Happily Ever After, or Cliffhanger?
A Sermon on Mark 16:1-8
I want to start out by taking a poll of your viewing preferences. Here’s the question:
Which do you prefer – Disney movies, or TV drama series?
(I'll give you a minute - think about it. Which would you choose, if Disney or TV-drama-series were your two options)
Now that you have decided… I’m NOT going to tell you what those preferences suggest. Leave you in a little suspense!
For now, let’s imagine together what the gospel scene we just read would look like if re-enacted in both of these formats.
First, a Disney movie.
As the final scene in a Disney movie, of course, there must be music. Mark’s passion story clearly doesn’t set-up well as a musical, so we won’t have the angel breaking into song, but there will be an emotional and poignant melody, perhaps played on a Celtic flute.
The three women walk slowly in the semi-darkness, bent down by their grief, each holding a jar of spices in her arms. Mary Magdalene, brushes a soft tear from cheek. As they crest the top of the hill, the orchestra joins the flute and the music swells as the rising sun illuminates their faces as they look with astonishment at the tomb. The camera pans around so that we can see: the stone that has been rolled away.
The women stumble forward, needing to see, but also overwhelmed by confusion and by the grief that still grips them. What does this mean? Where is Jesus?
But as they enter the tomb they are brought up short. The brass section takes over the theme.
There’s a beautiful young man in the tomb – like no one they have ever seen before. It’s still dark inside, but there is a light around this man that emanates out from him. We see a close-up of the women’s faces, and we see that the power of his presence has stopped even their tears. They stand agape. Fearing to come closer, but unable to move away.
The music reaches a crescendo, and then stops. The man speaks. His voice is a beautiful, rich tenor – strong and compelling. He tells the women not to be afraid, and the music softly begins again – this time with the hero theme, gradually building as the man announces Jesus’ resurrection.
“He has been raised; he is not here.”
The camera focuses in on Mary’s astonished, uncomprehending face as the man gives the women their commission, in a ringing, exultant voice, and the music swells to its final climax:
“Go, tell his disciples…
he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
And the women… flee in fear. Fade to black.
... It doesn’t quite seem to work, does it? In Disney movies we expect a happy ending. The problem is supposed to be resolved. The characters are all supposed to have learned some great moral lesson from their experience. They don’t just… run away.
Maybe we’ll do a bit better with the TV drama series genre.
It’s the same three women, walking hunched and mourning in the semi-darkness, but the theme music is not poignant and emotional. It’s more suspenseful. There is an undercurrent of fear, a soft but insistent modulating violin.
The grey light of early dawn is muted by a clinging fog, and the women clutch their jars of spices to themselves. A cold, hard comfort in their vulnerability. Salome glances around furtively, before leaning close to whisper: “Who will roll away the stone for us?” But Mary just shakes her head, dead-eyed. She is beyond worrying. She is beyond tears. She is lost in the depths of her desolation.
Then they crest the hill, and see dimly through the fog, a deeper darkness up ahead. We see a close-up of their faces, squinting to discern. And then the fog eddies and clears and we can see – the open mouth of the tomb.
We hear Salome gasp. “The stone… it’s gone.” And the women stumble forward, desperate to understand what has happened to their beloved Jesus. But as they enter the tomb their heads snap around, and a new alarm shows on their faces.
There’s a strange man sitting to the side of the empty burial slab. He’s otherworldly, and the women shrink together as he rises to his feet to speak. “Do not be alarmed” he says, but as we watch we know this is impossible. The insistent jitter of the violin has our nerves on edge.
And then the music stops. And we see a close-up of the young man’s mouth:
“He has been raised; he is not here….
Go, tell his disciples…
he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
There is a deep, resonant boom from a tympany. And the women back away, out of the tomb. The close-up on Mary’s face shows her terror and amazement, as she slowly shakes her head. Then she, and the other women turn, and run.
The camera pans backs showing an ever-wider view of the desolate hillside as the women retreat, stumbling into the distance.
And words appear across the bottom of the screen: To be continued…
It works a little better, doesn’t it? Not quite the jubilant Easter scene we are used to, but the ending matches. Because Mark’s gospel doesn’t tie everything up with a pastel-colored Disney bow to gives us the perfect, predicted happy ending. Mark leaves us with a cliff-hanger. With a command to “go and tell”, and the women fleeing in fear, and the question: “HOW is the story going to get out?”
It’s an uncomfortable end to the story… so uncomfortable, in fact, that the 2nd Century church added on another 12 verses to the end of Mark’s gospel to create the happy ending we all expect.
After all, that MUST be how the story ended - with a resolution! We know that the women’s story WAS told, because Mark heard it and wrote it down. And the disciples DID meet Jesus in Galilee. And the church DOES live in the hope of the resurrection, not in fear and confusion.
But Mark didn’t just forget to finish his story. He left it on a cliff-hanger for a very intentional reason: But to understand that reason, we have to look at the WHOLE STORY, not just one scene. As we talked about last Fall, when we read the whole book in one sitting, Mark’s entire gospel is organized in what literary folks call a “chiastic structure” – which means that it’s always looping back on itself. The various scenes of the narrative are organized in pairs – with the first half of each pair leading to a turning point, and the second half mirroring the same themes in reverse.
The whole book has been foreshadowing the angel’s instruction to return to Galilee – to go back to where the story started. So it can start over again.
But NOT just for the women, or for the disciples. It starts over again for US too, for Mark’s readers. Because Mark wants US to finish the story. He doesn’t want to wrap-it-all-up and make the story complete. He doesn’t want to let us walk out of the movie theater, feeling happy and uplifted, but not really changed.
He wants the story to grab us; to pull-us in – not just into its pathos, but into the living out of its ending. Because this is our story.
It’s our story precisely BECAUSE it’s not neat, and pretty, with a Disney happy ending.
Disney is not real life! We get scared. And we sometimes run away from the things we know we’re supposed to do. And we aren’t entirely sure we want to see angels if they are going to tell us to do something hard. Or tell us something that’s hard to believe. Maybe we hear the story of the resurrection and we think… that can’t possibly be true.
So, if you came to church today with some doubts, or fears, or the consciousness that your life just doesn’t look like Easter joy right now, this is your story.
This is also the story of our commission:
It describes the task that we have been given as the church of Christ – smack dab in the middle of our doubts, and fears, and mourning. We are the ones who have to go and tell. The story doesn’t wrap-it-up for us, so the task remains. The women haven’t done it for us… not in this telling. And even though the story obviously got out, that doesn’t take us off the hook.
The proclamation of the resurrection is not the end of the story – it’s a call to go back to the beginning. To tell the story again, to those who have not yet heard.
But if that sounds overwhelming. If you share the women’s terror and amazement this is also our story of hope.
Because the commission comes with a promise. The promise that we will see him! He is risen. And that changes the story forever, because it changes us.
At the beginning of this sermon I asked you to divide yourselves between Disney movie-people and TV-drama-series-people, but the reality is that we are neither, because our story is NEITHER. We are RESURRECTION-people, and our story, this story, is not like ANY other story ever told.
Because this story is not over yet, even though we already know the end. We know that Jesus lives, and we – with all our doubts, and fears, and confusion – with all the ways our lives DON’T look like “happily-ever-after” – even with all that, we know that we share in the resurrected life of Jesus.
He is alive. And we WILL see him again – and none of our fear or doubt will change that truth. That is the story we get to go and tell.
Thanks be to God.