The following was delivered at the Eventide service at Lufkin First UMC on April 19, 2014.
28After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And 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.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay. 7Then 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.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
Tonight is the night we begin a victory lap. Christ has died, and tonight Christ is risen! The words that echo through the ages come back to us tonight, a song of joy, and incredibly celebration of light and life that renews and revives us each year. This week has been long and painful, in many ways. Though we started with joy on Palm Sunday, that joy quickly turned to pain, be it through the pain of the betrayal of Judas, the loneliness in the garden, the denial of Peter, the trial by Pilate, the whips, the beatings, the humiliation of the cross, and the grief that washed over us on Good Friday. Today though, is Holy Saturday. Today is the day in which our grief left us numb and wordless, and at the end of a day of tragedy comes a night of triumph.
And yet… we come to this joy with a bit of fear. In the gospel reading we heard of the witness of the women at the tomb, how they were surprised by the angel of God whose clothes were white and whose face was like lightning, and whose presence shook the very earth itself. Imagine for a second that you are Mary. Imagine the grief you have borne. Imagine the weight of the week that hangs in the air like a cloud ready to burst with rain. Your master, the one who loved you despite your flaws and sins, the one who healed and taught and loved, was crucified. He was beaten. He was betrayed. He was killed in the most humiliating way possible, and buried in a borrowed tomb.
All of those emotions swirl in a cocktail of grief, pain, fear, and dread, and this night when you come to the tomb where your friend was buried so that he may be buried properly according to custom, you arrive to find something truly out of this world. You see this angel. You see this being that can terrify even Roman guards, a being that can roll away a boulder by himself, a being that ignores all danger and talks directly to you. Above all, the first words out of his mouth are the hardest directions to follow: “Do not be afraid.” How? How can we attempt being unafraid when everything we’ve seen, everything we see, and everything we might see is frightening? How can we be unafraid after an emotional rollercoaster and come out on the other side joyful?
First, we need to look how far we’ve come, and find the joy out of the past. It’s a great tendency of ours to look into our past and remember all the pain we’ve endured. Fears from our past can haunt us all our lives if we don’t do anything about them. Our most painful experiences can leave us scarred for years. Growing up in Texas, I’m no stranger to extreme weather. However, it’s incredible how fear of that extreme weather has affected me in the years since. When I was in about 5th or 6th grade, I can’t remember for sure, I remember one night in early fall when there was a huge supercell storm over Pasadena, where I was living at the time. Me and the family were watching TV, hearing the rain outside, listening to the weather forecast and warnings, watching intently as the red blobs on the radar screen were enveloping our area. And suddenly, the intense rain stopped. We looked outside, the sky cloudy and greenish grey. Then in the silence crept a sound like a train whistle, rustling the trees in the neighborhood. My parents gathered us and told us to get away from the windows and go into the hallway for a few minutes while whatever it was passed over us. I imagine this was much how the Hebrews felt that dark night in Egypt as the final plague crept over the land, passing over their houses in search for unmarked doors. Minutes passed. The wind stopped. We went outside, and saw down the street that trees had been knocked over by the wind and what was probably a tornado.
Tornados still scare me. That fear has haunted my dreams for years, despite never actually damaging me or my family. I still get skittish in tornado weather. At the same time, I remember how my parents acted in the face of it. Calmly, they took precautions and protected me and my brother. In the face of insurmountable natural disaster, they were strong for us. And I know that they were probably just as scared as I was, but the fact of the matter is that their calmness provided me with courage for today. It was their way of letting me know that they cared for us, and that they would protect us. Even in the most terrible storms, I had a protector. I can look into my past and find all kinds of terrifying things. But amongst those memories, I have to remember that I have overcome all of those things and gotten to today. There has been grace there every day of my life, though I may not have seen it. There has always been light in the darkness, and no matter what has happened, the darkness has not overcome the light.
Darkness, however, is persistent. How do we overcome fear and find joy in the present? We can get around the idea that in the past God has gotten us through whatever trials we have faced, but what about today, especially when the events of Good Friday linger in our heads? It’s hard to come to grips with the reality of death and grief, in the twilight days of life when hope seems to be hard to come by. Where is the joy in a frightening present?
The passage from Matthew is as jarring as it is exciting. To find an angel and an empty tomb is a lot to grasp, a lot to take in in combination with the journey we’ve already been on and the expectations we had. The women expected to find a dead body, and a grim reminder of the cruelty of humanity. Instead they found an empty tomb and an assurance that life is there. How do we accept this? How do we accept this astounding truth that in a rational universe should not and cannot happen? Dead people don’t just come back to life. Is the resurrection real? Can it be true? This is the test of our faith.
In the face of insanity, chaos, and fear, faith is what can keep our hope—and yes, our joy—alive. I can’t explain how the resurrection happened, nor can I prove through scientific, repeatable means that a man can be brought back to life. Nobody can. But we know that somewhere in our hearts, the promise of resurrection, the promise of salvation, is lodged deep in the fabric of reality. All those times we were afraid, all those times we were on the brink of death in our lives and brought back, is proof enough in a loving God that has not just been with us in the past, but is with us now. Our God suffered death, and overcame it, and is with us now. Our God is a God of the living. In life, there is sorrow, there is fear, but ultimately, this mystery that we call life, this absolutely unique thing that we experience is a source of joy. Life itself is joy. When we come to the moment when we can accept that we are alive, and this life that we have comes from God, we find the grace that sustains our joy.
You might hear this and ask, that’s all fine well and good for right now, but what about tomorrow? And the next day? How do we know that this joy will outlast our fear? And that is a good question, worth asking. We have these great tentpole holidays in our tradition, that of Christmas and Easter, days of supreme joy, of life conquering death and hope restoring the lost. But what about the rest of the year? It’s easy to have faith on the good days, but what about the bad days, the boring days, the days when life is mundane, and aimless, and lifeless?
This is when our faith now makes a big difference. We can look in our past and see God, and look in the moment and find God, but when it comes to the future, faith needs to be our bedrock. In the coming weeks, we’re going to look at some of the aftershocks of Easter. Things are going to happen in the story of faith that are hopeful and uplifting… and we’ll see the negative side too. We’ll talk about persecution. We’ll talk about doubt. We’ll talk about fear. But we’ll also talk about perseverance, and community, and love that overcomes it all.
One of the most important writers of the faith, Paul, spent much of his life persecuting, murdering, and slandering the very faith that he would later come to own. He spent a great deal of time writing and reflecting on faith, on this God that we believe in, and this Jesus Christ that we find life in. It’s no surprise then that, in the later years of his life when writing to the Christians in Corinth, he would say:
Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. 9 We know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. 12 Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 13 Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.
How do we find joy in the fear? We find it in love. We find it in the love of God. We find it in loving others, and being a loving presence in the lives of others. We find joy in love, and that is the message of Easter. Death is dead. Fear is no more. Sin is erased and wounds are being healed. God is alive, and makes us alive. The darkness cannot overcome the light. Thanks be to God. Amen.