Fear and Awe in Jerusalem

Some things lose a sense of awe through familiarity. I think this is true of Easter. It is a conundrum. I mean, we want to be familiar with the resurrection of Jesus. It permeates everything. The Lord’s Supper breathes the story. We sing it; we pray it; we celebrate it. And once a year there is this bigger focus on the story. And it seems that every year there will be some program all chuck full of experts to talk on and on about whether the story is real. I heard one expert expertly proclaim that the Greek word soma used by the gospel writers never refers to a corpse. His theory was that Jesus was not actually dead and the gospel writers knew this and used the appropriate word. This expert said it so it must be true. But if you look up the word soma in Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker you will read that the word is used regularly in Homer to mean corpse. I guess this expert expected people not to question his expertise. But here’s the point: not only do we tell, sing, feast, and pray the story, we are subjected to naysayers who cast doubt on the story. And through it all, I’m afraid the story may have lost its fear factor.

When many approach Mark 16:1-8 the discussion centers around whether or not the gospel originally ended with verse eight or not. Others get caught up harmonizing the accounts in the four gospels. There is value here, to be sure. But not if we miss the story itself. There are differences in the four gospels concerning the resurrection story. None of which is unsurmountable. And there is this reality: if the story in all four gospels was word for word the same it would feel false somehow; collaborated in advance; taken from a single source and copied down maybe. So, the difference actually speak of truth.

The Sabbath had passed. As soon as the sun had set on what we call Saturday, the day changed for the Jews and it was not the first day of the week. Shops opened as people rushed to buy what they could not purchase on the Sabbath (sunset Friday evening to sunset Saturday evening). So, Mary of Magdala, Mary of James, and Salome bought perfumed ointment to anoint Jesus’ body with. And then very early on Sunday they arrived at the tomb just as the sun was rising. Along the way they had been pondering how in the world they were going to roll the stone away from the tomb. They couldn’t do it themselves. They had no expectation of a resurrection. This is important. We have heard, sang, prayed, feasted the story so much that we sometimes gloss over their expectation. They fully expected the tomb to be sealed; they fully expected to anoint a dead body. They did not expect anything beyond this. So, imagine their surprise when they arrive and look up and see this extremely large stone rolled away and the mouth of the tomb gaping open at them. I think it likely that twinges of unease and fear began to worm its presence into their awareness here.

They bravely enter the tomb. And just like in those horror movies, they don’t turn on the light. I know. But imagine the murky light of the rising sun filtering into the recesses of the tomb. Feel the eeriness as they walk in. Then let a shout of surprise leap out as you see a young man calmly sitting off to the right all decked out in long, white, flowing robes. Possibly emanating brilliant glory. They were astounded and most likely distressed. I think they were downright terrified. Tombs are creepy. They didn’t expect this man to be there. He says, “Do not be astounded.” Well, if you say so. Of course, I’ll just throw out that ol’ fear. Anyway, the good news is that Jesus had been crucified. He was definitely dead. This was no revived by the coolness of the tomb story. This is a resurrection story. But stop! Let the scariness of that fact sweep over you. There is unknown power here. What does it mean? They are told to go tell the disciples and Peter, which is all about forgiveness. Was Peter afraid that a resurrected in the power of God Messiah would never allow him to be a disciple? The women flee from that tomb gripped by trembling and ecstatic fear. Fear fairly leaps out of the story. End of story.

For what its worth, I think Mark ended his gospel here. The two earliest and best witnesses to the gospel end with verse eight. The gospel of Mark is all about people being overwhelmed by fear at the power of Jesus; the miracle worker. Will they eventually tell the disciples? We have other accounts that tell us they did, but Mark wants us to end with fear and questions. Does the story of the resurrection grip you? Can we stand in ecstatic terror of the power of a resurrected Lord? Can we run knowing that this is a power beyond us? Let the story awe you once again.