“And suddenly there was a great earthquake….”
This is the detail that Matthew contributes to the account of the Resurrection of Jesus that is not found in Mark, Luke or John.
Two earthquakes, to be precise.
The first earthquake marks the moment when Jesus dies. It is creation itself seeming to lurch at the moment of Jesus death, throwing open the graves of many of the saints.
The second earthquake happens on the day of Resurrection. This is when those open graves give up their dead, many of whom are seen walking about Matthew says, and understood to be a sign of God’s power to bring life from the long dead.
This earthquake is marked by the appearance also of the Angel witnessed by Mary, Mary Magdalene, and by the guards who faint as if dead when the Angel appears.
There is good reason to faint.
The Angel throws the stone aside from Jesus’ grave and then takes a seat upon it, much the way you or I might effortlessly toss a pillow on a couch and take a seat.
It’s such a significant event that it’s hard to see how the other Gospel writers could possibly have left it out or not mentioned it, which leads one to believe that Matthew has inserted this detail into the story for a specific reason.
It’s not hard to figure out what that reason might be. Encounters with God are meant to be earthshaking!
Matthew is the gospel writer most concerned with making sure that we understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises and prophecy, and writing to his Jewish audience he knows that there are certain themes that weave themselves into encounters with God, and earthquakes are certainly one of those themes.
An earthquake shows up in the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai. Moses is on the mountain and the mountain shakes with the presence of God.
An earthquake shows up in the story of Elijah. While the dejected Elijah is seeking God on Mt. Horeb, peering from the cave in which he is hiding, Elijah experiences first a great wind, then an earthquake, and then fire. All pass by the cave entrance, and when the noise and shaking abate, the presence of God is found in the stillness that follows, and that is what draws Elijah forth from the tomb of his own making.
An Earthquake begins the story of the call of Isaiah, and the mighty gates of the Temple rattle on their pivots as Isaiah has his vision, of the Seraphim who announces the presence of God entering with their “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts!”
These are all earthshaking moments, when God comes near, and prophecy is uttered, or fulfilled, and God’s intention is finally made clear.
So, one piece of the puzzle of what Matthew is trying to convey is simply the power and presence of a God who comes to keep promises, and fulfill them.
“And suddenly there was a great earthquake…” God is on the scene.
But there is another element of the story that I think Matthew is trying to convey, and it has to do with our own experience of what an earthquake does — to us.
This is a bit harder for those of us who are flatlanders and who have limited experience with earthquakes. We’re more attuned to the destructive power of tornados, thunderstorms and floods than to earthquakes, so it requires a little more imagination to see the statement made.
If you have ever been even in a small earthquake, you know that the first thing it does is disorient you.
Earthquakes disorient. They take what is normally firm and reliable and they change its very nature.
Earthquakes can make solid ground liquify. That will be the fate of the Interstate System in Missouri, or so they tell us. When the New Madrid Fault has its major event, we can expect to see every interstate bridge across the distance from Kansas City to Memphis Tennessee simply sink into the ground as the loose soil liquifies from the vibrations, breaking the highway into segments, which in a matter of seconds will cripple all transit.
It staggers the imagination, disorients, who can imagine something like that?
Landmarks shift, and buildings and towers topple and disappear. We have seen this on television in the aftermath of earthquakes, but it is still a little unbelievable, and not something we can quite get our minds around.
What is most disorienting of all is the fact that nothing built by human hands remains unaffected, and there is no place that is “safe.”
Not indoors, where the building crumbles down around you.
Not outdoors, where the ground swallows, or the architecture falls on you, or the shaking of ground tosses you on unsteady feet and makes you helpless.
This is the truth about earthquakes, they disorient and disarm you completely.
We talk about building things to “Earthquake specifications” now, at least in areas that are most prone to such events, but what that really means is that we “build things to move.” We do not build them to resist movement, but rather to embrace the movement as it happens. You sway with what happens, or you fall. Nothing stands against or opposes such forces and comes out unscathed.
This is what Matthew appears to be driving home in his Resurrection account.
Many things were done by human hands to try to oppose or stop God, to stave off the Kingdom Jesus announced, or to push back against the Kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.
A plot was hatched by religious leaders to thwart Jesus.
30 pieces of silver were employed, and you know nothing stands against money when it is properly deployed.
Solid relationships were corrupted, as the friend becomes the betrayer, and the symbol of love, a kiss, is made an instrument of betrayal.
There was a washing of hands by the government officials, as if the leadership could absolve itself of responsibility and erase the complicity of betrayal and its ineffectiveness.
Jesus was crucified so that there wouldn’t be a riot, at least not a mob that couldn’t be controlled and turned to a desired outcome.
Guards were set so that the tomb will not be bothered, and as a show of force of who was truly in charge.
A seal was set upon the tomb to warn off any would-be robbers.
Many things were attempted and employed by human hands to stop or oppose the power and the intent of God. Matthew’s Gospel gives us all the details of what human hands could and did do to Jesus, and it all looked at first like the powers of this world had prevailed.
“And then suddenly there was a great earthquake…..”
In the wake of the earthquake all of those attempts to contain the intent of God by human hands and human hubris are left in total disarray.
This is the point that Matthew drives home with his earthquake.
Nothing devised by human hands prevails against the things that are set in motion by God!
The women become the perfect witnesses to the resurrection because of what we are told they leave the empty tomb with, which is, “fear and great joy.”
Fear: Yes, there is a lot to be afraid of here. This is God’s raw power on display in this story that no human conniving can stop or oppose.
You have to learn to roll with this.
There is a reason to be afraid because of the Resurrection, God is intent upon having God’s way in this world, and Jesus does have a claim upon this world, and a claim on you. As Rich Mullin’s so eloquently reminds us in his worship song “Awesome God” “it wasn’t for no reason that he shed his blood.”
So there is a point of fear at work here, because Resurrection ends up being earthshaking for us. It affirms that whatever we think we can do to push back against God’s Kingdom, against God’s love is pretty much useless.
This is how Resurrection disorients us. It is earthshaking to realize that God is so intent to save this world that he sends his only Son, who continues to be on the move even when we have done our best to stop him.
It is disorienting to think of God dying on the Cross, for us, and death not being the end of things.
It leaves us in disarray, unsteady on our own feet to realize that what we thought was permanent… death itself… can be overcome by God.
There is therefore no place safe. No place to crawl into, or hide, or run to where God does not have power to reach us.
Not behind locked doors.
Not on the road to Emmaus.
Not back on the shores of Galilee.
Not in your home or your workplace, or any other place you may turn into throughout the week.
God is on the move, and nothing stops the God who comes to meet us in Jesus Christ.
Who can imagine that?
So there is fear, in realizing that there is no place that God cannot find God’s way.
But there is great joy as well.
The great joy of realizing all of this was done for us.
The great joy that comes from realizing that because Jesus is risen, we too may have eternal life.
The great joy that comes upon the women as the seize hold of Jesus again, by the feet this time, as if to just slow him down long enough to be assured that all the love he had for them could not be extinguished by this world.
This is the great joy of the resurrection.
Jesus returns to this world that crucified him, not to avenge or conquer with all the power at his disposal and angels that can toss stones like pillows.
Instead Jesus returns with just one clear message. The promised Kingdom has indeed come near, and it cannot be stopped, and you will see him. He goes ahead of you, just as he promised.
That disorients us as much as any earthquake.
Easter is earthshaking.
God loves this world.
God loves you.
In the midst of all that powerful and disorienting love, all you can really do is learn to “Roll with it.”