We like our Bible stories to end with a bang: Israel escaping from Egypt through the watery walls of the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho tumbling down, David decking Goliath with his slingshot. You hear a Bible story like that, and you are ready to sing a hymn and go home happy.
The best ending in the Bible, of course, is the ending we celebrate today—the resurrection of Jesus. Every time we read the story from the Gospels it gets us. It's great. Well, except for Mark.
Fact is, Mark wrote sort of the black sheep of Bible story endings. I'll let you in on a professional secret: I think this is the first time in all my years of preaching that we've read Mark's account of the Resurrection in an Easter morning service. You read the end of Mark, and you wonder if he got writer's block just before he finished or if his printer ran out of ink. Here's the ending of the Resurrection story as Mark wrote it: "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid" (Mark 16:8).
The Bible's other storytellers emphasize the joy; Mark emphasizes fear. He piles on the heart-pounding, breathless words: "trembling," "bewildered," "fled," "afraid." What kind of gospel ends with "because they were afraid"?
'Don't be alarmed'
It isn't that the women's fear was irrational. It wasn't. It just isn't a good place to end the story.
(Read Mark 16:1-5)
They caught their breath. Their hearts started pounding. Oh, yours would too. Imagine ducking through a low entrance to a family mausoleum and seeing a young man in bright white clothes (Matthew says they were like lightning!). He's sitting there patiently, smiling, waiting for you. Admit it: It would give you a start too!
The angel—for that is who this person in white was—said what angels always seem to say on these occasions: "Don't be alarmed." (Right. What was I thinking, being alarmed?)
(Read Mark 16:6-7)
The women had peered past the young man at the stone ledge where Jesus' dead, linen-wrapped body had been placed—and it was gone. The wrappings were still there. But he was gone.
Why was that angel there? He wasn't guarding anything. He wasn't attending to Jesus. He was, you might say, a translator. What the women found would have made no sense if he hadn't translated for them. I don't know what conclusion the women would have come to, left to their own imaginations, but without the angel, they wouldn't have gotten this story straight. "He has risen! He is not here," the angel tells them. Remember: No one, not one person since time began, had ever—ever—seen or heard anything like what those women saw and heard that morning. No wonder they were afraid! You would be, too.
But whatever their confusion, they knew one thing. They knew deep within that the world had just changed, and it would never go back to the way it was. Verse eight says they were "bewildered." The Greek word has the idea of a mind that has stepped on a banana peel (loosely translated). What does it mean when a man dead and buried for two nights is alive? What does it mean that the risen Jesus was so strong that neither the Cross nor the tombstone could hold him back? So important that God sends an angel to announce him? So merciful that the disciples—and Peter especially—who had abandoned him at his death are now welcomed to meet him? So knowing that he had predicted it all before it happened?
"Don't be alarmed"—angels must get a kick out of saying that!
Mark's 'not right' ending
What do we make of Mark's ending? This ending is so "not right" that people have been trying to fix it ever since. Some people have decided that Mark's real ending must have been lost, inadvertently—torn off the manuscript or something. But I just can't believe God would let a crucial part of his Word get lost. Over time, people wrote new endings. You've got at least one of them printed right there in your Bible. But there's always a line before verses 9-20 that says something like, "The most reliable early manuscripts do not have these verses." Virtually no Bible scholar believes Mark wrote those last verses. They were written 300-400 years later. But somebody had to do something about that ending!
Actually, Mark liked writing like this—leaving an idea hanging. And he learned that from Jesus. We've seen several times in this book that he likes to leave people with a "Say what?" look on their faces, their minds retracing what they just heard and saw. Mark is the Bible's mystery writer, all the way to the end. God is working out a mind-bending mystery in Christ. Mark gives us the clues and then waits for us to see it.
It wasn't that Mark didn't know the whole story or that he ran out of material. He knew what the other Gospels tell us—that these women quickly found their tongues and told the disciples what they'd seen and heard. Mark knew that the fear that gripped those women was soon turned to joy and faith. Mark knew that Jesus appeared several times to well over 500 witnesses over 40 days before he ascended. So why didn't he say so? Why did he end like this?
I love how one author, Lamar Williamson, answered that in the book Mark: "When is an ending not the end? When a dead man rises from the tomb … Mark's ending is no end; only the reader can bring closure … We must decide how the story should come out."
Writing endings for 2,000 years
Christians have been writing endings for Mark's gospel for 2,000 years. Within hours, Jesus' disciples began to put the pieces together. They saw that Jesus was crucified in our place, for the sin that would have condemned us to hell, and when he rose to life, he broke the back of sin's hold on us. He pushed death out of our way as surely as he moved that great tombstone. Death still will come to these mortal bodies of ours, but Jesus took away the sting and poison.
A Christian is a person who has died and risen again with Christ. Jesus says to us, "Let me do these terrifying things for you. Let me face God's judgment for your sin. Let me take the worst of death for you." Christians are simply people who believe Jesus will do that—who say to him, "Please do! Please save me from that!"
I ran across a modern version of this story some years ago. A lady from our church brought a friend to me who had gone to a Christian funeral in an African-American church. The celebration of hope there—the singing and joy—literally terrified her. She could not imagine how people could react so to a death. She ran from the grave, you might say, "trembling and bewildered." When I told her that Christians lose their fear of death and hell because of our faith in Christ, she prayed right there on the spot and went home rejoicing.
Like I said, Christians have been writing endings for Mark's gospel for 2,000 years. People keep writing endings for Mark, as Mark expected they would.
I spotted some fresh endings on Facebook recently. Jeff, one of my former students, wrote, "As a former atheist who still refuses to believe in baseless superstition, I'm thankful that Jesus really did rise from the dead to prove that he is God and truly does have power over death." My friend Doug wrote, "Seeing the light and casting off chains. Feels good." Ashley said, "Brothers and sisters, wake up with a huge smile on your face, jump up and down, rejoice, party, tell everyone you see … for the one and only hope we have has actually happened … HE IS RISEN!"
Good endings. Mark would like them very much.
In January, I called Laura and Greg. Twenty-three years ago, they called me and wanted to get married, and I tried to give them the brush-off. They weren't Christians; they just wanted a church wedding. I was pretty gruff. I told her that getting married in a church didn't win them any more favors with God than if they were married under the blue light at K-Mart. If they didn't have God in their lives, a church wedding wouldn't do much good.
She said, "Well, if you won't marry us, would you at least talk to us some more about this?" I was embarrassed by my attitude, and they came to see me.
In that first visit, after we got acquainted, I explained the good news of Jesus Christ. When I told them how our sin has killed us inside and is condemned by the righteous God, they understood. When I told them that Jesus died to put our sins to death and rose from the dead to give us new life, they understood that. When I asked if they'd like to put their faith in Jesus Christ, they could hardly wait. They each prayed, confessing their sin and asking Christ to forgive and save them.
As Laura and I talked about that day in our phone call, she remembered, "I wanted to ask you if I could get up on your desk and dance!" She said that when she rode home behind Greg on his motorcycle, she yelled, "Oh, I feel so good!" Greg had to tell her to quit squeezing him so hard; she was cutting off his circulation. She said she remembered thinking, I feel like I just took the best shower of my life.
There are lots of great endings to Mark's story. That's one. Maybe you have one, too. Or maybe today is your day to write one. Let's celebrate great endings to the resurrection of Jesus!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.