An Empty Tomb, A Resurrection Journey: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, 2015

Does anybody know what the score is right now?

How strange it is that we are gathered here tonight on a Saturday night, while the beloved Badgers are hopefully playing their hearts out in the Final Four! Yes, we do it every year, and yes, every year it’s just a little bit jarring to be worshiping and celebrating the resurrection in a dark night while all around us the world goes about its regular Saturday night routine. What’s different tonight is only that some of us are just a little more distracted than usual, as the city around us pays attention to more important things, one of our annual sporting rituals.

How strange it is that we are gathered here tonight to hear the story of God’s mighty acts in history, to renew our baptismal vows, and to celebrate the First Eucharist of Easter. What we are doing is very like what Christians have done for over fifteen hundred years. Back then, in the earliest centuries of Christianity, when the Great Vigil of Easter was originally celebrated, Christians were radically out of step with the Roman Empire in which they lived and their neighbors. What’s perhaps more surprising is the fact that what we and other Christians across the globe are doing tonight, is not just that we are out of step with our culture, we are also out of step with what most Christians, especially here in America, are doing tonight.

It’s times like these that the dissonance between the good news of Jesus Christ and our cultural context is most jarring. Looking away from this night, I think it’s safe to say that we are witnessing the loud clang of such dissonances in our culture—most notably in this past week with the furor over religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas. As our nation becomes more secular, less Christian, it becomes more difficult for Christians of all varieties to discern their place in the changing landscape in which we live. The old markers, the old ways of being, no longer seem to orient us.

And so there’s a sense in which what we are doing this evening, as we’ve gathered in darkness, lit the new fire, and heard the story of God’s mighty acts in history, is an attempt to re-orient us in the world. It reminds us of who we are, where we have been as a people. And just as the Paschal candle led us in our procession this evening, shining brightly in a dark night, so too does the resurrection of Jesus Christ lead us forward. It calls us forward into the future, into a world made new by the resurrection.

But it does so, at least in Mark’s gospel, in an unsettling way. Mark’s gospel, so enigmatic throughout, provides a decidedly troubling and disorienting ending. That very last verse leaves us wondering:

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.

That ending, with an empty tomb, a young man telling the women that Jesus wasn’t there, that he’d been raised from the dead, and had gone ahead of them to Galilee, that ending doesn’t answer any of our questions. And the women’s response, to flee from the tomb in terror and amazement, and to keep silent, that ending leaves us hanging.

It’s a story that proves nothing, answers no questions, does not even inspire us to faith. It’s such a problematic ending that early Christians tried to fix it, and if you go read Mark 16 at home, you’ll see printed in your bible several such attempts, additions that have Jesus appearing to his disciples. But to “fix” the story is to ignore what Mark is trying to get us to understand. It is to miss Mark’s point, entirely.

There’s an empty tomb, a young man, and fearful, silent women. In case you don’t think that’s odd or puzzling, let me ask you this: What does an empty tomb prove? If we were to read a story in tomorrow’s Madison State Journal that an empty tomb had been discovered in Forest Hills Cemetery, what would the police, the media, you and I think? That’s right, that some sick person had stolen a body. An empty tomb, even Jesus’ empty tomb, is no evidence of resurrection.

An empty tomb, silent and fearful women. That’s how Mark ends, but that’s not the end of the story, even for Mark. Throughout the gospel, Mark has been careful not to make faith easy. He depicts the disciples as a confused, bumbling group of followers. When he tells the stories of Jesus’ miracles, he’s careful not to make them into proofs of Jesus’ divinity. In Mark, the miracles also do not bring people to faith. That would be too easy, and would undermine his larger story of who Jesus is as the Messiah, the Son of God. Remember, it’s at the cross as he sees Jesus die, that the centurion confesses, “Truly this man is the Son of God.” If you want to see the Son of God, the Messiah, look at the cross.

The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus, evidence that God approved of Jesus’ life and ministry. But in Mark’s gospel, the resurrection, although it has already taken place—the empty tomb is evidence of that—the resurrection still lies ahead. The disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ lies in the future, in Galilee, as the young man told the women. If we look for Jesus in, or at the tomb, we will be disappointed. Perhaps, like the women, we will be afraid.

Like the Paschal candle that led us into this darkened church, the risen Christ has gone ahead of us. We look for certainty, but instead we find emptiness, the emptiness of the tomb. And we also hear the words of the young man. He is not here. He is risen and he is going before you to Galilee, you will see him there. The journey that the disciples began those months ago; the journey that seemed to culminate in Jerusalem, will continue on into the future. On that journey, Jesus’ disciples will encounter him, the Risen Christ. On that same journey, we will encounter Jesus as well.

But more than that, more than an encounter that satisfies our curiosity and perhaps reassures our faith, the journey ahead is also for us a journey to a resurrection life, into a world made new by Jesus’ death and resurrection, a world in which the reign of God is coming. The cross seemed like an end, the tomb, a brutal reminder of the ways of the world.

The cross wasn’t the end of the story. The empty tomb is not the end of the story either. The risen Christ proves that the powers of the world cannot prevail against God. The world’s injustice and violence are not the end of the story. The resurrection proclaims to us that love conquers death, that the reign of God will conquer all.

The young man’s words are also words to us. Mark is telling us not only to follow Jesus to Galilee. He is also commanding us to share the good news of Jesus Christ, that he is risen. He is calling us to share the good news of Jesus’ identification with all those who suffer, that Jesus Christ has triumphed over the grave and injustice and oppression. He is calling us to share the good news and to help in making that good news a reality in our world.

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