“Terror and Amazement”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (NRSV)
The women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.”
I tried to think about the last time I felt genuinely seized by spiritual terror and amazement. And honestly, I couldn’t think of anything. Not even at Easter. I’ve been hearing this story for 58 years. And I’ve been preaching it for eleven days shy of 25 years. And when trying to come up with yet another Easter sermon, I identify far more with the women as they approach the tomb than when they run away from it. I wonder who will roll the stone away for me. Who will roll away the stone of my increasingly unexpectant heart—a heart that often feels like it’s trying only to freshen up a corpse, trying only to put spices on an old, old story entombed in an old, old book?
This week I began to wonder if that weren’t exactly how the women felt. According to Mark, Joseph of Arimathea had placed Jesus’ body in a family burial cave, and sealed the entrance with a heavy stone meant to keep at least the honest people out.
Women bore the primary responsibility for swaddling the bodies of the dead with spices to fend off the stench of decomposition. And according to Mark, the three women tasked with washing and embalming Jesus’ body knew that they couldn’t get in the tomb on their own. That made me wonder: Why didn’t they ask someone to come help them? Then I thought, well, embalming a body would have been a routine practice, but given the women’s love for Jesus, and given the condition of his body when he died, they may have felt rather unmotivated to get inside. So, could these women, distraught by Friday’s horrors and wearied by grief, set out to perform the ritual without really expecting—or even wanting—to be able to get inside the tomb to do it?
I think that more pastors than will admit it approach the beloved texts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost with some of that same weariness. Trying to find something new and invigorating in these same stories year after year can be daunting. Maybe the problem, though, is that we keep trying to find something inspiring, comforting, and “uplifting.” What if we’re missing the point? What if a good Easter sermon actually causes “terror and amazement”?
Now, here in the south, there are more than enough preachers who terrorize believers and non-believers alike with condemnation. It seems to me, though, that being terrified not to believe in Jesus for fear of going to hell is as far from the terror Mark refers to as the love one claims to have for their favorite hamburger is far from God’s agape love for the Creation.
Mark clarifies the terror the women feel by adding amazement into the mix. The women’s terror and amazement well up from the same place. It’s not a selfish terror. It’s not a fear for their own lives or property. It’s the ecstatic terror of realizing that the Creation—in all of its monotony and magnificence, in all of its agony and euphoria, in all of its horror and hope—is, indeed, saturated with the beauty, the holiness, and the feral creativity of God.
Perhaps the terror and amazement of the women on that first Easter morning accurately evokes and illustrates the truest and deepest sense of the word joy. Joy is so much more than mere happiness. And it’s light years beyond feelings of comfort and satisfaction. While joy can be expressed in smiles and shouts of Alleluia, it can also be expressed in tears and the keening grief of those who weep for the world because deep in their hearts they trust that violence, prejudice, hatred, apathy, poverty, and all other forms of suffering run counter to the loving justice and righteousness God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Such evils must be confronted and defied, and they can also be survived because, ultimately, they will be defeated. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. affirmed this when, with his extraordinary eloquence and grace, said, “Right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Indeed, says the Resurrection, this is true because death is no ending. Death signals the new thing God begins as evil is being defeated. That is what terrifies and amazes the women: All that stuff Jesus said, all that stuff about the time being fulfilled, about the kingdom of God having drawn near, about forgiveness and renewal, about losing one’s life to find it, about living fearlessly, about feeding the hungry, about clothing the naked, about greatness through humbly service, about loving God and neighbor…Jesus meant all that!
In Mark 3, Jesus is in the midst of a crowd of people, teaching them, healing them, loving them. Jesus’ mother and brothers show up and want to speak to him. Someone in the crowd says, Hey, Jesus! Your mom’s here. She and your brothers would like a word.
And Jesus says, Look around. You! You are my mother and my brothers and my sisters! Whoever follows me in my ways of justice, righteousness, and peace, you are my family!
The terrifying and amazing thing about Easter isn’t the resurrection itself, but the implications of resurrection. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then, as Paul says, “we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4c) If we take all this seriously, terror and amazement will seize us with joy because we are freed, here and now, to live a new and different life, a life of full kinship with Christ. A life of discipleship in which we fearlessly confront the daunting tasks of facing down all the violent Caesars who traffic in Creation-diminishing greed, waste, and racism, and in the wanton and self-serving use of brutal power. Resurrection life opens us to the holiness in ourselves, in the people around us, and in all things. It opens us to the hope of seeing the world transformed through the regenerating love of God. And resurrection alone makes that kind of life possible.
We carry around with us all manner of “spices:” Our church buildings and furniture, suits and ties, theological degrees and doctrines, vestments and investments, policies and protocols. And how much of that stuff is just burial spice? How much of our attention do those things divert from the people Jesus cares for? And when we come to church, when we enter worship, is there some stone that we secretly hope is still blocking the tomb? Still keeping a kingdom life at bay so we can remain comfortable and unamazed?
Brothers and Sisters, I hope this terrifies you: Whether you like it or not, the stone has been moved for you. Life is not what you thought it was. It’s not measured in years. It doesn’t end in death. You won’t experience satisfaction, much less wholeness, by owning, dominating, or even knowing—this is faith we’re talking about. So, your spices are useless.
And I hope this amazes you: There is nothing to fear. Come what may—tears and laughter, feast and famine, summer and winter—your life is defined by joy. It’s defined by faith, hope, and love. It’s defined by what you share, not what you have. God gives you your identity and purpose by calling you to follow the Risen Jesus. And wherever you go next, he’s already there, “just as he told you.”