“Return from Your Fear to Joy” (Matt. 28:1-10)
The Resurrection of Our Lord (Sunrise Service) (April 4, 2021)
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
I can’t tell you how great it feels to greet all of you once again with this ancient greeting of hope! Last year, this sanctuary was empty save for four family members and three other congregational members. Yes, it was right in the height of the Covid lockdown. I did lead an Easter service and uploaded it to YouTube. Perhaps a few of you watched it. But it was just not the same. The Easter morning greeting of good news fell flat. Even if some of you responded by yelling back to my greeting of “Christ is Risen” in the direction of your television or laptop screens, there obviously was no connection… no actually communication of joy.
Well, a whole year has passed. What about now? How many of us feel the old, joyful, resurrection enthusiasm and spirit? If the truth be told, many of you might still find yourselves emotionally locked up in your own self-imposed bunker of isolation and fear. Despite the availability of vaccinations and the easing of most restrictions, many still find their fears have not subsided. After now living a whole year through the effects of the pandemic and the dreadful draconian measures imposed on us to deal with it, we still have not found ourselves fully back to life as we used to know it pre-pandemic. Some are losing all hope we will ever enjoy such lives again.
Today the LORD is calling us to return from our Covid induced fear to the hope of Jesus’ resurrection. Sorrow may come in the evening but joy in the morning. The Son has risen and with it comes living hope! Look to the East and the sun’s rising not to the west and yesterday’s waning! As Easter people we have every reason to be the most optimistic, fearless, joyful people on this planet. We know how the saga of our plagues and fears ends! We know because “Christ is risen!”
What is so marvelous in my opinion about Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection before us today is that, more than any of the other Gospel accounts, it speaks directly to the fears that often infect and seize our hearts. Twice it references fear; first, the fear of the soldiers who were at the tomb to guard it and, second, the fear of the women who were the first to see the open tomb and then to see the risen Jesus Himself. Twice also we hear the fear addressed, literally, with the command, “Stop being afraid.”
Now, such a command is easy to say, right? “Stop being afraid!” But when someone tells you that, don’t you want to say to them, “You think I like being afraid or I want to be afraid? I would stop if I only knew how!”
Neither our text, nor the Lord Himself, expects anyone’s fears to be silenced just by telling them to stop being afraid. It is just not within any of us to do that. But what if the words of that command come from the mouth of God? Now that’s a different story. Of course, if those words are spoken by God, as here first by God’s messenger, the holy angel, or as in the second reference they are actually spoken from the mouth of the risen Son of God Himself to the women, then His very command can do what it says, just as He commanded the wind and the waves to stop and they obeyed Him.
Yet, these words “stop being afraid,” are not given by the Lord alone. They are quickly followed by the Word of good news that actually does temper and silence all fears. The angel said to the women, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”
But what about the soldiers ordered to guard the tomb? You almost have to feel a bit sorry for them. No fear busting words are spoken to them! They really found themselves between a rock and hard place! (Pun intended!)
They were under strict orders by the Roman Governor, Pilate, to secure this tomb carved out of a rock edifice with its entrance sealed shut by a heavy, circular, stone slab. The political security of Jerusalem and Judea depended upon how well they did their job. After all, the Jewish Sanhedrin had warned Pilate that he better make sure no one could penetrate that tomb in which the deceased body of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been laid. Their greatest fear was that some of Jesus’ overzealous disciples would steal away the body of Jesus and then claim He had risen from the dead as it was well documented Jesus had claimed He would do. There would be hell to pay if these guards failed to do their duty.
No doubt, already on edge with this charge, suddenly things became even more difficult for them. Sunday morning came with a sudden earthquake and then a gleaming, bright, angelic being appeared as if out of nowhere and just like that rolled away the heavy stone door and laid it not so gently on to the ground exposing its emptiness. The dead body of Jesus was gone! The shock and awe of the whole situation paralyzed these professional soldiers with absolute fear.
No word to “stop being afraid” to them, though. The angel just left them to run away in their fear. And as we see later in Matthew’s account, these frightened soldiers ran all the way to the highest Jewish authorities, the high priests, to secure their help in making up a cover story: Jesus’ disciples overcome them and took Jesus’ body from the tomb. We can only imagine how Pilate received such a concocted excuse from these men who were supposed to be of Rome’s finest! (Matt. 28:11,12).
But the women, in their sudden perplexity upon seeing the tomb wide open and their fear at seeing the glory of the angel of the Lord sitting on the stone slab, were right away given the good news, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”
On their way to the tomb just a few minutes earlier they had been discussing in earnest how they were going to manage to open the tomb to finish anointing the body of Jesus. And, now, that was all a totally moot point. The tomb was already open. Unfortunately, it was also quite empty. Fear of what could have happened to Jesus’ body now struck them.
But that fear was silenced 3 ways by the good news given them by the angel. First, they were assured that Jesus was no longer dead but alive again. He had risen from the dead. Secondly, they were reminded that such news ought not in the least surprise them. As dedicated followers of Jesus, they had heard Him, probably more than once, tell His followers how He would be arrested and be put to death but that He would also rise from the dead. Jesus had made good on His Word.
And, finally, with this word the angel directed them to see with their eyes the clear evidence that Jesus’ body was indeed gone. He had left the tomb by His own power. Of what did they have to be afraid any longer? In fact, the angel told them the living Jesus had a mission for them. The angel told the women, “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead, and behold, He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him. See, I have told you.”
The women did leave the tomb quickly. Yet, Matthew notes that fear was still their companion. But now, after the angel’s message to them, something was different: their fear was not alone. Instead, it was accompanied with great joy.
Is that possible? Can there be fear and joy in one heart at the same time? Of course! Just as there can and ought to be both fear of God and love of God in the heart at the same time, so fear of what can harm us and joy in Christ’s victory over all that can harm us can and ought reside in the same heart. A heart that does not truly fear what the enemies; sin, death and the devil, can do to harm you cannot be truly joyful in the victory the crucified and risen Jesus wins over them for us.
For example, you do not want to be with that person who absolutely has no fear of death. He will be tempted to take foolish chances endangering himself or anyone else around him. As Jesus replied to the devil’s temptation, “Do not test the Lord Your God.” On the other hand, the person who has a healthy fear of death, but at the same time has assurance through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that death will not have the last laugh for him, will have a healthy respect for death doing whatever is in his power to protect himself and the others around him from death without being so afraid of dying that he would at the drop of a dime abandon his friends in the hour of danger to save his own skin.
The good news that Jesus was no longer dead but had risen tempered all the women’s fears. No longer were they being led by their fears but now they could continue to serve Him with great joy no matter what might come their way. To reinforce their assurance, as they made their way to report to Jesus’ apostles, Jesus in His risen flesh met and greeted them along their way. “Stop being afraid,” He said to them. Unlike the angel’s visit with them, however, there was no need for Jesus to assure them with the words of His lips that He had risen. His very presence with them was His Word of this Good News to their very senses. They were given to see Him, hear Him and even touch Him- the One Who is the Word made flesh. Their every fear was quieted.
This dear friends, who are in Christ by faith and baptism, is what Easter is all about. Through His Word and Holy Sacrament our living Lord comes to quiet our fears by allowing us to hear His voice, touch His wounds and receive from His living body the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life.
And because of this, Easter is not limited to only times when everything is going along smoothly as we want them to go. Easter is not shuttered up by pandemics, loss of jobs, sicknesses and tragedies.
Easter is all about shaking everything up in this world with the great joy that is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For the proclamation that Jesus is risen from the dead has the power to quiet and temper every fear and destroy every foe to truth and life in Jesus Christ.
Easter is the call to “stop being afraid! For He who was crucified for your sins is alive assuring you and the whole world, as the apostles of the Lord proclaimed, "Christ was delivered over to death for (your) sins and was raised to life for (your) justification"(Ro. 4:25). And again, “God raised Him on the third day; every-one who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name”(Ac 10:40, 43).
Easter is the call to “stop being afraid of death.” Holy Scripture declares: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep...In Christ all shall be made alive…But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (I Cor. 15:20,23).
Easter is your assurance that in Christ you have the saving truth. Jesus’ resurrection is the proof that He is God and that His Word alone is the truth that leads you to eternal life. As the angel said to the women, “He has risen as He said.” As Scripture states: Jesus was "declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4) As the only one who has power over death, Jesus has no reason to lie to you. In the face of all your fears, Jesus' resurrection assures that you will stand in eternity with Him and will say: "Surely this is our God. We trusted in Him and He saved us. Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation" (Is. 25:9).
He is risen!