Fear and Great Joy

Jeremiah 31:1-6 Colossians 3:1-4 Matthew 28:1-10

Those who know me well know that if I were to ever raise live stock I would hope to own a small herd of myotonic goats. These are goats that have been bread especially to highlight a certain genetic trait that otherwise would have been naturally eliminated. That trait is an enzyme which naturally constricts their muscles when they are startled, causing them to fall over. Yes, these are the so-called “fainting goats” who have the unfortunate flight or fight response of falling over.

Now, before you get carried away with the idea that I am simply a dark humored person who delights in the misery of a helpless creature, let me say that I am enamored by these creatures because I see myself in them. Fear of conflict is more apt to paralyze me than to motivate me. Fear of the unknown can make me want to hunker down and hope it will all go away. Those things that are beyond my control often make me want to exert more control over the things that I can control.

Maybe you think I’m being a little hard on myself, I mean – who doesn’t want to be in charge of their own life? Isn’t it a part of our human nature to limit risks? Aren’t the eldest among us the ones who have remained the least vulnerable for the most amount of time? You might think so, but that is not always the case. To live without risk is to live without learning and without loving – but not without losing. Fear is typically connected to loss, and if there is anything we cannot stand, it is losing the people and things that we hold dear. Fear, as it relates to loss, is simply a chemical response in our brains to something that seems harmful. The question is not whether or not we are afraid. The question is how we respond to it. Do we let it paralyze us like the guards in Matthew’s Gospel, or does it inspire us like the women at the tomb?

In today’s reading we find a similar cast of characters at the resurrection as we did in the crucifixion. The women and a Centurion watched as Jesus breathed his last, as the sky went dark, and as the earth trembled. The Centurion, interestingly enough, was the one who proclaimed, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” Was there regret, fear, or just reverent appreciation in his voice? We will never know. It does seem that there was some form of transformation, though.

As the story continues, Joseph of Arimathea – a wealthy disciple in this version – asks for the body, prepares it for burial, and places it in a tomb covered with a large stone to keep away animals and thieves while the women stand watch. It was customary to wait three days in the event that the person might not actually be dead. The Priests and Pilot conspire to put guards on the tomb to be sure this fanatic’s followers do not steal the body to claim that he lives, while the women watch.

That’s when it happened. Again, as in his death, there was a cosmic event that shook the earth. An angel descended and rolled the stone away, and the guards became as dead men. The irony hear must not go unnoticed. I can imagine this story being told ages ago with a delicious twist. “Then the ones guarding the body became…like dead men!”

Their fear had paralyzed them because it was based in a sure knowledge of their undoing. The universe had just unfolded in a way they were not able to handle, and they fainted like myotonic goats. The women were afraid too, but their fear was based in the knowledge that they were participating in something far beyond their control.

Their fear was not based in something that might happen to them. It was based in the the fact that they had experienced the active presence of God, and now they must share that experience because it had consumed them. It was so much a part of them that their identity made a shift from watchers to witnesses. The angel, acting as the agent of God, told them not to be afraid. He offered them proof that Jesus was alive, and he sent them to tell the other disciples. They leave with “fear and great joy,” and then they are met by Jesus himself. They fall to his feet and worshiped him.

Maybe this was to prove a point. Ghosts do not have feet. Certainly it was to confirm the hope that had already inspired them to action. Inspired – that’s an interesting word. It means to be imbued with, or animated by, some force beyond your own creation. Maybe you are inspired by a painting. Maybe you’re inspired by literature or film. Maybe you’re inspired by the ideals and actions of some great leader. Maybe you’re inspired by an act of kindness that is simple and true.

Whatever it is that moves you, claims you, picks you up and shakes you, even reforms you, and changes you from a watcher to a witness – whatever it is that inspires you to newness of life, especially a life that is lived in devotion to God – whatever inspires you is of the one Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being. Whatever inspires you to greatness, and even to goodness, is from the Spirit of God – just as the angel who rolled the stone and sat upon it.

It is this God that allows chaos to be in the world. It is this God who moves us from chaos to active, creative engagement with the world. It is this God that moves us from chaos to order and back again when we forget the source of our inspiration and purpose. Again and again throughout history the song repeats itself. Faithfulness moves us to participate with God’s will. Selfishness blocks our path.

Jeremiah tells the Israelites that they will not only come home but be remade. The abused and used are called pristine by God’s choice, by God’s action, and by God’s desire for a new covenant. As followers of Jesus we cannot help but see the promise of Jeremiah apart from the hope for redemption we have in Jesus. For Jeremiah, the promise was not about Jesus. It was about a vision of hope for a people who have none.

That is what we are called to be – a vision of hope for those who have none. We cannot be that if we do not have our hope set in something greater than ourselves. We must, as Paul told the church in Colosae, set your minds on things that are above. There is nothing in there about institutional correctness. There is nothing about creating buildings or spaces to do things in that last for generations. There is but one thing to do – set your heart and your mind to be moved by the priorities of God!

To do that – to truly give yourself over to God – can be a pretty scary thing to do. Giving yourself over to God does not come with any guarantees, except that you will move forward with fear and great joy! Even as “Hosanna” gives way to “Crucify” and anguished cry gives way to “He is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” – we are still left with the day to day question. How do we worship Jesus? How do we share the experience of God’s active presence?

Your life will have its own opportunities. Jesus will show up in ways that I cannot foretell or conceive. As a congregation, we must continue to tell one another about these revelations, and we must continue to seek a new understanding of the way in which God is forming and reforming us as the Body of Christ. The thing is, I don’t think it is good enough to simply be the church we have always been. Quite frankly, I don’t think that is even possible. As we seek a new beginning – not a new program or a new way to do the same stuff we have always done, but truly hearing God saying to us, “you shall be built, O virgin First Presbyterian!” – we must be open to what God is already doing in our midst. We must find ways to place our priorities alongside God’s, and let God shape and mold us.

Some time back I remember hearing about a congregation that began placing their priorities outside of their walls. They became concerned about the correlation between poverty and obesity and the lack of access to exercise equipment. They became concerned about their own levels of energy consumption and the way they effected the market for electric power. So they bought some exercise bikes, hooked them up to generators, and invited those in need of assistance on light bills and access to exercise equipment to come in and sweat right in the middle of their fellowship hall.

That kind of thinking; that kind of action; that kind of transformation is the kind of thing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has a bad habit of unleashing in the world. We can say, “He is risen!” [“He is risen indeed!” ] all day long, but unless we open ourselves to God’s active presence the inspiration will be short lived. Of course the good news is not limited to the invitation to participate in the will of God. It is not limited by our response to that invitation. The good news is good because even when reject it we are still held by it. Even when we fall like fainting goats and dead men, we are still held in the embrace of the one who once spread his arms wide enough to embrace every experience of sadness, every rejection and judgement, and every doubt and fear for all of humanity, for all of time and space, for all of creation. The good news is that this man, Jesus, who was despised and rejected opened the path from death to life eternal; from rules to relationships; and from estrangement from God and neighbor to an uncommon unity.

So, whether your faith is weak or strong; whether you yearn for transformation or dig your heals in against change; whether you are scared stiff or inspired by fear and the great joy of knowing, seeing, touching, feeling, and being forgiven through the love of God in Christ Jesus – this table has been prepared for you! And God has so much more in store for us. Easter is a time for new beginnings, and we shall begin again, this day, to open our hearts and minds to the priorities of God. And when we don’t, because sometimes we won’t, there is yet the table of grace that lets even our worst fears and most selfish actions proclaim a greater love. And all of this is because, “He is risen!” [“He is risen indeed!”] Amen.
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