Our New Testament text for today comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 1-10. This is the day we have been waiting for. This is the day to which our entire Holy Week has pointed. From the moment of his arrival in Jerusalem last Sunday, when the whole city was in turmoil, Jesus has been in conflict with the authorities and chief priests. Finally these leaders manage to succeed in their plot against Jesus. He is crucified as a common criminal. Upon the cross, at the moment of his death, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” and breathed his last. The curtain in the temple was torn in two, the earth shook, and tombs were opened.
His death complete, a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, asked the Roman Governor Pilate if he could have Jesus’ body. He prepared it and placed it in a new tomb. Yet, still the chief priests were worried. They thought that someone might steal Jesus’ body from its tomb, so they asked Pilate to have guards be placed there to prevent such a theft. Let us hear this Word of God.
1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 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. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 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." 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 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 the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The chief priests and the Pharisees were afraid. That “imposter” was dead, but that couldn’t quite be the end, could it? That one who claimed to be the Messiah had said that he would rise again on the third day. What if his sneaky disciples steal the body? They might go around telling people that Jesus has been raised from the dead! That would be horrible! Much worse than him saying he is the Messiah. So the guards were posted and the stone of the tomb was sealed. That should take care of that, I’m sure they thought. But do you think that nagging fear in their mind ever really went away?
Yes, nagging, lingering fear. It seems to just hang over us like a cloud, doesn’t it?
We live in a world where we have been fighting a war against terror for sixteen years. Think about that for just a minute – a sixteen year fight against extreme fear.
We live in a world where Christians in Egypt were victims of deadly attacks as they gathered for worship on Palm Sunday.
We live in a world where chemical weapons, tomahawk missiles, and the Mother of All Bombs drop from the same sky.
We live in a world where politicians see their sole purpose as nurturing the fires of fear and blocking anything and everything the other party proposes. People like me fear it will never be possible to find something like “the common good” again.
This cloud of fear sinks closer to home for we “know” something bad is going to happen, we are just not exactly sure what or when.
Maybe an injury or an accident;
Maybe an illness or a side effect;
Maybe a devastating loss;
Maybe someone we’d rather not meet or who might try to do us harm.
If that is not enough, in an age of social media, we also seem to suffer from what author Brene Brown calls, “the shame based fear of being ordinary.” She describes it as, “fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” Look at the number of likes on our friend’s Easter pictures or prom pictures or sermon videos and we seem pretty insignificant.
Yes, nagging, lingering fear. So we seal off the tomb, just in case someone might try to get out. We post guards just in case someone might try to get in. We lock up everything tight, especially our emotions, because that way we can be sure that we do not get hurt. Even this morning we might hide behind lilies, brass fanfares, and new dresses or bowties, but truth be told, we are afraid.
This year, that is where Easter morning begins, at least for me.
Because that is where the first Easter morning began. On the first day of the week, Matthew tells us that because of fear guards were stationed at the sealed tomb when two women show up. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, probably Jesus’ mother. They had been to this place before after watching Jesus die on the cross. They had seen Joseph roll the great stone over the entrance of the tomb. Yes, they had watched it all.
And yet, still on the day after the Sabbath they return. They come to see the tomb, probably to weep a bit, to pay their respects, maybe even to talk with the dead as if being in the place where the body remained would allow Jesus to hear them better. They probably knew that the guards were there, but that didn’t really matter. At least in this account they were not planning on opening the tomb. I doubt the guards even paid them much attention. These women were going to steal a body? Not likely.
But then the fun starts. I don’t know about you, but when I read these next verses in Matthew’s account of Easter morning, it is hard to suppress a chuckle and a smile. This is really a quite comic story. Can you imagine God sitting in the heavens turning to the angels and saying, “Those guards think they are fearful that someone is going to steal the body. They haven’t seen nothing yet! Watch this!”
Suddenly the earth began to shake, just as it had at the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross. A great earthquake as an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. Woah! Appearance like lightening! Clothes whiter than snow! The seal on the tomb broken! Ta – da!
Do you see how much fun this is? Would the body come out, would this crucified King of the Jews emerge to conquer his enemies? Would he begin with the guards who had thought this would be such an easy assignment? So many questions, so much terror - the guards shook and became like dead men, paralyzed in their fright.
Really, how can we not smile? Those tasked with making sure the one dead stayed in the tomb react to the opening of the tomb by becoming like dead men! As Protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote, “Through Christ’s death and by virtue of his resurrection, ‘death has become a mockery.’”
At this point the angel starts talking to the women. And his words (and I’m sure a twinkle in his eye) are a sharp contrast to the guards lying out on the ground. He says, “Don’t you be afraid,” or “As for you, stop being afraid.” New Testament scholar Judith Jones writes:
The angel is commanding them to reject their current state of fear, for his news brings great joy: “I know that you are looking for Jesus the crucified one. He is not here, for he was raised just as he said.” The resurrection has already happened. The stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in.
In the midst of a story that begins with all the markings of tragedy and fear, resurrection is a surprising, might we even say comic, development. Despite the fact that Jesus had told them, multiple times, of his return, no one in the story anticipates resurrection. On Good Friday it appears that tragedy and death will have the final word. The guards are placed by the tomb so that no one can steal the body. The women arrive at the tomb to mourn and bear watch. But instead there is an earthquake, an angel, a rolling stone, the body gone, and the message: “He is risen!”
So the good news that first Easter morning, this Easter morning, is not that there is nothing to be afraid of. It is not that bad things won’t happen sometimes or that if you risk your life or step out on faith that you won’t get hurt. All those fears I listed at the beginning of this sermon - that part of life hasn’t changed. No, the good news of Easter is, that resurrection enables the women to keep faith amid their fears. They are empowered to go and share the good news in spite of their anxiety. When the earth quakes and fear descends, resurrection enables us to keep our feet and to not just persevere, but even flourish with great joy!
The resulting joy is, as former Dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte Tom Currie writes: “While not a mood, is a gift that issues in a certain boldness of spirit, a kind of unapologetic delight in the beauty and truth of Easter, which soon takes the form of ‘proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and unhindered’” (Acts 28:31).
There are not many mainstream television shows that portray this kind of joy-filled Christian faith with integrity. However, more than a decade ago I saw an episode of a show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. During its brief one season run, Studio 60 attempted to depict the drama behind the scenes of a late night comedy sketch show. One of the characters on the show is a woman named Harriet Hayes. This character is a gifted comedian who is also a devout Christian. She maintains an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with another character, Matt Albie. On one episode, in an attempt to explain her Christian faith to a skeptical Matt, Harriet shares the story of her conversion at the age of eleven. She says:
“My mother put me in church plays and one time I just [totally forgot my line] and to cover I went into a Judy Holliday impression. There was stunned silence until the minister burst out laughing, and I looked and I saw the pride on my mother’s face, and I told her I was ready to accept Christ and I was baptized.”
Matt responds, “So are you saying that you became a Christian and a comedian at the same time?”
To which Harriet says, “I guess so.”
My friends, who would have thought that Hollywood could have it exactly right? To be an Easter Christian is to know joy; to be a Christian is to be a comedian in the face of the world’s tragedy, knowing that the joke is not on us. Fear, pain, and death will not laugh last. They are trumped by joy, which came to the whole world through a cross. The tomb stands empty! Jesus is on the loose, and even in the midst of suffering and tragedy he shows up calling us by name.
This is good news of great joy. My friends, do not be afraid! He is risen! He is risen indeed!
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: