An old Easter homily, more relevant today than when I gave it.
Jesus knew fear. He was no passionless Stoic sage, as the Stoic critics of the church recognized from the beginning. Instead of reaching for the hemlock like Socrates, He shrank from the cup the Father offered Him in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-37-39). During the days of His flesh, He offered prayers with loud cries and tears (Hebrews 5:7). He was the Son of David, who made David’s Psalms His own. The pangs of death surrounded me, and the floods of ungodliness made me afraid. Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You. My flesh trembles in fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments. There is sinful fear, and Jesus never experienced that. But since the children share in flesh and blood, Jesus Himself also partook of the same (Hebrews 2:14). He experienced every weakness common to humanity, including fear. Jesus knows what it’s like to be afraid.
Yet, even during His lifetime, He was a source of calm. He warned His disciples repeatedly not to be afraid. When He came to them walking on the water, His first words were “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” When the three disciples cowered on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” He told Jairus not to fear that his daughter was dying. James and John were awe-struck at the catch of fish so big that it broke their nets, but Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” Do not fear those who can kill the body, Jesus told them; do not fear deprivation or hunger or nakedness, do not be afraid because “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not fear, for you are worth more than many sparrows. Do not fear, for the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Despite the horrors that lay ahead, despite His own fears, Jesus went to the cross for the joy that was set before Him. The Father rewarded His courageous obedience by raising Him from the dead. And after the resurrection, Jesus continued to reassure His disciples, now with fresh emphasis. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells the women at the empty tomb. And when Jesus sees them, his first words are the same: “Do not be afraid” (Mathew 28:5, 10). He keeps reassuring after His ascension. In a vision at night, He tells Paul not to be afraid, and in another dream He tells Paul “Do not be afraid; you must be brought before Caesar.” When John sees Jesus glorified on the island of Patmos, Jesus’ first words are “Do not be afraid.”
The women at the tomb have good reason to fear. The day begins with an earthquake, following the earlier earthquake at Jesus’ death. An angel descends from heaven to open the tomb, and angels are scary (28:2-7). This angel resembles Jesus in His transfiguration (17:2), bright like the sun, flashing like lightning, garments gleaming white as snow (28:3). Besides that, we have the fact of the resurrection itself. We’ve domesticated the resurrection so much that we forget how creepy it is. If your dead grandmother walked through the door, your gladness would be nearly overwhelmed by fright (cf. Revelation 11:11). Resurrection has become a happy word for us, but resurrection is uncanny, something from a horror film. The soldiers at the tomb have the normal reaction to a walking corpse: Mighty Roman guards are so frightened that they fall to the dust like dead men (v. 4).
The women have good reason to fear, and they are actually afraid. Even after the angel has told them “Do not be afraid” (28:5), they are filled with fear as well as joy (v. 8). But Jesus’ reassurance works. The women are afraid and joyful and stunned and glad all at once, but they don’t fall down like dead men. They don’t react like Roman soldiers. The women fear, but instead of cowering on the ground they draw near; they fall, but they fall down to worship at the feet of Jesus (v. 9). Fear drives them closer, not further away. When they do finally run, they are not running scared but with overflowing, uncontainable gladness. They can’t wait to take the news to the disciples (v. 8). When heaven comes to shake the earth, faithful women are braver and swifter than well-armed imperial soldiers.Jesus commanded this fearlessness into an age of fear. For the ancient world was a world of terror. Pagan gods were arbitrary, vindictive, ready to pounce any moment. Above were fickle Olympians, below were underworld (chthonic) terrors and furies. Israel had been brought near to the living God, and called to rejoice before Him in His house. But even Israel was then under a ministry of condemnation – glorious, but frightening.
Jesus’ death ended all that. “The whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in [Jesus’ tomb] it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.” Even Jesus’ disciples “hardly realized that the world had died in the night” (Chesterton). Jesus tasted death to render powerless the one who had power over death, that is, the devil, and to free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. In His resurrection, Jesus ended the old world of fear, and began a new week.
Fear is hardly a thing of the past. Scary possibilities confront us at every turn, and at every turn, Jesus’ message is the same; in every circumstance, Jesus repeats the gospel command of Easter morning. You’ve lost your life savings; Jesus says, Do not be afraid. You might lose your job; Jesus says, Do not be afraid. Your kids are acting up, your family is falling apart; Jesus says, Do not be afraid. Everything you have worked for is slipping
through your fingers and crumbling to the ground; Jesus says, Do not be afraid. You’ve lost your reputation or your respect; Jesus says, Do not be afraid. You’re not sure whether or not God loves you; Jesus says, Do not be afraid. You’re sick, and there’s no cure; Jesus says, Do not be afraid. Your classmates despise you, and your friends betray you; Jesus says, Do not be afraid.
Jesus speaks these words not only to each of us in our individual circumstances, but to the world at large. We once again live in an age of fear. The media bombards us with bad news from dawn to dusk, and takes no Sabbath. The Middle East is in meltdown, our debt crisis will destroy our economy, America has peaked and is relentlessly declining, unemployment is rising as fast as housing values are tumbling, even the weather seems to have gone crazy. Ever week, a new health threat is making news, often the opposite of the health threats of last week. Many people live with a kind of chronic anxiety under a haze of worry, a fear broken only by moments of sheer terror.
We have nothing to fear. Nothing. Jesus conquered fear, and sent His Spirit to form a fearless people. That’s the whole point of the resurrection, that’s the whole goal of Easter. It has never been more necessary. In our world, the ability to live in the midst of anxiety without becoming anxious is rare, strange, and attractive. Fearlessness is one of our great evangelistic weapons, as we follow the Risen Jesus, who tells us, again and again, “Do not be afraid.”
Death died when Jesus went to the cross, and in His resurrection He has triumphed once for all over the tomb. If death is dead, what is left to fear? The most fearsome thing in the world – the grave, death, the end – has been tamed. Death cannot touch you. Death cannot harm you, nor can any of the thousand little deaths that threaten us every day. Jesus won, and so now neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither height nor depth nor any other created thing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Risen Lord. Therefore, once again, and forever: Do not be afraid.
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