The story begins in the dark of dawn. The women are headed to the grave in order to grieve. In Matthew’s version, they are not bringing spices for the body or asking who will roll away the stone. They just want to be close. Like a loved one who wants to sit near the gravestone. Like the mourner who doesn’t want to close the casket quite yet.
And then, their grieving turns into something else, when they arrive at the tomb. For instead of a quiet, dark tomb, they find the majesty of a miracle. There is an earthquake, angels of the Lord sitting on the stone, and the dark tomb is empty! The women go from that place, filled with clarity and great certainty.
No they didn’t. That’s not what it says at all!
Anyone catch it? Anyone notice it when I read the Gospel reading a few minutes ago?
They didn’t go with clarity and great certainty. It actually says something very different. I just made that part up. I changed the words. I know, in some Baptist churches, that is enough to get the staff relations committee to organize an emergency meeting by the second verse of the final hymn….or at least enough to get a hymnal thrown at me. But I wanted to make a point: my bet is that many of us did not even hear it when I changed the words, because those are the words that we want to hear.
Clarity and great certainty. Confidence. Bravado. It’s the American way. If you don’t know what you are saying, say it louder. More people will believe you that way. Our culture says to go with clarity and great certainty. You are in charge. Prove it. The Resurrection says that God is in charge. Look again who speaks in this passage. Not the guards. Not the women. Not the authorities. The angels and Jesus. The world already had its say. On Thursday night, and Friday, and Saturday, the world had its say. But it’s Sunday morning, and it’s God’s turn to say something.
And next to the voice of God, the voice over death and suffering and injustice, our confidence and bravado look a little silly, don’t they? Because the reality is that Mary and Mary did not go with clarity and great certainty. It says that they went from the tomb with fear and great joy.
But that doesn’t make any sense! These women were there. They saw the empty tomb. They saw the very angels of the Lord speaking to them. If anyone is going to have clarity and great certainty, shouldn’t it be these women? But they don’t! Something is wrong here. Fear and great joy? How can you do that? They are contrary to one another, aren’t they? How can you have both at the same time?
That didn’t sound right to me, so I did a word study this week to discern what it is that these words really meant in the original language, and what I found was pretty amazing. When we look at this phrase “fear and great joy” in the Greek, what it is actually saying is: “fear and great joy.” It’s actually a pretty simple translation. Convenient, right? I wanted to find some way around this apparent oxymoron, but it really says that. The women left the tomb with both of these things on their hearts: there was fear and there was joy. Great joy, apparently.
So instead of finding answers in the Greek, I turned to another source…my life. I began to think of times in my life when I have felt both fear and great joy.
The first time I stood on the edge of a mountain, I had fear and great joy. There was a terror about what could happen if I slipped…that’s a long way down. But there was also this sense of exhilaration and, well, great joy.
The first time I stood up to preach to you all here at First Baptist, I had fear and great joy. I was terrified because I wanted to say the right things and do the right things and impress everyone with my wit and wisdom (or at least fake really well that I have those things). But there was also great joy, because I could tell that this was a special place and a special people and it just felt like home.
The first time I held both of my children in my arms, I had fear and great joy. Or more accurately, joy and great fear. For me, there was this amazing sense of terror…can I care for this child, live up to everyone’s expectations, and be a good father…a terror I still feel sometimes. But there is also this amazing sense of anticipation and hope and excitement and…joy.
Before long I got it…fear and great joy is not really that hard to understand. To live life with fear and great joy is to live it to its fullness, to not cheapen it in the search for clarity and certainty, but to give yourself to the adventure that is the walk if faith. It is the new life that Paul talked about. The abundant life that Jesus invited us to. It is resurrection life! When the women left that day, they were experiencing new life…Resurrection life. And it’s the kind of thing that simply cannot be contained. It can only be described.
Resurrection life is a life of wonder. I am reminded of one of my favorite movies, Contact, in which the Jodie Foster character finds herself seeing the most awe-inspiring sight in the galaxy, and this skeptical scientist, with eyes wide open exclaims, “they should have sent a poet!” I can imagine the women saying the same thing at the empty tomb. Resurrection life is one that watches the world with the eye of a poet. With wide-eyed wonder. With anticipation. With awe. The Resurrection life is not one of clarity and certainty, but of mystery and wonder. As you witness to the empty tomb today, do it with wonder.
Resurrection life is a life of abandon. Another scene comes to mind, this one from a television show: Little House on the Prairie. Perhaps you will remember the opening credits, when the girls from the family all running down the hill…barely able to keep their balance as they throw themselves down the hill with abandon. Again, this is how I imagine the women leaving the tomb. It is an image of both fear and great joy. Pure exhilaration. It is a reminder that the Resurrection life is not one of careful, measured control. Instead, it is one of embracing the unknown. What if I had never climbed that mountain, never stood up in front of you? Surely, life would have been safer, but I would have missed so much. Of course, there would probably be less fear. But there would also be less joy. As you witness to the empty tomb today, do it with abandon.
Finally, the Resurrection life is a life of ease. The empty tomb proclaims that God has won the battle, that death has been defeated, that we are now a people of the Resurrection. It proclaims: “you don’t have to work so hard!” Now, I wish I could tell you with a straight face that the words of the old song are true: “Because he lives, all fear is gone.” But I just can’t. If that were the case, then the risen Jesus wouldn’t need to keep telling everyone, “Do not be afraid.” Fear is a part of this life that will never go away. There will still be nights awake, staring into your fears. There will still be dark places and dark days and if we are not afraid of them, we are not paying attention. But on this Easter Sunday, fear is not the last word. For it was the great theologian Bob the Tomato who said it best: “God is bigger than the Boogeyman.”
The Boogeyman isn’t going anywhere, but God isn’t going to let him win either.
Fear will not end, but it does not have to overwhelm us.
Fear will not stop, but it does not have to destroy us.
Fear is not the last word!
Along with the cross of Friday, there is the empty tomb of Sunday.
Along with the pain and death, there is Resurrection.
Along with the fear, there is great joy.
So, this Easter Sunday morning, let us follow the women away from the witness of the tomb. Go now, into the Resurrection life!
Go now, with fear and great joy.