Hope in the Darkest of Times

An Easter Sermon

If you thought our reading from Mark detailing the resurrection story fell a bit flat this morning, you’re in good company. No, we did not somehow cut it short to create more drama; this is exactly how Mark’s gospel ends as it was handed down by the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Period. It bothered biblical scribes so much along the way, that they tacked on not one but two different endings to try clean it up.

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In the Greek it’s even more troubling ending with the literal phrase, “they were afraid for…”  and that’s it.  Imagine those first hearers of Mark’s gospel gathered in a house church, meeting under the cover of night in Ancient Rome anxious about their own lives and hoping that the authorities wouldn’t discover them.  “Wait, is that it?  What does Mark mean ‘They were afraid for…’  For what? Are you sure that’s how it ends?  Is there really nothing more? Did the women say anything?  Where’s Jesus?  Isn’t he supposed to be resurrected? I thought this was ‘Good News,’ but it doesn’t make sense.  Reread those last couple of verses again.” And so they did.

“‘Don’t be alarmed,’ the young man in white said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.  He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him just as he told you.’”

I suspect that first audience of this gospel wanted to have the whole book read to them again, to once more hear the entire story.  They wanted to figure out what they might have missed along the way.  To see if they had misplaced their hope in the good news of Jesus.

A sermon based on Mark 16:1-8.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have enchanted me for a long time.  Religious symbolism abounds if you go looking for it in those pages.  Harry is known as “the boy who lived” due to immense power of love, yet in the last pages of the last book the evil Voldemort seems to have killed Harry.  While we readers know that he isn’t truly dead, the other characters in the story don’t know this at all.  Voldemort and his band of Death Eaters come to Hogwarts where a fierce battle had raged all through the night.  The  wizards who followed Harry and the Order of the Phoenix defended the school, working hard to defeat Voldemort.  So when those faithful wizards saw Voldemort walking to the school grounds with Harry’s lifeless body, they are crushed.  “NO!” come the screams from Harry’s friends.  “Oh, Harry! HARRY!” Voldemort ordered them to be silent and then said, “It is over! Harry Potter is dead! Do you understand now, deluded ones? He was nothing.”

And then Neville Longbottom wanders out from the remaining faithful ones.  “Who is this?” Voldermort hisses. “Who has volunteered to demonstrate what happens to those who continue to fight when the battle is lost?”

It was G.K. Chesterton, writer and lay theologian in the early 1900s, who said, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all…As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.”

If you read through Mark’s gospel, you’d discover that he includes only one story of someone being raised from the dead.  It’s in Galilee.  Jesus has just come across the lake, and he’s met by one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus. He falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “My little girl is at the point of death. Please come and lay your hands on her that she may be made well and live.” Jesus has compassion and goes with him.

But as they are coming to the house, friends of Jairus met them to tell him it was too late; the girl had died. “Why trouble Jesus any further?” they ask.  Jesus looked at Jairus and said, “Do not fear, only believe.”  And he went and laid his hands on her, and her life was restored to her.  Do not fear, only believe. Hope.

In the movie adaptation of the Battle of Hogwarts, when Neville walks forward, he boldly delivers some of the best lines to old Voldemort. “It doesn’t matter that Harry’s gone. People die every day. Friends, family. Yeah, we lost Harry tonight. But he’s still with us, in here,” he says pointing to his heart.  “[The ones who’ve died] didn’t die in vain….’Cause you’re wrong! Harry’s heart did beat for us! For all of us! It’s not over!” With those words, hope emerges in that crowd of despairing friends, you can see it in their eyes.  And just then as the sun begins to rise on the eastern horizon, Harry himself jumps up—much to the bitter dismay of Voldemort.  Harry then takes his place alongside his friends and together they achieve the victory they’ve been hoping for a very long time.

I find it remarkable that Mark ends his gospel with the women in fear, and Jesus’ words in the only story of a restored life in Mark’s gospel are “Do not fear, only believe.”  Do not fear.  Hope.

Hope.  In my own life it’s easier to hope when I can see the emergence of the thing I’m desiring there in front of me.  I can believe the coming of spring when I see the crocuses along the stone walls of our church.  But hoping for it when the meteorologists were predicting those compounding Nor’easter a few weeks ago? I am my mother’s son when it comes to these things; she often imagined the worst case scenarios in life.  But if we have hope, if we exchange fear for belief and then trust that even though things appear to be utterly lost some light will eventually emerge, well then we’re getting the strength of hope in our lives. Hope is only a strength when all hope is lost, says Chesterton.

If any had reason not to hope, it would have been those Early Christians. Nero had used them for sport. His dislike of them was so great that their lives could easily be snuffed out at any moment.  And so when they hear this story of Jesus from Mark ending not in hope but in fear, well that could have been it.  It might have been enough to push them to the brink and think that nothing could ever emerge from their hopeless situation.

But then they read the story again.  And they heard Jesus himself say “Don’t fear, but believe.”  They likely also remembered the stories of the disciples they had heard, who did so many great things after Jesus’ death.  They realized that those women must have said something to someone, or else the news of Jesus’ resurrection would have never been told to them.  Perhaps that strange ending of Mark’s gospel wasn’t so much the giving in to fear, but an invitation to something greater.  Maybe it’s the presence of hope when all seems hopeless.

Renowned theologian Bishop Tom Wright puts it this way, “the way Mark’s book… finishes encourages us all the more to explore not only the faith of the early church, that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, but our own faith. There is a blank at the end of the story, and we are invited to fill it ourselves. Do we take Easter for granted, or have we found ourselves awestruck at the strange new work of God? What do we know of the risen Lord? Where is he now going ahead of us? What tasks has he for us to undertake today, to take `the gospel of the kingdom’ to the ends of the earth?”

And so friends, that is the message for us this Easter.  Even when we feel that all hope is lost in our lives or our world, we are not to lose heart.  Jesus is indeed risen, and he has gone before us.  He continues to work in our lives and in our world bringing healing and restoration. And we, you and I, have been given the tremendous gift to continue the story with Jesus.  Yes, there is a an incompleteness to Mark’s story, but don’t be afraid about what lies before you. For Jesus has indeed been raised, and he goes before us in our lives, and he longs for us to experience new life too. So hold onto that hope and believe that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead can work in us.  May we live as those who always hope and believe—even in the darkest of times—for we are people of the resurrection.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!