I’m no expert at English literature, but I’m told that all of Shakespeare’s plays fall into one of three categories. Apparently Shakespeare’s works can be classified as either Histories, Tragedies or Comedies:
- The content of a history play is hopefully obvious, and includes works like King John, Henry 4th and Richard 3rd.
- A tragedy, meanwhile, is a play that exposes the weakness of human nature, and the suffering, death and injustice that can result when people choose evil over good, or when we are foolish rather than wise. Shakespeare’s tragedies include plays like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth.
- And, thirdly, Shakespeare wrote comedies. As Wikipedia(!) tells me, Shakespeare’s comedies have a somewhat “different meaning from modern comedy”. Rather than simply being written to make us laugh, a Shakespearean comedy is one that has a “happy ending” and can include a light-hearted, joyful content and style. Examples of Shakespeare’s comedies include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night.
Why do I mention all this? Because in this Easter season, as we recall the events of the first Easter 2000 years ago, we can see human tragedy and real history in what unfolded. But wonderfully, we also encounter the defining feature of a Shakespearean comedy – a happy ending. A happy ending which brought joy to Jesus’ first disciples, and which can bring lasting joy to us as well.
A human tragedy, an historical event and a happy ending. Let’s briefly look at each aspect of the Easter story in turn.
- A Human Tragedy
In many ways the first Easter Sunday was all set to be the conclusion of a very tragic tale. A group of bereaved women got up “very early” (v.1) to anoint the body of a dead man, Jesus of Nazareth:
- A man who had been killed by Roman crucifixion at a tragically young age, innocent of any crime.
- A man who had been executed for reasons of political expediency rather than justice.
- A man who had been abandoned by his friends in his hour of need. Even Peter, his closest companion, had disowned him.
Only the women in this human tragedy seem to have stayed by Jesus to the end. Mark’s Gospel tells us they were present at Christ’s death and afterwards had prepared spices to anoint his corpse. Yet when they went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body they found the tomb empty and his remains gone. Once they had overcome their initial shock and fear, they began to tell the world that Jesus had been “raised from the dead”. But why is their story to be believed? Is their story history or merely a myth?
- An Historical Event
In our reading this morning, Mark offers three pieces of evidence to persuade us that Christ’s tomb was truly empty:
- Firstly, in verse 1 of our passage he tells us that when Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body, they discovered it was gone. There is no question that the women went to the wrong tomb and made a mistake. In the previous chapter Mark has already told us that two days earlier they had seen Jesus taken down from the Cross and laid in the same tomb. The women knew where to find his body – or so they thought.
- Mark also mentions the heavy stone that had been used to seal Jesus’ tomb. A stone that would have deterred grave robbers and frustrated any last-minute rescue attempt by Jesus’ disciples. The other Gospel accounts tell us that this huge stone had also been sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers. Only divine intervention could explain why that massive stone had moved and why those guarding it had fled.
- A Happy Ending
But the third fact, the clinching evidence, that confronted the women at the empty tomb were the words of an angel who met them there. He appeared as “a young man dressed in white” and he put an end to the women’s doubts by saying: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen” (v.6).
The angel also reminded the women of the words of Jesus himself. He said “Jesus is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” You see, on several occasions during his ministry Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection. Referring to himself, Jesus had said “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and rise again”. From a human perspective, these events were tragic and unforeseen. But from a divine perspective, they were purposeful and planned. They were absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of sin and the defeat of death.
Over the next forty days, those women, the disciples and five hundred others were able to meet the risen Jesus in person. They were able to see his pierced hands and his feet, and hear him speak fresh words to them. They no longer doubted his resurrection. They knew that his life had not ended in death and defeat, but had had the ultimate happy ending.
Implications for today
So what are the implications today of the Easter story? What relevance has the resurrection in 2015?
Firstly, like Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, we live in the real world. The world of history. As we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we should be reminded that the real world matters to God. He did not stay aloof from our world, but became one among us in the person of Christ. Real people with real lives in the real world all matter to God.
The resurrection, in particular, shows that God has great plans for this material, physical world in which we live. At the end of history, God will renew and resurrect the whole of creation, just as he renewed and resurrected Jesus’ body on the first Easter morning. It was the ‘firstfruits’, a foretaste, of what is yet to come.
Like Mary Magdalene and the other women we sadly also live in a world of human tragedy. A world characterised by much sin, suffering and injustice. Yet the great news of Christ’s death and resurrection is that such tragedies can and will be overcome. At the Cross Jesus did everything necessary for us to be forgiven our sin, if only we will receive that forgiveness from him. And by raising Jesus from the dead, God declared him to be the just and righteous Lord of the universe. We can be confident that one day every human will be held to account before him, and that one day Christ will right every wrong.
A final implication of the resurrection is that, like Jesus himself, our lives can have the ultimate happy ending. Because Jesus has conquered the grave, death has lost its sting. Like Jesus, every Christian can look beyond the grave to a resurrected life in the world to come. If we remember Christ’s words and hold on to his promises we can have hope for the future, even during our final years on earth. If we are ‘in Christ’ our lives here will have the happiest ending imaginable – a warm welcome into God’s everlasting kingdom.
So this morning I hope we can all share the same hope and joy that the women experienced when they met the angel in the tomb. And let’s not keep this great news to ourselves, but go out and tell the world what a wonderful thing God has done!