Listen to our service and sermon below:
When I was a 10th grade Spanish student, I learned a word that resonated deeply with the wishing and pining a 15 year-old knows so well. My vocabulary lesson paired the word with a cartoon – a drawing of a young girl looking in a mirror. What she saw looking back at her from that mirror was a beautiful, glamorous woman – the person she hoped to be. Underneath the drawing was a single Spanish word: Ojalá. Which means in English, “Oh, if only…”
I liked the word immediately, because I knew what it meant to long for things to be other than they are. I knew how to wish and sigh and yearn.
“Ojalá” has its roots in the Arabic word Inshallah, which means “God willing!” It’s a word expressing hope. If it’s used with a present tense verb, the implication is that whatever is hoped for might actually be feasible, as in: “Oh, if only it would start feeling like spring, we could put away our winter coats.” But the word can also be used in the past tense, to express a regret. Used in the past tense, the word usually refers to a situation that is unreal or impossible. “Oh, if only I had told her what she meant to me before she was gone.”
It’s human nature to long to change things we cannot change, to fix things that are unfixable, to undo things that cannot be undone. And those things in the past – the things we long to undo – can sometimes make the present and even the future also seem inflexible, immovable, impossible. “If only” can become less like hope and more like powerlessness.
What are the “if only”s in your life this Easter morning?
The disciples knew something about “if only.” According to Mark, after Judas betrayed Jesus in the garden, every single one of his disciples deserted him and fled. Peter did come back and follow at a distance, but when a servant-girl recognized him as one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter said he didn’t even know what she was talking about. She pressed, but Peter denied it again. Then some bystanders also insisted he must be a disciple, and Peter could not have been clearer in his denial: “I do not know this man you are talking about.” The cock crowed a second time, just as Jesus had predicted. And Peter broke down and wept. Ojalá.
According to Mark, it was only the women who didn’t abandon Jesus. Helpless to stop the torture, powerless to stop his execution, they stood looking on from a distance, bearing witness to his hideous death. And when the sabbath was over, they did the one thing they had the power to do – they bought spices and they went to the tomb to anoint him, to give him a proper burial. On the way to the tomb, they began to ask each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” In their grief, they had gone alone. If only they had brought someone to move the stone.
“Who will roll it away?” they asked. And in Mark’s perfectly understated way, he answers their “if only” with news that would change everything. “When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”
It’s one of the most hopeful sentences in the Bible: It had already been rolled back. This thing they couldn’t do – or, more accurately, this thing they couldn’t undo – had already been done, had already been undone. The truth is, it had already been undone before they even knew it, while they were still worrying and wishing.
So the women went into the tomb and saw a young man sitting there, dressed in a white robe, and, Mark tells us (again, in his understated way), “they were alarmed.” I mean, of course. And then of course what does the man say? “Do not be alarmed.” And that’s how we know he was an angel. Angels are always showing up in the Bible in the most unexpected places and in the most frightening ways, and they always start by saying the same thing, “Don’t be afraid.” Which is the one thing I guarantee you are going to be if one of them appears to you – especially in a tomb! This one is sitting in a tomb that isn’t supposed to be open and isn’t supposed to be empty, talking with three women who have witnessed the horrifying death of their beloved teacher and friend, and he says, “Don’t be alarmed. The man you’re looking for, Jesus the Christ, who was crucified, is not here. He has been raised…. Go, and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there.”
Notice how he singles out Peter. Go tell Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times. Go tell Peter this news: Jesus isn’t here. Death couldn’t hold him. He’s out there – gone on ahead of you. Go tell Peter that the stone has already been rolled back. Go tell Peter that the things he cannot undo have already been undone. Go tell Peter the impossible “if only” of a denial that couldn’t be taken back – has been forgiven, released, redeemed.
I love Mark’s account of the resurrection. His was the earliest gospel, and the shortest, and it’s the rawest. Some might say it’s the darkest. One of the reasons some say that is because of the ending. If you look in your own Bible, you may see as many as 10 more verses beyond this morning’s passage, most likely in brackets. Those verses were not part of the original text; they were added by later Christians. In fact, there are at least three different versions of additional endings for this gospel, all of them attempts at making it more complete. And when you see where the gospel actually ends (verse 8), it’s hard to blame those early Christians for trying to finish the story and tie up the disappointing loose ends. The original manuscripts end with verse 8, which simply says, “So (the women) went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
That’s it. Happy Easter!
Seriously, what kind of ending is that? The resurrection has taken place and the only witnesses to the empty tomb have gone running away because they were scared. That’s it. The end. Mark’s is the only gospel in which, after the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t actually show up anywhere. He doesn’t appear. And the women don’t, in fact, do as the angel told them. They fail. They don’t run and tell the disciples and Peter anything. They run away. They say nothing to anyone, because they’re scared. And then the story stops.
It stops, but it doesn’t have an ending. An ending does things. It brings closure. The guy gets the girl. The villain gets punished. The hero wins. The mystery is solved. The loose ends are tied up. The end.
This story doesn’t have a The End. It doesn’t give us closure. And that’s not how we like to live, is it? Uncertainty, open-endedness, unfinished business, unanswered questions. It’s hard to live like that. If you’ve ever had to live for any length of time with a large, open question in your life, then you know how difficult it can be to do as the angel says and not be afraid. How can we not fear, when we don’t know how things are going to turn out?
In the darkness of the tomb, God worked to bring life out of death. In the half-light of that first Easter morning, the women couldn’t be sure what had really happened. They are standing on the threshold of a new world, but they can’t yet see that or even imagine it. All they can see is the emptiness. The stranger in the tomb tells them strange good news. Would they be fools to hope that he’s telling the truth? How do you move forward when you can’t see how things are going to turn out?
Fear was not the final word for the women, of course. Eventually, they broke their silence and told their story – otherwise, we wouldn’t have it. There wasn’t anyone else there to have told it for them. Maybe they discovered that their fear was like the stone that had already been rolled back for them – the power of God was at work even on that first frightening morning at the tomb, before they could see it had already begun.
The line between hope and fear is so very thin. Our hope is shot through with longing – with if only – and we are so afraid. Afraid that the good we yearn for might not happen. Afraid of believing that it might. Afraid that our past failures and regrets will determine our future. Afraid that present reality has closed off new possibilities. We’re afraid to trust in things we cannot yet see. We’re afraid to hope.
But here’s one thing Mark wants us to know about Easter. Whatever looks like The End – is not. The cross was not The End and the empty tomb was not The End and even the women running away in fear was not The End. The ending of Mark was not an ending. The resurrection put an end to The End. What God did in the darkness of the tomb was not a conclusion, but a new beginning, not a closure, but an open invitation. An invitation to live resurrection lives, to practice resurrection hope, to join the story of resurrection, to be part of the ongoing, unfolding story of God’s redemption in the world even now.
What if the immovable, impossible, unbearable things in your life have already been rolled back in ways you can’t yet see? What if the regrets, the failures, the “if only”s of your past are already being redeemed in ways you can’t yet fathom? What if you and I are already standing on the edge of a whole new reality? And what if what looks like an ending is actually an invitation to a new beginning?
I’m no angel, and I’m not going to tell you do not be afraid. But I am going to tell you this: There is reason for hope. Look, the stone has already been rolled back. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.