I saw him on Main North Road
Sermon for Easter Day - 2012
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Let’s imagine we are members of the congregation of Mark’s church.
We live around 70AD; about 40 years after Jesus’ death. We know the stories of the faith, how he was crucified, and rose again after three days. We have heard about great heroes of the faith like Peter the apostle, and Andrew and James and John.
It’s hard being a follower of the Way. Our Jewish neighbours think we are oddballs, to say the least. Other folk think we are weird. There have been outbreaks of violence against our people in various places across the empire. It’s not safe being a Christian.
But we know Jesus is risen from the dead. We’ve heard the stories. We meet together, and we worship and pray, and sometimes, it feels like we are meeting him. God is real to us in new ways.
There is something else going on, huge, enormous news that is engulfing our lives. Jerusalem has been destroyed. There is hardly anything left! The city has been besieged for 4 years by the Roman army, after a revolt. There’s rumours that more than a million people were killed during the siege.
The historian Josephus said
The slaughter within [the city] was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded that of the slayers. The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination." (Wikipedia)
The Roman general said the temple was not to be destroyed, apparently, but it was burned down anyway. (Wikipedia)
Perhaps we even have people who fled from Jerusalem living in our town, traumatised, defeated, and in despair. They might even be followers of Jesus, some of them, like us. Now, after Jerusalem, they have no hope left. If Jesus did not save them, how can he be real, how can he be trusted? Is he really risen from the dead?
And there are even worse questions to answer: “We were not faithful,” they said. “We denied him. We fled. We failed. How can he love us and forgive us. We let him down totally. There is nothing left. We cannot be his people. We are totally unworthy.”
I don’t have the excuse of the siege of Jerusalem. I am a safe, comfortable Australian. And I totally let him down too. What hope do I have?
We can understand why people walk away from the faith. The way some people present it to us you’d have to be better than Jesus to be a Christian.
I’m guessing Mark was like us, and that he was keenly aware that he did not measure up.
He was like us, too, because he had trouble understanding how Jesus could be killed; how could God allow something so outrageous to happen to the One who was God’s chosen Messiah?
The genius of Mark is that instead of walking away because he didn’t have the answers, he did something else.
He trusted his instinct that Jesus was the One, even though he couldn’t answer all the questions he had, and asked himself, “If he is the One, how does what has happened make sense? What does it tell us about following Jesus?”
The Gospel of Mark is his answer. He sat down and sorted through all the stories he knew about Jesus. He struggled with them and came up with this answer.
- Don’t you remember Jesus said Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed and that this was not the end of everything... but only the beginning? “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” Jesus said. “Keep awake.” That’s in what we call chapter 13.
- And don’t you remember the stories, how he travelled round the countryside doing good, healing people, loving people. He didn’t talk about being a success. Remember how he said they would kill him... and how if you try to save your life you will lose it... We should have realised all this would happen!”
- And we’re worried about how we let him down! Remember Peter?! He fled. He denied him. Everyone let him down!
Maybe Mark had a first draft of his gospel... and people said, “Yes... but he’s gone. He’s dead. We don’t feel him anymore. In Jerusalem, before we got away from the Romans... we prayed and prayed... nothing happened. It’s like he didn’t get raised from the dead.”
And so in his second draft of the Gospel, the one we have, Mark writes an amazing, bleak, and yet hope filled story. If we forget the other gospels, because they hadn’t been written down when Mark was writing, what we have is the story of an amazing man, whose friends who ate at table with him denied and even betrayed him, a man who is utterly defeated, and yet to whom people flocked.
After his death, there is an empty tomb, and a message. “Go back to Galilee.” Go back to doing the things Jesus did. And you will meet him. There is no witness of Jesus risen and walking around. No signs of resurrection, apart from the empty tomb; just the challenge. You who have failed... go back to Galilee and he will meet you, just as he told you.
How does this work? How can it be a hopeful thing for us who fail him?
Let me tell you some of my last week.
I have recently met a refugee, who as far as we can find out, is the only Christian from his country in our city. He was tortured, and has suffered appallingly. Many of his family are dead, killed by the forces of terror in his home country. His wife and surviving family are in camps on the other side of the world. His mother is ill.
When he is tired, all the pain of his torture comes back. His head aches terribly, he sweats, he lives on painkillers.
And in this crazy, crazy world, he can still talk to his son, who has managed to get a mobile phone. And so, for a few minutes at a time, if we are lucky, we can talk on a staticy connection which always drops out, and costs a small fortune.
To try to help, I’ve given him the laptop I’ve been using here for the projector. I’ve had to buy a new power charger. We’ve bought mobile internet USB key for it.
On Thursday we spent the day teaching him how to use it. It took ages, and I didn’t have time to be doing it. That’s one of the reasons Friday was such a simple service here; I was so tired I could barely stand up. We spend hours trying to relay passwords on the phone. My friend barely speaks English. Someone on the other side of the world was trying to relay letters and symbols on the phone so we could make a connection to his family. And the phone kept dropping out.
But if his family can get the details, they can go to a shop on the other side of the city, and talk on Skype. Maybe, on a very good day, they might even get to see pictures of each other for a few minutes. And if we can get it working, it will be far cheaper than mobile phone calls.
My friend is so desperate; his mother was having surgery yesterday, dangerous stuff, and he dearly wanted to talk to her. As the day progressed, he became sicker and sicker; so ill that he nearly walked into a car.
Jesus was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t get things finished. I was too tired, and still had to prepare church. I was too tired to bring him home to use our internet, and then drive all the way back to the city in the early hours of the morning; we’re fighting time differences, too.
On Friday, he went to church with the congregation who have taken him in, and stood at the door and welcomed people as they arrived for Good Friday service! Can you believe that! One of the old women at the church took him home for lunch.
On the way home to his house on Thursday night, the place where he is one Christian in a house of Muslims, he said to me, “Not all Muslims are bad, you know. People are just people. Some people are bad; not all people.”
What an amazing statement from a man whose family has been ripped apart in every sense of the word, by people claiming to the only true Muslims.
And so, there I was on Thursday, trying to go back to Galilee. It was a mess. We can barely understand each other when we talk. I couldn’t hear properly on the phones, when we could make contact overseas for a few minutes. We didn’t finish; there were more phone calls when I got home, trying to make sense, translating through third parties.
And my heart sings. Because I did see Jesus.
Every time I go to a little Galilee, and do the little bit I can, and even though it is always imperfect, and it’s hard, and I always fail at some point, I get a glimpse of the risen Lord.
And I see that Mark is right. Jesus is not at the tomb. He is back in Galilee. And it is ok to fail and fall short. Christianity is about failing.... and then beginning again... and then we see Jesus. And we are raised up ... like him.
Galilee is not romantic. It is the place of washing floors, and visiting the sick, and picking up papers, and trying to help people who we can’t quite understand... and who may even scare us. But it is also the place where we will meet Jesus.
Andrew Prior Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
The story of my refugee friend is true. I have hidden some of the details for safety and privacy reasons.