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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Do not be afraid.” I know that these are the first words spoken by the angel to the women who went to the tomb, but they could have been spoken to any one of us. After all, fear is a part of life. It’s joked that there are five types of fear. 1) Terror, 2) Panic, 3) 14 missed calls from your mother, 4) User name or password is incorrect, and 5) We need to talk. Yes, we all have our fears. When you’re small, you are afraid of the dark, because there are monsters hiding under the bed. When you get older, you discover the monsters are different. They take on new forms. Yes, you may be older and wiser, but you can still find yourself afraid of the dark.
For the pastor on Easter morning, it’s not necessarily the fear of the dark, the crowded sanctuary, nor the distracted children who have already eaten too much chocolate that causes anxiety. No for preachers, fear is the intimidation of trying to ‘open up’ the Easter story in a new way to those who know the story. Consider the pressure. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the greatest event in the history of the world, and so people flock this day from all different persuasions and understandings to experience the Easter faith. Of course there are the less successful attempts at opening the story in a new way, which one should avoid. As I have warned several young intern pastors before, don’t waste your time trying to tell the Easter story from the perspective of the stone that was rolled away or the guard at the tomb that was shocked by the earthquake. Preachers should not be afraid of the Easter message. The gospel is clear: You need not be afraid: Jesus has risen from the dead.
The women on the way to Jesus’ grave early that Easter morning, on the other hand, had every right to be afraid. As they neared the tomb, they were shaken by a great earthquake. Then they were startled by the appearance of the Angel of the Lord who descended from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat on it. The angel’s appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were as white as snow. If the women weren’t afraid, the guards keeping watch over the grave were. They fell away like dead men. It’s no wonder the Angel of the Lord’s first words to the women that Easter morning, were words of comfort. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.”
Of course, the Easter story doesn’t stop there. After the fear, and after the words of good courage, had been spoken, came a command as well, “Come, see the place where he lay.” The Angel, you see, had nothing to hide. Jesus’ body had not been stolen. This was no gimmick or fabrication. Jesus’ resurrection had already taken place. The Angel rolled the stone away, not in order to allow Jesus to leave the grave, but rather the Angel rolled away the stone to let the women and everyone else who is seeking Jesus to come in and to look, and to see the place where he lay. Just as Jesus’ burial in the tomb had demonstrated his death, his empty tomb now revealed the truth of his resurrection. “Come,” the Angel said, “See the place where he lay.” And they did. The women came in trembling and saw, and then according to the command of the Angel, they ran to tell Jesus’ disciples the good news. “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” Yes, that was the word of the Angel. “This is my message for you.” And now everyone can come and see for themselves. “Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed!”
But my friends, does the message of the Angel really change this life for you? Does that message cast aside all your fears, or do the monsters under your bed, self-doubt, loneliness and regret, frighten you? Let me assure, you are not alone. Even the women at the tomb, who had experienced so much wonder at the resurrection, were still shaken with fear. St. Matthew describes their journey from the tomb as a mixture of both “fear and great joy.” Yes, we all have our fears and our joys. You may delight in the family that God has given to you and who are gathered around you today; but you are also anxious about what may happen to your children in the future in a dangerous world, when you are no longer there. You may be filled with great joy at the work and fulfillment you have experienced in the past and the colleagues who have been a part of your life; but you are anxious whether you will have a job in the year to come. We live and walk everyday with both a great joy for loved ones, and a fear about the fate of a loved one struggling with illness. It’s true for our neighborhood, the church, our families and the world. “Fear and great joy.”
Surprisingly, the Angel’s announcement of the resurrection doesn’t take away all the women’s fears. Rather, it is the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection that enables them to keep faith amid their fears, and to do their duty and share the good news. We might hope that faith in the Christ’s resurrection would smooth out all the rough places of life and quiet the anxious, fearful earthquakes and heartaches of this world, but that is not true. Instead, the Easter gospel offers us something else. It is God’s promise for those who have been raised with Christ, and seek the things that are above that their lives will flourish even when life is difficult. Jesus himself needed to remind the women of this truth as he greeted them on the way. “Do not be afraid.” That’s why the Easter story so important to Christians. The resurrection gives us our greatest hope in the face of our greatest fears and it is sealed with a cross.
The good news of the resurrection, however, changes everything. It changes the way that you face the challenges and heartaches of life. I remember from my childhood, the story of a high school football player who was the team captain and quarterback. He was to lead his team in the state football final when his father died. The funeral was scheduled for the same day as the big game and everyone just assumed that the boy would not play ball. After all, it was his father’s funeral. So the back-up quarter back was suiting up to play when the boy walked into the locker room. The room was silent- no one knew what to say. Finally, the coach took the boy aside and said, “You can’t play today. You should be at the funeral.” The boy looked the coach in the eye and said, “You don’t understand. My father was blind. He never saw me play. This will be the first game he will see me.” What a difference it is in the way you face the heartaches of life and death when by the power of the resurrection you confess that your loved ones are cheering you on from the great bleachers in heaven. We face all of life’s challenges with “fear and great joy” – even death.
My friends, the Angel rolled the stone away, not in order to allow Jesus to leave the grave. Rather the Angel rolled away the stone to let the women and everyone else who is seeking Jesus to come in and to look, and to see the place where he lay, to be of good courage and to believe that we need not be afraid. “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.