“With Fear and Great Joy”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023
Prayer for Illumination: Almighty God, you are able to turn the shadow of death into the dawn of a new day, so enable us, by the power of your Spirit, to receive your good news with open hearts and open minds. Relieve our every fear, and open to us the path of great joy, through Jesus the Christ, who came and lived, who died and was raised, so that we may enjoy life abundant and life eternal. Amen.
Hear the good news of the gospel. Matthew 28:1-10:
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In this Easter passage from the Gospel of Matthew, four times in these ten verses “fear” or “being afraid” is mentioned. Both the angel and then the risen Jesus himself commands the women: Do not be afraid!
Even on this most wonderful of days, at the event on which world history hinges, human fear is present. Human fear can paralyze even the bravest soul. Fear can cause a young soldier guarding a tomb to pass out. Fear can cause an otherwise confident individual to doubt a good decision, or neglect to follow through on a commitment.
Fear can even cause a person to become physically ill. As human beings, fear is unavoidable.
Everyone is afraid of something. Some are afraid of not having enough or getting enough; others are afraid of having too much.
Some are afraid that it will rain on their parade; others are afraid they won’t get any rain at all.
Parents know about fear.
In one moment, you are afraid that your child is going to harm themselves. In the next moment, you are afraid that someone else is going to harm them.
You are afraid as a parent that you’re not doing enough, then you are afraid that you’re doing too much.
Human life is filled with almost constant opportunity for fear.
Even in our highly evolved state, we are still fallible, vulnerable creatures of the earth, and many, unfortunately, will spend their days finding reasons to be afraid. In the news, we become aware of people dying every day, and we fear death. In conversations with friends, we hear about painful struggles with physical and mental health, and we fear that path.
In competition in the business world and academic world and social world, we learn to fear scarcity, and we become afraid of being left out or left behind. In the revelations of persistent racism and classism and all those other “isms”, we become aware of deep divisions, of persistent inequities, of cruel injustices, and we fear lasting and inevitable conflict.
According to neuropsychologist, Theo Tsaousides, “Fear plays a huge role in shaping who we become. It affects the decisions we make, the actions we take, and the outcomes we achieve. Where we live, who we live with, what we do for a living, who our friends are, how big our house, our salary, or our family is, has at one point or another been influenced by fear.
Fear signals threat, and as a result, it leads to avoidance. Avoidance, in turn, translates into evading challenges and missing opportunities for learning and growth. Eventually, (fear) could lead to social isolation, professional stagnation, spiritual lethargy, and chronic dissatisfaction with life…
According to Tsaousides, common fears that become obstacles to growth and achievement include:
Fear of failure… People with a fear of failing may choose to play it safe, so safe, in fact, that they choose easy goals, set lower standards, avoid challenges, and focus on cutting losses instead of making gains.
Fear of success… With success comes enormous responsibility. Success makes you more visible, and as a result more vulnerable.
High expectations require sustained and ceaseless effort… No time to rest, no forgiveness for failures, no room for weaknesses… the pressure to maintain (success becomes) constant, and causes fear.
Fear of rejection… To avoid the painful consequences of rejection, (some) may never even make the request, for fear of hearing “no”…(and) instead, resort to justification, rationalization, and procrastination. Making ultra-safe choices throughout life can be a significant barrier to growth.
Fear of making the wrong decision… Analysis paralysis…Imagining the consequences of a “wrong” decision to be devastating and irreversible, some will insist on asking themselves, “Am I making the “right” decision?” instead of asking, “Am I making a “good” decision?”
Fear of other people’s opinions… Excessively worrying about what other people think of our opinions, of our choices, or even of our personalities, is an impediment to growth and progress, keeping people stuck in unfulfilling life circumstances.
Fear of commitment… The world is full of options. There are many jobs to take, many cities to live in, many soul mates to choose from. Making a commitment means foreclosing on all the other prospects, which could be better, bigger, and brighter. The thought of locking oneself into one option can be terrifying; it can be perceived as losing one’s freedom, autonomy, and flexibility. Committing to (one) choice can becomes a threat to one’s identity, as it could lead to being labeled, or branded, and or pigeonholed…
Fear keeps even the best of athletes or dancers or musicians from performing at their very best. Fear allows even the most healthy of young adults to end up in the ER with a panic attack. “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.” (Florence Nightingale)
Fear is a prison that keeps a person from becoming what God intends for us to be. Have I not commanded you?, says the Lord (Joshua 1:9) Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the LORD your God [is] with you wherever you go.
Psalms 23:4 – Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. ~ Isaiah 41:10 – Do not be afraid, for I am with you: be not dismayed; for I am your God: I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my powerful right hand.
Psalms 56:3-4 – When I am afraid, I will trust in God. In God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.
John 16:33 In this world you will face persecution (you will face fear). But take courage; I have conquered the world!
Matthew writes that the women on that first Easter morning left the tomb with fear and great joy! I have spent too much time already on Easter Sunday, talking about fear, but suffice it to say that fear is unavoidable while great joy is optional.
Great joy is received as a gift, often when we have allowed ourselves to become vulnerable. I am not sure that we can experience “great joy” without allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Great joy arises when we choose the risk of love over the safety of certainty. Great joy comes when we choose the foolishness of generosity over the security of selfishness. Great joy shows up when we risk something big for the sake of something good.
I remember distinctly one bright summer evening when I took a risk. I was standing in the open doorway of my car, in a little roundabout of a driveway. I was not that far beyond college, still in my early twenties. I was looking over the roof of my car at a beautiful young woman who grew up down the street. We had been spending a lot of time together that summer. Without thinking it too much, I blurted out:
“Catherine Melanie Doxey, I think I’m falling in love with you.”
Fear? Yes. Great joy? Definitely! And that summer evening, my whole life took a positive turn.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary took a risk going to the garden that first day. The disciples, hiding out in the upper room, heard the women share their great joy, and they took the risk of running to see the tomb.
Peter, some days later, on the sea of Galilee, in his boat fishing, heard a familiar voice beckon him from the shore. Is that you, Lord? Could that possibly be you? And Peter, spontaneous as ever, jumped in the water, swam to the shore, and joyfully and fearfully shared breakfast with the One whom he had denied three times.
Our Cornerstone Sunday School Class has been studying C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis’ 1955 autobiography about his early life is titled Surprised by Joy. Many of you are aware that the world-renowned Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, was in his early life a dedicated atheist; he was fairly certain in his rigid non-belief.
Yet Lewis writes in his autobiography about the seminal experience he had on a train… when he departed one station, gazing out the window on the beautiful English countryside, he was still an atheist; when he arrived at the next station, not that far down the tracks, he arrived with the realization that he now believed. He realized that he was at least a theist.
Lewis relates this experience to the true nature and purpose of joy, which he discovered accidentally. “Joy was so intense for something so good and so high up it could not be explained with words.”
Lewis shares that “joy” is a phenomenon. Lewis recalls being struck with “stabs of joy” throughout his life. “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” Because of his experience of great joy, Lewis made the leap from atheism to theism, and then from theism to Christianity. Lewis realized that, for him, joy was like a “signpost” to one lost in the woods, “pointing the way” to the presence of the Divine. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surprised_by_Joy)
Joy can become a signpost for you, pointing the way for one lost in the woods. Remember now, joy does not depend on circumstances. I have seen truly joyful people on their deathbeds. Joy has to do with vulnerability, with choosing self-giving love over safety. It has something to do with generosity, of choosing to give of yourself rather than saving yourself. Joy has something to do with taking risks for the sake of something good, with facing your fears of the powers that be with the undefeatable power of love.
Joy is deeper and more lasting than happiness, deeper and more lasting than happiness that comes from travels or sports or hobbies or entertainments. Joy comes from living and serving as your unique self along with others who are seeking similar pursuits, the pursuits of love and faith and hope and compassion.
Jesus’s words to you and me today are the same as those first words of that messenger of God on that first Easter morning, the same words as those from the risen Jesus as he greets the women: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of me, says the Lord. Do not be afraid of death, says the Lord.
Do not be afraid of life.
Do not be afraid to celebrate life and resurrection on this glorious day of days.
Do not be afraid to be vulnerable. Do not be afraid to commit.
Do not be afraid to run and tell others what you have seen and heard.
Do not be afraid to share what you have experienced to be true.
Do not be afraid.
Fear and death and suffering and pain and the attitude of scarcity do not win the decisive battle. Love wins the decisive battle. Love conquers all.
The only power strong enough to defeat the power of death is the power of love. And Jesus’ purpose was to love, to reconcile, to break down barriers, to forgive, to make new, to make possible. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the power of love, the power of hopefulness, the power of possibility overcomes whatever causes us fear in this life.
Whatever you and I and others may believe about the resurrection of Jesus will vary widely, but the heart of the Easter message is that love of Jesus Christ is still very much present among us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
What happened on that first Easter morning elicited great joy, great joy for those women who first experienced it, great joy for those fearful disciples who had been hiding out in fear of death, great joy to the early church, which would risk its life again and again for the sake of sharing that joy, great joy in every century since to all those who have been willing to risk the vulnerability of love.
Friends, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!!
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 9, 2023 Easter Sunday