Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"FEAR BESETS THE WOMEN ON EASTER MORNING BECAUSE THEY SEE SOMETHING OF GOD AT WORK."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Easter is the time of year when one speaks about resurrection. The past few days have seen various Easter messages doing the rounds in our land, and all speak about resurrection. What, though, is meant by the term ‘resurrection’?
To your ears and mine, the term refers to Jesus’ literally dead body being raised to new physical life. Such a resurrection, of course, is possible only because God the Creator is sovereign in heaven, and He could raise Jesus from the dead. But suppose you deny the existence of God. Suppose you embrace the very modern notion of an empty heaven, with earth’s existence the result of evolution. What sensible thing can you say then about Easter or the resurrection?
So many churchmen and writers in our land today are stuck with precisely this question. There is no sovereign God in heaven, and therefore there is no such thing as dead people coming out of the grave. So the Biblical notion of Jesus’ resurrection is seen as a metaphor for a different kind of resurrection. Resurrection is that lost hopes receive new life. Resurrection is that economically oppressed people are raised to new prosperity. Resurrection is that asylum seekers with no future are set free to build up a new future. You see what happens: the good news of Christ’s resurrection is denied as fact, but embraced as an allegory for what we ought to do for the oppressed of our world.
In the face of this development, I open with you this morning the word of God as we read it in the gospel according to Mark. Mark, we need to notice, stresses that God almighty was in fact at work on Easter morning. He does that by drawing out the fear that filled the women that morning. And precisely because Easter is God’s work may we not allegorize the concept of resurrection; instead, God’s very real work of long ago has very real implications for the world today.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
FEAR BESETS THE WOMEN ON EASTER MORNING BECAUSE THEY SEE SOMETHING OF GOD AT WORK.
1. The Nature of the Women’s fear
The 8 verses we read from Mk 16 contain a crescendo of emotion. The passage begins with the relatively neutral notes in vss 1-3 that the women bought spices to anoint Jesus’ body and discussed together how to move the stone. That somber neutrality is replaced by the alarm of vs 5, rises to the trembling and amazement of vs 8, and climaxes with the fear of our text. Interspersed between these descriptions of alarm and fear is conduct that confirms their fear. The trembling and amazement of vs 8 prompts them to flee, quickly. And the fear of our text leaves them dumbstruck; they said not a word to anyone.
Alarm, flight, trembling, amazement, dumbstruck, fear: we hear a common sound in those words and actions. To our ears this is the language of being scared, the emotion of being frightened out of one’s boots.
But here, brothers and sisters, we’re mistaken. For the terms Mark uses in this passage are deliberately chosen, are words used elsewhere in Scripture with particular content. To appreciate Mark’s point, we need to understand the specific meaning of these words.
The word translated in vs 5 as "alarmed" occurs only in Mark and is used to capture the response people display when they notice that Jesus’ acts are different, are not usual human acts. For example, when Jesus cast out unclean spirits the people responded with alarm (1:27). When Jesus described how difficult it was for the rich man to be saved, the disciples responded with alarm (10:24). It is with this same emotion that the women respond in vs 5 to the presence of the young man in the tomb. The women realize: this is something abnormal, something not customary in the world of people, this is something heavenly, and so they are alarmed.
The emotion translated by the word "trembled" in vs 8 occurs in the Bible only in this verse. So we cannot go to other texts to pick up the flavor of the term. The fact, though, that it’s used beside the word ‘amazed’ indicates that its meaning is similar to that of ‘amazement’. And the word "amazed" in vs 8 is well known in the Bible, is in fact used frequently to describe the reaction of persons to something God does. It is used, eg, in Mk 2 to describe the response of the people to the healing of the paralytic. We read this: "and he [that’s the paralytic] arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God" (vs 12). The crowds realize that here God had done something –they had seen it with their own eyes- and in doing something God has revealed something about Himself. It’s seeing something about God that awakens in the people this "amazement".
When vs 8, then, says that the women are seized with "trembling and amazement", the Holy Spirit would have us know that these women realize that here God is active, God is doing something in this tomb. What the women see God doing so fills them with terror and astonishment that they take to their heals in flight; they run because in the tomb they saw evidence of God at work.
The last term in this series about fright is the one of our text, translated for us as "they were afraid." Actually, the word is "fear", a term also found elsewhere in the context of a display of heavenly majesty. When Jesus in the storm at sea, for example, commanded the wind and waves to be still and it was so, the disciples - says the text- "feared exceedingly", and said to each other: "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?" (Mk 4:41). On the Mt of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John, when they saw Jesus transfigured before them in the company of Moses and Elijah, "were greatly afraid" (Mk 9:6). In both instances the disciples saw a stunning display of heavenly majesty and responded with fear – says our translation.
Yet we know, congregation, that in English the word ‘fear’ has two meanings. ‘Fear’ can mean fright, scared, shaking in ones boots. ‘Fear’ can also mean awe, stunned amazement that leaves one speechless. That’s how the term is to be understood in the example of the storm at sea; the disciples were not shaking in their boots in fright, but were overcome with awe at Jesus’ display of heavenly majesty. That’s how the term is to be understood in the example of the Mt of Transfiguration; the disciples were not shaking in their boots but were overcome with awe that Moses and Elijah, those spiritual giants of old, have now come down from heaven to speak with Jesus! And that’s how the term is to be understood in our text. Our translation reads that the women "were afraid," but that misses the point of the women’s emotion. The alarm of vs 5 on account of seeing something divine in the tomb graduated to trembling and amazement in the first part of vs 8 as the women were confronted with evidence of God at work, and that trembling and amazement in turn gave birth to awe.
This, brothers and sisters, is the emotion that overwhelmed the women on the morning of Christ’s resurrection. That emotion was rooted in the actions of God of that Easter morning; in the tomb they saw something of the greatness of God. And what they saw of God filled them with fear, awe, reverence for God. What a God this was, to do what He did on this Easter morning!
What it was, then, that God did? That brings us to our second point:
2. The Cause of the Women’s fear.
Mark had put the women on center stage back in chap 15:40, and they stay on center stage till 16:8. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and a certain woman called Salome (vs 40) knew Jesus very well, for –says Mark- they "had followed Him and ministered to Him" (vs 41). When Jesus was crucified they were watching, when Jesus died they were watching; they heard His loud cry, noticed that He breathed His last, witnessed the comment of the centurion at the death of Jesus when he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" There was no doubt in the minds of these three: their beloved Jesus was dead; they had witnessed it themselves.
But that wasn’t all. They were witnesses not only of His death; they were, says vs 47, witnesses also of His burial. They saw that Joseph of Arimathea unfastened Jesus’ body from the cross, saw him wrap it in a shroud, saw him carry it away to a tomb. They saw Joseph lay the body in a tomb, saw him roll the stone against the door of that tomb.
The point, congregation, is important. These women were witnesses of Jesus’ death and of His burial. Every point, says the Scripture, is established by the mouth of two or three witnesses (Dt 17:6). There was no doubt in their minds, and there may be no doubt in ours, that Jesus was truly dead.
The Holy Spirit impresses upon us just how convinced these women were of Jesus’ death. Chap 16:1: "when the Sabbath was past," so after sundown Saturday evening, the three women went to buy the spices needed to embalm Jesus’ body. And Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn, they made off to the tomb of the dead to pay their last respects. The Holy Spirit tells us this so show us what lived in the minds of these women: Jesus was really dead. Again, the point is important for we’ll not understand that crescendo of fear unless we appreciate the deep conviction of the women: Jesus is really dead.
Now we also have to go back into the Scriptures to learn what Jesus’ death meant. Remember: death was not present when God first created man in Paradise! Death entered the world as God’s penalty on sin! In the words of Ezekiel: "the soul that sins shall die" (18:4). Sin and death: the two are inseparably connected, with death being the horrible wages of sin (Rom 6:23). These women knew Jesus well, followed Jesus’ instruction, knew His claim that He was the Son of God, knew too His claim that He always did the will of God, knew that He was without sin. That they saw with their own eyes that this Man was dead, was so terribly disappointing; here is the evidence that Jesus was also cursed by the judgment of God on sin! All their hopes that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of God were dashed by the observation that He was dead.
And the dead, well, they stay dead. For the judgment of God on sin is irrevocable…. That’s why the women hasten to the tomb on Easter Sunday; Jesus is dead, and that’s the end of the matter – because sin holds its sway unceasing…. The point is so fixed in their minds that they see no sense to discuss it; they discuss instead that mundane question of who shall roll away the stone from the tomb….
See now, beloved, how the Lord God gently but persistently derails their one-track thinking and confronts them with evidence of Jesus’ resurrection! There are so many emotions they have to overcome, including their deep conviction that Jesus is truly dead and therefore His mission a failure. As the climb the slope toward the tomb, the Lord shows them that the stone was already rolled away. What that means…? They enter the tomb, they know where Jesus’ body was laid (for they’d seen it, says 15:47), but it wasn’t there. So they look around…; where was the body?? All they see is "a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side." His appearance is most instructive. The women knew their Old Testament, knew that according to the color code of Scripture, white indicates a heavenly origin. The Ancient of Days in Daniel’s prophecy was dressed in "raiment … white as snow" (7:9). On the Mt of Transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes "became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them" (Mk 9:3). Here the Lord, in the absence of Jesus’ dead body, was nudging their thoughts to heaven, to His involvement.
They see the man sitting. Again, in the Bible one’s posture of being seated indicated that one’s work was finished. That’s the message: the Lord would nudge their thoughts to conclude that a heavenly messenger had completed his task.
Heaven, in the tomb; God at work. The women realize it, and that’s why they’re overcome with alarm – says vs 5. Alarm: that’s the word, we learned before, that captures one’s response to an awareness that something otherworldly, something divine was happening!
What was happening? Says the angel in vs 6: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him." He who is finished his work can now tell the women precisely what happened. Jesus dead? The women knew He was, had seen it themselves. But no, says God from heaven on high through His heavenly messenger; Jesus is risen! God has worked here!
Hence also their need for action. "Go," says the heavenly messenger, "Go, tell His disciples … that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you." "As He said." Indeed, He had. His word came true; He was believable after all!
God at work! That realization caused the women to turn on their heals and flee from the tomb. God had worked here; how holy the place! They trembled and were amazed: that God should raise their Teacher from the dead was too awesome to comprehend. As their alarm grew to amazement, and their amazement grew to awe, they could find no words to relate what they’d heard and seen; "they said nothing to anyone," so taken were they by the thought that almighty God was at work!
That brings us to our last point:
3. The Message of the Women’s fear.
The heavenly messenger in the tomb announced Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The details of Jesus arose are not told to us; what God did first to raise Jesus and what Jesus did next are hidden from us. But the Holy Spirit impresses upon us through the response of the women that the events in the tomb that morning were the work of God. And that, brothers and sisters, opens up the gospel for us!
For yes, it was God who had declared back in Paradise that if one would eat of the forbidden tree, he would die. That is: God had laid a link between sin and death. But now comes a messenger from this very same God declaring that Jesus is risen, and the women understand that Jesus arose through the work of God. That in turn means that God was satisfied with the work Jesus Christ did on the cross on Good Friday! He’d suffered the agony of crucifixion in place of sinners who deserved God’s eternal punishment on their sins. He took on Himself the horrible wrath of God we’d earned for ourselves through our sins in Paradise and our sins day by day. At the end of the three hours of darkness, of divine rejection, He cried out that all was finished, and then "breathed His last"; He died. And here is the proof that holy God was satisfied with His labors on the cross; God was at work on Easter Sunday to raise His Son from the dead! What wonderful gospel for believers of all ages! Sin is atoned for, sin is washed away in Jesus’ blood, sin is an oppressive power no more! In the words of Scripture: "O Death, where is your victory?" (I Cor 15). Truly, how awesome the gospel: God is satisfied with Jesus’ sacrifice, and therefore death is overcome! Small wonder the women were tongue-tied in the face of this glorious revelation! Even today anyone who understands this gospel is filled with awe!
But the women, we need to notice did not stay tongue-tied! "Go," said the heavenly messenger in the tomb, "Go, tell His disciples –and Peter- that He is going before you into Galilee." That’s to say: the one who was dead is so alive that He will appear to His own in Galilee – a message the women did pass on to the disciples. And in time to come they spoke of it more and more, told all who would hear that Yes, Jesus is risen, the power of sin is broken, the power of death is broken! On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ was poured out abundantly, with as result that all who believed were filled with the Spirit and began to speak to others of the glorious gospel of Jesus’ resurrection. Indeed, tongues once tied now spoke in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance, spoke of the glorious triumph of Jesus Christ over sin, spoke of His glorious resurrection from the dead, spoke of how the terrible bond between sin and death was broken so that death is a curse no more for him whose trespass is forgiven! And all of it was rooted in the mighty work of God on Easter morning, when He raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
This is the gospel that was spread over all the earth through the apostles, the gospel that changed hearts and souls, changes homes and nations. This is the gospel that speaks of God’s mighty power and of God’s tender mercy; with a strong arm, in deep compassion for sinners, He raised His Son from the dead on Easter Sunday – and so declared that Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was sufficient to pay for sin. This is the gospel that historically has moved redeemed sinners to help the oppressed of the world, to give to others the new life and the new opportunities we’ve received in Jesus Christ ourselves.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter a metaphor for oppressed people rising to new levels of prosperity? No, beloved, no! The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was God’s work, God’s declaration that the power of sin is broken. And that’s why the resurrection of Christ is a power that drives the redeemed to show to others in deeds something of the riches we’ve received in the gospel. It’s a power that drives to action, that compels one to help others, to share.
But before one shares, before one strives to help, before one can taste the power of this resurrection, one must believe that in fact God was at work on this Easter Sunday. That’s the big question for our world: do you believe that God in fact, literally, was at work in the tomb and raised the dead Jesus to new, physical life? That question is not first for others to answer, but first of all for us to answer in relation to ourselves.
And the right answer will drive to action, action that is a blessing for those around us. Amen.