Easter Sunday April 12, 2020 “Running With Fear and Joy”
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He is Risen. He is Risen, Indeed.
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Easter Sunday Sermon MATTHEW 28:1-10
When the women heard about the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples of Jesus. Yes, I can just imagine how happy the women were to tell the disciples this good news! I can imagine how excited they were…wait a minute! The Bible says they left quickly with fear and great joy?!? Fear and joy seemed to be two opposite emotions. How could they have been experiencing both of those feelings? What had made them afraid?
To understand why the women may have had some fear, we need to back up in the story just a little. The book of Matthew does not tell us exactly why the two Mary’s were going to see the tomb of Jesus. Perhaps they just wanted to feel close to Jesus now that he was gone. Maybe they thought being near where he was buried would help them remember Jesus and bring them some peace as they grieved. We don’t know what the women were thinking as they neared the tomb, but there is a good chance that their minds were still reeling from shock and sadness after having witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus just a couple days earlier.
Then, as they get close to the tomb, they are shaken out of their numbness and grief by a series of mind-blowing events that seem to happen all at once. First, they feel a great earthquake—the very ground they rely on everyday to be stable and secure suddenly shifts and moves under their very feet. Apparently the earth is quaking because an angel of the Lord has descended from heaven. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes were such a brilliant white, the women could barely even stand to look at him. This angel-figure then rolls back the stone by itself, which was no small thing since the stone was large and heavy. As this is happening the women witness the reaction of the guards—strong young men with armor and weapons—now reduced to shaking like leaves in the wind and then fainting or becoming paralyzed or something like that for the scripture says they became like dead men.
All of this has just enfolded before the eyes of the women, seemingly in an instant. So you can understand why they would be afraid. You can understand why, as they turned to go back to the disciples to tell them the angel’s message, they were running with great joy and with fear. Yes, they had heard news and seen evidence that Jesus could be alive again, but they had also just had an otherworldly encounter that had literally rattled them to the core of their being and caused them to question all that was possible.
You might say the women had an experience of awe, as in A-W-E, awe. Psychologists have defined “awe” as an emotional response to certain stimuli that we encounter in our world. It is “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than ourselves, that exceeds our current structure of knowledge and understanding.” (Keltner and Haidt, 2003) While awe can end up being a positive emotion, it is not necessarily one that immediately makes us smile or feel happy. It fact, an initial response to awe can be one of trepidation and uncertainty as we are shaken from our sense of what is possible. But being shaken out of our normal perceptions can have the effect of a broadening of our thoughts and actions that helps us to build lasting resources of resilience in the midst of times when we struggle.
These moments of awe can often happen out in nature. One such moment happened for me when I was visiting Yellowstone National Park. We stopped at a viewpoint to look at the Upper Yellowstone Falls. It was really amazing, but from a distance. Then we went further on and hiked down to the top of the water fall where the feeling from the power of the falls was visceral. Here you could hear the thunder of thousands of gallons of water shooting over the edge of the steep cliff and the vibrations went through to your bones. A misty spray could be felt on my face, moistening my skin. I wobbled slightly on my feet as the dazzling whitewater flashed on scattered droplets splitting off into oblivion. I stepped back for moment. The amount of force speeding by me was mind-boggling and hard to comprehend. What if I slipped or got too close? But the sense of fear was mixed with exhilaration at witnessing such raw power and beauty behind the safety of a railing which gave the message how close was okay.
As I walked away, I also felt gratitude for the awe-inspiring experience since I knew where the mighty water went that came over the falls. It flowed past the town where I lived. It provided irrigation that gave life to hundreds of farms and fields which fed thousands of animals and people. It provided cool relief from hot summers and recreation for boaters and swimmers alike. Being at the top of the falls was a little scary at first, but the message I ultimately received was a reminder of the wonder of God’s creation and how it provides for God’s people, and that strengthened my spirit.
While the women may have been afraid at first from the events that occurred as they approached the tomb, the intent of the experience was to ultimately strengthen their spirit with the hope that Jesus was alive again which meant the promise of the resurrection was real. We know this was the intent because the angel tells them to not be afraid. Like the guardrail at a viewpoint, the angel lets them know how close they can come to entrance of the tomb. The angel invites them to even look inside to see that it is empty. Then they received the message that Jesus is risen. Their minds must have been swirling with the idea of whether it could be really true or not.
As they turn to go, the trepidation of the women begins to turn to joy at the thought that Jesus could really be alive. But some of those feelings of fear and doubt still linger. They need to hear the message again. Indeed, they do hear it and this time it is from Jesus himself. It is now Jesus whom they encounter and who tells them, “Do not be afraid.” It is Jesus who shows them that he is alive and they are to tell the other disciples. Now, the women continue on with a sense of gratitude knowing that despite their initial fears, the empty tomb was the source of God’s mercy flowing out to provide new life for all.
Like the women, we too need to hear the message that Jesus is alive not just once, but twice, and in fact, we need to hear it again and again because we can so easily forget it when faced with the fears and uncertainties of life. We need to hear again “do not be afraid” as we wait and wonder when will it be safe again to go outside and to move freely again among more people. We need to be jarred into a new hopeful reality by an experience of awe and wonder.
But where is that sense of awe on this Easter when we cannot gather together with a church full of voices? Where is it when we don’t get to hear the blare of the trumpets, the hallelujah’s of the choir or the music of the band? Where is the joy when we can’t travel to see our family and friends?
It can be more difficult to experience awe when we are mostly stuck indoors. The insides of our houses and the streets in our neighborhoods where we’ve walked thousands of times are not particularly mind-blowing. But psychologist Amie Gordon says that if you’d like to inject a little more positive awe in your life, you can do so without leaving your home. It turns out that a lot of daily awe experiences don’t require venturing far away. When she and her colleagues tracked people’s daily experiences of awe, those experiences were often something they’d watched online, read, or experienced on a walk near their home. So, during this time of coronavirus Dr. Amie gives five suggestions for how to get a bit more of that positive awe in your daily life.
- When you read the news, end by reading something awe-inspiring that people are doing to help during the pandemic. Negative events, like natural disasters, also bring with them stories of humans working together for the greater good. People risk their lives to help others, and they do so by bringing together vast resources, knowledge, and aid.
- Watch tv shows, movies, or Youtube videos depicting the wonders of the natural world. The Planet Earth documentary is an example of a show that evokes feelings of vastness and awe.
- Listen to awe-inspiring music. People in studies also mention music as another source of daily awe, and research supports the awe-inspiring effects of music. (Has a song ever given you the chills? That’s awe!)
- Read the biography of someone you admire. One way to experience awe without leaving your house is to read about someone awe-inspiring. Vastness isn’t just about physical space; we are also awed by the vast talent, expertise, determination, and goodness of others. I recently talked to someone in our congregation who shared he had just a read a book about a man who sailed around the world by himself in 1895. He expressed how impressed he was with the author’s skill and perseverance which was a nice change from the daily news.
- Look at pictures from an awe-inspiring trip you went on. A common way to induce awe in the lab is also to have people write about their most awe-inspiring experience. If you’ve taken trips to awe-inspiring places, now would be a great time to pull up those old photos and retell the stories.
I feel very fortunate that we live in a place where so many houses have yards with beautiful landscaping. This landscaping has helped me feel awe when I walk around our neighborhood. As I passed by one house with a large flowering bush the other day I noticed a little honeybee clinging to a petal as it did its work of pollination. Then I noticed it wasn’t alone. There were probably over a hundred bees all clinging to petals as a breeze gently blew them up and down. At first I stepped back with some cautious fear. I didn’t want to get stung by a swarm of bees! But as I realized that they were just going about their business making honey and making sure new flowers could bloom, I leaned in a little closer in awe of the thousand tiny ways God’s creation buzzes with signs that, despite my worries and anxieties, life is still going on.
So as we celebrate Easter at home this year may we listen for the rhythms of resurrection that continue to beat around us echoing with the hope of new life and a love that is everlasting. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner
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