Sunday’s sermon: Needing Empty

empty tomb

Texts for this sermon: Isaiah 25:6-9 and Mark 16:1-8

Mark 16:1-8: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices so they could embalm him. Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb. They worried out loud to each other, “Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?” Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back – it was a huge stone – and walked right in. They saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed all in white. They were completely taken aback, astonished. He said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now – on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.” They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.

  • It’s Easter morning! After the precious intimacy and inescapable foreboding of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday … after the prolonged agony and utter rejection of Good Friday, we come this morning to rejoice! We come to sing praise! We come to celebrate a resurrected Lord and a risen Savior – one who has conquered the darkness of sin and death once and for all! Alleluia!! … So then what’s the deal with this crazy text from Mark? We have …
    • An empty tomb
    • A stranger in white
    • Witnesses so startled that they leave saying “nothing to anyone”
    • What kind of Easter story is this? We’re used accounts of angels in shining garments. We’re used the women who first found the empty tomb running quickly to share the Good News with the disciples: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” We’re used to an appearance by the newly resurrected Jesus. Excitement … jubilation … relief … resurrection! But instead, Mark simply gives us an empty tomb, a stranger’s promise, and an abrupt ending.
      • (Describe short/long ending of Mark)
        • Pew Bibles – p. 830
        • Longer ending – vv. 9-20[1]: includes reassuring elements like Jesus’ resurrection appearances, a commissioning of the disciples (“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation”[2]), and the ascension of Jesus → But scholars are pretty certain that this wasn’t part of Mark’s original gospel. It doesn’t appear in the oldest Greek manuscripts. The earliest theologians show no knowledge of these verses. The Greek that it’s written in – the style and word choice and flow – doesn’t even match the way the rest of Mark’s gospel is written, so it’s fairly clear that this “longer ending” was added much later in an attempt to clear up the abrupt, unnerving ending that we sit with today.
    • But does this shorter, vaguer, more abrupt ending make Mark’s Easter story any less important? Any less relevant? Any less formative and informative for our own journeys of faith centuries later? I don’t think so. So what can we learn from that empty tomb? From the stranger in white? From those silent witnesses?
  • If truth be told, we don’t often think of “empty” as a good thing, do we?
    • Empty shampoo bottle/toothpaste tube → throw it away (not useful anymore)
    • As any parent (especially any parent of two almost 2-yr-olds) can tell you, there are few things more detrimental and counterproductive than empty promises, be they positive or negative. If you say that it’s time for a timeout, then it’s time for a timeout. If you say you’re going to the park after lunch, then trust me … you’d better go to the park after lunch.
    • Our culture treats empty time like a wasted opportunity. We’re always multitasking, conference calling, consolidating our entire lives into one scheduled block of time after another. – result:
      • Overworked
      • Overbooked
      • Overstimulated
      • Overextended
    • We find emptiness uncomfortable, jarring. – feel it in our own lives, feel it in our gospel reading this morning
      • Evident in the women’s response – The women who came to Jesus’ tomb that morning were looking for anything but an empty tomb. → empty tomb could’ve meant a number of bad things
        • Romans might have taken Jesus’ body to keep him from being inspiration for even greater revolution
        • Jewish leaders might have taken Jesus’ body to further defile and demean him even in death
        • Some other random, anonymous person might have stolen his body for reasons unknown
      • See women’s negative gut reaction in Gr. – women were “completely taken aback, astonished” = amazed, yes, but also distressed/alarmed → They came looking for a body – a body to anoint with the traditional spices and balms. But instead, they found an empty tomb. They came ready to mourn and grieve. But instead, they found an empty tomb. They came prepared for obstacles – the stone blocking the entrance, the possibility of Roman guards or others who might try to keep them away from Jesus’ body. But instead, they found an empty tomb – a distressingly, unnervingly empty tomb.
      • Encounter challenging, jarring nature of emptiness in Isaiah passage, too – text: We waited for [God] … The God, the one we waited for![3]
        • May sound like no big deal, but Heb. “waited” = implications of waiting in tenseness and eagerness → This isn’t simple, twiddle-your-thumbs kind of waiting. This isn’t pleasant, carefree, lying-in-the-grass-watching-the-clouds kind of waiting. This is waiting steeped in tension and trepidation. This is waiting thick with expectations and unfulfilled promises and fragile hopes. This is hold-your-breath waiting. This is cross-your-fingers, wing-and-a-prayer, please-God-we’ve-waited-for-so-long waiting. Waiting in tenseness and eagerness.
          • Waiting that has endured trials and tragedies
          • Waiting that has outlasted challenges and doubts and abuses and setbacks
          • Waiting through the emptiness
            • Empty hours that crawl by as we wait
            • Empty feeling that grows as those hours pass
  • Yes, the emptiness of the tomb must have been scary. It must have been startling. It must have been unsettling and perplexing, so much so that Mark tells us the women were stunned into silence. The emptiness of the tomb was unprecedented and unexpected, yes, but it was also wholly unavoidable. You see, friends, in order to experience the joy and glory and miraculous ness and majesty of Christ’s resurrection, we must first find the tomb startlingly and inexplicably empty.
    • With the women, we hear the words of the stranger in white: “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the one they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty.”[4] → “He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer.” These few short statements are our proclamation of the Good News of the gospel in Mark. The One who was dead is alive again! Jesus the Christ has been raised up! Death has been defeated forevermore by the One who came for all! Alleluia! All of that packed into two short phrases: “He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer.”
    • OT text, Isaiah also surrounds that tenseness and eagerness with reassurance and proclamation – full text: People will say, “Look at what’s happened! This is our God! We waited for [God] and [God] showed up and saved us! This God, the one we waited for! Let’s celebrate, sing the joys of his salvation!”[5]
      • Doesn’t ignore the waiting
      • Doesn’t gloss over the waiting
      • But he also doesn’t let the emptiness of the waiting overpower the magnitude and the importance of God’s response. Isaiah acknowledges that yes, we waited, and this was God’s reply. Yes, we waited, and see, God was there! → acknowledges God’s presence even in the empty places
        • Speaks of God’s actions in the face of the emptiness: God will banish the pall of doom hanging over all peoples, the shadow of doom darkening all nations. Yes, [God will] banish death forever. And God will wipe the tears from every face. [God will] remove every sign of disgrace from [God’s] people, wherever they are.[6]
          • Scholar: The prophetic voice declares that life, not death, is what God endorses.[7]
          • John Claypool, pastor of a large Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta: The worst things are never the last things, and the final sounds of history will not be ‘Taps’ but ‘Reveille.’[8]
  • “And that’s all well and good,” you may be saying. “Alleluia! Christ is risen! God is with us now and forever! … But what about those women? What about Marks abrupt and, frankly, unsatisfying ending? With an ending like that, it sort of feels like the women at the tomb actually let death have the final word.”
    • Our Easter challenge that lasts throughout the year: living into the ambiguity of the ending
      • Thinking logically – women must have eventually told someone
        • Very presence of our faith, of our worship today shows that eventually the women told someone
          • Stephanie: Their first reaction may have been understandable terror … but it wasn’t their final reaction, and our very existence as people of faith is a testimony to their witness.[9]
        • Is: People will say, “Look at what’s happened! This is our God! We waited for [God] and [God] showed up and saved us! This God, the one we waited for! Let’s celebrate, sing the joys of his salvation.[10] → “People will say” … witness!
      • Challenge/Key: letting God’s presence in the emptiness inspire action
        • Scholar: God is present not only in the loud hallelujahs and glorious proclamations of a grand, churchly Easter morning … God persists as well in the midst of speechlessness, in death, in the outer regions of our own experiences and of our social lives, where life unfolds underfoot.[11]
        • This is the beauty and the blessing that we find hidden in Mark’s strange and sparse resurrection story. It gives us the chance to write the rest of the story together.
          • What is our response?
          • What is our witness?
          • How do we share the Good News?
          • Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

[1] James Tabor. “The ‘Strange’ Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes All the Difference” from Bible History Daily, an online publication of the Biblical Archaeology Society, Originally published April 2013, reposted 2 Feb. 2015, accessed 3 Apr. 2015.

[2] Mk 16:15 (NRSV).

[3] Is 25:9.

[4] Mk 16:6.

[5] Is 25:9.

[6] Is 25:7-8.

[7] Gene M. Tucker. “The Book of Isaiah 1-39: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 217 (emphasis added).

[8] Rev. John Claypool, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA as quoted by George Bryant Wirth in “Easter Day – Isaiah 25:6-9, Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 363.

[9] Rev. Stephanie Anthony, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Hudson, WI.

[10] Is 25:9 (emphasis added).

[11] Jones, 356.

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