Don’t be afraid

John 20:1-18 New International Version (NIV)

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

 

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

   “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

   Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

   She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

            Over the last 40 days of Lent we have been looking at covenant making. It has been interesting at times, and depressing at other times. We have been looking at our sinfulness, our fallen nature, and how we just don’t seem to be able to get it all together. Not only that, we have been looking at our mortality and how we will all eventually die. So to sum up the last six weeks we have been looking at how we all sin and we are all going to die. And who says that church isn’t fun?

            We have a new member of our worship planning committee this year who was a part of the group that helped to plan the worship services for Lent. And she told me once, “It is kind of fun to be a part of the worship service and knowing that you are moving toward something.”

            I have felt it to be necessary every time we have a visitor to say, “Please don’t think that every week has this dark and dreary feel to it. Really, I am a positive person. We are moving toward something.”

            Today is the day that we arrive at that something. Today is the day that we celebrate the resurrection of our King, our Lord, our Savior Jesus. We remember that the world threw the worst it could at Jesus. The people hated him, turned on him, shouted “crucify him” and then did just that. But the grave couldn’t hold him. And because of that, because Jesus took the very worst that society could throw at him, looked death in the face, and said, “Is that all you’ve got?” we move from a time of reflecting on our own sinfulness and mortality to a time of celebrating new life.

I don’t plan to spend a lot of time today looking at the details of that first Easter Sunday. Often times I like to dig through the text and parse every verb and inspect every textual variation. But today, we are looking at the big picture. We are looking at the empty tomb. And we are going to do so by looking at what would seem like a totally unrelated common shrub. A forsythia bush.

            We moved into our home in Staunton in the summer of 2008. Directly behind our house is a large forsythia bush. This is the forsythia bush that puts all other forsythia bushes to shame. I measured it recently and from end to end, this single bush spanned about 12 feet.

            Over the last four years I have noticed that this bush has not looked too healthy. It has some open spots on it. I didn’t realize until this summer that you are supposed to prune a forsythia bush every year, and prune it significantly. You are supposed to cut it back 33% each year because of the rapid growth. If you don’t the old growth will block the sunlight from getting to the new growth, and there is competition for water and light. So with this bush not looking too healthy, and taking up a lot of space, I decided to cut it down. That bush is now dead.

            But before I cut the bush down, I filled four pots with potting soil and cut off four of the healthy new shoots from the forsythia bush. I plan to allow these new cuttings to establish themselves in the pots and then transplant them into the soil along a fence to make a hedge/border along the back of our property.

            The forsythia bush is dead. But a new forsythia bush will be planted this fall from those cuttings which will hopefully grow big and strong. But this isn’t resurrection. This is reproduction.

            I am blessed with some great friends who are willing to share some of their belongings with this poor old pastor and this Tuesday I was loaned a chipper/shredder.  You may have seen chipper/shredders before, especially if you live in a location where there are power lines close to trees. Often times we will see the electric company come out and cut down branches and trim trees, and throw the branches into these large boxes that grind the branches up and turn them into something useful that we call mulch. I think that it great to take yard scraps and make something that will add to the beauty around our homes.

I borrowed my friend’s chipper/shredder to turn the now dead forsythia bush (along with some other yard scraps) into mulch to use around my house. You might say that this old, dead forsythia bush has found new life as mulch. And with all of the microbial activity involved in the breaking down of mulch, it isn’t wrong to say that the mulch is alive!

            This dead forsythia bush is now experiencing new life as mulch. But this isn’t resurrection. This is reincarnation.

            One of the places that I put my new forsythia mulch is around the kwanzan cherry trees that we have in the front of our home. I planted these trees three years ago. They are slow-growing little trees. If they had eyes, I could look them eye-to-eye.

            Cherry trees are deciduous, meaning they lose all of their leaves in the fall and become dormant through the winter. These little trees are rather pathetic in the winter. They look like someone took a branch off a real tree and just stuck it in the ground. Actually, I remember the neighbor kids when I was growing up taking a dead branch off an oak tree and sticking it vertically into the sand of their sandbox and saying that they had planted a new tree. It looks rather pathetic. A Charlie Brown Christmas tree would be a step up from my kwanzan cherry trees in the winter.

            Kwanzan cherry trees are one of the later-blooming trees in this region and just this week we started to get some blooms. This tree that looked to be about as dead as could be just a month ago is now bursting with pink flowers and green foliage. But this is not resurrection. This is revivification.

            On the day that we commonly know as Good Friday, Jesus died the death of a criminal. He was dead; they checked his vital signs and there was no life in him. They buried him in a tomb and went home to mourn. Then, early on Sunday morning, they found that the tomb was empty. Jesus was alive! And he wasn’t reproduced, reincarnated, revivified, or even resuscitated. Jesus was resurrected and he lives today.

            Because Jesus was resurrected, we too will experience resurrection. 1 Corinthians chapter 15 talks about the resurrection of human beings. Paul tells us that we will be given new bodies a lot like our old bodies, but that these bodies will be imperishable. He quotes the prophets Isaiah and Hosea, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (54b-55).

            Paul isn’t trying to say that dead isn’t still a bad thing. We still mourn the loss of a loved one.

            In John chapter 11 we find the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. Lazarus had died and been dead for three days. John tells us that Jesus knew that Lazarus had died, yet he was still going to make the trip to Bethany because he had the intention of brining Lazarus back to life. Jesus was planning to resurrect Lazarus. Again, John is clear in stating that Jesus knew when he headed toward Bethany that Lazarus had died and that he was going to resurrect him. And in John 11:35, we read, “Jesus wept.”

            Death of a loved one still hurts, even if we know and believe that they will be resurrected and that we can spend eternity with them in the presence of God. Death causes us to mourn just as it caused Jesus to weep at the loss of his friend Lazarus. But yet death does not have the final word. I hear the words of Paul, Isaiah, and Hosea mocking death, “Where is your victory? Where is your sting?” Death does not win. And because death does not win, we need not fear.

            Don’t be afraid. In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, the women who find the empty tomb are told by the angel of the Lord, “Don’t be afraid.” A few sentences later they meet the resurrected Christ himself and Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid.”

            Rabbi Harold Kushner has said that “Don’t be afraid” is one of the most common phrases in the Bible. When Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she is going to give birth to a boy and that she should name him Jesus, the first words out of Gabriel’s mouth are, “Don’t be afraid.”

            When Jesus is born and the shepherds who were watching their flocks by night were met by an angel who would announce to them the birth of the Messiah, the first words out of the mouth of the angel was, “Don’t be afraid.” The Gospels begin and end with the encouragement to not be afraid.

            But it goes back further than the Gospels. In Genesis when a man called Abram is told to leave his home and family and everything that he has ever known behind and go to a land that God would show him, he is told, “Don’t be afraid.” When Moses is called to lead his people out of captivity and to the Promised Land, Moses is told, “Don’t be afraid.” When great leaders like Joshua and David are called to give direction to the Israelites, they are told “Don’t be afraid.” When the people are taken into exile, the prophets tell them, “Don’t be afraid.”

            It would seem to me that anytime that something vastly different is about to happen that will fundamentally change the lives of the people, God tells them, “Don’t be afraid.” And now, with the resurrection of Jesus, we hear those words once again. Don’t be afraid.

            Jesus has conquered the greatest weapon and the greatest enemy known to humanity. Jesus has conquered death. Oh to be sure, death will still hurt, but in the end, resurrection is the victor.

            It has been said that the fear of pain is usually worse than pain itself. The anticipation of a shot at the doctor’s office or the drill at the dentist can be more excruciating than the shot or drill itself. Though I can’t say from experience, I believe that fear of death is probably worse than death itself. And we are told not to fear.

            As we conclude our Lenten theme, I am reminded how many of us have chosen to give things up for Lent and now we can enjoy them again. I hope that first chocolate bar or cup of coffee is just as good as you had remembered. But as we end our time of Lent, I want to encourage you to give something up with me. And let’s give it up, not just for 40 days, but for the rest of our lives. I am giving up fear and I invite you to give it up as well.

            This election season, when one candidate is trying to convince you to be afraid of what the other candidate would do to this country if they were elected, refuse to allow yourself to be fear mongered. When a person of one religion tells you that a member of another religion or no religion at all is trying to take away your rights or even your life, refuse to allow yourself to be fear mongered. When someone tries to demonize the poor, the rich, the white, the black, the young, the old, when someone tries to demonize the very people for whom Christ died and calls us to lay our lives down for as well, refuse to be fear mongered. Death has been defeated, Jesus has been raised from the dead. And all those who are in Christ will live with him forever.

            Jesus was not reproduced. He was not reincarnated. And he was not revivified. Jesus was dead and he lives today. Happy Resurrection Sunday!

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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