Is he? Are you quite sure of that? It would be a great deal more reassuring if the women who are there that morning – there at the tomb – depart with a bounce in their step, hope in their hearts, and faith on their tongues.
They do not.
As Mark relates the story in this oldest of the four gospels, the women flee the tomb, seized with terror.
It hardly counts as a shout of victory over death.
And I’ve got to ask: Is this any way to stage a resurrection?
Take a look: Early in the morning, the women make their way to the tomb. They bear spices with which to provide final, tender ministrations to the body of the one whom they had so loved.
When they arrive, they are startled by a young man—an angel—whose first words are predictable enough. If you know your Bible you know that when humans encounter angels the first words out of the angel’s mouth are always the same: “Do not be afraid.”
Which says something about the state in which angels typically find us.
After all, fear is a nearly constant companion for us. Our ancestors slept fretfully and awoke warily each new day to the terrifying prospect of living amidst saber-toothed cats. Perpetually in need of food, our ancestors hunted—and were in turn, hunted by—equally hungry and desperate creatures.
Despite the frozen meat section, we are still plagued by fears. In recent years we have been terrified together as global financial markets collapsed and whole countries teetered on the brink of disaster. We were afraid of Y2K, the Cold War, and the prospect of nuclear holocaust.
Many among us are terrified by the prospect of empty retirement accounts, by the possibilities of losing homes or jobs, the perils of climate change. We fear terrifying medical diagnoses and, not least, old age and death.
Parents live in a constant state of anxiety, sometimes even terror, over their children’s safety: bone of their bone and skin of their flesh.
And these days—and here, here at the finish line—we have cause to be terrified by terror.
Yet, “Don’t be afraid!” say the angels to the humans. To which we are tempted to retort: “Easy for you to say. Oh winged one who exists beyond pain and death.”
You see, the problem here, at the tomb—the reason the women are afraid—God’s timing was off. The whole thing could have gone so much more smoothly, if only God had timed the resurrection just a little differently.
If God had timed the resurrection to occur after the women had arrived instead of before. If it had occurred right in front of their eyes … if God had wowed them with a pyrotechnical resurrection – we could have avoided all the doubt and uncertainty that has plagued this central tenant of Christianity for two thousand years.
Instead, because God failed to time the resurrection to its best effect, the women miss the resurrection by minutes, collide with an angel, drop their precious spices and flee the tomb afraid, seized with terror.
But here’s the thing: they don’t stay afraid. That’s what we want you to hear this morning. It doesn’t happen immediately: not that moment. Not even that day. Over time the women, and Peter, and the other disciples outgrow their fears. Overtime, they grow less and less tentative, and more and more confident of the meaning of this morning, this Easter morning.
Over time, they learn not to be afraid … not even of death.
Over time they come to experience Jesus, not as a memory of one who has died, but as the presence of one who yet lives.
They come to trust—to know, in the marrow of their bones— that the One whom God sent to challenge the powers and the principalities of this world, lives on.
They come to trust that the One who loved the unlovely, who lifted the oppressed, lives on.
They come to know that the One who overcame divisions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, lives on …
Over time, so real, so palpable is their experience of the risen Christ that their hearts warm and thrill to the assurance that death died … death died on Easter.
Believing in Easter and in resurrection—believing this counter-intuitive, death-denying, law-breaking story of Easter—cannot be arrived at in the twinkling of an eye.
Not any more than the fears which plague us can be overcome by the words of an angel who tells us: “Don’t be afraid.”
Instead, Easter is a dawning thing. It must be a dawning thing … which is why God’s timing was spot-on after all.
You see, God chooses to relate to us, not as a conjurer, but as a connector. Not as a performer, but as a presence. Not as a magician, but as a mother.
Easter is God’s tender, sweet, intimate whisper: “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you.”
If you don’t yet believe in Easter, that’s okay. Don’t be hard on yourself. Wait for it. Easter is a dawning thing.
The sweet secret of Easter is this: God does not wish to wow you, but to woo you.