4/5/2015 sermon “Looking up”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia 
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday 2015

“Looking up”

I really admire these women we hear about in our gospel lesson today: Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome. These three are like the women who fill our churches today, the doers, the ones who get up and go do those chores that need to be done—even those very difficult and heartbreaking tasks. (The men do these things, too, of course.)

These three women got up early, as soon as Sabbath was over, as soon as the Law allowed, and they set out to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Can you imagine how they must have felt when they set out? Here’s how I imagine they felt:

  • Tired at getting up so early.
  • Heart-broken that the one they loved, Jesus the Messiah, was dead.
  • Discouraged about what to do next with their lives, except the next-needed thing: to anoint Jesus’ dead body.

I love that these three women set out on an impossible task. They KNEW that, without help, they couldn’t even get into Jesus’ tomb. Yet still they set out, trusting that somehow someone would roll back the stone for them from the entrance into Jesus’ tomb.

Notice that, even as they went to the tomb, they wondered WHO would roll away the stone, not WHETHER the stone would be rolled away.

Let’s freeze the story right there for a moment. I want to ask you: isn’t this stone familiar to us? I’ve seen pictures of a Mid-eastern tomb stone, and I’m sure you have, too. These stones are big and heavy—too heavy for three women, even three “can do” women, to deal with. Imposing.

Beyond their physical appearance, this stone is very familiar to me in another way. If the stone represents impediments to our ability to approach the risen Christ, what might the stone be for us today?

  • Maybe the stone is a world so polarized by conflicting values and priorities that we’ve lost the ability to work together as a country.
  • Maybe the stone is a fear of sudden and senseless death at the hands of people who are religious zealots, or even just death at the hands of people who are mentally ill and want to kill themselves in a memorable way.
  • Maybe the stone is our anger at the physical deterioration that aging brings, or the despair at loss of a job, or the despair at the collapse of a marriage, or even doubt about what we will find in Jesus’ tomb.

What stone do you worry about this morning, as we bear our spices and heavy hearts and hurry to get to Jesus’ tomb?

The three women—Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome—show us how to deal with the heavy stones that bar our way to Jesus. Our gospel lesson says that, “Whey they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.” Well, that’s what the English translation says. Now you know that I don’t dip into Greek very often (at least in public), but the Greek word is ἀναβλέπω, which does mean to “look up.” However, if we notice when and how Mark uses this work in his gospel, we see that Mark means ἀναβλέπω in another way.

At the feeding of the 5,000, for example, Jesus “looked up to heaven” before he miraculously broke the bread[1]. And as Jesus prepared to heal an unnamed man of a difficult case of blindness, he “looked up.”[2] And finally, when Jesus asked Bartamaeus what he wanted Jesus to do for him, this blind beggar asked, not exactly to get his sight back, but for the ability to “look up.” The implication is clear. To Mark, ἀναβλέπω isn’t something we Christ-followers do only with our eyes. “Looking up” involves actively turning to God for help. When these three women “looked up,” this was when they noticed that God had already acted, that the heavy stone had been dealt with.

This is a familiar thing about how God works. For example, when Moses objected that he wasn’t a gifted enough speaker to lead his people, God told him that he had ALREADY sent Aaron, his brother, to be his spokesman.

On this first Easter Sunday, God had already taken care of the stone when the women finally ἀναβλέπω-ed. When the women entered Jesus’ tomb, though, they didn’t find the expected. Not knowing that Jesus was alive again, THEY expected to find a dead body. WE, knowing what had happened, expect them to enter an empty tomb. Instead, there was a mysterious being inside. Not Jesus. A young man, dressed in white, with an explanation and instructions.

The explanation was this: Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t there, as they expected. He’d “been raised,” whatever THAT meant to these women. The instructions were clearer, though: Return to Galilee, where Jesus will meet you; you will see him there. In other words, go home, go about your usual business, but there you will discover that you can access the Risen Jesus whenever you “look up.”

Mark tells us that the three women fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, and told no one. There are several “endings” to Mark’s gospel, and this is believed to be the earliest one. In fact, in preparing for today’s sermon I discovered that our scripture insert has added what’s called the “Shorter Additional Ending of Mark” to verse 8 of our lesson. But I think that Mark’s original ending to his telling of Jesus’ resurrection was very clever. We know, we are supposed to deduce, that these women must have told SOMEONE of their experience. Otherwise, how would we know this story today, some 2,000 years later? The implication is clear here, too: WE must tell others this story, and teach them how to ἀναβλέπω.

Now I know that no amount of urging on my part can cause you to tell others this story. That’ll be between you and God. But maybe you will try a little ἀναβλέπω. See, when the women—my heroes—ran from the tomb in fear and amazement, that big stone was still right there. The stone hadn’t been moved far; it hadn’t been destroyed. Instead, the stone had been moved just enough that the women were able to get around it, in and out of Jesus’ empty tomb as they most certainly brought people back there with them and told them what had happened.

I know what these women must have said, too, and I’ll bet you know what they said, as well. They must have proclaimed,

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

[1] Mark 6:41

[2] Mark 7:34

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