Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 31, 2024

Mark 16:1-8 Commentary

Mark’s Easter story is a shocker. Even though it’s the earliest written of the gospel accounts, it has the least amount of details and Jesus himself is merely talked about in the passage. And once you’ve become accustomed to the John’s intimate garden encounter between Mary and Jesus or the women’s quick obedience in Matthew and Luke, Mark’s empty tomb feels more ominous than joyful.

Perhaps that’s why the lectionary gives us a choice between Mark 16 and John 20. I wrote a commentary last year on John 20.1-18, so if you want to go that direction, we’ve got some help!

More thoughtful preachers than I have considered what Mark might be up to with this ending. At a preaching seminar a number of years ago, I heard Tom Long say that he thinks Mark’s gospel ends this way so that we’ll feel as discombobulated as the women and go back to the beginning of the gospel to read it again. And more than one scholar posits a reader response critique, pointing out that the women’s silence leaves the task given to them by the angels up to us: will we go and tell others that the crucified one is raised from the dead and that we will see him again?

I think there’s something else this particular account of the resurrection gives us, and it’s this: the resurrection is overwhelming. This requires us to lean into the shock and fear that overwhelm the women. I’m not a trauma expert, but as I look at the words that describe what happens to them, finding the tomb empty, talking to this man (probably an angel), and not finding Jesus’s body is a traumatic event.

Mark depicts them as moving from alarm in verses 5 and 6, to being seized by terror and amazement and being shut up by fear in verse 8. Consider the definitions of these words.

“Alarm” is ekthambeo, meaning “great surprise or perplexity”—the situation they find is quite unexpected compared to the purpose for which they came. Now, they could have thought of any number of reasons, first and foremost being someone removed Jesus’s body so that his followers would not have a place to gather, but the man/angel that they encounter tells them why Jesus is no longer there. But this messenger doesn’t explain how; he simply moves to telling them to get the word to Jesus’s disciples so that they will follow him—already on his way to Galilee. If you literally watched Jesus die on the cross, this is a lot of information and change to take in. What you are seeing now does not compute with what you saw before. But that’s overwhelming resurrection power for you.

Mark describes that overwhelm by saying the women were seized by terror and amazement. “Terror” is not just an emotion according to its Greek word tromos, it’s a literal and physical trembling. And “amazement” is ekstasis which is a sort of out of body conscious experience. In other words, what the women have witnessed at the empty tomb has not just emotionally and mentally impacted them, it has physically caused them to freeze from the anxiety: they are unable to say anything. Our text uses a double negative for emphasis, “they said nothing to no one.” They are so overwhelmed by the resurrection news that they are paralyzed, unable to do what the man/angel has told them to do.

It’s an honest reminder that most of us humans, who cannot turn on a dime in the best of circumstances, cannot flip a switch and make sense of major changes that make no earthly sense in a hot second. Like we heard throughout our lenten journey, so much of the good news we receive from Jesus’s life and death, and now his resurrection, takes us a long time to truly grasp and understand. If the disciples, who only “remembered” after the fact, and the women who were so lovingly devoted to Jesus throughout his life and death had a hard time, why would we be any different? God is overwhelming, from who God is to what God does, to what only God can do, whoa.

Mark’s insight into the “resurrection encounter” helps us not take the resurrection for granted. We cannot domesticate and cozy up to the resurrection. As we put ourselves in the women’s place, we just might be brought to our own terror and amazement at what it actually means.

The resurrection is the seal of the work of the cross and it is something only God could do. When we thought death had won and hope was lost, unbeknownst to us, God kept being God, kept working redemption, kept on with the battle against evil and conquered the grave without fanfare, pomp or circumstance. Then Jesus didn’t wait around for us to come to him, he went on with his own witnessing and told us to follow him there.

Textual Point

The last word in our pericope in the original Greek is the conjunction gar (usually translated as “for” or “because”). This isn’t too odd because in word order, gar is put postpositively, positioned after the word that we put it before in English. Some like the dramatic flair this little word’s presence gives by being at the end, though, feeling that it adds to the sense of the unfinished story in Mark. Speaking of Mark’s ending, just a reminder that the consensus is stronger than ever that the original gospel ended with verse 8.

Illustration Idea

In his Belief Series Theological Commentary on Mark, William Placher talks about how Mark’s ending speaks to the kind of times that many of us feel right now: “A Gospel that ends with Christ triumphantly present is harder to reconcile with the horrors of the world around us and the doubts within us.” As wars rage on innocents and the institutional church stands in disarray, leading many to doubt the gospel message itself, does the reminder that God is silently working without attention-seeking, sowing resurrection all over the place, bring us any comfort and confidence? Can we do what the man/angel says to the women in the empty tomb when he tells them to look and see for themselves that Jesus is not there? Can we look and see proof of the overwhelming resurrection power?


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