Sunday, March 23, 2008

Afraid Yet Filled with Joy

Texts: Ephesians 1:15-23; 2:1-10; Matthew 28:1-10

GRACE AND PEACE TO YOU in the name of our risen Lord Jesus Christ!

In Matthew 28, verse 8 we read:

"So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy . . . "

Joy on Easter Sunday we know about. Christ is risen! But fear? What does fear have to do with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ?

As it turns out, a lot. In fact, the amount of joy we feel at Jesus risen is only as great as the holy fear it brings.

St. Matthew tells us Mary Magdalene and the "other Mary" went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week after Jesus was crucified. They intended to look at the tomb, to do more to prepare Jesus’ body for proper burial. They weren’t prepared for what awaited them there. They had every right to be afraid.

First of all, there was the violent earthquake. That was frightening enough. But more terrible by far was the angel of the Lord who came down from heaven and rolled back the stone of Jesus’ tomb. Do you think this angel was like the little winged babies you see on Valentines? Or like the doe-eyed girlie angels you see in popular art, with their sweet simpering looks and their form-fitting robes? Think again! This was a mighty warrior of God, with a face like lightning and clothing white as purest snow! This was a being from heaven so terrifying that the soldiers guarding the tomb passed out in a dead faint!

I’m sure the women felt they were about to pass out likewise! But the angel strengthened them with his word: "Do not be afraid," he told them. For they were very afraid indeed. "I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay."

The women surely obeyed and looked; how can you disobey a fearsome angel of the Lord? And now they had something else to be afraid about. For they saw the tomb was empty! And obviously, it had been empty before the angel rolled the stone away! Where was Jesus? How could He not be there? How did He get out? There was no earthly reason His body could be gone! But His body was gone. He wasn’t there; as the angel said, He was risen!

This was indeed something to be afraid of, and something to be joyful about, too. The sight of the empty tomb laid the fear of God upon these disciples. Nothing other than the direct power and presence of Almighty God could have worked the great and awesome miracle those women were confronted with that first Easter morning.

And then-- and then-- as they hurried away, afraid yet filled with joy, they encountered Jesus Himself. Did they say, "Oh, Jesus, it’s only You. Hey, You’re alive again! Congratulations, that’s really great!"?

No! They fell at His feet in worship and holy awe! They recognised in Him the physical presence of Almighty God! Once more they have to be reassured. The risen Jesus comforts them, saying, "Do not be afraid." Why? Because it’s no big deal to stand in the presence of the God-Man who has defeated death? No, Jesus tells them not to be afraid because His defeat of death also defeats our sin and rebellion, all those things that made them-- and us-- unable to bear the presence of God. Because Christ is risen, heaven and earth are no longer split asunder; they’re brought together in joyfulness and love! The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ does not remove the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom; rather, it catches us up into that awe and wonder, where our holy fear is as blissful as our joy, and our joy is as stupendous as our fear.

That’s how it was for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary that resurrection morning. But is that really how it is with us? This morning, are we experiencing the holy fear of the resurrection of our Lord? Are our souls truly leaping and dancing in His resurrection joy? Are we so overwhelmed by the news that we need Him to calm us and tell us, "Do not be afraid?"

If not, could it be that maybe for us Christ’s resurrection doesn’t seem all that real? Kind of remote from our personal experience?

Think of it this way: Maybe late at night you’ve tuned your radio to Coast-to-Coast AM. No, I won’t make you admit it. It’s a guilty pleasure--I know. Coast-to-Coast is driven by guests and callers who are always talking about frightful wonders. UFOs and space aliens who snatch helpless humans out of their cars and their beds! The Bigfoot monster skulking through the woods! Goat creatures with long fangs that devour cattle and sheep and even humans when they get the chance! Shadow people who lurk just beyond your range of vision and want to steal your soul! This is all scary stuff!

Or it would be, if you believed in any of it. But you don’t. Or at least, I don’t. In fact, the only thing that comes close to scaring me on Coast-to-Coast AM is the ghost stories. And that’s because I think ghosts just might possibly be real!

Does the story of Jesus’ resurrection shake up your world? Does it overpower you with holy awe? Or is it just something interesting to hear about in church from time to time, almost like something on Coast-to-Coast AM?

But there’s something else about hearing stories of UFOs and hauntings and weird creatures. When you hear that kind of tale, do you come right out and say, "He made that up," or "That’s got to be a lie"? Or do you find yourself thinking, "Well, I don’t believe in UFOs and ghosts and weird creatures, but if that other guy wants to believe in them, that’s fine with me! They don’t exist for me, but maybe they exist for him. And that’s ok."

Sometimes it scares me, that we-- even we who claim to be Christians-- are tempted to put Jesus’ resurrection in the same category as space aliens and hauntings. We say, "Well, that’s what I believe, but if you over there don’t want to believe it, that’s all right for you." If that’s you, be very afraid. From there it’s just a little, little step to denying the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a fearsome and joyous cosmic physical reality. What’s to prevent you from switching things around? You might as well say, "Well, yes, it was fine for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to be afraid when they encountered the risen Christ. But I’ve got nothing to be afraid of-- because I don’t quite believe it!"

Christian friends, the fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection isn’t something we or the Church made up in our heads that people can choose to believe in it or not! It’s the supreme act of God worked out in human history! Christ’s rising again is a fearsome and joyful thing, to be wholeheartedly accepted and believed-- by everyone, everywhere, and at every time. Not because we feel like it, not because it’s exciting, not because it’s convenient or helps us with our troubles-- but because it’s true.

If you don’t believe in the rising again of our Lord Jesus Christ, if you’re not trusting in His resurrection power to bring you-- yes, you-- defeat over death and life with God forever, you’ve got more to be afraid of than you can ever imagine. You’re in for fear that has nothing whatever to do with joy.

Look with me at our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s all about the awe-inspiring, knee-rattling strength God exercised when He raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated Him at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. It’s about the power and riches and wisdom and eye-opening revelation that mighty act means for us who believe in Christ and His resurrection, who have been made alive with Him.

But what if you don’t believe in Christ’s resurrection or its power? What if the new life in Jesus holds no awe or fear or joy for you? What if you don’t care whether it does or not?

Well then, today brings you no good news. You’re still dead in your transgressions and sins. You’re still a slave to the devil, the ruler of the kingdom of the air. The spirit of Satan, not the Spirit of God, is working in you. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ means nothing to you, if it inspires in you neither fear nor joy, if it’s something that’s fine for other people but doesn’t affect you, you are still an object of wrath and God’s rightful anger still rests upon you.

Yes, God’s rightful anger. God has every right to be angry with us for our disobedience and rebellion and blasphemies against Him. One reason Jesus had to die was to pay the just penalty for our sins. His sacrifice absorbed the righteous wrath of God that was justly directed against our disobedience and turned it away from us. Jesus propitiated the wrath of God on the cross; otherwise, we would each have to stand before God in the judgement and make propitiation for ourselves. And that would mean everlasting death.

If the cross of Christ inspires in you no holy fear; if His resurrection offers you nothing of worshipful awe and terrible joy, it may be because you think you’re worthy and able to stand by yourself before God and turn away His wrath with your own pathetic goodness. But you can’t. None of us can! So I plead with you by the love and grace of Jesus Christ, repent in holy fear and accept His sacrifice for you. Joyfully accept the eternal life He offers you in His resurrection. Your own works cannot save you in the Day of Judgement; if you try it, you’ll learn what it is to experience naked fear in the presence of God-- and it will be too late to know the joy. It’ll be too late for Jesus to say to you, "Do not be afraid." You will have made your choice. If now you reject the holy fear and awesome joy of Christ died and risen for you, on that awful Day you’ll begin to know the unholy and unbearable fear of living without Him forever.

But you whom the Holy Spirit has enlightened, you who live by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you who yearn for the hope to which He has called you--today is the day of boundless good news! You know the fear and the joy of Jesus’ resurrection. And your fear is as blissful as your joy, and your joy is as earthshattering as your fear.

You trust that Jesus died for your sins. You feel the fear of how great your sins are, and you know the joy that they are paid for in full.

You confess that you deserved God’s wrath against you. You shudder to think of the terror of it-- and you rejoice to know that because of Christ, God’s love shines upon you instead.

You believe that Christ the Son of God has defeated death. You tremble in awe at how much mightier the life of God is than the death wielded by Satan, and you exult in blessing, because in Christ, you share that divine life to the full.

You affirm that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, was a true man and also the eternal Son of God. You are overcome with the fearful wonder that God Himself, the Lord of the Universe, supreme over every rule and authority, power and dominion, high in heaven and earth over every title that can be given-- that He, even He would come near to you on this earth to save you-- and you are jubilant, because He has declared you worthy to come close to Him in heaven.

And you believe, even if you can’t quite grasp it, that Jesus in His resurrected, physical, glorified human body even now is seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly realms. You are filled with humble awe that He would do such a thing for humanity-- for you; and you look forward in joy to your own bodily resurrection and perfect union with Him.

But what if-- what if you want to feel all the emotions you should about Jesus’ resurrection, but somehow you can’t? What if you do believe in Him; what if you are trusting Him to take away your sins; what if you do look forward to the day when you will be raised with a body like His; what if you do confess that Jesus’ death and resurrection are real events that make all the difference in the world to everyone who has ever lived in the world and ever will-- but your emotions aren’t equal to it all? What if Easter comes, and Easter goes, and you just can’t seem to feel all the fear and the joy you know the day should bring?

If that’s how it is, Jesus says to you, "Do not be afraid!" Trust in Him, not in your own emotions. Trust in His cross, not in the sensations of your heart. Trust in His empty tomb, not in the ups and downs of your feelings. Believe in the sure and faithful testimony given to you by His prophets, apostles, and evangelists, recorded for you in the Holy Scriptures and written in your heart by His Holy Spirit. Receive the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ extended to you in His Holy Sacraments. Even when you can’t sense His presence in this dark world, claim His salvation, rely on His kindness, and obediently do the good works God has prepared in advance for you to do. For your salvation will never depend on the power of your own feelings. It was won and assured to you by the grace and power of your risen Lord Jesus Christ.

In His good time God your heavenly Father will fill you with the holy fear and eternal joy of the resurrection of His Son. That day will not come perfectly for any of us until we ourselves are transformed into His image and our own bodies share in His glorious resurrection. On that day, our fear will be as blissful as our joy and our joy will be as terrible as our fear. On that day, Jesus Himself will say to us, "Do not be afraid!", all earthly fears will be over and past, and we will live with Him in joyful awe and awe-ful joy forever.
Feast of the Resurrection, 2008

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