Write the Next Chapter

Human beings, by our very nature, don’t like things that are “unfinished.”  We like things that are complete…whole… done.  When we experience things that are left unfinished, it makes us feel like something is off-kilter…or missing…or incomplete…and it can make us feel uncomfortable.  

I don’t like it when walls that have been painted don’t have the trim complete.  Or construction projects are left partially finished.  For several years when I was a kid, my Dad drove a 1962 Ford Falcon that we’d inherited from his parents.  Parts of the fenders had rusted through, and the holes had been patched.  But the patches hadn’t been painted to match the car.  As a result, it was a blue car with these weird, misshapen tan colored polka dots.  Like a car with a case of the measles.  Riding in it, I would shrink down low in the seat…so I wouldn’t be recognized. 

There are works of art hanging in museums that are incomplete, because the artist died in the middle of the work…artists like Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Cezane have all left unfinished works behind.  

And there are novels by authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, that are published incomplete. Books without an ending.  

We love to have things completed.  It was the famous composer Franz Liszl whose clever wife used to get him out of bed in the morning by playing the first seven notes of a scale on the downstairs piano:  do, re, me, fa, so, la, te…and then she would go back to the kitchen to finish cooking breakfast.  (Mean!) Poor Franz would try to ignore it but finally he would have to throw on his robe, stumble down the stairs and storm over to the piano just to play that last note:  do!  <sigh of relief> But at least by then his breakfast would be ready.  

There is something in all of us, not just composers, that craves resolution, completion…something within us that cannot abide the unfinished work.  If you don’t believe it, just try singing the first line of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” but leaving off the last note, like this: “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!  A-a-a-a-a-le-lu-u…”  

We miss the final note!  We want to resolve that unfinished tension!

This leads us to the Gospel of Mark.  Now you have to understand that this is a very different telling of the resurrection story than the other 3 Gospels.  In Mark’s version, when Jesus’ followers get to the tomb, they discover that the stone has been rolled away and when they peek inside, they see a young man dressed, sitting in a white robe.  “Don’t be alarmed” he said (because I’m guessing they were pretty freaked out). The man shows them the empty tomb and says “go and tell Jesus’ disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you.”  

But instead of going and telling his disciples, these three went out and fled from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  The ran away.

And that’s it.  That’s the end of the story.  This is where the original Gospel of Mark comes to an abrupt end.  

Now, I know that if you look in your Bibles, you’d say to me “But Pastor Todd, that’s not the end of the story.  There are another 11 verses here, where Jesus shows up…he visits the disciples…and he tells them what to do…and then he ascends into heaven…”

Yes, those verses are there.  But if you look closely, you’ll probably see a note in your Bible that calls these eleven verses, the “long ending.”  Why?  Because those eleven verses were added later, by someone else.  The actual author of Mark never wrote them.

Biblical scholars have analyzed the writing and the content, and they agree that this Gospel originally ended right here, at verse 8.  But that the way the Gospel concluded was abrupt…and felt unfinished…it felt incomplete.  It ends with these followers getting scared and running away?  That isn’t the uplifting conclusion that we’d like, right?  So, scholars believe that later…maybe even a century or two later, well-intentioned early Christian writers decided that they should “finish” Mark’s Gospel…because they didn’t think it felt done.  So, verses 9-20 were added.

So, why did the original author of Mark’s Gospel end the most important story ever written in this awkward and unfinished way?  Well, I have a theory:

I think it’s because the original author wanted for us to have to resolve the tension in the story.  I think he was telling the story of Easter with the ending left off, so that just like the composer Franz Liszl, his readers would have to tumble out of bed on Easter morning, stumble down the stairs and complete it. If these 3 disciples who visited the tomb wouldn’t tell anyone that Christ had risen, then somebody would have to do it.  And that somebody, the author of Mark might say with a wink, is you.

Mark wants us to finish this story.  No…no…I’ll go even a step beyond that.  I think that Mark is letting us know, in a very subtle way, that we are the rest of the story.  The story is not complete without us.   Mark is letting us know, that there is work for us to do; there is a mission that needs to be accomplished.  Mark is telling us that we need to finish the story.

Sometimes I think that we look at Easter like it is a culmination…like it is the end of the story.  “Well, there you go!  Christ popped out of the tomb!  Christ is risen indeed!  End of story. Let’s go eat some ham!”  

And yes, Easter is the turning point of our story of faith, but it is far from the conclusion.  If we end the story here, today, it will be awkward…it will be incomplete…it will be unfinished.

I think we look at the scriptures in the past tense.  We see them as stories of what was, instead of what is, and what is to be.  But Easter is a fantastic time for us to shake off these nostalgic notions and to get serious about God’s confidence in the future.  While the Bible contains important stories of what happened, its direction is always forward…never backward.  

The incomplete Gospel of Mark reminds us that God is always out ahead of us.  God is always leading us into the future.  

I recently read an article by Pastor Peter Marty.  He wrote that “When Moses asks God to self-identify and provide a name, Christian bibles like to translate God’s response as ‘I am who I am.’  But the Hebrew verb is not present tense.  It actually translates to “I will be what I will be.”  God’s very name is future tense.  

The scriptures are full of this kind of imagery:  Remember how in Luke 9, Jesus tells the disciples to keep their hand to the plow and not look back.  And in today’s story, remember how the man in the white robe in the tomb tells the grieving women that Christ is alive, and is out ahead of them, not just stuck in their memories.  Christ is always looking forward.  Never back.

My friends, if our world ever needed a vision for what the future should be, it is right now.  It feels like our nation, our society, has been teetering on the edge of a knife.  We’ve seen political chaos…our eyes have been opened to racial injustice…and oh yeah, there is this little pandemic thing that we’ve been dealing with too.

It is time for Jesus’ followers to write the next chapter of the story…to write the next chapter of Mark’s incomplete Gospel…to stand, and to be the compassionate, joy-filled, loving, truth-telling servants that Christ’s resurrection frees us to be.  

This is our call as followers of the resurrected Jesus.  To write the next chapter and to be the hands of feet of God here in Owatonna, and wherever we go.

You can do this because Jesus loves you so much that he went to the tomb and back…for you.  

Follow Jesus, serve the world, and by the gift of Christ’s Spirt we can finish the story, and we can sing the complete verse together…all the notes:

“Jesus Christ is risen today!  A-a-a-a-a-le-lu-u-ia!”  

Let’s sing that together: 

“Jesus Christ is risen today!  A-a-a-a-a-le-lu-u-ia!” 

Now go write the next chapter.  Thanks be to God!  

Amen. 

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