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Following Jesus Out of the Tomb

How do you feel about graveyards?

Call me strange, but I like visiting them. I like wandering through graveyards and reading the epitaphs. Here are some humorous ones….

  • I was supposed to live to be 102 and be shot by a jealous husband.
  • I told you I was sick.
  • He loved bacon.
  • I made some good deals and I made some bad ones. I really went in the hole with this one.
  • Died: from not forwarding that text message to 10 people.
  • We finally found a place to park in Georgetown.

And then there is the epitaph my mother told me she wants on her tombstone: Alive and Well.

Which brings us to our Scripture for today, all about a tomb that existed 2000 years ago, that some claimed was vacated. 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 tombThey 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.

Julius Caesar famously said, after a victorious battle in Asia Minor: “Veni, vidi, vici.” “I came, I saw, I conquered.” In a similar way I would like to talk with you today about three statements made at what I believe to be the place of the greatest victory that ever took place on planet earth. Those three statements are in our text for today: “They went to the tomb…. They entered the tomb…. They went out and fled from the tomb.”

First, they went to the tomb. Mark tells us that three female followers of Jesus (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, went to Jesus’ tomb early on Sunday morning to anoint his body with spices. They were attempting to complete the normal first step of a Jewish burial in the first century in Palestine. The body would be wrapped in cloth and spices to lessen the smell of decomposition as other bodies would be buried in the same tomb over the coming year or so. The second stage of first century Jewish burial was the gathering of bones and placement in an ossuary, or bone box. This second stage never took place in Jesus’ case, for the reason witnessed in this text.

These three women had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and two of them had seen where Joseph of Arimathea had buried Jesus’ body. This little variant in the telling of the story may well be one sign of this being an eyewitness account.

These three women went to Jesus’ tomb, not talking about resurrection (which they might have done if this story was a later pious fiction) but rather, they are talking about how they are going to move the massive rock from in front of the tomb. Apparently, they were hoping that someone might happen to come along to help them. There is no thought of resurrection in the minds of these women because such a thing was unthinkable. Some Jews in the first century believed that God would raise the righteous dead at the end of time, but no Jew in the first century, prior to this event, believed that God would raise the body of one person in the middle of time.

When the women arrived at the tomb, they received the first of three shocks: the stone was rolled away from the entrance.

Now, allow me to pause at this point, and talk about how far we have come. We have come, with the women, to the tomb. I would dare say that there is hardly a person here today who has not been to a tomb or a graveyard. But I think many of us would prefer to remain outside the tomb. And I mean that in several senses. First, many of us would prefer to remain outside the tomb in the sense that we would prefer to be alive rather than dead. We are like the man who read the obituaries in the newspaper every morning just to make sure his name was not listed there.

But many of us also prefer to remain outside the tomb in another sense. We prefer not to think about death very often, if at all. We prefer not to attend funerals, unless we absolutely have to. We prefer to look on the sunny side of life. Though we recognize death, at some level, as an inevitability, like taxes, we would just rather not think about it, just as we would rather not think about our taxes until we get close to April 15. Thus, many people do nothing to prepare for death.

Mario Garrett, Phd., Professor of Social Work at San Diego State University, wrote in an article in Psychology Today in 2013,

One in five Americans still die using emergency services, with more than 14% of these deaths occurring among patients 85 years and older. Although death is our only exit strategy in life, few of us are preparing for it…. An analysis of a random sample of all U.S. deaths in 1986 found that about 10% of decedents had living wills.[1]

I would suggest that a psychologically healthier approach to death is to face it, head on. To use the language of our text for today: we need to enter the tomb.

By entering the tomb, I mean that it would be better for all of us if we fully entered into the feelings of grief, loss, and fear associated with death. Personally, I think these first century Jewish women had a psychologically healthier approach to death than most of us do today. They were not afraid to touch Jesus’ dead body. They were not afraid to enter the tomb (though fear did enter their hearts at a later point for a different reason).

Today, in America, we prefer to hide the reality of death. Personally, I find something rather unreal about the embalming of dead bodies. When looking into an open casket I have heard people say such things as: “Uncle Ernie never looked so good!” It makes me want to respond: “What do you mean? Uncle Ernie is dead!” Of course, as a minister, I never say such things, because I don’t want to upset people. But really!

I grew up in California, a place where you don’t often see graveyards by the side of the road. I mean you really have to be looking for a cemetery in California to find one. They hide them. You definitely need a GPS to get to Aunt Harriet’s funeral.

How much better, how much more psychologically healthy it is to face death head on, and fully feel our emotions.

One of my favorite books of all time is a book entitled “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken. It is a love story, a conversion story, and a grief story all in one. The grief story is all about Vanauken’s loss of his wife Davy at the tender age of 40 to a mysterious illness. It is a story that has been helpful to many others wandering the lonely road of grief.

In the book, Vanauken says,

The grim and almost fierce will to do all and be all for Davy that I had held before me like a sword for half a year became now, upon her death, tired though I was, a no less resolute will to face the whole meaning of loss, to drink the cup of grief to the lees. I came thereby, to see something of the nature of loss and grief.

Vanauken spent a year reading the journals that he and his wife kept during their two decades together. He relived all the happy times and the sad. I have always thought that the way Vanauken fully entered the tomb of grief was the most psychologically healthy approach possible under such circumstances.

And so, I imagine, the female friends of Jesus who came to his tomb early on that Sunday morning so long ago, were not afraid to face death; they were not afraid to enter the tomb of grief. But when they did so, they received a surprise.
The women saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side of the tomb. They were alarmed, of course, because they were not expecting to find a live person in the tomb but rather a dead body.

It is quite intriguing that Mark says specifically that the women saw “a young man”, not an angel. I believe that Mark is the earliest Gospel, written sometime before AD 70, and thus closest to the historical reality of what happened on that Sunday morning in approximately AD 29. The only other place where Mark uses this phrase, “a young man”, in his Gospel is in Mark 14:51-52 where he says that a certain young man was following Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. The Temple Guard catch hold of him, but the young man leaves the linen cloth that they grab in their hands and runs off naked.

It is a strange incident, not mentioned in any of the other Gospels. William Barclay, among other scholars, believed that Mark put this incident in his Gospel because he was that young man. It was his secret signature, his way of saying, “I was there.”

In the book of Acts, we learn that the meeting place of the Jerusalem Church was in the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), the man who the early church believed was the author of this Gospel. If that is correct, then it probably means that the Last Supper was eaten in that same house. If that is so, then it may be that Mark was actually present at the Last Supper. He would have been a young boy, but he was probably fascinated with Jesus, and so when Jesus and his disciples went out on that Thursday night to pray in the garden, Mark followed them, wearing only his pajamas, as it were. That would explain where the Gethsemane narrative originated—with Mark himself, who saw and heard it all.

If that is correct, then it may also be that when Mark uses this phrase “a young man” again in chapter 16, he is telling us that he was there at Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning. If so, then Mark may have been the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, he tells the women what he knows:

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.

If Mark was the young man at the tomb, that would also explain the mention of Peter in this passage because according to the New Testament and the testimony of the early church, Mark was closely associated with Peter. (See 1 Peter 5:13.)

In response to the surprising appearance and words of the young man, the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is actual the end of Mark’s Gospel as we have it. Verses 9 through 20 which appear in many Bibles was added later. I agree with the majority of scholars who believe that the original ending to Mark’s Gospel must have been torn from the scroll somehow and lost at an early date. So I do not believe that fear and trembling was the final response of the women to what they saw and heard at the empty tomb. I have no doubt, that as the other Gospels relate, the women did tell Jesus’ other disciples what they had heard and seen. And Jesus later appeared to the disciples, both women and men, in a body that could, according to John, be touched, and according to Luke, could eat a piece of broiled fish.

And that leads to my final thought to share with you today, namely that Jesus can lead us out of our tombs as well. He can lead us out of the tomb of doubt. He can lead us out of the tomb of fear. He can lead us out of the tomb of death into everlasting life. Jesus is always going ahead of us and leading us out of the dead-ends of life. The only question is: will we follow him? The choice is ours.

In the last year of his life, while staying in a mental hospital in Saint Remy, Vincent Van Gogh painted “The Raising of Lazarus” based on an etching by Rembrandt, a copy of which his brother Theo sent him. However, Van Gogh left out the main figure: Christ with his arm raised. Rather, Van Gogh focused on the theme of human suffering. He probably identified with Lazarus in the tomb. That would explain why he gave Lazarus a red beard—it was a self-portrait. The two women by the grave, representing Mary and Martha, are actually acquaintances of Van Gogh from Arles: Mrs. Roulin and Mrs. Ginoux.

However, perhaps the most significant thing about Van Gogh’s “Raising of Lazarus” is the color. Skye Jethani explains:

In many of his canvases yellow light pours down from the heavens like golden rain. The light itself appears to be a tangible object, a physical presence in the scene that illuminates the faces it touches. Given van Gogh’s association of yellow with God, we shouldn’t be surprised that many of the biblical scenes he painted are dominated by the color. For example, in The Raising of Lazarus, Jesus is noticeably absent…. Instead, Vincent flooded the entire composition with yellow light, a ray from on high, implying Christ’s presence and divine power. But it is van Gogh’s use of yellow in nonreligious paintings that is most intriguing. Whether a sky saturated with sunlight, gold harvest fields, or yellow stars swirling in the heavens, Vincent saw God’s invisible love in virtually everything he painted.

I find it significant that in the last year of his life, Vincent pictured himself, suffused with the yellow light of Christ, being led forth from the tomb. Though his faith in Christ was neither perfect, nor stable, it was there. Van Gogh had the hope that Jesus would one day lead him out of the tomb of depression, despair, and death, and that hope was not unfounded. If we trust in Jesus, he will indeed, one day, lead us out of the tomb, just as he went forth from the tomb on that first Easter day. Let’s pray….


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