A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
April 20, 2014
Psalm 118:1, 19-25; Matthew 28:1-10
I saw an Internet blog this week that said today is the 1,981st Easter. The author seemed to be pretty emphatic about the number… 1,981. I’m… I’m not so sure about that. You see, they didn’t chronicle history back then the way we do today. In fact, the idea of recorded history had not yet been invented, certainly not the way we do it now. Oh, they’d go back after a season or two and tell a story, but sometimes it was accurate and at other times it was interpreted in such a way that we can’t be certain it really happened the way they said or how they told it.
Whatever history they had was interpreted history, written in such a way that it conveyed the message they wanted to put forth, not necessarily as it really occurred.
But, if you want to believe today is the 1,981st Easter, that’s fine with me. I don’t think it really matters. And I also wonder if that’s the point. We know it’s been a long time, somewhere in the shouting distance of 2,000 years. But I’m just not sure it really matters. I do think the point is, or at least one of the points is, that we’ve had a long time to figure this Easter thing out. How do you think we’re doing so far?
That’s what I thought.
As with anything of spiritual importance – Christmas comes to mind – we’ve loaded down Easter with a lot of stuff that has less to do with Easter than it does with the timing of it. We tend to load down Easter with our accompanying celebration of the coming of spring, what with our new clothes, decorated eggs, flowers and such. And let’s not even get started on the Easter equivalent of Santa Claus: the Easter Bunny, of course.
If, by now, you’re beginning to think “bah humbug” (wait, that’s a metaphor for another season, isn’t it?), if you’re thinking that I’m raining on your Easter parade (that is a better way of putting it, don’t you think?) bear with me for just a minute. Let’s try to peel away the excess, the layers we’ve added to Easter, and get down to the biblical story. That is what you’ve come to church for, isn’t it? Isn’t it? To hear and celebrate the biblical Easter story?
What is it that was present at the first Easter and is still with us today? No, it’s not the empty tomb. After all, it’s not empty anymore. It’s filled with tourists taking pictures with their iPhones. And it’s not the other things we mentioned… the clothes and eggs and such. The one thing that was present at the first Easter and is still too often present today is fear.
You’re beginning to think by now that I really am trying to rain on your Easter parade, aren’t you?
After all, you didn’t have fear on your mind when you came to church this morning. You just wanted to come for the upbeat music and hopefully a positive message that Jesus is alive and living in your heart and the hearts of all those with whom you planned to share these pews. And you’ve come to be with family. Easter is a good time for that too. Even if you have been a bit fearful lately – maybe you’ve lost your job or a significant relationship has ended or you’ve gotten some bad news about your health, or you are grieving – you decided to put all that aside, at least for a little while, and celebrate the risen Christ. Isn’t that what Easter’s all about?
And I get that. I really do. But I do think if we were to ask for a show of hands of those who are fearful today, there would be a few that would go into the air… at least, if we were really and truly honest about it. And if that is true of you, you’ll find yourself in some pretty good company.
You see, there wasn’t a person associated with Jesus 1,981 years ago, give or take, who wasn’t afraid that first Easter morning.
You can imagine why. Even though they’d seen Jesus raise people from the dead… there was the young boy outside the village of Nain, the daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler… and don’t forget Lazarus. Who could forget Lazarus? That one was still fresh – very fresh – on their minds. I mean, it hadn’t been – what? – two weeks? Still, we’re not talking about that fortunate young boy or the daughter of Jairus or even Lazarus. This is Jesus we’re talking about? He’s the one who raised all these people from the dead? Who’s going to raise Jesus?!
Of course they were afraid. Who wouldn’t be?
Besides that, how did it happen? Of the four gospels, Matthew’s comes the closest to an explanation of how the resurrection happened. Still, the details appear to be somewhat sketchy at best. So what do we do? Well, very often, when we attempt to explain the unexplainable, we turn to poetry. This is from Kim Bridgford…
His offering made us see what could be done
With flesh and blood. First, we had eaten from
His gestures – wine and bread – and what we’d been
Was gone. We knew that we belonged to him.
Then, waiting with our grief beside the tomb,
We were made humble, and our faces wet.
We wanted his return; we wanted him,
The way he made our truth immediate.
But he was gone, and what would happen now?
We felt the loss that he’d inherited,
The loss we’d given him, that pierced him through.
There, we were bound by all that wasn’t said.
And, finally, realizing what was known,
We closed our eyes, and saw him rise through stone.1
Is that how it happened, that he rose through stone?
The apocryphal writings – the ancient gospels and such that did not make the final cut when it came to what would be included in holy scripture – are more free in describing the resurrection. Think of it this way, since we recently went through March Madness: there are writings that did not make the Final Four. And there is good reason. They are a bit more – oh, shall we say, outlandish – about a number of things. For example, there are the stories of Jesus as a boy, bringing dead birds back to life; practice, I suppose, for those later occasions when he would do the same thing for people. You’ll find those sorts of stories in some of the apocryphal writings. People did that kind of thing all the time back then, made up stories and told them as if they were true, that they happened just as they told it, when all the time they knew they didn’t. The lesson to be learned from the story was more important than telling it the way it actually occurred. Remember, they hadn’t invented history yet, and doesn’t history have to be accurate and true?
There is one book called The Gospel of Peter. Chances are (in fact, the chances are very good) that Peter didn’t actually write it. Someone else did and put his name on it in a vain attempt to give it more credibility. But credibility is based not just on the name attached to a writing. Doesn’t the story have to be plausible? What is it they say, that reality is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense? And some of these non-scriptural writings give some fairly wild explanations of just how the resurrection occurred. But the gospels do not. In fact, in these gospels the resurrection occurred off-stage.2 It is a matter of testimony after the fact. Think about it: other than an angel or two, we can’t account for anyone who actually saw the resurrection of Jesus.
But, when all is said and done, we must admit there is an eye witness to the resurrection. It just isn’t a person, it is a reality. The eyewitness to the resurrection is fear. Fear just permeates this story.
The Jewish and Roman authorities were fearful. Otherwise, why did they post guards at the entrance to the tomb? Were they afraid that someone might try to get in? Better question: were they afraid Someone might attempt to get out? What were the authorities afraid of?
The guards were fearful, especially when the ground shook like an earthquake and the angel appeared… to the point, as Matthew puts it, they were “like dead men.” Psychologists today would probably describe their condition as catatonic. It takes a lot of fear for that to occur.
Evidently, the two Marys – Mary Magdalene and, as Matthew describes her, the “other” Mary – were afraid. The angel certainly picked up on it because, right out of the bat, he told them not to be fearful.
The disciples of Jesus were filled with fear, even though they weren’t there at the tomb when it happened. Instead, they were in seclusion. Actually, it’s their absence that makes us realize just how afraid they really were. If someone as insignificant as a servant girl to the high priest could identify Simon Peter just by his Galilean accent, it wouldn’t take long for the authorities to round them up and take them into custody. If they were that quick to put Jesus on a cross, what’s to stop them from doing the same to those who were suspected of following him?
Even today, given certain circumstances, we get a bit nervous in the presence of a person who appears to be Middle Eastern. That’s the way it was in Jerusalem in those days with someone who had an obvious Galilean accent. If history, as we know it, had not yet been invented, neither had real and true justice. Retribution was the name of the game. And in that day and time, suspicion is all it would take.
Fear, from all fronts, just fills this story. Fear is indeed an eye witness to the resurrection of Jesus.
So, have we made the case for that, that the first Easter was filled with fear?
I’ve often wondered if we’ve jumped the gun with Easter… that Easter Sunday, not only 1,981 years or so ago, but also today, right now, ought to be a day of fear, not celebration. Perhaps we should commemorate Easter as they did last week in Boston when they remembered the tragic bombing of a year ago. Think about it… we’ve just gotten word of the empty tomb and we don’t know why or how or how come it is empty any more than did the disciples. I wonder if we shouldn’t be fearful today that maybe someone came in the night and took Jesus’ body away, as his followers evidently felt.
Maybe what we ought to do is be fearful today, on Easter, and then wait until next week to worship in joy and in the fully-revealed knowledge of how and why Jesus is raised from the dead. What do you think about that idea? On second thought, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all, because what we will find next week – you will be here next week, won’t you? – is that the disciples were just as afraid and doubtful a week later, maybe even more so, than they were on that first Easter 1,9… how many years ago was it?
So let’s consider this… During these past six weeks, as we’ve made the Lenten journey with Jesus, we have heard what he said about temptation and thirst and birth and sight and the resurrection and the life and servanthood and betrayal and the kingdom. Today, we hear what he said about fear. And what did he say? Are you ready for this? He said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell…” (Matthew 28:10).
Simple enough. Or is it? So, if you’re wondering what to do on this 1,981st Easter – or whatever! – that’s a good thing to do, don’t you think? Go and tell. Why? How? Because, believing and trusting in the Risen Christ, we are not afraid!
Cast out our fear, O Lord, and guide us in our telling that Jesus is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.
1“At the tomb II,” The Christian Century, April 2, 2014, p. 11.
2M. Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Leander E. Keck, General Editor (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 505.