“Wonder, Fear, Great Joy”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever had a dream so startling that it made your mouth go dry and your stomach drop? Your face flushed and you woke up, soaked in sweat. The dream was so vivid and disturbing that it took you a minute or two to decide whether it was just a dream or whether it had really happened. I imagine that the two Marys must have had something of that feeling, but what was happening to them was really happening. As they went early to view the tomb, a feeling of unreality must have settled over them like a dense fog. In this story, there is no one completely faithful to Jesus. Oh, their sweet piety is touching; in the other gospels, we are told that they are going to anoint Jesus’ body for its permanent burial. But anointed corpses are still corpses; dead is dead is dead. Nothing to see at this tomb but fear and unbelief.
We all know the story. The angel, the empty tomb, the risen Lord, etcetera. Come on, Marys, we want to say. Don’t you remember! As He said. He said it at least three times in Matthew’s Gospel, that He would be handed over, tried, condemned, mocked, beaten, and crucified-and, on the third day, raised again. How could you have forgotten? But surely our own thoughts and feelings are not above reproach. Have we forgotten Him who said “Do this in remembrance of me”? Perhaps the remembrance has become a mere mental recreation of the scene before the cross and the scene before the empty tomb. Maybe we have made the remembering into a psychological parlor trick. Mary the Magdalene and the other Mary may have come to mourn a dead man, but at least their mourning was turned to fear and great joy. Can we muster even half that? How is it that we’ve lost the wonder, the fear, the great joy of this festive day. Why do I, why do you, come here on this day? What does it mean, beyond chocolate and colored eggs, beyond the big dinner and the gathering of family?
I wonder if we have come here, like the Marys, to pay our respects to a dead man? It would probably be appropriate to spend a day, even a week, out of the year remembering a great man. But surely a living Savior would bring forth more intense devotion among His followers than a few days reserved for the memory of a nice guy who died a long time ago. Surely a living Savior would bring forth a response more passionate than a sense of duty to family or tradition. As one man put it, “If all that’s left is duty, I’m falling on my sword./At least then I would not serve an unseen, distant Lord” (D. Bazan). If these are the reasons for our coming-to put in our required day in church or because we feel obligated-then the only conclusion can be that He is still in the tomb. But no, there may be dead people around-even here-but Jesus is not one of them. Or maybe we have come here today because Easter inspires nicer feelings than Good Friday. No doubt. But nice feelings are vastly overrated. If you want those, a Disney movie in your DVD player would do just as well, maybe even better, than going to church. Soft, fuzzy things in your stomach might be because your eggs were undercooked (though certainly not the ones you got here!). If you are after a generic sense of niceness or warm fuzzies, you will not find them at the tomb of Jesus.
Those feelings are certainly not what the Marys found. They found only a stone rolled away and an angel shining with the terror-inducing glory of God. And they were afraid. Which is not exactly pastels and pretty dresses. “But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28:5-6, ESV). Is Easter “nicer” than Good Friday? Maybe. But we should be clear that unless we seek the “Jesus who was crucified,” the Resurrection is quite literally non-sense. If there is no Holy Week, then today is no holy day. Were you here these past three days as the Church pondered Christ’s holy Passion? Do you seek the Christ who was crucified? Or are you looking for a safely spiritual Jesus who has no holes in His hands and feet and side? If it is the latter, then you are in the wrong building. The only Jesus here is the living Son of God who also was crucified in His body. There may be people around-even here-seeking to be free of their physical bodies, but Jesus is not one of them.
The question we are asking is the same question each of us should ask ourselves every time we come to this building. I have asked it before from this pulpit. Why am I here? Why are you here? Are you, like the Marys, looking for the wrong kind of Jesus in the wrong place? The Church of God does not gather to remember and honor a great teacher or to get in touch with a generic, spiritualized holy man. The baptized Body of Christ is gathered by her Head, the Nazarene Jesus, son of Joseph, who had literal nails hammered through His hands and feet, and a literal spear thrust into His side to make sure He was dead. But the Church gathers not around the crucified, dead Jesus, but around the crucified, living Jesus, who was raised from the dead on the third day, just as He said.
I tell you today, He is not in His tomb, He has risen. And He is here for you today. Just as He said. He is in the Church, where she forgives and retains sins in His stead and by His command. “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:18-20, ESV). He is where He makes disciples: through the Church, as she faithfully baptizes and teaches everything He has commanded. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20, ESV). And He is where He has promised to be: on this very altar. He speaks the Word; He speaks His very real and very literal Body and Blood into union with the bread and the wine; and He gives Himself to you for the very real and very literal forgiveness of your sins. “Take, eat; this is my body…Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28, ESV). If you are not in fellowship with us, but you would like to be united in forgiveness of His Body and Blood around this altar, please speak to me after the service so that we can talk about making that happen.
Where, then, is the wonder, the fear, the great joy? It is not in recreating in our minds scenes of cross and empty grave. It is here; here is the wonder, here is the fear, here is the great joy! Here, where our Lord has promised to be. Here, your Lord greets you. It is not smoke and mirrors. It is no mirage. It is no group hallucination. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, even yours! Here you join with angels and archangels and all the company of the living saints who rest with God. You and they are both joined to the living Christ. And so it is here that you join with them in this glorious foretaste of the feast to come. The Church “on earth has union/With God, the Three in One,/And mystic sweet communion/With those whose rest is won” (LSB 644, st. 5). The living Lord meets you here, especially at His table as physically as if you had fallen on His feet with the Marys. Here you see Him, and here you worship Him.
This morning you are confronted, just like the Marys, by an empty tomb and a living Jesus. “[H]e is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:42-43, ESV). You are in His House and in His holy presence and He is speaking to you. As the Marys would testify if they were here, those to whom the living Christ appears and speaks are never the same. Come, then, for the sake of your life to the services of His House, where He appears and speaks to you. If you have not been baptized, come, repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sin. If you have been baptized, do not continue to seek earthly things. “If…you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4, ESV). He is your very life. If you do not live in Him and be where He is with His saving Word and Sacrament, then you have no life in you. Apart from the living Christ, there is only death. But! where the living Christ is, there is nothing but life; wonder, holy fear, and great joy. He comes to meet you here so that you will have life and that life abundantly, and He promises to satisfy you with the food that endures to eternal life. Alleluia, Christ is risen!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.