The Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW) for the Day:
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today we arrive at the end of the “beginning of the Gospel of God.” The end can be a beginning. So it is with the Gospel of Mark.
Some of our children know this from Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story.
High fiction in the tradition of Tolkien or C. S Lewis, Ende’s Story within a story centers around Bastian, a boy alienated from his own world who tries to escape by immersing himself into the narrative world of a book about “Fantastica.” He identifies closely with the book’s protagonists, but becomes terrified when it begins to seem that the characters are soliciting his help in resolving their crisis. As the drama in “Fantastica” reaches its denouement, Bastian realizes that the story he is reading is doomed unless he responds to its cries for his active involvement. As he hesitates, frozen by fear, the story begins to turn back upon itself, unresolved, except that now Bastian is named in the text. So he finally “jumps into” the narrative, giving it a new beginning. After many adventures in which he learns more deeply about his own true self, Bastian returns to his own real world, a transformed person.1
The end of the story is the end of Bastian as he had understood himself. It was the beginning of Bastian as he then understood anew. So it is with the disciples in the Gospel of Mark.
The title of Mark’s gospel is the “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is a powerful beginning with the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth. He comes with the greatest of callings, to proclaim the good news of God, saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15, cf. 1:37).
The problem in the text is the same problem that we know in the church. The disciples are blind to the meaning of the message which Jesus proclaims. At every turn they show that they do not understand what Jesus is saying or doing. Jesus’ own family believes that he has gone crazy.
The disciples try to keep Jesus within their own world where the poor are always with them, where there is sickness, demonic possession, and poverty, and where there is the struggle for something to eat. The world of the disciples is one of striving to get to the top of the heap. It is there that there is food to eat and the security of being among the rulers, the chief priests and elders, and to be with the real ruler of this world, the Roman emperor who with his legions of soldiers could keep everything in order.
For the people of Jesus’ day the Romans were no better than any other occupying power, whether it is the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, or the Romans. All came under their own power. Each offered its own system of domination represented by their gods whose images were offered to the people of Israel.
The great test for every generation of Israel was whether to bow down to the gods of the supreme powers or to remain faithful to the God of the promise to Abraham and Sarah, to the God of Moses whose law radically proclaimed, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods,” to the God of the prophets who counseled Israel to return to God’s covenant and live under God’s terms, or to the God of the psalmist who sings,
I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. . . . I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (118:17, 21- 24)
It is in this tradition that Jesus works to initiate the beginning of the end so that the end might be a new beginning. Jesus brings about an end to the demons that possess the land, he binds up the wounds of the injured, he heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, and raises the dead. His disciples see Jesus’ power as something they can use. They are blind to the hand of God at work in Jesus. They are unaware that God is working through Jesus not with the sword but by the Word that a new creation is coming.
Jesus’ proclamation frustrates the disciples who do not understand that it is in his willingness to suffer rather than to cause suffering that God will act to bring about a new world. This new world which is coming is nothing less than the original world which God created by his Word.
God is faithful to his promise to keep what belongs to God. God will reclaim God’s world, not by military might but by a small, growing band who will be called out to follow their Lord. They will learn patience and endurance always keeping their eyes open to the hand of God at work.
Dear congregation, we have heard the story of Jesus’ own suffering and death during this Holy Week. It is a brutal story not because God is brutal but because we are. Jesus is God’s own offering to the world in a story that will not come to an end as we would like to have it. The one who comes preaching the gospel of God is the one who fulfills the will of God by faithfully representing God in the world. Jesus does this through an obedience that we find impossible to exercise. It is an obedience even unto death. Jesus is not blind to the hand of God at work and he trusts in God as the One who is merciful and compassionate. Jesus is faithful to his heavenly Father, and the heavenly Father is faithful to the Son.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
The end of Mark’s gospel does not tell us that Jesus died and we lived happily ever after. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus died, was buried, and that God has raised him from death. In these words, which we confess at baptism in the words of the creed, we affirm God’s faithfulness to Jesus. That is where our story begins—right where Jesus’ story appears to end, at an empty tomb.
The women fled the tomb because they were terrified and awestruck. They were afraid and said nothing to anyone.
It remains now for us to decide our response to the hand of God at work. We will decide if we will trust in this good news that God is at work exactly where we least expected. God is at work in the midst of human misery. God is at work where human injustice and arrogance seem to prevail. God is at work where death would claim the final victory. Let us claim the beginning of the end so that in God’s hands the end can become the beginning.
And just like Bastian in the The Neverending Story the end of the story is the end of us as we have understood ourselves. It is the beginning of us as we understand ourselves renewed in the power of resurrection. Amen.
1Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Orbis: New York), p. 449.