Robert L. Getty, Ph.D. - April 5, 2015
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Then Comes the Morning
Suppose you had just lost your closest friend. You heard that the friend was lost in a terrible boating accident while in a turbulent sea and all hope of finding him was lost. The pain of the loss was complete. All the dreams of being with your friend for many years have just been dashed! Your state of misery was heavy and you have nothing but hopelessness. Then after a fitful three days with no sleep, you hear that there is news of your friend that he may have been found. You go running to see him, but you can’t find him and you feel like you have been betrayed with false information. On this Sunday morning, when the women came to the tomb, they were coming to give one last expression of love by anointing Jesus’ body and he was not there. They were definitely filled with confusion
Mark describes the same three women who witnessed the crucifixion as the ones who come first to the tomb. The scene of the three women here reverberates with echoes. These women, like the first woman whom Jesus healed, had ministered to him (15:40-41), and like the “unclean” woman, had followed after him. They have come to anoint Jesus like the woman in Bethany. At another dinner, only a few days before, Mary washes Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. When Judas complains, Jesus speaks about the necessity of his own burial (12:7). His words linger in the background here. This second anointing is inevitably a reminder of the first, with its sacrificial gestures of breaking and outpouring. But there are differences which are also significant. The first woman anointed Jesus “for his burial,” while these women, coming to the tomb, find his body is not there.
Symbolic of a new creation, the women come “very early in the morning on the first day of the week. . . . on the rising of the sun” (v. 2). In this context, the entry of the women into the tomb also bears symbolic significance: “And they were saying to each other, ‘Who will roll away for us the stone outside the door of the tomb?’ And looking up they see that the stone had been rolled back”
Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
And so ends the gospel of Mark – a funny note to end on really – the disciples of Jesus ‘running’ from the tomb terrified and confused. ‘Go and tell his disciples…’ says the man in white, but the women don’t tell anything to anybody. ‘Terror’ and ‘dread’ had seized them, it says, and so the gospel closes with this picture of the friends of Jesus, not joyfully celebrating the wonders of the resurrection, but rather running about with dumb looks on their faces, wondering what to do next!
This is an odd sort of way to finish the gospel. Perhaps as you look through your Bible you’ll notice a longer and more detailed ending that indeed gives details about the actual reunion that took place between Jesus and the disciples. These longer endings (and you may have a couple of them) were early endings that were added to the gospel of Mark to give it a proper finish, but those endings were not the original ending.
What sort of ‘Easter note’ is this to sound? We sing about the resurrection this morning, and we sing of joy and happiness. Read through the hymns and you may find some other emotions expressed, but fear and confusion are not likely to feature prominently amongst them! Easter is a wonderful event, is it not? It’s God’s great ‘act of magic’ (so to speak) that says ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life. It’s the great and comforting reminder of the truth that death does not have the final say in this world, but that there is life beyond the grave. Indeed, the apostle Paul does say that in the resurrection of Jesus we see something of our own future resurrection (1 Cor. 15closeAn error occurred.). What is disturbing and confusing about that?
To grasp the full reality of the resurrection of Jesus though, we have to see it in the context of the life and death of Jesus. I suspect that if we look at the life of Jesus and death of Jesus, we may well see why those who lived with Him through those last three years of His life had difficulty understanding. They found his resurrection initially to be, not just a basis for happy celebration, but something deeply disturbing and confusing.
If you had to think of one word that summarized the life and ministry of Jesus, as we read about it in the gospels, what would it be? ‘Conflict’ is the word that comes to my mind. I know some people depict Jesus as someone who just went around helping people and telling them to be nice to one another. Be realistic! If this is what you do, you don’t get yourself crucified. You get yourself invited to be a speaker at a Rotary dinner!
Jesus’ life and ministry, over the three years we read about in the gospels, is a life of constant conflict with the authorities – the civil authorities, but especially the religious authorities. As we read through the history of Jesus we see that conflict gradually intensifying, as religious leaders and teachers initially question Jesus, then challenge him, and finally try to kill him. It’s a story of frustration and anger, of conflict and betrayal, as Jesus forges a path that increasingly diverges from the official line taken by the official religious leaders of His day, to the point where the authorities decide that they can no longer tolerate his existence!
And what is the conflict about? It’s about lots of things at one level – it’s about Jesus’ flagrant disregard of tradition, it’s about his failure to keep to the rules about what you do and don’t do on the Sabbath, it’s about the attitude Jesus takes towards sinners and prostitutes, and perhaps most especially about the company Jesus keeps. At one level it’s about all these things. At another level, it’s about one thing – it’s about Jesus’ conception of God, and how that clashes with the Pharisee’s (the religious leaders’) conception of God. Jurgen Moltmann, in his book ‘The Crucified God’ characterizes the life of Jesus in this way – as a battle between two Gods, or perhaps we would rather say a ‘battle between two different conceptions of God’.
The women’s entry into the tomb can be viewed in a context of transformation. Their fleeing from the tomb (16:8) need not be seen as an act of fear but of new life. The message which the “young man” or angel subsequently gives the women is one of new life in more than one sense. There is first the news that Jesus has been raised. Beyond that, the word of the angel also suggests that they themselves, the women, are to leave the tomb and take on a new existence. In a total reversal of ancient conventions (both religious and social) the women are “sent forth” — i.e., as apostles — and given the ministry of preaching the word to the male disciples. Throughout his ministry, Jesus has repeatedly stressed “the raising up” of women. Accordingly, it is fitting that the first effects of his resurrection should be reflected in their transformed state.
This transformation of the women that took place is not reflected in our translations. It is therefore important to look carefully at the vocabulary Mark uses. The women’s immediate response is one of being utterly startled. The original word used here is a word peculiar to Mark among New Testament writers, and in other places is translated astounded. The word translated terror is used elsewhere to convey trembling. Here the “trembling” is paired with dread from the Greek word, ekstasis, from which we have the word ecstasy. Together this phrase conveys a strong sense of religious awe. The word for afraid, has a range of possible meanings: while its first and simplest meaning is “to be afraid,” it also bears the sense of reverence, as for God. In some places it is translated by the NRSV as “filled with great awe,” the second as “terrified.”
Consequently, there is the possibility that translation may be interpretation. “Afraid” being in the place of holy awe by translators and commentators leaves the idea of fear to be negative and unhealthy. However, with these alternate possibilities, Mark may not be criticizing the women for their being overcome with terror and dread and being afraid. Rather, he is using these reactions to highlight the supernaturalness of Jesus’ resurrection. Putting these meanings together, this final verse of Mark’s Gospel would read:
“And going out they fled the tomb, for trembling and ecstasy possessed them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were filled with awe.”
So translated, this verse represents a climax in the pattern of transformation or hope of new life. Each part of it bears symbolic weight. The women’s fleeing from the tomb not only mirrors the change in the healed demoniac, but more significantly, Jesus’ own release from the tomb. Their sense of being possessed by holy ecstasy is the reverse of possession by the devil, and may even point to the trance-like state of a new creation. Their silence is not a dumb or fearful silence; their speechlessness comes from being “filled with awe.” Through the role of the these women, Mark’s Gospel ends as a new beginning. So with the dawn of new day comes the realization of new life and hope.
This focus on new life is the heart of the song, “Then Comes the Morning” by Bill Gaither, which begins with these words:
They all walked away, with nothing to say,
They’d just lost their dearest friend.
All that He said, now He was dead,
So this was the way it would end.
The dreams they had dreamed
were not what they’d seemed,
Now that He was dead and gone.
The garden, the jail, the hammer, the nail,
How could a night be so long.
Then came the morning, night turned into day;
The stone was rolled away, hope rose with the dawn.
Then came the morning, shadows vanished before the sun,
Death had lost and life had won, for morning had come.