This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
They went first thing in the morning while the light was just beginning to push back the dark. They found a shopkeeper pushing open his doors and sweeping the threshold so they were able to purchase the requisite oils and spices. The city was slowly rumbling to life after Sabbath; three women hurrying along, keeping to the murky morning shadows, would hardly be noticed. They slipped through the city gate and headed toward the hillside tomb where Jesus had been interred just before the dark pushed back the light on Friday.
Once out of ear shot of others the women started to talk more. In the first light of the new day it dawned on them: who would push the stone away so that they could get to the body? A stone was rolled over the opening of the cave to keep out animals and hold in the smell. That’s why they were going to the tomb….
it was an expression of love,
it was part of grieving,
it was to cover the stink of death
Dead bodies begin to break down immediately. After a last breath slips away our bodies begin to decompose, decay, and bloat. The cool of a tomb helps, but there is really no holding back the process. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, body to compost. The spices help cover over the stench, at least for a bit.
So, three women, not the chosen disciples who jockeyed for positions of influence and recognition, but three women went to do the tender, faithful, pragmatic thing. They went to push back death a bit.
And, don’t be mistaken, this was death. Jesus was bruised, bloodied, battered and broken. The cruel and careless Roman guards would have left his dead body hang for all to see. What did it matter? One more common criminal, one more dead Jew. But Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. To leave it on display over the Sabbath was particularly heinous; you wouldn’t even do that to a dog.
So, they lowered him down, limp, lifeless, dead weight. Not death as a metaphor, not death as a parable, not death as an idea. Death as finality. Death as done. Death as dead. All that was left was the stink.
They carried him to a tomb cut into a rocky hillside and the same women followed. They knew where to go on Sunday morning because they followed on Friday afternoon. They went home and observed the Sabbath. Sun set to sun set. And then they got up and bought spices….
Dear friends, it is a little throwaway detail, a line that easily gets missed. Three women buying spices, the precursor of flowers at a funeral. That’s where the practice comes from, by the way. Funeral flowers were not originally about honoring the dead or beautifying the funeral home, they were an aroma to hold back the odor of death.
There is something that makes us want to hold back death. We dress up the dead, and comfort each other with well-meaning lines when a loved one has passed on: “Looks good… looks at peace… is finally at rest.” We offer the comfort that they are: “In a better place….. will live on in our memory…. will live on in their children and grandchildren….. will always be with us.” But, truth told, death won’t be held back. We can push it back and pretty it up, but death is inevitable. We’re all going to die. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, “The life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Death is built into the current order of things. We live, we die, and once we die we start to decompose and decay.
So, three women carried spices to tend after their dead friend, only to find the stone rolled away, the body gone, and some unnamed-unexplained-young man dressed in white with word that Jesus had risen.
Three women with no idea how to make sense of this news. This was not the way of the world. This was not how things happen. They had no experience, no framework, no expectation, no idea…
In the Gospel of Mark there are no joyful alleluias. There is no mention of lilies and trumpets; there is not even a reassuring resurrection appearance. There are simply three women left holding spices, with no clue what to do next. Because….
Resurrection is not normal.
Resurrection is not inevitable.
Resurrection is not rational.
Resurrection is not part of the created order as we experience it.
Resurrection is the staggering bewildering miraculous act of God.
William Willimon puts it this way:
Although we are frail, mortal, finite human beings and we are totally inadequate in our words and deeds in the face of death, God, the one who creates and gives life, is determined to be the creator and giver of life even in death. Because Jesus is raised, we are bold to believe that we also shall be raised. The one who was cruelly, brutally killed is the one who rises, and in love, he is determined to not rise alone. Christ brings us along for the ride. He reaches into the horror of death, all the pain and the grief and all of our rather pitiful, inadequate responses, and he makes one grand response of his own. He is raised!
There is no explaining it. It strikes me that efforts to make a case for the resurrection based on the evidence of history or science or reason will all ultimately fall short. We are gathered today in a bewildering mystery. We are hanging our deepest hopes and our most basic sense of trust on a bewildering mystery. If bewilderment is the best you’ve got this day; you’re in good company.
Jesus, somehow fully human and fully divine, mystery enough right there, was stone cold dead. The organic material of his body was given over to the processes of this world. Until in some miraculous moment the power of God breathed new life into the new Adam and he was resurrected. Not recycled, not resuscitated, not reincarnated but resurrected. Thanks be to God.
Maybe that is good news enough for today. I am not sure that there is better news. The stink of death is defeated. But….
But, the Apostle Paul, a few years later wrote to the Christ-followers in Corinth that they carried around the aroma of life. In Paul’s words, “We are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.”
Dear friends, part of the good news of Easter is that we bear in our bodies not a passing deodorant of death but the fragrance of resurrection. In a world that can stink to high heaven, in a culture that is often an odorous toxic stew you are a whiff of life. You smell like resurrection.
N.T. Wright writes about it this way: “The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs and commissioned to go make new creation happen in this world.”
What does it mean to be the fragrance of resurrection? 1) We can live with the deep seated trust that the inevitability of death is not the last word. Cancer, depression, addiction, loneliness, every expression of depravity are not the last words. Light will overwhelm dark; love will overwhelm fear; freedom will overwhelm bondage; resurrection will overwhelm death. There is nothing to ultimately fear because God wins in the resurrection of Jesus.
Therefore, 2) We can follow the ethic of the new Adam in this new creation. We can forgive without needing to get in the last word. We can love others, not because of what we might get in return, but because they too bear the image of the creating and resurrecting God. We can invest all that we’re worth in expressions of resurrection, not vestiges of death. We can raise our children, not in exclusion and scarcity, but inclusion and abundance. We can be merciful to friend and neighbor, even as we’ve been shown mercy. We can….
We can come to this table. For even in the crunch of grain and the splash of wine there is a foretaste of a great banquet where everybody has a place because death is vanquished. So, come to the table in joy and hope and bewilderment, but look and listen and smell for you might find even here the faintest whiff of resurrected life.
He is risen! Alleluia. Amen.
Prayer of response
Father in heaven, we thank you that Jesus is risen from the dead! Help us to believe the gospel, to live the gospel and to enjoy the gospel, by your Spirit. In Jesus name we pray! Amen!
Order of Service
WE GATHER IN GOD'S PRESENCE
Welcome and announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 95: 6, 7
Silent Prayer concluded with “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH# 625
Votum: “Our help is in the name of the LORD who made the heavens and the earth.”
Prayer for God’s Greeting, “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Opening hymn: “Now with Joyful Exaltation” PsH# 95: 1-3
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130: 7-8
Hymn: “Not What My Hands Have Done” PsH#260
God’s Will for our Lives: Exodus 20: 1-17
WE HEAR THE WORD
Hymn: “Break Now the Bread of Life” PsH#282
Scripture Reading: Mark 16: 1-8
Sermon: “The Fragrance of the Resurrection”
Prayer of Response
Hymn: “Fill Thou My Life” PsH#547
WE PEPART WITH GOD'S BLESSING
Prayer for God’s blessing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “By the Sea of Crystal” PsH#620