Sunday, 8 April 2012

Puzzled at Easter...

Sermon for Easter Day
Sunday 8th April 2012

Mark 16: 1-8
I wonder if there’s any truth in the saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’?
There are parts of the story of the first Holy Week that would have been all too familiar to the disciples.
Many before Jesus had got into trouble with the powers that be for stirring up religious controversy.
Messiahs had come and gone.
Most of them had been flogged or crucified.
Everyone knew what happened after a crucifixion – the dead body taken down and buried.
In a sense it was no different with Jesus.
There had been such high hopes – he was supposed to be ‘The One.’
‘Are you the one to set us free from the Romans?’
‘Show us a sign that you are the Messiah.’
‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…’
But then came the arrest; the trial; the crucifixion.
What a dreadful dead end.
He didn’t even last out on the cross as long as some…the soldiers found him dead already when they came to inspect the bodies at the end of the afternoon.
So far, so familiar.
And then we come to the beginning of our gospel reading from Mark 16.
‘When the Sabbath was over…’
That phrase ‘when the Sabbath was over’ really struck me.
When something is ‘over’ it is finished.
It is too late.
It has come and gone.
It’s as if the familiar part of the story is over and, for the first disciples, something very unfamiliar is about to begin.
But they don’t know that yet.
It seems that the disciples have completely forgotten
all Jesus’ predictions that on the third day he would rise again.
I think we can forgive them for that.
Would we have done any better?
A beloved leader being killed and rising to new life is, let’s be honest, completely outside of the scope of what is familiar and normal.
So the women come with their spices and without hope, to anoint the dead body of Jesus.
They’re worried about the tomb stone as it will be much too heavy to roll away.
But they come anyway.
Love and grief make you do strange things.
They just want to give him a decent burial.
Anointing a dead body is part of the familiar.
They’d rested on the Sabbath as the law demanded.
It’s now the Sunday – the first day of the week- not even a holy day – but something new is about to happen.
The old Jewish way of marking the end of the week – even this familiarity is going to be overturned as the old creation gives way to the new.
The garden is quiet, apart from the birds.
The sun has just risen (in the sky, that is!)
Mark 16, verse 4: the first sign of something unfamiliar…
The women find the stone, which was large, has already been rolled away.
That’s not right.
Something is seriously amiss, alarming even.
In an alarming situation a human being’s heart rate will increase. They may become breathless or light headed.
The unfamiliar can be frightening.
Mark 16, verse 5…the second sign of something unfamiliar – in fact, downright strange.
They enter the tomb and see a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side.
Note: he is not hovering around with a glistening halo on his head.
The text is very precise, almost prosaic.
The man is sitting on the right hand side of the tomb.
All who have studied the New Testament documents have observed that they tell it as it is.
They don’t add hype or gloss over apparent oddities in events. They don’t try and harmonize what sometimes seem like conflicting resurrection accounts.
So the women, hearts racing, pulses increasing, brains whirring, see this young man…who then speaks to them.
‘Do not be alarmed.’
It’s good to know angels can read human body language.
‘Do not be alarmed.’
Are we intimidated today about the alarming stories of religious decline in the UK?
Do not be alarmed.
Are we worried that new ways are eroding the traditional ways of worshipping?
Do not be alarmed.
Are we concerned that old ways are stifling the new so that we cannot grow?
Do not be alarmed.
Beyond all our worries and non comprehension is another reality where God’s purposes are being worked out, right here amongst us here in this place, with the help of angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.
Do not be alarmed.
All will be well.
So the angel understands exactly the predicament of the women.
‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.’
True – he was dead – we saw it with our own eyes…
Saw the spear which brought a sudden rush of blood and water.
Saw the stiff body being taken down and buried.
Mary even touched him, and so did Joseph of Arimathea.
So it doesn’t make sense, what the angel says next:
‘He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him’ (verse 6).
It’s like a crime scene from Agatha Christie: the area cordoned off with tape: the body was just there
…except that it’s not there now….
It’s as if the clock has been slowed right down, like an Olympic sprint photo finish.
Here are the frames, in fractions of a second:
The garden; the tomb; no stone; an angel; no body; the angel speaking:
‘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.’
It’s all too much; apparently the angel is giving instructions…
But the women are far too overwhelmed to take any notice at all.
Now, if you wanted to write a triumphal ending to your gospel, I don’t think you would have ended as Mark does, in verse 8: ‘So 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’ (verse 8).
That’s it!
That’s the end of Mark’s gospel.
If you were filming an adaptation for the big screen, you would have a few problems at this point.
Instead of rousing music and smiling faces – everything has turned out alright after all – you have terrified women running out of the garden, saying nothing to anyone because they are afraid.
And then the credits roll.
What kind of evangelists are they?!
In fact, as some of you will know, there are alternative endings in Mark, as though this original one is just embarrassing.
But I find this one very compelling.
These poor women, as a direct result of their devotion to Jesus, have been lead completely outside their comfort zone into the terrifyingly unfamiliar.
Isn’t this a sure sign of a genuine encounter with God?
So from the women, to us.
When did the Christian story last sound strangely, bracingly unfamiliar to you?
We have the familiarity of 2000 years of Christianity through which to filter our response to the risen Jesus.
This makes it quite hard to meet him afresh.
Perhaps the story isn’t as sharp as it used to be.
Perhaps it’s a bit too familiar.
We tend to like the familiar.
A much loved chair or bible, or a pair of slippers.
The familiar is comforting and stays within boundaries.
You know what’s coming with the familiar.
But, just in case it’s true that familiarity breeds contempt, we must pray, each of us, for a new meeting with the risen Lord.
We must never think that resurrection is familiar.
How can it be?
It is always awesome and strange and the means by which we are transformed to serve Christ in the world.
Jesus’ death and resurrection transforms us at an individual level but also corporately.
In a few moments we will meet the risen Lord together around the Communion table, in broken bread and wine outpoured.
We will cement our ties as brothers and sisters in the Christian family whose Saviour died and rose again that we may be one.
As we do so, let us pray for the grace this Easter time, to let the familiar become unfamiliar.

1 comment:

  1. I am so enjoying reading your fresh and careful understanding of this most amazing story which does become "familiar" when we read the account in our Bibles - thank you Claire