This meditation was preached at the Easter Sunrise Service at First UMC, Hickory NC on 4/20/2014.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped 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.” -Matthew 28:1-10
We came this morning to look at the sun rising as we greet this new day and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. We came to witness to the good news that Christ is risen indeed! The King of kings couldn’t be held captive in the cave hewn of stone, and the Lord of life couldn’t be snuffed out by darkness. We come early this morning to celebrate resurrection day.
However, the women in the story came to look at a tomb.
They came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark. Tired and sapped of all their strength from the previous days, they had come to continue their vigil, grieving the death of their teacher and friend. Their eyes likely still heavy with sleep and dry from being emptied of all their tears.
Then they were shaken awake by a violent earthquake and the terrifying appearance of an angel, single-handedly rolling away a stone that had taken several sturdy guards to put in its place. And the first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid.”
While greetings like this one seldom have the desired calming effect, “do not be afraid” is just the word these disciples need to hear. If they came to the tomb with hope it was jaded and slight. Experience had taught these women that in a situation like this it is best to temper hope with a measure of realism and low expectations. They were afraid…afraid that it was all for nothing, that Jesus wasn’t really who he thought he was.
If we’re honest, each Sunday morning, even Easter morning, we carry with us a little bit of fear in our back pocket. Like these disciples, experience has taught us to lower our expectations. I know the resurrection means power, but I’m afraid not enough power to make me a more patient person. I know the resurrection means life, but maybe not enough to put back the pieces of our family’s broken life. I know the resurrection means hope, but I’m afraid I just can’t afford to take that risk. So I’ll just be glad for what I have and not bother with those things…
BUT…If, like Mary and Mary Magdalene, we honestly bring our fear before the Risen Lord on the dawning of the new day, we hear God’s messengers proclaim the good news, “He is risen!” At that good word, fear shrinks and clouds of doubt melt away. The empty tomb is for us the sign that Jesus has vanquished the kingdom of fear and is out spreading his reign of love and joy.
There is no need to be afraid. Jesus did as he said he would. We can trust God! We can keep following him and believe in him. The tomb is empty; he is not here. Go on. Go to where Jesus said he’ll meet you. And believe he will be there, because he will. Each step in the direction that follows Jesus is a step away from fear and into God’s kingdom of joy.
And here is some more Easter hope: These women, the first evangelists and soon the first apostles of the resurrected Lord, go out “afraid yet filled with joy.” It is not entirely one or the other—fear or joy, doubt or faith. Easter is about Christ’s joy overcoming our fear; God’s faithfulness overcoming our doubt.
Though a shred of fear remains in their back pocket, it does not determine their moves anymore. Instead, their steps are light and quick. Their field of vision is full of possibility. Their mouths are filled with laughter and their tongues with shouts of joy—the joy of the Lord that is driving out every remnant of fear in them.
On their way to tell the disciples, suddenly Jesus meets them and he says to them, “Greetings,” literally “rejoice.” Jesus greets them with joy and says to them also, “Do not be afraid.” The joy of the Lord is a gift that comes when we go to do God’s will and are suddenly, in full stride, pulled up on our heels and surprised by Jesus who greets us with a grin and says, “Rejoice!”
Easter is an invitation to come to this new day with an honest faith that says, “Lord, though I have some fear, fill me with joy. Take me one step further down the resurrection road. I trust you, Lord, let me be filled with joy.”
Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus
Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of
everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the
day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death
of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, now and for ever. Amen.
Collect for Easter Sunday, Book of Common Prayer