Matthew 28: 1-10
Most Easters, for the last 42 or so, I have preached from the beloved story in John’s gospel. John’s account of Mary Magdalene in the garden — her intimate encounter with the Risen Jesus — is so personal and compelling that the lectionary always offers it as one of the readings.
Yet today, I am fascinated with Matthew’s gospel portion, which includes earthquakes in the account of the death of Jesus (Matthew 27: 51 and 54), as well as in the story of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, Jesus’ resurrection is preceded and followed by accounts of tombs being opened by the quakes and many “saints” roaming about the city!
The earthquake in Matthew 28:2 accompanies the appearance of an angel whose appearance reminds us of the Transfiguration, whose illumination is compared to “lightning” and “snow.” This is a fierce angel, reminiscent of the one who appeared to Daniel. Apocalypse all around.
It is very dramatic, perhaps the most cosmically dramatic of all the resurrection accounts. I was in Los Angeles recently and experienced a mild quake (4.4) while on the 6th floor of a hotel, reminding me of other more lethal earthquakes in my own past. The Northridge earthquake in 1994 killed over 100 people and damaged or destroyed over 80 churches, including the one owned by Founder’s MCC, where I was pastor at the time. In the aftermath, as part of my own healing from the trauma of that day, I learned that earthquakes are the way in which the earth’s surface is reshaped. The earth naturally heaves and spews lava and has done so long before humans tried to inhabit the most tectonically unstable places.
Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon, a sign of the “aliveness” of our planet, whose molten core erupts powerfully to the surface from time to time, rupturing ocean floors, sending tidal waves, and ripping open faults on the earth, many of them still unknown to us. Only dead planets have no earthquakes.
And even today, with all our scientific capabilities, we are not able to predict earthquakes with the kind of accuracy that we need. Especially in these days as climate change and pollution threaten the health of our planet as never before, the earth is not just something “acted upon” by us — rather, it is also an actor, a participant in the cosmic drama. The earth itself is full of surprises, then and now. So, why this connection of earthquakes to Jesus’ Resurrection? Here are some thoughts as we prepare for Easter this year The Resurrection was meant to be a shattering event, one that would shake the disciples and the power structures! It was not just a happy post-script, a reward for Jesus’ going through the violent crucifixion. Easter Sunday morning was not a Disney ending with the sweetness of birds singing; it was violent, and in its own way, shocking. It included the shaking of the foundations, something new that would alter every life it touched. The world, and reality, turning upside down. Love and justice triumphing over raw power and hatred. This was a cosmic event, bringing together heaven and earth, as the two worlds intersected. The earthquakes in Matthew’s story are a clue this resurrection of Jesus, and all it demands of us, is bigger than my world, my perceptions, or my capacity to fully understand. It is bigger than religion — my friend, Joshua DuBois, says, “Never do violence to Jesus in the service of religion.” To me, this means Jesus was, and is, bigger than religion, than any narrow container might hope to be. And containing or controlling Jesus does violence to him and to the God who was present in him (and in those earthquakes too!) As if we could control who Jesus wants to love, or use, or shake to the foundations!
Earthquakes change the direction of rivers sometimes (like the Mississippi centuries ago), the height of mountains, and the contours of earth and oceans. Jesus’ resurrection changed the direction of all who followed him and many who resisted him. How has God called you to places and directions you never expected?
Also, the phrase “have no fear,” or “do not be afraid,” appears four times in this story. Every time that word or phrase appears, especially in the gospels, it makes me laugh. Fear is a natural response to earthquakes of any kind, real or metaphorical — like when we are asked to believe the unbelievable, to do the unimaginable. When we celebrate Easter, we are invited to imagine the first ones who were so terrified. As I read Matthew’s account, Mary and Mary Magdalene were keeping vigil at the tomb early that morning, “as the first light of the new week dawned….” As they were there in quiet, pain-filled grief, “the earth reeled and rocked under their feet.” In front of their stunned gaze, an angel rolled the huge stone away, and it sounds like the guards were “slain” in the spirit. It is a tall order indeed to be told after that, “Do not be afraid!” Right! But the women left the tomb, “afraid yet filled with joy.” As they ran to tell the disciples, Jesus himself meets them, echoing the command to not be afraid.
In this volatile, earthquake-ridden, complex world, there seems plenty of reason to be afraid, every day. The only question for us is, will we have to courage to leave an empty tomb — with our fears and our joy — help shake the foundations, and love the world that God so loved?