Have you ever been afraid? I mean, really afraid. This morning I’d like for us to think about fear in our lives, and how these fearful moments have the potential to be either crippling in our lives, or may evolve into moments of strength and ultimately growth.
I’ve been scared a couple of times growing up with an older brother. I remember watching ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ when I was young… like in the first grade while at my Aunt Kathy’s house—and people believe that TV doesn’t traumatize children. I’ve also got a fear of small spaces. Again, TV, I was watching the old WWF (now WWE) Saturday morning wrestling one day, and I remember the Undertaker taking the Ultimate Warrior and locking him inside a casket—this combining many of our most common fears: small spaces and death! I also grew up as a really poor swimmer. I remember nearly drowning at a neighbor’s pool party as I couldn’t seem to get above water with the crowd standing and bobbing all about. To this day I have genuine reservations about swimming in open water.
I also remember how some of my fears turned into sources of strength in my life. That very same pool incident did not stop me. Swimming for me is now one of my favorite ways to exercise. I was deathly afraid of riding a bike without training wheels as a child. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was in the fifth grade! Now, riding is one of the best ways to take in all of the beauty that Virginia has to offer. I also remember a genuine fear of talking to cute girls growing up (let’s be honest; I still do). Well, I wouldn’t have been able to meet my girlfriend if I didn’t take that chance to strike up a conversation. How about you? What are some of your fears, and what brought them about? Did they lead to trauma, or celebration?
There are individual fears, and there are corporate fears as well. Thinking about the potential behind such national memories, my mind goes to events like the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We learn about this in school as a triumphant time when our founding fathers gathered in a room to voice our unity and strength. While this is true; they were also putting down on paper that they were in effect traitors from England, and now subject to prosecution and execution should they be found guilty. With a signing of a signature, they were risking their lives for an unknown and most uncertain future. The invention of the first automobiles and airplanes caused uproar upon their inception. While some may have celebrated their arrival, there were plenty of people who were fearful of such machines, the very real dangers they presented, and the unknown consequences of such travel. The year 1969 was a year of great uncertainty, and one event in particular literally brought the people of this nation to their feet—Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. Would this event end in triumph or tragedy as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin risked their lives for this unknown future?
One event in particular that comes to mind happened in 1933. Our nation was in the midst of the Great Depression that forced millions of people out of work, and even more to fear the next day, as things only seemed to have gotten worse over the last five years. Just a few months prior, the country elected Franklin D. Roosevelt as our new President of these United States, about 150 years after the valiant and yet fearful act of the signing the Declaration of Independence. On March 4, 1933, FDR gave his first Inaugural speech, which would echo throughout the generations, even to this day:
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
This speech, while one of the most famous in American history, did not end the fear and pain of the Great Depression. In fact, things would get worse before they got better as the US economy would struggle to start up again, and the nation would find itself in the throes of war previously unimagined to repeat itself on the world stage; the second World War. Fear would be real, but it would not be the last word.
We live with fear in this world—it’s part of our existence. When asked about people’s fears, the top responses from a Gallop poll were terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war. Today we turn on the news every day to hear of only more terror, more destruction and disaster, more political uncertainty, more death.
So what is our response? Is it okay to be afraid? Should we ‘toughen up’ and press forward? Where is our hope? How do we maneuver the fine line between fear that leads to trauma, versus fear that leads to strength, victory, and ultimately peace?
Today’s scripture text is the Easter story, yet it is one that is rarely given much attention. We like to focus so often on the joy and celebration of a beautiful Easter morning, but Mark’s account is a little different. Let’s get into this text and see what we can learn.
If we are reading our scriptures from a larger perspective, we realize that fear is a common theme throughout the Bible. In fact, while doing some quick research, we find out that the word ‘fear’ is found 438 times in the Bible!
Now there are different meanings of the word fear. In one sense (and the most general definition), we can be afraid because of an imposing threat. In another, we may have a phobia of something. In the third sense, however, is a theme that we find often within our scripture: the fear of the Lord. This is a reverent fear of our Creator. Psalm 34:11 reads, ‘Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.’
The Gospel of Mark is aware of such a reverent fear, but let me be clear about it, when we read of the Mary’s and Salome discovering an empty tomb with an angel sitting inside it instead of the body of Jesus, they were sensing fear in the first sense—they were alarmed!
The Gospel according to Mark moves quickly, both literally and emotionally. Often times throughout the story we read of Jesus immediately moving about, and of people quickly experiencing the extremes of the human experience, from pain to healing, from death to life, from fear, or terror, to amazement.
Again, let’s recap this story. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, headed out to the tomb early in the morning, only to find the stone covering the entrance rolled away, and a young man in a white robe sitting in the tomb of Jesus. Verse 5 understandably states, ‘…they were alarmed.’
Then in verses 6&7 the young man explains what is going on, and in verse 8 we get a sort of a surprise ending. This is the original ending of the Gospel according to many scholars: ‘8 So 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.’
Afraid? The oldest and first Gospel account of Jesus the Christ ends with the words, ‘for they were afraid’? What are we to make of all of this? Fear? Is this what generations and thousands of years of tradition and faith are built upon?
In a cliffhanger that leaves us dangling from the small sapling that seems impossibly anchored upon the sheets of rock, we find ourselves with only a few options on what to do next. How do we respond to such an amazing story of a miraculous birth, a life transforming ministry, a most horrific execution, and now an empty tomb? To borrow the words of verse 8, maybe with both ‘terror’ and ‘amazement’.
Yes, as humans, we know what it is like to experience terror; we know what it is like to be afraid, to have fear. We know what this is like, because as we previously discussed, fear is part of living. We encounter fear in some shape or form just about every day of our lives. Fear would have been a daily experience of those first followers of Christ in the first Century, especially those early Christians who lived in fear of persecution from the Roman authorities, and fear is part of our daily experience today.
Yet despite this fear, we also know that it has the potential for either trauma or empowerment, defeat or victory, despair or faith. As the scholar Lamar Williamson Jr. reminds us, the author leaves a cliffhanger, because it is not us who get to write the ending, it is God. Christ is not dead, but alive. His work on this earth is not done, nor is ours. Today we choose how we will go from this place into the uncertain tomorrow. How will we live our lives as Easter people?
The Good News. Is there fear in this world? Yes. But there is also amazement. God is never done. God is continually at work. God turns our lives from fear into faith. Our response is to live in praise with the knowledge of the risen Christ.
One of my colleagues is a pastor of a small, rural, aging church in Indiana. He thought it might be a good idea for the members and him to take some time apart from the ordinary programs and schedule to really listen for God’s voice within their ministry. As he proposed the idea to his church to have a retreat, one of the elders stood up and responded. ‘Pastor, we don’t need a retreat; what we need is an advance.’ And that is just what they are doing today. This church in Indiana can choose to live in fear and to retreat within itself as it waits for the day when their doors will be finally shut as the church dwindles away to irrelevance. Or they can live in faith and advance upon the world, boldly proclaiming the news of the resurrected Christ to the world.
How will we respond with such news today? Will we live in fear, or will we live in praise? Friends, I am here today to share with you that as followers of the risen Christ, we live in praise!
We do not sing ‘he is dead.’ No, we sing that ‘he lives’! To borrow the words of the musician Alfred Henry Ackley,
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
How do we know he lives? He lives within our hearts.