“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” -- Matthew 28:1-6
I can’t imagine a more absurd thing for the angel to say than “Fear not.” Don’t be afraid? Are you kidding? There was an earthquake and an angel with an appearance like lightning rolling away the stone. It’s scary enough the guards -- those big strong military men -- have fainted dead away. And this angel’s first words are “Do not be afraid!” Yeah, right. Did he think the women would just go, ”Oh, all right, then“?
As this Lenten journey draws to a close, though, I find myself pondering the angel’s words. This is a season of repentance -- a word meaning, “turning away” the the sense of turning away from our sins and back towards God. And as I listen to the news, I wonder if maybe what we most need to turn away from is fear.
I’ve had this thought before. A year ago, when the airwaves were filled with reports of lead paint in toys and toxins in baby bottles, politicians predicting more acts of terrorism (unless you elected them, of course), and school notices carefully explaining what steps would be taken if a gunman walked through the front doors, I was struck by the sheer number of things we seemed to fear. And that was before our retirement accounts and job security vanished in a puff of Wall Street smoke.
What’s wrong with being afraid? We certainly have plenty of reason to be. But then, so did the shepherds and the women at the tomb. And yet... Fear Not!
I am coming to believe that fear may not be only the most visible evidence of our human sinfulness, but possibly also the root of that sinfulness, as well. When Adam and Eve transgress by eating the forbidden fruit, their reaction is to hide from God when he comes to walk in the Garden. Where are you? God asks, and Adam and Even answer, “We were afraid.”
Isn’t it fear that drives us to lay up our treasure in storehouses where the moths and rust will consume it? Isn’t it fear that holds us back from relationships with the most vulnerable among us: the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, the “different”? When I examine my own heart, and repent of my sins, I find fear at the root of so very many of them -- fear that I will be seen as unworthy of my calling, fear that I will not be loved.
Repentance, then, should free us from fear. John Howard Yoder writes that Christian social service agencies can often undertake efforts public service agencies wouldn’t dare to try because “they can afford the risk of failure.” Why? Because the success or failure of those efforts is not where our hope lies.
Our hope is in that tomb with the stone rolled away -- that empty tomb. “Fear not!” the angel tells the women -- the tomb is empty. Your hope is no longer ended with death. The most terrible thing possible has happened -- and it wasn’t the end of everything. “He is not here; he has been raised.”
What would it be like to live without fear? If we really, truly believed that our hope was never in our 401k, or our jobs, or our houses, anyway? What if we could respond to the angel’s call, and fear not?
We never seem able to do it, and maybe that’s because fear really is the original sin that entered the world with the Fall. In this season of repentance, though, we are reminded that it is not our own ability that lifts us out of sin, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We are invited to place the cross and the empty tomb as a beacon of hope against our fear, and turn away from fear towards God, trusting in God’s grace to lift us up where we cannot lift ourselves. “Fear not!” says the angel. And even in the midst of war and economic meltdown, we can trust that advice.