Monday, May 8, 2017

"Don't Be Afraid!" A Sermon for Easter Morning

This is a few weeks late, but I thought it might be worth posting anyway. --REW

The Resurrection of our Lord

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. -Mark 16:8, ESV

What a strange text we have this morning! Here the Marys and Salome had gone to the tomb, mourning for a dead Lord, and expecting to complete the sad task of embalming Him. Instead, they found the stone at the tomb’s entrance rolled away, and an angel sitting next to it- with the incredible news that the One they mourned was alive!

“Go!” the angel said. “Tell His disciples. Tell Peter. He is not here. He is risen!” So did they go and do as they had been told? No. They didn't tell anybody. It's not that they were overcome with joy that Jesus wasn’t dead anymore. It seems that they're afraid.

Now, it’s a very human thing to be afraid. We live in a universe over which we have even less control than we tell ourselves we have. Have you ever looked through a telescope? Astronomy is one of my hobbies, and I do it as often as I can. Before you've looked at many of the wonders out there in the Big Empty, something will really sink in that you already know: that the universe is a lot bigger than you are and that there is very little that you can do about most of it.

An asteroid could come hurtling toward us at literally any moment entirely unseen, blindside us, and slam into the earth with enough force to raise a cloud that would doom all life on the planet. A nearby star could go nova, and flood us with lethal radiation. In the southern summer sky, in the teapot of Sagittarius, is the center of our galaxy, where there resides a gigantic black hole. I once attended a lecture by Stephen Hawking in which he said that he's fairly confident that someday we're all going to go down that particular drain if we don't blow ourselves up first.

None of us is guaranteed the next five minutes. A heart attack or stroke could end the life of any one of us before I finish the next sentence. If I finish the next sentence!

Climate change. Serial killers. Maniacs at the head of governments which have nuclear weapons. We live in an uncertain and frightening world in which the roof could cave in on us, either literally or figuratively, at any moment. Yes, we can certainly identify with those three women. All of us know what it's like to be afraid.

And then, there was that angel business. Most of us usually think of angels as fluttery, effeminate critters like the ones we see on Christmas cards. People who read the Bible much usually don't make that mistake. Pastor Hans Fiene has a wonderful, if brief, video on YouTube in which he displays the probable reaction of any one of us who encountered a real angel. It consists of a man, eyes wide open in sheer terror, screaming at the top of his lungs! No wonder the Marys and Martha were afraid! Over and over in the Bible, the first thing an angel has to do when he encounters a human being is to tell him or her not to be afraid! 

But I don't think even the angel was what those women were truly afraid of. No, I think they probably were even more afraid of what the angel told them. He told them that Jesus- Whom they had loved so deeply and had known so well; Whom they had seen scourged within an inch of His life and then watched die an agonizing death on the cross, Whom they had buried with their own hands- was alive! It was simply too good to be true. The news was too joyful to be believed.  Any of us who has ever lost a loved one can understand all too well why they would be terrified to believe what the angel told them.He had told them that they hadn't lost Jesus after all!

 It might well have been that they simply wanted so badly for the angel’s news to be true that they couldn’t bring themselves to risk believing it. Actually, I have a hunch that that’s the most likely explanation of all. They had just lost Someone they dearly loved. Perhaps they simply couldn’t bear the prospect of believing the angel’s incredible news and then having it turn out to have been a group hallucination, or a cruel joke, or any of the hundreds of explanations for the experience that seem far more likely than somebody coming back from the dead.

How very much like them we are! We gather here this Easter morning to celebrate the most joyful of all possible news. Christ has risen- and because He has risen, all of those things in this dangerous universe which we might, with reason, be afraid of are no longer threats. If Christ has conquered even death, then the movements of heavenly bodies and the affairs of nations and the condition of our own inner plumbing are under His control, too. If Christ has conquered death, then there’s nothing that tomorrow might hold which He doesn’t have under His control. If Christ has conquered death, then He has conquered sin, as well- and atoned for all those things of which our consciences might be afraid, and taken away His Father’s anger at them. If Christ has conquered death, then the loved ones we have buried and who have died in Him are not lost to us forever after all.

If Christ has conquered death, then we don’t even have to be afraid to die.

It’s all a great deal to take in, isn’t it- even for those of us who live two thousand years later, and are here this morning because we profess faith in the news the angel gave those women on the first Easter morning? When we leave this building,  we will once again find ourselves living in a world of uncertainty, of threatening possibilities that are largely beyond our control. We will still miss the loved ones with whom we have celebrated previous Easters. We will still look forward into a future in which there seem to be very few guarantees and a great many things that can go wrong.

We do not know what even tomorrow may hold. We do not what we may have to face before this day is over. We do not even know whether we will be alive to see this day end. And what if it isn’t true? Do we dare to believe the message the angel brought to the women at the Empty Tomb and risk disappointment? After all, we haven’t seen the angel. We haven’t seen the Empty Tomb. Isn’t the news we’re here this morning because we have heard just a little too good to be true? No. Isn’t it a lot too good to be true?

Yes, the fear of those women is very understandable. It finds an echo in our own fear. But in the very midst of the fear and the unbelief that is the condition in which fallen human beings like us find ourselves living our lives, the voice of the angel rings down through the centuries, too, Endorsed by the testimony of God’s Holy Spirit, echoes around all around the world this morning, not least in our own bereaved and doubting hearts.. It sounds like a trumpet blast in defiance of every doubt and every fear. It's made not only to the Marys and to Salome, but to each and every one of us: “Do not be afraid! He is risen!”

Saint Paul hit the nail on the head: if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. If Christ is not raised, then we who believe the angel’s message are indeed of all people the most miserable. If Christ is not raised, then we are building our lives and all our hopes upon a lie, and that is the cruelest of all of the cruelties this frightening and arbitrary world inflicts upon us. We run a risk in believing the angel- the very same risk the Marys and Salome ran.

The night before last we gathered, some of us, in this very church to hear a story whose ring of truth is unmistakable.  We heard how the only one in the sad and sorry history of our race in who deserved none of the cruelties this world can inflict nevertheless became their victim. The cross rings true for all of us because we can see it and feel it. We, too, know about the cruelty and unfairness of this world we live in. We, too, have suffered, and suffer still. The cross rings true because each of us also bears his or her cross, and must some day die just as Jesus died.

The cross is a reality none of us can deny, as much as we might like to. In our moments of doubt and despair, we’re tempted to believe that it has the final word- that guilt and suffering and death and disappointment are finally all there is. We can choose to believe that. But if we believe that, even if we’re right, it means that finally, our entire existence is a very bad joke, and the punch line is the grave.

Or we can believe the angel. And if the angel is right, then we never have to be afraid again.

How we know that God doesn't speak to us through emotions

The issue isn't whether God CAN speak to us through emotions. He's God. He can do anything He wants. The issue is that, first, He hasn't promised to, and secondly, that since He is not the Author of confusion, it's a pretty safe bet that He won't!

God has simply not promised to speak to us authoritatively anywhere but in the Word. If we look for Him to speak to us through our emotions we are putting our emotions on the same level of authority as His Word. Since our emotions are, by definition, how WE react neurochemically to what happens in our lives, that amounts to equating to putting our own, often unacknowledged wishes and desires on the same level as the Bible!

Our emotions are fickle, unreliable, and everything God and His Word are not. And we just aren't up to the task of stepping into God' shoes and investing our own desires and inclinations with divine authority.

 Obviously, God wants us to respond to others with kindness and compassion. But we don't need our emotions to tell us that; the Word does. What He wants us to do in any given situation is best judged by applying the Word with our intellects, not through our emotions, which are our voice and not His. This the Achilles heal of all charismatic and Pentecostal theology. If God subjectively "tells" us to do something then that instruction is on exactly the same level of authority as Holy Scripture itself. However charismatics and Pentecostals try to fudge this point, if God really does speak to you directly He speaks with His own authority, and that's exactly the same authority the Gospels and Paul's epistles speak with. The form of the communication is irrelevant; its authority comes from that of the Communicator.

But in fact, when somebody says "God told me," what he or she is really saying (whether he or she realizes it or not) is "This is what I want to do, and I've convinced myself that it's an order from God by virtue of the very fact that I want to do it!"  But emotion is nothing but a reaction to the chemical activity in our nervous systems at any given moment. If we look for messages from God in our emotions- or in chicken entrails, or tea leaves, or any other medium God hasn't promised to use to communicate with us- we very quickly going to start getting "messages" which God never sent. In fact, the messages we attribute to God are going to be what we want, not what He tells us.

 A person with OCD who regards emotion as a source of messages from God is going to be tied in such spiritual knots as defy description. In fact, that's true of anybody. God doesn't care whether you wear the blue or the red dress despite the fact that you get all warm and fuzzy when you look at the blue one. But if a person with OCD looks to something as uncertain and subjective and fickle and unreliable as the emotions rather than to the firmness and unchanging clarity of the Word, the result is going to be especially ugly. Compulsions are going to become divine commands, and obsessions are going to be missions from God.

God speaks to us clearly, reliably and unambiguously in His Word. It will not lie to us. But our emotions and subjective impressions both can and do.