Fear and Great Joy

An Easter Sermon, preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

April 20, 2014
I confess Matthew’s account of the Easter story is not the one I’ve spent the most time with. I like the stark account that Mark tells, where the women flee in terror and say nothing to no-body.  I like the encounter in John’s gospel where Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. I even like Luke’s encounter, where the disciples tell the women they are full of….how does the Greek translate it… oh, right,  “baloney”… for the crazy story they tell of the resurrection and the empty tomb.

Each of the gospel writers sees different things in the story of Jesus. And that’s okay. Honestly, it reminds us that we have our own stories to tell and our own experiences of God that need to be shared.

It is also a reminder not to discount other people’s viewpoints, because they might see something we miss. Just because we see things differently doesn’t mean they are wrong.

So this year, I invite you to set aside what you know of this story from these other accounts, and hear the way Matthew tells it.

Matt 28:1-10
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.’

The first day of the week was dawning, and two women go to see the tomb.

This may be a whole new sad world where Jesus is dead and all their hopes and dreams are dashed, but the first day of the week was dawning, and they head to the tomb to, what… mark time? Stand vigil? See if maybe in the light of day it will all have been a nightmare?

I know many people who are facing tombs right now, tombs of brain tumors and cancer, tombs of addiction, tombs of loss, tombs of uncertainty. So many tombs.

And some mornings, the faithful response is to get up in the dark and go stare at them.

Matthew doesn’t say why the women headed to the tomb that morning, as a new week was dawning.

Perhaps the women had come to the tomb that morning with a sense both of sadness and relief. Perhaps, as they were devastated at Jesus’ death, maybe they were also relieved. Because, even if they didn’t fully understand what Jesus had been telling them, it was becoming clear to them that following him was going to make some big demands of them.

Perhaps “they had approached the tomb with a reverent grief, masking a deep relief that they were no longer burdened with the challenge of costly discipleship.” (D. Cameron Murchison in Feasting on the Word, Vol 2, Year B (WJK, KY 2008) p. 356.)

This wasn’t a relief they would have celebrated, because it revealed their own fear and weakness. The truth is we believe and celebrate the good news of God’s gracious love for creation, even as we fear what it will demand of us.

So perhaps, when they hear the messenger’s words, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him,” they realize that their relief was short lived.

Their challenge of discipleship is still before them and will be more demanding than they had previously been able to grasp.

God is not, after all, dead.

The angel, all lightning and strong biceps, is left sitting there on his stone, while the women leave the tomb quickly, in a mix of fear and joy.

Fear and great joy. That must be an uncomfortable emotional space for them to inhabit.

There is joy about the possibility the message from the angel is true and is better news than they ever could have dreamed up.

There is fear about the possibility the message from the angel is true and means the world they thought they understood—where dead people stay in their tombs—is no longer understandable.

When have you lived with two, seemingly contradictory, emotions at the same moment?

I’ve had friends confess to me they felt bad for laughing at the bedside of their dying loved one. I’ve suggested perhaps that laughter was a gift to everyone involved in the midst of their sadness and grief.

I know of parents who were so sick with worry about their children when they came home hours too late, that they wanted to give their kids a big hug because they were okay and then they wanted to kill them for making them worry.

The women’s fear and great joy made me think of this clip from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the episode is Chuckles Bites the Dust, where a local clown has died and the news team goes to the funeral. Earlier in the episode, Mary takes the rest of the team to task for laughing at the news of the clown’s death. He had been dressed as a peanut and crushed by an elephant.

Here’s a clip from the funeral:

It isn’t quite the same as the fear and joy the women experience at the tomb of our risen Lord, of course, but there is much truth in this clip, which is why it is still being viewed 40 years later, and has been listed by TV Guide as the best TV episode of all time.

Mary Tyler Moore wanted to compartmentalize her emotions for the appropriate moments. And we understand that. We want things to be clear. When we’re happy, we want the sun to shine and the birds to sing. When we’re sad, the clouds threaten and the dishwasher breaks and it’s a no good, very bad, day.

Yet we know life doesn’t work that way. The other Marys experienced the whole gamut of emotion that morning at the tomb—the fear and the great joy—and they ran to tell the disciples what they had seen.

It is in that moment of acceptance, where they realize life is scary, and angels are terrifying, and Christ is risen, and they were witnesses, and joy is rising up from someplace deep with in them—unexpected and barely hoped for— when they are laughing even as tears run down their cheeks, that they encounter Jesus.

He meets them in the midst of their complicated and messy lives as a new day is dawning.

The translation of his salutation seems odd to my ears. “Greetings!”, he says.
Nobody says that, Jesus.

But the Greek word was the common greeting you’d use when you saw your friends.

“Howdy”, he says.



“What’s up.”

Yes, the world has been turned upside down, and life has swallowed death, and everything they thought they knew was wrong, and they are terrified and laughing at the same time, but when they see the risen Jesus, he is the same—greeting them as usual.

And they fall to the ground, take hold of his feet and worship him.

They may not have much experience with stone rolling, lightning angels, or resurrection, but they know Jesus when they see him. They know who loved them until the end. And back.

Two thousand years later, we are much the same. We don’t understand the resurrection. We don’t get the physics of angels. We don’t know what kind of bleach they use to get their robes so sparkling white.

Much remains a mystery, which is as it should be. But don’t let the mystery leave you either terrified like the guards, or so distracted you miss the risen Lord when he says howdy.

We are here today because the women accepted the mystery and ran right into Jesus on their way to tell the story.

Friends, Matthew sends us this morning, like Mary Magdalene and Mary Tyler Moore, (I mean, “the other Mary”), in our fear and great joy, to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

I invite you to consider the cost in your life to following a man who defeated death. Because when we experience the love of God that conquers even death, we are reminded we are called to love as well. We are called to love even as it demands things of us. We love as Christ as loved us.

As we go out into an Easter world, where death has been defeated by love, let us live in hope. Because God will meet us on the path, greet us as friends, and send us off to share the news. And it is Good News, indeed.

This morning’s Call to Worship was written by Joanna Harader at Spacious Faith. The Three Women’s Opening Words in Worship were from “Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter” by the Iona Community.

5 thoughts on “Fear and Great Joy

  1. This is a wonderful Easter sermon, Marci. For Easter is both good and bad news. The good news of Jesus still with us and the harder news that now we are back on the road of discipleship with all its demands, even being asked to give our lives for love. But we don’t go alone. I love the words that Nancy Taylor used yesterday for her Easter sermon at Old South Church in Boston: “Easter is God’s tender whisper, “Don’t be afraid human, I’ve got your back.”


  2. Pingback: Wednesday Festival: 50 Posts for Eastertide | RevGalBlogPals

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