Monday, December 21, 2015

The Tomb is Empty: Fear vs. Faith

It may be Christmas time, but it's never too early to celebrate Easter!  Mark 16:1-8 (NRSV) says this: "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."

We're told that just after the sun had risen, the women went to the tomb.  At this point, they had no idea that it wasn't just the sun which had peaked above the horizon, but the true son, the Son of God had risen from the dead.  And it wasn't just the first day of the week, it was the first day of a brand new age - the new creation had begun!  The most important part of God's rescue operation had been completed with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah - Jesus the Son of the living God.  These women had not only followed Jesus all the way to his death on the cross, they had followed him all the way to the grave as he was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.  And now they had come to complete his burial; to wrap his body with aromatic perfumes and spices.  They, far more than Jesus' male companions, had been loyal to the end.  Yet, they must have by this point realized that Jesus' messianic movement had ended in failure - a crucified messiah being an oxymoron for a Jew of the first century.     

But, if somehow, as the empty tomb and the man in white claimed, God had raised him from the dead, then that would have been the sign of God's vindication.  He was in fact who he had claimed to be. In fact, he was even greater than anyone could have imagined him to be.  He wasn't just the Messiah, he was the risen Lord, the Savior of the world!

It's interesting that it was a group of women who were the first to arrive at the tomb.  Women weren't considered to be credible witnesses in the ancient world.  If someone was going to make this story up, they wouldn't have chosen a bunch of ladies for this important role.  But, here again, we're reminded that God's ways are not our ways.

Verse 6 tells us that the women had come to the tomb looking for Jesus.  But they came looking in the wrong place.  Death could not keep him - death could not defeat him.  The tomb was empty.  The tomb is empty.  Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified has been raised from the dead!  Some stories are too good to be true.  This story, and the difference that it makes for the whole world, is too good not to be true.

But where does Mark's gospel end?  Have a look in your Bible and you'll see a footnote telling you that the oldest Greek manuscripts end at verse 8.  It's safe to say that verses 9-20 were not original to Mark.  They seem to be a summary of the resurrection narratives from the other gospels.  They must have been added onto what we call verse 8 by a later scribe who couldn't figure out why Mark's gospel would end so abruptly.  That leaves us with two options regarding the ending of Mark.  Either, Mark's original ending was somehow lost.  Or, Mark intentionally ended his gospel at verse 8.  I personally believe the latter; that Mark ends his story of Jesus with the women fleeing the tomb in fear.  Why?

Fear is a major theme in the gospel of Mark.  In fact, fear, not doubt is the enemy of faith according to Mark.  After stilling the storm, Jesus in Mark 4:40 said, "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?"  In the next chapter, after he had exorcised the demoniac's demons, the local townspeople asked Jesus to depart from their region because they were afraid.  Later in the same chapter, a woman suffering from a bleeding condition touched Jesus' cloak and was healed.  Jesus, realizing that power had gone forth from him, asked, "Who touched my clothes?"  The woman came and fell at Jesus' feet in fear and trembling.  His response to her was, "Daughter, your faith has made you well."  Jesus was on the way to attend to the sick daughter of a man named Jairus.  Right after healing the bleeding woman, some people arrived and informed Jairus that his daughter had died.  Jesus said to Jairus, "Do not fear, only believe."  Jesus then proceeded to raise Jairus' daughter from the dead.  Later in the gospel, as Jesus walked on the water, we're told that his disciples were terrified.  Peter, James, and John were also terrified on the Mountain of Transfiguration.  Later, when Jesus spoke of his impending death and resurrection, his disciples did not understand what he was talking about, but were too afraid to ask him what he meant.  And when they were on the road going up to Jerusalem, his disciples followed him, but they were afraid.  The disciples must have been afraid when they abandoned Jesus at his arrest.  It must have been his fear that led Peter to deny Jesus three times. 

And so Mark's gospel ends at chapter 16 verse 8 with the women fleeing the tomb, "for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."  The reader is left to wonder - will the women through faith overcome their fear?  Will they obey the command to go and tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised?  It's obvious that the women, through faith, must have overcome their fears.  Mark's gospel and the rest of the New Testament testify to this fact.  But the question remains for Mark's original audience and the question remains for us.  Do we have faith that the tomb is empty?  Is Jesus really risen from the dead?  And if we do believe, is our faith greater than our fear?  Will we go and tell?  Will we live our lives as if the tomb stands empty?  Will we, through our lives of  faith proclaim to the world that sin and death have been defeated, that Jesus has been raised from the dead, and that eternal life is found in him?  This Christmas, as the world celebrates the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let's make sure we remind our world that though Jesus was born to die, he didn't stay dead.  The tomb is empty! - Shay


  1. Thanks Charlie. Grace, mercy, and peace to you and your family this Christmas!