The Winning Number

The Winning Number

Mark 16:1-8

by Daniel Harrell

I stand before you this Easter morning because I did not win the Mega Millions jackpot. No 640 million dollars for me! I know, I’m supposed to tell you that my life would not have changed had I won. Lottery winners always say that. It’s what the three actual winners will probably tell you if they ever go public. But life always changes for lottery winners—and not always for the better. Take Jack Whittaker who was a wealthy businessman already when he won what was at the time the largest jackpot ever by a single ticket: $315M on Christmas Day, 2002. After collecting his winnings, $113M after taxes, Whittaker was sued for bouncing checks at Atlantic City casinos; was ordered to undergo rehab after being arrested on drunken driving charges; had his vehicles and business burglarized; was drugged in a strip club by robbers who took more than $500,000 from his car; was sued by the father of an 18-year-old boyfriend of his granddaughter found dead in his house from a drug overdose, and most recently sued by a woman who claims Whittaker assaulted her. Regarding his lottery win, Whittaker said, “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”

Even responsible winners have ended up miserable. One couple took home a cool million dollar prize, paid their taxes and deposited the rest into a retirement fund. But due to the publicity, they got hounded relentlessly by get-a-lifers wanting them to participate in all kinds of questionable investment schemes and causes. Folks grabbed at them on the streets hoping some of their good luck might rub off. Others, so-called “lotto snobs,” turned up their noses in disdain at the couple’s fate, verbally deriding them for being so fortunate. And yet, despite countless more stories like these, millions of people still buy lottery tickets. $1.5 billion was spent to win that huge Mega Millions jackpot. Households earning less than $13,000 a year reportedly shockingly spend 9% of their income on these games—games they most always lose.

As for me, I can honestly say that my life couldn’t have changed by winning Mega Millions because I didn’t play. I wish I could honestly say this was because of my righteous lottery scruples, but it actually has more to do with how the lottery messed with my head the one time I did play it. I picked some numbers once when the payout was a big one, knowing full well I had no real chance to win. I held tight to my ticket though, fantasizing about how I’d blow my windfall, the luxuries I’d splurge on, the places I’d go, all the envy I’d generate. I amassed enough imaginary plans to work myself into a tight neurotic knot, glued to the TV in a compulsive sweat on the night the numbers were revealed. Not a single one showed up on my ticket. The letdown was dramatic and hard. I sat there stunned and dismayed, all my dreams of glory reduced to a worthless scrap of paper. I was embarrassed for misplacing my faith onto something that could never have done anything but disappoint me. It was a pathetic display I swore then and there I’d never repeat.

Was this how it was for the disciples who put all their money down on Jesus? Watching their own dreams of glory vaporize with his arrest, does this explain why Peter, who was Jesus’ best friend, denied ever knowing who Jesus was? Remember that story? Jesus gets hauled in for questioning, accused of being blasphemous and seditious, a threat to Rome for calling himself King and a threat to God for saying he was God’s only son. Jesus performed all sorts of fancy tricks and made all kinds of fancy promises about moving mountains and answering prayer and then rising from dead. And gullible Peter had been taken in like so many others. He’d left his wife and kids and house and job to follow this pretender. And for what? I bet he wished he’d torn up his ticket. It was a pathetic display which he swore three times he’d never do again.

At least Jesus was dead now. He couldn’t delude anybody anymore. No more misplaced faith. No more false hopes. No more dashed dreams. Granted, there’s a bunch of silly women still feeling sorry for him. They show up at the graveyard to pay their respects. But clearly they didn’t believe any of that crazy “rising from the dead” talk. You don’t show up in a graveyard with burial spices if you’re not looking for a corpse.

What were the odds of somebody being raised from the dead anyway? Better than the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot? Lottery officials placed those odds at 176M to one. What kind of ridiculous odds are those? Perhaps you caught the story of the Wichita, Kansas, man who bought his Mega Millions ticket and then joked to a friend how he had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than he did of winning the jackpot. Then he walked out into his backyard and got struck by lightening. BOOM!—a powerful jolt knocked him flat to the ground, sent his heart to thumping and scared the living daylights out of him.

Sort of like the angel did to these unsuspecting women in Mark’s version of the Easter story. Mark doesn’t explicitly say “angel,” but his description of a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” of the empty tomb is only missing the halo and wings. The angel told the women to “fear not.” Angels always say that. The stunned women tremulously tip toe backwards, away from the empty tomb, their hearts thumping, their eyes and mouths wide with panic. This was not what they were expecting. The angel asked if they’re looking for the crucified Jesus, but then adds the obvious, the words you came to church to hear this morning: “He’s not here. He has been raised. Go tell his disciples. Even Peter. He’ll meet you in Galilee like he told you he would.” Even Peter. I’ll say this for Jesus. He’s loyal. He specifically remembers Peter even after Peter did everything he could to forget him.

The women, however, were too terrified to tell anybody anything. Mark reports that “they fled and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s it. End of story. End of gospel. Happy Easter. Now go have brunch.

Mark’s abrupt Easter ending reminds me of one summer vacation with my family. We decided to take advantage of a beautiful Cape Cod evening and grill lobsters outside. The house where we stayed had this huge brick gas grill, but I neglected to check whether the tank was low on propane. It was. There was enough gas to get the grill lit, just not enough to keep it lit. Thinking it was heating up, I got the lobsters prepped, popped a cold one, set the table. My mom and sister, the women in this story, joined me on the patio to enjoy the sun set. Meanwhile, the grill flame flickered out. But fumes from the tank still collected underneath the grill lid. Noting that the thermostat registered zero, I absent-mindedly pushed the automatic igniter a few more times to see if I could get it going again and… BOOM!! The lid blew off, followed by flying iron grates that whizzed past my sister’s head. My mom’s mouth fell open and her eyes bugged out at the blast. The rest of the family came barreling down from the house, including a neighbor from a block away who had heard the explosion. My wife Dawn remained inside, bracing herself for her pending widowhood. But I was not dead. I was raised! Well, the hair on my head was raised. And my eyebrows were singed off. Soot and grease splattered my face. It scared the living daylights out of everybody. But we were still hungry. So we ordered pizza.

And that’s it. First fear, then food. The end.

Naturally the early church couldn’t tolerate such a non-ending to a gospel, so somebody decided to cobble together a more fitting conclusion. Twelve and a half extra verses which your pew Bible labels with parentheses as “the shorter” and “longer” endings for Mark. The cut-and-paste job on Mark features Mary Magdalene being possessed by seven demons. Jesus appears to a couple of his followers out for a country walk, a take-off on Luke’s road to Emmaus story. The part I like best is where the risen Jesus shows up while his disciples are having pizza and raises heck at them for their having been such weenies. He says if they’ll just have a little faith going forward, they’ll be able to pick up snakes, drink deadly poison and heal the sick. Of course you’d need to be able to heal the sick if you start playing with snakes and drinking poison.

Scholars who argue for the authenticity of these verses go on to suggest that there’s likely more where these came from. Who knows? Maybe there’s a missing verse where Jesus says he was only kidding, you don’t really have to love your enemies. Or another one where he says you can keep all your possessions for yourself, worshipping God and money together works just fine after all. (But we already knew that, didn’t we?)

Why does Mark end so abruptly? And why end with fear? Why is no word the last word? There are a number of places in the gospels where Jesus does instruct his followers to keep quiet. The thought is that since they didn’t really get what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah yet, they’d best wait until after the resurrection before spreading the news. That’s what Jesus told them to do. Jesus had grown immensely popular by the time Holy Week rolled around, huge crowds mobbed him everywhere. They were ready to crown him King. They wanted some more miracles. But unlike comic book Mega Messiahs, Jesus wasn’t going to swoop in and save the planet with super cosmic powers. He’d do it by getting hammered to a cross. His coronation was a crucifixion. His victory looked just like defeat. Hailed by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” Jesus went out looking more like a black sheep, his sacrifice now suspect.

Maybe Mark should have just left Jesus dead and buried and spared everybody the disappointment. That way the women could have come by, brought their spices and paid their respects. His failure as a King could have been chalked up to overzealousness, and he could have still been memorialized as a wise sage for some of the things that he said: sayings like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Everybody likes that one. Leave Jesus dead and buried, and those ridiculous lines about loving your enemies or selling possessions could be ignored as anomalies; eccentric utterances of a man out of touch with the times. “Do not worry,” Jesus said. But that’s just silly. And seriously, who’s ever heard of losing your life to find it or plucking out your eye if it causes you to sin? Ignore-ignore. The same with praying for your persecutors and forgiving without limit. Leave Jesus buried in the ground and you could leave all that crazy talk buried with him.

Except this is the thing about Easter. Jesus doesn’t stay buried. Those women showed up at the graveside and BOOM! The stone was gone and the angel announced that Jesus was gone too. He. Was. Raised. From The Dead.

What are the odds of that? Better than the odds of winning Mega Millions? I do know that with lottery odds at 176M to 1, you not only have a better chance of getting struck by lightening, but based on U.S. averages, you’re about 8,000 times more likely to be murdered, and about 20,000 times more likely to die in a car crash. How’s that for adding some fear to your Easter? Toss in cancer and heart disease and every other reason people perish, and it’s a safe bet to say you’re 176M times more likely to die than you are to hit the lucky numbers. Death carries even odds.

Except this is the thing about Easter. Because of Jesus, rising from the dead also comes in at even odds. Because of Jesus, when your number is up, so are you. Up. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Believe in me and even though you die, you will rise up to new life.”

Just like Jesus himself. The resurrection is Christ’s validation, his vindication, the proof that all his talk was true. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus got hammered by the religious establishment for talking blasphemy. He got hammered by the crowds for talking austerity. He got hammered by his fans for talking humility. He got hammered by his family for talking crazy. He got hammered by his own disciples for talking about becoming a casualty. And he got literally hammered by the Romans to beam of wood. What kind of Messiah does that? What kind of Messiah ends up dead? The kind of Messiah who knows he’s going to rise up from the dead. As the Easter Scriptures sing it: “Where O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

It is possible that there’s more to Mark’s gospel than what we have; but maybe Mark meant to stop here. Rather than tying up all the loose ends, Mark leaves room for you and me to come to the graveyard. To the rolled back stone. Face to face with the power of Easter. What do you do when you see an angel? When lightening strikes? When the lid blows off? When your number’s up? Because of Jesus, you don’t have to be afraid anymore. He has been raised and so will we. Take the fear of death off the table, and every other fear comes off with it. You can love your enemies now because you’re not afraid of them anymore. What can they do to you? You might as well forgive them, just like Jesus said. And why not let go of some of your possessions and give the money away? With resurrection in the bank, what more do you need? And what’s there to worry about either? You might as well stop that too. OK, so plucking out your eye remains a dicey proposition, but with the resurrection, sin loses a lot of its allure. And as for losing your life to find it? With the resurrection, that makes total sense.

Mark tells us the women “said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” He tells us they that “terror and amazement seized them” too. For “amazement” Mark uses the Greek word “ecstatic.” Just like winning the lottery. Except that with Easter, life always changes for the better. Like winning the lottery, the women were too afraid to talk. But they eventually did. They eventually went and told everybody. That’s why we’re here. The Lord is risen indeed.