The Final Test

Scripture:  Mark 16:1-8

According to the story, Dr. Bonk was a beloved chemistry teacher at Duke University.  One year two young men, who were doing well in the introduction to chemistry class, decided they did not need to take the final too seriously, so the night before the test they decided to travel several hours to attend a fraternity party at the University of Virginia.   They partied a little too much, and missed the final completely.  In an attempt to salvage completely destroying their grade for the semester they concocted a story.  They admitted traveling to Virginia, but they claimed they had a flat tire which is why the missed the exam.  Dr. Bonk told them they could make up the test.   The two young men thought they had gotten away with it until they sat down and were handed the test.   They were given a test with just one question:  “Which tire?”

Unfortunately, the story is not entirely true.  It is an entertaining legend that grew around a kernel of truth.  James Bonk was a chemistry professor at Duke University and there once was an incident with a lie about a flat tire, but there was not a dramatic one question test.  I have taken a lot of tests in my life time, but I do not think I ever had one that was a single question.   Even in the classes that gave bluebook essay tests, there were often two or three questions that had to be answered.  Generally I am not someone who has a lot of test anxiousness, but I think a single question test especially on something as important as a final would cause the anxiety to spike.    I do not think that I would care much for a single question test, yet that is exactly what this morning’s scripture is.   In writing this morning’s scripture, Mark puts forth a single implied question, and this single question is a test for our faith.

The gospel of Mark’s account of the resurrection is quite a bit different than the other three gospels.   We do not find all of the drama that we find elsewhere.  For instance, there is no mention of disciples racing to the tomb to see it for themselves, there is no tender moment between Jesus and Mary in the garden, and there are no mysterious appearances on the road to Emmaus.  Truth be told, the gospel of Mark’s account of the resurrection is a bit of a downer.   Like the other accounts a group of women go to the tomb early in the morning.   They find it empty and they are met by an angel, but then that is it.    It ends with “trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.”

Not only is that how Mark’s account of the resurrection ends, that is how the gospel of Mark ends.  If you happen to look in a bible you will notice that there are verses in Mark after verse 8, but in most bibles you will all see a notation along the lines of “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.”  Most biblical scholars are in agreement that Mark intentionally ended the gospel at verse eight.”   I find this noteworthy, because Mark could have gone on.  He did not have to end there.  He easily could have included details that the other gospels have and generally ended on a much more positive note.   But as originally written, Mark did not.  Mark made an intentional choice to end on bewilderment, fear, and silence.   Again this was done on purpose, and it was done to force the readers or original hearers to wrestle with a single question.

Like all of the gospels, Mark shares the good news of Jesus Christ.  It establishes his message, his miracles, and his claim to be the messiah.   The gospel of Mark is good news, so it ends with the women in silence to challenge the reader.   It challenges us to this day to confront the question, now that you have heard the good news, not that you know the story of Jesus, what are you going to do?  Are you going to be silent and afraid or are you going to share the good news?   This is the final test in the gospel of Mark, and it is a question we need to still answer today.

Unfortunately, if we view the question that Mark asks as a test then it is a test that the American church does not have a great track record of getting high marks on.  A few years ago LifeWay Research published the results of a five year study on church growth.   They found that the vast majority of church growth was not true growth.  The majority of it was transfer growth, where people just move from one to church to another.  The type of church growth that had the lowest numbers reported was conversion growth.  Conversion growth comes from some experiencing and accepting the life changing love, forgiveness, and salvation made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection.   The LifeWay study found that only 6-7.5% of church growth is through conversion growth.   The only way that someone is introduced to the gospel is if someone shares it with them.  Conversions from no faith to faith only happen because someone was willing to share the good news.  The numbers do not lie, like most of the women who visited the empty tomb, the majority of American Christians are silent and too afraid to say anything.

The question is why are we so silent?   Perhaps part of it is that many of us were raised to believe that good mannered, polite people never talked about religion or politics.   That’s garbage though.    There is wisdom in not arguing for the sake of arguing, but why is the truth of amazing grace relegated to the same category of debating the merits of taxes?   On the surface our silence just does not make any sense.   If you consider yourself a Christian then that means you have experienced the forgiveness made available through the cross, you have rested in the assurance the empty tomb gives, and you know the depths of God’s love.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, those things are exciting!  They are life changing!  They are almost too good to comprehend.   Why then are we so silent about it?    If we watch a good movie, we tell everyone we know.  If we go to a great restaurant, we put pictures of what we are going to eat all over Facebook.   If we are excited about something we are quick to share it.  If we are passionate about something, then usually once we get talking about the thing we love it is hard to stop.

If you want, then you can test this fairly easily.  Baseball’s opening day was this past week, so find a Cubs fan and ask them how the team looks this year.  Likely, they will be full of hope, excitement and anticipation as they talk about their beloved team and the sport they enjoy.  We find it easy to get excited about a sport but that same level of excitement does not seem to apply to our faith.   To me this just does not add up.  After all encountering Jesus and experiencing forgiveness of sins should be one of the most profound experiences of our lives.  There has to be a reason why we are so hesitant to share that experience with others.   The most likely explanation is that we are afraid.    Like the women in this morning’s scripture we do not listen to the angel’s urging of “do not be afraid” and instead we step back from the good news trembling and bewildered.

So what are we afraid of?   Perhaps we are afraid of other people judging us.  Perhaps we are afraid of messing it up or being asked a question that we do not know the answer of.  Perhaps we are afraid that someone will be confrontational.  I supposed the reason is almost irrelevant, if the result is the same.  That result is that we did not learn the lesson at the end of Mark.   We are like the women who are afraid and say nothing.   The first thing we can learn from this morning’s scripture is not to be afraid.   The message that Jesus is alive and that sins are forgiven is too important, too incredible, and too world-changing for us to keep it to ourselves.

We cannot let fear quench that message.   We should be willing and able to proclaim that He Lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.   If someone wants proof, if they ask us how we know he lives, then we tell them he lives within my heart.  We do not need to have all the answers, we just need to share our experience with the resurrected savior.  On the first Easter the women who were afraid failed to share the good news.  They did not have to explain the “why and how” of an empty tomb, they just needed to share what they experienced.   In the same way, may we be willing to share our testimony, or experience with the love of God made known through Jesus Christ, and may stop keeping our story quiet out of fear.

I find the original ending of Mark fascinating because it captures human imperfection so well.   We do not know the story of these women, but they were part of Jesus’ disciples.  We do not know their stories, but we know just like the apostles they had to give up a lot to follow Jesus.  These women were not just groupies either, they were disciples.  We know that Jesus broke with Rabbinic tradition and he was willing to allow women to sit with and learn with his male disciples.   These women would have had a basic faith, but when push came to shove they gave in to fear.   Again, I think we can all relate to this.   We probably all have times in our lives when the going got tough, and we ran and hid under a blanket.   I imagine that even years later, the memory of what is recorded in this morning’s scripture, of being afraid, is one that the women would rather forget.   Again, we probably can all relate.  We have regrets that we probably still look back with shame and guilt wishing we did things differently.   We all have times where we were caught slightly embarrassed, because our imperfection was showing.

The reaction of bewilderment, fear, and silence from the women reminds us of our own imperfections.   Which means, it should remind us of the greater truth in this morning’s scripture:  The tomb was empty!   This means that Jesus is who he claimed to be throughout the gospels:  the messiah, the son of God.   It means that Jesus defeated sin and death forever, that he offers eternal forgiveness, and that he has opened a way of reconciliation to God the Father.   The second thing that we can learn from this morning’s scripture is a constant reminder.  We may have a basic faith, but we have an extraordinary savior.   We may be imperfect, but our risen Lord is perfect.   On that first Easter, some of the women were bewildered, afraid, and silent.   The reminder though is that their failure, even then, is forgiven.  That because Jesus rose from the grave our sins are forgiven, our shame is erased, and our guilt can be released.   This morning’s scripture is a profound reminder that even when we are at our worst, God is still at God’s best.  And that my friends is good news!

And it is the good news that we celebrate today!   The good news of an empty tomb, a risen savior, and an all-surpassing love is at the heart of our faith.   May we take the lessons of this morning’s scripture to heart.  May the assurance of that good news fill us with joy, excitement, passion, enthusiasm, and a deep-burning desire to share the good news with others.   May we pass this test.  May we stop being afraid to share the good news, but may we proclaim the truth that has for all eternity changed us that Up from the grave he arose!   He arose a victor from the dark domain and he lives forever with his saint to reign.  He arose!  He arose!  Hallelujah!  Christ arose!”

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