Fear and Great Joy

Sunday April 12th 2020 Easter Sunday

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Matthew 28:1-10

Easter In the Time of a Pandemic

Easter is generally a time for joy and jubilation and wonderful celebrations. 

I can’t help but reflect back to last Easter, when our day began with a beautiful Easter Sonrise service in Roosevelt Park as we gathered together with churches from throughout the Hampden community. We then had a lovely worship service here in our church sanctuary, followed by a lively Easter Egg hunt in the park and a delicious pancake brunch on the porch. Everyone was decked out in their finest Easter hats and bonnets. It was truly a wonderful sight to behold. 

But this year feels very different. Most of us find ourselves alone, or with only a few close family members, as we follow the directives of our governmental leaders to stay at home, in light of the global coronavirus pandemic. 

In fact, for many of us it may not even seem like Easter at all. Yesterday as we were having lunch, my 4-year-old daughter asked us, “When is Easter?” When we informed her that it was the following day, she said, “What!? No one even told me!” Many of us can probably relate to that feeling.

But I can’t help but think that the women who journeyed to Jesus’s tomb early that first Easter morning probably felt a lot like many of us feel this year on Easter — somewhat lost in a fog, unsure of what day it is, and alone. Very alone.

The First Easter

The women who walked to the tomb early that first Easter morning probably felt like their lives had come to a grinding halt. Magdalene and “the other Mary” (which Mary it was, we’re not sure), had just lost Jesus — their teacher, the one who had healed them and freed them. Jesus, who always took the time to listen, who always knew just what to say. Their Jesus, the one they had followed and supported, the one they had built their hopes and dreams around, the one they loved, was gone.

Although it probably felt like an eternity ago, it had only been a few days prior that Jesus had been unjustly tried and crucified, hung on a cross for all to see, publicly mocked and shamed and humiliated. 

Often family members would go to the tomb a few days after the burial to make sure that their loved one was actually dead, since sometimes people who were thought to be dead were mistakenly buried. But in this case there was no doubt. The two Marys had seen him hanging on the cross, watched him breathe his last breath. They watched as his body was taken down from the cross and carried to the tomb and sealed with a stone. In this case there was no doubt. Jesus was most definitely dead.

And yet they woke up early that Sunday morning, and not being sure what to do, or where to go, they decided to go and see the tomb. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us what they intended to do there, only that they went to “see the tomb” (Matt. 28:1). Most likely they went to honor his memory, to pay their last respects. But also perhaps they went to find some semblance of hope or assurance, some sort of answer as to why everything had happened the way it happened.

He Is Risen!

But when they arrived at the tomb, suddenly there was a great earthquake! And an angel, a messenger of the Lord, came down from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. The guards who had been watching over the tomb passed out from fear.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” Then the angel invited them to come and see the place where Jesus had been laid to rest. And indeed the tomb was empty — he was not there!

The angel commanded them to go quickly and tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 

But on the way, Jesus appeared to them. And when they saw him, they bowed down, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

And then Jesus himself instructed them to go and tell his other disciples that he was alive, that they should go back to their home area of Galilee, and that there they would see Jesus.

True Story

It’s been said that one of the ways that we know this is a true story is because during that time period, the testimony of women was not permissible in court. The early church never would have invented a story like this and made women the first bearers of the good news. Like so many stories in the Bible, the counter-cultural nature of this story is one of the reasons that we know it must be true.

And so two of the most faithful, loyal women, who hardly ever get speaking roles in the Gospel narratives up until this point, were entrusted with the greatest news ever told!

Fear and Joy

I’m struck by the Gospel writer’s very brief and concise description of how the women responded. In these verses the women are speechless, but Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly with fear (despite the fact that the angel told them not to be afraid!) but also with great joy, and that when they encountered the risen Jesus, they bowed down and worshiped him.

The women had good reason to be afraid. Most likely they were afraid that no one would believe them, that they would be accused of fabricating the whole story. Perhaps they were afraid that the religious and political leaders who had conspired to kill Jesus might try to do the same to them. 

And yet in the midst of all of that, they experienced great joy.

Today many of us experience a strange combination of fear and joy. Alongside the fears and anxieties and economic instability that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have also experienced moments of joy. Joy in the times shared with other members of our households. Joy in God’s provision and protection over ourselves and our loved ones. Even when we look outside and see the beautiful spring flowers, we might experience joy. 

Ultimately we know that joy is something that comes from God and it is not based solely upon our external realities We know that the joy that the women experienced that day came from God, because, even though Christ had risen from the grave, a lot of their external circumstances were still the same. They were still women, living in a male-dominated society. As Jews, they were still part of an oppressed minority, living under Roman occupation. And as Christ-followers, they were despised by the religious and political elites.

The joy that these women experienced was not because everything around them was suddenly coming up roses. No. The joy that they had was because they knew that somehow, some way, the fact that Jesus was alive changed everything. They maybe didn’t know how, they maybe didn’t know why, but they knew that Christ’s resurrection was indeed Good News, and it was worth sharing. And they knew that the fact that Jesus had died and was now alive again made him someone who was worthy of their worship. 

And so they did.

Here I am to Worship

Friends, this morning our Easter celebration may be marked by both fear and joy, just as it was for the two Marys on that first Easter morning. But even if we don’t understand everything that is happening around us, or why it’s happening, we too can still choose to worship. 

As we look at the world around us, we have many reasons to feel fear, as well as sorrow and grief. There is much in our world that is not the way it should be, and that is worth lamenting. 

But Jesus is alive! And that is good news worth celebrating! Jesus is alive, and He is worthy of our worship. Jesus is alive, and he is worthy of our love and devotion. 

In fact, the resurrection of Christ is what makes it clear to us that Jesus is worthy of our worship, because the resurrection would neer have happened if Jesus had not died on the cross. Death is a necessary first step in order for resurrection to take place. 

The amazing thing is that Jesus willingly endured the cross — willingly suffered and died for us, because of his great love for — so that, just as he was raised to new life, we too can experience eternal life through him. 

In Christ’s suffering and death on the cross we see clearly that Jesus understands our pain and our suffering, and in Christ’s resurrection we see that death does not have the final word. Because Jesus conquered sin and death and the grave, we do not have to be afraid of what might come our way, and we can experience joy even in the midst of sorrow and suffering. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can have true and everlasting joy.

Like the women, we may not understand everything that is happening around us. But Jesus is alive, and that changes everything. Jesus is alive, and so we are not alone. Jesus is alive, and he is worthy of our worship and our praise. 

So let’s come to Jesus in worship, bringing our fears, and our joys. Let’s bow before the risen Lord, knowing that because Jesus lives, we too can live!