Years ago Carl Ryner and Mel Brooks had a skit called the 2000 year old man which was later made into a short film. In it The 2000 Year Old Man (aka Mel Brooks) claims that most of our cultural rituals were originally created out of fear. Singing, for instance, evolved from the need to invent louder and louder ways of crying for help. The handshake was created to keep the other guy’s hand immobile, in case he was holding a sharp stick that he might poke in your eye. Dancing, he explained, was “the complete immobilization” of your potential enemy. (”Both hands, and you keep the feet busy so he can’t kick you!”)
Maybe he’s on to something. After all, fear has become such a complete aspect of our post modern commercial culture. If we think about it most of the advertisements we hear everyday are appealing to some sort of fear that we are being conditioned to fixate on. Our fears of health, safety for ourselves or for our families. We are continually bombarded by all the various forms of media that enter on our lives. For many years it had been terrorism, now it is the economy. We are a culture being conditioned by fear. You might say we are fast approaching something resembling “complete immobilization.” We are a profoundly fearful people.
In Hebrew there are two words that are used most often for fear: “pachad” and “yirah.” Pachad (often translated as “dread”) can be defined as our fear of the Boogie Man - those dark irrational fears that awaken us suddenly at four in the morning. Pachad might also be understood as our fear of The Other - the fear of that which we do not understand and that which we do not wish to understand.
Yirah, on the other hand, is often translated as “awe.” To be in awe, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, is to experience “radical amazement.” To stand in wonder before a a reality that far transcends our knowledge or understanding. Awe may sometimes be a fearful experience, but yirah cannot be defined exclusively by fear. It is defined equally by our humility, our respect, our acceptance of the ultimate limits of our power in the world. When we learn to stand in awe, we can use our fear as a springboard to embracing a truth much greater than ourselves.
So when Franklin D. Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He was recognizing both the reality and the paralyzing nature of pachad. Yes, it is natural and even necessary to have fears - but we must beware so we don’t allow our fears to consume us.
The story of Easter is a story that fills us with many confusing questions while at the same time it presents us with the great hope of our faith. We hear the story of the empty tomb and the various resurrection appearances of the risen Christ and we find ourselves with our scientific directed minds wanting to try and explain what happened that day. Did the physical body of Jesus actually walk out of the tomb on Easter morning? Or did God somehow transform the whole being of Jesus, body and soul, so that the Jesus of Easter was one who had put on what Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 15 as the spiritual body? Or did the spirit of Jesus touch those first disciples in some powerful way that they were led to realize that they were not alone and that Jesus was still with them in a new way – a way they could only explain by proclaiming that he had conquered death and was alive forevermore?
Well if we read the various scripture accounts of Easter and the appearances of the Risen Christ to his disciples we can find stories that can cause us to answer “yes” to all three of those explanations. There are stories that present the Risen Jesus as eating with the disciples in an apparently very physical body and there are stories that present the Risen Christ as being different – as being seen by the disciples but not being recognized until he says or does something familiar or by entering locked rooms in some mysterious way. Clearly we will never be able to come to a single accepted understanding of the events of that first Easter. But that does not matter because the significance of Easter is not in describing exactly how things happened or even in explaining what happened or which Gospel writer presents the most correct description of the events of Easter. Rather, the significance of Easter is to be found in what it proclaims about the power and love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Our reading from Mark this morning gives us the earliest Gospel record of Easter morning for Mark was written at least a decade before Matthew and Luke
& twenty-five years before John’s Gospel. Lets look at what it is saying to us today.
Three women set out early on the Sunday morning following Jesus’ crucifixion. Their goal was to anoint the body of Jesus with perfume. Many tombs of antiquity are found today with perfume bottles scattered around, showing that the practice of anointing the dead was common. Their journey to the tomb that morning means that they had waited until the Sabbath was over and that they had no idea that Jesus had been raised. Their conversation along the way concerned how they were going to move the stone away. Clearly they had no knowledge of the Roman guard that had been placed in front of the tomb or the Roman seal . If they did, they would have been more concerned about breaking the seal than rolling away the stone.
Apparently the women set out for the tomb “while it was still dark”, but their journey was long enough that when they arrived there it was “at sunrise” . They were surprised to find that the stone had been rolled away when they got there, and one can only imagine the look on their faces as they proceeded into the tomb not knowing what they would find. To their great astonishment they were greeted by a “young man dressed in a white robe” who was sitting in the tomb to their right.
Upon seeing the angelic messenger the reaction of the women was one of great fear… “they were alarmed.” The compound Greek term for this signifies overwhelming distress in the face of the unusual. In other words, the angel scared the women half to death! Expressed in Hebrew this fear would be pachad
The first thing the women did was fixate on the angel who stood before them. “Do not be alarmed.” He told them and that Jesus was not there – he had been raised, and he pointed to the place where he had been laid so that they would see and believe. It was clear the body had not been stolen; it was resurrected!
The angel instructed the women to go and tell the disciples. Jesus had prophesied that after his death he would rise from the grave and meet his disciples in Galilee, and this is what the angel commanded that the women tell the disciples. The women are said to have been seized with terror and bewilderment as they departed to tell the disciples what they had witnessed.
The earliest versions of Mark’s Gospel end there at verse 8 The women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is where Mark originally ends but something happened, because the story eventually got told and so we have two different endings added to the Gospel at a later date – one which is a longer ending known as Mark 16:9-20 and the other referred to as the shorter ending which simply adds after verse 8 “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation”
James Forbes makes the comment that something obviously happened to the women between the original ending of the Gospel and the addition of that shorter ending sometime later.
The women left the tomb terrified and said nothing because they were afraid but at some point they overcame their fears and they did speak to Peter and the others and because they overcame their fears the world know knows the Easter story and Christianity exists.
Easter is a story about overcoming our fears. Easter’s proclamation and the words of the Risen Christ to his disciples are do not be afraid, do not fear” Think about it – fear was probably the dominant feeling among the followers of Jesus that Easter morning. Jesus had been arrested and crucified so quickly. It had only been a week before that they had entered Jerusalem to the shouts of the Palm Sunday crowd and now he was dead. How could things have gone so wrong so fast? As they thought about it they were filled with fear.
• Fear for their own lives – As his disciples would they be the next
ones to be arrested and crucified? The disciples were so fearful that it is Joseph of Aramethia who is the one to claim the Body of Christ and place him in his tomb. The original disciples are not there. They are nowhere to be seen. They are likely seized by fear. A fear similar to Peter’s that prevented him fro acknowledging he was a follower of Jesus. They were likely afraid. They had seen the crowds turn on Jesus and crucify him. They likely felt that they would be next.
• Fear for their future – What would they do now that Jesus was gone? They had left everything to follow him. He was their leader. What would they do without him?
• Fear for his message and mission. What would happen to the message of hope, salvation and grace he preached? Would his words just be forgotten as time went by? Was it all over?
These same fears were with the women as they approached the tomb and their fears appear to be only increased as they discovered the tomb empty and heard the message that he had risen. It wasn’t that that was bad news but it was unheard of news. News that they couldn’t understand, news that didn’t make sense, news that they did not know what to do with and so Mark says they fled in terror and did not tell anyone.
But as time passed the events of Easter helped the women face their fears. As time passed they and the disciples had experiences in which they encountered the Risen Christ, experiences that we cannot explain; experiences that convinced them that Jesus was still with them, not just in their memories but as a real and powerful presence in their lives, a presence that filled them with hope, and strength and the assurance that they were not alone and never would be alone anymore for he would be their companion forever.
This message of Christ’s presence with them as their Risen Lord obviously gave the women the power to overcome their fears and the shorter ending to Mark’s Gospel was added to let us know that the Easter message is a message of liberation from fear. With the resurrection of Christ we are liberated from Fear. Fear is found throughout the first and second testaments of the Bible. There is fear of opposition, the future, of man, of the night and imagined fears.
Fear continues to be an enemy to full life as it causes us to hold back in relationships, in acts of service & ministry, in being open to the challenges of God’s Spirit inviting us into new ways. And the message of Easter we are invited to hear today is the message the women and the disciples heard – the message “Don’t be afraid” Don’t let our fears prevent us from living the an abundant life As the women at the tomb became aware of their fears so Easter asks us
“What are we afraid of?”
Are we afraid of death – don’t be afraid
Are we afraid of loneliness – don’t be afraid
Are we afraid of sickness – don’t be afraid
Are we afraid of persecution – don’t be afraid
Are we afraid of being hurt emotionally or physically – don’t be afraid
Are we afraid of rejection – don’t be afraid
Are we afraid of living to the fullest– don’t be afraid
And why don’t we have to be afraid?
– We don’t have to be afraid because Easter tells us that just as God did not abandon Jesus to death & destruction so God will not abandon us to them either
– We don’t have to be afraid because Easter proclaims that Jesus Christ is not a figure locked in history but he is a figure of the present. As the disciples realized he was still with them after his death so he continues to be with us. As they experienced him as a living presence, so can we.
– We don’t have to be afraid because Easter announces that the power and love of God overcame the forces of injustice, jealously, greed and all other forms of evil that had plotted to put Jesus to death and that same power will be with us when we face similar things.
Today is a day to let go of fears so we can live, for as DeWane Zimmerman says “The message of the Resurrection isn’t simply don’t be afraid to die. The message of the resurrection is don’t be afraid to live – to live for those things worth dying for.” Happy Easter & don’t be afraid for Christ has risen – thanks be to God!
The early American Indians had a unique practice of training young braves. On the night of a boy’s thirteenth birthday, after learning hunting, scouting, and fishing skills, he was put to one final test. He was placed in a dense forest to spend the entire night alone. Until then, he had never been away from the security of the family and tribe. But on this night, he was blindfolded and taken several miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the middle of a thick woods, and he was terrified. Every time a twig snapped, he visualized a wild animal ready to pounce. After what seemed like an eternity, dawn broke and the first rays of sunlight entered the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of a path. Then to his utter astonishment, he beheld the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with bow and arrow. It was his father. He had been there all night long.*