Fear and Great Joy – 2017/04/16

Psalm 118:14-24
Colossians 3:1-17
Matthew 28:1-10


It’s really funny watching my son navigate the world.  Toddlers are very special – they are learning so much and so fast that it’s easy to miss things.  But, as a huge nerd, one of the things that I really enjoy watching is not just all the mushy stuff, but really thinking about how his brain is developing.  Of course, our brains develop in many ways over our lifetimes, and they’re all interesting.  But toddlers’ brains are growing particularly fast and in fascinating ways.

One of the places that it’s easiest to see this is when one of his toys gets caught somewhere.  So, if you have something that lands, say, on the other side of the table, you know that you just have to walk around the table.  Except to Zeke, that didn’t occur to him the first time he threw a ball over there.  He had to learn it.  And really, when you think about it, going around a table to get something is really hard and counterintuitive, because it means you actually have to move farther away from it in order to get closer.

When we’re young, we learn this skill when we start to do mazes.  We learn if you start in the upper right-hand corner and you have to get to the upper left-hand corner, it’s not as simply as just drawing a line.  Sometimes, you have to work your way all the way down to the bottom to get back up.  I watch my child learn this skill, and I realize how much I still have to learn about the world around me.  How often am I trying to take the path of least resistance – but how often is that actually harder than the path I should’ve taken?  We can’t always know the answer of course – so often in life, we only get one chance at something, and we’re stuck with the way we chose to go.  But our passage today, I think, really helps us understand when the harder way makes things better.

Of course, this morning is the greatest of all days in the Christian year:  it’s Easter Sunday.  This is a joyful day in the church year.  So let us walk the journey that the followers of Jesus walked that first time around, and remember exactly what happened.

We begin just a short week ago, with Palm Sunday.  This was the day in which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  He was greeted with people singing his praises.  Throughout the week, he was harassed by some of the religious leaders at the Temple and in the city, as they were trying to take him to trial for sedition – in other words, they wanted him convicted as some sort of terrorist, or traitor.  This would require the Roman authorities to put him to death.  Jesus’ opponents said that Jesus was claiming to be the true king.  Of course, in some ways this was true – but in the realistic ways, the very week that Jesus was arrested, he told some of his opponents that they owed their taxes to Caesar, just like anyone else.  That hardly sounds like someone trying to overthrow the existing political structure.

Anyway, Jesus went from there to having the Passover meal with his friends on Thursday night.  In that meal, Jesus revealed that he knew his death was coming.  He also instituted footwashing, the Sacrament of Communion, and the commandment to love one another.  Then, following the meal, he went to the Garden with his disciples to pray.  He asked that they remain awake, but they fell asleep.  And as they slept, three times he prayed, “Father, if I don’t have to do this, don’t make me – but if I must, then let your will be done.”

That very night, he was arrested.  His disciple Judas, one of his 12 closest followers, betrayed him and handed him over to the authorities.  He was tried and found guilty by Pontius Pilate, the governor of the region.  Given one last chance to free Jesus, some of the people gathered outside were asked if Jesus should be released, and they shouted, “Crucify him!”  Perhaps some of these were the same people who cheered just five days earlier, on Palm Sunday.

Jesus was then put to death on a cross.  Hanging on a cross, I’m sure you know, was a horribly painful way to die.  While you were still alive, you were nailed to the wood, which was unsanded.  I don’t want to get into all the grisly details, but let it be known that this was not a humane way to put someone to death – it was not a firing squad or a lethal injection.  It was meant to be torture.  Jesus called out from the cross, breathed his last, and he died.

Of course, this left the disciples in quite a predicament.  We normally think of the 12, which were Jesus’ closest followers, but we should remember that there were many people following Jesus.  Anyway, they were all suddenly without the most important person in the world to them.  He was their leader, their guide, their guardian.  Some of them had even professed their belief that he was the Messiah, the Chosen One, God’s promised salvation to humankind.  Others knew what we know, too – that Jesus was in fact God in human form, walking among them, showing them how God means all of us to live.

Now, they were without, not just their friend, but without God.  Can you imagine the crisis of faith that proceeds from there?  Where are you supposed to turn?  How are you supposed to cope?  When God is gone, who is left?

Of course, the day that Jesus died was Friday, before sundown.  So he was placed in a tomb, which was the common method of burial in Jesus’ time and place.  He was left there for the night, and no one mourned him.  This is because the next day, Saturday, was the Sabbath.  That’s the day that Jews are required to rest – so none of Jesus’ followers could do the traditional body preparation, nor the proper mourning.  And since the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday, they really couldn’t go until Sunday morning.

And this is where we start to think about what it means to do something counterintuitive.  Remember, Jesus was the guide for a whole bunch of people – and now he was gone.

So some of them, naturally, were probably ready to move on.  Some of them, undoubtedly, didn’t want to have to face their grief.  But some of the others were among the bravest.  Some of Jesus’ closest followers were women, and some of them courageously did something unexpected.  Now, there are many sermons to be preached about the fact that it was women who went to the tomb that first time.  But I don’t want to dwell too hard on that today.  Let’s just suffice it to say that, of even Jesus’ 12 closest male followers none of them show up at the tomb in Matthew’s Gospel which we read this morning.

These women go in their grief.  They went to see the tomb.  There was a great stone rolled in front of it, so they weren’t going to get to see Jesus.  But they could at least look at the place where he was laid to rest.  There could, perhaps, be some closure if they could mourn properly.  So they show up, and that’s when something remarkable happens.

The stone has been rolled away.  An angel is there and tells the women – “He isn’t here.  He has been raised, and he’s headed home to Galilee ahead of you.”  These poor women are a horrible mixture of emotions.  If you read the passage, you see that they begin in grief, move to fear when they see the angel, and then, even after this angel has told them not to be afraid, verse 8 tells us that “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.”

I love those words.  They were still afraid – why wouldn’t you be?  You just saw an angel, and he told you that your friend who had died was now alive again.  That’s terrifying – but it’s also the very best news.

I ask myself what this passage should mean for us today.  Surely, there’s a lot we can take from the cosmic meaning of the resurrection, and we’ll get there this morning.  But I also think it’s important to take out one of the smaller things from our passage.  And the reason we’ve read these texts for 2000 years is that they’re incredibly rich!

One of the things I think this passage is saying to us is something about emotion.  Why the women?  Why were these the ones who heard of Jesus’ resurrection first?  Why didn’t Jesus just appear to the 12, so they could see him first?

My answer for this is simple:  these women were the ones who embraced what they were feeling.  While Jesus’ other followers may have been perplexed or upset, while some may have been moving on, these women came looking for the bottom.  They were interested in feeling the true depth of their feelings, including the bad ones.  And it’s only those people who go seeking out everything they’re given who indeed are able to find the great joy, too.

We live in a culture that tells us that the most important thing to feel is happiness.  We believe that we should be shielded from all unpleasantness, all the time.  But the truth is, no matter how much we try to sanitize our lives, we’ll never be able to remove all suffering.  So instead, we often live in denial.  But these women are a wonderful example to us.  They are sad, and they go out in their mourning to try to find the closure they need.  They don’t run away from the unpleasantness; they run to it.  And it’s in the discomfort of the situation that they find their greatest joy.

Because, of course, as the passage ends, they don’t just see an angel telling them about the risen Lord – they actually meet him on their way to talk to the disciples!  They fall at his feet and worship him.  And the reason they were able to meet him in this place was because they embraced the unusual path.  They found great joy by traveling through great sadness.  Just as my son has to learn to walk around obstacles to find what he’s seeking, these women possessed the wisdom to know that they had to actually confront the bad things in life to find the good.

Brothers and sisters, this is a good lesson for us in this holiest of Christian weeks.  Easter is sweetest when we’ve traveled through Good Friday to get here.

It’s only when we’re reminded of the pain we face that the joy shines through.  It’s only when we allow ourselves to feel alone that we remember how much having companionship means.  It’s only through the confronting of our demons that they are exorcised from our lives.  Most importantly of all, this story of Jesus who came do us an died, who defied the Roman authorities, who helped those with no food or clothes or friendship, who was simultaneously the lowest of humans and God almighty – this Easter story is what we need to know as Christians.  It’s how we know that, when we walk into a dark room, there may be dangers, but there will also always be light in Christ.  There is always hope in the Christian story, because there is always Jesus.  Even death cannot hold back God’s love for us.

Easter is the day when we see Christ come again in glory.  The Resurrection is not icing on the cake that God has given us – the Easter story is the very heart of the Good News of Jesus; it is the part of the story that reminds us that there is not one thing that can make God’s love for us fail.  I am reminded of the eighth chapter of Romans, and will conclude with these words from Paul that summarize what Easter means to me: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On Easter Sunday, we see that love fulfilled.  We see Christ who has conquered sin and death.  The grave, the final answer of the world, does not hold God’s love for us. God can’t be contained, put in a box, put in a tomb, squirreled away for some other time.  Christ is not just a good guy who lived a long time ago.  Jesus is alive, here and now, to remind us that we are not alone, that we are taken care of, and that our future is full of hope, no matter how dire things may be.  God is literally bursting forth from the ground, ready to embrace us and show us the truth.

And that truth is this:  you are loved.  Jesus has literally crossed every boundary to show you that – even death itself.  Therefore we, like those women nearly 2000 years ago, have no reason to fear the bad things that come in life.  Instead, we must embrace our mourning when sad things happen.  It is in embracing the depth of our pain in the night that we find the joy that comes in the light of day.  And as you embrace everything life throws at you, do so remembering that your Lord and Savior suffered a violent death, yet returned from the grave healthy and whole, promising God’s better things to come.  And he did that all because he loves you.  So go forth from this place knowing that love, sharing it with others, and feeling renewed and warmed in God’s embrace.  Amen!