Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Moorhead
Easter Sunday—April 16, 2006
Are you as annoyed as I am with movies that have strange, jarring endings?
When I buy my ticket and popcorn and get all settled down in my comfy theater seat, I want whatever movie I’m watching to “end well.”
I want there to be a sunset, with birds singing and the orchestra swelling. I want the boy to get the girl, the woman to win her man. I want all the bad guys to get what they’ve got coming, all conflicts to be resolved, all tensions released. I want closure. I want all the loose ends tied up. I want “happily ever after” endings to my movies.
It drives me nuts when a movie director thinks he needs to throw me a curve ball at the last minute--concluding a film with a straight-out-of-leftfield “zinger.”
M. Night Shyamalan is an Indian-born movie director whose films often feature these kinds of disturbing endings. He directed movies like Signs, The Village, Unbreakable and (perhaps most memorably) The Sixth Sense.
Even if you never saw The Sixth Sense back in 1999, you probably remember the TV advertisements for it, featuring a terrified little boy whispering: “I see dead people.” That movie—The Sixth Sense—has a classic unpredictable, “twist” ending to it. The first time I saw it—I was blown away.
In our gospel lesson from Mark 16 we meet three women who are terrified—not because “they see dead people”—but because they DON’T see dead people, one dead person in particular.
At dawn, with the sun just peeking over the eastern horizon, they make their way to a cemetery to the fresh grave of a friend, to use spices and ointments to stave off the stench of death—but the corpse they come for is gone.
How unsettling. Dead people usually do others the courtesy of staying put—but not this Dead Person named Jesus.
He’s missing—and in his place a young man dressed in white—a complete stranger--stands there, delivering a wild message that shakes these women to the core of their being: ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But 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.’
That’s it. That’s all they get, these three women. There’s no earthquake here, no angel descending from heaven and splitting the stone in two, no Roman guards shuddering and playing dead. These women don’t actually encounter the risen Jesus. They don’t even poke around inside the tomb a bit to check things out for themselves.
No. None of that. These women just hear what the man-in-white has to say, then turn tail and run.
And here’s the sentence with which Mark the evangelist concludes his gospel: So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s it. That’s all Mark wrote—sort of a “THUD” of an ending—a DUD of an ending--if you ask me. The last word of Mark’s gospel is “afraid.” No gentle sunset, no birds singing, no orchestra swelling, no closure achieved, no “happily ever after.” None of that—Mark’s final word is “afraid.”
This is no way to run a resurrection—no way for a gospel to end. There has to be something missing here, wouldn’t you agree?
Apparently, in the first few years after Mark’s gospel began to circulate in the mid-first-century, others thought they needed to tidy things up a bit--take another run at it.
And so, in no time, several alternative endings were suggested for Mark’s gospel. Look for a moment at page 55 in the NT portion of your pew Bible, and you’ll see a shorter ending, a longer ending and all sorts of footnotes.
The guys who copied and transmitted Mark’s gospel practically went nuts trying to give this gospel a better ending—trying to do what Mark for some reason didn’t do.
But I’m afraid it was a lost cause. None of those “alternative endings” has ever caught on. None of them have rung true with the authentic voice of Mark himself. They all fall into the “close, but no cigar” range of acceptability.
For my money, the ending we seem stuck with is the ending Mark intended. Like M. Night Shyamalan, Mark wants us to squirm a bit—wants us to feel—to feel just a bit the way those women probably felt.
I think that’s one reason why Mark ends his gospel in this fashion. As Pastor Nancy said so well in her Easter letter to the congregation, “If I were one of those women who had come to the tomb on Sunday morning expecting to embalm my loved one, and met a young man who told me he was alive, I would be so scared I would run away. And I wouldn’t tell a soul, at least not for a while. My heart would be pounding so hard I would not have the breath to speak.”
Yesiree, despite how unsettling it is, Mark’s ending gets some things exactly right. If God has raised up Jesus from the grave—well then everything is up for grabs. Life and death, heaven and hell, the past—present—and-future, everything has turned. How could the first witnesses to such a revolutionary moment in human history be anything but terrified, struck dumb, beside themselves with fear?
So might we, appropriately, shudder on this Easter morning. I’ve always been glad that all four verses of that old spiritual Were You There? make reference to trembling—including the last verse, the Easter verse. We tremble—and not just in the face of Jesus crucified, dead and buried. “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?… Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
We tremble, because nothing is the same for us, for you and me, either.
There is Someone who has loved us to death—his death—and come back from death to love us forever. He’s loose in the world. He’s on the move—in fact, as the man-in-white tells the women: “he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
Where is the risen Jesus in Mark’s last chapter? He’s nowhere to be seen—not because he’s playing peek-a-boo with us, but because he’s out ahead of us.
This brings us to the other reason Mark may have had in mind by penning such a disturbing conclusion to his gospel.
Sometimes, when a movie director ends a film with a “twist,” it’s a clue that the studio’s marketing department has gotten into the act. They’re preparing the crowd for a sequel!
What if that’s happening, too, at the end of Mark’s gospel? That last sentence about the women fleeing in fear—doesn’t it just scream out for a “sequel?”
But Mark never got around to writing a sequel to his gospel (unlike Luke, another gospel-writer who went on to write the Acts of the Apostles). Did Mark just run out of time or ideas or material?
Or did Mark think that somebody else should write his sequel? Did Mark want his readers to know that they would be writing the sequel to his little book, by what they did with the Good News of Jesus Christ—crucified, dead, buried, and risen?
Dear friends, I believe our elder brother in faith, St. Mark the Evangelist has given each of us a little “writing assignment.” He ends his gospel in this jarring, unsettling way, because he wants each of us to draft our own conclusion—based on how we come to hear, believe in and follow this risen Lord Jesus Christ.
And where will we find this Risen Lord? He’s always out ahead of us, “in Galilee,” that is: in the mission field, in the place of service, wherever the Word gets shared, wherever the Risen Lord lives through you and me, his Easter People.
In the name of Jesus.Amen.