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Title: A stone was brought…so that nothing might be changed…
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: 15 April 2023 5.30pm
When it comes down to it, the question, really, is do you believe it? Do you believe what you read or hear read from the Bible? And let’s leave the difference between myth and history and science to one side – I’m not talking about the account of creation in the opening of Genesis. Let’s just concentrate on what people often call ‘gospel truth’. Do you believe that?
I’ll make the question even easier for you. Let’s put to one side some of the really challenging gospel stories. We don’t have to talk about the virgin birth right now; we don’t have to talk about the resurrection. I accept that for some people these can be stumbling blocks. Are you happy to be believe in the parts of the gospel narrative that are not supernatural? That – surely – is not too tall an order, is it?
Well – in my opinion – speaking as the Dean of York from this hallowed pulpit in York Minster – I need to say that you shouldn’t, always, believe what it says in the Bible… even in the gospels. But before you pick up something to throw at me, or start composing your letters and emails to poor Archbishop Stephen, let’s put all of this to one side for a moment or two, and let’s talk about stones…
Because it is the stones that are – or which appear – to be the common thread between these two narratives from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The first stone is, if you like, a reluctant stone. King Darius – who was one of the good guys in the Old Testament – Darius has been tricked into passing a law which the ‘presidents and satraps’ know will lead to the downfall of Daniel. Because this is a law ‘of the Medes and Persians’, and so, as we are told, it ’cannot be revoked’.
And thus, when it is revealed that Daniel has been naughtily praying to the one God, the king has no choice but to condemn young Daniel to death in the lions’ den.
And, incidentally, lest you should think that the lions were elderly, tame, past it or toothless, had we been allowed to have read just one more verse from that story, you would have heard that the ‘baddies’ (the presidents and satraps – and their wives and children for good measure) end up in the lions’ den themselves, only to be overpowered by the lions before they even reach the bottom of the den. So the lions have got all the oomph one needs from a pride of lions in a palace.
And so it is that the king has to seal a stone placed over the entrance to the den – seal it, so we are told, ‘with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, so that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel.’ And Daniel’s fate is – literally – sealed, or so it seems.
The other stone was not so reluctant. Joseph of Arimathea is a good guy. Possibly a slightly cowardly one, but a good guy nonetheless. He’s been rolling a stone to give Jesus a fitting burial place. And treating the dead with reverence and respect and ensuring an appropriate burial has consistently been regarded as an important cultural practice in biblical times, modern times, and just about every other time. So Joseph has done a good and noble thing by rolling the stone against the door of the tomb.
But for all that, Joseph’s stone is still a worry – a worry to those three women who have come to anoint Jesus’ corpse. Which is why we find them saying ‘Who will roll away the stone for us…?’
Two stones. One put in place to condemn an innocent man to death – the other put in place to effect the burial of an innocent man condemned to death. And both seemingly incapable of being removed, whether to free the innocent man in the lions’ den, or to allow the women to complete the burial rites for the dead Jesus.
Two stones in place, to make sure things stay as they are. For, after all, we are told that the law of the Medes and Persians cannot be revoked. Corruption and condemnation have been codified into that law, and that’s how it is going to remain.
And several centuries after the story of Daniel is set, another young man who prays to the one God is condemned to death despite having done nothing wrong, and everything is going to stay just as it always has been. Corruption and condemnation, yet again, are the winners.
Except that, as we see in both stories, the one God has the last laugh, not the stones. For Daniel is vindicated, and Jesus – well, Jesus just isn’t there, and neither is the stone any more. For that stone has already been rolled back, and the Good News that this represents is entrusted to the most unlikely people – to three women (whose voices carry no evidential authority) who, so we are told, flee in ‘terror and amazement’, and Mark’s gospel ends with the stark words that ‘they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’
Which is why you really should not believe everything you read in the Bible. That’s why even ‘gospel truth’ just isn’t, sometimes. For this is the earliest of the four gospels. This is the first account of the empty tomb, let alone of anything to do with the risen Christ. And if Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome really did say nothing to anyone… well I don’t know how you and I got here this afternoon.
The man we call Mark is throwing down a challenge to his readers. A challenge which, in the original Greek, is somewhat easier to perceive. For in the Greek, the ending of this narrative is not a full stop, so much as a ‘dot dot dot’. And Mark is saying, “if you’ve followed the story this far, gentle reader, then now – it’s over to you – see if you can do better…. don’t do what I said the women did…. go and tell…’
Because life does not have to be the way it always is. Corruption and condemnation do not have to have the upper hand. Stones can and will be rolled away, and we can tell the story. Because the Body of Christ is not lifeless and imprisoned in a stone-cold tomb behind a door which can never be opened. It is, in fact, alive and kicking, and full of Good News that can not and will not lie down and die.
So roll the stone away, my friends, and, just as the young man in the white robe said, go and tell! Amen.
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