Fear is not the usual emotion associated with Easter Sunday. Excitement, yes. Enthusiasm among the people of God, absolutely. Exhaustion, especially for preachers, most likely. But even for those who have been stretched thin by Lent, Easter Sunday is a time for celebration. The stranglehold of death has been broken! The possibility of life post-mortem has become reality.
This is why the fear in our text stands out to me. It is the common and recurring human reaction to the Resurrection. The guards were scared nearly to death. The women were frightened, both when they encountered the Angel and before Jesus Himself. Even after they worshipped Him, Jesus had to calm their fears, which says something about life after Easter. Fear remains, even for those who have been greeted by the risen Lord. But it does not remain alone. After witnessing the Resurrection, the women were no longer only afraid.
The initial cause of fear in the text was the earth-shaking appearance of the Angel. It was as if lightening had descended from Heaven in bodily form, rolled away the stone, and perched itself on the rock victoriously. There is no way words—not even inspired words—could describe this sight. The watchmen, much like the earth in the previous verse (σεισμὸς ἐγένετο μέγας), were all shook up (ἐσείσθησαν) and good as dead. Then the lightening-messenger spoke and addressed the women directly. He must have sounded as terrifying as he looked.
“Do not be afraid,” said the Angel, and then he continued with three additional statements: An announcement, an imperative, and a promise.
First, the announcement: “He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.” The last part stands out. Jesus had announced His resurrection at least three times in Matthew’s gospel (16:21-28; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; see also 26:1-2). While it seems to have been a shock to everyone, Jesus knew what was coming and He had not hidden the plan. The announcement was not simply a “told you so” moment, however. It was a vindication of everything Jesus had said and done throughout His ministry. Indeed, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus’ resurrection vindicated nothing less than the entirety of the Christian faith.
The announcement was not simply a “told you so” moment, however. It was a vindication of everything Jesus had said and done throughout His ministry.
Second, the imperative: “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead.” Rather than leaving them paralyzed with fear, and refusing to let them simply stand in awe, the Angel sent the women to be the first witnesses of the Resurrection. Like all Christians after them, they went forth as proclaimers of His victory over death. The mission of the Church had begun.
Third, the promise: “You will see Him.” They did not know how soon, and Matthew does not tell us exactly when or where. But as they ran to deliver the good news to the disciples, the Angel’s promise to the women was fulfilled. The risen Jesus met them on their way, graciously greeted them, and received their (still fearful) worship. The text ends as Jesus calms them once more and sends them with the same instruction and promise.
It is safe to say that Easter this year will be unlike any Easter we have ever seen. By now your congregation has planned a celebration considering unprecedented calls for social separation. Whatever you and your leaders have planned, you should assume people will be listening to this sermon with new and unique concerns. Their hopes and their fears will be inseparable from the pandemic and its impact on just about everything.
Which brings me back to the women and their fear. Your hearers have plenty to be afraid of. The coronavirus has exposed the fragility of many aspects of our society. Objects of our love and trust are crumbling before us. Universally held assumptions about security and permanence are proving false. All we can do is hide ourselves from the very communities that usually help us cope with such challenges. As you know from listening to your members these last few weeks, their fears will be accompanied by varying degrees of loss, grief, and anger.
Verse eight offers a way of addressing them. As they ran from the tomb, the women were still afraid, but their fear was no longer alone, and it no longer dominated. They departed from the tomb, “with fear and great joy” (notice that μεγάλης modifies χαρᾶς but not φόβου). That is the difference Easter makes. Fear in a dangerous and confusing world is still appropriate. It is why many of our congregations will maintain social distance even on this holiest of Sundays. But the pandemic does not change the promise you will proclaim to your hearers. It is your privilege to promise that they, too, will see the risen Lord Jesus. They will see His resurrection by faith here and now. They will see Him with their own eyes at His glorious return and, because He comes with gracious greetings of forgiveness, life, and salvation, they can face whatever these fearful days will bring with even greater joy.
May the risen Lord bless your preaching this Easter, fellow preachers. As much as ever, the Church and world need your faithful proclamation in His name!
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 28:1-10,
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 28:1-10.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 28:1-10.