“Death is ugly, a rotten deal,” writes author and preacher Fleming Rutledge. And it is still a rotten deal even when it brings relief from pain or incapacity. The translation of John 11:39 in the King James Version is a favorite of mine because it so vividly expresses what Martha says to Jesus at the tomb of her brother, Lazarus; Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Jesus says, “Take the stone away from the
opening,” and Martha doesn’t think that’s a good idea. Martha says, “Lord...he stinketh.”
I remember clearly the first time I saw an unembalmed dead body. Her name was Bobbie. I was 23 years old, a seminary student doing pastor-type things at a church that was without a pastor at the time. I had visited Bobbie many times through her illness, and in fact, I had talked with her in her hospital room just 40 minutes before she died. When I went back and into the room, and went up close to her, it struck me as being so weird: Bobbie had been weak, barely able to talk, breathing slowly – as we talked, she was “close to death.” But when she was dead, actually dead, she did not at all seem to be “close to life”. Death had her. Our conversation less than an hour before seemed a million miles away.
And it gets us all. In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, Macbeth gets the news that Lady Macbeth is dead, and says, “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more.” (Macbeth 5.5) That is the power of death.
Of course, the Bible, too, testifies to the power and finality of death, such as Psalm 89:48 – “What person can live and never see death? Who can deliver one’s soul from the power of Sheol?” (Sheol is the realm of the dead in the Old Testament.)
Some years ago, when our children were little (we have three children), I came home and my wife, Kris, and the kids were playing Monopoly in the living room. Maria shouted, “Daddy, I won. I have the most money. And look I own these railroads and the electric company." This precious, angelic-looking daughter of mine had reduced her mother, her sister, and her brother to poverty – and it was her moment of great triumph, she loved it. Then Kris said, “Now it’s time to put it away. It all goes back in the box.”
It all goes back in the box. That is the way it is: there comes a time when all the money, all the properties, all the houses, all the hotels - it all goes back in the box.
So it was with the death of the Messiah. "After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, they went to see to the dead body of Jesus. There is nobody more surprised that the body is not there, nobody more surprised that Jesus is risen, than these women.
The angel in the tomb tells them that Jesus is risen from the dead and that they should tell the disciples what has happened. Then, the passage says, “They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples (Matthew 28:7-8). They came to the tomb expecting to mourn in peace and quiet. They left with the opposite. They left with fear and great joy.
Of course they had great joy. In their place, who wouldn’t be spectacularly happy? A radiant angel was telling them that Jesus is alive. They’ve got Jesus again – alive. Spectacular joy.
But the passage says, “They left…with fear and great joy”. Why fear?
This really is fear as in “being afraid”. It is not fear as in “a comfortable awe and reverence”. The guards, who were put there to make sure that no one stole Jesus’ body, had this same fear – without the joy, by the way. The guards were so afraid that they passed out (v. 4). This is scared-ness. The angel tells the Marys “Don’t be afraid” (v.5). But that doesn’t completely take with them. When Jesus appears, he tells them the same thing, “Don’t be afraid” (v. 10).
The biblical writer doesn’t tell us why they are afraid. Let me suggest that the women’s fear and their joy may come from the same place. The two Marys are spectacularly joyful because, with Jesus being alive, their world is turned upside down. And they are afraid, because now their world is turned upside down.
With Jesus really raised from the dead, every power wielded in this world is relativized, the true value of one’s actions gets turned inside out, and what makes for a meaningful life gets flipped upside down. With Jesus really raised from the dead, they are in the presence of more power than they have ever felt before – power greater than the power of death, and that is scary.
Consider that Matthew is making the point that when the reality of Jesus’ resurrection hits home, fear and great joy exist together in the believer. And consider that fear and great joy together is the fitting reaction to the presence of such power over death.
There is nothing – absolutely nothing at all – no power, not even death – that can undo what God in Christ has done in the cross and resurrection. Christ was made sin; we are made righteous. Our sin, his suffering. Our guilt, his death. His resurrection, our new life.
It is this combination of fear and great joy that draws out the gospel. Fear because we are stripped of every pretension that somehow we are in control. But joy – inexpressible joy –because the Lord who was crucified is risen that we might have life – abundant life.
There will always be things you cannot control as a congregation and neither you nor your congregation will ever be perfect. There will always be things that we cannot control as a synod or as a church body, and neither our synod nor our church body will ever be perfect. But we are church together, to glorify God and to serve Christ in the world, because God has brought us together in fear and great joy. In our fear and great joy, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us, because God in the risen Christ Jesus has freed us from all sin, death, and the power of the devil.