easter vigil preaching

I was introduced to the ancient tradition of the Easter Vigil by University Hill Congregation. For twenty years I was privileged to lead the congregation in its first celebration of the Resurrection each year. It meant preaching an Easter sermon in the darkness, waiting for the sun to rise. One sample of those sermons is posted at While it Was Still Dark. Another, titled "Fear and Great Joy" (from 2002 on Matthew 28:1-10), follows here ...

It all happens so fast. That is the first thing you notice when you pay attention to the text: “Suddenly there was a great earthquake ... Go quickly ... they left the tomb quickly ... Suddenly Jesus met them”. It is fashionable to imagine that the resurrection takes shape slowly in the lives of the disciples as it begins to dawn on them that Jesus present once again. But the text makes no room for a slowly emerging truth. It insists that it happened all of a sudden. One minute the two Mary’s are mourning and the next they are overcome by events beyond their comprehension. Easter is a radical departure from the expected and explicable routines of our days. It is no simple equation, not simply a story of bulbs waking from winter sleep to bloom once again. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a sudden act of God that sets in motion a rush of activity. The women do not linger. They run!

They run because they have been overcome by a massive event: “a great earthquake ... an angel of the Lord descending ... his appearance was like lightening ... his clothing white as snow”. We are confident that we know better. We are sure that Matthew overstates, that the women must experience an ‘inner earthquake’, meet a mythic ‘angel’. We remain outside the story, making “meaning” out of it rather than entering the story and living the truth of it. Our age is determined to retain control of this story, to determine its meaning, to decide the truth of the matter for itself. But the women cannot control what is happening to them. The resurrection is a massive natural event that confronts them with the awesome creative power of God. It is not simply a ‘spiritual’ event because the spirit of YHWH is imbedded and embodied in the physics of the universe. God’s spirit is material, it is the raw energy of creation, the driving force of life. Awesome cosmic forces are at work when God announces: “Dead man walking”. A modern age wants to deny the possibility of the reality of forces beyond its logical and rational comprehension. The women at the tomb do not have the liberty of denying what is happening to them.

The women “see” the resurrection firsthand. They go to “see the tomb”, to witness the scene of death’s victory. Instead, they become the first witnesses of death’s defeat. The angel of the Lord invites them to: “Come, see the place where he lay” and then sends them to Galilee where his disciples will “see him”. But before they reach the disciples they see Jesus alive, take hold of his feet and worship him. The story of the resurrection is a story told by witnesses who have seen the risen Christ with their own eyes. How else can their witness be trusted? Second and third-hand testimony is always problematic: “He said that she said that Jesus met her on the road”. Christian witness is powerfully first-hand testimony. I daresay that this is the central reason that much of the church in North America now finds itself in despair about its future. So long as the church assumed that everyone was a Christian it could not pretend to be filled with firsthand witnesses of the resurrection. Instead, it began to place its trust elsewhere. It adopted the common sense values of love and peace and justice. It no longer made room for firsthand testimony of the living presence of the Risen Christ. But the ground is shifting. The culture has no need any longer of a religious veneer for its morals and values. The church is left to die. Suddenly, Jesus shows up. He arrives in strange and unexpected ways. Women testify that he has blessed them with new life on the other side of awful grief. Men admit as how they had given up on themselves and on their future until he called them to die to their old identity and to rise as a new person. Congregations begin to wonder what is happening in their midst as more and more witnesses to the Risen One dare to speak. People begin inviting others to “come and see”. This is no small event in a world that grows increasingly apathetic in the face of the huge powers of death-dealing violence that are on the loose. See?

See how terrifying it all is. The thread that ties the story together is fear: “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men ... But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid’ ... with fear and great joy, they ran to tell ... Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid’”. We have surely domesticated the story. Our hymns are all ‘alleluia’ and ‘joy’. Our festivities are all springtime blossoms and new outfits. But the story is a strange mixture of “fear and great joy”. I imagine that we would do well to ponder these four words throughout the fifty days of Easter that begin at midnight tonight. I wonder if, after those seven weeks, we might together begin to picture what a church that embodies “fear and great joy” will look like. I am not sure that I know better than you what this is all about. But I am sure that it is not as simple as being just a church of “great joy”. Not when our sisters and brothers in Jerusalem and Bethlehem live in such fear tonight. Not when the creatures of the warming earth are so afraid for their future. Not when our own living is shadowed by fears - real and imagined, remembered and dreaded, at night and in the day ... fears that catch up to us no matter how far and fast we run. If the church’s witness is to be believable in the world’s courtroom of truth it cannot be a simplistic, false joy that hides fear in the closet. Of course the fear that overcomes the women is a newfound fear. It is not the old fears that shape their witness. They run “in fear and great joy” because some huge new event has overtaken their lives ... because they can never go back to the old familiar fears again. They no longer live afraid of death. Instead, they live in fear of the immense power of God to bring life. It is an amazing new truth that catches them up in great joy ... but also in fear. They can no longer assume that the forces of death always triumph. They are now compelled not to give up on anyone or anything. They are now free to risk life without fear of death and to risk following the Lord of life and death who is already on the loose, out ahead, in Galilee and beyond ... in the halls of power and the streets of poverty ... in the maternity ward and in palliative care. It would all be too terrifying if the living Christ was not so true to his promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

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