“Do not be afraid.” Now where have we heard these words before? In chapter 1 of Matthew’s gospel, an angel says to Joseph, “DO NOT BE AFRAID to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In chapter 10, Jesus tell his disciples “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. So DO NOT BE AFRAID; You are of more value than many sparrows.” In chapter 14, the disciples are in a boat on Lake Galilee. They see Jesus walking on the water toward them. They assume it is a ghost. Jesus tells them, “Take heart, it is I; DO NOT BE AFRAID.”
In chapter 17, Jesus is transfigured. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah also make a guest appearance. Upon seeing this other-worldly sight, the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. Jesus tries to calm them down, saying, “Get up and DO NOT BE AFRAID.”
Finally in our gospel lesson, an angel appears to the two Marys after they witness a shocking display of Divine power. “DO NOT BE AFRAID.” the angel says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” As they run to tell the disciples this amazing news, the resurrected Christ appears before them. The two Marys take hold of his feet, and begin worshiping him. Jesus says to them, “DO NOT BE AFRAID; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
“Do not be afraid.” These words appear all over Matthew’s gospel. We find them in the other gospels as well. They are words that those who follow Jesus need to hear over and over and over again: “DO NOT BE AFRAID, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” [Lk 12:32] “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” [Jn 14:27]
As we gather on this Easter Sunday, I know there are many of us who need to hear these words of comfort and reassurance: “Do not be afraid.” There are many things happening in our world right now that cause us to be fearful and anxious. There are many things happening in our personal lives, that cause us to be fearful and anxious. But the message of Easter is that we do not need to be afraid anymore. Jesus is with us! He calms the storms that erupt in our lives. He heals our brokenness and casts out the darkness which inhabits our souls. He is the Bread of Life who feeds us when we hunger for God. He is the Fount of Living Water who washes us clean from our sin and brokenness. Today, we are also reminded that we do not need to be afraid because Jesus also defeated death itself. He sets us free from whatever entombs our lives with sorrow, fear and despair.
The way Matthew tells the Easter story is powerful and passionate. It’s Sunday morning, the first day of the week according to Jewish tradition. Mary Magdalene and a women described as the “other Mary” go to see the tomb. What they expected to find, or how they were feeling, we will never know for sure. But we can venture a guess considering what they had been through the past couple of days.
They watched their world completely fall apart as they witnessed the arrest, torture and death of their friend and teacher. Matthew says they sat in silence while Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body in a linen cloth, laid him in a tomb, and rolled a stone across its entrance. If they had any part in Jesus’ burial preparation, Matthew doesn’t mention it. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed by grief and loss we feel paralyzed. The simplest of tasks becomes impossible to perform.
Perhaps this was true of the two Marys. Perhaps they were inconsolable as they watched Joseph of Arimathea roll the stone across the entrance of the tomb. If so, we can appreciate how they feel because we have walked in their shoes. We have experienced unimaginable losses in our lives. We have witnessed events that have shocked and horrified us. Our grief and fear have sometimes been overwhelming and we have felt incapable of moving forward. When this happens, it takes a mighty force to get us moving again. It takes Divine intervention to bring us from dead ends to new beginnings, from death to new life.
This is what happens in Matthew’s version of the Easter story. When the two Marys reach the tomb, a great earthquake happens. An angel of the Lord descends, rolls back the stone, and sits on it. Matthew describes this angelic being as one whose “appearance is like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” Pilate’s soldiers, who are guarding the tomb, are so frightened by what is happening, that they faint and lie motionless on the ground. How the two Marys manage to stay on their feet is a mystery to me. But I have always thought that women are the stronger sex, so maybe this explains it!
The angel then tells these two women those memorable and unforgettable words: “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.” The angel then invites them to peer into the tomb and see that Jesus is not there. Then the angel commands them to go quickly and tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead. While en route, they encounter the Risen Christ who repeats the angel’s message, “Do not be afraid.”
It is this powerful experience of earthquakes and angels, of empty tombs and risen Saviors, that enable the two Marys to move forward. It dispels their grief and empowers them to proclaim the good news that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
Friends in Christ, Easter Sunday is not a time for profound theological insights. It’s not a time for Greek word studies or looking at alternate translations of the text. Easter Sunday is a time to remind us that those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death will not do so forever. Those who feel overwhelmed by grief and fear are promised that Jesus has the power to move them beyond it. He did it for the two Marys. He will do it for us.
The good news of our gospel is that we don’t even have to have the faith to believe this is true. Jesus is already working in our lives to transform us with his resurrection power. He whispers in our ear “Do not be afraid. Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Therefore, if we find ourselves feeling a bit like the two Marys this morning, I pray Matthew’s gospel will give us hope. I pray that the risen Christ will call us forth from whatever entombs our lives with grief, fear and despair. Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed! AMEN
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck