Have you ever looked closely at how the disciples react to the resurrection? Two big emotions run through their various responses. The first, as we might expect, is: joy. John describes the disciples as “overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (Jn. 20.20). Luke similarly depicts the disciples being so joyful when Christ first appears that they can barely believe it’s him (Lk. 24.41). The second, more surprising, and perhaps even more prominent emotion, is: fear. All the first visitors to the tomb run from it when they see it empty. Mark says “terror and amazement” seized them (Mk. 16.8). Luke describes them falling to the ground with fright (Lk. 24.5). Matthew brings both emotions together when he describes them running from the tomb with both “fear and great joy” (Mt. 28.8).
Fear and joy. Polar emotions that not only run through the accounts of the resurrection, but through much of Scripture.
Fear of judgment—Adam and Eve banished from the Garden. Cain discovered to be a murderer. David exposed as a scheming adulterer. Israel thrown into exile as a result of its sin. Fear of holiness—of the God Moses met on Mt Sinai––amid fire, and lightning, and smoldering cloud. Fear of the coming day of the Lord—the day when God “will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (Zephaniah 1.2). Terrible fear.
And yet also, great joy. After forty days of rain and 150 days of flood, Noah sends out the dove and it returns with an olive branch. After the shame of the tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to be the father of a nation. As the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem, David dances before the Lord. As Ezra reads out the books of the Law to the returning exiles, they weep with joy. As Elizabeth greets Jesus’ mother-to-be she feels the babe within her leap for joy. The father of the prodigal son, bursting with joy to see his wayward son come home. Great, great joy
Fear and joy. Polar emotions that not only run through the accounts of the resurrection, but through so much of our experience of faith today.
Fear that the fabric of the society that has shaped the church will come apart; that long held values are disintegrating; that major denominations are mired in self-doubt; that other faiths and new technologies will dismantle any sense of certainty we may still have. Fear for ourselves––that we’ll experience crushing disappointment, that our hopes will be illusions, and our critical friends be proved correct. Fear for those we love––fear that however much we care we will still have to face that awful moment of parting and letting go. And fear about issues way beyond our control––from the terrorism and war that destroy countries, to the addictions and diseases that destroy lives, to the greed and plunder that are destroying the earth. So much to fear.
And yet also great joy. Great joy. Joy of a lamb finding its rickety feet in a meadow. Joy of a baby discovering how to swallow. Joy of the song, when we have the words, and God has the tune. The joy of creation, when we hear birds chirp on a spring morning. The joy of the harvest, when all is fresh and mellow. The joy of friendship, of those we have known and loved through thick and thin. The joy of forgiveness, when bitterness and failure do not get the last word. The joy of being part of a team, when you believe in what you’re doing and where you’re going. Fabulous joy.
So here we are. It’s Easter. And so we, just like those first visitors to the tomb, now face an empty tomb filled with those same two big emotions. Fear and joy, the two poles, the two extremes of our human response to the awesome intimacy of God. Fear and joy run with us throughout our lives together, as constant reminders of the cost and the promise of following Jesus.
But there is a secret. It is a secret that we only glimpse at in this life. It is a secret that was first revealed to those two early risers on the first day of the week, while all creation breathed in the aroma of anticipation. It is the secret of Easter. It is a secret that is the climax of our gospel, a secret of the mystery of fear and joy.
And the secret is this. At Easter––the joy wins. The joy has won! And nothing can ever take that victory away.