life in Christ? Paul tells us that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death . . . so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In other words, our old selves, enslaved to sin, under the power of death, died on the cross, and in Christ we have been given new life—his life—the life which triumphed over sin and broke the power of death. We are free from sin, free to live for God, free to be the people we were meant to be. Do you believe that? Do you live like your chains have been broken?

And do you believe that in Jesus, death is not the end? Do you know in your gut that just as you have risen from the dead spiritually, so you will rise from the dead physically? Yes, in this broken creation, on this marred earth, death is still a reality, and people who die do usually stay dead—yesterday when we buried my wife’s grandmother, it was something like the sixth funeral in her extended family in the last six months, and they’re all definitely still dead—but that’s not the end of the story, because Jesus Christ has shattered the power of death. As Paul says, “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection.” Death is only temporary. Funerals are only temporary. When Jesus returns, all his faithful ones who have died will be raised from the dead just as he was raised—in resurrection bodies, perfected bodies, free from sin and all its effects, free from the power of death, free from all the things that go wrong—and we will live with him forever in the new heavens and the new earth. “See,” Revelation 21 declares, “the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

What matters is that we understand, not just that there was a resurrection in a tomb outside Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago, but that there is a resurrection for us. Yes, in this world, we suffer death, and pain, and grief, and loss, but there’s a new world coming; if you are in Christ, then you have the promise of God that pain doesn’t have the last word, sin doesn’t have the last word, grief doesn’t have the last word, loss doesn’t have the last word, even death itself doesn’t have the last word, because there is a resurrection. If your hopes have failed and your plans gone awry, there is a resurrection. If you’re grieving the death of someone you love, there is a resurrection. If you’re suffering, if you’re in pain, there is a resurrection. If you’re worn down and beaten down by guilt for something you’ve done, there is a resurrection. If you’re alone and lonely, there is a resurrection. If those you love have hurt you and let you down, there is a resurrection. Whatever this world has done to you, whatever is wrong in your life, take heart, for there is a resurrection. In Jesus’ death, we died; in his resurrection, we are risen; in his kingdom, we will live forever with him and with each other.

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