From Fear to Great Joy

From Fear to Great Joy

April 16, 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

Fear is very popular right now.  In theaters, horror movies are drawing increasing numbers of viewers.  A few years ago, I enjoyed the zombie movie World War Z, starring Brad Pitt.  It made more than $540 million, and a sequel is coming out this June.

One of the most popular movies of 2017 is the horror film Get Out, which tells the story of a young interracial couple.  They visit the mysterious estate of the woman’s parents, where strange things begin to happen.  The film cost just $4 million to make, and it has already earned $176 million at the box office.

Television has also been a scary place in recent years.  Turn on the TV, and you can see witches, vampires, and zombies.  These are not just fringe shows — the zombie series called The Walking Dead has been ranked the top-rated show on basic cable.

So what is this all about?  Horror movies may reflect the scary times in which we live.  In the magazine Vanity Fair, James Wolcott writes that zombies are popular because they illustrate so many of our current concerns:  “famine, holocaust, plague, toxic waste, genetic mutation … racial warfare, urban riots, suburban home invasions, [and] soul-less consumerism.”

Still, Wolcott finds zombies to be poor company.  You wouldn’t want to have them over for dinner.  They are not good at conversation and they have “deplorable hygiene and manners.”

Easter begins with fear

The surprising thing about the story of the resurrection in the Gospel of Matthew is that it is so filled with fear.  The words “fear” and “afraid” appear four times in just 10 verses.  As the first day of the week is dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to see the tomb.  They immediately experience an earthquake, which can be a terrifying experience in itself.  Then an angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the stone of the tomb — Matthew tells us that for “fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”  You might say that the guards are scared to death.

Then the angel says to the women, “Do not be afraid.”  That’s a command that is easier said than done.  “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” says the angel.  “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”  Jesus is not in the tomb where his body had been placed.  Instead, he is up and walking around.  Although he is not a zombie, he is moving around like a character in The Walking Dead.  We cannot blame the two women if their first reaction is fear.

Fear and great joy

 

Horror movies are filled with unexpected twists and turns, and this is true in the Easter story as well.  The angel surprises the women by sending them on a mission, saying, “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”  Matthew tells us that the two women leave the tomb quickly, feeling a mixture of fear and great joy.  The horror of losing their Lord to death is being replaced by a feeling of joy that he is alive and well.  They take off on a mission to tell the disciples about the resurrection of Jesus.

But then Jesus jumps out and meets them on the road.  He doesn’t say “Boo”; instead, he says “Greetings!”  The two women run to him, take hold of his feet, and worship him.  By holding on to his feet, they prove that he is not a ghost, and they are filled with elation that he really is alive.  Then Jesus says to them, “Do not be afraid” — he knows that fear is a possibility when a person rises from the dead.  “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee,” says Jesus; “there they will see me.”

Resurrection is unnatural

 

Easter can scare us because it contains a highly unnatural event.  We know that death is natural.  Loss is natural.  Grief is natural.  The women went to the tomb expecting to have a sad but entirely natural experience.  “Resurrection, on the other hand,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, “is entirely unnatural.”  Resurrection confuses us, frightens us, and disorients us — much as horror movies do.  Scary films are popular because they excite and arouse people, but they often leave people feeling nervous and unsettled.  Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor in Los Angeles, says that being nervous and unsettled “is not a state which leads to fond memories.”

Fortunately, God does not allow us to remain stuck in a bad place.  Within the unnatural events of Easter, God moves us from fear to great joy.  The story of Easter morning might confuse us, frighten us, and disorient us, but in the end it creates good memories.  God does this for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and does this for us as well.  New life might frighten us at first, but it quickly becomes a reason for joy.

Power for life

 

Why is this?  I think that resurrection is joyful because it gives us power for life.  If Jesus simply came back to life like a zombie, it would make for a good story, one that might appear on TV as The Walking Dead of Jerusalem.  But this trick would do nothing for us.  The resurrection of Jesus inspires joy because it gives us power.

Jesus “entered into an entirely new form of existence,” says Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor at Emory, “one in which he shared the power of God, and in which he could share that power with others” — share that power with us.  As Christians, we share the power of resurrection life, power that can support us through failures, firings, divorces, illnesses, and the loss of loved ones.  Easter shows us that there is always new life beyond the pain of loss, disappointment, and death.

It was exactly ten years ago today, April 16, 2007, that a shooter began his rampage at Virginia Tech, leaving 32 students and faculty members dead.  This was a real-life horror story, not a movie or television show. Many of us remember exactly where we were when we heard about the killings, and we felt it very personally.  Our congregation is full of Tech Alumni, and some were students at the time of the massacre.

According to US News, a student named Kristina Anderson was sitting in French class when the gunman entered the room and began shooting students, up and down each row.  Kristina was shot three times, and was one of just six to survive in that classroom.

Now, ten years later, her life’s work is to help schools and “law enforcement prepare for active shooter scenarios and try to prevent them.” She gets a sense of how much a college values safety by counting the clicks it takes to go from a school’s homepage to information about emergency protocols.  Her efforts are part of her recovery, she says, as she seeks deeper meaning in a terrible event.  Her work to improve campus safety is clearly a sign of the power of God at work — power for life.

A new place

 

Resurrection also leads us to a new place.  In the story of Easter, Jesus wants to meet his followers in Galilee — in the place of mission to the Gentiles and other strangers.  Jesus does not want his disciples to hang around Jerusalem, doing the same old things in the same old ways.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he says to them when he meets up with them in Galilee (Matthew 28:19); in other words, “go and serve me in new places with new people, in all of the nations of the world.”

Jesus sends us into places we have not been before, to share his love and power with people around us.  When we do this, we can feel great joy.  We are living in such a fractured and polarized society right now, with people feeling so separated by race, politics, religion and nationality.  We might live in a very diverse part of Northern Virginia, but we don’t tend to have strong links to people of different beliefs or cultures.

I don’t think that this separation is pleasing to God, who “created humankind in his image” (Genesis 1:27).  The image of God is present in every person, whether they are Christian or Muslim, black or white, immigrant or native-born.  I don’t think that living in isolation is what Jesus desires for us, since he told his followers to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  And I don’t think that we should keep to ourselves if we worship in a church that claims to be “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

Walking for friendship

 

Since the resurrection leads us to a new place, I invite you to join me on the Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk, which will be held on Sunday, May 21st, from 2 to 5 p.m.  This walk is intended to bring faith communities together, to help us learn from each other, and to develop some friendships along the way.  The walk will take place here in the City of Fairfax, and will take us to eight places of worship, Christian and Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, including Fairfax Presbyterian.  Over the course of 3.5 miles, we will be able to appreciate each other and feel part of the same whole, despite our differences.

You may have heard that two of our neighbors were vandalized this past week.  At the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia and the Little River United Church of Christ, walls and signs were spray painted with graffiti, including anti- Semitic and anti-Muslim messages.  This makes our interfaith friendship and support more important than ever.  I want you to mark your calendars and save the date:  Sunday, May 21st, 2 to 5 p.m., Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk.

When we meet our neighbors, we should not be afraid.  In fact, we should welcome them with the knowledge that our Risen Lord is with us, and that he’ll always be with us, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  In fact, Jesus promises us that whenever we welcome a stranger, we are really welcoming him (Matthew 25:35).

The resurrection always moves us from fear to great joy, because it gives us power for life and moves us to a new place.  We don’t have to be stuck in the way things are, or part of the horror stories that we see all around us.  Instead, we can put our faith in the story of Easter, and we can trust Jesus to walk beside us, giving us joy and new life.  Amen.

Sources:

James Wolcott, “The Collective American Scream,” Vanity Fair, January 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/01/horror-films-american-interest.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 110.

Sharon Begley, “Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies,” The Daily Beast, October 25, 2011, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/10/25/why-our-brains-love-horror-movies-fear-catharsis-a-sense-of-doom.html.

Kenneth L. Woodward, “Rethinking the Resurrection,” Newsweek, April 7, 1996, http://www.newsweek.com/rethinking-resurrection-176618.

Lauren Camera, “Virginia Tech 10 Years Later: When Campus Safety Changed Forever,” US News & World Report, April 14, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-04-14/virginia-tech-10-years-later-whats-changed-on-campuses-since-the-2007-shooting.

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