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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 16, 2017, Easter Day

 Earthquakes and Lifequakes

Jeremiah 31:1-6;Matthew 28:1-10

            This past summer, Connie and I stood upon that huge rock known as Gibraltar, looking out from the rock, nine miles across the straits that separate Europe from Africa, just where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea.  (It is a place I have always wanted to visit, as I grew up learning of my father’s stopover at Gibraltar on his way to Operation Torch in North Africa.)  The day before I had listened to a Cal, Berkeley geologist explain that 5.3 million years ago, the earth’s tectonic plates had shifted, causing the mountains that surrounded the Rock of Gibraltar to subside, literally to fold under the ocean floor, allowing the Atlantic Ocean to flow rapidly into the deep plain between Europe and Africa.  That great earthquake created an entirely new world around the Mediterranean Sea.

            Matthew tells us about another earthquake in his Easter morning account.  On the first day of the week, after the Sabbath, sometime before the dawn, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” both present when Jesus was crucified, dead and buried in a borrowed tomb, went to visit the tomb of Jesus.  They went with death on their minds, and great sorrow in their hearts.  Somewhere along the road to that tomb, however, they left one world and entered another one altogether.  Without realizing that they had crossed the border, they left the old world, the world where might makes right, where everyone eventually suffers under some Pontius Pilate or another, a world where people die and stay dead, and they entered a new world, a breathtaking world of resurrection and life.  Jesus, the One whose tomb they were coming to see, the One who had been deader than a doornail on Friday, was not in the tomb anymore.  And the world – theirs and ours – was forever changed.

            Just as an earthquake opened the way for the ocean to create a sea where there had only been a deep, dry plain so long ago, so Matthew tells us of another earthquake that created a brand new world.  Matthew reports, “And suddenly, there was a great earthquake.”  σεισμός is the Greek word Matthew uses.  And just as suddenly, an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it.  Matthew spares nothing as he tells us with astonishment what happened.  He reports this all with utter stupefied awe.  “His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow.”  Then Matthew adds a touch of humor.  “For fear of him the guards shook, and became like dead men.”  The Romans sent them to guard a dead body, and now the body is gone, and they are half dead!

            This is the second earthquake Matthew reports.  The first comes on Good Friday when Jesus breathed His last, the Temple shook, the rocks were split, and “the Temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

            Karl Barth observes that we have not heard from angels in a long time from Matthew in his Gospel.  An angel comes to Joseph in a dream in Chapter 1 in Matthew and says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Then when Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we are told that angels minister to Jesus.  Then we hear nothing from any angel until we are faced with the empty tomb and the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  Barth says that only God, and God’s messengers, could do or speak of such a thing: Incarnation and Resurrection are God-things.  It takes angels to testify to these mysteries.

            Easter is not about nature coming back to life with spring.  I love Easter lilies, but Easter is decidedly about something more than the renewal of life, as miraculous and beautiful as spring may be.  Easter is about a whole new world of God’s own making.  It is about the undoing of death – of Jesus’ and ours as well.  It is about the triumph of God over the forces of evil and death.  It is about God doing something altogether unnatural in raising Jesus from death to life.  And it is God’s once-for-all statement that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, that wherever Jesus is, there is the power of God at work in the world to give life.  Death and violence and evil do not have the last word – the last word belongs to Jesus, the Risen One, and it shall surely be a word of life!

            So Matthew tells us of earthquakes and an angel who says what it seems angels are always saying, “Do not be afraid.”  If Easter tells us that God has forever changed the world, then this message from the angel, the one whose “appearance was like lightning and whose raiment was white as snow,” is “Do not be afraid,” a message that matches exactly what Jesus said to the two Mary’s, then perhaps we need to take this message to heart.  If you take nothing else home with you this Easter, please take the angel’s message, “Do not be afraid.”

            When was the last time you heard that word and believed it, really believed it?  “Do not be afraid.”  I remember my mother saying it to me once in a terrible storm as she rocked me in her arms in a wonderfully creaky old rocking chair.  It is one of my earliest memories.  “You don’t need to be afraid, Todd.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

            But when we grow older, and we learn about the world, these words are harder to believe, at least when people speak them to us.  We know that “everything” may not be alright; in fact, that things can and do go wrong.  People have a hard time saying these words in believable ways.  But angels are messengers sent from God.  Remember what the angel said to Mary?  “Be not afraid, for you have found favor with God.”  And to the “shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night”?  “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all the people.”  And so Jesus himself says to the two Mary’s, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will find me.”

            When the angel says this Easter word, “Do not be afraid,” it does not mean that nothing will ever go wrong.  Things often go wrong.  It is not a promise that only good will come to you.  That would be a lie.  Jesus always speaks truth.  Rather, it is the assurance that whatever may happen, whatever life may hold, God has the power to strengthen us and to uphold us; that whatever we must face, we never need face it alone, and that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love and Jesus’ life.

            The earthquake and the angel and the promise, “Do not be afraid … go and tell my brothers … I am going ahead of you into every Galilee, every tomorrow you will ever face.”  These are Matthew’s way of letting us know that Easter is real, that Jesus Christ is risen, that resurrection and life will carry the day.

            The promise of Easter is that somehow, God raised Jesus from death to life, forever changing what is possible in this world.  And it is a promise that I believe, that I trust in with all my heart.  Easter is God’s way of telling us that we need not live in fear, that love triumphs over hate, that life is stronger than death, that one day God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more, and all will be well.  In fact, Easter not only announces God’s triumph over sin and death, it also promises God’s redemption and reconciliation of all creation.

            Charles de Gaulle was a war hero for the French people during the German occupation of France.  He led the Resistance movement against Germany.  De Gaulle stood six foot, five inches and carried himself with a dignity that sometimes bordered on arrogance.  What few know is that Charles and Yvonne in 1928 had a little girl named Anne, who was born with Down Syndrome.  De Gaulle rarely showed open emotion or joy, but around Anne, he became like a child all over again.  His wife Yvonne, as is sometimes the case, reacted quite differently to Anne’s disability.  She would often say, “Why couldn’t Anne be like all the other children?  Why is she so different?”  Then little Anne died.  At the grave, where they celebrated a private mass, Yvonne could not leave.  Charles finally rested his large hand on his wife’s arm and said, “Come, Yvonne.  Now Anne is like the others.”

            This, dear friends, is the promise of Easter.  God is always God-with-us, and forever God-for-us.  And if God is for us, who can be against us?  And best of all, God in Jesus goes ahead of us into every tomorrow we will ever face.

            Jesus is alive.  In a few minutes we will sing of Him as “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign forever and ever.”  Because Christ is Risen.  He is Risen, indeed!  Alleluia.



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