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God’s Great ”In Spite Of…”

San Williams

April 8, 2012
Mark 16:1-8

04-08-2012 Sermon Nearly everyone revels in moments of triumph.  You may have witnessed a moment of triumph last Tuesday night if you watched the Baylor women’s basketball team beat Notre Dame for the national championship, capping a perfect season of 40 wins and no losses.  When the final buzzer sounded, the victory celebration began: cheers, hugs, slaps on the back.  The team’s skill, hard work, perseverance (and one very tall player) made them champions. We love to join in victory celebrations that recognize outstanding human endurance, courage and accomplishment.

Well, Easter is our day of triumph.  After trudging through the painful days of Holy Week—days of betrayal, conflict, suffering and death—Easter morning breaks forth with singing: “Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia! Our triumphant holy day, alleluia!”  On Easter the songs, the trumpet blasts and the timpani all sound a celebratory note of triumph.  In fact, the only somber, less than triumphant aspect of our Easter worship this morning is in Mark’s telling of the Easter story.  In Mark’s account of the resurrection, there are no cheering disciples, no group hugs or victory dances. There is only stunned silence, terror, and retreat.

Think for a minute about the men and women who are included in Mark’s Passion/Easter story.  To a person, Mark’s cast of characters is made up of sinners of one variety or another.  Through the span of Jesus’  anguish in Gethsemane, to his arrest, trial, crucifixion and even on into Easter morning, no heroes or heroines emerge.  The Romans are there. Their approach to political challenge is to squelch it with violence.  The chief priests are on the scene, but their jealousy and desperate desire to hang on to power has led them astray.  Of course, Jesus’ own disciples each fail in one way or another.  Judas has betrayed Jesus for love of money.  Peter has denounced his relationship with Jesus after promising his loyalty.  And as soon as the sword-wielding soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus, the other disciples flee like scared rabbits.

But what about the women who come to the tomb–Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome? These are surely strong women who have birthed the babies, raised the children, tended the sick, fed their families, and, when necessary, prepared the dead for burial.  Yet as the Easter story unfolds, they, too, falter and flee. The fact that they have come to the tomb planning to anoint the body shows that they either don’t understand, or don’t believe, the promise of resurrection Jesus has repeatedly made.  When the women enter the tomb, the young man in a white robe specifically tells them not to be afraid.  “Jesus is not here,” he declares to them, “he has been raised.”  Then he instructs them:   “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.”  Yet instead of announcing the resurrection as instructed, they are seized by terror, and they run from the tomb. The last sentence in Mark’s Gospel puts a fine point on Mark’s bleak assessment of human nature: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The women were our last hope to find someone in the Easter account who triumphed over difficulty, someone who carried the banner of faith without stumbling.  But alas, Mark’s Gospel concludes without giving us a single hero or heroine.

In this way, Mark’s story is very unlike the wildly popular trilogy titled The Hunger Games, which is also now playing as a movie. Anyone heard of The Hunger Games?  If you haven’t heard, just ask the nearest teenager or young adult to fill you in. The books in this trilogy are popular, in part, because of the engaging, courageous characters who make up the story, especially the heroine Katniss Evergreen.  Against terrible odds, this heroine prevails and triumphs. Such triumph of the human spirit against great odds is what typically sells books and holds readers’ interest.

So here’s my question:  Why would Mark, in his account of the Easter story, show us person after person who disappoints, flees, or fails in some way?  It’s as if Mark is intentionally surrounding the events of the passion and resurrection with sinners of all kinds.  The Romans, the religious leaders, the disciples, the women—all are stand-ins for a fallen humanity.

And we could add:  they are stand-ins for our world today.  The Roman Empire is long gone, but the myth of redemptive violence continues to govern the affairs of nations, leaving an unbroken trail of blood and misery across the centuries and across the landscape of every nation.   And the long shadow of Judas’s betrayal still falls over our lives and world, as money, greed and the lust for material security take precedence.  Institutional intransigence and corruption didn’t end with the chief priest and Pharisees. These failings continue to mar our religious and political institutions today.   And the fear, fickleness, and lack of understanding that characterized the first disciples are but a mirror of our own.  Mark’s stark account of the resurrection may be lacking in reader satisfaction, but there’s something raw, realistic, and sadly timeless about it.

Yet In spite of the human failures that punctuate Mark’s story, and that characterize our human story, God’s promise to redeem the fallen creation remains alive and irreversible. The resurrection assures us that God’s good intentions for the world will not be revoked.  “He is risen,” shouts the young man from the empty tomb, “and is going before you to Galilee.”  True, there are no heroes or heroines in Mark’s Easter story, but there is great, good news. Human sin does not repeal God’s promise.

A couple Sundays ago, a hand-out from one of our adult church school classes included a quote by Karl Barth, who wrote,  “Whoever, whatever, or however Christians may be, they must be themselves a people for whom the act and revelation of God are neither dream nor illusion nor the subject of mere theory, but a reality believed, known and experienced, either in power or in weakness.”

It’s Barth’s last phrase that gives us our Easter hope: “or in weakness.”  Hasn’t Mark just told us about people who experienced the reality of the resurrection not in power, but in weakness?  Mark names some of the people for whom Jesus died and rose again in spite of everything done against him. He died and rose for the Romans who beat and killed him, for the religious leaders who despised him, and for the disciples who betrayed and deserted him.  He died and rose for each one of us, even though we are not heroic disciples.

Friends, today is our triumphant holy day. But as Mark makes clear, we are not celebrating human accomplishment, potential or creativity.  Instead, we are celebrating the good news that God is faithful, the creation is being redeemed, death and futility have been overcome. It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!