First Congregational Church
April 16, 2017
Easter Resurrection Sunday
“Fear of the Unknown”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?”
(which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
The Burial of Jesus
57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there, opposite the tomb.
The Guard at the Tomb
62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
A man was driving along the highway when saw the Easter Bunny hopping across the middle of the road. He swerved to avoid hitting the rabbit, but unfortunately the Easter Bunny jumped in front of the car and was hit.
The basket of eggs and candy the rabbit was carrying went flying all over the place. The driver, being a sensitive man as well as an animal lover, pulled over to the side of the road and got out to see what the damage was. Much to his dismay, the colorful rabbit was deceased. The driver felt so awful, he began to cry.
A woman driving down the road saw the man crying and pulled over. She stepped out of her car and asked the man what was wrong. 'I feel terrible', he explained, 'I accidentally hit the Easter Bunny and killed it. Children will be so disappointed. What should I do?’
The woman told the man not to worry. She knew what to do. She went to her car trunk, and pulled out a spray can. She walked over to the dead, limp rabbit, and sprayed the contents of the can onto the furry animal. Miraculously the Easter rabbit came to life, jumped up, picked up the spilled eggs and candy, waved its paw at the two humans and hopped down the road. 50 feet away the Easter rabbit stopped turned around, waved and hopped down the road. 50 feet further on, he turned again, waved and hopped another 50 feet, again he waved.
The man was astonished. He couldn't figure out what substance could be in the woman's spray can. He ran over to her and asked, 'What is in your spray can? What did you spray on the Easter Bunny?’ The woman turned the can around so that the man could read the label. It said: 'Hair spray. Restores life to dead hair. Adds permanent wave.
The title for this morning’s Easter message may seem a little odd on it’s own. Perhaps it makes more sense when you know that it is the final sermon in a series we’ve been working through this Lent, a series called “Freedom from Fear,” conceived and delineated by Marcus Roskamp at Pella Reformed Church in Adams, Nebraska. The series has looked at the fear of the unknown, of circumstances, the unexplainable, the unmentionable, and today it is the fear of the unknown.
There is a lot of fear all around us, no matter how much we wish it to be otherwise. Even little things, like changing up the order of worship and scripture reading can bring a little bit of apprehension, because “it’s not like it always is.” For those who haven’t heard the opening joke before, perhaps there was a little uneasiness in the idea of bridging that joke with the greatest day of Sunday worship. Hopefully, later on you will see the punny side of that joke.
Even in the resurrection story, fear plays a role. Imagine being a priest that Sunday morning, in the temple, doing your regular priest stuff, next to or nearby the Veil of the Temple. It was a Babylonian work, according to Josephus, the great Jewish Roman historian. In his description of the “veil,” he said it was “embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple… a kind of image of the universe. Another historian, Alfred Edesheim, said the curtain was 60 by 30 feet, “the thickness of the palm of the hand, and wrought in 72 squares,” requiring 300 priests to maneuver it.” And all of a sudden, the veil is torn, not from the bottom - which could be interpreted as human intervention, but from the top - implying that God did the tearing.
And as you’re trying to wrap your head around that little detail, an earthquake erupts, splitting rocks and breaking graves open. And probably faster than Facebook or Twitter, you start hearing accounts of dead people being raised up to life again and going back into the regular population. If anyone has ever wondered where the idea of a zombie apocalypse came from, look no further than the book of Matthew. No wonder the guards would ask for extra security for Jesus’ tomb!
Throw into this mix another earthquake, an angel of the Lord doing a little masonry work and taking a perch on the tomb seal, and a couple of seizing and fainting guards, you have the perfect scenario for fear. And the first thing out of that angel’s mouth to the women who were grieving? “Fear not.” Ironic that the angel’s words to Mary when he came to announce her pregnancy and Jesus’ birth are the very same words? They were undoubtedly prophetic words, because it would be just moments later that the women would be having a little conversation with a dead man who would use the same words. Fear not.
It is conceivable that the women would be on the lookout for the next “shoe to drop” - the next unknown, impossible, crazy thing to happen. It would be interesting to know if those women were of the “embrace the crazy” mindset or the “fear the possibility” mindset. And just to be fair, it’s not just the women who were afraid, because - remember - the guards fainted.
I came across a quote by Michael Gerson this week that gives all this fear a little dignity. He wrote, “For believers, the complete story of Good Friday and Easter legitimizes both despair and faith.” I think that some folks, because of fear, knowingly or unknowingly, find themselves swathed in grave clothes of anger and indignation. And because our society has aided in the belittling of the idea of fear, rather than discover the reasons for the fear, we learn to divert attention away from the fear.
But if we are able to speak to our fears, even to the fear of not knowing, it lessens the magnitude and potential of that fear. If I have a fear of walking across the floor at some dignified event - like a funeral, wedding or concert, and I fall down and I’m wearing a skirt - and the skirt flies up over my head, then once I say it out loud, it’s a little sillier than it was before I spoke of it, and if it happens, then it’s a little less serious.
So our faith in this event that happened all those years ago not only legitimizes our human fears and faith in God, giving balance to joy and peace, it gives us a purpose, just as Jesus gave the women that day a purpose. Jesus told them to “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. He didn’t just leave them with the words, “Don’t be afraid,” but he gave them direction. And so are we given direction.
We are to live our lives in such a way that others will be attracted to meet our God - which is what happens in loving our God with our whole heart and loving our neighbors as ourselves. We do that by living through our fears, with our fear, even while in our fears, because like Jesus’ brothers, there we will see him.
It is said that at the close of the funeral service that Winston Churchill planned for himself, a single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Abby and sounded “Taps,” the song that signals dusk and the close of another day; frequently played at the end of a military funeral. But after a moment of stillness that followed the last plaintive note of that song, another trumpeter stood at the east end of St. Paul’s, the end that faced the rising sun, and played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.
Churchill understood that Christ’s resurrection signals above and beyond all else - that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility - not to be feared, but anticipated. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear - though sometimes we wish desperately that it would - but it offers us courage and hope by anchoring us in the sure promise that God will have the last word, and that that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy and love and peace.
The big picture is that we will always have fear, as long as we live in this human world. But our gig here is just a stop on the eternal tour that God has booked for us.
David Lose, of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, said, “Fear and joy, despair and hope, doubt and faith, these are the sides of our lives in this world. But in the end we have heard the resurrection promise that joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail. It’s a powerful message … for people … some even … perhaps dressed in their Easter best, but also harbor a host of concerns they rarely utter for fear of being overwhelmed. For the whole life that God has seen for each of us - since before time began - so should we enter our week with thanksgiving.
Holy, Living and Glorious God, we do thank you that you give us more than fear; that you give us hope through faith. Thank you for sending your beloved Son to embrace this human life and point us to your eternal life. For those times when we fail to live into all you have seen us to be, we ask for your forgiveness. For your forgiveness and mercy, we thank you. In thanksgiving and gratitude for this and every day we have that holds your promise of eternity, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.