April 16, 2017 “No End, No Fear” – Matthew 28:1-10

Matthew 28:1-10
“No End, No Fear”
April 16, 2017 – Easter

On our first date, 39 years ago, Beth and I went to a movie. Then we drank tea and talked until about 2 a.m. Our early dates were all like that. We would go out on Friday evening and I would drive home in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Looking back, Beth finds it a bit hard to believe, since these days I often doze off in front of the television around 8:30 or 9 p.m. But it’s true. I did not want our time to­gether to end. I did my best to prolong those dates.

You have probably felt a similar unwillingness for an experience to end. Whether it is turning the last page of an engrossing book, watching the final minutes of a captivating movie, or spending the closing hours of a visit with dear friends, there are moments you wish could go on forever, never ending. But you’ve probably never felt that way about a sermon. So don’t worry, this one has an end.

Two Marys came to Jesus’ tomb on the first day of the week thinking they had arrived at an ending. Verse 1 of our text tells us they came to look at the tomb. The other Gospels explain that they meant to make sure Jesus received proper burial rites by anointing Him with spices. They wanted to end their time with Jesus by caring for His body. We might say they needed “closure.”

Yet how could they be ready to close this chapter of their lives? How could they ac­cept an ending which came so soon? Conventional wisdom is that Jesus was thirty-three years old when He went to the Cross. He was certainly no more than 35 or 36, a young man when average life-span was shorter. It was too early for a strong, healthy man to die.

Endings come too quickly. Our daughter Susan turned 30 this year. It seems like only yesterday I was thirty-one and she was a baby. Now that’s all over. Endings come too fast. When she was three, Susan looked up at a print of Rembrandt’s “Philosopher Reading,” and asked “Daddy, is your beard like that?” She was noting the difference between my trim reddish brown beard and the old philosopher’s shaggy white beard, so I said, “Maybe someday when I’m old I’ll have a beard like that.” Susan replied, “Daddy, don’t get old!”

Well, here I am nearly three decades later, and though my beard is still fairly trim, it’s just as white as the one in the painting. As the T. S. Eliot poem says, “I grow old, I grow old.” Beth and I just got back from a trip to a remote town in Alaska. We had a wonderful time, but walking around there on icy sidewalks and streets we said, “This is no place for old people.” I don’t know how many more trips like that we will be able to make. Things keep coming to an end.

I wonder what has already come to an end for you? Maybe it was a relationship. Perhaps it was a job you really like. Maybe it’s your hope to buy a house or take that dream vacation or to have children. So many endings in our lives are filled with pain and regret and the deep wish that there would be no such endings.

The women who came to the tomb, as well as the disciples hiding back in the city, had arrived at what felt like a dead end. Not only Jesus, but all their hope for the future died on the Cross with Him. They came to anoint His body that day, but what would they do tomorrow? What would their hope be then, or the day or week or year after that?

An answer often foisted off on us is that the women and the disciples found hope in the belief that the spirit of Jesus lived on in them. In the hearts and minds of His followers, Jesus’ life did not come to an end, but continued on as they spread His message of peace and love. Jesus “rose again” in the work of His followers.

There is a kind of unending life that comes through being loved and remembered after one is gone. There is even an occasional hope that those who come after us will do what we had to leave undone. A modern composer wrote a satisfying completion to Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” J. R. R. Tolkien’s son finished his Silmarillion, the book he could never quite complete before he died.

In the end, though, all that is not very helpful. Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.” All that talk about living on in the hearts of those who love us is just hot air, in the end. What we really want is to go on living ourselves. We want to be able to write the last sentence of our book, to drive the final nail in the addition we’ve been building, to sew the last stitch in that dress. Before we are ready to lie down and die we hope to win a tournament, get married, make a sale, vacation in Europe, play with grand­children, even just have a week off to do nothing. If we only had the time.

Many of us won’t get to do those things, things we would do if we only had time, the activities we wish would never end. It doesn’t really matter if someone remembers us. The prospect of being gone and leaving it all unfinished is like a dark gray sky and cold wet snow falling on it all. Not to go on living is frightening. We want a future. As you look ahead to growing old, sick and finally dead, we are dismayed and afraid.

Into this picture steps the angel who greeted those women. Verse 5 tells how he said, “Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” They believed that was where their Lord and Master had ended up and it left them in fear. But the angel told them this was not the end. Verse 6 goes on, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

That shining messenger did not comfort those women with memories. He did not send them off to finish what Jesus failed to accomplish. He did not advise them to accept the fact Jesus was really gone. In­stead, he offered them visible proof that the end was not the end. He was not there. They could look at the place where He had been put two days before. They could see for themselves He was not there. The story had not ended.

The best was still to come. Verse 7 continues, “Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you into Galilee; there you will see him.’” Those simple words, “he is going ahead of you,” mean the end of ending. The angel meant that Jesus would precede them to Galilee where all the disciples would see Him alive. But there is a mighty significance in the thought that Jesus has gone ahead of all of us.

In his book, The Man Who Walked through Time, Colin Fletcher relates how in 1963 he walked the length of the interior of the Grand Canyon in Arizona in one two-month backpacking adventure. He was the first human being ever to traverse the whole canyon on foot in one journey. But he explains it was another man who made his trip possible.

Harvey Butchart was a mathematics professor from Flagstaff who had a passion for the Grand Canyon. His goal in life was to walk the length of the Grand Canyon bit by bit in three and four day trips. It took him seventeen years, but he did it. He traveled every mile of Fletcher’s journey in small pieces before Fletcher ever set out.

Butchart walked the last and most difficult bit just a week before Fletcher would come to it. Before then, a series of three huge side canyons, natural amphitheaters, had looked impassable, a dead end. But a couple days before he arrived at that point, Fletcher received the message that Harvey had done it. He had crossed the only untraveled miles left. So Fletcher writes how he came to that spot and how steep and difficult it looked. But he says, “I knew one man had already crossed… I don’t think I realized until afterward what a differ­ence that made… Instead of hanging back… I just… moved out.”[1] He had a bad moment at the center where the canyon wall became slick. He could see no handholds. “I hesitated” he writes, “Then, remembering Harvey Butchart, I began to ease forward again.”

At the end of the last amphitheater Fletcher found footprints ahead of him. He stooped down to look at them, then tells, “I stood up smiling. I found that my tiredness was gone. It was good to know, beyond any real shadow of a doubt, that I was following… the footsteps of a man who had blazed my trail.”[2]

Jesus blazed our trail from death into life. He has gone ahead of us. There are no dead ends in a life with Jesus Christ. He rose out of the deadest end of all, out of the grave. And He invites us to follow. He made it possible to follow. He has gone before us. We need not fear an ending. He left footprints in the ground leading out of that tomb. We are following those steps. Jesus rose to life unending and marked the way to endless life for you and me.

Therefore I invite you to live now in the assurance of the unending life God gave us when He raised Jesus from the dead. You have a future. Your life is not growing closer to an ending. It is moving ahead into a limitless and eternal future which God will keep unfolding for you forever.

Unending life with Jesus in the kingdom of God is the promise of our faith. Dallas Willard says it is, “something we can now plan or make decisions in terms of, with clarity and joyful anticipation. In this way our future can be incorporated into our life now and our life now can be incorporated into our future.”[3] An unending life without fear opens up all sorts of possibilities.  Imagine planning your life around the fact that it will not end.

Yet we often don’t take eternal life into consideration when we decide what to do today. We get frustrated and afraid when life seems to be drawing to an end. But we are missing the perspective of Easter, the perspective of “He is risen!” He has gone before and we are going on after Him.

It is easy to ignore the perspective Easter gives us. Age and circumstances and loss and unfulfilled dreams hem us in with dead ends. Willard laments the fact that so many faithful Christians end up disappointed with the way their lives turn out, because they have forgotten the perspective of unending life. That’s why Matthew tells us just a little more about what happened that first Easter morning.

Verse 8 recounts how the women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Like us, they had hearts mixed up between hope and fear. But then verse 9 says, “Suddenly Jesus met them.” They saw Him. They heard His greeting. And they heard His own voice in verse 10 tell them again, “Do not be afraid.” Their fear came to end, as they realized that the life of Jesus would never end.

I invite you to go quickly in that same direction. Believe that Christ is risen and you too are headed for a sudden meeting with Jesus. You will see Him like they did. Your own eyes will see the one who went ahead of us. You will follow Jesus forever into a limitless life with no end, and no fear. We will go forward without tiring. We will rest without boredom. We will praise without doubt.

St. Augustine completed his long, long book The City of God, with a de­scription of how believers in Jesus will spend eternity. He wrote, “There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of which there is no end?”[4]

Christ is risen! There is no ending to that story. Believe in Him and there will also be no ending to your story.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] The Man Who Walked through Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 76f.

[2] Ibid., p. 81.

[3] The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), p. 376.

[4] Augustine, City of God, book 22, paragraph 30.