Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Fear is generally not the first word that church goers associate with Easter, unless, of course you are the preacher who is fearing that he has nothing to say. There was one fearless pastor, however, who decided to begin his children’s sermon with the innocent question, “What do we celebrate on Easter?” One girl spoke up quickly: “We remember our mothers and how much we love them.” “No, that’s not quite right,” the pastor replied. “You’re thinking of Mother’s Day.” Then, an eager boy raised his hand: “Easter is a time when we say ‘thank you’ to God for all the good things in our lives.” The pastor nodded, “Well, we can always say ‘thank you’ to God, but you’re thinking of Thanksgiving, not Easter.” Beginning to worry about what might happen next, he asked again, “Children, what is the meaning of Easter?”
After a few seconds of awkward silence, another girl in a fancy Easter dress gave it a try. “Easter,” she said tentatively, “is the day when we remember that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Then he was buried in the tomb. On Easter morning, God rolled the stone away and Jesus came out of the tomb.” “Excellent,” cried the relieved pastor. “And then,” the girl continued, “Jesus looked and saw his shadow, so he went back into the tomb and there were six more weeks of winter!”
No, fear may not be the word you generally associate with Easter, but perhaps you should. It is the word that echoes throughout St. Matthew’s gospel. A week ago on Palm Sunday, the last word we heard read from St. Matthew was spoken by Pontius Pilate. After Jesus had been beaten, crucified and died on that tragic Good Friday afternoon, the Temple leaders came to Pilate and pleaded with him to secure Jesus’ tomb lest his disciples come and steal the body, and three days later claim that he had been raised from the dead. Pilate responded, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, and make the tomb as secure as you can.” And so we read that Jesus’ earthly journey ended as it began. Out of fear of what the infant Jesus would become, King Herod’s soldiers stormed the village of Bethlehem slaying the innocent children, and now at the end of his life, out of fear of what this crucified Jesus could become, Roman soldiers stormed the garden, securing Jesus’ tomb it so that no one could break it open.
Fear runs throughout the gospel- even on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Now we might imagine that that first Easter morning was filled with the scent of lilies and resounding with the sound of choirs and trumpets proclaiming boldly, “Hallelujah. Christ is risen.” Perhaps we envision the women parading to the tomb in their best Easter pastels and glorious bonnets. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were dressed in the colors of mourning, pain and sorrow. The women were distraught and, even then, fearful of seeing the bruised and beaten body of their beloved teacher.
Out of fear, Jesus’ own disciples were in hiding. On the first Easter, they were shaking in terror – worried, that if they appeared on the streets, they too might end up nailed to a cross. No, that first Easter morning wasn’t much of a celebration. The world was overwhelmed with fear and haunted by death. Surprisingly, even when things changed dramatically, there was still fear.
According to St. Matthew’s gospel an earthquake announced the good news of the Jesus’ resurrection which would have caused great fear in the world – at any time. The shaking of the earth, cracked stones, set foundations on edge and opened graves. Then there was an angel descending on the wings of a storm – an angel that looked like lightning. It is no wonder that the soldiers shook and became like dead men! But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised as he said.” When the women finally fled the garden tomb, they ran in fear, and in great joy. And with that, they rushed head first into the risen Jesus.
Fear, like the smell of death, permeated the air that first Easter morning and it has not completely disappeared. We may naively believe that our fears are limited to concerns about whether there is enough chocolate in the Easter basket and what we’re going to do with all those extra hard boiled eggs. But our fears and anxiety truly come from so many other places. The war in Ukraine, the social unrest in our cities, the angry polarization of our society. We fear for ourselves, too. We fear getting test results back from the doctor. We worry over children who struggle. We worry over our place in this world. It is recorded that Americans five greatest fears are failure, rejection, change, public speaking, and imperfection. Frankly, I thought the fear of public speaking would make congregations a little more accommodating and accepting on Easter, but, no, there is still that fear of imperfection.
Psychologist and scholars suggest that all of our fears are ultimately and intimately rooted in the fear of death. Nothing causes us greater anxiety than the fear of an empty grave or the fear that we will never see our loved ones again. Nothing causes more sleepless nights than the fear of an unfulfilled life knocking at our door, and questioning whether we have done enough for our loved ones and with our own life. Is it any wonder that Mary Magdalene and other Mary were afraid? That first Easter morning, they feared for their safety. They feared for their fading faith and they feared for their shattered dreams. That is the mighty backdrop for our faith’s most important and defining moment. That is where our fearful Easter story must always begin, but it is not where it ends.
Now you may be wondering, so why we can’t just skip over this messiness to the of the end of the story, to the joy of Happy Easter and the simpler more pleasant traditions associated with this day? Why? Because it is on that first, fear-stained Easter morning, on the battle line of Holy Week, that we discover who God really is. God steps into places where death lurks and fears linger, and he stands with us. Yes, with God, death is never the final word- and neither is failure or loss. That is the good news from Jesus’ empty tomb.
St. Matthew writes, “The two women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” You see, compete fear had not yet been conquered. But when the morning dawned on that first Easter morning, fear was joined by a new companion: Joy. Great joy. And there on the road, Jesus met them and said, “Do not be afraid. Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” On that first Easter morning, they too were suddenly faced with a new fear- the fear of public speaking.
My friends, that is the heart of Easter gospel. Christ has destroyed the gates of hell and opened wide the gates to heaven to all believers. Even in the most fearful moments, especially in the hardest of times of life, God will not abandon you, but he will cast out your fears. This is the truth that made the women run, that made his disciples sing, and for generation of faithful Christian to celebrate Easter. There is joy at last. “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.