Featured Reading: Mark 16:1-8
I know for many folks it’s probably not considered proper for a pastor to say he or she has a favorite telling of a story in the Bible. That’s especially true if we’re talking about one of the stories concerning Jesus that’s contained in all four of the Gospels. We’re supposed to treat them equally, right?
Well, if you know me at all, you’ll know I’m not someone who is overly concerned about being proper. With that in mind, I can say that this morning’s telling of the Easter story from the Gospel of Mark is by far my favorite version.
It’s my favorite telling of the Easter story for two reasons. The first reason is that most biblical scholars consider the text to be the oldest of the four written accounts. And as someone who loves history, that fact has obvious appeal.
The second reason I love the passage so will take me just a little longer to explain, so hang in there with me. You see most biblical scholars believe that Mark’s telling of the Easter story originally ended where Carol stopped reading – with verse 8. They believe that the remaining 12 verses that appear in the 16th chapter of Mark in our bibles today were added much later - in either the late 2nd Century or sometime in the 3rd.
So what’s significant about that?
Well for me, it means that the very first recorded Easter story didn’t wrap things up neatly for us. It actually left us hanging. In other words, instead of defining Easter FOR us, it actually invited us into the story to experience it for ourselves. That’s what I love about the text.
As I was going on and on about my love of the passage with an old friend this week, my friend challenged me by saying, “Craig, how on Earth can you preach on a text that ends by telling us the women at the tomb were stunned and said nothing to anyone? It doesn’t exactly make for an inspirational Easter sermon!”
“Well, I like a good challenge,” I said as I smiled over my cup of coffee.
Almost as soon as those words left my mouth, my mind turned to one of my favorite theologians who I knew could help me find an inspirational message buried in the text. Now before I tell you the name of that theologian, you need to know something about me. You see most folks evaluate their theologians by the number of letters behind their name (letters like PhD or DMin), or by the number of books they’ve written. I don’t. I use a different criterion. I evaluate them by the life experience they bring to the table. That’s why Olivia Newton-John is one of my favorites!
Olivia is a woman who has lived through much. She took a successful career in the 1970’s and risked it all in an effort to redefine herself in the 1980’s. And following the painful end of her first marriage, Olivia met the love of her life in the 1990’s – only to tragically lose him in a boating accident in 2005. And on the day Olivia’s father died, Olivia received a call from her doctor telling her that the results of her biopsy had come back. The results indicated she had breast cancer. If ever there was a person who understood what those women at the tomb must have felt – feelings of fear and dislocation – it was Olivia.
In 2006, Olivia released a song of hope and inspiration that I believed captured the essence of what Easter is all about. The title of the song was “Stronger Than Before”; and the lyrics went like this.
I’ve survived so many things
From broken hearts to shattered dreams;
In every wall I found an open door.
I’d miss a step, I’d learn to dance;
Come back again with half a chance.
Stronger than before.
There were times I couldn’t see;
Beyond the blue inside of me.
A thousand miles away from shore.
But every moment, every day;
With every step I find my way.
Stronger than before.
I believe in miracles.
I believe in dreams.
Through the pain I’ve come to know.
How far the heart can reach.
A spark of hope, in sorrows place;
Will shine with such amazing grace.
Stronger than before.
Friends, for many of us the past year has been a year full of pain and loss. We have faced things like periods of prolonged unemployment, threats of foreclosures on our homes, the death of parents and loved ones, broken relationships, and bouts of depression. Like those women at the tomb, we know what it is to stand stunned in the midst of circumstances that we have no way to interpret, much less understand.
The good news of our Gospel is that in that space of Mark’s open ended story we have permission to experience the risen savior for ourselves: in ways that defy description. For if there’s one thing I believe about Easter, it’s this: Easter is not simply an event, it’s an experience.
As we move beyond this Easter into another year – a year that will present its own set of challenges that might shake you to your core - go forth carrying Olivia’s three word summary of Easter with you. And trust that no matter what may happen to you in the days ahead, God will leave you the same way he left Jesus and those early disciples: stronger than before.