Running Afraid (Easter 2017)

Posted on 21 Apr 2017, Pastor: Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

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 worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them,
‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Many of us enjoy a little reading or television time in the evening.
This “book time” or “screen time” can help a person unwind after a long and full day.
Recently, one of our sons recommended a show called Planet Earth.
This tremendous documentary series, narrated by English commentator David Attenborough,
reveals with stunning videography the wonders of the natural world.
A three-toed-sloth ambling slowly through a forest canopy
hearkening after the screeching siren of his potential mate, and then falls into the tidal flow of the bay.
A transparent toad the size of a fingernail clings utterly still on a bright leaf,
seeking to avoid being eaten by a hungry cricket.
A hungry and lean 300 pound Jaguar stealthily hunts a nervous furry capybara at the riverside.
A parade of elephants survives the desert heat by remembering a water hole visited a decade earlier –
The videography and clever narration of the show leave the viewer in a state of awe and wonder,
and yes, perhaps, even ready for a good night’s sleep.

The natural world is filled with amazing creatures.
Mammals and insects and reptiles have evolved impressive traits over time,
traits that that help them survive harsh environments and persistent predators.
While beautiful and awe-inspiring, the natural world seems filled with almost constant fear –
fear of surviving challenging environments, fear of being eaten, or fear of not finding enough to eat.

Matthew writes that the women on that first Easter morning left the tomb with fear and great joy!
Four times in ten verses “fear” or “being afraid” is mentioned.
Both the angel and Jesus himself command the women: Do not be afraid!
Even on the most wonderful of days, at the event on which world history hinges, fear is present.
Like the creatures of the forest, we human beings live under the almost constant threat of fear.
Fear can paralyze even the bravest soul.
Fear can cause an otherwise confident individual to doubt a good decision,
to neglect to follow through on a commitment, even to become physically ill.
Fear will keep even the best of athletes or dancers or musicians from performing at their very best.
“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.
(Faith and fear are opposite poles.)
One preacher claimed that: We move against fear with the weapons of faith and love. (Rick Warren)

Have not I 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. ~

Human life, if we but take a few minutes to consider,
is filled with almost constant opportunity for both for joy and for fear.
Even in our highly evolved state, we are still fallible, vulnerable creatures of the earth,
and many will spend their days finding almost constant reason to fear.
With news that invades our televisions and our computers,
we are aware of people dying every day, and we fear death.
With stories of friends and neighbors, we are aware of daily human struggles
– real struggles of physical and mental health, and we fear that path.
With competition for limited resources in the business world or academic world or social world,
we become more aware of scarcity than of abundance, and we fear being left behind or left out.
In recent years, with the revealed pain of racism and classism and all those other “isms”,
we are perhaps more aware than we have been of divisions between us,
of the inequities and injustices of our world, and we fear inevitable conflict.
Like the animals of the forest, some fear over not having enough to eat,
and others fear being eaten up by the circumstances surrounding them.
Unlike the animals of the forest, some human beings imagine unfounded fears
and wake up themselves up at night in a cold sweat.

Friends, do not miss the first words of the angel, the messenger of God, in our text for today.
Do not miss the first words of the risen Jesus after 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 on this glorious day of days.
Do not be afraid to run and tell others what you have seen and heard.
Do not be afraid to stand up and speak of what you have seen and experienced to be true.

One thing we can say for sure about Easter is that this day is an inscrutable work of God.
Whatever happened on that first Easter morning was astounding.
It was astounding to those women who first experienced it.
It was astounding to those first disciples who first tried to believe it.
It was astounding to the early church which struggled to understand it.
It has been astounding to those who have heard about it in every century since.
Here we are, 21 centuries later, proclaiming this wonder, this mystery, this joy:
Christ is risen!? He is risen indeed!!

Death and fear and suffering and pain and scarcity did not win the decisive battle.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,
God revealed power over whatever causes fear in this earthly life.
And so the command comes: do not be afraid!
Do not be afraid of death; and do not be afraid of life.

Today we celebrate the faith and joy that can overcome fear.
Today we celebrate the One who came and lived and died, like the rest of us…but then rose again!
Today, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the inscrutable wonder that God wrought,
the wonder of death to life, of ending to new beginning, of hopelessness to hopefulness.
Today, we celebrate that Jesus lived and died and rose – not just for some, but for all!
The love and power of God made manifest in Jesus –
was for all those whom you love and for all those whom you struggle to love,
it was for all those who love you and for all those who struggle to love you.

Today, we celebrate. We celebrate that Jesus overcame the fear of impossibility.
If Jesus was raised from death to new life, as we have proclaimed for 2100 years,
then you and I have hope beyond this fleeting, earthly life.
If Jesus absorbed all that hate and anger and division on that cross, and forgave those who killed him,
then we can forgive one another and seek peace upon this earth.
If Jesus can leave the finality of the tomb behind,
then the power of God at work within him can enable us to find ways to solve impossible problems.
Yes, if God can raise Jesus, then the basic needs of life, which bring security and drive away fear,
can be made available to all.
There was a strong power at work in raising Jesus from death, a power available to us.
The power unleashed by God in the resurrection has been revealed –
not only so that we may live without the fear of death,
but that all may live with joy despite the potential fears of daily life!
Because Christ has been raised, all things are possible.
I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly, Jesus said.
Paul later said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

It should be said today that it is OK to have doubt and questions.
Do not be afraid to wonder about the incredulous truth of it all.
The women doubted at first, when they saw the empty tomb.
Some of the first disciples had questions on the mountain when they received the great commission.
Just a few verses after our text, when the eleven disciples saw Jesus on the mountain,
they worshiped him, but Matthew admits that, even among the eleven, some doubted!
Just as the early church questioned and wondered and worked out its belief in fear and trembling,
so we should not be afraid to ask questions, to wonder, even to doubt.
Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps it moving and shaking. (attributed to Paul Tillich)

Mathew reports that the women left the tomb “in fear and great joy”.
Whatever fears may stalk the edges of your life, do not miss the joy!
Friends, the powers of the earth still shake at the name of Jesus.
Long laid stones are still rolled back by his messengers.
His appearance, which comes like lightning, is still as pure as a morning snow.
And any who would stifle his Word or bury his ministry still fall like dead men before him.

Today is a day to be joyful, to celebrate! to sing alleluias!
God has made known in Jesus the Christ great love for you and for all of the world.
God has revealed a great power at work, a power to overcome even fear, even death.
This is indeed good news – good news meant to be shared.

Alleluia! Amen.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
April 16, 2017