The Unfinished Sentence

All this week you have talked about last Sunday’s service, at least all of you to whom I have talked. I said to someone the other day, we have been doing the same thing for nine or ten years now, but every year it is as if we were doing it for the first time the way you respond. If you were not here last week, for the last several years we have read the whole of the story of the trial and death of Jesus on the Sunday before Easter. We add a little drama and a little music now and then. But it always seems incomplete, doesn’t it. One of our members said this week that he wanted to stand and from his place on the back row there and call out, “Go on, finish the story.” Well, we are here today to finish the story.

We forget from year to year how moving, how poignant the story of the death of our Lord really is. It requires no elaboration, no explanation. It only requires reading and the words leap off the page and become the Word of God.

Some years ago my brother was here on Palm/Passion Sunday and when someone
remarked what a good service it was and how well his brother had done, he said, “After all, he had a good writer.” That’s what brothers are for, I guess. But it always seems incomplete: Go on, finish the story. We are here to finish the story today.

Let me do a little technical Bible study with you about the end of the story. If you have a Bible with you it may note in one way or another that the oldest manuscripts end the Gospel of Mark where we ended the reading today. The King James will not do that, but most modern versions will. And that’s a bit of a puzzle. The eighth verse reads literally like this, “They were afraid, for….” It doesn’t work any better in English than it does in Greek. It seems at least an incomplete sentence. It is hardly appropriate to end the Easter story with words about fear. It doesn’t work grammatically either.

Keep your place there in the Bible, I want to come back to this verse later. Meanwhile, let your imagination run over that puzzle with me for a few minutes. Why do you suppose the story breaks off like that? What would it take to finish the unfinished sentence? Scholars have speculated that once upon a time the Gospel did not end like that. None of the other Gospels does.

Once upon a time it ended more like them, but for some reason the original ending was lost. Perhaps it was written on a scroll and constant rolling and unrolling and the ending simply wore away. It makes sense, doesn’t it. That would explain that strange half sentence at the end. It is sort of like reading a magazine article. You come to the bottom of the page and it says in the middle of the sentence, “continued on page 122.” But you turn to page 122 and it is gone. Somebody wanted the recipe printed on the back of page 122 and it is gone. So what do you do? You might rummage around in the recipe file to find page 122. You might go out and buy another copy of the magazine. Or you might sit down and write your own ending to the story.

Evidently that’s exactly what happened. Some fifty or sixty years after the Gospel was written someone sat down and wrote a more conventional ending, in fact, two endings and some of your Bibles have them both as footnotes. Now, that’s right. The Easter story does not end in fear but in joy and faith and peace.

But I regard both those new endings as unsatisfactory. They overstate the case. To read them is like watching a beautiful sunset with someone standing at your elbow giving you a running commentary on the atmospheric conditions that produce those gorgeous orange and pink and purple hues, or having someone tell you that you can’t appreciate the smell of a rose without it’s scientific explanation. Perhaps miracles are to be contemplated and enjoyed.

So maybe this really is the ending. The Gospel writers are all writers of great skill. Mark is one of the most skillful, we could easily say that he is indeed inspired. Perhaps his facility
with words deserted him when he pondered the resurrection. He was left speechless and so all that he could do was to tell about the women who had nothing to say. What do you say in the presence of the resurrection? Silence.

You see, Mark has already pronounced his final word. As the centurion stood and watched Jesus die he said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” That’s what Mark wants you to know. It is not that he disbelieves the resurrection, it is that he believes the cross. What do you say about human tragedy? What do you say when you go to visit your friend whose child has died? Nothing. Isn’t it most appropriate to say nothing. It does not mean that we are
stupefied by death. you may have on your mind volumes of comforting words, if you are a Christian you will remember that death does not have the last word, but sometimes it seems unnecessary to say so.

I think this is the ending, for all the grammatical problems. Look at all of that last verse with me for a moment. “They fled from the tomb.” It is the same word used when the
Gospel says that all his disciples “forsook him and fled.” They ran away and sought safety. From what did they seek safety, what was the threat? “Trembling and astonishment had come upon them.” Another word for astonishment here is ecstasy. It is the New Testament notion for the shaking and shattering presence of God. It was what came upon the disciples at Pentecost when their young men saw visions and their old men dreamed dreams, when they were thrust out into the street by the Spirit to tell about Jesus raised from the dead.

In all of Paul’s churches this ecstasy was the sign that the Spirit had indeed come upon them.  What they ran away from was the great and magnificent possibilities of their own life. And it is no wonder. Run away, people, get out of this place before it is too late. Get out as fast as you can. Who can look God in the face and alive. Run for your life. Do you want to be healed? No, I like my soul and body and shrivelled up like this. I have gotten used to it. They ran away from their own immolation. This is the fire that will consume your whole idea of what it means to find yourself, and you will die, and be raised from death to life. Run away, run away.

That’s the way of the world, isn’t it. So the story of the death of Jesus leaves us speechless, leaves us unfinished. It left the Gospel writer speechless, too. And we are here today to finish the story. Mark believed that the disciples were living out the ending. They ran away, but they came back. We are here to finish the story, you are here to finish the story.

Here is the pen. It is yours to write. It is a terrifying experience to stare into the emptiness of the tomb, but ecstasy, and peace and hope. “They were afraid, for…. Finish the sentence, you finish it.

Acts 10:34-43, I Cor. 15: 1-11, Mk. 16:1-8

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas on April 3, 1989.  Rumors of Angels is available for delivered by email.  Subscription information is available in the upper right hand corner of this blog page.


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