Turning Fear into Faith
Dr. Jim Denison
In the last 20 years, the number of poodles registered in America has fallen by half, while the number of registered Rottweilers has increased 100 times. There are more private security officers than public police officers in our country. The average American child will see 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television by the end of fifth grade. No wonder psychologists have catalogued 628 different phobias by name.
If you had “ecclesiophobia” (the fear of church), you’d not be here today. But you might have “melophobia,” fear of music; “chrometophobia,” fear of money (at least putting it in the offering plate); “homilophobia,” fear of sermons, or “homilextendaphobia,” fear of long sermons (I made that up, but I’ll bet you have it).
What do we do with all these fears?
Someone said, “The object is not to get rid of the butterflies, but to get the butterflies to fly in formation.” How do we do that? How do we live in a post-9-11 world, with war in Iraq and terror threats at home, with all the disasters and diseases of this fallen world? What fears did you bring to church this morning? How do we face our fears and worries in faith?
Meet Mary Magdalene
We are celebrating Easter today through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. Her given name was “Mary”; she was from the village of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee; hence the name by which we know her.
Her only appearance in the gospels before Holy Week is this reference by Luke: “The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out” (8:1-2).
However, Mary figured prominently in Jesus’ death and resurrection. She followed him to the cross, watched where he was buried, and was with the first group to go to his tomb (more in a moment). She is mentioned 14 times in the gospels; in eight she heads the list of names where she is referenced; a ninth places her after Mary the mother of Jesus; and the remaining five list her alone.
How did Easter happen for her? We’ll follow Peter’s eyewitness account, as given to his young disciple Mark and the gospel which bears his name; we’ll supplement what Mark tells us with that which the other gospel writers record.
Meet the risen Christ
Mary’s Easter story begins: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body” (Mark 16:1). The Sabbath extended from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Saturday; this occurred on Saturday evening, as we keep time.
Then, “Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb” (v. 2). John says it was “still dark” when they set out (John 20:1); Matthew adds that it was “dawn on the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1).
The three found the “very large” stone rolled away and the tomb unguarded (v. 4).
Matthew explains: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men” (28:2-4). That stone was but a pebble compared to the Rock of Ages inside.
They “saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). Luke adds that his clothes “gleamed like lightning” (Luke:24:4). And “they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). We would be, too.
So the angel told them, “Don’t be alarmed” (v. 6). Matthew: “Do not be afraid” (28:5). Literally, “fear not” or “stop being afraid.” Why?
“He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you'” (vs. 6-7).
Nonetheless they responded: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (v. 8).
The other gospels tell us that these women eventually did go to the apostles with their experience at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:10). Peter and John then ran to the tomb and looked inside (John 20:3-10; cf. Luke 24:12). Mary Magdalene followed them and was left weeping outside (John 20:11; cf. Luke 24:12). To this point she has not met the risen Christ. She has heard from angels, but his body is missing and she is bewildered and upset.
Meanwhile, Jesus met the other women. They worshiped him, clasping his feet, and were sent to his disciples again (Matthew 28:9-10). Mary Magdalene then met “two angels in white” (John 20:11-13), and encountered the risen Christ for herself (John 20:14-17). She then told the disciples about the One she met (v. 18). And the rest is history.
Decide to manage your fear
On Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene stepped from fear to faith. From “trembling and bewildered” to “I have seen the Lord.” How can we follow her example?
It has been noted that the Bible contains 366 “fear not’s”. Its most frequent prohibition is not about any of the seven deadly sins—pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, or wrath. It’s about fear. One “fear not” for every day of the year, including a leap year like this one. Why? Because we need to “fear not” every day of the year, including a leap year like this one.
Why is fear such a perennial reality in our lives? It’s because we’re made that way.
Now, some of us are more afraid than others. There is actually a “worry gene” you can inherit; it’s the slc6a4 gene located on chromosome 17q12, in case you’d like to go see if you have one.