Sermon: "The Great Vigil of Easter"
Easter Vigil Sermon.04.03.21
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a; Genesis 7.1-5, 11-18, 8.6-18, 9.8-13; Genesis 22.1-18; Exodus 14.10-15.1; Isaiah 4.2-6; Isaiah 55.1-11; Ezekiel 36.24-28; Ezekiel 37.1-14; Zephaniah 3.12-20; Romans 6.3-11; Matthew 28.1-10
The Great Vigil of Easter is the pinnacle of the Church year. No service is accorded a higher place. Thanks for joining us in this celebration. The Easter Vigil has four parts: in the Service of Light we kindle a fire and light the Paschal Candle, process into the church, and acknowledge the light of Christ. In the Liturgy of the Word, we reflect upon our history as the people of God. In the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, we acknowledge that we have died with Christ and, through Christ’s resurrection, have been raised with Christ to newness of life. In the Eucharistic Feast we remember how Jesus Christ shared our human nature and reconciled us to God; we offer our praise of thanksgiving and “we celebrate the memorial of our redemption” (BCP, p. 363).
In the Liturgy of the Word, we recall and reflect upon several of the mighty acts of God, the great moments in the history of God’s people. The readings remind us that Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection are not to be understood as some isolated moments in history; they are rather the culmination of salvation history which began with creation. In the story of Noah and the flood we are asked to reflect on the sinful nature of humankind and the saving of a remnant (Noah and his family). God’s covenant with Noah prefigures our own baptism. In 1 Peter 3 we read of God’s patience during the time it took Noah to build the ark. The author states, “And baptism, which this [the flood] prefigured, now saves you – not as removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (Vss. 21-22; NRSV).
We read of God’s blessing the nations of the earth through Abraham’s faith which was reckoned unto him as righteousness. God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac, the son God promised for which he waited 25 years. When God saw Abraham’s obedience, an angel of the Lord halted the sacrifice and provided a ram. This prefigures the sacrificial death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We read of how God delivered the Israelites at the Red Sea – another event which prefigures our own baptism.
We examined the prophetic words of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zephaniah. We noted Isaiah’s rejoicing over God’s presence in a renewed Israel and his assurance of God’s salvation freely offered to all. We read Ezekiel’s proclamation from God that Israel would be given a new heart and a new spirit and we see the assurance of how this was to take place in the story of the valley of dry bones. New life was granted the captives and they returned to Israel. In Zephaniah 3 we read of God’s promise to rejoice over God’s people with gladness, to renew them in love, and to exalt over them with loud singing. Zephaniah assured the people that God would bring them home, that they would be renowned and praised by all peoples of the earth.
In Romans we are given the assurance that having been buried with Christ in his baptism, so too we walk in new life through Christ’s resurrection. We are united with Christ in his death and resurrection; we “must consider ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 6.11; NRSV).
All of these are mighty acts of God, yet they pale in comparison to the Incarnation. At long last, God took on human flesh and lived and dwelt among us. Jesus faced every temptation we will ever face, yet in obedience, never sinned. On Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday we considered the mind of Jesus – a mind which chose to always act in love. We contrasted Jesus’ mind with the minds of Caiaphas, Pilate, the chief priests, scribes, elders, and the mob – the mind of the world. On Good Friday, the world thought it had won; those who loved Jesus faced uncertainty and despair.
Imagine how surprised Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were when they arrived at the tomb only to find that the stone blocking the entrance had been rolled away. Imagine their surprise when Jesus, the risen Lord, met them and said “Greetings!” They fell before him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him! In Matthew 28.10, we read how Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (NRSV). In the gospel of John, we read how Mary told the disciples, “I have seen the risen Lord” (John 20.18; NRSV).
In these readings, we find a portrayal of God’s love and faithfulness. All too many would have us accept the notion that an angry and wrathful God demanded the sacrificial death of his Son as a price for our redemption. When we think of Christ’s sacrifice in terms of appeasing God’s anger and wrath, we set God over and against the love that Jesus portrayed. As such, God and Jesus would have stood in opposition. That view is clearly in error.
Jürgen Moltmann argues that “the sacrifice of the cross is not a punishment to appease God’s justice, but God’s act of identification with humanity and the source of a new hope for the human future. The sacrifice is not directed to God: it takes place within God. There is no difference in will between the Father and the Son; both act out of passion for human redemption. And there is no difference in suffering. Both suffer, only they do so in different dimensions of the same event, and in this way they enter into the depth of human loss most fully” (Heim, Mark. “Why does Jesus’ death matter?”). As Richard Rohr observes, “The cross is not the price that Jesus had to pay to talk God into loving us. It is simply where love will lead us” (Everything Belongs, p. 169).
Easter, the culmination of God’s mighty acts in history, opened the way for us to have a new relationship with God through belief in Jesus Christ. At long last, God’s plan of salvation has been fulfilled! Jesus Christ has shown us what sacrificial love, God’s love, looks like, and serves as the exemplar through which we can live more deeply into God’s love. If we believe, if we trust, in Jesus’ love and resurrection we have the hope of new life. This is the Easter story – the story of a God who loves us so much that God chose to live and dwell among us, to die as one of us, and to reveal the hope of the resurrection. Like Mary, we too, can see and experience the risen Lord. And that is cause for celebration!