Fear and Amazement

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. ~ Mark 16:1-8

Well, that wasn’t much of an ending, was it? Where is Jesus, greeting the women, saying “Peace” to the disciples? Where is Jesus, calling Mary’s name in the garden, and then she gets to sing, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…”? Where is Jesus, on the road with two disciples, who don’t even recognize him, but somehow feel their hearts are burning within them as they are walking together?

Where is Jesus?

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t say. Our best scholars tell us, later tacked-on endings notwithstanding, this gospel really, truly ends here, like a runner mid-stride, both feet in the air. No landing. Just terror and amazement. Fear.

Where is Jesus? And where are the women? For that matter, where were the women? Where have they been, all this time?

Don’t misunderstand me: there are women woven into the story throughout the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ first act of healing is performed on the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. Jesus heals a woman of a twelve-year-hemorrhage and brings a twelve-year-old girl back from death. He even spars with a Syrophoenician woman, telling her he won’t cast a demon out of her daughter because of their ethnicity, and their religion. The woman wins the argument; Jesus heals the girl.

Women are present throughout the gospel. But they are never seen as Jesus’ disciples, his followers. That is, until the moment he is actually dead, still hanging on the cross. At that point, it occurs to Mark to tell us:

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 provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.       ~Mark 15:40-41

So, as it turns out, Jesus did have disciples who were women. Many of them. And now, at this crucial moment in the story of salvation, here they are, suddenly, front and center, and the gospel proclamation is in their hands.

And at this crucial moment… They go out and they flee from the tomb, because terror and amazement have seized them; and they say nothing to anyone, because they are afraid.

And then, in some ancient editions of Mark’s gospel, it says, “Amen.”


Amen to what? Terror and amazement?

This gospel is telling us that, in the moment when Jesus’ followers are confronted with an empty tomb, they are so overwhelmed—with fear, with trembling, with surprise, with confusion—with emotions they probably can’t even name—that their instinct, which they follow, is to run from that place, and to keep their counsel. To stay silent.

I suppose it makes sense. Imagine yourself as one of these women. Imagine yourself, only days earlier, heart soaring as Jesus is being welcomed into the city as a longed-for Messiah, people waving palm branches and calling out “Hosanna! Save us!” Imagine yourself, just days later, standing at the cross, even at a distance, as the lifeless body of Jesus is being taken down. Imagine the sheer emotional and spiritual whiplash of this last week of Jesus’ life, and of your own hopes and dreams.

And all you wanted to do this morning was to bring to the tomb the few things you needed to give Jesus a burial with the dignity he deserved. All you wanted from this morning was to know you had done the last, best thing you could for him, in some way to give this entire incomprehensible week some closure. To say goodbye.

And now, a young man in white is informing you:

“He has been raised.”

“He is not here.”

Where are the women? What did they do next, do you suppose?

I imagine them rushing back to their rooms, looking for some familiar and comforting faces and places. I imagine them pacing around that room, hearts racing, confused and thirsty—amazement and terror and running dehydrate you. And I imagine them turning the whole scene over and over in their heads.

Who was that man? Do we know him? Have we ever seen him before?

What did he say again? “Do not be alarmed.” Well, they always say that, don’t they? “Fear not”? And still, it doesn’t slow down the pulse one heartbeat.

“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth…” Well, of course we were. We, two of us, witnessed the stone closing him—his body—in, just two days ago.

“He has been raised.” He has been raised… what does that even mean? It can’t possibly mean what it sounds like it means… can it? Can it mean that?

“He is not here.” And we were so longing to see him here, just one last time. In the coolness in the quiet of the tomb. Not screaming crowds, no Roman soldiers, just us, doing what we needed to do.

“…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.”

And as they turn these things over and over in their minds, I imagine the women having a strangely familiar feeling. And suddenly, they’re not in Jerusalem anymore, Jesus hasn’t been killed. Instead, they’re on the road. They’re in a great grassy field, or on the side of a gently sloping hill. They’re on the shore, and Jesus is a little ways out, on a boat, and he is telling stories… little stories that don’t necessarily make sense… not right away.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like a man who had a vineyard.

The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet.

And as you listened to the stories, as you peeled back the layers, like the layers of an onion, meaning would spring forth, a little at a time. And sometimes, often, the meaning kept erupting, like a green blade rising from the earth, that now looks like grass, but eventually will be a stalk of wheat with buds and seeds… from which new green blades will rise.

The kingdom of God is like three women who go to a tomb to anoint a body, but instead find the tomb empty, and the man, gone.

The kingdom of God is like a man who was dead, but who now is alive.

The kingdom of God is like a dead man who invites you on a journey, to meet him back at home, in Galilee.

I don’t know… we don’t know exactly what the women did, after they fled in terror and amazement, after fear seemed ready to stop the message of the Good News in its tracks.

But we do know this: We do know this story. We do know that eventually one of them—let’s say Mary Magdalene—told someone. One of them took on the role of apostle, she couldn’t help it, she had to tell someone the amazing, terrifying, maybe even beautiful and true story.

(The kingdom of God is like a secret that can’t help getting out, like silence that erupts into shouts of “Hallelujah!”)

And maybe it was Mary and one of the others who decided, well, let’s just do that. Let’s go back home. Back to Galilee. Back to where it all started…

(The kingdom of God is like saying “Amen,” but it’s not the end at all, it’s actually the beginning!)

It wasn’t much of an ending. We didn’t get to see Mary Magdalene call Jesus “Rabboni!” or to stand with Thomas as Jesus showed him his wounds.  We didn’t get to have Jesus cook us fish on the beach, or to break bread with us after a long walk through the countryside. That is because this gospel has urgent business for us, business that can’t wait for us to hear the whole story, or to have the closure we think we need.

(The kingdom of God is like someone sitting in church, who suddenly realizes the story he has been listening to is about him!)

Go to Galilee! Which, for you, might mean…

Remember what it was to suddenly know that someone was listening to you, and loved you.

Remember how it felt to hold a hammer in your hand, and know your work made a difference, maybe even changed someone’s life.

Remember how it felt to be thankful, truly thankful.

Remember when it occurred to you that you didn’t have it all figured out, that you could, simply, trust.

(The kingdom of God is like a wise elder, who suddenly realizes she must learn from a little child.)

Go to Galilee! Which is to say, write the ending—your ending—by promising yourself you will not rest until you have met Jesus again, for the first time.[i]

Go to Galilee! Which is to say, take action, enter the story, and bring with you all you are—your young or old or middle-aged self; your healthy or ailing or injured self; your irrepressibly joyful or stunned by sorrow or depressed or just OK self. Go, go to Galilee, your Galilee, whatever and wherever that might be.

That’s where you will see him. That’s where you will meet him. That’s where your “Amen” lies, and that’s where the story, your story begins.

(The kingdom of God is like starting over and not being sure where you are going, but believing Jesus will meet you there.)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Shamelessly stolen from the wonderful Marcus J. Borg, whose book I highly recommend: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995).