Are you afraid to look inside the tomb?
Join us for Easter
Saturday, March 31 & Sunday, April 1
All are welcome in God’s house and we encourage you to invite others to come and gather with us in one or more of the 14 worship services that we will have here on our campus on March 31 and April 1.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, at the brink of dawn head out quietly, to see the tomb where Jesus lay. They have lost the one they loved most, and in their grief, they journey to be near him once again.
I don’t know what they expected to find when they approached the tomb that morning. I imagine they went to the tomb-like my husband and I do when we visit his grandmother, to be close to the one they loved because their hearts were still broken.
Perhaps they came to anoint Jesus’ body with oil as the other gospel tells it, but whatever their intentions were, it’s clear that they certainly didn’t expect the earth to shake, the stone to be rolled away, and an angel of the Lord to appear. And yet, that’s exactly what happens, and when it does the angel offers these familiar words, “Do not be afraid.”
In the Gospel of Luke, those three words are also spoken by the angel Gabriel when he approaches Mary with the news that she will bear a son named him Jesus. They’re the same words the angel offers Zechariah before the birth of his son, John the Baptist, the one that prepares the way for Jesus. And they’re the first words offered to the shepherds in the field who will make their way to see Jesus.
“Do not be afraid.”
As children, we’re offered these words of assurance a lot. When we find ourselves afraid of the dark, afraid to be alone, afraid to be dropped off at a new school, afraid of what’s under the bed or inside our closets. If you’re parents you know the drill, you hold your children tight, tuck them in, and tell them, “There’s nothing you have to be afraid of.”
And while these words might have reassured us as children, if we’re honest, they offer us very little as adults.
As we get older, we can’t escape the realization that, as Earnest Hemingway puts it, “life breaks everyone.” As adults, we know that death is greedy and that eventually, it will claim everyone we love. We know that violence and terror exist, that wars continue, and that peace and happy endings exist only for the stories we tell our children. Because the truth is when problem-solving is reduced to dropping bombs and launching missiles when innocent faith groups are targeted because we’re afraid of difference, when thousands of immigrants leave their homelands because home is no longer safe, “Do not be afraid,” offers us little to no assurance.
In fact, we know enough about the way the world works, that if someone attempts to offer us words of assurance like these, they likely make us more suspicious. Like when the surgeon operating on your spouse comes out to tell you that there’s been a complication, but you don’t need to be afraid. Or when you’re on a plane and the flight attendant announces an unusual amount of turbulence, but there’s no reason to be afraid. Well, if you weren’t worried about it before, you certainly are then. These words of assurance do nothing if invoke more fear.
Of course, we mean well when we say these words to each other. We want to protect one another from fear. But often, these words “do not be afraid” seem like cheap words.
And yet, nevertheless, these words are what frame our gospel story. This is what the angel comes to say, in Scripture and in our own lives, “Do not be afraid.”
What does the angel mean, we wonder? Or what does Jesus mean for that matter?
He repeats these words to the women just a few short verses later. Is it assurance that nothing will go wrong? Surely not, because things go wrong all the time. Is it supposed to be assured that everything will turn out for the best, because, come on, it seldom does.
So could it be instead that these words offer a different, deeper kind of assurance? Could what the angel is saying, could what Jesus be saying, is that no matter the depth of darkness, light cannot and will not be extinguished.
Could it be that no matter how grave the face of death, life will persist.
You see, the angel of the Lord is not offering cheap words here. Pay attention and see how the angel invites Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to look inside the tomb. Look inside where your darkest fear lies, the angels imply, the place where the one you loved most, the one you placed all your hopes in, you expect to be lying lifeless and dead. Look inside and see what it is that you find.
What if we were to look inside our own tombs, the places we are most afraid to see?
Perhaps this is our instruction. Perhaps we need to go right up to the scariest, ugliest, saddest places in the world before the sun has risen, and look without flinching into every dark corner.
It’s tempting to say, ‘no thanks,’ is it not? Or if we agree, then let’s make it quick, just a glimpse and then let’s get out of here. We know that if we peer in long enough we’ll find things we don’t want to see – violence, terror, racism, loss, tragedy, and failure. We’ll see ourselves in ways we might not wish to see – falling asleep in the garden, denying the truth out of fear, and failing to be present for the people we should love the most.
But the story of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary offer us these words of reassurance, “Do not be afraid.” Even when it makes you tremble, go right up to the tomb, and look in.
And that is what we do as Easter people, don’t you know?
We stand at the edge of life’s tombs peering in hoping against hope that it’s true. That death and darkness do not have the final word – that life can be lived so fully, that love can be so extravagantly given, that God can be so wonderfully enfleshed, that light cannot be extinguished, that life can and will persist, and that love will triumph after all.
The angel’s instruction, “Do not be afraid,” does not dismiss the pains and disappointments of life. Rather they remind us that, indeed, God gets the last word. That in the end, and sometimes even before the end, God’s love is triumphant. That springtime is not just for pushing daisies above our graves, but that springtime can exist even within them.
And don’t you know that only God can offer that kind of reassurance? Maybe that’s why, in the end, only God, or one of God’s messengers, can say to us, “Do not be afraid.”
This was the moment that changed the world, and hopefully our expectations even today, some 2,000 years later. Resurrection reveals this truth: Jesus is alive, and righteousness, mercy, love, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword.
“Do not be afraid. Come in and see for yourselves,” the angel tells us. So may we do just that.
May we approach the tomb, which we believe holds eternal darkness and grief, violence and terror, broken dreams and broken hearts, and may we find instead that Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed.