“Hard to Believe”

pdficon_small Download a PDF of this sermon here.


Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 5, 2015 Easter Sunday

Mark 16:1-8


“Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” That’s it?

“Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” That’s the end?

There’s a reason why Mark’s version of the story is not the most popular gospel reading on Easter morning. We come to church this day expecting to hear a story of triumph, a story of joy, a story of celebration, a story that resounds like a trumpet blast. We come to church this day expecting to shout “Alleluia!” at the good news that the power of sin has been broken, that death itself has been put to death. And we get… this? Terror and dread. A flight from the empty tomb. Silence. Fear. The end. This doesn’t sound like Easter to me.

It didn’t sound like Easter to the early Christians, either. They were thoroughly unsatisfied with this unresolved and decidedly un-triumphant end to the story, so they rewrote it. In later manuscripts, they added on to the end of the book some additional verses, at least two different versions of the end of the story. In one, the women end up telling their story to the disciples after all, and the good news spreads throughout the earth. In the other, Jesus himself shows up again and appears to his followers, and he sends them out to continue his mission of healing and teaching and sharing good news. In both cases, the story puts a hopeful and positive spin on the events, replacing silence with proclamation, fear with joy.

But the original version of the story is the one Scarlette read for us, the one that ends with terror, and dread, and amazement, and fear, and silence. That’s it. That’s the end.


If you stop and think about it, though, when the women went to the tomb, very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they didn’t know what we know now. They didn’t know how the story turns out. They didn’t have the benefit of 2,000 years of history, two millennia in which the good news of this story has echoed and resounded until everyone knew its improbably, unbelievably glorious conclusion.

Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome—they didn’t know all that. They were grief-stricken survivors, going to visit the grave of their beloved friend. They knew he was dead. They were convinced that all was lost. They were sure that the powers that be had triumphed, that the hope Jesus had kindled in their hearts had died with him on the cross of shame and been buried behind a stone far too big to roll away. They knew the permanence of death, the immovability of the grave. They were going to pay their respects, to anoint his body, to weep together in their sorrow.

And haven’t you been in their shoes? Haven’t you known the certainty of loss when a loved one dies too young, too soon? Haven’t you known the irrevocable reality of scooping a handful of earth into an open grave? Haven’t you known the way hope fades away when your child is struggling with addiction? Haven’t you known the bleakness of the horizon when you are engulfed by the dense fog of depression? Haven’t you known the way the future contracts into nothingness when your doctor says the word cancer? Haven’t you know the desolate resignation when you hear the news of yet another violent attack, when the loss of yet more innocent lives seems almost inevitable? Haven’t you lived through betrayal, through suffering, through Maundy Thursdays and Good Fridays of your own?

And when good news comes after a long, dark night, isn’t it a little bit hard to believe? The first time the doctor says remission, don’t you worry that the next scan might reveal more malignant cells? When that once-addicted child shows you his medallion that says One year, one day at a time, don’t you worry that the 366th day will be the one when the next relapse comes? When you feel the tingle of love again after months or years of widowhood, doesn’t your heart feel a little bit skittish? When you don’t know how the story will turn out, don’t you guard yourself against the disappointment that may come?

In the midst of those moments, in the shoes of Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, it can be hard to imagine that anything could ever change. Even when you get to the tomb and it is empty, even when the stone is already rolled away, even when an angel tells you not to be afraid, even when good news is staring you in the face—resurrection can be hard to trust. Hope can be hard to hold on to. Newness of life can be hard to believe.

But the good news of Easter is this: that even before that hard-to-believe moment sinks in, new life is already at work. Even before that hard-to-hold-on-to hope takes root, joy has already been set free. Even before the women arrived at the tomb, before they saw the angel and heard his reassurance, before they fled in terror and dread, Easter had already happened. Christ was already risen. Before anyone knew it, long before anyone could believe it, resurrection life was already on the loose.

And even when those first witnesses fled in fear and amazement, even when they went away silently and didn’t tell anyone—the good news still spread. The gospel still rang from the hilltops and echoed through the valleys. The Easter story could not remain silent, but told itself until its hearers could bring themselves to spread the word.


So if, on this Easter morning, you’re finding the resurrection hard to believe, know this: you’re in good company. If, on this Easter morning, you’re finding hope hard to hold on to, know this: hope is holding on to you. If, on this Easter morning, you find yourself silent and afraid, know this: there is someone here who is ready to spread the word, to tell you the story again, to hold onto it until you are ready to believe it. If, on this Easter morning, you find yourself full to brimming with joy and unable to keep quiet about it, know this: there is someone here who needs you to tell them the good news you know.

No matter how you are, on this Easter morning, know this: whenever you are convinced that all is lost, whenever you are sure that the powers that be have triumphed, whenever you know that hope has died, whenever you go to the tomb to weep in your sorrow—there will be an angel there waiting for you. The stone too heavy to move will be rolled away. The love you thought was gone forever will go before you and show you the way. Not cancer, not addiction, not violence, not depression, not even death itself will be able to stop the power of resurrection life. The terror and dread that may overcome our hope for a time will never be able to silence the gospel story. There is nothing on earth or in heaven that can separate us from God’s love. For Christ is risen, risen as he said! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!