A sermon on Mark 15:40-16:8 by Rev Richard Keith on Easter Day, 2019
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is an annual conference held in Sydney to promote and discuss controversial ideas and subjects. At the festival in 2009, for example, celebrity atheist Christopher Hitchens argued that religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilisation it has become a threat to human survival. That’s a dangerous idea. In 2011 it was argued that footballers are barbarians and not role models and another lecture argued that horse riding is more dangerous than ecstasy. In 2013 one speaker asserted that some people are more equal than others. They are all dangerous ideas.
The ABC show QandA broadcast a special episode from the 2013 festival. The panel included feminist Germaine Greer, American gay activist Dan Savage, British journalist Peter Hitches, brother of atheist Christopher Hitchens, and American author Hanna Rosin. Towards the end of the show host Tony Jones asked the panel one last question: Which so-called dangerous idea do you each think would have the greatest potential to change the world for the better if it were implemented?
Dan Savage said, Population control. There’s too many people on the planet. And, you know, I’m pro-choice. I believe that women should have the right to control their bodies. Sometimes in my darker moments I am anti-choice. I think abortion should be mandatory for about 30 years. That’s a dangerous idea. So throw a chair at me.
Germaine Greer said, The most dangerous idea, the one that terrifies us the most, is freedom – to actually be free – is, to most human beings, disorientating, terrifying but it’s the essential bottom line. If you want to be a moral individual you must be free to make choices and that includes making mistakes.
Hanna Rosin said, We should watch our children less. We live in a culture which follows our children around, is obsessed with safety, decides everything for our children, doesn’t let them have any freedom. Doesn’t let them wander. Doesn’t let them go anywhere or do anything by themselves and we should, in fact, do less with our children, not more.
Peter Hitchens said, The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.
When asked to clarify what he meant, Hitchens replied
Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.
It is this dangerous idea, the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be our living Lord and our king forever, that we turn to today.
Speaking of dangerous ideas, nothing will overturn the patriarchy like recognising the vital role of the women in the Easter story. I mean, where were the men? Judas betrayed Jesus. When Jesus was arrested, most of the other disciples ran away. Peter followed at a distance but denied Jesus three times while Jesus was on trial for his life. But as Jesus died, while the men were hiding behind locked doors, the women watched on from a distance, keeping vigil over his last hours. They had followed Jesus from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem and had served him. And in the hours of his greatest need, they were there to witness his suffering and his sacrifice.
They knew perfectly well that Jesus had died. And they knew precisely where he was buried. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish ruling council, was a follower of Jesus, and he had the courage to go to the governor to ask for the body of Jesus. Joseph took his body down, wrapped it in a linen shroud and placed it in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock, and rolled a stone across the entrance to protect the body from scavengers. The women knew where Jesus was buried because they followed and watched all these events happening. But they were unable to do anything more for Jesus. Jesus was crucified on a Friday and the Jewish Sabbath began at sunset, meaning that they had to stop all work and to return to their lodgings. They probably used what little time they had before the Sabbath began to buy the ointment and spices they would need to finish the burial preparations. Since the Sabbath ended at sunset on Saturday, they would not be able to go back to the tomb until first light on Sunday.
So in Mark chapter 16 we see the women making the journey to the tomb. They were expecting to find Jesus well and truly dead. They hadn’t prepared a welcome back alive party for Jesus. They hadn’t packed hot cross buns and orange juice for a special Easter breakfast. They had packed spices for his corpse. This is a crucial point, because it counters the idea that the disciples experienced a self-induced mass hallucination created by their hopes that Jesus was still alive. And maybe you’ve met a poor soul like that whose mind is so fragile that it just can’t and won’t accept the truth. Instead they cling to the illusion that everything is just perfectly fine and nothing is wrong.
But the women who walked the path to the tomb in the pre-dawn gloom had packed their baskets full of acceptance of the truth. In fact, nothing helps mourners to ground themselves to the harsh realities of death better than to attend to the final necessities of funeral arrangements. In our culture we would meet with the funeral directors and pick the casket and the flowers and we would meet with the minister and pick the hymns and the Bible readings. We would go through all the drawers to find the best photos for the slide show. Such things don’t just soften the blow of death, but they help to accept that what happened has happened and it is just part of life that keeps going on. When it feels like there is nothing you can do, these arrangements help the mourners find something to do. The women packed spices because they watched Jesus die and they saw where he was buried and they were going to finish the job because none of the men would.
And you can probably even picture the precise moment on that gloomy walk when one of the women realised that they had a problem that they had forgotten to take into account. Between them and the body of Jesus lay a huge massive stone. It wouldn’t just keep scavengers out. It would keep them out too.
And then they arrived and their problem was resolved in the worst possible way. Like that day, and I am not admitting that this ever happened to me, it’s purely hypothetical, but it is like that day when you were at university and you wasted a whole day worrying about the final exam tomorrow when you should have been worrying about the final exam you forgot to go to that morning. Problem resolved in the worst possible way. No exam tomorrow because you already missed it.
As I was saying, the women were worrying about moving the stone, and their hearts sank when they saw that the stone had already been rolled away and the tomb was empty. And, of course, they looked at each other, wondering if they’d come to the wrong place when they remembered that they’d been right here at that precise spot just one and half days ago when Joseph of Arimathea had buried Jesus. So the only reasonable explanation is that someone had taken Jesus’ body.
Then everything started to go weird when a young man dressed in white appeared. The Bible probably understates the situation when it says they were alarmed, because their emotional train had left alarmed five minutes ago and they were well on their way to arriving at completely out of their minds. They didn’t look at the empty tomb and think to themselves, “Oh look, the tomb is empty. This is a good thing.” They didn’t shout, “Hooray.” They didn’t rush back to town to tell everyone that the tomb was empty. “Surprise. Happy Easter.” For these brave, caring women this had turned into the worst possible scenario. Their teacher was dead. And when they thought they had laid him to rest and only had to finish the one last thing they could do for him, they couldn’t because the body was missing, probably stolen.
It’s like that day, and again I’m not admitting that this has ever happened to me, it’s purely hypothetical, but that day you wasted worrying about running late for that must win job interview when you should have been worrying about what happens when you don’t put petrol in the car.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said the young man, as if words could help, as if mere words could make their problem go away.
“Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.””
It is a terrifying, earth shattering, world upside down turning, dangerous idea. That Jesus of Nazareth – crucified, dead and buried – is yet risen from the dead as the first of many, and is alive and well, not as an immortal idea or a death-defying principle nor as a ghost or sprit, but as a true and living person, exalted and ruling as the king forever – the idea that Jesus Christ is Lord, ruling at the right hand of God, pouring out his Holy Spirit, waiting to return to right all wrongs – means that all those things that people told you are lies.
Like, the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. It’s a lie. Nothing is less certain than death, if Jesus is raised from the dead. Or, life is short and then you die. It isn’t true. Life is long. Or, you only live once. Although most people don’t even seem to live at all, but are so mind numbingly content to simply exist. And what’s that other thing that people say? Oh, that’s right. “It doesn’t matter what you do, because it doesn’t make any difference. So why even try?” If Jesus is alive from the dead, it matters very much what you do. They are all spirit breaking, mind numbing lies if the God who made you walked this earth, and showed his true colours in touching the lepers and welcoming the children, and surrendered his hands to the nails of the cross and is risen to life and still bears the scars that show you your true worth, and if he did this to break the chains that shackle you to the past and all your mistakes and regrets and to open for you a whole new future to give you – what was it Germaine Greer said? – Oh that’s right, true freedom that is found not in doing whatever you want but in fulfilling your life’s purpose in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit.
Now that is a dangerous idea. If it is true it changes how you look at yourself and at the world around you. It makes you rethink all your life’s decisions so far and it opens up a whole new set of possibilities. It’s an idea that is still as dangerous today as it was on the very first Easter.
As Mark chapter 16 verse 8 says,
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
This is not the behaviour of people who have just heard the good news that they were hoping for. This is not the behaviour of people who can’t deal with the fact that their teacher is dead so they pretend it never happened. This is what happens when people are confronted with an idea that changes everything. Every choice they’ve ever made. Everything they will ever do. Because nothing will ever be the same again. The women had gone out to the tomb brave enough to face armed guards and huge stones and the grisly task of the burial rituals. And now they had to face the fear and to summon the courage to tell the other disciples that the Jesus they abandoned was alive. That the failed Messiah they had run away from had stayed true and been vindicated by his Father. That the end of the world had happened in the middle of history. And somehow the women found that courage, reminding us that the first preachers of the resurrection were the women who had never abandoned Jesus.
In conclusion, it is the most dangerous idea because it is a message that changes everything. As Peter wrote later in his first letter,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
New birth into a living hope of an inheritance that cannot perish and of a salvation that cannot be snatched away from us. Made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The first of many. As German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg once said,
The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.
The resurrection of Jesus is not a comforting lie for fragile minds. It is the most dangerous truth ever. May God give you his Spirit to help you change everything.