Living in Fear and Joy

According to the Gospel of Matthew it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who went to the tomb that Easter morning. Both of these women had been present at the crucifixion. They aren’t just curious onlookers. They have been intimately bound to Jesus and to his mission. They didn’t just follow him around. We are told that they are the ones who provided for him and made his ministry possible.

They heard him teach; witnessed his healing; saw him take on the religious authorities. No doubt they heard him say that he was going to be killed but that he would be raised on the third day. They arrive at the tomb that morning with no spices in their hands. In Matthew, these two women didn’t come to anoint his dead body. The scripture says they came to see. These two women aren’t just bereft women doing what is right and following through with the rituals of burial. No. In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Mary go to the tomb with hope….. expectation.

In fact, this whole story screams with expectation. Back at the crucifixion, when Jesus breathed his last, we are told that the earth shook and the tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. If I saw that I would be expecting something more.

These women who did very little talking in the story seem to have been doing quite a bit of listening. They come to the tomb that morning to see….filled with expectation. And rightly so, for “suddenly,” it says there was a great earthquake. Then the angel of the Lord descends from heaven.

I think this is the most amazing angel in the Bible. Seriously. The other angels seem sweet and soft and most of them just deliver their message, sung or spoken, and then disappear back into the heavens….like my UPS delivery person with a package I have been waiting to receive. Not this angel. He has a grand entrance. He comes on the scene and the earth quakes. His appearance is like lightning. I don’t know about you but lightning scares me. When he arrives the stone has not been rolled away from the tomb. He shows off his power by rolling up his sleeves and rolling back the stone. Then he jumps up, sits on it and crosses his arms….all cocky like. This angel is terrifying.

The reaction of the guards is priceless. The guards are the ones who pulled guard duty on the tomb of a dead man. Sounds like an easy assignment. I wonder if they get time and a half. But as Tom Long says, “…these soldiers had what must surely to be the unluckiest assignment in military history – making sure Jesus stayed in the grave.” When the angel like lightning shows up the guards are caught off guard – literally. They faint dead away. Unlike the women who came anticipating something, they weren’t anticipating anything. Now we have men who have fainted dead away guarding the tomb of Jesus.

Then the angel speaks and it turns out he sounds like every other angel in the Bible. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. It always seems ridiculous to say that. No one can command you to not be afraid. It is like the parent you have seen saying to a crying child, “Stop crying.” It doesn’t work like that. Fear is a physical response to something that frightens you. But the angel isn’t commanding them not to be afraid. He is soothing them. Think of the parent, caressing the frightened child’s head and saying, “It’s okay. There is nothing to fear.”

I need that soothing voice in my ear these days. I follow the news on my feed like a child trying to stay awake and keep my eyes open in the dark because I know there is a monster lurking under the bed. I want to see what terrible thing is going to happen before it blindsides me. That is the message that fills the airwaves….be afraid….be afraid….be afraid. The angel says, “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.”

Then this frightening angel becomes the chattiest angel in the New Testament. “There is nothing to fear here. Let me show you,” he says. “This tomb is empty. What you came to see has already happened. Jesus isn’t here. He has been raised, just like you heard him say. Come, let me give a tour and then you can go and tell the others what you have seen. By the others I mean the disciples. This is what you should say, ‘He has been raised from the dead and is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Really, there is no reason to be afraid.’”

He sends them out in haste with a mission. Go and tell of the resurrection of Jesus. Like a couple of swashbuckling disciples, they have their orders for their next adventure. We are told they head off just like that, quickly with fear and great joy they run from the tomb to tell his disciples.

With fear and great joy they go. All through Lent we have been looking at what it is like to live in the borderlands…between not enough and more than enough, between welcome and isolation from the community; between being enemies and being neighbors. These women are living in the borderland between fear and great joy. They’ve been told not to be afraid but this is such revolutionary stuff.

It is such an interesting borderland….to live with fear and joy. We think of them as opposites but they aren’t. Can you think of a time you lived in fear and joy? Perhaps when you were falling in love or preparing to go off to college or planning a move or about to start a new job or pregnant or about to adopt. The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t a reversal back to the way things were before….it was a moving towards something completely new….and that is a place of fear and great joy.

And so they headed off to find the disciples while they were in the middle of fear and great joy. They hadn’t lost their fear. Courage is acting in the face of danger. And courage is what Easter is all about.

It was in that place…that place of fear and great joy…that place of courage in which “suddenly” they meet Jesus on the road. “Suddenly” there is that word again. “Suddenly, there was a great earthquake.” “Suddenly, Jesus met them on the road.” Something about these two events are similar…an earthquake and the meeting of the resurrected Christ. It is hard to translate this feeling except to say that if felt like light had cracked open the universe and nothing would be the same ever again.

Mary and Mary met Jesus on the road while they were already heading out to do what was next. They didn’t meet Jesus at the tomb when they had come and seen. No. They met Jesus on their way to go and tell.

“Greetings!” Jesus said. They are running off to tell the disciples and Jesus shows up on the road and says, “Good morning!” They fell down, took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said, “There is nothing here to fear. Go and tell the others to meet me in Galilee.” He didn’t tell them anything they hadn’t already been told by the angel…and yet the whole world felt different…it had been cracked open….it is palpable. You can feel it. They came to the tomb with expectation and they were not disappointed.

Easter changed everything. Easter changed these women and the rest of his disciples. They were never the same again. Courage became their strongest attribute. The resurrection wasn’t just a moment in history that took place in one spot. Resurrection found them on the road….in the midst of the world….in their time and in ours.

What happened on Easter is that the Word of the empty tomb was loosed into the world. And the Word said, “life is stronger than death, love is greater than hate, joy is more powerful than fear, mercy overcomes judgment…suffering is only transient….it is never the last word. Don’t be afraid.”

The very last word of this Word loosed into the world comes at the end of Matthew 28…just a few sentences away from today’s scripture…“Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It is the message of incarnation at the birth of Christ, “You shall call him Emmanuel – God is with us.” It is the message of Romans 8: “Nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

The last word of this Word loosed into the world is that there is no last word. God is with us….always….to the end of the age. Nothing can separate us from God in Christ Jesus. We will meet life at the tomb. We will meet joy in our fear. We will meet him on the road of our lives.

Friends, do not be afraid. For unto you this day lives the resurrected Christ, alive in the world. He will meet you as you head out. Now go tell the others. Amen.