With Fear and Great Joy
Each one of the four gospels gives a slightly different account of the first Easter morning. Each author wants to draw our attention to something slightly different. Luke talks about remembering and the words of Jesus throughout his final gospel chapter. Mark is, as usual, the most abrupt, telling us the bare minimum he thinks we need to know, and in the fewest number of words he can manage it. John brings us into more intimate encounters, showing Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a one-on-one encounter, and then Jesus in a meaningful encounter with Thomas, then Peter. And in each gospel, these nuances are what draws my attention, because in those unique qualities of each resurrection account, we can find the message the gospel-writer is trying to convey to us. So what shows up in Matthew’s gospel that doesn’t show up in other resurrection accounts?
Let’s look at Matthew’s account. We find Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” heading to the tomb. This other Mary could be Mary the mother of Jesus, or another woman so named, as it was a common name. As they arrive at the tomb, there is a great earthquake, mirroring the earthquake Matthew describes taking place at Jesus’ crucifixion. An angel, a messenger from God, whose appearance is “like lightning” rolls back the stone of the tomb, and sits down. There are guards posted at the tomb, and they are so overwhelmed with fear at the sight of God’s messenger that they shake and become “like dead men” – I’m assuming Matthew means they’ve fainted, since they don’t contribute to the rest of the conversation. To the women, though, the messenger speaks. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. But he isn’t here. He’s been raised. Come and look, see for yourselves. And then go, quickly, and tell the disciples: Jesus has been raised, and he’s going on ahead of you, and you’ll see him in Galilee.” The women don’t respond – at least not that Matthew tells us – but they do what the messenger instructed. They head to find the disciples, and Matthew tells us that they go “with fear and great joy.” Somewhere along the way – where is not quite clear – Jesus suddenly meets them, saying, “Greetings!” At the sight of him, the women fall at his feet, holding on to them, worshiping him, clearly overwhelmed. And Jesus repeats to them the words of the messenger: “Do not be afraid – go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see me.” After our text ends, we find the guards and the chief priests conspiring to undermine any story about Jesus being raised, and Matthew’s account closes with a brief meeting of Jesus with his disciples, and Jesus promising to be with them always, even as he sends them out into the world to call others to become his followers.
So what stands out in Matthew’s gospel? What’s unique about his telling? I’m struck that “fear” is mentioned four times in these short ten verses. In Matthew’s account, the women witness an earthquake, an angel appearing, and the stone being rolled away, all before the messenger even speaks to them. I don’t blame them for being frightened. We can read about these events calmly, but I can only imagine that fear was the natural response. The guards, in fact, are so frightened by what’s happening that they faint away. The first words out of the mouth of both the messenger, and of Jesus himself are this: “Do not be afraid.” The women, well – the text tells us they are still afraid, at least still afraid by before they encounter Jesus himself. But Matthew says that they leave the tomb quickly, “with fear and great joy.” I love that phrase. Maybe they don’t quite reach the “not afraid” that the messenger and Jesus are leading them toward – but they seem to take strength and comfort in the fact that what’s happening is meant to fill them with joy, not fear, and so while they’re still afraid, they lean into and take action on the joy. And the joy keeps them moving, ready to share this amazing news: Jesus is not dead. The tomb was not the final word after all. Death has not won. Death did not end this story. Jesus is alive, and he’s going to meet you again, soon.
“Do not be afraid.” “So they left … quickly, with fear and great joy.” I’ve been thinking about fear this week, about the things that make us afraid. This week, the United States dropped something literally named “The Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan. This week, as North Korea celebrated with an annual military parade, the country showed off several missiles that appeared to be capable of striking nations far away – like in Europe, or the US. Bombs and missiles, and our human tendency to try to problem solve with weapons – that makes me afraid.
What are you afraid of? Some of you know that I have a real phobia of flying. You can share with me any number of statistics about how it is safer to fly in an airplane than it is to drive in a car, but in my experience, logic and rational thinking isn’t often able to touch on our fears. I used to be able to fly without a problem, but overtime, I found myself getting more and more anxious every time I was on a plane. Now, I’ll drive almost any distance to avoid getting on an airplane. I’ve flown when I had to, but I will admit there are some opportunities I’ve let pass me by so that I didn’t have to get on an airplane.
What are you afraid of? Sometimes, I’m afraid of conflict, and of people getting mad at me. I’d prefer – who wouldn’t? – if everyone thought I was great, and got along with me, and liked all of my plans. Being afraid of conflict and anger isn’t always a helpful quality when you’re a pastor of a congregation with a lot of wonderfully unique people, and when you want to forge ahead with the vision God has, even when not everyone is on board though. I’ve had to work hard over the years of my ministry to face conflict head on, to stay fixed on my purpose, on God’s purpose. Otherwise, what paths that God is leading me to will I bypass, in my striving to make sure everyone likes me? What are you afraid of? And what are the consequences of your fears?
Earlier during Lent I was meeting with our worship team to talk about our plans for Holy Week and the Season of Easter. I started with a devotional time, and usually I pick a scripture text that’s related to worship, music, and praise. But I’ve been using a devotional book by Walter Brueggemann called A Way other than Our Own this Lent, and the passage for the day really spoke to me, and so I shared it with our team. Brueggemann reflects on Isaiah 43:1, my mother’s favorite Bible verse, which says, “Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’” Brueggemann writes, “Being unafraid is an odd vocation; but it is the vocation of all those who have been baptized. We are different when baptized. The Acts account of the early church says that the Spirit of God came upon Jesus in baptism …. What the Spirit does is visit our lives … with the freedom of God, so that we are unafraid in the world, able to live differently, not needing to control, not needing to dominate, not needing to accumulate, not driven by anxiety.” The disciples, he says, were “known, named, and unafraid people,” who “turned the world upside down.” “Or better to say, they turned the world right side up.” He continues: “The truth is that frightened people will never turn the world, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized, the known and named and unafraid, to make the world whole:
The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.
The unafraid, are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves safe.
The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.
The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at the night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.” (60-61)
I don’t know about you, but I want to be unafraid. I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want fear to be the guiding force in my life. And I can tell you this: that’s not what God wants for us either. From one end of the scriptures to the other, the Bible is filled with this repeated message: “Do not be afraid.” Well over one hundred times. From the voice of God. From God’s prophets and messengers. From Jesus himself: Do not be afraid. What would your life be like if you weren’t afraid? What would you be doing differently than you are right now? “Do not be afraid!”
The women, these Marys are still afraid. The scripture is honest with us – even though the messenger tells them not to be, even though Jesus tells them not to be, they are afraid. But it isn’t all they are. They are joyful. Something so wonderful has happened, so wonderful that their fear wasn’t the most important thing anymore. Their fear wasn’t making the decisions. “With fear and great joy.” David Lose writes, “I think it’s striking that the announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. Rather, it enables them to keep faith amid their fears, to do their duty and share their good news in spite of their anxiety. This is the very definition of courage. And, I would argue, courage is precisely what Easter is about … There is, indeed, much to fear in our mortal lives. And yet the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage and so much more. Why? Because it changes everything. In the resurrection, you see, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient -- real and palpable and sometimes painful, for sure, but they do not have the last word and do not represent the final reality.” (1)
Mercy overcomes judgment. Love is greater than hate. Life is stronger than death. These women, and the disciples with whom they’ll share the news don’t snap from fear to no fear in an instant. But they make room for the joy, and they commit to a journey of learning to be unafraid in the world, and day by day, the joy of living the abundant life that Jesus gives them overwhelms the fear that once drove them. And so Easter doesn’t end for us at the empty tomb. After all, we, like the women, are looking for Jesus, and he isn’t in the tomb anymore. He’s not in this place where death has the last word and fear will knock you off your feet. He’s going on ahead. And he’s inviting us to come with him. Let’s go: maybe with some fear. But with great joy that’s transforming fear into courage.
“Do Not Be Afraid”
We should be afraid, of course,
to be so near to God.
We should be startled by the glory of God
and the disruption of angels.
We should be freaked. out. that God even blinks
in our direction, let alone that God dares us
to walk a new path just to see what
God can do with life.
“Do not be afraid; have a child.”
“Do not be afraid; leave your home.”
“Do not be afraid; give up your reputation.”
“Do not be afraid; press on through hardship.”
“Do not be afraid; face a powerful enemy.”
Be totally overwhelmed.
Be stunned and terrified, in fact,
but here’s the critical part:
be near to God
(1) Lose, David, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3174
(2) Rachel Hackenberg, Rachel G Hackenberg. http://rachelhackenberg.com/blog/