What fears do you, like the two Marys in Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 28:1-10), bring with you to the tomb this Easter week?
Perhaps never in our lifetimes has it been as easy to identify a single, predominant answer to that question for us and for our hearers. The COVID-19 pandemic has captured the attention of a world-wide audience.
It isn’t hard to explain the fear, is it? How powerless we feel as we anxiously watch the relentless advance of this tiny, invisible-to-the-naked eye virus army while we are armed, so it seems, with little more than Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, and homemade masks. At present, medical science doesn’t know exactly how to treat those who contract the illness. Many researchers are engaged in a race against time to develop a vaccine, but they wisely make no promises how soon that will be.
But dig a little deeper. The depth of the fear goes beyond merely the illness itself. Behind COVID-19 is a rider on a very pale looking horse (Revelation 6). As the death toll in state, country, and world rises toward a predicted hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, who but the most delusional is not struck with the realization of our mortality? “Dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). But dig a bit deeper yet. COVID-19 and even death would be nothing to fear except that lurking behind both is this: the Creator of this world is at work behind COVID-19 to blow away mankind’s arrogant boast that we are in control of our own lives. Fear is actually a very fitting response to the utter futility of the I-can-be-my-own-god experiment that Adam and Eve began in Eden. Ever since God’s curse fell on this world, God allows every groan of his creation (Romans 8:22) to testify to the futility and hopelessness and fear of living apart from the Giver of life. The bottom line of fear is this: we are afraid in this life because we have lost by nature the trusting relationship our Creator designed us to have with him. If we do not learn that reality during our lives, fear will rule us forever in ways far beyond any COVID-19 pandemic.
The only answer to fear is to learn that our entire lives actually rest in the hands of a Creator, who, even while calling the world to repentance, is still simultaneously proving himself patiently merciful with his fallen creatures. He longs for each of us to know that his saving love is far bigger and more powerful than anything that wants to make us afraid: viruses, illnesses, or even death itself.
That’s why our trip to the tomb with the Marys this Easter is so important for us and for everyone whom our lives will touch. There at that tomb we hear a refrain that resounds almost 100 times in just the New Testament: “Do not be afraid” (5). The Marys had come out to the grave of their (supposedly) dead master with a mixture of fear, powerlessness, and hopelessness. But suddenly they find out that their dear Lord was no longer dead. Just as he had promised, death held no power over him. In his saving power, they no longer had any reason to live in hopelessness and fear.
As they left the tomb, already the Easter message allowed the fear in their hearts to begin to mix with a great dawning joy. Then, as if the angelic messenger’s words had not been enough, Jesus suddenly stands before them. They hear their risen Lord’s lips repeat the refrain: “Do not be afraid” (10). His repetition displays the patient mercy of the Savior who knows how difficult it is to drive fear from the hearts even of his believers! His repetition reveals he will not abandon them to their clinging fears. He wants them to know that their lives – and their eternal lives – are in the hands of a crucified and risen Lord. To rest there is to learn that there is nothing more to fear.
That same Easter message still resounds to this day: “Do not be afraid.” Easter proclaims that there is now nothing in this world, or the next, that can rightfully make us afraid. Our lives have never truly been in our own hands. Our lives rest in the nail-marked hands of the crucified and risen One. And even though fears still want to spook our hearts until heaven, yet here is where we go to silence them: our hope is not in ourselves. Our hope is not in mankind. Our hope is in the God who wondrously created us and still more wondrously restored us to himself in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Even in a fallen world where pandemics and death hunt us down, Jesus still patiently reassures us: “Do not be afraid.”
And then, just as it was with the women that morning, those comforted by the Easter message become the next Easter messengers. Brothers, as Jesus calms your fearful hearts, he has handed you the only real cure for the fear that grips our world. As Jesus once pointed the women to speak comfort to “my brothers,” so Jesus points us to our brothers and sisters still struggling with fear and anxiety. Even as you admit how your own heart still wrestles with fears, Jesus sends you out to speak of peace.
But do not stop with comforting your brothers and sisters and urge your people not to stop there either. Without making light of the very real pain and difficulty and challenges that may yet be revealed in our world in the days ahead, this still remains a golden moment of opportunity. This pandemic is peeling away the proud and self-reliant façade behind which so many dust and ashes mortals usually hide their fear. The opportunities abound right now to acknowledge honestly our own fears right along with them but also to speak of the Easter hope that answers our fears. This Easter message, after all, had its first proclamation in a graveyard that suddenly became a place of hope rather than fear.
Make the most of these opportunities, brothers, because, unless Jesus returns very soon, we know what may end this open window of opportunity. In an interview with Time magazine, Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the Director-General of the World Health Organization was asked this question by the Time correspondent: “How do you think this will end?” Dr. Aylward answered, “This will end with humanity victorious over yet another virus.” Do you see there the root cause of fear at work even as this man seeks to calm the world’s fears? Yes, we too will rejoice when a vaccine is discovered, and more effective care is developed for COVID-19. But if the only lesson our world learns from this pandemic is that humanity again has risen to the occasion of defeating another enemy, please know this: there is a whole host of other enemies just waiting to show how frail and fleeting and foolish is that boast. Such human centered encouragements not to be afraid will always be followed by a return of other fears. Humanity is not the answer to what makes us afraid. The root cause of all fear is humanity’s ongoing stubborn arrogance that we can answer every fear apart from our Creator and Savior!
Now, dear brothers, yes, right now, is a special opportunity to speak of what alone can answer human fear. It is found in a graveyard. It is found at an empty tomb. It is found in a message that calms our fears while simultaneously making us messengers to the fearful hearts of others. “Do not be afraid,” says the angel. “Do not be afraid,” says the risen Lord. “Do not be afraid,” say you and I. In this year of our Lord 2020, yes, especially in this strange year, that is the urgent message of Easter messengers.