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Turning fear into faith

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

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.

But we all experience fear, every day. There’s nothing we can do to stop it. Your brain contains something called the “limbic system” buried deep within it. Its primary job is to ensure your survival. It detects what it perceives to be danger within a tenth of a second, and tells your conscious brain before you can stop the message. That’s why fear is so instantaneous. You cannot stop feeling fear. You can only decide to manage your fear.

Imagine returning to the tomb of someone you love, finding the tomb empty and an angel sitting on the tombstone. You’d be “trembling and bewildered” along with these women. You’d be afraid.

Where is your tombstone today? Where are you “trembling and bewildered” this morning? Complete this sentence: “My number one fear is ___________________.”

I fear for my family’s safety every day. I fear that my life will not fulfill God’s purpose for it. I fear not preaching the Easter message well on this important day. I have other fears too personal to confess to you. What are yours?

Step from fear to faith (Matthew 28:5-10)

How can you turn your fear into faith? Let’s close this morning by learning from Mary and these other women of faith.

First, confront your fear. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells them (v. 5). Make that same decision. You cannot help the feelings of fear that plague you. But you can decide to respond to them. Name your fear today, and choose to confront it.

Next, believe the word of God. The angel gave them the eleven words of Easter: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (v. 6). Find a promise or principle in God’s word for your fear.

I fear for my family, but I can trust those I love to the Father who said, “I will meet all your needs according my riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). I fear failing God’s purpose for my life, but I can trust the One who will lead me into his “good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). I fear failing this morning, but I can trust this message to the One who said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Name your fear, and find God’s truth to respond to it.

Now (and this is crucial), you must meet the risen Lord personally. The women are still “afraid” after hearing the word of God, though they are also now “filled with joy” as well. Then, “Suddenly Jesus met them” (v. 9). Now everything changes.

The only One who can help you overcome the significant fears of your life is the Lord Jesus. The reason you fear them is that you cannot control them. I cannot guarantee my family’s safety. I cannot know the future and my role in it. I cannot control the effectiveness of this message.

But he can. That’s why you and I need a personal relationship with this God. Not just intellectual affirmation of his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but a daily, living connection with him. Time every morning in prayer and Scripture; time every week in personal and congregational worship. Only he can help you with the fears of your life. You must know him personally.

And when you do, you can step by faith into purpose (v. 10). He will guide you into the future and your purpose in it, despite the fears you face.

These women had a purpose, a calling—to be the first evangelists of Easter, the first in human history to tell the world about the risen Lord. They had much to fear—that the disciples wouldn’t believe them, that their families would reject them, that the authorities would arrest and persecute them.

All these things happened. But they stepped by faith into purpose anyway. And their fears turned to faith.

Emerson was right: “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” Step by faith into God’s purpose, and you will have his power. Then fear will knock, faith will answer, and no one will be there.

Conclusion

So this can be your Easter: you can leave today the way Mary and her friends left the empty tomb: “trembling and bewildered.” You can choose to “say nothing to anyone, because you are afraid” (Mk 16:8). You can leave as you came. With the same fears you brought to church this morning.

Or this can be your Easter: “Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid'” (Matthew 28:9-10). And they were not.

Dr. S.M. Lockridge is one of the most profound orators of our day. Listen to his description of our risen Lord: “He is enduringly strong; he is entirely sincere. He is eternally steadfast; he is immortally gracious. He is imperially powerful; he is impartially merciful. He is the greatest phenomenon that has ever crossed the horizons of the globe. He is God’s Son; he is the sinner’s Savior. He is the captive’s Ransom; he is the breath of life. He is the centerpiece of civilization; he stands in the solitude of Himself. He is august and he is unique; he is unparalleled and he is unprecedented. He is undisputed and he is undefiled; he is unsurpassed and he is unshakeable. He is the loftiest idea in philosophy; he is the highest personality in psychology. He is the supreme subject in literature; he is the fundamental doctrine of theology. He is the Cornerstone and the Capstone. He is the miracle of the ages.”

When he says, “Fear not,” he means it.