Hearing Is Believing

Sermon preached on Quasimodo Geniti (Second Sunday of Easter)
Text: John 20:19–31 (Ezekiel 37:1–14  1 John 5:4–10 )
15 April 2012
Our Saviour Lutheran Church
Fareham

It’s one of my favourite paintings, and as far as I know one of the best known of Caravaggio’s many masterpieces: Doubting Thomas. Jesus is revealing the wound in His side, with an expression of patient endurance, with perhaps a tinge of pain. Thomas has his forefinger in the wound, with a look of utter astonishment painted with perfect realism on his face, while two other disciples look on. Caravaggio captures with extraordinary skill the moment of belief, when Thomas is forced to believe against all his better knowledge what the other disciples had already told him: Jesus really is alive. But he would carry forever the title of Doubting Thomas, because it is more blessed to believe when you haven’t seen, yet he only believed when he saw.

But as I have often said, the epithet ‘Doubting’ is not really fair on Thomas. It makes it sound like he is somehow inferior to the other disciples, a lesser apostle, perhaps even a deficient sort of man. There are those good people who believe without seeing, and then there are the thomases who need evidence. When in reality he wasn’t Doubting Thomas but Everyman Thomas. He really believed, as we really believe, that seeing is believing. That, if in doubt, you need to verify what you hear with the other four senses.

Now, this may be a sound principle in some situations, but it makes for very poor theologians—and under that heading, I include all who claim to know anything about God. Indeed, the very misery of mankind for which Christ died and rose again began with seeing as the instrument of believing. God had said to Adam that he may eat of every tree in the garden, but on the day that he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would surely die. But because the snake promised Eve that her eyes would be opened by the eating, Eve looked at the tree and she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate”.

Continue reading Hearing Is Believing

Hanging on like a pig to a loaf

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Reminiscere Sunday, 4 March 2012. You can listen to the audio here.

Readings: Genesis 32:22–32 1 Thessalonians 4:1–7 Matthew 15:21–28

The Christian faith has recently been in the media more than usual. In addition to the usual disparaging voices by various loud atheists, several benign outsiders have come to the defence of the faith. Newspaper columnists and even one atheist philosopher have given their support to the positive effects of religion in general and the Christian faith in particular—at least in its tolerant and woolly mainstream Anglican forms. At first glance, this is a nice change from the usual cynicism and scepticism. However, the party was very quickly spoiled by the atheist Times columnist and former politician Matthew Parris. He argued convincingly that these new defenders of the faith were hardly desirable company for genuine Christians. Above all, they want a social Christianity for the sake of social harmony and stability, without Jesus. Although he does not believe in the teachings of the church, Parris argued that it’s hard to doubt the existence of Jesus of Nazareth for the simple reason that if he did not exist, the church would never have made him up. Jesus is far too disturbing and unlikely a character to have been fabricated by people who were out to invent a religion out of their own heads.
There are few Bible passages that confirm Matthew Parris’ judgement better than today’s Gospel. How many times have you heard of, and told others about, the loving Jesus who does not turn away those who turn to Him? Of the loving Jesus who fulfilled the prophet’s word about not destroying a broken reed or snuffing out smouldering wick? The one who came to care especially the weak, the powerless, and the outcasts? You can imagine someone inventing a Jesus like that. But it’s hard to imagine anyone inventing a Jesus who ignores a woman who personifies the powerless and weak, who in her desperation turns to Him for help. And when He finally does open His mouth to reply to her, we hear these harsh words that have caused so much embarrassment for Jesus’ subsequent disciples: “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs.”
Continue reading Hanging on like a pig to a loaf

Believing is seeing

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Quinquagesima Sunday, 19 Feb 2012 (typos and all).

You can listen to the sermon on the Our Saviour website.

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Seeing is believing. So we are told, and so we feel. We find it easiest to believe that which we can see, because who could doubt what is before their own eyes. That’s why there are some areas of human knowledge that are more frequently disputed than others. No one is capable of doubting the roundness of the earth these days, since we have all seen the photos from space. On the other hand, when it comes to the theory of evolution or man-made global warming, we have to rely on the word of scientists, since the evidence is not something we can easily verify by our eyes. And so there are sceptics as well as believers. Because seeing is believing.

But in order to see properly, you need the right kind of eyes looking at the right thing. Faulty or impaired vision prevents you from seeing things as they are, and you are left in ignorance. Likewise, even with 20:20 vision you can be left in the dark if you don’t know what to look for, or if you are looking at the wrong thing. How many people have suffered needlessly when physicians have failed to diagnose correctly their illness, not from any incompetence but because they were looking for the wrong thing? How many scientific discoveries were missed or delayed because the scientists failed to recognise the facts that were staring them in the face? Or in more mundane settings, how many times have you failed to recognise a friend simply because you didn’t expect them to be there at that time? If it is true that seeing is believing, it is also true that much of the time we see what we expect to see. That’s the secret behind the art of magicians and camofleurs alike.

Continue reading Believing is seeing

Sorcerers from the East

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on 5 January 2012
Epiphany (observed)
Matthew 2:1–12
To hear the sermon, click hear to go to the Our Saviour website.

It’s commonly known to anyone who cares to notice: the Western world is changing, it’s changing rapidly, and much of it is not for the better. Society is fragmenting, families are breaking up, the economy is a mess, immorality and godlessness march on at speed. Darkness is called light and light darkness. These are the classic signs of the beginning of the end of a great civilisation.

But perhaps the one thing that worries many people most is the feeling that our civilisation is being taken over by another. Many Christians are among those who are particularly concerned about the threat from Islam, the growing number and influence of Muslims in this country and in the West in general. While churches are being abandoned, Mosques are being built. Immigration past and present have brought a once-distant and ‘foreign’ religion to our doorstep and into the centre of our communities. It may not be particularly visible within a square mile of the present location, but you only have to drive a few minutes along the coast to encounter the reality.

Continue reading Sorcerers from the East

What do you do?

Sermon on Reformation Sunday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 30 October 2011

Text: Romans 3:19–28
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We live in a world that is obsessed with doing. When forced to talk to new people, most people in Britain will first talk about the weather and, if the conversation needs to take a more profound turn, the next question is bound to be:
“What do you do? ”
What do you do? We like to define ourselves and one another by what we do. I’m a banker, I’m a teacher, I’m a soldier, I’m an accountant. That’s what I am, and that’s who I am.
For some, that can cause a problem. What do you say if you are unemployed and all you “do” is fill in job applications? What do you say if you are a pensioner and don’t officially “do” anything anymore (even though you are just as busy as ever)? What do you say if you are a housewife, a mother at home, and society doesn’t recognise your very busy life as official “doing”, since you are only at home?
But really, it’s a problem for us all. Because the moment we start defining ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are, we cast ourselves at the mercy of our capabilities and our opportunities—at the mercy of the varying circumstances of our life.
In fact, this whole way of thinking is an invention of the devil. He invented it to draw us away from the Triune God, away from dependence on Him, life as His image and in His service, to defining ourselves. “Just do this, and you will be like gods.”
And so all human religion, like much human culture, defines itself by it own activity, by its doing. And from the very beginning, this devilish doing has been creeping into the Christian church, to replace the Gospel. It’s there at the Fall, and throughout the history of God’s Old Covenant people, who are determined to do stuff. It’s in the New Testament, where false apostles are working hard to add things to do to the good news of Jesus Christ. And the history of the church is really the history of a battle against doing trying to take the place of the Gospel. Every heresy, every false doctrine, every false practice, really stems from this intrusion of doing into the body of Christ.
Of course, there is an awful lot of doing in the Gospel. But the question is, who is doing what. And so it is that true Christianity is all about grammar. More specifically, if you want to know what the Gospel is, look at the verbs: who is doing what.
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s do just that. Our Epistle reading on this Reformation Festival is that great clarion call of the Gospel from Romans 3: the justification of the sinner.
Up to this point in Romans, Paul has painstakingly demonstrated that all people, whether Gentiles or Jews, are sinners under the wrath of God, whether through ignorance, weakness or just plain rebellion. And then come those two little words that changed the history of the world, and the destiny of everyone who hears them: “But now.”
You were dead in your trespasses and sins. You were labouring to ward off death, to appease the gods, awaiting the crushing judgement of the one God.
But now. Everything has been changed. You are no longer unholy but holy. You are no longer under God’s wrath as an unrighteous sinner but a righteous, justified child of God.
And how has the change come about? Who does what.
Look at the verbs:
“God’s righteousness has been manifested … through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” That’s right; our Bible translation is almost certainly mistaken at this point. God’s righteousness—his holy, unimpeachable character and His holy, unimpeachable conduct towards His creation, has been manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
“All … are justified by His grace as a gift.” All are made righteous, as a gift—not a reward, not as part of a deal. A gift, His gift.
“Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood.” Christ Jesus is our ransom and the mercy seat whom God put forward to deal with our sin.
And why did God do this? “To show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Do you see what’s going on here? God is the one who is doing all the doing: the Father sending Jesus, Jesus remaining faithful as the ransom for us. God, God, God. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Doing all the doing.
So what’s left for us to do? What are our verbs?
For starters, there are the verbs with a no attached: “righteousness … apart from the Law.” “What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” “By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” “One is justified … apart from the works of the Law”.
What then? What are we to do?
Well, we have done more than enough already. There is just one pair of verbs in the whole passage in which we are the doers: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That is your contribution to your own salvation: you, by your actions, make it necessary for God to send a Saviour. He does the rest.
This is the great doctrine of justification, which the Reformation re-published to a world where it was in danger of being drowned out: that we are set free from our slavery to sin by the Son, and by Him alone. God presented His Son to be the Saviour of all, who by His perfect faithfulness and innocent death ransomed us who were slaves to sin and now presents us to the Father as His innocent, righteous brothers and sisters: righteous because we have been justified, declared righteous and gifted with Christ’s perfect righteousness.
A pure gift. A gift to be received through faith, that is by simple trust in the work of Christ. When you had done your worst, Christ came and did His best. And He asks that you do no more, but simply sit back and receive what He is giving you.
He did this once for all for the whole world on the cross of Calvary, before you were born. He did it for you in the waters of baptism, which was poured on you by another. He does it for you in the word of the Gospel through the voice of another. And He comes to you in the Sacrament, to offer you again fruit of all that He has done for you on the cross.
So when you come to the pearly gates and you are asked, “What did you do? ”, please answer: “Me? Oh, nothing at all. Christ did it all.”

Who’s coming to dinner?

Sermon from Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 17th Sunday after Trinity.
Text: Luke 14:1-14 (which takes up the first 2½ minutes or so)

Do not be anxious

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Trinity 15, 2 October 2011.
Text: Matthew 6:24–34
A recording of the sermon can be found here.

There’s no denying it: today’s Gospel reading is a difficult text. But it’s not your typical difficult text. Usually we find passages of the Bible difficult because we find them hard to understand, or the point they seem to be making is hard to fit into the rest of the Bible’s teaching. However, Jesus’ teaching today is difficult precisely because we do understand it and because it does fit in with the rest of the Bible’s teaching:

Do not be anxious about anything. Do not worry about food and drink, clothing and shelter: your heavenly Father knows your needs, so your anxiety is misplaced. Trust in God, and leave everything to His care. This is the consistent message of the God’s word in the Scriptures.

Peter writes, “Cast all your anxieties on Him and He will take care of you.” Paul writes, “Be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And King David sings, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”

But why is this a difficult text? It’s supposed to be comforting, making your life easier and less burdensome, not more? Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s difficult because we don’t think it’s true. A young girl called Rosie whom I taught early in my teaching career put it with admirable clarity when she declared: “Sir, that’s just stupid!” You wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but many of you probably think the same. It’s stupid because it’s so blatantly not true: people in the Horn of Africa don’t have enough to eat, and Christians are not excepted from the effects of the drought and famine. The houses and possessions of Haitian Christians were in no way exempted from the effects of the earthquake there. Streams of lava and clouds of ash don’t magically pass over Christian homes when volcanoes erupt, and wars are no better. Yet thousands upon thousands of Christians in those situations are praying for their daily bread, for protection, for shelter.

So it’s just stupid, isn’t it, when Jesus tells His disciples not to worry but to trust in their heavenly Father. Because His track record isn’t exactly brilliant, is it?

This is only natural—and this is precisely why Jesus teaches us what He teaches. Our attention is naturally drawn to the promises Jesus makes: of material sufficiency. And then we look at the material circumstances of people around us and make a judgement on whether that promise is reliable or not.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing: if Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew 6 isn’t reliable, then that means that He isn’t entirely reliable. Which means that we can’t always trust Him. Which makes Him a pretty dangerous Saviour. Which of His promises are you willing to trust, and how will you decide? When it comes to trusting in Jesus’ promises, it’s all or nothing, because it’s a matter of eternal life and death. You can’t pick and choose, because Jesus is Lord, not you. God is God, and you are not.

And this is precisely the point of Jesus’ teaching. The real point isn’t about our material well-being at all. How does He begin?

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt. 6:24)

The main problem when we are anxious about our material well-being is not that we are being anxious, which is both miserable in itself and bad for us. The real problem is far more serious: idolatry, the worship of the false god of Mammon.

Do you remember the explanation of the First Commandment in the Small Catechism? You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. And as the Large Catechism explains in greater detail, your god is therefore that things which you fear, love and trust in above all things. If it isn’t the Triune God, YHWH of the Scriptures, then it’s something else. And the chances are that it is Mammon:money, possessions, material well-being.

If you don’t trust God to provide for you, it’s not just that you are anxious about your well-being. It also means that you don’t trust God to be God—in sickness and in health, for better for worse, for richer and for poorer. It means that you don’t trust God to make the right decisions about your life, to give you what you need when you need it. You don’t trust that all things work for the good of those who love God. All—even poverty, deprivation, sickness, hunger and, yes, even death.

To judge God’s competence or the value of His promises on the basis of whether you, or your neighbour, or the people of Ethiopia or Haiti, are being well-fed, clothed and housed, and preferably in rude health for good measure, is to place yourself in the place of God as the judge of what is good, right and salutary. It is to have eyes only on this world, this life, and to equate God’s kingdom and His righteousness with how things are going in a fallen creation. It is to desire to lay up treasures on earth.

But as Jesus teaches us, there is no place in a human heart for two gods. There’s plenty of space for any number of idols, but there is only room for one God. If it’s Mammon, that leaves no room for YHWH. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Besides, what good is worry? How does it help? Martin Luther uses the illustration of a short man sitting in a corner and hoping by his anxiety about his height to grow taller. How daft. Likewise, when it comes to our daily or bodily needs, we can worry to our hearts’ content, but it won’t help us one bit. God will provide in the way that He sees fit. Call on Him in all your troubles. When you hand them to Him, they cease to be your problem, and you can be assured that all things work out for your good, because that’s what He promised. You may be blessed with sudden relief, like the widow of Zarephath was, or perhaps your heavenly Father has an even better plan for you.

* * * * *

It is a simple question of trust. Whom do you trust. Or better still: whom can you trust? Can you trust your own strength, skill or ingenuity? How far will they serve you? Can you trust your health? Can you trust the market? The government?
Or do you trust the God who sent His Son not only to tell you about God’s love but to put God’s love into action by dying for you in order to bring you life that lasts far beyond the passing pleasures and pains, riches and deprivations of this world? Would you trust a Christ, through whom all the world was created, suffered hunger and thirst, rejection and loneliness, and ultimately death by torture, so that your hunger and thirst for righteousness and the favour and friendship of God can be satisfied.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Seek first that life where God no longer reckons your sin to your account but instead makes the righteousness of Jesus yours. Seek first His kingdom, which is not a matter of eating and drinking earthly food and drink—things that can only sustain for a time—but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has commanded us to pray for our daily bread. In so doing we are released from anxiety, because by commanding us to turn to Him, He makes Himself our God, and takes responsibility for our needs. And as we receive our daily bread with gratitude, whether in abundance or in meagre portions, we continue to receive food and drink that of the Kingdom that is coming: the incorruptible, inexhaustible food and drink of heaven, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You may spend the rest of your days with your stomach full and satisfied, or you may die of malnutrition or even starvation. You may face the rest of your life in warmth, comfort and shelter, or you may die of exposure or violently at the hands of your enemies. Either way, in the Kingdom of God, you will always be filled and satisfied with the bread of heaven which will never run out; your cup will overflow without end; and you will sit permanently under the shelter of God’s wings, at the table prepared in the presence of your enemies.

And all these other things will be added to you as well, according to God’s will.

May the Holy Spirit strengthen us in faith that we may always trust our heavenly Father’s abundant goodness and mercy so that at our lives’ end, we are received into His everlasting kingdom, where we will be able to walk by sight and not by faith.

In the name of the Father, etc.

An antidote

to church-growth trickery:

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor. 4:2-5, ESV)

Leaving your gift at the altar

I grew up in Lutheran circles in Western Finland that can only be described as pietist orthodoxy. For many (most?) English-speaking Lutherans, that’s supposed to be a contradiction in terms, but take my word for it, it isn’t necessarily. My experience is of a rich, deep spirituality rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (My cousin Juhana Pohjola explains this background briefly but clearly in his lecture at the excellent recent Symposium on Scandinavian Lutheranism at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON. You can listen to it here.)

As you would expect, though, the ‘pietism’ bit of that equation can cause occasional problems. One of them used to be infrequent Communion. I say, used to be, because things have changed much in my lifetime.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t a pietistic one anyway, since infrequent celebration of the Sacrament was pretty universal in those parts, not only in pietist circles. However, pietists added their own peculiar reasons for such infrequency, some of which are still around and which are far well beyond pietist circles. One of my pet irritations among them is the desire to commune infrequently so that it feels more special. I challenge anyone to take that approach to other forms of eating and drinking and see how it works out!

Another, more biblical argument, comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

[Jesus said,] “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23–24, ESV)

The way this has traditionally been read by many is that it’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper (“altar”), and that you shouldn’t come to receive the Lord’s Supper if you are in conflict with someone, or at any rate with someone in the church (“your brother”), but rather be reconciled first (“leave your gift there before the altar and go”). And so many people have stayed away from the Sacrament because they are angry with, or have had an unresolved argument, or worse, with someone. And they have also preferred infrequent Communion, in order to give them time to do the rounds and prepare for right reception by seeking reconciliation first. I have even witnessed near-hysterical scenes just before the start of the service as members of the congregation have tearfully done the rounds with one another, confessing whatever bad thoughts they have harboured towards one another and forgiving one another so that they can come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper.

I’m all for people being reconciled with their brothers and sisters—in fact, with the world and its dog, so far as it is possible. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving and giving forgiveness is a thoroughly good thing. Likewise, to come to receive the Sacrament of the world’s reconciliation to the Father while refusing to be reconciled with a fellow-believer is a fairly obvious sign of impenitence. Impenitence is never a good state to be in when coming to the altar!

However, I contend none of this has anything to do with Matthew 5:23–24. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking of someone bringing their gift to the altar. What, I ask, has that to do with receiving the Lord’s Supper? Yes, it has the word ‘altar’ in Matt. 5, and Lutheran and many other churches have an ‘altar’ in their churches as the locus of the celebration of the Sacrament. But, as Norman Nagel would probably say, it’s not what word are being used but how they are being used that matters.

What Jesus is referring to is ‘bringing gifts to the altar’. And his audience is Jewish. So, what exactly is he referring to? My suggestion is that he is referring to the—ready for it—bringing of gifts (offerings) to the Temple. He is saying that if you are in a murderous state on account of your anger toward your brother, it’s not a good time to bring gifts to God. Better to acquire a broken and contrite heart first, to do justice and show mercy first, before bringing gifts and sacrifices to Him. Because the sin of the heart will stain the gift in the hands.

To translate into 21st-century church life, what Jesus is in effect saying is: don’t put money on the plate, don’t bring flowers on the altar, don’t sweep the car park, until you are reconciled. Repent first!

What he isn’t saying is: don’t come to the Sacrament. Because if that’s what he was saying, no one could come to the Sacrament, because there is plenty of sin of all kinds in all our hearts, and if we were to wait till it was all dealt with…

No, wait: that’s precisely why we come receive the Sacrament in the first place! Because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To receive ‘forgiveness, life and salvation’: to be forgiven, to be strengthened in the new life (including the power to forgive), to eat and drink salvation from sin, death and the devil. So if you have sinned against your brother, withhold your offering if your conscience demands it. But by no means stay away from the Sacrament of forgiveness. Instead, seek absolution from the pastor, eat and drink the forgiveness wrought and brought by the body and blood of Christ. If you find it impossible to forgive, seek absolution for that, and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation for that. How better could you overcome the power of the sin in you? And what could you possibly need more when you are stuck in this, or any other sin, than forgiveness?

So, don’t stay away. Oh, and if you do withhold your gifts, it’s probably a good idea to set them aside to be given later when everything’s sorted out…

[There’s a really good discussion on forgiveness with Pr. Bill Cwirla on Issues Etc. Listen to it here.]

HT: My thinking on this subject got going some years ago when listening to a talk by Douglas Wilson.

Fear and trembling

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Easter morning, 24 April 2011.
Text: Mark 16:1–8
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We know very little about the evangelist Mark. But of one thing we can be fairly certain: he never did go on a creative writing course. What an awful way to end a book:

“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Said nothing? ! Nothing? !

Were afraid? !

What started as the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God—Mark’s famous opening line—ends up with this crushing anti-climax. Jesus is risen, but no one hears about it, because the women said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

In fact, it’s such an awful way to end the Gospel, that some time after Mark had finished writing his, some people came along and tried to make amends for his seeming incompetence by writing better conclusions. If you look up Mark 16 in your Bibles, you will find at least two different endings after verse 8, which break the women’s silence and end the story as it should end. And in more recent times, since it has become obvious that those longer endings aren’t original, well-meaning scholars have suggested all sorts of theories as to why Mark didn’t actually get to finish the gospel, or how his real ending got lost somewhere.

But is it really so bad? Do we need to be embarrassed or even puzzled? Closer examination of the gospel suggests that the opposite may be the case.

One of the really distinctive things about Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and teaching is that he deliberately portrays all the people in the Gospel, from Jesus down, in their full humanity. There are no caricatures, not polished or stylised characters. When the disciples are being thick and slow on the uptake, Mark doesn’t hide that. When they stick their feet firmly in their mouths, Mark makes sure that we know about it. And when Jesus is in agony, suffering first in Gethsemane and then on the cross, Mark gives to us a portrait of a man genuinely suffering: in the Garden, prostrate on the ground, begging for the cup of suffering to be taken away; and on the cross, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! ”

There is a great comfort in this. When we struggle with the weakness of our faith, or when our own agenda takes over God’s will, Mark kindly reminds us that we are not alone. The great apostles were just the same, and yet Jesus chose them to be His ambassadors to the world, bringing about His kingdom by proclaiming His word. He bears with our weaknesses as He bore with theirs, and it is by His calling that we are made into God’s children, just as they were called not because of their excellence but simply because He chose them. And as He equipped the apostles for their ministry, so will He also equip us for our place in His kingdom, whatever that place may be. As the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: His power is made perfect in our weakness, because His grace is sufficient.

More than that, when He took on human flesh, it wasn’t just a bit of play acting, only pretending to be one of us. No, He suffered fear and anguish and temptation as we do. Therefore, He is able to sympathise with our weakness—not only in principle, or because He is all-knowing, but because He has experienced weakness, yet without sin.

And so it is most appropriate that Mark’s Gospel should end the way it does. The women fled the tomb and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Jesus was alive, but they had not encountered the risen Jesus, and so the news of His resurrection was not a comfort but a source of trembling and astonishment. It made no sense, they couldn’t believe really believe it, so they said nothing.

How typical—not only of them, but of every disciple in Mark’s Gospel: seeing yet not believing, missing what should be obvious. I mean, what more did they need? An empty tomb, and an angel explaining exactly what it all meant. The meaning should have been obvious. They should have rejoiced and told everyone, not trembled and told no one.

But, again Mark is doing us a great favour in drawing attention to the women’s unbelief. Because it shows that we are not alone with our doubts and struggles, our fears and our fearfulness. The facts are evident, and we are reminded of them week after week, year after year, as we hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed. There may be no angel from heaven, but angels of God, His messengers, have faithfully pointed to the empty tomb again and again, proclaiming that Jesus is alive and has gone ahead of us.

But where joy and courage should follow, there is trembling and astonishment. Where we should be quick of feet to tell everyone that the Lord has risen, we say nothing to anyone, because we are afraid.

And yet, we know how the story ends. Mark had no need to give the Gospel a neat ending, because everyone knew what happened next. Within a few short hours, the astonishment and fear had been replaced by rejoicing, and the silence had turned into breathless proclamation: He is risen! By the time Mark put pen to papyrus, the news of Christ’s resurrection had travelled thousands of miles all around the Roman empire and beyond, and it is still spreading.

Because it is His Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Death could not hold Him down, and the weakness of the women at the tomb could not hold back the life-giving news of His rising. When they encountered the risen Christ, His voice and His touch melted away their fear and turned their silence into joyful words.

Easter morning will not have been the last experience of fear and doubt for these first witnesses of the resurrection. Even though the encounter with the risen Lord dispelled their anxiety and replaced it with joy, after His ascension there will have been many anxious moments. Anxieties about daily bread, about health, anxieties in the face of persecution, anxiety in the face of approaching and impending death. Anxiety in the face of sin and doubt. The feelings of joy will have been a memory than a reality.

How would they recover the joy and the confidence? How do we gain, and regain the same joy and confidence that was theirs then?

True Christian joy comes from the encounter with the risen Jesus. That was true on Easter morning, and it is true now. The very joy of heaven will be the joy of the presence of the risen Jesus. When fear and anxiety threaten to take over our lives, we need to seek the presence of the risen Jesus. Even as we suffer, we can share Job’s confident hope: I know that my Redeemer lives: my life is no longer defined by my present circumstances but by the future hope made present now.

There is nothing airy-fairy or abstract about this encounter. Jesus is not your imaginary friend. No, the risen Lord is present here and now. He it is that is speaking to you, as He spoke to the startled disciples on the first Easter Sunday. His crucified and risen body is about to enter this room, as it entered through locked doors on the evening of the first Easter. You can touch His body as Thomas touched it and was transformed from doubting Thomas to believing Thomas. And as you encounter Him in the Divine Service, and through faith recognise that it is indeed He and that He is indeed living and present here for you, your doubts, fears and anxieties will go the same way that the doubts, fears and anxieties of the three women at the tomb.

Jesus is risen, and you too shall rise. Whatever havoc death is playing with your life now, Christ has overcome death—and so you, too, who are in Christ, will be victorious over death. It can only inflict temporary wounds, cast temporary shadows, provoke temporary fears. In Christ, you can stare all the failures and successes of this present life full in the face and declare with faithful Job:

I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Alleluia, He is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!