April 24, 2011
William G. Carter
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards 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 who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then 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.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
This is our big day! The trumpet is sounding. The hymns are bouncing off the ceiling. A hundred flowers give their testimony. All heaven and earth converge upon us to announce that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In so many ways, nothing needs to be said. All we need to do today is show up and soak up the joy.
Easter is that kind of celebration for the church. It’s our family reunion, when the people of a scattered church make every attempt to be here. Whatever plans they have made for the rest of the day have been arranged around this hour. It’s obvious to me that good-looking people shine even brighter. They dress up for this festival, and many of them are even on their best behavior.
This is the day that the Lord has made. It births the church of God into existence and sets the pattern of our weekly hallelujahs. It is Easter Sunday, the day of our great joy!
And it sounds odd that it is also a day of great fear.
Maybe you noticed that about the scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. Four times “fear” is mentioned as a noun or a verb. Whatever happened at the Jerusalem tomb set off shock waves in both people and the earth. The ground started shaking, the guards outside the tomb started shaking.
I’ve never been in an earthquake, but I have seen the faces of people on camera. Most recently it was footage from just over a month ago in Japan, in a country shaken and devastated. Nobody expected it. People shaped their faces in silent screams before the wailing began. It was a terrifying moment.
Easter begins with an earthquake. I don’t know if Matthew wants us to take that literally or not. He has already told us how the heavens and the earth echo in the great events of God. When Jesus was born, the heavens created a new star in the sky (2:2). When he breathed his last breath, the rocks split and the tombs around Jerusalem cracked open (27:51-52). Now, on the third day, there are aftershocks near Golgotha.
Matthew claims it was an angel; he was bright as lightning and powerful enough to push back the stone. And when the professional soldiers of Rome got a look at him, they were “sore afraid.” Very few things could ever shake up a soldier, but this it. In “sheer terror,” they trembled and fell over as if they were dead.
This is part of the Easter story, too. The soldiers are afraid of Easter.
Oh, I know: it says they were afraid of the angel; the angels of the Bible are very frightening. Not one of them looks cute like Roma Downey or handsome like Denzel Washington. They instill fear – which is why they open their mouths, and the very first thing they say is – what? – “Don’t fear! Don’t be afraid!”
This angel doesn’t have a spear, a helmet, or a suit of armor. He looks like a lightning bolt, says Matthew, and that’s enough to shake the consciousness out of those soldiers.
When they wake up, they are also going to be afraid of Pontius Pilate. He was the Empire’s governator – and he’s the one who assigned them to guard the tomb. “Keep it secure,” he said, “don’t let anybody near it.” And if Pilate hears that they have fallen down on the job, they will be as good as dead! Either that - or they will be reassigned to fight the barbarians of Scotland. It doesn’t look for those soldiers.
What we have here is a political satire of Caesar, Pontius Pilate, the military guard, indeed the whole Empire. They are no match for an invisible God. They can’t even protect a graveyard from a couple of women. It’s an editorial cartoon about the dead-end ways of the world’s worship of power and brute force.
The story is an echo of the beginning of this same book. The wise men from the East arrive at the palace to ask, “Where is the king? We have come to worship him.” And Herod says, “Here am I. I am the mighty king.”
The three wise men say, “No, not you. We are looking for the brand new king, the infant king, the real king.” So Herod tries to destroy the child so he can remain the king; this only proves his illegitimacy in God’s Kingdom, and the child Jesus is saved until Herod dies.
The Easter story sounds just as pathetic, yet with a note of sad comedy. Matthew would have us imagine their explanation to their superiors: “Yes, Commander, it went like this. At O-Dawn-Hundred, there was a seismic disturbance.”
Why didn’t we feel it at our outpost? “Well, sir, we have reason to believe that an extra-terrestrial being appeared to move the gravestone.”
I see that from your report. Sergeant, are you delusional? “Well, no sir, although it was difficult to tell. He kind of resembled a sunbeam, and that was right before we blacked out . . .”
What did you see when you came to your senses? “Well, we say a couple of peasant women, sir, but they were, uh, running away and, uh, singing . . .”
On Easter, the brutal powers of the world are served notice: God’s invisible power is stronger. The principalities of the world shall be defeated by a couple of singing women. It’s no wonder that soldiers were afraid, and fell down as if they were dead . . .
But listen to these women: they are fearful too. In the insight of one scholar (Stanley Hauerwas), they come to the tomb out of faith. They remembered Jesus’ promise that he would rise on the third day, and it was the third day. There is no mention in this story that they bring spices to anoint the hastily-buried body. No, Matthew wants us to see their faith, their trust in his promise, their perseverance after all the men folk ran away.
Here they are, at Ground Zero as the earth is knocked off its axis. The earthquake shakes them too. There is nowhere to hide, nothing to hang onto. The Laser Beam Angel will not talk to the soldiers, but he does talk to them, to the women. He will not let them fall over and play dead, but speaks the news directly:
- I know why you are here: you have come to see Jesus.
- This is what Easter means: Jesus is alive, yet he is invisible as God is invisible.
- He is going ahead of you to Galilee and you will see him there! So go and tell his disciples.
And as they run with great joy, they are also filled with fear. Matthew insists on it: it’s the same word for “fear” (phobos) that consumed the soldiers. The women feel fear, too, but the fear comes as they are going to do what God’s angel wants them to do. It’s in the midst of their obedience that they have profoundly mixed feelings.
After all, there lie a number of Caesar’s soldiers around the open tomb, incapacitated and equalized. What kind of dynamite are these women playing with?
And what if Jesus really is alive, unseen but alive? What if every lesson he taught us still holds: that the poor in spirit are blessed, that the hungry are meant to be filled, that the holiness of God brings shalom to every kitchen, workbench, and marketplace? What if all those healings he did are a sign of the kind of God that we have?
I can understand the fear. What if all of this Good News is true? What if the emperor’s brutality, the high priest’s hypocrisy, and the good friend’s treachery are not the rules that run the world? What if God rules, judges, and redeems?
This can be unsettling. If Jesus is raised from the dead, it means the world is not as predictable as anybody thinks it is. It means that people with high control needs are going to find themselves shaken. It would mean we will no longer live as if death determines our living.
That reminds me of a story. The great writer Robert Louis Stevenson was raised by Presbyterians. His grandfather was a famous preacher in Edinburgh. When he reached a rebellious age that he never quite outgrew, he let his hair grow long, wore flowered shirts, and frequented unsavory establishments. His wild life coincided with his fame as a writer.
Stevenson had lifelong respiratory problems and was often sickly. Once he got a letter from a self-important missionary who heard about his moral behavior, and wanted to preach to him “as a man in danger of dying.” Robert wrote back with characteristic humor, “You should visit me as a man in danger of living. I am a very sick man, but suppose I get better. Any fool can die; as a matter of fact, all do. I’m going to need much more help if I go on living.”
We must not be afraid of life, for that is to be afraid of Easter. To be afraid of Easter is to be afraid of God. To be afraid of God is to be afraid of trusting, affirming, healing, embracing, enjoying, and working for the benefit of every one of God’s children and creatures.
I came into the sanctuary early to see the flowers. There are so many that all of you have provided, and I wanted to make sure I still had a place to stand. After a long winter, it is a blessing to stand in the presence of beauty and abundant life. I consider the lilies, how they praise their Creator as they are created to do. They praise God and they are never afraid. They are the very picture of what all of us are called to do.
When Jesus is raised from the dead, the women who are witnesses run from the empty tomb in great joy and deep fear. When Jesus meets them, he says "Hello!" and says, “Stop being afraid!” But they are terribly shaken. Shaken alive, shaken awake, but shaken.
And when they find their voices, I will sing along.
(c) William G. Carter
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