Fear and Great Joy: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, 2017

 

Fear. What are you afraid of? When you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, what kinds of things run through your mind? Cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s? Something tragic happening to your parents or your children? Losing your job? Terrorism? A white male intoxicated with his masculinity, guns, and anger? Are you afraid of bigger things? Global warming? Nuclear war, given the increased tensions on the Korean peninsula?

We live in frightening times. The news media is full of reports of anxiety-producing events and trends. Sometimes it seems as if a whole way of life, the world we’ve known since World War II is passing away and the context of stability, the idea that if you worked hard and lived well that things would turn out all right. I’ve even seen some commentators compare our current cultural context to the late Roman empire when it seemed that a way of life, peace and stability were giving way to something new and uncertain.

Curiously, although it would seem that in such fearful and changing times people would turn to institutional religion, in the US, among the characteristics of this period of cultural change is a decline in church attendance, a decline in the numbers of those who identify with religious traditions, and a collapse of the religious institutions themselves.

Think of all the things we do to address our fears: all the ways we overcompensate, avoid, hide from our fears; all the ways we try to protect ourselves, by building walls literal or figurative, by lashing out in anger and frustration.

And then think of those women coming to that tomb as the darkness receded that morning. Think of all of their fear—their worries about being seen, being challenged for their association with one who had just been executed as a common criminal or bandit. Think of their fears as they wondered, “What next? What now?” Think of the fear they had to overcome to venture out to this tomb. And what did they discover? Earthquake, unconscious soldiers, a messenger from heaven.

Matthew doesn’t say anything about the women’s fears as they walked to the tomb. But he does tell the story from their perspective and one of the things he emphasizes in the scope of relatively few words, is the presence of fear. The guards were so afraid at the earthquake and the presence of a messenger from heaven that they shook from fear and passed out. That the women did not is itself surprising, but the angel greeted them with the words angels greeted humans throughout the Hebrew Bible and even in the gospels: “Fear not!” And later, when the women greeted the risen Christ, we’re told they were full of fear and great joy.

We don’t even know why they came. Matthew doesn’t say anything about their desire to embalm Jesus’ body. But come they did. In the dark, in spite of all of their fears. What they encountered when they arrived at the tomb was beyond their wildest dreams, beyond their worst nightmares. Earthquake, angels, an empty tomb. Whatever had brought them there, whatever they hoped to do; all of it was shattered beyond recognition. The world they knew no longer existed. Something new was coming into being.

There’s an urgency about all this. Alongside the repeated use of the word “fear,” Matthew, somewhat uncharacteristically, emphasizes the speed with which all of this happens. Suddenly, there was an earthquake, breaking into the hushed silence of the dawn. The angel tells the women to go quickly. They leave the tomb quickly and run to tell the disciples, and suddenly Jesus appears before them. It all takes place at breakneck speed; we can imagine the women breathless in their excitement.

Two little things about this little story interest me. Oh, sure, there’s all the big stuff, the earthquake, the stone, the stupefied soldiers, the angel in dazzling white. But it’s often the little things that catch my attention. One is that the angel, now mind you, a messenger sent by God, tells the women to go quickly and tell the disciples that the tomb is empty, that Jesus is risen, and that they should get to Galilee to meet him there. Well and good, but from what I can tell, Jesus himself didn’t get the message that he was supposed to go to Galilee. Instead, he stops the women in their tracks as they are running in obedience to the angel’s instructions. Jesus interrupts the drama as it is supposed to play itself out, and appears to the women as they are running.

The second little thing that interests me is the response of the women. Hearing the message, they run—Matthew tells us with fear and great joy, and when the see Jesus, they bow down, grasp his feet, and worship him. While all of this is worth notice, what most fascinates me is the combined emotional response of fear and joy.

Fear and joy. On Easter, we expect the joy. Christ is arisen, having defeated the forces of evil, sin, and death. The world is new! The Love of God is breaking in upon us in new and unexpected ways. The hopes of the disciples that had been dashed by Jesus’ death and burial have come to life again in new and completely unexpected ways. Even so, full of joy, the women were still afraid. Jesus still needed to greet them as others had been greeted so many times throughout salvation history: Be not afraid.

I take great comfort in this, not just the words of reassurance the angels and Jesus offered the women. I take comfort in their fear. It turns out, in spite of all of the pyrotechnics and special effects, in spite of their encounter with the Risen Christ, in spite of their growing realization that things were going to be different, that, to quote a collect we say both on Good Friday and at this Easter Vigil: “that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new”

… In spite of all that, the women were still afraid.

For the fact of the matter is, not everything does change. We will go home tonight and wake up tomorrow with the world as dangerous as ever, with the cares and concerns that we had yesterday and the day before. What’s different is this: Because of the resurrection, we can see God at work in all of those places, in the dangerous corners of the world, where there is suffering and evil. We can see God at work, and because of the resurrection we can be certain that in spite of our fears, that God is making all things right, that in Jesus Christ we see a new being, a new way of being in the world becoming possible, becoming a reality, and we can take heart and have hope that God is making all things new.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

 

 

 

 

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