[Easter Message Preached at Avenue United Methodist Church on April 12, 2020]
When I was a child, I can remember the excitement surrounding Easter in our small country church. Sunrise service was followed by breakfast in our church basement prepared by the men of the church. The eggs were made-to-order and the smell throughout the church was heavenly. I can remember the smell of lilies and tulips in the sanctuary and singing songs like “In the Garden” and “He Lives.”
Of course, I remember the excitement of coming home from church and going on a hunt for our Easter baskets. There was one year where I ate so much candy that I made myself sick. Spending time sick in the bathroom was unexpected for my young self- even though it should not have been.
We are in the midst of an unexpected Easter. As we worship from home around our computers and TV’s, you may be like me and miss hearing the organ or listening to everyone’s voices raise together to sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I’m missing seeing kids wearing the “Easter Clothes” and their squirmy excitement of consuming more candy than normal! This Easter is unexpected.
In our scripture reading, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” also had an unexpected Sunday morning.
Matthew tells us that the two Marys went to look at the tomb on the Sunday following Jesus’ execution and burial. Matthew doesn’t say anything about finishing Jesus’ burial preparation, just that they were going to check things out. I imagine that their mental and emotional state was not very good at the time. Their rabbi, teacher, and Lord had been executed. Their lives have been turned upside down and inside out. Fear and grief gripped their lives. I am sure the journey from their home to the tomb was a quiet one.
Matthew says that there was a violent earthquake that was the result of an angel of the Lord coming down from heaven, going to the tomb, rolling back the stone and sitting on top of it. This angelic encounter was so terrifying that the soldiers who were guarding the tomb shook and became like dead men- passed out on the ground. Incapacitated.
Imagine the women, filled with grief experiencing the earthquake and finding soldiers looking as if they were dead, a stone rolled away, and an angel standing before them. This would be unexpected indeed- and terrifying.
When we see angels in artwork, we often see either a cherub or some fair pansy-looking person who looks like they couldn’t fight a demon if their life depended on it. When we look at how people, including the two Marys, are terrified when they see an angel- I believe angels must look like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson or Jason Mamoa- with rippling muscles and a giant sword. The angel tells the women,
“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”
In saying “Do not be afraid,” the grammar in the greek indicates that the women are to reject their state of fear because the angel’s news brings great joy. The angel invited the women to take a look at the tomb, which was empty. He then sent the women back to the other disciples to tell them about what they had seen.
In verse 8, Matthew writes something that never really struck me until this year. He writes:
“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
The women were “afraid yet filled with joy.” I’m struck by the apparent contradiction here. How can you be afraid, yet full of joy? Are they fearful, like in a holy reverence sort of way? The translators have chosen “afraid.” In other translations, it is even stronger. They were afraid, yet filled with joy.
Isn’t this where we are on Easter Morning 2020? We have been semi-quarantined to our homes for the last 3-4 weeks. We’ve heard about the doomsday scenarios predicted the outcome of this virus. Many have been laid-off; businesses are having to look at whether they can remain open; and our financial security is being threatened. Even aside from the virus outbreak, we each face our own trials that cause us to be filled with fear and anxiety.
We are reminded that today of all days is EASTER SUNDAY! We may be afraid of the virus, about our financial future, or for a loved one- but as Christians, we are filled with JOY because Jesus is alive! We have joy because the grave has been defeated. We have joy because sin has been defeated. While there is great fear in the world, we can be filled with joy because our hope is found in Jesus.
In an interview, Father W. Paul Jones talks about our perspective as followers of Jesus:
“What one sees depends on where one sets up shop. Mine is at the entrance of the empty tomb.”
We can see the world differently because of the resurrection. When we set up our shop at the entrance of the empty tomb, we have a different perspective on this life. There may be fear that exist in the world, but we can live in joy. From here, we can see the world has many troubles, but we can take heart because Christ has overcome the world. From here, we know death still has a hold on this earth, but Jesus has defeated the grave. From here we can have joy in the face of trials and struggles because through Jesus we are more than conquerors.
This morning I need to ask you this: Where are you setting up shop?
Are you setting up shop amidst the news of the world where fear and anxiety rule? Or are you setting up shop in front of the empty tomb that declares that sin, death, and the trials of this world will not have the final victory?
The women in the story are told to reject fearful living and to change their vantage point in order to receive the Good News. This good news will bring great joy. So as they traveled home, they encountered the Resurrected Jesus. When they saw Jesus, they fell at his feet to worship him. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, to reject fearful living and to go and tell the disciples to go to Galilee for a reunion. We do not hear about the women’s fear again. The peace that the resurrected Jesus brings is peace, comfort, and assurance that they have nothing to fear.
This is the question we face as Christians- If Jesus has defeated sin and death through the resurrection- what do we have to fear? Jesus has defeated the greatest enemy, why should we be afraid of anything or anyone. As Christians who confess a resurrected Savior- we must live as if our shop is set up outside of the empty tomb. Through Jesus, we will overcome the world and have the hope of resurrection as well.
Easter is of the utmost importance to us because we proclaim Jesus raised from the dead. If Jesus did not actually rise from the dead then everything we do as Christians would, as Paul says, be useless. If Jesus resurrected, then we are called to live as Easter People- people who have hope in the midst of trials; people who have hope in the midst of death; people who have hope that our sins are forgiven; people who have hope for reconciliation; people who have hope that there are better days ahead because of Jesus.
This is not naïve or blind faith that I am talking about. As we’ve journeyed through Palm Sunday through Good Friday, the scriptures invite us to confront sin, confront the evil powers of the world, and we come face-to-face with death. Christianity is not some pie-in-the-sky, “everything is going to be alright” kind of faith. It is a “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” kind of faith because of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ resurrection- we can be filled with joy and leave behind the life of fear because we know that Jesus has conquered sin and death.
Where are you setting up shop this morning? Are you setting up shop outside of the empty tomb? Have you put your faith in the resurrected Christ? Today, of all days, is the perfect day to turn from our sin and to put our faith in Jesus- and to live with the hope of Easter People- that death has been defeated; that sin has been forgiven; and that we can live with the peace, love, and grace that God offers through Jesus Christ.
As we prepare to go for- let us reject fearful living and embrace the hope of resurrection through Jesus Christ. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!