Whenever I hear the gospel account of that first Easter, so many emotions surface to the top. These emotions are so powerful, you can almost touch, smell, and taste the events of that first Easter morning.
Easter. The biggest day in world history. The day death died. I want to take you back to that distant Sunday morning, the first day of the week, when the dew lay heavy, the sun was warming up, the birds were shaking sleep away with the thrill of dawn, and all of creation breathed in the smell of anticipation.
Two people rose early, their sandaled feet covered with dust. They went to the tomb, and met an angel, who broke open their whole world, saying, “He is not here: he is risen.” Feel the intensity of their emotion: smell it.
Matthew, the gospel writer, tells us what they did and what they felt. They ran, with fear and great joy. With fear and great joy. And we can see them running, with fear, with the hasty, gulping breath of fear, and with gurgling joy, with the outstretched hands and billowing cloak and squealing yelps of joy.
Fear and great joy: at the heart of the resurrection.
I’ve been thinking about how much the bible addresses the emotion of fear. Fear is interwoven throughout the pages of scripture. And no one seems to be immune from its hold upon us as we go through life’s peaks and valleys.
There’s the fear of judgment. Adam and Eve, banished from the garden. Cain, discovered to be a murderer. David, exposed as a scheming adulterer. Israel herself, thrown into exile as a result of her own sin.
Then there’s fear of holiness. Moses meeting God in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai in a dark cloud amid thunder, lightning, fire, and smoldering cloud.
Fear of taking a risk, like the third servant in the talent parable who buried his talent in the ground out of fear. Terrible fear.
And yet, great joy. After forty days of rain and 150 days of flood, Noah sends out the dove and it returns with an olive branch. After the shame of the tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to be the father of a nation.
As the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem, David dances before the Lord. As Ezra reads aloud the books of the Law to the returning exiles, they weep with joy. As Elizabeth greets Jesus’ mother-to-be she feels the babe within her leap for joy.
Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, ends up picking up his robe and runs home with glee to prepare a kingdom banquet for Jesus. The father of the prodigal son is bursting with joy when he sees his son, the one who has just squandered his inheritance, off in the distance. Great, great joy!
Fear and great joy are at the heart of the resurrection story of Jesus, at the heart of the entire biblical narrative, and at the heart of what it means to be a people of faith today.
Fear of sharing our soul with someone and being misunderstood. Fear of being vulnerable enough to say to someone, “I struggle with those doubts in my faith as well.” Fear of stepping away from an abusive situation.
Fear that the people we love will give up on the church. Fear of getting to know someone who doesn’t look like us, talk like us, or think like us. Fear of admitting when we are afraid. Fear that Jesus will call us to a new way of living, a new kind of ministry, or call us to carry his cross farther than we think is possible. Fear. Horrifying fear!
And yet, also great joy. Joy, when you discover that love isn’t just a fleeting feeling but that it became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Joy, when after years of living under the burden of guilt and self-hatred for something you’ve done, you finally hear the words, “You are forgiven” and you now know it to be true.
Joy, when in the midst of your anger and frustration at how the world or your denomination isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, God calls your name and says, “This is what I want you to do,” and you realize that you are being invited to play a part in God’s story after all.
Joy, when a family stricken by death, can somehow gather together in a living room and through the telling of shared stories, can begin to laugh again, and celebrate the life of one who has touched each of them in so many special ways.
Joy, when someone says, “Here take this prayer shawl to the hospital with you and give it to the couple who just had a baby girl.”
Joy, when you’re going through a very dark time in your life and someone from your church leaves a card or brings some food, or gives you a look which says, “I don’t know you very well, but we’re both part of the body of Christ, and I just want you to know that I’m here for you.”
Joy when you are anxious and nervous about a challenging situation you are facing in your life and someone says to you, “Let me just say a short prayer for God to bless you in this situation.”
Joy, when a person says to you, “I don’t know if it’s something you said, or in something you showed me through your actions, but I’ve come to believe in Jesus because of you and my life has been transformed.”
Joy. Fabulous joy!
Fear and great joy: at the heart of the story of Easter, and at the extremes of our hearts today. So much to fear, so many reasons to be afraid. Fear for ourselves, that the hole in our hearts will turn our faith into dust and our hope into cynicism, Fear for those around us. Fear that we feel so powerless. So vulnerable. So helpless.
Fear that we won’t know the right thing to say to someone who recently lost a loved because we don’t want to say the wrong thing. Fear that our hidden fears will be exposed.
And also, great joy. Great joy! Joy of a lamb finding its rickety feet in a meadow. The joy of a baby discovering how to swallow. The joy of the song, when we have the words and only God has the tune. The joy of friendship, of those we have known and have loved through thick and thin.
The joy of forgiveness, when bitterness and failure do not get the last word. The joy of creation, when we hear birds chirping on a spring morning. The joy of finally finishing up your Easter sermon. The joy of someone at a bible study who now sees the Bible in a whole new way. The joy of hitting a three-wood right on the sweet spot. The joy of the orchestra, about to break into a thrilling crescendo. Great joy. Great, great joy.
So here we are friends. We are at the moment when the angel’s words break open in our lives, and we start to run with fear and great joy. Fear and joy, the two poles, the two extremes of our human response to the awesome intimacy of God. Fear and joy run with us throughout out our lives together, as constant reminders of the cost and promise of following Jesus.
So many fears. So many fears which we’ve been looking at over these past several weeks during the season of Lent. Fear of temptation, fear of doubts, fear of forgiveness, fear of fruitfulness, fear of generosity, fear of confidence, fear of serving, and the fear of life after death.
Fear and joy, at the center of our longings, at the heart of our desires.
But there is a secret. It’s a secret that we only glimpse at in this life. It’s a secret that was first revealed to those two early risers on the first day of the week, while all creation breathed in the aroma of anticipation.
It is the secret of Easter. It is a secret that I pray we will realize and embrace not just on Easter Sunday but every day. It’s a secret that is the climax of our gospel, a secret of the mystery of fear and joy. And the secret, my friends is this:
Note: Portions of this sermon have been incorporated from the April 8, 2007 sermon, “Fear and Joy” delivered by Rev. Sam Wells, Dean of Duke Chapel, Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC.
My Fears Relieved: Life After Death
Sermon Discussion Questions
April 21, 2019
We conclude our season of Lent sermon series on the theme, “My Fears Relieved” by focusing on the fear of life after death. The good news of Easter is that Jesus defeated sin and death through his life, death, and resurrection.
How does the good news of Easter help you to think about life after death?
Matthew tells us that when the women found that the tomb was empty, the angel told them the good news that Jesus had been raised and to go and tell his disciples. Matthew then tells us that the women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” If the women who first experienced the resurrection were filled with fear and great joy, that means that it’s OK if we live in between these two emotions as well.
When have you felt “great joy” because of your faith?
During our “My Fears Relieved” season of Lent focus, we have looked at eight different fears which include the fear of temptation, doubt, forgiveness, fruitfulness, generosity, confidence, serving, and life after death. We have looked at each of these fears based on the scripture readings for each of those weeks.
Share how this season of Lent journey has helped you to face any of these fears that we all face from time to time.
The series title, “My Fears Relieved” was taken from verse two of the well known hymn, “Amazing Grace.” We sang this beautiful hymn several times during the season of Lent. That verse says, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” John Newton who wrote this hymn wants us to know that God’s grace is what helps us to overcome our fears.
Share at least one specific way that you can be more intentional in being more open to God’s grace in your daily life.