The Great Vigil of Easter: April 4, 2015
Genesis 1:1-2:4a | Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26 | Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21 | Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26 | Ezekiel 36:24-28 | Psalms 42 and 43 | Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Psalm 98:1-4, 6-9 | Romans 6:3-11 | Mark 16:1-8
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
A couple of weeks ago our wonderful Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries Andrea Dedmon was preparing some of our youngest members to experience the events of Holy Week. “So, Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday for his last week on earth,” she told them. One little boy, who has only just started coming to church, had an immediate reaction. “What?” he said, “Jesus is going to die?”
“Yes,” Andrea replied.
He responded in wide-eyed surprise: “Duh-duh-duh…”
But then one of the other kids, a more-seasoned church-goer, interjected with joy, “But then he’s going to rise from the dead!” Relief swept through the crowd.
This is the night we remember the primary stories of our faith. But unlike that little boy, most of us are not hearing them for the first time. We know the ending. And in some ways, that is the only thing that makes them bearable.
The earth was a formless void, with darkness covering the face of the deep. But we know that God created order of that chaos, and we have been blessed to be part of that wondrous creation.
The Pharaoh and his army advanced on our forebears in faith, the Israelites, and the Red Sea loomed before them. It looked as though annihilation was certain. But the Lord delivered them with unmoistened feet, and horse and rider were thrown into the sea.
Jesus was crucified on a wind-swept hill, with his friends watching helplessly. Laid in a tomb and left for dead, the women come on the third day to prepare him for burial, only to discover the stone rolled away and tomb empty. Death did not have the last word.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could recapture for ourselves the surprise and wonder that is such a key to these stories? Who among us wouldn’t like to experience the thrill of the unexpected ending, the result far greater than we could ever ask or imagine?
Tonight’s service is a dramatization of the Easter story. We began in darkness, like the darkness that surely must have been felt by the disciples after Jesus’ dramatic death. We then lit the fire, and then the Paschal Candle, as symbols of the gift of Christ in our lives, the light that brings hope. Then we remained in candlelight to hear the story of our own salvation—the ways that God has acted in the lives of God’s people. We heard all of these stories as the preamble to THE story of God’s ultimate act of redemption in the resurrection of Christ.
Now, as we sit here in the dark, we who orchestrate liturgy at St. Michael’s hope the tension rises. The entire service is designed to build anticipation for the proclamation about to occur. But for most of us, it is no surprise. We have been here before; we know what is coming. We hear it all as a sort of old familiar friend.
As we will be reminded in a few moments, when the women came to the tomb, they found not the body of their dear friend and teacher, but instead a mysterious young man in a white robe, telling them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Their reaction was to flee the scene in terror and amazement. They were unable to fully comprehend what has happened. And the disciples reacted in the same way. The events they witnessed exceeded even their wildest imaginations. They couldn’t really believe it was true.
And I have to confess that I sometimes find myself in that same place. Can God have really altered the rules of the known world in raising Christ? Can Jesus really have been God in our midst, fully human even as he was fully God? And can I believe that the ruler of the universe would really love one as flawed and incomplete as me enough to sacrifice the Son of God for my salvation?
I wonder if I have really grasped the enormity of the gift that is proclaimed this night—if I can ever fully comprehend what is given by God in the events of Easter. I often find it easier not to confront the story, not to try to wrap my mind around the mystery. I am sometimes more comfortable relegating the resurrection to allegory or myth, and not fully embracing this story that feels like it has always been a part of me, almost imprinted on my DNA. I try to explain it all away—and in doing so I give away the surprising power of love that is at the core of our Christian story. In rationalizing the story, I think I close myself to the gift that God has given. By refusing to embrace the wonder of the story, I also lose the opportunity to know myself as the object of God’s wild and boundless grace. I lose at least some of the real, transformative, and unconditional love of God. And I lose the possibility that God will act again in my life in a surprising, unimaginable way.
Tonight we are called to stand in witness to the mystery of God—to own the gift of love in Christ’s death and resurrection for my salvation and for yours—for each and every one of you.
Make no mistake: It is a truly surprising turn in the story for Jesus to go to his own death for us. When Christ hung on the cross, he saw you as the object of his love, as the reason why leaning into death was worthwhile. And then, even more surprisingly, God raised Jesus from the grave to take away the sting of death—to give us the gift of eternal life.
Because we are mortal and finite, we cannot fully comprehend how, through the infinite power of God, Christ was raised from the dead to undo the power of death itself. We will never really be able to understand the mechanics of these events, or how God could love us this much. And so, perhaps our best response is just to be open to the surprise of the story, and to celebrate the enormity of the gift.
Thanks be for the gift of God’s unfailing love. Thanks for the gift of our friend and teacher Jesus, God come to earth to embody that gracious love. And thanks for the continuing gift of the Holy Spirit as our constant companion and guide, spurring us on to live into our identity as God’s beloved. And may we always be surprised by the mystery of God’s love in our lives. Amen.