Text: Matthew 28:1-10
It is wonderful to be together on Easter morning! It is such a joyful occasion, with familiar and much-loved traditions. There have been Easter egg hunts and a lot of folks have made plans for Easter dinner with family and friends. We enjoyed the Easter breakfast this morning and the wonderful music and all the bright outfits. And we are all gathered here together, both in the sanctuary and on Zoom, to celebrate resurrection.
It may be familiar and filled with tradition. And it may be joyful and comforting for us. But that first Easter – that first Easter was anything but.
Last week we celebrated Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to palm branches and shouts of Hosanna. There was great enthusiasm and anticipation – there was electricity in the air. It created a huge stir. Matthew describes it with a word that could literally be translated as seismic. It was an earthquake just waiting to happen.
And then it did happen.
Jesus entered the city and it wasn’t long before he was throwing the sellers and money changers out of the temple. And it was all downhill from there. After sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was arrested. And on Friday, he was crucified. From great expectations to crucifixion in less than a week. On Sunday, Jesus is hailed as the great hope of the nation, and by Friday he is dead.
Everything had gone so badly so quickly. His followers were stunned, just numb with grief.
As Matthew reports it, after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb. “The other Mary” is apparently Jesus’ mother, who is mentioned in the previous chapter. The women do not have an agenda. They are just going to see the tomb, which makes perfect sense. We may go to the cemetery after the funeral of a loved one. The women went to remember and grieve and to be physically near Jesus, at least near his body.
But they did not find what they expected. When they arrive at the tomb, there is a great earthquake. An angel descends from heaven. An earthquake and descending angels. That will absolutely get your attention. The angel rolls back the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sits on it. Guards posted at the tomb are so terrified that they pass out like dead men. And the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.” Angels just live to make announcements. That is literally what an angel is: one who makes announcements for God. Before anything else, the angel announces, “Do not be afraid.”
This was necessary not only because of the display the women had just seen – the earthquake, the angels, the stone rolled away, the guards dropping like flies. That would be scary enough, but the two Marys had been fearful long before this. They had been absolutely running on fear which had grown through Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion and hardly lessened since his burial.
The first thing the angel said was, “Do not be afraid.” And then the news: Jesus is not here; he has been raised from the dead. Stunning, unfathomable news. Jesus was alive! And finally the commission: “Go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
When you have just been through an earthquake and see an angel descend from heaven, and then watch the angel roll away a great stone sealing a tomb, you do what the angel tells you to do. Not that they really needed encouragement. They ran to tell the other disciples. This was beyond belief. This was utterly amazing and at the same time just incomprehensible. This was an earthquake.
Easter is like an earthquake, only we have been through the routine so many times, we have grown kind of nonchalant about it. The power of Easer doesn’t really grab us. We’ve heard it before and the surprise and the joy just isn’t so strong when you are expecting it. This is an earthquake of joy beyond anything that can be imagined – except that we have heard it all before, and so we can imagine it.
William Willimon told about preaching in a little church in Alaska when an earthquake hit. “The earth heaved for a moment that seemed forever,” he wrote. “The little church shook. But the Alaskan Methodists sat there like it was another day at the office. Their only response was the woman who said, ‘How about that, the light fixtures didn’t fall this time.’”
Willimon ended his sermon immediately. He was shaken both by the earthquake and by those nonchalant worshipers.
Our reaction to Easter is not exactly that of the two Marys. It is more like those Alaskan Methodists. We have heard this story before.
But how did it affect these women? We are told that their reaction to the news that Jesus was alive was fear and joy. Fear and joy. They are an unlikely pair.
Cardinal and gold – they go together. Spring and daffodils. Peanut butter and jelly. College and ramen noodles. They all go together. But fear and joy? As it turns out, we have all have had the experience of simultaneously feeling joy and fear, in both large ways and small ways.
You’ve looked forward to the day when you could buy your own home, and now the day has come. You make an offer, and it is accepted. And then it hits you that you have committed to paying an incredible sum of money over the next three decades, and so you feel both excitement and joy at owning this home as well as this feeling of “what have we done?”
You have looked forward so much to the birth of a child. And seeing this tiny baby, you feel such incredible love and joy and thankfulness. But at the same time, as you think of the challenges of parenthood, there is fear mixed in - a sense of the awesome responsibility you now have.
We have all had experiences of both fear and joy, but what the two Marys experienced went far beyond this.
An earthquake and an angel will elicit fear every time. But what is really frightening is to have your understanding of reality challenged, and that is exactly what happened on Easter morning. What really provokes fear is a sense that things are out of control and that the world is not the way we had thought it was.
As they ran to tell the others, suddenly, Jesus is there with them. I love what he says. “Greetings.” He has been dead in the tomb for 3 days. He appears before Mary Magdalene and his mother, and he says, “Yo. Greetings.” They took hold of him and worshiped.
There was fear, and then there was joy. If the guards became like dead men, Mary and Mary, who had felt dead before, suddenly became fully alive.
The resurrection challenges us with the notion that God is at work in ways that we cannot see or even imagine. There is a reality beyond the logic and analysis of our minds, and God is not limited by our understanding or experience.
The resurrection is the heart of the Christian gospel. It is reason for great, soaring joy, and it can scare the living daylights out of us, because it means that we thought we had the world all figured out, and maybe we don’t.
The resurrection inspires both joy and fear, but you know what? We have had mixed feelings about Jesus all along, if we are honest.
- We really like a Jesus who taught about love, but not so much a Lord who commands us to love our enemies.
- We really like a Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.
- We really like a Jesus who threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but not so much a Lord who calls us to reform our practices of worship.
- We really like a Jesus who includes everybody, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not so much a Lord who encourages us to embrace people we feel are – well, not quite on our level.
- We really like a Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to take up our own cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice.
Resurrection can be threatening. New life can be a bit scary, because we prefer the certainty of the way things are, even when the way things are isn’t all that great.
Mary and Mary see Jesus. His message is the same as the message of the angels. “Tell everybody to go to Galilee and they will see me there.”
I had never given this a lot of thought – that the message was, “Jesus will be in Galilee.” Had you ever noticed that?
Why Galilee? Of course Jesus and his disciples were from Galilee. But it was not a very exciting place. Galilee was a kind of backwater province with not a lot going for it. As an outlying northern province, it had far more Gentile influence than areas closer to Jerusalem. The saying was, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?”
Jesus had been teaching his disciples and preparing them for bigger things. His plan did not seem centered on Galilee but on Jerusalem, the capital and center of power and culture. Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem, the Holy City. That is where things happened. The temple was there. The crowds were there. The power players were there.
Expectations were that the Messiah would come and transform Jerusalem into the center of power and faith that it deserved to be. The Messiah would restore Jerusalem.
One might expect that the Risen Christ would give the Romans what for. Jesus could have gone to the chief priests and said, “I’m Back!” He could have gone straight to the Roman palace and said to Pilate, “You made a big mistake.”
But he didn’t. Jesus did not go to the power centers. He did not go to the White House or Pentagon or Wall Street or Hollywood. He did not go to the United Nations or the Vatican or the National Council of Churches. Jesus did not go to London or Zurich or Tokyo.
On his first day of resurrected life, Jesus did not go to the powerful or influential. He did not go to the newsmakers or the movers and shakers.
Jesus went back to Galilee. Back to that out of the way place that folks paid little attention to. There wasn’t much in Galilee, to be honest. Nobody special lived there. Nobody except the followers of Jesus. That is to say, nobody but us.
Jesus returns and appears before those same dense people who misunderstood him and disappointed him. He returns to those who had failed him and fled and betrayed him. He returned to those trying to make sense of it all and trying to do their best. He returns to us.
Jesus comes to us, and resurrection is not just a long ago historical happening, it is a right now reality. The Risen Christ gives us hope not only for life past the grave, but for life here and now, for all of us living in Galilee. Jesus gives us the promise that he will be with us, he is with us, and that in the aftermath of all the pain and all the losses of this life we can know resurrection.
I think it was Bishop John Spong, a well-known liberal, who was asked if he believed in the resurrection. “Of course,” he said. “I’ve seen it too many times not to.”
Jesus will go ahead of you to that backwater place called Galilee. Jesus will go ahead of you to that flyover place called Iowa. Jesus will go ahead of you to work, to school, to your neighborhood.
The Psalm says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
Jesus goes to wherever we are and offers us new life. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Risen Christ is there with us. When we are overcome with hurt or pain or anxiety or exhaustion, we can be amazed to find that Jesus is there with us, and we can find a way forward. When we feel like we have failed completely, Jesus is there, bringing hope and another chance. Jesus come to us and we find new life, or to be more accurate, Christ – and new life – finds us.
The angel announced, “Jesus is alive! He has been raised! Now you need to get yourselves up to Galilee and you will see him there.”
Jesus’ work is not done. He is not only alive; he has gone to Galilee. Jesus has gone to be with us, and to all of those places in need of hope and joy and new life.
Christ Is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed and has moved on to Galilee. Christ has risen and is now with us, bringing new life. Alleluia! Amen!