Saturday, April 10, 2004

The Great Vigil of Easter

Tonight, we begin our celebration of Easter. Why do we start in the darkness of night? Because it was sometime during this night that the resurrection happened. Tomorrow morning, the tomb will be empty. Tonight, we begin in the darkness of death, and move toward the brightness and beauty of the light of the Resurrection.

Something spectacular happened during this night. We don't know exactly what happened, as there were no eye witnesses. But we know that something happened, and things have never been the same since.

Tonight, we are given Matthew's account of the events after the Resurrection. We can assume that the Prayer Book offers this text because it begins "towards the dawn of the first day of the week." It begins at night. We need to step into the shoes of Mary Magdalene and her companion for a few minutes. We need to pretend that we don't know the end of this story. We need to try and see the story through there eyes.

Jewish custom explains why Jesus followers waited until Sunday to come to the tomb. Jesus had to be entombed on Friday because it was against Jewish law to leave the body of a person who had been executed outside overnight. The women had to wait until Sunday, or Saturday night to us; in the Jewish tradition, a day is measured from sundown to sundown. They had to wait because Saturday was the Sabbath. It was not prohibited to tend dead bodies on the Sabbath. That's not why they have to wait. The prohibited work was the rolling away of the huge stone that sealed the entrance of the tomb.

In the darkness, the two women approach the tomb. We don't know how they expected to get past the soldiers posted to guard the tomb by Pilate. We don't know how they expected to roll away the massive rock blocking the mouth of this cave-tomb. All we are told is that they simply went to see the sepulcher. Then things start to get a little bit spooky.

First, there is an earthquake. This was a great earthquake, not a little tremor. Most likely it threw the women to the ground. Matthew goes on to tell us that an angel appeared and rolled back the stone. The appearance of this celestial creature makes it clear that this is no angelic looking young man. This creature's appearance was like lightening, and his clothes white as snow. This angel brought a dazzling brightness to this dark, earth cracking night. The guards fall to the ground in terror.

This is a spooky night. Lots of strange things happening. The women are ready to run for safety. Then the angel speaks to them, saying, "Don't be afraid."

Don't be afraid? Earthquakes, glowing angels moving huge stones, guards falling down unconscious, and he says, "Don't be afraid?"

What are we talking about here tonight? Divine intervention. Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, intervening in human events. We are talking about the Messiah, the Savior of the world, being raised by God. We are talking about death, our ancient enemy, being cast down and trampled underfoot for all time. We are talking about changing our entire way of knowing God and being in communion with God. We are talking about the transformation of the world. And the angel says, "Do not be afraid."

Maybe we need to be a little more afraid. These days, Christianity has taken on a rather warm and fuzzy aspect for many people. We've made it too easy, too simple, too user friendly. God becomes the favorite Uncle, who is generous and kind, but stays away unless we need him. We don't want a God of earthquakes and angelic armies. We want a controllable God, a gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. This is not the fear that comes from thinking if we do wrong, God's going to zap us. And itÂ’s not the fear that comes from being afraid of going to hell. The church has overused these teachings, and most likely done more damage than good. I am talking about the fear, the awe, the shock that takes your breath away, when you suddenly encounter the living God.

The best example I know of what I'm talking about is the example of C.S. Lewis that I have offered you before. Imagine that I told you that there was a tiger in the sacristy. Most of us would find ourselves torn by two conflicting emotions. The first would be fear, sending us stampeding in the opposite direction. The second emotion would be a sense of fascination and awe, drawing us to the door of the sacristy, to open it just a crack, so we can get a peek of this marvelous tiger.

This is the kind of fear we experience tonight. A fear of the unknown. A fear of change. A fear of death. A fear of new life, of resurrection. It is a fearful thing to fall in the hands of the living God, because our lives will never be the same. A sense of awe, and holy fear, seem to be appropriate on this night.

The angel continues to say amazing things to the women. "Jesus is not here. He has risen. Come and see." They depart full of fear and joy, frightened by the mighty acts of God, but hoping against hope that he is risen indeed. And then they encounter their risen Lord.

We are invited to come and see tonight as well. We are invited to see God as God really is, a mighty God, filling us with fear and joy. A God who has overcome death, a God who promises us a life that is deathless and everlasting, a God who offers us this everlasting life right now, if we will reject our domesticated visions of God, and accept with awe the power of our God.

The resurrection is not a passive story. It calls us to action. Even though we might be fearful and hesitant, we are called to come and see God's movement in the world. As we begin to glimpse God's mighty acts, our pride, our selfishness, our lustfulness begins to die, and something new is resurrected to take its place. The spirit of the living God begins to live through us, making us agents of God in the transformation of the world.

We are also called to go and tell. As we begin to see God moving in the world, we begin being part of God's mission, by proclaiming to the world the resurrection power of God. We proclaim freedom to the oppressed, release to the captives, and refreshment to those who hunger and thirst.

We refuse to give in to the human tendency to destroy one another. We find no answers at the end of a gun barrel, no hope in bombs. Our fascination with death and destruction dies, replaced by a hope in the resurrection, a hope in a new life. We must all come and see the miracle of new life, and then go and tell others the joyful news.

Tonight, we accept the challenge to become people of the resurrection. As Easter people, we have been shown that there is always new life beyond loss, disappointment, and even death. As Easter people, we move out in mission, proclaiming the resurrection hope that is in us.


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