Resurrection of Our Lord/Easter Day; April 16, 2017, Year A
Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3.1-4; Matthew 28.1-10
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I remember my first time on a roller coaster. I was 15 years old and my brother, Eric, was 12. We went to Valley Fair in MN. As soon as we got inside the gates we made a beeline for the “Wild Thing.”
We didn’t know much about the Wild Thing roller coaster or riding any roller coaster for that matter. We didn’t know it stood 207 feet at its highest point with a first drop of 200 feet at a 60-degree angle, reaching speeds up to 74 miles per hour. To us, it just looked tall and fast and we wanted to ride it.
We got in line for the front spot in the very front car. Finally, it was our turn and we hopped in with all of our jitters and excitement. The bar came across our laps and the car started its slow accent up a couple hundred feet in the air.
Nervous laughter filled out throats, as our bodies leaned back from the weight of gravity. The climb felt like forever, just long enough for us to wonder if getting on this roller coaster was a good idea.
I will never forget what I felt the moment our front car reached the summit. There was a brief pause at the top. Eric and I looked at each other with huge grins on our faces, the nervous laughter still in our bellies. There were no words, only excitement and fear.
When we looked out over the front of the car we saw nothing but sky. The drop was so steep we could not even see the rest of the track. Our bodies hovered in that moment for a split second and then the roller coaster plunged down its 200 feet at 74 miles per hour.
It felt as if I was free-falling, my stomach up in my chest. Eric and I screamed our lungs out the entire ride. Our cries were full of fear and joy. When the ride ended and we came to a stop, we turned to one another, eyes wide in amazement, and said, “Let’s go again!” Only joy remained after the fear was gone.
Mary and Mary run from the tomb with fear and great joy. Not like a roller coaster ride is anything close to witnessing the death of someone and seeing them alive again days later, but one can understand the emotion of being full of fear, and yet also great joy.
There is the holding of a newborn baby. There is proposing marriage to a boyfriend or girlfriend. There is the day some of you get to leave YCC. Fear and great joy may be an adequate way of describing the emotion you may experience.
Sometimes there are no words for experiencing something surprising, unexpected, or even anticipated if it’s significant enough. The best words the Gospel writer, Matthew, could come up with to describe what was going on inside the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection was fear and great joy.
It’s not hard to see why. In this story we have earthquakes, angels, rolling stones, and empty graves. Matthew is the only Gospel that speaks of the earthquake.
The women who go to Jesus’ grave after the Sabbath in the early morning dawn felt the ground literally shake beneath their feet. What does an earthquake have to do with Jesus’ resurrection from death?
Earthquakes are terrifying. In an earthquake you are helpless. You can be tossed around like a rag doll. The earth shifts and moves, reminding us that creation is very much alive. An earthquake, often a catalyst for death, almost seems out of place in this story of new life.
As the earth shakes an angel descends from heaven, like lightening, and rolls back the stone that blocks the entrance to the tomb. The guards, who were there to make sure no one came and stole Jesus’ body to say he has been raised from the dead, becoming like dead men themselves.
The angel has a message for the women, who were chosen by God to be the first witnesses to the resurrection. “Do not be afraid,” were his first words to them as the ground began to settle underneath them. “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.”
The rolling back of the stone was to not let Jesus out; the resurrected Christ was already loose in the world. It was to let the witnesses in to see it empty, and to see the power God has over death.
The angel continued: “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.”
Fear and great joy welled up in the women and they ran to share what they had seen and heard. But, they were interrupted. The resurrected Jesus, the one they watched die on the cross three days prior, met them on the road.
“Greetings!” he says to them, which can also be translated, “Rejoice!” The women take hold of his feet and worship him, a very appropriate response to seeing Jesus. But why the detail of taking hold of him?
This small emphasis is to let us know that Jesus’ resurrection was bodily. He wasn’t some ghost or spirit. The women could feel his skin and know that he was as real as ever. Because of this small detail we know that God cares about resurrecting all of us, body and soul.
Then Jesus, like he said many times throughout his ministry, says to the women: “Do not be afraid.” He reassures them he will go ahead of them to Galilee and they will see him there again.
What is left when the fear is gone? Only great joy. There is much to be afraid of in this world. Just watch the evening news. Yet, the resurrected Jesus says to the women and to us this Easter morning, “Do not be afraid.”
Again, why is there an earthquake as part of the resurrection story? The earthquake tells us that in and because of the resurrection of Jesus, the entire setting in which we live, and our future, is fundamentally altered. Heaven and earth intersect in the raising of Jesus. His resurrection encompasses all of creation. Creation moves, shakes, and settles into a new reality, one in which death is conquered and God makes all things new.
The earthquake in this story is not a death-dealing earthquake. It simply shakes us up, and says, “Hey! Easter is a big deal. The world is altered and is a different place than it would have been if Christ had not been raised.”
Because Jesus has been raised we know death does not have the last word.
Because Jesus has been raised we know God can take any situation and bring new life to it.
Because Jesus has been raised we know God keeps God’s promises.
Because Jesus has been raised you will also be raised from the dead, body and soul.
Because Jesus has been raised you can have resurrection hope that sustains you in times of grief and trial.
Because Jesus has been raised you do not need to be afraid.
Because Jesus has been raised we know he has conquered the world.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 16, verse 33, Jesus says: “I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this [godless] world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world (The Message translation).”
There are many reasons to be afraid, but even more reasons to have great joy. The resurrection of Jesus and what we celebrate this morning is one of them. My hope for you today is that as you leave worship you only have great joy in your hearts.
Some of you were here on Thursday evening for our Maundy Thursday worship. I don’t know if you noticed, but after Shera read the Gospel lesson and as she started preaching, Gabriel kept shouting through his pacifier: “Halleluiah!” “Halleluiah!”
Finally, it is Easter, and it is time to rejoice. Halleluiah, Christ is risen!