Several years ago, my nephew, who was about 3 at the time, came to visit us in New Orleans. One day I had the great idea to take Oscar to Audubon Park to feed the ducks. So we got a loaf of bread and walked through Audubon Park until we came to a group of ducks on the shore of the pond there. At this point, Oscar’s mother lets me know that he sometimes is afraid of birds, so I try to reassure him before we begin feeding the ducks. “Oscar, I know the ducks look funny, but they won’t hurt you, Ok? I promise the ducks aren’t going to hurt you.” Oscar nodded as though he understood, but you could tell he was still a little hesitant. So we go over to the ducks and begin tossing scraps of bread their way. Everything is great at first, Oscar’s throwing the bread, the ducks are all chasing after it and fighting over it, he seems full of joy. But then things start to change. The ducks begin searching for the source of the bread and when they see Oscar throw another piece several of them start waddling over towards him. As the ducks get closer, Oscar becomes visibly nervous. He starts saying, quietly and to himself at first, “They won’t hurt you. They won’t hurt you.” But as the ducks get closer and closer, he begins to shout, “They won’t hurt you! They won’t hurt you!” Now he is running to hide behind my leg as he is screaming through tears, “They won’t hurt you!” Feeling as though I’ve misled my poor nephew about the dangers of ducks, I shooed them away and eventually got little Oscar to calm down.
Fear is a natural human emotion. It is often a healthy and productive emotion to feel, from an evolutionary perspective, developing a fear of predators or danger, helps us to survive. But fear can also keep us from fully living. We can allow our fears to curtail the productive, positive, possibilities in our lives. We can allow fear to limit us, to control us, to paralyze us. One assumes that such paralyzing fear has gripped Jesus’ male disciple’s after hearing of their beloved leaders’ crucifixion, that they have hidden themselves away, for on the morning of the resurrection it is only the women who are brave enough to venture out to the tomb where Jesus lay. Of course, the fear of the men and the contrasting bravery of the women should not come as a surprise to us. Matthew also reports that it was only the women who stayed by Jesus’ side throughout his entire ordeal, his arrest, his trial, his crucifixion and his burial. While the men betrayed Jesus, denied Jesus, and deserted Jesus, the women remained faithful, they bravely followed Jesus to his death.
So these women, the two Mary’s, arise early the day after the Sabbath, to go and see their beloved Jesus once more. But as they are approaching the tomb incredible, extraordinary events take place. An earthquake occurs, the very earth shakes, as an Angel of the Lord, descends to the earth, rolls the stone away, and sits atop it. We are told that the guards at the tomb, shook with fear and were “like dead,” presumably paralyzed by their terror. And why wouldn’t they be? Who isn’t scared during an earthquake? And an angel appearing like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere would probably be a bit of a shock too. These are not normal occurrences, they are supernatural, they are extra- ordinary. What Matthew is communicating by these supernatural occurrences, the earthquake and the angel, is that what has happened is outside of the normal realm possibility, outside of human potential, that in the resurrection it is God who is acting in a very new way.
Knowing how the unusual can be frightening, the angel begins to relay the good news with the admonition, “Do not be afraid.“ He then relays the incredible news of Christ’s resurrection: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
The Mary’s follow the angel’s instruction to go quickly to tell the disciples, but they are not quite able to shed their fear. Matthew tells us that they are running “with fear and great joy.” What an odd, contradictory set of emotions to have. Fear and great joy, together. Can you think of a time when you felt both fear and great joy?
I was thinking about that myself, when it was I felt both fear and joy simultaneously, and I knew when it was right away. Last November, my wife gave birth to our first child, a healthy baby girl named Ruth. And as every new parent will tell you, that day, the day of my daughter’s birth was one of great joy. I was overjoyed that she was born, that she was alive, that she was healthy, that she was my daughter, that my wife was ok, that both of them had made it through this ordeal safely. It was a rush of joy. But what I will also tell you, is that I was terrified. I can remember sitting in the hospital room alone with my wife, holding little Ruth, and thinking how irresponsible of it was of the hospital staff to just leave us alone with this infant. Surely, they didn’t think we knew how to take care of this thing? Why on earth we they leave the two of us, unsupervised with an infant? Where were the adults? Good Lord, I thought, we’re going to have to do this on our own. We are responsible for this life! I was terrified. Filled with great joy at this miracle of new life, but also terrified that now everything had changed, that this awesome responsibility had been bestowed upon me.
I imagine this was how the Mary’s felt running from the tomb. There was the overwhelming joy of the miracle that had just seen and heard. Christ was risen! Jesus was alive! And yet, how could such an earthshattering revelation not leave you terrified? Death had been overcome, Jesus’ seeming defeat had become his victory, and now they were being entrusted with sharing the news. These women were entrusted to be the very first witnesses to the resurrection, they alone were entrusted with sharing the good news. They were being made the first apostles, apostles to the apostles. In just a moment everything had changed, the world was brand new, and this incredible responsibility now lay on their shoulders. Could any of this even be possible? Would they be up to the task? They ran to tell the disciples filled with fear and great joy.
It is possible that the weight of responsibility, the fear of failure, the fear that somehow they would not be able to communicate what had happened, or that they would not be believed, or that any other number of things could go wrong, might have stopped the Mary’s from ever telling anyone what they had seen and heard at Jesus’ tomb. But as they were running in fear, the risen Christ, Jesus himself appeared to them. He gives them greetings, and every last shred of self-conciousness and doubt leaves them, they fall at his feet and worship him, holding tightly to this Jesus who has returned to them. And then Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” He repeats the command of the angel, and he reminds them of their task. But I imagine that things are a little different for the women after they hear the words, “Do not be afraid,” from Jesus himself.
When I told Oscar that the ducks wouldn’t hurt him, it was little like the angel telling the women not to be afraid. I’m an adult, and Oscar is a child. Children often give greater authority to the words of adults, just as in matters of faith angels would be granted greater authority. But Oscar didn’t know me well. He tried to believe in what I had told him. It was enough to get him to start feeding the ducks. But when the evidence began to contradict my statement, when the ducks began coming after him faster and faster, it became harder and harder to believe. Oscar tried repeating the phrase, “They won’t hurt you, they won’t hurt you,” but he couldn’t get himself to believe it. I had told him ducks wouldn’t hurt him, he had repeated it to himself, but he didn’t know me that well, and those ducks were terrifying, so he ran behind my leg for safety.
The world is a dangerous place. Terrible things happen routinely. Things do not always work out for the best, in fact, they seldom do. It is hard to believe that death, cruelty, despair, apathy, and meaninglessness do not have the last word. It is nice to have others tell us that things will be ok, it is good to try and reassure ourselves that somehow in the end things will be ok, but so often that is just not enough. Its not enough to contradict the evidence. There’s just too much that is wrong in the world, that is scary, that is bad. Those ducks are mean looking and they are coming right for us. Telling ourselves otherwise is not enough to make it not so.
But hearing the words, “Do not be afraid,” from the one who was tortured, mocked, humiliated, and hung to die on a cross, carries a good deal more authority than it does when anyone else says it. When one who has experienced the fear above all fear, has experienced death itself, tells us not to be afraid, He speaks as one with authority. Jesus is not saying that things can’t go wrong. For surely he knows that they can. He is not saying that all will now be perfect, because we know that it won’t. When Jesus tells us not to be afraid, it is because ultimately we have nothing to fear. It is because whatever happens to us, no matter how bad it gets, God has the power to carry us through it. It is because whatever we have to face, we do not have to face it alone. It is because not even death is stronger than the love of God. It is because in the end, and sometimes even before it, God’s love is victorious. When Jesus tells us not to be afraid, he does so with authority.
The first word that the risen Christ speaks is translated “Greetings,” in our English version of the bible. It is a good translation, as the greek word being translated, was a form of greeting. The more literal meaning of the word however, is rejoice. I like that translation a little better, because if the women trusted Jesus, if they were able to leave behind their fear, then all that would be left is great joy. Great joy. That is what the resurrection is about. It does not offer a superficial happiness that must hide itself from the pain of the world. It does not offer a utopian existence free from all suffering. The resurrection of Jesus Christ faces all of the pain and suffering in the world, acknowledges the ducks that terrify us, and nevertheless proclaims with authority that we need not be afraid. For one who loves us more than we can love ourselves, has gone before us, and goes with us now. And with the power of the risen Christ, we may, from time to time, shed all fear and live fully. We may live in great joy and rejoicing, for Christ has risen. Amen.
My father, my brother, and myself are all diehard Kansas basketball fans. My father, and my grandmother both graduated from the University of Kansas, and they raised my brother and I as Jayhawks. Kansas does not have an awful lot to boast about, its not the most cosmopolitan state, its lacking in interesting geographical features, but they do have Kansas Basketball. The University of Kansas has a tradition of excellence in basketball dating back to when Wilt Chamberlain was a student. And we have made it into the NCAA Tournament, March Madness, every one of the last 28 years. And that, is what I want to talk about. The Tournament.
The NCAA Tournament is the one and only way to decide who is the National Champion, for Men’s College Basketball. It’s a thrilling single-elimination tournament featuring the best 68 teams in the country. And every year Kansas enters the tournament as a very high seed, this year, like most years, we were a number 1 seed. So I begin March, in a spirit of joy and pride. My Jayhawks just won yet another Big 12 title, and now they’ve gotten, yet another #1 seed for the Tourney. Things are looking good. This is gonna be the year. But this, was not the year. In fact, over those last 28 consecutive tournament appearances only once has this year, been the year. So, this year, like nearly every other year, my overwhelming excitement at Kansas’ great promise, is followed quickly by crushing disappointment. Literally, every year. I can’t help it. I can’t help but enter this cycle of joy and hope and disappointment. What choice do I have? I love Kansas, I want them to win, to be the champion, and the Tournament is how that happens. I have to cheer them on every year, even though I know that most likely, that crushing disappointment is coming for me. If I want to be cheering by the TV on the day of their future victory, I’ve got to be prepared to take some lumps along the way.
The people of Jerusalem had been waiting for a Messiah to redeem them, to throw off their oppressor’s and restore the glory of the Davidic Monarchy, for over 500 years, by the time Jesus rode that donkey into the city. Five hundred years ago, the Babylonians had conquered them. Since then, it had just been one imperial ruler after the next, Persia, Greece, and now Rome. But these were a proud people, a people who believed God had destined glory for them, and they held to the belief that God would one day send them a Savior, a Messiah, who would set things right.
And that was exactly what Jesus was claiming to be when he entered the city riding on donkey in fulfillment of the Zechariah’s prophecy of a humble messiah. The desire to keep the story underwraps from earlier in Matthew’s gospel, keeping this messianic secret, is gone entirely. Jesus is publicly, proclaiming to all of Jerusalem that he is indeed the Messiah, the Savior, the anointed one of God. There had been pretenders to the throne before. Religious charismatics, leaders of rebellions, but all of these had met tragic ends. There is every reason to think that Jesus will suffer the same fate, but what are the people to do? How can they keep from shouting? How can they keep from cheering? They love Jerusalem, they love their people, they love their God, and they want to be there on the day of God’s victory.
But there is something peculiar about this Messiah. Everyone knew of the prophecy that he would enter the city riding on a donkey, but no one really thought he would be riding only a donkey. Certainly, the messiah would come with chariots and armies ready to send the Romans running. The donkey is a nice nod to God’s promise, but where is the power behind it? To enter Jerusalem this way, during the celebration of Passover, was sure to upset the authorities. The religious elite would not tolerate another backcountry preacher riling up the crowds with his blasphemies, and the Romans certainly wouldn’t allow a disturbance with the city packed with people for the Passover. Jesus had to know that he was bringing trouble on his head, he had to know they would come for him, does he really think that God and the donkey are all that he needs? Doesn’t he know how vulnerable he is?
What does it mean to follow a vulnerable messiah? What does it mean to cheer his entry to the city, to proclaim the Kingship of this vulnerable one? Where does following this messiah lead? To us, those who have come after Christ’s resurrection, we know that the ending of this story is indeed victory. We know that Good Friday and the humiliation, and suffering, and death on the cross, is not the last word. But we’re not to that part of the story yet, we are still here cheering on our vulnerable Messiah, our defenseless Son of God. To cheer on the naked vulnerability of selfless love as it marches towards corrupted power, is to recognize the tragedy that is to come, but to nevertheless hold onto the belief, that somehow, in the end, an end we may not live to see, love wins.
We, those who cheer and wave palms at the vulnerable messiah as he rides into the city, we have claimed a new understanding of power. A power located in vulnerability. A power that is willing to suffer. A power that is willing to die. A power that overcomes religious persecution, a power that overcomes empires, a power that defeats sin and death, and conquers the world. In our celebration on Palm Sunday, we declare our allegiance to the power of love, the power of God made perfect in human weakness.
Reflection on the Crucifixion, Matthew 27: 11-54
I had Bible professor in seminary from South Africa, who spent a lot of time putting on what he called “Contextual Bible Studies.” For these bible studies, he would enter a community, and spend some time with them, learning about them and their context, and then he would work with them to choose which portion of the bible they would like to study. He told me once about preparing a study for the residents of an HIV/AIDS clinic in South Africa. He had expected that the residents, all of them infected with this life threatening virus, would hone in on stories of Jesus healing the sick. But that wasn’t their primary interest. The stories that they were most interested in were the stories of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, his hanging on the cross next to two criminals, his touching the hemorrhaging woman. What my professor came to realize was that what these people wanted to hear most was that Jesus, and God, had not abandoned them. Sure, they wanted to be healed, but more than that, they wanted to know that God was still with them, that even though their society, their tribes, often even their families, had abandoned them, despised them, that God had not. They wanted to hear the stories of Jesus loving the despised and the outcast. What they wanted was to know that Jesus loved them even unto death.
At the beginning of the week, as he entered the city riding on a donkey, his disciples and the crowds were cheering him on, the picture of loyal devotion. Things have changed. The corrupt power of the Roman Empire and the religious authorities in Jerusalem have stuck back. Faced with the power of empire, with arrest, trial, and crucifixion, the crowds have turned on him. One of his disciples has betrayed him. Another has denied him three times. And according to Matthew they have all deserted him, only the women being brave enough to watch his crucifixion from a distance.
Throughout the gospels, when the Pharisees and scribes oppose Jesus, it is easy to laugh at them, to point out their mistakes. But now, at his crucifixion, it becomes much less comfortable. For now, the opposition is not just Rome, not just the Pharisees, it now includes the crowds of his former admirers. It now includes, his disciples, those who claim to follow him. Now the opposition includes us.
One of the great revelations that comes to us from the crucifixion is that the desire of those South Africans, the instinct that God stands with the oppressed and the despised even unto death, is true. God in Jesus Christ, lives the life of an oppressed person. He suffers the fate of the oppressed, humiliation, suffering, and death at the hands of the state. The crucifixion demonstrates Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed even unto death.
But the crucifixion also reveals to us a great deal about ourselves. It reveals the human tendency to value our own safety and security above all else. It reveals how we, turn on one another, how we turn on ourselves and our deeply held values. It reveals how we are all too happy to allow another to suffer and die in our place. It reveals how we are content to offer a scapegoat, so long as it save us from having to suffer. It forces us to acknowledge that we live in and contribute to a society that despises people. That outcasts people. That humiliates and tortures people. That executes people. The crucifixion forces us to see that we participate in the injustice that kills the very Son of God, the very incarnation of love.
The crucifixion is a hard story to hear about ourselves, as truth often is. But we know that the crucifixion is not the end of the story. Jesus does not only offer solidarity with the oppressed, he also invites the oppressor into his grace, into new life in him. It is to the very disciples that denied him and abandoned him that Jesus returns in the resurrection. It is to the very crowds which turned on him that he pours out the Holy Spirit. In the resurrection we have the firm knowledge that we are forgiven for all our sin, that Jesus loves us too, loves us even to death as well. In the resurrection we have the firm knowledge that Jesus has not left us to our sin, and scapegoating, and selfishness. In the resurrection we have the knowledge that we may have a new and eternal life with God in Jesus Christ.
But the resurrection does not come until after the crucifixion. Just as the crucifixion is a necessary pre-requisite for the resurrection, so too, is our recognizing our sin and complicity a prerequisite for our new life in Jesus Christ. The story of the crucifixion reveals to us Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed even unto death. It reveals to us our complicity in the oppression of the world, how even our best efforts at righteousness, neutrality, or devotion, are, by themselves, doomed to failure. But the crucifixion also shows us that there is no length that God will not go for us. It shows us that there is nothing for which God is not willing to forgive us. It shows us that even death, as powerful and awful as it may be, cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. May we remember this always as we journey through Holy Week. We are loved by God. We are destined to fall short. We are forgiven. And we may enter into the love and life of Christ Jesus, all of us.