According to Matthew’s telling of the story, when the grieving women arrived at Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning, there was still a giant stone covering the entrance. Death and taxes were still the ultimate inevitabilities in the real world. But then quickly everything spirals out of control. Matthew writes, “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.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an earthquake, but I’ve been in quite a few. What strikes me most, as I think back on them, is how completely sudden they are. There’s never advanced warning, as there is with hurricanes or blizzards. Earthquakes just suddenly shake the very solid ground on which we stand, which makes them very disorienting. One of the biggest ones I experienced woke me up in the middle of the night. My first thought was that a semi-truck had crashed into my apartment building, for I seemed to hear a roaring sound, and the headboard of my bed slammed against the wall. I could hear dishes falling off the open shelves onto the kitchen counters and breaking. It was scary and discombobulating, and it took me a few moments before I was awake enough to figure out what was going on and to make my way to the doorway of my bedroom, which is where you are supposed to stand if you are ever in an earthquake.
That disorientation, that shock, that fear must have been present on that first Easter morning. The security guards faint from fear at the sizzling bright light of an angel cracking open Jesus’ grave. The angel offers the women the usual angelic greeting: “Don’t be afraid.” Hah! How can they help being afraid? The very foundations of the earth have been shaken! Maybe they needed that jolt to prepare them for what the angel says next: “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”
I don’t know if these same women were the ones at Golgotha on Friday; Matthew doesn’t share their names. But if they were, this would be the second earthquake they would have experienced in three days. In Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion in the chapter preceding today’s story, at the very moment Jesus dies, the earth shook and rocks were split. The curtain in the temple was split from top to bottom And then Matthew (alone of the 4 Gospel writers) adds this crazy little detail: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son.’” WOW!
I know it sounds like a Scriptural version of “Ghostbusters,” with spirits rampantly wandering the streets, but I think it’s meant simply to draw attention to the fact that something extraordinary and amazing is happening. The Bible is filled with examples of the whole of creation responding to God’s presence and power with a shaking, roaring upheaval. Do you remember back in Exodus, just before Moses received the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai, that the mountain was said to tremble? It is only pride that leads us to imagine that the impact of Jesus’ sacrifice was felt only by humankind. Why wouldn’t the entire creation react to the world-changing events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday? Of course the earth shook and the rocks split. Of course the sky turned black. The Lord of Life is changing the paradigm of all things, and the creation responds. If every tongue were stilled, the rocks and stones would cry out the story of God’s power!
To me it doesn’t matter if these texts describe actual geological events, or are simply metaphors because the point is clear: God’s presence and God’s actions are cosmically significant. And in the case of something as unprecedented and extraordinary as Easter, why not two earthquakes? Nothing, not even the ground on which we stand, is the same after Jesus’ resurrection.
Easter shakes the foundation of the world, topples old systems, releases souls held captive, upends the old, and unearths all sort of new life. When God’s Spirit is on the loose, nothing and no one will be left unchanged. When Jesus rewrites the order of the world by overcoming the finality of death and the authority of evil, we have to ask ourselves, “What else is God up to?”
But just so this doesn’t start to sound like nothing awful ever happened again on or under the earth after Easter, let me assure you I’m not going to suggest such an inanity. No. It’s important to notice that Matthew doesn’t say the women stopped being afraid after the angel told them to. How can you command yourself not to fear when you are surrounded by an occupying, oppressive government and hostile religious leaders, all of whom had a role in executing your friend and Lord? And now, despite the best intentions of Pilate and his soldiers, the grave they’d so carefully sealed off and guarded so that no one could steal Jesus’ body and announce he’d been raised from the dead, has in fact cracked wide open to reveal no body at all. How could these women feel anything but afraid? Matthew makes it plain: “They left the tomb filled with fear and great joy.”
For me, this is good news. I am grateful to hear that being afraid does not cancel out the possibility of great joy, that faith does not eliminate doubt but co-exists alongside it. It’s comforting to know that Jesus will appear to me in the midst of my muddled feelings, just as he did to these fearful, joyful women in Matthew’s story. Jesus doesn’t wait until they’ve gotten over their confusion and worked out all the fine points of their atonement theology before greeting them on the road. Jesus doesn’t wait for them to complete the task they’ve been assigned of sharing the good news with the others. Jesus doesn’t even wait until they get to the designated spot in Galilee. Instead, Jesus meets them on their way. He meets them while they are still reeling. And what he says to them is an echo of the angel’s message. “Don’t be afraid.”
This Easter morning Jesus delivers that same message to each of us, in our varying states of fear and joy, doubt and hope. I have heard you all remind me that Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed), but I am still afraid of bombs and lead-filled drinking water; I am still grieving for children dying of poison gas and malnutrition and gunshots; I am still concerned about people I love who are sick or sad or struggling. Those feelings have not gone away just because we sang some hymns with Alleluia in them.
But those fears, those anxieties, do not cancel out the joy of Easter. Because I know that Easter is an earthquake, that shakes, rattles, and rolls the world order all around. Easter is both disorienting and reorienting. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can be assured that unjust imprisonment, torture, capital punishment, and all the wicked forces that claim to power are not the highest authority. The iron grip of the world’s heirarchy has been shattered like so many glass dishes by the force of the resurrection. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can be delighted to peer into the place where we think death will swallow up our bodies and the bodies of those we love, and find it is void of destructive power. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can trust God can produce life and light and possibility where none is expected.
As an example, I want to point out what happened as a result of the torrential rains that hammered Death Valley, CA, last year. Normally a desert, this spring the valley is covered by a super-bloom of wildflowers so brilliant and massive that it can be seen from outer space, literally! Once again, the earth reminds us of God’s power, beauty illustrates God’s strategy of ensuring that new life pops up exactly where all seems lost.
If you’re struggling these days, if you feel like what you imagined was solid ground is shifting under your feet, remember this: right now Death Valley is exploding with life! If you are shaking and spinning, and it seems there’s nothing stable to hold onto, grab onto Jesus’ feet.That’s what the women did in Matthew’s story. When they see the risen Christ, they kneel down and take hold of his feet. Touching Jesus is not magic. It may not end their fear. What it does is give them stability, a solid presence to hang on while they try to adjust to their new reality. I can almost hear them praying these words from Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though mountains shake in the heart of the sea.”
That’s the Good News of Easter! Jesus has broken through the old order of things. Now we can trust that death does not have the last word, that cruelty does not triumph over love, that what has been shaken loose by seismic events is creating space for God to do something new and beautiful. While it may not erase our fear, holding onto our risen Savior empowers us to live authentically and joyfully. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
~Pastor Susan Schneider