Listen to it:
“Just As He Said To You”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is nothing like what we expect. Mark’s account of the open tomb is full of alarm and astonishment; fleeing and fear. The women who go to the tomb early on that first day of the week, as early as possible after the Sabbath rest, are not happy, not joyous, not excited. There are no hallelujahs, no shouts of rejoicing and victory. They do not run off to tell Peter and John. Unlike people throughout Mark’s Gospel, who talked about what Jesus had done when they were not supposed to, the women “said nothing to no one,” though the angel told them to do so. There is misunderstanding and amazement recorded in the other Gospels, but Mark ends with two words, ephoboûnto gar: “For they were fearing” (Mark 16:8). These women, coming with their spices to anoint a dead body, which they expect to be within a closed and sealed tomb, are afraid. Trembling and astonishment seized them and held on. They are completely shocked and beside themselves. Everything is off-balance here: Jesus, the Nazarene, the One who was crucified and still is, has risen, and the tomb is open forever, declaring that fact. But the women’s mouths are as sealed and shut as they expected the grave to be; they say nothing to anyone. These women, of whom Mark says, “they were watching from far off” the crucifixion (15:40); these women, who “were following [Jesus] when He was in Galilee and serving Him” (15:41); these women, who were watching when Joseph of Arimathea put Him in the rock (15:46-47); of all Jesus’ followers in Mark’s Gospel, we expect them to come with joy to an empty tomb. But the only person in Mark’s Gospel who confesses Jesus as the Son of God is a pagan soldier, and he said it because he saw how Jesus died (15:39)! The centurion had no promise, no Word of Jesus in which to trust, yet he saw in the crucified One the Son of God. But the disciples, wherever they are, and the women, who come to cover the stench of death with fragrant spices-they had the promise and the Word of God and they did not believe. Three times they heard the promise of life on the third day, but it was death that consumed their vision; death that consumed their thoughts, their words, and their actions.
He has spoken His promise to you as well. Many more than three times, He has spoken tenderly to you, His son, to you, His daughter. So many times that perhaps you have begun to shut out His voice. But it is not the repetition of the Word, not the frequency of the giving of the Gift, that is the problem, but it is always and only us, who cannot clear our death-filled vision, raise our entombed thoughts, cover the stench of our words and actions. We have death all around us, and it has sunk in so deeply that we fear life. We fear new life; we treat it very often as a burden from our bodies, rather than a blessing from the Lord. We fear old life; we treat it very often as a burden to bear, rather than a person to serve. We speak nonchalantly about death as if it were a choice, as if it could be dignified, as if we could control it and decide when it should take place. We inhabit death, we inhale and exhale its fetid air, as we banter about the “quality of life”-as if life’s quality depended on what we can do, rather than the simple fact that we are, every one of us, created and redeemed by God. And we do not take death seriously if we do not tremble at the government’s use of the God-given sword of vengeance by war and execution, even if its use is necessary in a sinful world. Death, in all its incarnations, approaches from every angle; we feed it to our children and we swallow it ourselves: its empty way of speaking, its numbing entertainment, as it cauterizes our spiritual nerve and clothes us in the fashion of pretending that we will not surely die, but have our eyes opened and be as young and beautiful gods. And so we come this and every Lord’s Day out of the culture of death and we are confronted with an empty tomb, with the dawning light that puts the lie to all our dusky half-truths, and we are afraid. Afraid of what that empty tomb means: that we have no control over life and death, not really; that all our scurrying and running to and fro on the earth is ultimately meaningless; that we have spent our money for what is not bread and our labor for what does not satisfy (Isaiah 55:2). The Word of Jesus is absolute: “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered'” (Mark 14:27, ESV). You and I have fallen away from Jesus who is the Way and the Life, into our own ways of death. Not only do we not watch and pray, we have no desire to do so. We have not kept the fast or the vigil. We do not stand even far off as the Lord is crucified for our sin; we go on with our buying and selling, eating and drinking, working and playing; going through the motions of life without living. Shall we manufacture our joy this day as well? Why do we not fear? We are no more faithful than the disciples or the women. “In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help?” (Media vita in morte sumus).
There is only One: He who came from the virgin’s womb, who was called a Nazarene, who was crucified and still bears the wounds that make us whole; He who was dead, but is alive. His corpse is in no tomb, nor will you find His remains in any first-century bone-box. He was raised! He is going before you into the heavenly Galilee, and you will see Him there, just as He said to you. He went ahead of you into death and He went ahead of you into Life; He is Himself your Life. “He died, but he vanquished death; in himself he put an end to what we feared; he took it upon himself and he vanquished it, as a mighty hunter he captured and slew the lion. Where is death? Seek it in Christ, for it exists no longer…O life, O death of death! Be of good heart; it will die in us, also. What has taken place in our head will take place in his members; death will die in us also. But when? At the end of the world, at the resurrection of the dead in which we believe and concerning which we do not doubt” (Augustine, Mark [ACCS], 232).
So do not breathe the air of death anymore; breathe the Spirit of Life in the Word of God, Whom Jesus promised He would send to guide the Church into all truth, because He takes what belongs to Jesus and declares it to us (John 16:14-15). Stop eating and drinking and wearing death, though it tastes good to your flesh and its rags fit your old frame well. Eat and drink Jesus, who is Life; He gives His crucified and risen Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins, just as He said to you. As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27). So: “[P]ut on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV). He is your only confidence, your only hope! In yourself, as long as it is your self, there are only dead bones; in Christ is living flesh! “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25, ESV) Everything He said has happened; every promise has been fulfilled. So also with this promise: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26, ESV). He will not fail to do everything just as He said to you. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20-21, ESV). “Raise us up, O blessed Jesus, from the awful death of sin, that we may henceforth walk in newness of life with Thee. May Thy death, O Christ, put to death the old Adam in us, and may Thy resurrection call into new life our inward man! May Thy precious blood cleanse us from all our sins, and Thy resurrection clothe us in a robe of righteousness! For Thee, O Thou True Life, do we who have been dead in sin most ardently yearn; to Thee, O Thou True and Only Righteousness, do we who have so foolishly wandered away from Thee with our sins, turn with longing hearts; to Thee, O Thou True Salvation, do we, condemned to eternal death for our sins, look with yearning hearts. O, quicken us by Thy Spirit! Justify us by Thy grace! And save us for Thy mercy’s sake!” (Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, 302).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/7/09