When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘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.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
(Mark 16:1-8, NRSV)
I’m not going to preach a sermon today. That’s way too predictable. Instead, I’m going to perform an interpretive dance routine. I was a dance major in college, and I just don’t get to use my classical training often enough. Today’s the day. Sit back, and enjoy the show.
April Fools. You’re getting a sermon. Also I wasn’t a dance major. I’ve managed to trip out of this very pulpit, and just the other night, I fell backwards into my bathtub. I was trying to close the bathroom door especially quietly so I wouldn’t wake up Colleen, when all of a sudden I lost my balance and crashed. I’m fine. P.S. Colleen slept through the whole thing. She has a remarkably clear conscience.
April Fools jokes go way back. In 1857, pranksters distributed tickets for the “annual washing of the lions ceremony” at the Tower of London. Of course gullible people showed up and of course the lions didn’t. Some jokes play on the power of suggestion including the BBC’s smell-o-vision in 1965. As the story goes, the BBC announced “a new technology allowing the transmission of odor over the airwaves to all viewers. Many viewers reportedly contacted the BBC to report that the [smell-o-vision] trial was a great success.”
In 1976 British astronomer, Patrick Moore, told BBC radio listeners about the “Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect” that occurred during a “unique alignment of two planets that would result in an upward gravitational pull making people lighter at precisely 9:47 AM that day. He invited his audience to jump in the air and experience ‘a strange floating sensation.’ Dozens of listeners phoned in to say the experiment had worked, among them a woman who reported that she and her friends were ‘wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room.’”
In 1996, Taco Bell took out a full-page ad in The New York Times announcing that they had “purchased the Liberty Bell to ‘reduce the country's debt’ and renamed it the ‘Taco Liberty Bell.’ When asked about the sale, White House press secretary Mike McCurry replied that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold and would henceforth be known as the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.
On this April Fools Easter morning, we gather here to remember the first Easter, which happened over 2,000 years ago. On that day, when confronted with an empty tomb, what did Christ’s followers think? That someone was trying to trick them? That an enemy was leaving them in suspense, a permanent state of uncertainty?
We don’t normally think of Bible stories as suspenseful. We know how the stories end, the major ones at least. But in our Easter text this morning, the one found in the Gospel of Mark, we encounter a tale of uncertainty, the ultimate cliffhanger. At first glance, it seems like the traditional Easter story, but when we see where it ends, it becomes something else altogether.
The setting is the Sunday after Christ’s death. Because the Sabbath began at sundown on Friday, Christ’s body was quickly placed in the tomb. They had to avoid work and avoid touching the corpse, both of which were Sabbath violations. So on this sad Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to Christ’s tomb to properly prepare his body for burial.
They arrive at the tomb to find the stone rolled away and no sign of Jesus’ body. Instead, they find a young man dressed in a white robe, who we assume is an angel, sitting inside the tomb. I picture the poor angel just sitting around, biding his time, waiting for someone to arrive so he can tell them the astounding news and then get back to whatever it was he was doing before God sent him on this urgent errand. The text says when the women saw the angel they were “alarmed.” Other translations say they were “amazed,” “terrified,” or “frightened.” Sometimes, when we hear these familiar stories, we forget that they were real people with real feelings. But when we put ourselves in their place, their emotions are understandable.
For starters, these women were emotionally spent even before they arrived at the tomb. I would guess that throughout the weekend they relived the horrifying Good Friday experience over and over again in their minds.
And now, for the first time since putting Jesus in the tomb, they trudge with heavy hearts to the grave wondering how in the world they were going to get that enormous stone moved so they could properly anoint Christ’s body.
Perhaps they felt some relief that someone had moved the stone. At least that would make their heart-wrenching task easier. They walked in expecting to see the body of Jesus just as they had left it on Friday afternoon. But instead, they are floored at the sight of some unknown guy dressed in a long white robe. The Gospel of Mark never calls him an angel, though that is our assumption. Without a doubt it would have been frightening. Had they walked into a trap? Would they be the next ones nailed to a cross? Had the body been stolen and held for ransom? Had they somehow stumbled into the wrong tomb? Was this someone’s sick idea of a practical joke?
The angel speaks to them saying, “Don’t be afraid; you’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. Well he’s been raised; he’s not here.” Pointing to the other side of the tomb the angel says, “Look right there, that is the place they laid him.” After this short explanation, the angel gives simple, yet mind blowing instructions saying, “Go tell his disciples and Peter that [Christ is] going ahead of you to Galilee; there you’ll see him, just like he told you.”
I love this next part, because it reminds us that people are people, regardless of whether their lives are documented in the Bible, or whether they’re sitting in our sanctuary today. You see Mark doesn’t give us some idealized version of their reaction, glossing over the truth to make the story nice. He tells us point blank that the women ran from the tomb in fear, and fully ignored the angel’s instructions. They didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone. That’s the end of Mark’s Easter story and this is no April Fool’s joke!
It seems strange, to say the least, to end the Easter story at this point, but that’s exactly what Mark does. He leaves us hanging. He leaves us in suspense. In your pew Bibles, you will find a space between verses 8 and 9 of Mark chapter 16. The footnote explains that the most ancient manuscripts end the book with verse 8, where we ended this morning. It appears to many biblical scholars that verses 9-20 were added later, apparently because Mark’s abrupt ending leaves too much unresolved.
It’s tempting to look at these silent and fearful women and wonder what’s wrong with them. Why don’t they listen to the angel and remember Christ’s promises of resurrection? Of course, that’s easy for us to say. We know the end of the story. And because it’s so familiar, we may forget just how miraculous and extraordinary this claim of the resurrection really was and is even today.
In truth, these heartsick women deserve credit for showing up at all. We don’t read about any of the men showing up. No, the eleven disciples who were closest to Jesus, who witnessed his miracles and heard his teachings, scattered like leaves in the wind at Jesus’ arrest. Peter, the one disciple who did hang around a little bit longer than the rest, ended up denying he even knew Jesus. Only the women bore witness to Jesus’ death and were faithful enough to care for his body afterwards.
But what about their silence upon leaving the tomb? Were the women paralyzed by their shock? Did they fear being labeled fools? Mark leaves us wondering what the women will do, and more importantly, leaves us with the mystery of the empty tomb unsolved.
Thankfully, the Easter accounts we find in Matthew, Luke, and John settle Mark’s cliffhanger. The women did eventually tell the good news. And though the women were considered fools at first, the eleven disciples, the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and many others eventually encounter the risen Christ, proving the reliability of the women’s story.
The resurrection of Christ is a sacred belief for Christians, but it is also a sacred promise. The resurrection of Christ promises us that our lives don’t end when our bodies stop functioning. That nothing is so far gone that God cannot retrieve it. That God can pull us out of those places that entrap us. That in times of deep joy and times of darkest pain, God is with us, always with us.
Do we really believe this? Doesn’t it make us look like fools to those naysayers who call faith itself into question? If it makes us look like fools, then let’s look like holy fools who cling to the promise of the Easter miracle. In I Corinthians 4:10, Paul calls his fellow believers “fools for Christ” as a truth and a term of endearment. As fools for Christ, we hold on to the promise of the resurrection on April Fool’s Day, on Easter Sunday, and on every other day of the year.
Christ the Lord is risen.
He is risen indeed.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Edited by Colleen Brown Only
April 1, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Eternal God, who turns the shadows of Good Friday’s death to the bright radiance of Easter Sunday’s resurrection, we give you praise. Your Easter miracle offers us life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair, and joy in the face of sadness. May your Spirit open our eyes to the deep truth of your wondrous work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Offer new life we pray, to those places on earth where death and violence predominate. Offer new life we pray, to those places in our lives that seem dead and hopeless. Offer new life we pray, to your church that we might fulfill your mission for us.
And now, O God, send us forth this day with the miracle of Easter, the hope of new life, deep down in our souls. Through Jesus Christ our risen Lord we pray. AMEN.