Resurrecting (the) Text: The Ending(s) of the Gospel of Mark and the Choices We Have to Make
16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The Shorter Ending of Mark
[[And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.]]
The Long Ending of Mark
[[9 Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. 12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. 14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table, and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.]]Gospel of Mark, Chapter 16:1-20 (NRSV)
Introduction: Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Novels?
The 1990s was a good decade to grow up in. The fashion, the TV sitcoms, the video games–it was a good time to be alive.
There is something about this golden age of humanity that also birthed the greatest literary innovation since ink was set to paper. The choose-your-own-adventure novel.
Sure, the high Middle Ages had the Divine Comedy. European modernity had Proust, and Russia its Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But none can compare to the literary genius of a novel where the reader actually gets to choose how the story is going to unfold. For instance:
You are camping in Connecticut, and as you hike through the woods, you stumble upon a magic orb. Do you (a) turn to page 5 and pick up the orb (causing you to be sucked through a portal into a world with mythical creatures? Do you (b) turn to page 10, leave the orb alone, and continue walking, all to find that you are captured by a dark lord who is looking for the orb? Or, do you (c) turn to page 25 and smash the orb, which, if you choose that course of action, causes the alternative dimension you would have been sucked into in Option (a) to apocalyptically appear around you in your dimension.
As the story goes on, choice after choice, by the end of the novel, you might end up (a) defeating the dark lord, becoming the hero of the universe, (b) joining the dark lord as his apprentice and enslaving the universe, or (c) stumbling upon another magic orb that resets everything back to what it was before, and you find yourself back walking along in the woods as if nothing happened.
If that isn’t literary brilliance, I don’t know what is!
Well, when it comes to today’s passage, let’s just say I have had a few adventures with it, but not the chosen kind.
I remember sitting there reading the Bible during youth group bible study when I was in high school. We were doing a study of the Gospels, and it was coming to an end. We were looking at the passages about the resurrection. Doing this, I could not help but notice that in the Gospel of Mark, there was a strange set of subtitles, marking the “Short ending” and the “longer ending” as well as a further footnote that marked, “Some manuscripts also include this in verse 14.”
I remember turning to my youth leader at the time and asking, “What is going on with these endings? Are there parts of the Gospel that aren’t original to it?”
The youth leader looked at it, seemed puzzled (as if he had never noticed this before), and said, “Maybe Mark wrote two endings and couldn’t decide which one he liked best, so he put both in.”
“Really?” I asked, also puzzled. The leader wrote it off with a joke, “Ha! It is kinda like the end of the Gospel of Mark is a choose your own adventure novel!”
I admit that answer did not satisfy me. But like most awkward and somewhat traumatic instances of my childhood faith, they do end up, at the very least, serving as good sermon illustrations.
Likening the ending of the Gospel of Mark to a choose-your-own-adventure novel–despite my undying love for that under-appreciated genre–did not make sense of the multiple endings.
But there is a quintessential insight from the genre that is true about the life of faith and about our responsibility in reading the text: Faith is often about the choices you make. This text very pointedly compels you to make decisions.
Admittedly, some texts are fairly easy to interpret. We know and love these passages. Other passages are less so. There are biblical texts I have come across that, when we encounter them, we don’t know what to do with them. They do not fit our paradigm. In fact, we get a whiff intuitively that if they mean what we suspect they mean, that possibility is scary and potentially costly.
What do you do? Do you (a) feel overwhelmed and so you turn the page, don’t think about it, try to forget about it, and go on to something more familiar, (b) go online to your favourite website that has all the answers neatly packaged and quickly find the pat answer that solves the problem (or least makes it feel solved for you), or (c) say to yourself, there is something here and “I care enough about God’s Word and the pursuit of truth to think about it and do the hard, boring, and risky work. And who knows? Maybe I may feel called to go on and do my MA at Acadia; I don’t know.”
That last part was a shameless plug, but the question is will we do the difficult work of questioning our assumptions when we are confronted by difficult texts?
And if I am going to be honest here, I chose path (a) for the longest time. You get busy with things. You only have so much time, and so you find yourself gravitating to the things you can handle, thinking about the topics that are manageable. And yet, certain watershed moments are inescapable. Eventually, you will have to make a choice.
“How am I going to preach this?”
Several years ago, I was serving as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury, but I was also the chaplain and a professor at Thorneloe University. I was asked to supervise a course in the undergrad on the Gospel of Mark that was in the academic calendar. So, I set out to read up on the subject, and I got a stack of commentaries out from the library. Seeing that life was quite busy, I thought the best thing to do was to double up on my teaching with my preaching schedule. So, from New Year’s to Easter, the winter semester, I taught that course, and I also preached the Gospel of Mark.
I admit I would never have preached on the Gospel of Mark. Like many throughout church history, I preferred Matthew and Luke because they were longer and fuller. If I can name it: There is something about the simplicity of Mark that always bothered me. It just wasn’t enough.
In the preaching schedule, I had the crucifixion and resurrection passages for Good Friday and Easter, obviously, but I figured I would deal with these final verses the week after. I remember thinking about these verses, unsure how I would tackle them, but figuring I would work it out like all the other weeks as I go.
Well, teaching and pastoring, as you can imagine, was very busy. Good Friday and Easter came, and then, I remember coming into my office, still exhausted from the weekend, sitting down at my desk, looking at this text with a stack of commentaries next to me, and asking myself, “How am I going to preach this?”
Do I (a) skip it and just start the next preaching series one week early? That transition from Easter to a new series makes sense. Do you think anyone would notice?
Do I (b) preach on just the definite ending, ending at verse 8, not treat the rest, and maybe if one of the more astute and inquisitive congregants asks me about it after, then I can have a conversation with them?
Do I (c) read the whole thing but ignore the tough issues of the text or say that we just don’t have time to get into all that this morning and instead just focus on some moral application to be drawn from the story?
I did not know what to choose. I immersed myself in the commentaries, hoping an answer would emerge. Writer’s block quickly set in as I kept wrestling through the different perspectives. I remember asking myself, “How do I preach a text I haven’t made up my mind on? How do I preach a text that I am not even sure should even be a text at all? How am I having this dilemma? I’m the pastor. I have a doctorate in theology from a prestigious university. I am supposed to know the answer. Isn’t that what my job is?
What if people get upset at this? We got some folks that started coming to our church from the fundamentalist church the next town over. Would they leave over this?
What about that person that seems really fragile in their faith, that person who comes to church needing encouragement and not more questions? Will this sermon burden them? Am I being unpastoral for preaching a sermon on this stuff? If I believe that, am I admitting that it is somehow a good thing to keep what is going on in the Bible from some people? Is that what good preaching is?
Well, as some of you may have found in your pastoral ministry, Saturday night has a way of sneaking up, and I tried desperately to piece together something to say. I resolved an option (d): perhaps the best approach was not to tell the congregation what I thought was the answer (because, in truth, I was not sure myself) and just lay out the options in bare honesty and let the congregation decide for themselves.
Well, as I did that Sunday morning, I announced that it looks like there are three sets of options: There is the question of how to interpret the original ending; the question of the longer and shorter ending; and the question of what to do with them, overall.
The Original Ending: Incomplete or Cliffhanger?
All agree that the earliest manuscripts have the announcement by the angel at the empty tomb that Jesus is risen, and the women leave afraid, ending in verse 8. Then what?
Option (a): some commentators believe perhaps Mark did not finish his Gospel or the manuscript was broken, torn, or lost and, either way, it was circulated in its incomplete form.
One reason given for this is that the last line, which in most translations reads, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” the last word of the last phrase there is “gar,” the Greek word for “for” or “because.” Some have suggested that it is very unlikely the Greek would end that way, implying a break in the language, literally reading something like, “They were afraid because….” and here the manuscript breaks off or Mark was not able to finish.
Well, that’s possible, but then there is Option (b): other commentators say that while it is unlikely to have the line end on gar, it is not impossible, and perhaps the Gospel of Mark intentionally ends here. After all, there is a consistent theme of people being amazed and fear-struck by Jesus’ miracles. There is also the theme of secrecy in Mark, where Jesus tells people not to tell anyone, and yet, lo and behold, in the last irony of the Gospel of Mark, the witnesses leave, commanded to tell the other disciples, and they are speechless.
In other words, Mark ends his Gospel with a kind of ironic cliffhanger ending, but the very fact that Mark is writing what he is writing to churches decades later attests to the obvious fact that the women did not remain silent, telling others the Gospel.
So, you are left with the options of either (a) the original was broken off or (b) it intentionally ends with a cliffhanger ending.
Either one leaves us with some discomfort: either the text we have is incomplete or damaged, or it is quite minimal: no actual post-resurrection appearance, only a promise to the women that when they go and tell others, they will meet the resurrected Jesus on the way.
The Added Endings: Shorter or Longer?
Well, whatever you think about how the original ending, there are more choices to make: What do we do with the added Short and Longer endings? Again, here are the options:
Option (a): Well, the shorter ending is actually the more recent ending, and the first time it pops up in the manuscripts is in the fourth century: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.”
Actually, the “Amen” is not in the earliest version of this addition. Apparently, one copyist really loved his ending and couldn’t help by writing “Amen” at the end, which might have been an ancient way of hitting the like button.
Why was the shorter ending put in? Some speculate as to its theology: It mentions the importance of Peter and the Gospel reaching east to west. This sounds like a description of the emerging Christendom in Europe in the fourth century, with Rome consolidating its power around its claim to the office of Peter.
As one commentator notes, it seems like more than a coincidence that we see neater, more definitive, even triumphal, endings getting placed on the bare, bewildering, response-begging ending of the original and that this happened around the time Christians moved from a marginalized, powerless community to the community in power.
If the original does end at verse 8, is the Shorter ending an imperial rewrite trying to stabilize Christian readers with certainty where Mark wanted to destabilize in order to provoke a response? That is up to you to decide.
Let’s move on to Option (b): The longer ending is actually older. It dates to the late second century (and even then, there are different versions of that one). If you look at the more common version, it appears to be a set of summary statements gleaned from the end of the Gospel of Luke. And so, we can speculate, possibly one well-intended copyist tried to paste an abbreviated version of Luke onto the end of Mark to make sure anyone reading Mark would know there is more to the story. Perhaps they were trying to be pastoral, trying not to burden the readers with too much disruption.
Well, whatever the case, this version over the other ending becomes the dominant version used in Western Bible translations. And thus, it is assumed as the original ending in the King James Version and others during the time of the Reformation. It was not until the 1800s that manuscript comparisons made it obvious it was not original and that there were more than one ending.
Take Them Out or Leave Them In?
Well, here is the next set of choices. Knowing all that we now know, what should we do with these endings? Again, options put us between a rock and a hard place:
Do we, Option (a), take them out of the Bible?
Well, take it out, and we have the uncomfortable admission that the text we have had in hand, the text we have had and used for about 1800 years, that Christians have read, preached, and claimed to have heard God speak through, was corrupt, so much so that it is in need of fixing, on a passage of no lesser importance than the conclusion of the first Gospel. That’s kind of important.
Do we take it out? Is it our obligation to take it out? Evidently, most translations still leave it in. Many try to minimize the multiple versions and try to present the ending as smoothly as possible. Why? Probably because of marketing. Most Bible translations still cling closely to the KJV because that is the wording that so many have an attachment to.
Do we take it out? If we choose to take this out, should we do that with other passages or even books of the Bible? Should we take the story of the woman caught in adultery out? Should we take the possibly inserted line in 1 Cor. 14 about women being silent out? Should we take out the books some scholars think the Apostles did not actually write? Why stop there? Or maybe we should add back in some stuff, like the books of Enoch or the Gospel of Thomas or the Apocalypse of Peter or, or, or… Well, good luck with that.
Certainly, some of these examples are more extreme than others, but the question is, in the interest of trying to get back to just what the original authors wrote, where do you draw the line? Can you draw it in some circumstances?
And does trying to fix the text ironically send us down the same path that motivated some well-intended folk to put an extra ending on the Gospel of Mark in the first place?
Perhaps we have to confess that we are left with a text in hand that doesn’t really fit our perceived expectations of what the Bible ought to look like and perhaps was never meant to.
So, there is Option (b): leave the endings in.
If that is your choice, you are presented with some other challenges (not least of which is the question of which ending to leave in or possibly both).
How do you see inspiration working between the text and its author (or, in this case, authors)? Is only what Mark wrote inspired? Are we compelled to believe that the writers of those other endings, whoever they are, were inspired as well?
Can we say that we trust that God has indeed spoken through these words and continues to speak through them? Have believers legitimately heard the voice of the Spirit speaking through these other endings for 1800 years?
Does that commit us to the theology of these passages? Some have invoked the other ending for their practice of snake handling under the promise of divine apostolic protection (Look that up on Youtube¾as if there isn’t enough emotionally scaring material on the internet already). And if ever tempted to think this conversation does not matter or is too heady to think about, say while watching a pastor shouting these verses while twirling a cobra around, all to have that cobra bite him in the face. Let’s just say it puts things in perspective.
But that means we are left with uncomfortable options: Did human error and human fallibility adulterate the ending of Mark, or did God, for some reason, allow this to happen, superintending it? But why would God do that?
“The Medium is the Message”
Well, whatever you decide on that, you are faced with questions about the text in hand: Can a text speak beyond what has been said, how it was said, what has been done to it? Can God speak through a text that we have doubts about? Can God speak through a text that we might not even think should be the biblical text at all? What does that say about the nature of God’s word? What does that say about faith?
In high school, we had to do a unit on media. One Canadian philosopher named Marshall McLuhan said something that got repeated over and over. Let’s see if you remember his famous line: The medium is the ______ (message). Flashback to grade 12 English class.
If the medium is the message, this text, its many endings, and its evidence of additions say something about what faith is and what we have faith in.
We sang a song in Sunday School: “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that is the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” I love that song. Well, to be a Christian is to trust what the Bible says. But what if the Bible, whether by incident or perhaps even by design, does not, in some cases like this case, give us an easy place to stand?
If you feel like these options do not give you an obvious decision, maybe that is where God’s Word wants you to be. What if the faith that the Bible demands is much riskier? What if the Bible intends us to do something more like take a leap rather than stand still?
Because if it was perfectly black and white, seamlessly clear, unquestionable and certain, would it be faith? It certainly wouldn’t be a relationship where honesty and vulnerability are integral.
There is something about the Bible that beckon us to be responsible interpreters, free and active participants in conversation with God rather than fearful and passive recipients. Good Baptists might call this soul competency or soul liberty. And if this is the case, the options of this text remind faith–by that, your faith, my faith, yours and no one else’s, mine and no one else’s, not how we were raised, not the beliefs of our community, not what you were taught in seminary–that faith in order for it to be yours has to responsible. It must contend with open ended-ness, ambiguity, even brokenness, to choose to walk with God in and through these rather than using faith to somehow insulate us from the obvious fact that we are human, finite and frail, and there is no thought we have, whether read off the page of sacred texts, given by an ecstatic vision, decided by magisterial proclamation, or deduced with all the prowess of academic evidence and reason that escapes this permanent fallibility. And if that causes discomfort or decentres you, perhaps that is the kind of effect Mark’s ending is trying to produce (whether by the intention of the human author or divine author). Its purpose is not to harm faith but to deepen it.
Does a text like this cause us to doubt the Bible, or does it remind us in its own way where the Bible truly gets its authority from? Does it provoke worry or wonder?
The Bible is not ultimately a choose-your-own-adventure novel, at least not the kitschy ones of my own childhood. But it is a story that finds its highest truth in the choices of its true main character, God, to whom we are invited to respond to. It is the story of God’s Yes to sinful humanity in Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the story in which all other stories find themselves, including our stories of brokenness, if we choose to trust it.
It is the truth that our God is the God who transforms tragedy into opportunity; the God who turns betrayal into forgiveness; the God who turns execution into liberation; and the God who turns death into eternal life.
How do we know this reality? In one way, these endings reiterate our need to trust the resurrection all the more. The juxtaposition is perhaps providential.
As if to say there can be no knowledge of the resurrection without a risky choice. You just don’t know it just by hearing about it, reading it, or arguing about it. It can’t be just an idea in your head. You must choose to follow it, follow it to the point of giving up all you know, follow it to the point of becoming last in this world, follow it despite feelings of fear and uncertainty, follow it to the point of taking up your own cross. The text presents us with this choice:
The choice to live life in the midst of death.
The choice to live in hope in the midst of despair.
The choice to live out love and forgiveness in the midst of hate and violence.
The choice to live in honesty and mercy in a world that is content with lies and arrogance.
The choice to live in trust and humility in the midst of a world that desires power and control.
The choice to keep your life set on the light that shines in the darkness trusting the darkness will not overcome it. As the women found as they left the empty tomb, it is here on this way–if we choose to walk it–walking in Jesus’ way, we encounter what this text is truly about: the resurrection, because he is risen.
You see, if the medium is the message, we must ask: Can God continue to speak through these words? Put another way: Can God resurrect the text? I choose–I am led to believe that the same Spirit that brought breath back to the corpse of Christ breaths through these pages and is breathing on us today: Does God use imperfect believers to be members of the body of Christ? Can God resurrect a broken church? These questions are one and the same, finding their answer in the God scripture witnesses to and we witness to, with the very letters of our lives.
Now it is your turn: as you go from here, what will your choice be?
God of the resurrection and the life, we trust you. In all of life’s uncertainty, in all the doubts and questions we have, we trust you. Lead us in the life of resurrection, but remind us that this path is always through taking up our crosses. Remind us that the journey will include dark valleys. Jesus, we know that you never leave us or forsake us. Walk with us today and always. You are our hope, you and no other. Renew us, Holy Spirit, speak to us afresh and breathe life into us when we become exhausted. For your Good News, may we never be silent. For your faithfulness, may we never stop praising you. Amen.
Faith in Fragments
A reading of Psalm 77 from the NRSV:
1 I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah
4 You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10 And I say, “It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the depths trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
May God bless the reading of his word.
The Psalms are the prayer book of Israel, arranged to mediate and pray through our life of obedience to God’s law. They are written in five books just like the books of Moses, mirroring them. They are a lasting reminder in the canon of scripture that true faith in God and true obedience to his ways are only possible by prayer.
As Psalms 1 and 2, the gateways to the Psalter, state, these poetic prayers are also intended to pray through the rise of David, the anointed one, the plight of the persecuted righteous, but then the Psalms form a narrative of sorts, praying through the failure of the Davidic kings, and then the exile of God’s people and its devastation, and then finally the restoration of Israel’s hope surrounding the coming messiah and restoration of temple worship. Psalm 77 occurs in that middle point, between the times of thanksgiving.
In this travail of 150 Psalms, I was surprised, the first time I read through them in high school, to find out so many of them are psalms that express lament, doubt, even anger and accusation at God. About half are psalms what Walter Brueggemann calls psalms of “disorientation.” And they are disorienting, make no mistake. The first time I read some of these psalms I remember my words being caught in my throat in shock.
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22)
Why have you rejected me? (Ps. 43)
Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Ps 44)
O God, why have you rejected us forever? (Ps. 74)
Lord, where is your great love? (Ps. 89)
I remember saying to myself, “How can this be in the Bible?” Does the author not trust God? If you trust God, how can you ask such false, absurd, disrespectful things of him? I was taught that God is good and if you feel otherwise your feelings are wrong, so don’t trust your feelings.
I was also taught that we were saved by faith, and how do you know you have faith? You believe the right things. How do you come to know the right things? The Holy Spirit convicts you directly, so don’t ever question your beliefs. To doubt them is to doubt what saves you. You trust them and never waver, for so many have doubted their way along that proverbial “slippery slope.”
I was taught that all that a Christian needs to do to overcome sadness or despair, if true Christians are capable of such things, was to believe a bit harder, to focus on Jesus a bit closer, obey more purely, and if that does not help you have done something wrong. We sang, “Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright, happy all the time.” Of course, we know that life is not uniformly happy, but some have heard this and thought: If I am sad, does that mean I don’t have Jesus?
So, when I came across a psalm like this one, my automatic gloss on a text like this in order to make it fit my paradigm was, “Oh well, this is Old Covenant. So glad we are in the New Covenant of grace now!” (Somewhere Glenn Wooden and Matt Walsh just shuttered, I’m sure).
The Psalms are perhaps one of the most interesting books of the Bible in that they are God’s word to us by first being our words expressed to God, which possess all sorts of interesting conundrums for how we understand inspiration for sure. If Marshal McLuhan is correct and the medium is the message, the fact that the psalter is the experience of God’s people prayed to God – experience of creation, politics, love, war, illness and healing, obedience and confession, thanksgiving and despair, praise for God’s presence in one’s life, and more pointedly, lament over times of a sense of God’s absence – all of these prayers, strangely and beautifully, turn back to be a word from God to us, and this says something: there is no domain of human experience, whether science or history, politics or poetry, that is irrelevant or meaningless to our relationship with God. This includes times of despair, feelings of abandonment by God, even anger at God. God permits these to be meaningful to him.
Worship, according to the Psalms means there is no facet of human life that God does not find meaningful, and no facet of human life that cannot find its meaning in him. Whether it is the mountain of divine ecstasy, miracles, that fuzzy feeling we all get when Andrew Conrad sings in chapel with silk-smooth voice, or the opposite: “valleys of the shadow of death,” darkness, discouragement and despair.
The Psalms, like this one, then offer a template for emotions to inhabit, words to give voice to what is our hearts, or, as John Calvin once said, a mirror to see into our souls. They offer a rhythm to allow scripture’s story to be our story and for our story to an extension of Christ’s story in the world.
There is a Christian poem that we have probably all heard so many times that to quote it now may sound a bit cheesy, but it goes like this: there was a man walking along the beach with God, and he looks at the footprints to find that there were only one set of tracks where his life seemed the toughest. “Where were you then?” he asked God. “My child,” God replies, “that is when I carried you.”
We miss the insight here that often in times when we think God is absent – that indeed there are times we will feel God is absent, that we will feel like God has forsaken us – it is in these times he is in fact present to us in a way we only discover afterwards.
The mystic Simone Weil once said that the absence of God was more present to her than the experience of all other presences. For her times where she thought she saw God absent in the world begged deep multi-layered questions for faith and prayer that atheism only gave shallow responses to.
Mystics like St. John of the Cross have called these experiences the “dark night of the soul.” Dark nights are times in which we feel distant from God, times that we might even then get angry at God, accusing him, or blaming ourselves, and yet, if these experiences do their work, they are pathways to deeper trust, deeper intimacy, deeper love of a God who is ineffable: beyond all our words, ideas, feelings, and actions.
Have you gone through a time like this? Did you wonder whether God was there? Perhaps you still wonder. Perhaps you are going through one of sorts right now. Or, perhaps, you are sitting here thinking this does not apply to you, and so, perhaps you should just bank this message for later: perhaps you may need this message in the near future, say some time between mid-terms and finals (I don’t know, but that is just my guess).
I can tell you I needed this message. My most significant personal trial occurred in the final year of Bible College, which I call “my dark summer.” I went to a Bible College in Cambridge, Ontario. My experience in Bible College up until this point I think had been pretty standard. I hung out with friends. We would goof off playing video games till 2:00 am, pull all-nighters getting essays done that we waited till the night of to do, or sit around strategizing how to “court” certain girls. I say “court” because – thank-you Joshua Harris – we did not believe in “dating” (if you don’t know that distinction, trust that you have been spared). The guys residence, which did not permit the presence of any woman in there except for a small window of a few hours after lunch on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, was like a G rated National Lampoon’s Animal House, with holes in the walls from wrestling matches and broken lamp shades from air soft rifle attacks, and other collateral damage from the ongoing prank wars. The kind of usually college things.
I loved my studies, despite not taking them particularly seriously. I was always an insatiably curious person. And while the seminary’s official perspectives were generally conservative, in the ongoing rigor of academic studies, I began to ask questions about the reliability of scripture; how do you interpret Genesis one? What do you do with the ending of Mark? Could even, dare I even utter the question, a woman be ordained? (That was a dangerous question in those circles). Each time I would just repress the question, swallowing it back with an easy proof text to keep me on the straight and narrow, lest I go down the “slippery slope.”
Or at least I certainly tried. While I was in college, I helped a small house church. I remember one night after Alpha Course, I was angry at one person because they believed in infant baptism (how dare he!). I turned to my pastor and friend saying, “We need to stop that person from thinking that way! It’s unbiblical!”
My pastor and friend turned to me in the car, “How do you know you aren’t the one who is wrong?”
I responded, “I can’t be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit!”
He smiled and echoed my words back to me, “You are saying you cannot be wrong?”
“That’s right,” I said again, “I cannot be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit.”
This repeated on for a while, longer than I would care to admit, and he kept repeating my words to me till the thought struck me, “Wow, I sound really arrogant. I’m human. I’m a sinner. Of course, I could be wrong!” The day I learned to ask myself “Could I be wrong?” about the things I regarded as “too important for me to be wrong,” was the day my faith started to fragment.
Psalm 77 says in verse 3, “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.” Tremper Longman notes that the Psalmist seems to be uncomfortable with the ideas they had about God. The pat answers no longer satisfy.
But then something else happened, my father, who had just retired, complained at Christmas time of stomach-aches, and doctors diagnosed it as inoperable, pancreatic cancer. In four months, he lost over a hundred pounds, shriveling up into something you would see in holocaust pictures.
Yet, my Dad had a very strong faith. He knew that he was going to die, and told me, “Spencer, I know I am not getting out of this one.” He told me how proud he was of me and encouraged me to continue pursuing my ministry calling and academics. As he said that, he took off his wedding ring and his favorite watch and gave them to me.
He kept telling me that the last thing he wanted to do was see me graduate, so in April, we drove him to Forward Baptist Church, and we brought him in on a wheel chair for the graduation ceremony. He passed away two weeks later in hospice, just over four months after being diagnosed.
Losing your Dad is like losing the one reason to make another person proud, because he was that person. Watching your Dad die, knowing that pancreatic cancer is hereditary, is like watching yourself die, to be permanently haunted with the suspicion that one day, you too may just get a stomach-ache, and this is how you will go too, and it will be painful. It caused me to wonder what the point of doing studies was. Was there a point to anything?
Yet, he showed me an example of perseverance in suffering. One time, his meds wore off, and he clenched his fists so that his fingers dug into his palms. Bent over in the tremendous pain, he prayed, “Thank-you, God, even for this. Thank-you for every opportunity you give me to show my love for you!” Those words have gotten me through a lot.
At the same time, that summer, more happened. I went to the mall. I saw my close friend, who was a part-time supervisor there and also an associate pastor in the area. He asked if I was up for coming to his car, while he was on smoke break. I agreed. When we got there, he confessed to me that his marriage had come to a brutal end. I asked, “Why?” and he responded: “Spencer, I’m gay.” This came as a complete surprise to me. He apparently married his wife trying to suppress or change his orientation, but the result was the opposite. He went through reorientation therapy and it only made matters worse. When he told his senior pastor, the pastor fired him on the spot, saying, “Obviously you just need more faith!”
The ensuing scandal led him, my friend, to become suicidal. He had become convinced that he was predestined not to actually have salvation because, as he thought, “With enough faith I can do anything, but if I am still like this, I must not have enough faith. And if I do not have faith, which God gives as a gift, God must not want me to be saved. Perhaps,” he said to me, “maybe I am one of those people who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but never were actual believers.” So, he concluded that if he did not have God in his life, life was no longer worth living. He attempted suicide and, thankfully, failed, and as he told me his story, he showed me his scared, sliced hands, which he had hidden under long sleeves. I was moved with tears. What I managed to choke out was that if he was willing to take his own life in the idea that life without God is not worth living, then truly he revers God in a way that I have never had to. That, I can only reason, is a sign that he does have a relationship with God. The first beatitude is blessed are the poor in spirit, not the rich in spirit, after all. If Jesus died for all sin at the cross, I simply could not accept that God rejects a person who needs him, no matter who they are.
My summer had more to it. Yes, there is more. The pastor of that little church I volunteered at, had recently closed, and moved into another congregation. My friend was really getting wayward at this point. He and his family went off on vacation to his hometown.
They got back and something was different. I felt like they were angry at me for some reason, as they just seemed stand-offish and dodgy. Turns out it was because their marriage was ending. The man had met up with a woman from high school while in his hometown and he was planning on going to leave to be with her. News like this did not stay hidden, soon everyone knew, and it was a mess.
He left, and I remember him telling me this and me just being in a state of shock for days. I idolized this person, my mentor and best friend. Yet I watched this man spiral mentally and spiritually into chaos. He left for a time, but in time he eventually came to his senses in that months that followed and came back.
Along with this, I was also penniless. I could not find a student job at the beginning of summer, and so, I was getting back on summer rent and worried I would get kicked out with all that was happening. I eventually finally got a job working night shift at Tim Horton’s. My only conversational partner in the dead of night, as I cleaned coffee pots and changed garbage cans, was a Polish immigrant lady named Helena, who knew enough English to take a coffee order, swear in half-English-half-Polish under her breath, and ask to go for a smoke. Those were lonely nights. As the semester started, I had to work night shifts then go to class, sleep, then work all night, and I did this for a time until I could find another job.
My father dying, my fiend coming-out about his sexuality and attempting suicide, my friend and mentor having a mental break down – this all happened in one summer.
When you care about a person, when you have a deep friendship, their doubts have a way of becoming your doubts: their pain, your pain.
The Psalm records in verse 6, “I communed with my heart in the night; I meditated and searched my spirit.” One night, I recall sitting in my room feeling that all rational grounding for my faith was left void, all practical examples of faith in my life had failed, left the church, or, even worse, had passed away due to horrific god-forsaken illness. It was in that moment of despair that I sensed a great void of meaning confront my life: Could all this be worthless? Is life an abyss of vacuous truth?
The Psalmist asks in verse 8, “Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Similarly, I asked: Where are you God? Why didn’t you heal my dad? Why didn’t you come through for my friends? Are you even there?
Then something happened. Something manifested itself to me. I remember sensing in that abyss of the void, the truth of Christ beyond all the failures of human thought and religion, a hope that prevailed. It did not take away the abyss, but make the darkness less of fear and more like stillness. An existential Selah, the Psalmist might suggest.
It simply assured me that while I can get my faith terribly wrong, Christ is still there. My “truth” could fail, but Christ will not. If Jesus is who he is, “Even if we are faithless,” says 2 Tim. 2:13, “he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”
The Psalmist, similarly, despite doubt, despite anguish and accusation, recounts the deeds of God and feels assurance, meditating on the Exodus:
I will meditate on all your work…
Your way, O God, is holy…
You are the God who works wonders…
You redeem your people…
The result of this was that I committed myself to rethinking my faith with a new-found hope and reassurance. That summer I must have read through about 30 books. I thought to myself that if Christ is true even if my beliefs have failed, then I must give Christianity the benefit of the doubt and investigate what others have said, others I either ignored or missed. My studies became excited by a deep personal drive that pushed me on to doctoral studies, driven by the thrill of wondering and wandering with a God who is with us even in the questions.
I would not presume to say to you that somehow this means all these questions I had then have been resolved. The point of faith, of relationship, is not to have it resolve. St. John of the Cross reminds us that while periods of despair lift, the Dark Night of the Soul is actually without end in this life. For that is seeing, as Paul would said, always “as in a mirror darkly” until the final day where we will see God face to face.
I did not mean nor want any of the things that happened to me that summer in seminary. No one wants their faith to be fragmented like this, especially those who need it most, as I did. I have met so many Christians who have gone through a time of questioning or a time of discouragement, and they have fallen away from the church and from faith altogether, often because of an expectation of faith that could not permit doubts or could not see God’s presence in times of darkness, yet this psalm invites us to see, paradoxically, that God’s presence is there even in times of absence, light in times of darkness, and faith in and through the toughest questions.
If you know someone in your life perhaps like this, continue to pray for them, for we know that our good shepherd does not forsake the lost sheep. And if you feel you may be one of those lost sheep, know that our God has not forsaken you either. If you feel alone, know that you have a family here at ADC that may know a thing or two about what you may be going through.
My other concern is for us teachers and pastors also. Sometimes we can be so obsessed with numeric growth we neglect the hard work of spiritual growth. Sometimes we are so afraid of the fallout of asking a provocative question to our congregations we don’t ask it at all. Or worse, sometimes we become so afraid of the consequences of these questions, we stop asking them of ourselves entirely. To paraphrase St. John of the Cross, those who are in the darkest nights of the soul are the ones who have convinced themselves they are walking in perfect daylight.
C. S. Lewis once said this after his wife died, in his book, A Grief Observed, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has been shattered time after time. God shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? And most are offended by this iconoclasm; but blessed are those who are not.”
Brothers and sisters, blessed are those who are not.
So, may you know today in all your questions, wonderings, and wanderings, that you have a God that knows you deeper than you know yourself, closer to you than you are to yourself, who sees you with eyes of mercy, who holds you with hands that were pierced for you and bleed for you at the cross.
May you be free to bring to him in prayer your whole self, nothing held back, whether confession or accusation, joy or despair, and know that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ.
May you be blessed to be shattered, to have your faith in fragments, and yet, little by little, day by day, fragment by fragment, may you be remade into a mosaic that depicts Jesus to our broken world.
Rev. Dr. Spencer Miles Boersma
Acadia Divinity College Chapel,
September 30th, 2020.
Seven Last Words: Paradise
“Truly, I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)
Our world is a world that has closed itself off from the transcendent. We have bought into the discourses of science that tells us the immediately tangible is all there is, everything else is suspected as superstition.
Do not get me wrong, science has earned its place in the world, and many need to listen to its voice more. Science has offered enormous explanatory power for our worldview. In the great feuds between scriptural literalism and science, science will usually win. We have found the sun does not revolve around the earth, that the earth is much older than chronicled, that rain comes from weather systems, illness from poor hygiene, etc.
The world has pushed God out of its purview. God has been viewed as too burdensome a notion to trust.
The events of the primordial church fade into the distance of history. History, itself, seems to crocked a path to see providence. Divine intervention seems like misconstrued co-incidence. Many of the great political advances have been done despite religious influences.
We immerse ourselves in the comforting hum of media noise. Talk of God becomes as rare as genuine conversation itself. Hearing from God becomes as rare as genuine listening itself. An atheism falls over us because we feel the blunt force of divine absence.
Our daily lives, even for many Christians, are often practically atheist. Church becomes an cumbersome ritual. Work is more important than worship. Singing praise to God does not feed a family. Prayer and Scripture reading get sidelined to more relaxing practices: Television, sports, etc. So, we say to ourselves, why bother believe?
However, we deceive ourselves into thinking the modern world was the first to discover doubt, as if doubt was an invention by the same brilliance that discovered flight, electricity, or the theory of relativity. Yet, doubt is not a modern novelty.
The cross was a scary time for Jesus and his followers. The cosmos, let alone their little band of disciples, hung in the balance. The circumstances had become so chancy that most of the disciples deserted Jesus: belief in this man as the messiah was simply too insecure at that moment. Peter initially drew his weapon to defend his lord, but upon realization that violence was not going to resolve the conflict between Christ and the priests, upon seeing his master taken rather than fighting back, unleashing the kingdom of power that he was expecting him to unleash, Peter himself turned to deny Christ, three times in fact. Other disciples deserted him far sooner, unfortunately.
Thus, there Christ hung, condemned, and by all accounts at that very moment, defeated and disproved. Jesus as messiah was no longer a tenable conviction anymore. He did not seem to be bringing in a new kingdom, as prophesied. He did not defeat the Roman occupation, as prophesied. Far from! There he was pathetic, disheveled, beaten into irrevocable submission to the powers he should have pulverized with legions of the faithful, perhaps having even angel armies come to assist. Thus, Pilate, either out of mockery to the Jewish people or out of some deep seated pious guilt over killing a truly innocent man, wrote “King of the Jews” and hung it over Jesus’ head.
If one was to look for a reason to believe in Christ at that moment, one would have looked in vain. The man on the cross was exposed many times over as just a man, flesh and blood, ashes and dust, rejected by his people, betrayed by his closest followers and friends, accused of blasphemy by his own religion’s authorities, tortured and in the midst of his execution by his people’s most hated enemies, the most idolatrous power in existence, hanging there, slowly bleeding out, slowly succumbing to his wounds, to thirst, and to death.
Atheism’s objections pale in comparison to the scandal of Good Friday.
As onlookers mocked and jeered, even a man, a wretched thief, dying the same death as Christ next to him, felt no solidarity with the co-condemned, no compassion for his neighbor in this death, only cynicism and despair. Even the thief on Jesus’ one side mocked him.
At this moment, there seems to be no good reason to trust Jesus. Jesus hung there, discredited.
Would you have believed that Jesus was the messiah then? I know I probably would not have. Sadly, that is because I am a “reasonable” person.
More sadly, is that the only reasonable people in this story are monsters: Judas, who calculates how to profit from Jesus’ arrest; the Pharisees, who have the foresight to plan against possible agitators; the Romans, who brilliantly invented means of rebellion suppression.
And yet, in this moment of darkness and doubt, despair and destruction, one person believed! One person dared to see something more. One person had faith. The other thief, what tradition refers to as the “penitent thief,” dying at Jesus’ side. He believed. He had nothing left to hold back. He could have mocked like the other thief, but he didn’t.
We know next to nothing about this person. The Gospels left him unnamed. Having no hope left in this world, he still says to the other thief, “Do you not fear God? You are under the same punishment.” He admits that his punishment is just, yet Christ’s is not. Christ is innocent and he is not.
At the very end of his life, he is moved with humility and honesty.
But his confession is more radical than that. If one was worried about self-preservation, they would have petitioned far more prestigious powers than a dying messiah.
When no one else believed in Jesus, this man did. And so he simply requests that Jesus would remember him when he comes into his kingdom. He, in the darkness moment of his life, in the darkness moment in history, chose to trust the kingdom is still coming.
This man had perhaps the greatest faith in all history, and yet we do not know his name! But God does. God is not dead because God did not stay dead.
Jesus did promise to remember him. In fact, this man, in his final moments of life, was given the most definitive assurance anyone had before the resurrection: Jesus turned to the man and said, “Today, I truly tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”
Sadly, it is only when we realize that our lives stand on the edge of oblivion that we can feel assured that our lives are in the hands of something more absolute than what this world offers.
Help us to have even just a fraction of the faith this man had.
We complain about our lot in life, yet we are unwilling to admit our faults.
We so often mock and mistrust your salvation. When we do that, we must acknowledge that our punishment, like his is just.
But we must also cling to the hope of your kingdom of forgiveness.
Remember us Lord Jesus, as you remembered him.
May your kingdom come.