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Fear and Great Joy

Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10


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A few years ago, I got on a flight to Kansas City. I was headed to a conference with some co-workers, and the trip started out pretty uneventfully. The pilot came on at the beginning of the flight to welcome us, and he chimed in half-way through to say that we’d be landing on time. Before we began our descent, he came on again to let us know what the weather was like in Kansas City. Everything seemed to be running smoothly. As we came in for a landing, I could hear the landing gear come out like it always does. We got closer and closer to the runway, and I began to wait for that little bump when the plane’s wheels first hit the ground. But it never came. All of a sudden, the plane’s nose was pulling up, and we were taking off, up into the air. There was no word from the cockpit. No word from the flight attendants. One moment we were about to land, and the next moment we were back up in the clouds, with no explanation. I looked over at one of my co-workers across the aisle, and her eyebrows went up. I could tell she was worried, and to be honest, so was I. In this post-9/11 world, what does it mean when you’re supposed to land and you don’t? When your chatty pilot is suddenly silent? Well, I started to think the worst, and fear set in pretty quickly. I closed my eyes and started to pray. What else could I do? After about 15 minutes, the plane began to descend again, and this time it made it to the ground without incident. The landing was normal, and as we pulled up to the gate, the flight crew welcomed us to Kansas City as if nothing had happened. My co-workers and I all agreed that the incident was…kind of scary. It would have been nice if we’d had some kind of communication from the flight crew about that missed landing. Sometimes, a message of reassurance can go a long way toward helping to calm our fears.


In Matthew’s telling of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have a lot to be afraid of. Just a few days before, Jesus–their friend and teacher–was deserted and betrayed by his closest friends, and then he was crucified on a cross. The women want to see his tomb, so they go in the early hours of the morning. As they approach the tomb, they’re shaken by a great earthquake. And while that’s happening, an angel descends and rolls back the stone in front of the tomb. This angel looks like lightning, and his clothes are white as snow. It’s so terrifying that the tomb’s guards shake and faint dead away. But the angel is a messenger, and he has a message of reassurance for the women: “Don’t be afraid,” he says, “I know that you’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He’s not here, because he’s been raised, just as he said he would. Come and look at the place where he lay.” Then the angel tells them to go quickly–to tell Jesus’ disciples that not only has he been raised from the dead, but he’s also going ahead of them to Galilee, and they will see him there. The scripture says that the women go quickly, with fear and great joy.


Fear and great joy. You know one of the things I appreciate about Matthew’s telling of this story is that it’s so descriptive of the human experience. Matthew doesn’t glaze over the fact that what these women are experiencing is terrifying. They’re scared. And rightfully so! Who wouldn’t be after all that’s happened? But in the midst of their terror, the angel brings them a message of great joy: Jesus is risen! Death has been defeated! It doesn’t automatically take away their fear. They’re definitely still scared. But now their fear has moved over a bit to make room for joy, and the fear and joy begin to coexist.


Isn’t that like so much of our human experience? So often the circumstances of our lives can lead us to be afraid, or hurt, or despair. And like those guards at the tomb, we can be overwhelmed and even paralyzed by those feelings. But sometimes, a message of reassurance can go a long way. It can push our fear or hurt, or despair over a bit so that they can begin to coexist with joy and healing and hope.


Recently I heard a podcast interview with Lisa Damour. She’s a clinical psychologist and author who works with adolescents. She described the very big feelings that teenagers experience as a part of their normal development. Those of us who are beyond that phase of life can probably remember what that was like if we think back hard enough. Those big feelings used to seem overwhelming. Damour says, “you have these sweet 13 and 14 year olds [whose] feelings are on steroids. They’re thinking thoughts they haven’t had before. It is scary for them.” And for the adults in their lives, it can be hard to know how best to respond to those big feelings. But Damour has a simple phrase that she believes can help. She says, “when teenagers get upset, [it’s helpful] to have a tender adult say [to them,] ‘Anyone in your shoes would be this upset.’” Anyone in your shoes would be this upset. According to Damour, this sentence does two things: first of all it shows them empathy–it shows them that someone understands what they’re going through and cares about them–and secondly, it normalizes their emotions.[1] Because the truth is, when any of us of any age is upset, most often what we need most is for someone to simply acknowledge that they understand the reality of the situation and remind us that we’re not alone. Sometimes, a message of reassurance can go a long way.


So in the midst of their fear, the women at the tomb receive this message of reassurance, this message of great joy. And instead of being paralyzed, they’re spurred to action. They run, with all of their fear and joy mixed up together, to bring this message to the disciples. And as if to affirm what they’re doing, Jesus himself meets them on the road. They take hold of his feet and worship him, and he echoes the message of the angel: “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers and sisters to meet me in Galilee.”


Do you notice how Jesus calls his disciples brothers and sisters here? One scholar points out that Matthew hasn’t mentioned the disciples since they deserted Jesus and fled in chapter 26. Except, of course, for Peter and Judas, who betrayed and denied him. This whole story could have ended with desertion and betrayal and broken relationships. Jesus, after being raised, could have called the disciples his enemies or even just former friends. He could have chosen to ignore them completely. And yet, he doesn’t. The risen Jesus calls them brothers and sisters. They’re not just disciples, not just friends, but they’re family. God’s love has not only conquered death, but it has fostered forgiveness and it has healed broken relationships.[2] It has demonstrated once and for all that God’s love is more powerful than fear and hurt, conflict and despair, and anything else in all of creation that seeks to divide, exclude, oppress, and harm.


It was a message of reassurance and great joy for the disciples back then, and it’s a message for us today. We may not encounter earthquakes and angels, but the power of the resurrection is no less astonishing, and no less world-changing for us. Because for anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, or any kind of loss; for anyone who’s messed up; for anyone who’s had a broken relationship, or experienced suffering, or wondered if there was any reason to hope–I think that covers just about all of us–the resurrection is God’s way of saying, “I understand. Anyone in your shoes would be this upset. You’re not alone. And this is not the end of your story.”

Like the women at the tomb, we, too, are called to be messengers. So I invite you to look around you. Where do you perceive joy rolling back stones of fear? Where do you sense new life emerging from tombs of death? Where is love showing up on well-worn paths of betrayal and brokenness? Where is forgiveness to be found, or healing to be had? Don’t be afraid. These are glimpses of the resurrection. So go and tell others! Tell them that Jesus who was crucified, dead and buried has risen from the dead. Tell them that in the end, there is joy. In the end, there is healing. In the end, there is reconciliation. In the end, our hope is realized. This is a message of reassurance and joy, and it’s come a long way–about two thousand years, in fact, through Scripture and sharing and creed. And, thanks be to God, it will go a long way further.


 

[1] Dr. Lisa Damour, “Understanding Today’s Teenagers,” Everything Happens with Kate Bowler, Podcast Episode 3, Season 11, accessed 9/21/23, https://katebowler.com/podcast/understanding-todays-teenagers/. [2] Eugene M. Boring, “Matthew 28:8-10, Two Marys Encounter the Risen Jesus: Commentary,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Volume 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 373.


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