I’ve read this final chapter of Matthew’s gospel any number of times but what jumped out at me this time around was first of all the fear – I don’t know if you noticed that it’s mentioned four times in those 10 verses Steve just read for us?
The guards, and then the women who came to the tomb, being afraid.
And the angels, and then Jesus himself, saying: “Do not be afraid.”
Whatever else may be going on here, this tells me it’s ok if any of you find all this resurrection talk today a little unsettling. You’re in good company.
I remember reading to my now-teenaged daughter from a children’s Bible years ago – she was probably 4 or 5 years old at the time. I think we were actually reading from the Christmas story, but an angel was speaking to someone or other, saying “Do not be afraid,” and without missing a beat, she said: “angels are always saying that!”
She was absolutely right, of course.
Throughout both testaments, biblical angels are always saying that. “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.”
God says it a lot too.
Through the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, for instance: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isa 41:10)
In the gospels, Jesus walking on water and in the process terrifying his disciples, says to them “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)
In the very last book of the Bible – the strange and somewhat unsettling book of Revelation – we find words of encouragement and comfort, and even reminders of Easter morning, as Jesus says to us: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever.” (Rev 1:17-18)
At any rate, the guards had good reason to be frightened, back in Matthew 28. There they are, keeping watch over a dead guy, sealed in a tomb. That doesn’t sound like a particularly tough gig, right? They wouldn’t have had reason to expect a prison break under those circumstances, dead people not often making a run for it.
But as Tom Long says, “these soldiers had what must surely be the unluckiest assignment in military history – making sure Jesus stayed in the grave.” (Matthew, p. 322)
Suddenly, there’s an earthquake, and an angel pushes the huge stone back from the entrance of the tomb, and he’s all white and glowing, bright as lightning, and the tomb itself is empty. No wonder they freaked out!
[Incidentally, did you catch Matthew’s joke there? The guy who’s supposed to stay dead doesn’t, so the guards “become like dead men” in their fear?]
The angel’s words are not directed to them, though, but to the women who had come to care for Jesus’ body at the time of burial: “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 and see… then go and tell…” (Matthew 28:5-6)
And here’s one of the things I love most about this story.
We’re told the women leave the tomb quickly, “with fear and great joy.”
“With fear and great joy.”
At first that struck me as an odd combination.
But as I thought about it, I realized many of life’s biggest moments can bring with them a good sized helping of each, can’t they?
New parents, bringing home a baby? Certainly fear and great joy there.
Stepping into a new job, a new school, a new relationship? Fear is often coupled with joy on those kinds of occasions too.
Even sitting beside the bedside of a loved one who isn’t long for this world. Granted, it’s not always possible to include the joy. Not when the death is sudden, or the person we love much too young.
But I’ve been privileged recently to sit with a couple of our wonderful 90-something church ladies in the final days of their lives, and in those cases it is possible to approach death with a measure of fear, but also great joy at what lies beyond.
I should mention that a little later on in Matthew 28, beyond the verses we read this morning, there’s fearful talk of another kind entirely. We find the authorities gathering to discuss what on earth they’re going to do, with Jesus no longer safely locked up. They’d beaten him, killed him, taken him down from the cross, sealed him away in that tomb, but somehow, he’d gotten loose! (You know what people will say, don’t you? That he’s risen from the dead!)
So they agree the story will be that some of his disciples came and stole Jesus’ body while the guards were asleep.
Not a story that would reflect particularly well on the guards. But they had to do something. I mean, think of what could happen if word of the empty tomb got loose, just as Jesus himself had done.
And of course their greatest fears were realized, since the women did come and see, and then go and tell. Word of the empty tomb did get loose, just as Jesus had done. And here we all are today.
That a terrified band of disciples cowering away in a locked room suddenly became a powerful witness to the resurrection – this tells me there’s truth in the Easter story, however strange it may sound.
For that community of fearful disciples was absolutely transformed by their encounters with the risen Christ.
Jesus’ resurrection became their own, in a way, as grief was turned to joy, hopelessness to hope, crippling fear to great courage. God wins! Life wins! Death has lost its sting!
Matthew 28 continues with Jesus doing exactly what he’d promised the women he would do, and appearing to the other disciples in Galilee. Verse 17 tells us “when they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” I like it even better in the Greek original, where it’s possible to read “they worshipped him and they doubted.”
The combination of worship and doubt seems to me to be such a realistic and appropriate response to the appearance of the risen Jesus.
It’s a mix you might even find yourself experiencing on a day like today.
It’s so hard to believe, after all, that God really did raise Jesus from the dead. But oh, how we want to believe it. Because if it’s true, then we too can be people of resurrection hope.
So here we all are.
Perhaps worshipping and doubting today, perhaps with our own mixture of fear and great joy.
And then, finally, we arrive at the very last words in Matthew’s whole gospel.
Fully aware that the assembled gathering of disciples is not only joyful and worshipful, but also a frightened, doubting mess, Jesus commands them to go into all the world, inviting others to join them as his followers.
And then he offers them a beautiful promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
“I am with you, always.”
God’s always saying that, too.
It’s the same promise we hear at Christmas. The promise of Immanuel, God with us.
It’s the same promise we hear at a graveside – that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8)
It’s words like these that empower us to go into the world and share what we’ve experienced of God, even if we don’t have it all figured out. Even if – for all our good intentions and desire to worship the risen Christ - we’re still a bit of a frightened, doubting mess.
The angel’s invitation to the women at the tomb is an invitation to each one of us: Come and see. Then go and tell.
Jesus’ words to the disciples are intended for all of us as well. Get out there, go into all the world, sharing my good news. For I am with you always.
“Fear not,” say God’s angels.
“I am with you,” says Jesus.
They are always saying it, because we always need to hear it.
“Do not be afraid.” “I am with you.”
On this Easter day, and every day, I pray God’s words will meet you in your own places of fear, and bring you great joy. Amen.