Do Not Be Alarmed
What are you missing the most since the Shelter-in-Place order went into effect three weeks ago?
I suppose it depends upon your stage in life. Children miss going to school, seeing their friends and teachers. Older youth may not miss school that much, but they do miss their friends and hanging out with them. Adults miss going to work and the rhythm and order that work brings to daily living. For those who have lost their job (over 20 million) or who have been laid off, they sorely miss their monthly income, their financial security. For those in retirement communities or nursing homes, they miss the ability to get out of their rooms or apartments. They are truly “shut-in.” Doctors, nurses, and therapists must miss being able to see patients without the constant danger of becoming infected with the Corona Virus. Similarly, First Responders miss being able to serve and protect the community without the fear of contagion. For Christians, we sorely miss being able to gather for worship and fellowship, especially on Easter Sunday. I missed our Sunrise Service and the Easter breakfast that follows. All of us long for a return to some semblance of normalcy. We all look forward to a new beginning for our nation, our states, our communities, and for our whole world.
The women we meet in this morning’s reading from Mark’s Gospel were also looking for a return to normalcy. They were longing for a new beginning for their lives too
They had been through a terrible ordeal. Chapter 15:40-41 reads, “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” These women had followed Jesus for three years when he was in Galilee engaged in his public ministry. They had witnessed mighty miracles. The dead were raised; the demon possessed were delivered; countless sick people were healed. They had also been the beneficiaries of Jesus’ public and private teaching. Together with the Apostles, they formed a close-knit community. They attended to Jesus’ needs. They cared for him; they loved him. When all the apostles had deserted Jesus, they remained true.
They witnessed Jesus’ brutal execution. They were looking on from a distance. They saw his beaten and flogged body nailed to the horrible cross. They heard the jeers of the crowds and the religious leaders. They had stood through the three hours of darkness that descended on the land from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. They had seen the soldier’s spear pierce Jesus’ side to make sure he was dead. Two of them had been so bold as to follow Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb and note its location. “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid” (Mark 15:47). Their beloved master had died an excruciating death, wracked by pain, and gasping for breath (One cannot help but think of people who are dying from COVID-19.). The women were deeply traumatized, but they were strong.
The impulse to return to some semblance of normalcy, to start again, was already at work in them. They began by observing the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath began a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening. It ended when you could see at least three stars on Saturday night. What a terrible Sabbath it must have been for them. They were shut in with their horrible grief and the fear that the authorities were probably looking for them.
But as soon as the Sabbath was over, they went shopping! This was probably the normal thing to do, but they were not shopping for food or fuel or clothing or household items. Instead they were on a grim mission. “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” (16:1). This also was an attempt to return to normalcy. They were planning to do for Jesus’ body what was customary. They must have dreaded the task. Jesus had been beaten and flogged, crowned with thorns, impaled to a cross and pierced with a spear. His body would have begun to decompose by then. But the women were determined to do what was expected of them in their culture, what was normal. They would perform one last act of kindness and service, one last act of love.
Finally, the women began to worry about things they had no control over. This is also a normal thing for human beings to do. “They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?'” (16:3) They must have been saying to each other, “The stone is so large and heavy. We will never be able to move it. Oh! What will we do? How can we possibly move it?”
But all the women’s attempts to return to normalcy, to start over, were suddenly and jarringly halted. The stone had already been rolled away! The body was missing and, in its place, stood a young man dressed in a white robe with a strange message. “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’ (16:4-7).” This was the breaking point for them. Mark records 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.”
Interestingly, Jesus himself, through the angelic messenger, was also ready to get things back to normal and make a fresh start. “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” (vs. 7). Jesus wanted to reassemble the community as soon as possible. The message the women were told to proclaim was addressed to the “disciples and Peter.” The disciples had abandoned Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter had persevered in following Jesus to the courtyard where the authorities were holding a kangaroo court. But when those present identified Peter as one of Jesus’ followers, Peter adamantly and profanely denied Jesus three times. The community of disciples was fragmented, broken, scattered, and estranged.
But Jesus still called them his disciples. Jesus still asked for Peter by name. Jesus also included the terrorized women. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Jesus wanted to be reunited with them all.
The place where they would gather with the risen Christ is significant too. Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee. He was not hanging around a graveyard in Jerusalem waiting for visitors. Jesus was returning to the place where they had ministered together for three years. Lamar Williamson observes that “Galilee of the Gentiles is the locus of mission to the nations. Galilee is also the place from which the disciples and the women came: their home turf, the place of their daily routine.” Jesus wanted to be reunited with them in a familiar place, a place that was normal for them. It was a fresh start, a whole new beginning.
The community would be restored. The apostles and the women would be reunited. They would be reconciled to Jesus after their dismal failures. Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, had been raised. The tomb was empty forever. The earthly, mortal Jesus would give way to the glorious and immortal risen Christ. And they would be given a story to tell to the nations like no other story ever told before.
If the Apostles and the women had kept their wits about them, they would have remembered the promise of the resurrection. In the traumatic events that unfolded, all they could remember was crucifixion and death. That is understandable. But Jesus predicted his death and resurrection on three separate occasions. Jesus had foretold that Judas would betray him, the apostles would desert him, and Peter would deny him. Everything unfolded just as he said it would, including the resurrection
And there is one more prediction Jesus made. The Son of Man will return “with the holy angels and the glory of his Father to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven (Mk 8:38; 13:27).” This promise is yet to be fulfilled, but Jesus’ word is supremely trustworthy. Just as Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee, the Son of Man will appear again at the end of this evil age for all the world to see. You can count on it. It is more certain than the present moment.
The story of the risen Christ is an unfinished story, just as Mark’s account of the resurrection is an unfinished story. There is a tension that cries out for resolution in both. The other gospels complete the story of Jesus’ resurrection by recounting Jesus’ appearances to the women and the apostles. The story of the risen Christ’s return to earth is yet to be fulfilled. Our lives are lived out between these two pivotal events: the resurrection and the second coming.
Throughout history there has been an abiding longing for normalcy and new beginnings. That longing is particularly acute under the current circumstances. We long for an end to this pandemic, for a return to normal living, for a fresh start. We feel helpless like the women who looked on from a distance. We feel scattered like the apostles and Peter. But brothers and sisters, friends, the tomb is forever empty. The Lord is risen, and he goes before us into our Galilee, our home turf, the place of our daily routine. Jesus is ever with us, even unto the end of the age.
Things will eventually return to normal. There will be a new beginning. It was true after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and it will be true again. But whatever the future holds, whether it be wars or rumors of wars, earthquakes or famines or pestilences, Jesus Christ, the risen LORD, is at work in our midst.
Jesus is constantly gathering human beings into his band of followers. He reassembled the disciples and Peter and the women and forgave them all their failings. He has gathered men and women and children ever since that day into a community of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What the angel said to the women the risen Christ says to us, “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, I say to you this Easter Sunday, 2020, during a pandemic, “Do not be alarmed.” Jesus’ death has purchased our forgiveness. Jesus’ resurrection will overcome our own deaths. Jesus goes before us. Let us follow him without amazement or fear. Like the first followers of the risen LORD, we also have a story to tell to the nations, to our neighbors, to our friends, to our families.
The tomb is forever empty. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen and amen!