“Fear and Joy”
March 23, 2008 - Easter
Last week, my wife, daughter and I watched the worst movie ever made. Literally, seriously, “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” directed by Ed Wood in 1959 is generally regarded as the very worst film ever to waste celluloid. Its sins are countless: flying saucers hanging from strings you can see, Bela Lugosi shown briefly in clips before he died, then played by an actor a foot taller who never shows his face, a ludicrous plot, and horrible acting by all concerned.
“Plan 9” is so lame that it’s not even remotely scary, but it’s meant to be a science fiction horror film. Its premise is revealed in a dialogue aboard a flying saucer when the alien commander directs his followers to implement “Plan 9.” Plan 9, he explains is the raising of the dead. The result of plan 9 is a seemingly endless succession of graveyard scenes where Lugosi and his stand-in, an actress made up like a vampire, and another heavy-set actor parade around as corpses revived from their graves. This resurrection of the dead is the plan that is supposed to bring earth to its knees in fear.
Matthew’s account of the resurrection of a dead man in a graveyard on Easter morning records a fair amount of fear. First, it’s the guards who fall down in a dead faint at the sight of the angel who comes to roll away the stone. Then the angel tells the women not to be afraid. Verse 8 relates that they ran from the tomb with a curious combination of “fear and great joy.”
Despite the silliness of Ed Wood’s horrible horror film, there is a genuine creepiness factor to the raising of the dead. The thought of graves opening and ghastly white hands clawing their way to the surface raises the hackles on most of us. The dead are folk to be afraid of, not to welcome with joy. It was women at the tomb, because good religious Jewish men were taught that it is an unclean and fearful thing even to touch a dead person.
Knowing the whole wonderful story, as we look back on the first Easter, we Christians might wonder why the women were so afraid. But the big question is really how they could be anything else. Why the fear? A dead man was said to be walking around. Wouldn’t that give you the creeps? Where’s the joy in a zombie?
All the women have seen by verse 8 is some soldiers bowled over with fright, a bright angelic apparition, and an empty grave. Yes, the angel told them that Jesus was not there, that He had been raised, but they had no idea what it meant. They were simply afraid, so afraid that in Mark’s Gospel all he shows us is their fear. In his cut-off, abrupt ending of the story in chapter 16, verse 8, we’re told, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
The honest thing on this Easter morning would be for you and I to admit that we are still afraid. In spite of stirring music, gorgeous white lilies and loud shouts of “Christ is risen!” we remain fearful, fearful of the way this world is going, fearful for our future, fearful, yes, of death.
There’s plenty to be afraid of. We’re warm and fed and comfortable for the moment, but our country’s economy is in the tank. Mortgages are being foreclosed, gasoline is rising toward $4.00 a gallon, and Alan Greenspan says we are in the worst economic recession since World War II. It makes us nervous, it makes us fearful about the future.
We’re afraid because the news is filled with insane acts of violence. Crazy people walk into shopping malls and college classrooms and start shooting. No place seems to be quite safe anymore and so we fear.
Even without all the bad news, we are haunted by the old, basic fear of death that is part of being human. Even we Christians, when we contemplate our dying, when we think about closing our eyes without waking up, when we reflect on an end to all our plans and dreams for this life, even we Christians can be afraid. The two people closest to me who have died are my grandmother and my mother. They were both strong Christians who never lost their faith. But my grandmother wrote a few days before her death in her journal: “I am so afraid.” My mother said the same thing from her hospital bed.
Fear, fear of dying. Most of us would be liars if we said we did not experience that fear. There is no other reason we spend so much money and time on medical care and nutrition and exercise and pharmaceuticals. Fear drives us, fear of getting old, fear of pain, fear of losing our dignity, fear of dying. And Christians experience it along with everyone else.
So with all that fear, how did Mary and Mary and the other women get to where they were on the first Easter morning? How did they achieve that strange and wonderful mixture of both “fear and great joy”? How can it possibly be that, as they were terrified by the supernatural, afraid of a “dead man walking,” frightened of the authorities who put Jesus to death in the first place, that they could at the very same time be filled with joy? Mark says they were so afraid, “they said nothing to anyone,” meaning their fear kept them silent all the way back into town to meet the other disciples—they didn’t dare tell anyone else. How can such fear be joined together with something like joy?
I think many of you know. Fear and joy come together fairly often in our lives. Buying your first house connects the two. You sit down to sign all those papers, as the loan officer pushes them across the desk at you. You try to read carefully, you try to discern if there’s anything you’ve missed, but your hand still trembles a bit as you move the pen across the lines marked with an “x” for your signature. It’s a huge step, a fearful step to suddenly owe more money than you’ve ever imagined. But at the same time there is the joy of the keys jangling in your hand, of unlocking the door and walking into rooms that actually belong to you for the first time in your life. You may paint them any color you want, drive in nails, rip up the carpet, knock out a wall. It yours. That’s the joy in spite of the fear.
Parents experience even more the connection of fear and joy. Mothers, you know better than I the fears of giving birth, the prospect of pain, the anxiety over complications, the deep, dark worry that something might be wrong with your baby. Yet, oh the joy, the pure, powerful joy of hearing that first cry, of feeling that little form in your hands, that little mouth at your breast. Fear and joy.
It doesn’t stop at birth you know, and dads get to feel it too. When Susan was two years old we finally arrived at home after a drive in a blizzard. As we got out of the car, there was two feet of snow on the ground and more falling. The temperature was bitter, in the low teens. The snow was blinding, you could only see a few feet ahead. I breathed a prayer of thanks for our safe arrival as we got out of the car. And then as we headed for the door, my thanks turned to complete terror. Susan was not with us. We had pulled her from her car seat, stood her by the car, and expected her to follow us into the house. But she was gone. She had wandered off in another direction.
You know what we did. In panic we called her name, stomped through the drifts in our huge front yard, peered through falling flakes trying to catch a glimpse of a little form. Images flew to mind of a frozen little body rapidly overcome by the cold, fallen and quickly covered in some neighbor’s yard. My heart was pounding more rapidly than it ever does in a racquetball game. Such fear.
Then finally I walked round the side of the house, between the garage and the neighbor’s fence, to find our little girl trying the latch on the backyard gate, trying to get to her swing set. I scooped her up with relief and frozen tears and carried her joyfully inside. Many of you have had parent moments like that. Fear and joy. You know what I mean.
The deepest fear comes with the greatest joy. It has to. Those things, those people which give us such huge joy also give us huge fear just because they matter so much. If you’re not afraid, it only means nothing much is at stake for you. But when all your love and dreams and happiness meet together, that’s where you’ll also find your fear. Just because the loss of such joy would be so terrible.
That’s how those women felt on Easter morning. They were at the grave of the Master they had loved more than anyone on earth. Mary Magdalene had been saved from seven evil spirits. The others had followed and served Him for three years. All their joy had been buried in that tomb. So of course they were afraid. Great joy always carries with it the specter of fear, the fear of great loss.
Yet only a fool would give up the joy in order to avoid the fear. To never own a house, to never take a trip, to never marry, to never have a child, simply to save yourself from being afraid, would be a sad and gloomy life. The only way that makes sense is to accept the fear along with the joy, and to trust that joy will overcome the fear.
Joy certainly overcame fear for the women on Easter morning. As they were running away from the grave in that wildly divided state of mind, oscillating between fear and joy, we read in verse 9, “Suddenly Jesus met them.” Jesus met them. That encounter is where everything changes.
There’s no way to get the full sense of that word translated “Greetings!” in our Bible versions. Chairete was a standard salutation in the ancient Greek world, something like “Hello,” or “Greetings.” But those are way too tame and mundane here. Literally and at its root, chairete means “Rejoice!” As a greeting it expresses the joy of a good meeting, a happy encounter. “Rejoice,” says Jesus, and then next He says, “Do not be afraid.” Fear and joy come mixed together, but with Jesus present, the joy conquered the fear.
As we come to celebrate Easter this morning, to celebrate Jesus Christ risen from the dead, to celebrate the great hope we have of a final and complete Easter when we all shall also rise in Christ, we do come with fear. Our greatest fear is that despite the songs and the flowers and the Scripture, it might not be true. The little, nagging worry of doubt creeps in and maybe creeps us out with a fear that we might be mistaken. It’s exactly into that state of mind, into that gloomy recess of our hearts, that Jesus steps and says “Rejoice! Do not be afraid.”
Jesus Christ met His friends in the graveyard. He still meets us in the graveyards of our lives, where all seems gray and hopeless. He meets us and greets us and calls us to rejoice. And He calls us like He called the women, to gather up their courage and go and tell others what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, to tell them that if they believe, they will meet Jesus too.
Fear and great joy are the Easter emotions. They are the emotional formula for one of the great Christian virtues. The combination of fear and great joy will bring you courage. It takes courage to sign on the dotted line for that first mortgage. It takes courage to bring a child into this world. And it takes courage to truly celebrate Easter and rejoice even when there is darkness and death.
I love the image of courage that Charles Dickens paints near the end of his A Tale of Two Cities. Miss Pross is a minor character, but she is Lucie Manette’s nanny and lifelong family servant and friend. As events roll to their conclusion, Miss Pross is suddenly confronted with the evil Madame Defarge. Defarge is a horrible architect of death in the French revolution, a veritable she-devil. She is bent on vengeance against Lucie’s husband Charles and the whole family. Madame Defarge has come to the house where only Miss Pross has been left to keep guard and to hide the fact that Lucie is gone.
Miss Pross speaks no French and Defarge no English. The demon woman is determined to search the house and Miss Pross is determined to prevent her. As the malevolent Madame stares her down, the humble, homely Pross says to her, “You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer… Nevertheless, you shall not get the best of me. I am an Englishwoman.” And then brave Miss Pross steps forward to grapple with the mad Frenchwoman, in a fight to the death.
That’s the kind of courage our joy in Christ brings to us. Believe in Jesus, and you may stare the Devil in the eye. You may stare death in the eye, and say, “You are terribly frightening. Nevertheless, you shall not get the best of me. I am a Christian.”
Our risen Lord Jesus Christ gives us the courage to be joyful when life is dark, to be hopeful when there is no earthly hope, to face death down and go in peace and in joy. The song we’ll sing in a moment says,
Lo! Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb;
Lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom.
That’s the joy we celebrate hear this morning, a wonderful, overwhelming joy that mingles with our fear and overcomes it, bringing us out into courage and hope.
Another English citizen, a real one this time, inspired some of the greatest courage our world has ever seen. But Winston Churchill did not only call people to courage in his life. Even in death, he left this world on a note of hopeful Christian bravery.
Churchill’s funeral in 1965 was a grand affair in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It began, as I think every Christian funeral should, with the glorious words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” It was a short, very traditional Anglican service lasting about thirty minutes. At the end, high up in the great dome of the cathedral, a bugler played the traditional closing of a military funeral, “The Last Post,” the British equivalent of “Taps,” the signal that day is done, night has fallen, all now rest in sleep, rest in peace.
But as the final note of “The Last Post” faded away, another bugler stood up across the cathedral by the west windows and began to play another military tune, the bright, rousing notes of “Reveille,” the signal for the sleeping to awake, to get up, to rise to the light of a new day. It was a signal to all who watched and heard that service around the world that night does not last forever, that death is not the end, that we look forward to the great day of rising promised to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s that joy, it’s that courage we proclaim as we sing and celebrate Easter. There will be fear. But Jesus meets us here today and says, “Rejoice!” and so we do, and so we take courage, and so we live in hope and joy. Christ is risen!
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj