Sunday, 20 April 2014

With fear and Great Joy

"They left the tomb filled with fear and great joy." (Matt 28:8).

A remarkable combination. Not emotions we normally put together, are fear and joy. It's like anger and apathy; or surprise and impatience. It's not that they can't go to together, it's just that we wouldn't normally put them in the same sentence like that.

Fear and great joy. When else might these things go together? Winning your place at the university of your choice, when you weren't really expecting to get the grades, maybe? Getting the man or woman you love, to agree to marry you? These sorts of things that may give you short-term fear - at the thought of what you're suddenly committed to - but the expectation of joy starting now, and continuing into the future.

Fear, because who could not fear, if they understood properly, the living God? This has been quite a shock. They were expecting to find a corpse. Not pleasant, sure. Maybe, in the half-light of that dawn of the first day of the week, it's a shadowy, slightly spooky mission. But it's a known quantity. A certain weight in human flesh, to be paid respects to and then left. You know where you are.

They weren't - even after the remarkable things they'd seen - expecting to see what they got. Not angels dazzling on gravestones. Not white-faced Roman soldiers, quaking in the cemetery. Not - definitely not - the man they had seen crucified on Friday, now walking out through the garden, issuing instructions about what they had to do next. So the fear comes as they realise they're face-to-face with somebody who's way beyond even what they've imagined up to now. A healer, sure. A prophet, certainly. The Messiah of Israel - they've dared to hope so. But a man who, single-handed when beyond any hope of human assistance, is alive when he should be - indeed was - dead? That is a scary thing. Whether he was their friend or not. It's the author to the Hebrews who tells us that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It must be a terrifying thing to see the living God wandering through the dew of the early-morning garden.

But he was their friend, of course. Their rabbi; their teacher and helper. And that's why they had the great joy. Where had their hope - if any - been from 3pm Friday till now? In the resolution that they could slip out of Jerusalem, head back to their disparate homes, remember the teaching of their dead rabbi and do their best to live up to it? But the teaching had been so radical, and the references to himself so much a part of the message – how could his message live on without him there?

And now that’s all turned over. The fear is that they appear to have met the living God - in the guise of the travelling rabbi, Jesus. The great joy is that, despite the combined efforts of a bunch of jealous priests and the most efficient and cruelest empire the world has so far produced, he is manifestly walking round a garden.

That was their reaction to what they had experienced, and what they were now seeing - fear, and great joy. What's our logical reaction today?

Much the same, I reckon. Fear, and great joy.

You can't beat fear as an emotion when it comes to considering God. I've always found the universe scary - it's so unimaginably big, and old, and its future is so unimaginably more than even its inconceivable past. But I can get my head round the idea that God is the principle behind the entire universe - the one by which everything else was set in motion; the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being. I am quite happy with that. The idea that the ground of all our being might actually be interested in me - might have dibs on my life - might want to start getting involved in what I do; that's terrifying. I remember when Rose Tyler got a taste of godlike powers in Christopher Eccleston's last episode as Dr Who - the way she could just will the daleks out of existence. And I know that God is way beyond those minor kinds of godlike powers - that the whole of the universe, and the whole of time, past and future - is here only at God's desire. That's kind of scary. But the idea that the whole of that might simultaneously want a relationship with me - is interested in me, loves me and wants me to love him back - that's, in a weird kind of way, a nightmare.

But then great joy. You see, the resurrection is a display of God's power - of the power of good - over every kind of evil. It's the statement from that God who is terrifying, and yet weirdly interested in us, that all that terror is on the right side. We live in a nasty world, at times. It is a world of random threats - from nature and from human beings. We know there's the threat of natural disaster; the fear of sudden disease. We know that, even if we dodge the medical conditions and, living in the UK, we'll miss out on tidal waves and earthquakes - apart from very small ones in Rutland - even then we'll eventually succumb to Anno Domini. None of us can dodge that.

And then the world is full of nasty people. Just this week in the news - the bullying of Ukraine by Russia; more killing in Syria; that murderer Robert Mugabe having the sheer gall to say that the UK's not a nice place.

And what the resurrection of Jesus says is this - in the face of tyranny, of injustice, of blatant greed - that those who are guilty of these things may get away with it for a while. But they won't forever. That the people who rob and rape and cheat and kill to further their ends - will lose in the end. That even that great tyrant Death does not win in the end. Death has no victory because Jesus has made it not a dead end. Death is now a place where we will lose the things we yearned for in life, and are set free to live fully for God. Death is an abhorrence and unnatural. But Jesus has shown us we can walk through that shadow, and will emerge on the other side on that great Day when the dead are raised, and Death is no more.

And the Church - from that surprising garden to today - works its way through life with fear and great joy. Every member walks through life with fear and great joy. Fear because we serve the living God. And joy because we know that Jesus is alive.

Happy Easter.


  1. Alleluia! Not only for the day but for that splendid sermon. A very happy Easter to you too.

  2. That was a superb sermon...lifted the heart.
    Happy Easter.


Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl