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The Unfinished Gospel

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 sepulcher 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 is very different from verses 1 through 8. 


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.  


I invite you to meditate on a question this morning: Why would God allow Mark’s Gospel to remain unfinished? Hold that question in mind and we will come back and address it later.


First, 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, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because 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, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”


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 workday 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.


This past year, walking through a worldwide pandemic, has been disorienting for people around the globe.


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 risen!


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 knowsJesus. 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 groups 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]

[1] Vernon Grounds, Denver, Colorado, Leadership, Vol. 8, no. 1.


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