[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during Easter worship on April 16, 2006.]
Back when I was in junior high school, several of my friends got into Chess, momentarily sweeping me up into their enthusiasm for the game. I really tried to get into it, even convincing my parents and grandparents to buy a Chess set for me for my fourteenth birthday.
But Chess involved things I was never very good at...things like logic and strategy, even math. I remember that whenever I’d play against my buddies, some of whom were also jocks who played sports at which I was just as inept as I turned out to be at Chess, I always cringed when they’d move a piece on the board and say, “It’s your move.”
I had no idea what to do when they said that, whether I was to make the first move of the game or I was three moves into it, just about the time when they would tell me, “Check.” “It’s your move” can be an intimidating phrase! It’s part of the reason I quit playing Chess.
For centuries now, scholars have debated just where the Gospel of Mark ends. Some say that it comes to an abrupt and ambiguous halt at verse 8, the last verse of our Bible lesson for today. Others say that there was another ending beyond these verses that has been lost. Some say that no, verses 9 through 20 in our Bibles today were always there. Others disagree, saying that they were added much later.
I don’t know which of those theories are true, but I do know this: It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to know that however Mark originally ended his telling of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he did it with the same sort of abruptness we find at the end of our Bible lesson for today.
Consider that possibility for a moment...
Since we started looking deeply at Mark’s rendition of the Gospel story about Jesus with the beginning of the new Church Year this past November, we’ve noticed that Mark always recounts events in a breathless, Wolf Blitzer-style.
He never uses fifty words when he can use two. The only sermon of Jesus that Mark quotes is made up of nineteen words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” That’s it. (You’re not going to be blessed with that sort of brief sermon this morning, by the way.)
And most interesting of all, maybe, is the fact that Mark begins his gospel with a sentence fragment: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s as if, Mark was saying that all sixteen chapters of his book are just the beginning of the Gospel story and that even that Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead was just a part of the beginning.
Something more needs to happen and when we come to Mark 16:8, it still hasn’t happened. Read that last verse with me out loud:
“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.”The women had come to anoint Jesus’ body as would ordinarily have been done before His burial. But there had been no time to do that before the coming of the Sabbath when He died on Good Friday.
Now, they’re so stunned and terrified by their encounter with the angel and his unbelievable news that Jesus had risen from the dead, that they don’t know what to say or do.
At this moment, the moment at which our Bible lesson ends, they haven’t seen the resurrected Jesus, haven’t heard His voice, haven’t seen Him walking among them.
They’re asked to believe that what He promised would happen has actually happened, that He really has risen from the dead, giving the hope of everlasting life with God to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus.
I can imagine Mark ending the beginning of his story of Jesus here and with a wink telling all of us, “Now, it’s your move. Will you trust this Jesus, Who never broke a single promise He made, Who healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead, Who showed compassion to the prostitutes and the extortionists and the foreigners, Who loved sinners all the way to the cross, and promised new life to all who follow Him?”
That’s the question that the sparse words of Mark’s Gospel put before us today: Though like the women at this point on Easter Sunday, we haven’t yet seen the risen Jesus, our call is to turn from sin and believe in Jesus, betting our whole lives on Him, just as He gave His whole life for us.
A poll released this past week tells us that most Americans don’t believe in a physical resurrection. They don’t believe that Jesus rose or that those who follow Him will either.
Those were probably the sentiments of the women when the angel first told that Jesus had risen from the dead.
But Jesus is willing to risk our disbelief and our rejection today, even as He was when He walked the earth. Just as He did with the women at the tomb, He calls us to dare to believe in Him.
On Maundy Thursday, I mentioned Billy Graham’s newest book. There, he tells another story from his ministry, one with which you may be familiar. In the summer of 1949, Graham and his team were preparing for the famous Los Angeles citywide outreach. “We believed God had led us there, and many were praying He would use the meetings to bring many to Christ. Just weeks before the mission was to start, however, I experienced a major crisis of faith--the most intense of my life.”
A friend of Graham’s, another evangelist, had started to express doubts about what was in the Bible. He was too unsophisticated, this friend told Graham. He was out of date. Nobody believed what the Bible said as he did. For months, doubts accosted Billy Graham. They came to a boil, he says, during a conference in the mountains east of Los Angeles. Alone in his room, he studied the Scriptures and then took a walk “in the moonlit forest.” Then he says:
“I knelt down with my Bible on a tree stump in front of me and began praying. I don’t recall my exact words, but my prayer went something like this: ‘O Lord, there are many things in this book I don’t understand. There are many problems in it for which I have no solution...But, Father, by faith I am going to accept [Your] Word...” He dared to believe.
Consider the story of another man. He grew up on the streets of Northern Ireland, the son of one parent who was Roman Catholic and of another who was Protestant. He watched as people from those two branches of the Church of Jesus Christ used their religion as an excuse to kill each other during his country's troubles.
He was appalled by what he saw people doing and saying in the Name of God. And yet, he found that he couldn't turn away from Jesus. He kept following Jesus and trusting Him. And just look at the world of good that Bono, the lead singer of U2, has done for the victims of AIDS and poverty in Africa because of his connection with Jesus Christ. In faith, he trusts God even if he still hasn't completely found what he's looking for.
One of the things that Mark repeatedly emphasizes in his Gospel is how the promises Jesus makes come true.
That’s underscored in our lesson today in the words of the angel who reminds the women that Jesus had already promised the disciples that after He was resurrected, He would meet them in the region close to the Sea of Galilee. “Tell Peter and the others that Jesus has gone ahead of them and will meet them there,” the angel tells the terrified women. Sure enough, the disciples would later find that to be true.
The point is that you can count on the Word of God and of God in the flesh, Jesus. When the Word from God is that Jesus Christ is risen, you can believe it. When the Word from God is that He brings forgiveness of sin and everlasting life to all who trust in Him, you can believe it.
But you and I can never know these things by hanging back, or by refusing to repent and follow, or by daring Him to prove Himself to us. It’s up to us instead to believe and follow.
Jesus is risen and He calls us to follow Him. In Christ, God has proven that He believes enough in us to die and rise for us. Now, it’s our move. It's our turn to believe in Him, to trust that the risen Savior is willing to stand with us until the end of this age and beyond.
It's our move and heaven waits for our response.