Summary: The original ending of Mark's Gospel a first glance seems to inspire little hope; but a closer look reveals how the Risen Lord meets us in the ordinary circumstances of life and invites us to finish the story of His resurrection.
The little boy was not exactly happy about going to church on Easter Sunday morning. His new shoes were to tight, his tie pinched his neck and the weather outside was just too beautiful to be cooped up inside...so as he sulked in the pew his parents heard him mutter to no one in particular. "I don't know why we have to go to church on Easter, anyway; they keep telling the same old story and it always comes out the same in the end."
Perhaps you have similar sentiments this Sunday morning. Not so much perhaps about the need to be in church on this most Holy of days. I think all of us know that this is the place we should be. But perhaps like that little boy you wonder about the Easter message. Its the same old story. Year after year. Two thousand years ago Jesus rose from the grave and the disciples saw him and the church began. "Alleluia. Amen. I wonder if we are having ham again this year?"
Well, I hope that this morning's text surprised you a bit today. Because its not quite the same old story (or at least the one we think we know) and the ending is very much in doubt. Now Mark 16 begins much like the rest of the gospel accounts of the resurrection. Early on Sunday morning a group of women gather up some spices and head off to anoint the body of Jesus. There is the prerequisite question: "Who will roll away the stone?" The story continues along nicely. They get to the tomb and lo and behold the stone is rolled away! And lo an angel appears with the good news of the resurrection. Everything seems to be going according to Hoyle. But then something goes a bit askew with Mark's Gospel account. In our dazed "I heard this all before" state we can almost recite what happens next: Jesus appears to the women, he surprises the disciples and everyone lives happily ever after. But that ain't so with Mark's resurrection story. Notice that little footnote in the NIV - "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20." Let that sink in for a second.
If that is true then Mark's gospel ends not with the appearances of Jesus to the women and disciples. Not with great commission. Not with Jesus' ascension into heaven. Rather it ends with these disturbing words: "They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." What kind of ending to Easter is this? The great and glorious news of the resurrection has been proclaimed. Death has been defeated. Satan subdued. Sin squashed.
The witnesses have been commissioned. And Easter ends for Mark with the words "They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." It is someone has noted: "...not an ending that inspires confidence."
And not only does the story end on a down note. Even grammatically the gospel ends peculiarly. In the Greek the last words in the text are ephobounto gar - literally "they were afraid for..." Now this is very strange. Now every Greek writer and English student, for that matter, knows that you don't end a sentence with a conjunction. One commentator notes: "Gar is a small, transitional word that leads into something else. It serves as a kind of syntactic hesitation, getting us ready for the next statement." But in Mark that next statement never comes. Where we would expect to see the story neatly wrapped up with a post-resurrection story of Jesus - all we hear is silence. Easter seems to have an incomplete ending in Mark.
Now we are people who don't like things left hanging. We want our stories wrapped up nice and neat. We like things tidy. That's just human nature. So as we can see from what follows the footnote in the NIV, soon other people began providing the "rest of the story" [ala Paul Harvey] to the resurrection account in Mark's gospel. And they were not entirely wrong in doing this. For we have the evidence of our gathering this morning to "prove" that what is recorded in the additions to Mark are true. And the other gospels bear this out. Jesus did appear to the disciples; the message of salvation did go out into the world and indeed Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. That is the safe and familiar story we have grown to expect at Easter.
But the original intended meaning of Mark has as its purpose anything but to make us feel safe and comfortable. Mark intended his gospel to end with that little word gar. Eugene Peterson explains: "The gar leaves us in mid-stride, of balance. The other foot has to come down someplace. Where will it come down? In belief or unbelief? Will the invasion of new life that completely rearranges reality for us, confronting us with more life than we ever imagined and so calling our minimal lives into question, send us scurrying in anxious fear for cover or venturing in reverent fear into worship?"