Overcoming Fears and Following Jesus:
An Easter Sermon

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

It’s meager, isn’t it? The end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard, it’s pretty slim in terms of the majestic splendor of Jesus’ resurrection. I’m sure you noticed that Jesus himself doesn’t even make an appearance. This isn’t something done in the other gospels, by the way. In Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus does in fact appear to the women there in the garden. But while we may want something tangible, Mark leaves it as it is.

An Easter sermon on Mark 16.

He describes how the women come to the tomb just after sunup on the first day of the week, and they worry about who will roll away the stone covering the entrance. But then they find that the work has already been done for them and discover this young man in white inside the tomb. He says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” And Mark ends his gospel with these words: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Unsettling to be sure. And if you were to read it in the original Greek, it ends even more abruptly. A word for word literal translation is: “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for . . . .” For what, Mark? What are they afraid of? And why isn’t Jesus there?

Fear is a funny thing. It’s hard to put your finger on at times. Remember Charlie Brown in the Christmas Special when he sidles up to Lucy’s Psychiatry Booth to figure out why he’s down at Christmas time? Lucy tries to diagnose his fear pulling out a punch of words you may have learned for the SAT. “Are you afraid of responsibility?” she asks good ol’ Chuck. “If you are, then you have hypengyophobia.” Charlie Brown replies, “I don’t think that’s quite it.” “How about cats? If you’re afraid of cats, you have ailurophobia.” “Well, sort of, but I’m not sure.” Lucy’s undaunted and pulls out all the stops: “Are you afraid of staircases? If you are, then you have climacaphobia. Maybe you have thalassophobia. This is fear of the ocean, or gephyrophobia, which is the fear of crossing bridges. Or maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia, Charlie Brown?” He looks at here and asks, “What’s pantophobia?” “The fear of everything,” Lucy replies. “That’s it!” he exclaims. That’s not it, of course, but Lucy’s content and gets her nickel. 

Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb in order to do this last bit for Jesus, to anoint his body for burial. And they get there and the stone is rolled back and young man decked out in white is there instead of Jesus’ body, and the first words out his mouth are “Don’t be alarmed.” And I’m sure they’re looking at each other, thinking “We mustn’t panic! We mustn’t panic!” and then they run off in fear full of panic.

But Mark makes sure they are told the rest of it too, this message from the young man in white. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus had indeed said this exact thing to his disciples after the Last Supper as they made their way to the Mount of Olives. Jesus told them that they would all desert him, and then he says, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” And now the women at the empty tomb are being told it again. Don’t be afraid; he is going ahead of you.

There’s a great scene in the Oscar winning epic film “Out of Africa.” The film is about Dutch Baroness Karen Blixen, played masterfully by Meryl Streep, who comes to Kenya, and once there she sets about making a coffee plantation. She soon hires a man to be her main advisor who is named Farah, a Muslim Somali, who takes care of all the details in her life and is her constant companion and guide. He calls her “Msabu,” a term of respect. Towards the middle of the film, as they go out on a long safari, Farah would leave in the afternoon to go ahead and find a place for them to camp at. Karen and the others with her would continue more slowly with the ox drawn cart they have with all their supplies, and Farah would make a fire in the evening to help them find their way. 

“Follow me,” Jesus says to the first disciples, and they leave boats and nets and father behind to do just that. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And then he says it again in the middle of Mark’s gospel, “If any want to come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me.” He is the one guiding us.

Towards the end of “Out of Africa” after a few years of work, a fire devastates Karen’s coffee production, and she loses nearly all her money. She has no choice but to sell everything she has and move back to Denmark. Her faithful worker Farah says to her, “Msabu? How can it be now between me and yourself?” She takes a moment holding back tears, and then says, “Do you remember how it was on safari? In the afternoons you would go ahead to find a place and wait for me?” “And you could see the fire, and come to this place,” Farrah finished. “Yes,” she replied. And then she continued, “Only this time, I am going first and I will wait for you.” “It is far, where you are going?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies. “This fire must be very big, so I can find you.” 

“Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The disciples are to recall that Jesus had told them again and again to follow him, to come after him, and it is no different now, even if they cannot see him. Theologian Dr. Audrey West writes, “In Mark, the resurrected Jesus is … described as …’ going ahead of you.’ If that is true, then death is stripped of its power. There is nothing Jesus’ followers will endure, no place they can go, that Jesus isn’t already there.”  And, as Pastor Sally Bates puts it, if Jesus “goes ahead of us in death, can there be any doubt that he will be there ahead of us wherever life might take us?”

Because of this, there is nothing to fear. There is no place in life where we can travel where Jesus hasn’t been already. When we face places of darkness—a relationship gone south, the distress of losing a job, a loved one confronting the demons of addiction—Jesus has been there already. He’s traveled ahead of us, and made a big fire to light the way. There’s just one thing we need to do. We need to confront our fears—no matter what scientific name they go by—and begin on our way. 

Which is the message that the young man in white wants to make sure Peter receives. “Go and tell his disciples and Peter,” he tells the women. Peter, who just a couple of days before swore an oath that he didn’t even know Jesus. Then he watched in horror as Jesus was led away, beaten, and then crucified. And know he’s paralyzed by it all, overcome with the fear that Jesus would reject him just as he rejected Jesus. Not so, says that young man in the tomb, tell Peter that Jesus is going ahead of him. That he does not need to fear. 

And while the women run away from the tomb in terror, clearly it isn’t too long before they confront their own fears and share the message they’ve been given that Jesus has been raised and is going before them. As Dr. West puts it, they “Go from this place of death and of endings, and return to life and a new beginning.” They trust that Jesus is indeed ahead of them, and so they choose to follow him.

And, as the young man says, if we do this, we will see him, just as he promised. We will encounter him along the journey. We will continue to see his work of life and love in the world. Because, as one of the disciples who followed Jesus from the very beginning said, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Love banishes fear from our lives and brings to us new life. Follow this one who has gone before us even unto death, knowing that his love will always sustain us. And we will see him—we will encounter him on the way, and his love will cast out all our fears.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Image by hmhmmmhhm from Pixabay.

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