“And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them…”
You have heard of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Did you know that there is a sense in which the Gospel According to Mark is an Unfinished Gospel. These verses we just read are all we have of Mark’s original ending. This is how the most ancient and authoritative manuscripts of Mark end: “And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” It is rather abrupt. It does not sound like a happy ending. It ends in a minor key, unresolved, dangling. And they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. Some of your Bibles will go on with additional verses, but if you check your footnotes, you will see that scholars are virtually unanimous in their agreement that these endings are taken from much later manuscripts, written in a very different style of Greek, in which we can discern at least 3 other optional endings tacked on probably by later scribes and editors who could not stand leaving the reader hanging the way Mark did. But all of the great authoritative manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8. Some scholars think the original ending has been lost forever. Some have suggested that maybe it was mutilated by frequent use and was torn off the scroll before it could be copied. Others have proposed that Mark was interrupted before he could finish. We know he was writing during a time of terrible persecution. It may very well be that he was killed before he could finish. Or maybe Mark intended for it to end on such an open-ended, unfinished way. All we know is that this is how the original manuscript ends. As if it is not the end. As if it is unfinished. As if surely there is something more… And that is precisely the point.
At the risk of giving you a little too much Bible dtudy for a fine Easter Sunday morning, bear with me and let me tell you something else: not only does the Gospel end in the middle of the story. It also ends in the middle of a sentence. Translators have corrected this so that we don’t see it in our English translations, but in Greek, the Gospel ends with the word gar, which means, literally translated, because. Just because. Because what?! As if we are supposed to complete the sentence and finish the Gospel. What if it really is up to you and me to provide the ending for Mark? What if everyone of us is faced with the same uncertainty as those frightened women were so long ago as they stood before that inexplicably open, empty tomb. Will we step out in faith into the unknown future? Will we go on to carry the Gospel into Galilee, into the world? Will we carry on the work he began? Or not?
There is an old story of a general in the Persian army who had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between being executed by a firing squad or the option of opening a “big black door” behind which was an unknown fate. The criminals would wrestle with the choice: on the one hand, a firing squad, a known entity, the certainty of death, a quick, clean execution, a bullet to the head or heart, and it’s done. On the other hand—the big black door. What was beyond it? A hungry lion, torture on a rack, an armed 7 foot gladiator, a slow painful death. Very few ever chose the big black door, preferring the certainty of a quick clean execution. Do you know what in fact lay behind the big black door? Freedom. The future. Wide open. A whole new life. But most of the condemned prisoners, afraid of the unknown, chose the firing squad. We marvel at that, but I believe that this is the way most of us choose to live our entire lives—more dead than alive, for fear of the unknown.
I think that’s why the women on that first Easter morning were so afraid. When they arrived at the tomb where Jesus had been buried, it was not what they expected. They expected a body, a corpse, the certainty of death. THE END. Instead, the tomb stood WIDE OPEN. EMPTY. The stone rolled away, the body strangely vanished, the gaping sepulcher like a great big black doorway into a completely unknown future. What now? What did it mean? Where to from here? No wonder they were afraid!
I have always identified with the women in this story, but this year more than ever before! I cannot help but think about the day I came back into this deserted city after the storm and hung that great big sign on the front door of our church: OPEN. I had to climb over the rubble of cracked timbers and broken brick of our fallen steeple to do it. I had to hang it right next to the red sign posted by the city reading CONDEMNED. But my sign was bigger! OPEN! In the days ahead as people of our city returned to the ruins to pick up the pieces, they too would hang out their signs on stores, offices, restaurants. I’ve told you before, it has become my most favorite 4-letter word. OPEN. The only thing I liked seeing more was a sign that said NOW OPEN. Every time something else has reopened we have rejoiced. And yet, we too know what it means to be afraid of the wide open, unknown future. Now what? With so much of our lives, so much of what we have always known, gone, maybe forever. With so much unresolved, unknown, still hanging in the balance. Where to from here?
That’s why I love what the young man dressed in white had to say to the women that day: “He is not here; he is risen. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” He is going ahead of you. How I love that line! Hadn’t the women already discovered that to be true? Mark tells us on the way to the tomb they had been worried about how they were going to roll that stone away all by themselves, but when they got there, it had already been done. Already, he had gone ahead of them, prepared the way for them. This is what the frightened disciples would discover as well when they went to Galilee as Jesus told them, back to the place where they had first encountered him, where they had launched their ministry the first time, back to the beginning. It was a new beginning, a whole new future, NOW OPEN wide. And he was already there. Everywhere they turned, they experienced his presence, his power, his companionship, his nearness, his unconquerable love stronger than death itself, opening the door, making a way when there seemed to be no way.
If I could hang a sign on that Empty Tomb, that’s what it would say: NOW OPEN. That’s what the young man dressed in white was trying to say to the women. That’s what that Empty Tomb means. It is NOW OPEN: The future. Unlike anything we have seen before. Don’t be afraid!
If I could hang a sign on Easter that’s what it would be: NOW OPEN. That’s the promise of the resurrection. What looks like the END is never never never just the END. With a God like ours, there is always something more. No ending without a new beginning. No door slamming shut without another one opening wide. No death without a resurrection.
But now it’s up to you and to me. Just as it was to those first frightened women and to those brokenhearted disciples. The unfinished gospel has been laid in our hands for us to write our conclusion, to make our decision, to pass it on, to carry on, to proclaim the good news, to step out in faith through the big black door into the wide open freedom of the future. Don’t be afraid!
BECAUSE. That was the last word Mark wrote. Fill in the blank. Because he goes ahead of us. Because he rolls the stone away. Because he prepares the way. Because he goes before us. Because he is with us always. Because we are not alone. Because he holds the future. Because he holds you and me. Because he lives. I can face tomorrow.