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Following Jesus into the Tomb


In 1803, Thomas Jefferson cut from the Gospels those passages he thought would best present the ethical teachings of Jesus and he arranged them on the pages of a blank book in his own order of time and subject. He called the book “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the account of his life and doctrines, as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension.” Jefferson’s Bible, as it came to be called, deleted all references to miracles and the divinity of Jesus. The closing words of Jefferson’s text were these: “There laid they Jesus: and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

This raises for me the question: is a Gospel that ends with death truly good news? To me, such a Gospel seems unfinished.

There is another kind of Unfinished Gospel and it is contained in the Bible. It is Mark’s Gospel which ends with Mark 16:8. Verses 9 through 20 are not in any of the early manuscripts of the New Testament. And the style of the Greek language used in verses 9 through 20 cannot have been written by the same person who wrote the rest of Mark’s Gospel; the style is too different.

Many scholars believe that Mark could not have intended to end his Gospel at verse 8 because it seems like such an inappropriate ending. There are no appearances recorded of the resurrected Lord. The women run from the tomb and tell no one what they have seen and heard. What kind of Gospel is this?

Some scholars think that Mark may have died before he could complete his Gospel. Others believe that when there was still only a single manuscript of Mark’s Gospel that the ending of his account of Jesus’ resurrection must have been torn off accidentally, being on the outside of the scroll. 

Otherwise, why would God allow Mark’s Gospel to remain unfinished? Let’s hold that question in mind. I want to come back and address it later.

For now, let us look at the end of this unfinished Gospel as we have it and see what we can learn from it. Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 16:1-8….

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. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But 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. But 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.” 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.

I invite you to focus with me on the message of the young man in the tomb. Mark specifically says that the women saw a young man dressed in a white robe. Intriguingly, this same phrase, “a young man,” is used in Mark 14:51.  We read that after Jesus was arrested in the garden, “A young man had followed him, wearing only a linen tunic over his otherwise naked body.  They seized him, and he left the tunic and ran away naked.”

None of the other Gospels mention this incident. Many scholars have suggested that this young man was Mark himself. It’s impossible to prove, but it is a reasonable guess. And it may be this same young man, in a white linen garment, who was the first to witness the empty tomb and, perhaps, see the resurrected Jesus.

Now let us look together at the message of this young man to the women at the tomb. I believe it is the same message that Jesus has for us today.

The first part of the message is: Do not be alarmed.

We must remember that these women came to the tomb not expecting resurrection. They were coming to care for a dead body. They brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body to lessen the smell as the body decomposed. The Jewish people of that time practiced a two-stage burial. First, they would wrap the dead body in a shroud filled with spices. Then, after the body decomposed, they would bury the bones in an ossuary, a bone box. Thus, these women came to Jesus’ tomb at sunrise on a Sunday morning, a work day in the Roman Empire, to complete phase one of the burial.

Along the way, they discussed the problem of rolling the stone aside from the entrance to the tomb. This was an exceedingly great stone, one that could not be moved by the women alone, but would require the help of several men. Thus, the women must have been hoping to find someone along the way who would help them.

But then, something completely disorienting happened. They arrived at the tomb and found the stone already rolled aside. Then even more disorienting, instead of finding the dead body of their thirty-three-year-old teacher, they found the live body of a young man. This was so disorienting to the women that they were amazed, astonished, alarmed.

I wonder, have you had anything happen to you in your life that you found deeply disorienting? Death is like that. When we lose someone that we love through death, it seems almost unreal. Grief wraps us in a bubble that almost seems to suffocate us at times.

However, death is not the only disorienting experience we go through as human beings. Losing a job can fill us with a great sense of dislocation and disorientation. We hardly know where we are or how to proceed with life.

Divorce can have the same effect. Suddenly the spouse we counted on for a significant part of our lives can no longer be depended upon. Our whole family structure is changed. Multiple relationships in our lives are affected.

In all these disorienting experiences of our lives, I believe God’s message to us is the same one that the young man gave to the women on that first Easter morning: do not be alarmed.

You may ask, well how can I not be alarmed, considering what I am going through? That is an honest question, and it may take us a while to process the hope that God offers us. After all, it took the women at the tomb a while to process what was going on. Remember, at first, they fled from the tomb in fear and trembling. They found it hard to implement the young man’s command: do not be alarmed. But as the other Gospels tell us, these same fearful women later came to faith when they met the living Jesus.

The same thing can happen for each one of us.

And that leads us to the second part of the young man’s message: He has been raised.

It is one word in Greek, but it takes a few words in English to translate. What a word! In that one word, the whole world is changed. Not just the world of some women who lived two thousand years ago, but the history of our world from that time to this, has been changed by that one word.

I love what William Barclay says about this,

One thing is certain–if Jesus had not risen from the dead, we would never have heard of him. The attitude of the women was that they had come to pay the last tribute to a dead body. The attitude of the disciples was that everything had finished in tragedy. By far the best proof of the Resurrection is the existence of the Christian church. Nothing else could have changed sad and despairing men and women into people radiant with joy and flaming with courage.  The Resurrection is the central fact of the whole Christian faith. Because we believe in the Resurrection certain things follow.

i.               Jesus is not a figure in a book but a living presence. It is not enough to study the story of Jesus like the life of any other great historical figure. We may begin that way but we must end by meeting him.
ii.              Jesus is not a memory but a presence. The dearest memory fades…. Long since, time would have wiped out the memory of Jesus unless he had been a living presence forever with us....
iii.            The Christian life is not the life of a man who knows about Jesus, but the life of a man who knows Jesus. There is all the difference in the world between knowing about a person and knowing a person. Most people know about Queen Elizabeth or the President of the United States but not so many know them. The greatest scholar in the world who knows everything about Jesus is less than the humblest Christian who knows him.

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus changed everything, and it can change your life today. You can meet Jesus here this morning.

The third thing the young man said to the women at the tomb also applies to us today. He said to them: Go and tell.

The young man at the tomb commanded the women to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee. Jesus is always going ahead of us. He is always in the lead. Sometimes it takes traumatic events to get us to realize that we need a leader and forgiver in our lives. But that is exactly what Jesus offers to us.

What an encouraging message this must have been for Peter who denied even knowing Jesus on the night of his trial. Jesus wanted Peter to know that he had not abandoned him. Jesus wanted Peter to know that forgiveness was possible. Jesus wanted Peter to know that he still had a job for him to do.

And that is Jesus’ message for each one of us today. He says that he is going before us. He will lead us and he will never abandon us. Jesus offers us forgiveness for all the ways we may have failed in life. And Jesus has a job for us to do. He wants us to share the good news of his life, his death, and his resurrection with others. Perhaps that is one reason why God allowed the Gospel of Mark to remain unfinished. Perhaps God allowed this because he wants us to finish the message in our lives.

In the mid 1950s, British minister W. E. Sangster noticed some uneasiness in his throat and a dragging in his leg. When he went to the doctor, he found that he had an incurable disease that caused progressive muscular atrophy. His muscles would gradually waste away, his voice would fail, his throat would soon become unable to swallow.

Sangster threw himself into his work in British home missions, figuring he could still write and he would have even more time for prayer. “Let me stay in the struggle Lord,” he pleaded. “I don’t mind if I can no longer be a general, but give me just a regiment to lead.” He wrote articles and books, and helped organize prayer cells throughout England. “I’m only in the kindergarten of suffering,” he told people who pitied him.

Gradually, Sangster’s legs became useless. His voice went completely. But he could still hold a pen, shakily. On Easter morning, just a few weeks before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter. In it, he said, “It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’—but it would be still more terrible to have a voice and not want to shout.”[1]

The final part of the young man’s message to the women at the tomb was: You will see him. The young man promised to the women at the tomb that they would see Jesus again. And this promise was in accord with the promise of Jesus himself. Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to die and rise again, and he was true to his word.

Now the way we may see Jesus today may not be exactly the way that the young man at the tomb saw him. Nor do we often see Jesus today as the women and other disciples saw Jesus. Nor do we even see Jesus as Paul saw him.

But there is more to seeing than physical sight. The word that is used here in Greek means more than that. It means to behold, to observe. The same word, in other contexts, means to be admitted into the more immediate presence of God or to attain to a true knowledge of God.

Where might we expect to see Jesus in our world today? I believe that we can see Jesus in every act of love, every time a hungry person is fed, or a thirsty person is given something to drink. I believe we see Jesus in the act of inviting the stranger in, or in the act of clothing the naked, looking after the sick, or visiting those who are in prison.

This is not to say that we will not, one day, see Jesus face to face in all his glory. I believe that we will, one day, see Jesus in his resurrected body. But we do not have to wait until then to see him in a spiritual sense.

Phillip Yancey writes,

Every animal on earth has a set of correspondences with the environment around it, and some of those correspondences far exceed ours. Humans can perceive only thirty percent of the range of the sun’s light and 1/70th of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy. Many animals exceed our abilities. Bats detect insects by sonar; pigeons navigate by magnetic fields; bloodhounds perceive a world of smell unavailable to us. 

Perhaps the spiritual or “unseen” world requires an inbuilt set of correspondences activated only through some sort of spiritual quickening. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” said Jesus. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned,” said Paul. Both expressions point to a different level of correspondence available only to a person spiritually alive.[2]

Do you want to see Jesus? Ask him to reveal himself to you, and you will see him.



[1] Vernon Grounds, Denver, Colorado, Leadership, Vol. 8, no. 1.
[2] Philip Yancey, “Seeing the Invisible God” Books and Culture (May/June 2000), p.8

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