And what better day to sing the praises of God? So the video is a little longer this Sunday, and that’s not because I’ve preached an extra-long message, it’s because I’ve included extra sung worship. Much of it comes courtesy of Noel Richards, who kindly sent videos of him leading some of his own Easter-themed worship songs.
A couple of years ago in the run-up to Christmas, I couldn’t get any inspiration for what to preach about at the Christmas Eve Midnight Communion service. That’s not a good place for a preacher to be in, and certainly not me. I like to have all my thoughts for a sermon or address prepared and organised. Extempore preaching is just not for me.
But on this occasion I strangely didn’t feel stressed about the prospect. I offered some thoughts around John chapter 1 verse 5:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I linked it to my experiences of bereavement, losing my mother in February 2014 and my father in August 2017. I explained how that Advent hope of the light in the darkness had made sense of my experience. I had just enough light in the darkness. This was my hope: just enough light in the darkness.
Those of you who bought the book ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ to which I contributed a chapter may recall that this is what I wrote about there. It’s important to me.
So why am I beginning an Easter Day message with a reference to Christmas? Because I think there’s something similar going on here.
Just look at Mark’s account. It only has eight verses, far fewer than the other Gospels. Granted, your Bible may offer you other possible endings to Mark, but these are most likely additions from other writers who couldn’t cope with the short and stark way in which Mark ends his account with the women still afraid, despite being told by the young man robed in white not to be alarmed. It does feel like a strange ending. Some scholars assume that we have lost the original ending to the Gospel, and that it would have all been tidied up much more neatly than this.
But what if this really is the end? I think it surprisingly might be quite fitting. Why do I think that? Let me explain.
Mark’s Gospel makes great play on the suffering of Jesus and teaches that his disciples will also suffer. That’s why the first of three prophecies Jesus makes of his betrayal and death leads to him telling those gathered around him that if anyone wants to be his disciple, he or she must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.
And there are strong reasons for thinking that Mark emphasises these elements of Jesus’ life and message because he is writing to Christians in Rome facing persecution under the Emperor Nero in the AD 60s. They need to hear that suffering for your faith is par for the course according to Jesus himself, but they also need to have a glimpse of hope, and eight verses in Mark 16 give them that.
I don’t know about you, but when I am going through a bad patch in life, the sort of people who come along and give me a hearty slap on the back, explaining all my troubles in ways that God hasn’t, and telling me how great things will be soon, are actually people to whom I want to give a hearty slap on the back, but not in the same way. A dose of triumphalism is not what the doctor orders at those times for me.
However, a gentle pointer towards hope is much more likely to act as medicine to my soul, and I think that’s what the young man robed in white gives the women at the tomb:
6 ‘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. 7 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.”’
He just says it the once. He doesn’t labour the point. He doesn’t repeat it. He doesn’t bang a fist. One gentle statement and he leaves it at that, knowing, I think, that the women’s mindset may not change immediately but the miraculous reality will seep in over time.
And what the robed young man – or let’s be straightforward, angel – says in that one gentle statement is something that starts the healing process in every part of the women.
Healing of their emotions begins here:
‘Do not be alarmed.’
What is more natural in the Bible when human beings encounter heavenly beings than a sense of fear? These encounters are often accompanied by human dread of the Almighty.
But the first thing the angel says begins the process of moving the women from fear to peace. We know it isn’t instant, because the last verse of the reading says they were trembling, bewildered, and afraid.
However, the message of the Resurrection is that even in this most powerful and awe-inspiring work of God, there is no need to fear. This is the work of the God who does not want us to be afraid. It is a key way in which he begins to take away fear from us, for this is the conquest of death, that event which provokes a fearfulness of God.
May our terror of God begin to subside this Easter. ‘Do not be alarmed.’
Healing of their minds also begins here.
‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.’
Were their minds playing tricks on them? Well, it certainly wasn’t a hallucination, as such events are usually solitary experiences (whereas there were three women present here) and involve things that the hallucinating person expects (and the women don’t expect the Resurrection).
So the angel points to where the body of Jesus had been. It isn’t that the empty tomb of itself proves the Resurrection, and opponents of Jesus soon came up with their own theories about why the grave was empty (although their objections were all doomed to failure). But the empty tomb is one part of the jigsaw. Other jigsaw pieces will follow. Before long the women will believe.
This Easter, stop believing the lies that only weak-minded people believe in God and believe the biblical accounts. The evidence shows otherwise. Those who think they are more mature because they don’t believe in God are actually falling for that most basic of human sins, namely pride.
So be reassured in your mind this Easter about the truth of Jesus and the veracity of the Gospel.
Finally, healing of their spirits begins here too.
‘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.’
Why ‘his disciples and Peter’? Wasn’t Peter one of the disciples? Is this a mark of how Peter felt following his three denials that he knew Jesus? Did he perhaps no longer consider himself a disciple? It rather sounds like it.
Here the angel is telling the fearful women to convey a message that human failure doesn’t have the final word: the grace of God does. Jesus has risen for his followers, not to condemn them.
What are those reasons why we think we have put ourselves outside the boundaries of God’s love? Let the Resurrection be the reminder that Jesus is calling us back, not casting us out.
Let Easter Day remind us this year that our shame and sin has got nothing on the grace and mercy of God. Jesus rose to meet and restore his disciples, including us.
Like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, it may also take us time to heal of our brokenness. But today, facing the truth that Jesus is alive, let the healing begin.
Let our fearful emotions give way to joy and peace.
Let our faithless minds give way to confidence in Jesus and his Gospel.
And let our shamed spirits bask in the light of God’s merciful love in Jesus.
Thus may it be a Happy Easter.