Jesus in the Big Unknown

Welcome to Easter Day! This day hasn’t arrived a moment too soon. In many ways it feels like it has been a “long cold lonely winter.”  There is good reason to sing  the Easter hymn, “Welcome Happy Morning” – months in due succession and days of lengthening light are most welcome.  Not to mention the blooming of the Bradford Pears and the Cherry Blossoms.

I hope and pray that your Easter Day will be filled with happiness. There is a unique kind of joy on Easter Day – the unqualified, unambiguous, full-throated proclamation that death has been defeated once for all.  In the words of the hymn, “Hell today is vanquished, heaven is won today.” There is no other day like Easter Day. Happiness is the truth!

So, as I said I hope your Easter Day is happy. The first Easter Day, however, did not start out happy. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are on their way to Jesus’ tomb at sunrise to anoint his dead body. They discover that Jesus is no longer there. In the tomb is a young man dressed in a white robe – presumably an angel.

Our account this morning describes their emotional reactions. The text says that the 3 women are alarmed, afraid, filled with amazement and terror. Happiness does not make the list. To cap it off, we are told that they “went out and fled from the tomb”, as if this were a scene from a Halloween Horror Story rather than a Happy Easter Morning. The angel instructs them to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee, but they are too flummoxed to speak.

Just in case anybody is thinking that the 3 women are reacting like, well, women, then you should know that the men don’t fare any better. At least the women are brave enough to go to the graveyard.  The men, having all deserted their friend and leader, have huddled together in a hideaway with the door locked because they are afraid.  What an ignominious beginning to the Christian Church.

I love these most ordinary details in this most extraordinary story. For one thing, they help reorient Easter away from pastels and jellybeans back toward its original meaning: a shocking and bewildering resurrection from the dead. I also appreciate that the first reactions to Easter are fear and disobedience. The words that end the earliest of the four gospel accounts are “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Clearly, happiness is not the only truth of human life, even as we welcome this Happy Easter Morning.

Obviously somebody eventually did say something to somebody, otherwise we wouldn’t be here this morning among the trumpets and the lilies. And there is every reason to be happy!  “You broke the bonds and You loosed the chains. You carried the cross of my shame. You know I believe it.” But for normal people like the women at the tomb and all of us today, the fear embedded in life doesn’t just dissipate.  “For they were afraid” could describe us, couldn’t it, at least some of the time?

It describes me, anyway. I find that am afraid about my children. I am a preacher who preaches trust in God, and a person who believes God is trustworthy. But, I still am afraid for them, even though they are all “doing fine”, whatever that means, sometimes that is scant comfort in the middle of the night.

I’m 50 years old and should know better, especially on Easter, but I wonder if we ever really outgrow the childish ways of our childish hearts.  The director of a recent Live Arts play included a brilliant description of our common humanity in the playbill.  Describing the author’s take on middle-aged sibling rivalry, she says “Our familial relationships get brought out (and) surveyed. He knows our petty thoughts, our furtive resentments, our grudges long-held. He knows our naked yearning for unconditional acceptance, love, and to be ‘the favorite.’ It’s all SO embarrassing. Our five year old selves just waiting for the chance to throw a tantrum for our heart’s very survival.”

The women on Easter morning flee the tomb, maybe feeling like frightened 5 year olds, afraid of what will happen next. What’s ahead is the Big Unknown, as the Sons of Bill describe it.  The Big Unknown frightens the women and makes the disciples afraid.  What is in the Big Unknown of the future that causes us to be afraid?

High School students are afraid they won’t get into the right college. College students are afraid they won’t find a job or amount to anything in life. Young adults are afraid they won’t get married. If they do, they are afraid they’ve married the wrong person. Married couples are afraid they won’t have children. If they do, they are afraid they don’t actually know how to raise them. Middle-aged people are afraid of all kinds of things: bank accounts, colonoscopy results, aging parents, the sister you haven’t talked to in years. Older people tell me that they are afraid that their lives will be one doctor visit strung together with another one.  The Big Unknown is always before you.

Sometimes we can personify the future, thinking of it as an abstemious miser, reluctantly rationing out what little good for us she has in scarce quantity, like in wartime. On darker days, the future is a brooding malefactor, just waiting to drop the other shoe on our best-laid plans, making us afraid to settle into the Big Unknown.

What do the women discover in the big unknown of the first Easter morning?   An empty tomb, save the angel who tells them that Jesus is alive. Not only is He alive, He will see His friends again. He has gone on ahead of them to Galilee. Note that He has gone to Galilee, and not Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the power center. Galilee is where the disciples are from. Galilee is just normal life. Galilee is everywhere. Jesus has gone into the everywhere.

What this means is that Jesus is ahead of you too in the everywhere of your life – in your big unknown. So no matter what happens next, Jesus is already there. As the angel says, “there you will see him.” He’s already there with His unconditional love and acceptance. He’s already there waiting to wrap His arms around your tantrum throwing five year old self. He’s already there.

When Christie and I were first married, we traveled in Europe for 5 months. Interrail pass, backpack, tent, very low budget, bread, apples, cheese for meals. In October, we got off a train at night in a German town with no idea where we would sleep. I was always the more anxious one about details; Christie figured it would just work out. As you can imagine we fought a lot on our honeymoon trip! Wandering through the town, looking bedraggled, we knocked on the door of a church, asking for a place to stay.

The sexton met us and took us to the priest. The priest opened the door of his vesting room as he was getting ready for a service, and gave us the once over.  Somehow, he found room in his heart for these two disreputable looking strangers – a kind of Les Mis moment. The sexton led us to an enclosed church courtyard. We set up our tent in the dark and slept in peace. When we woke up the sun was shining. We were under a lush apple tree laden with the most delicious apples we’d ever tasted.  We ate breakfast and filled our backpacks with fruit.  Jesus had been there ahead of us that night. He was shining in the sun that morning. I sure hope we remembered to thank the priest before we left. We probably didn’t.

The Biggest Unknown, of course, is death. I know very few people who are not afraid of death, either consciously or subconsciously. But if Easter Day is about anything, it is about God’s putting the final nail into the coffin of the fear of death. The grace of God is everywhere, especially on the other side of the grave. The Lord is risen, indeed.

I’ll close with Anglican priest and poet John Donne who confesses in his poem “Hymn to God the Father”, “I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun/My last thread, I shall perish on the shore/ But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son/Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;/and, having done that, thou hast done;/I fear no more.

After the long cold lonely winter, here comes the sun. And He is shining now and He is shining there, ahead of you in Galilee and beyond the grave. Happy Easter!