I preached this sermon for the Easter Vigil service this year, March 22, also at Bethlehem Lutheran.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Tonight is a night of waiting. Yesterday evening, we observed Good Friday with a Tenebrae service, a service of darkness. Yesterday, we recalled the moments of Christ’s death on the cross, when the earth shook and even the sun was blotted out in response to the death of Christ. Those events demonstrate to us—as they did to the centurion who observed them when they originally happened—that “truly this man was the Son of God.” On Good Friday, we realize the full audacity of what was done to Jesus: the Son of God, the Word made flesh, was tortured and killed. The whole earth responded to this event, and the individuals who recognized who Jesus was—the centurion, the women at the cross, the disciples—were also struck to the heart by his death.
Last night, we remembered the sacrifice of God’s Son. Tonight, what do we remember? Where are we in the gospel story? For a few minutes, I’d like you to forget the reading we have just heard. It is not yet Easter morning; the women have not yet gone to the tomb and found it empty. Today is the sabbath, and the followers of Jesus are waiting. Likewise for us, we are waiting. Of course, we already know what is coming. We know what will happen tomorrow morning, when this church is filled with people and light and music and joy; we already know the ending of the story. But let us dwell here, on Easter vigil, a little while. Let us appreciate the terrible tension of the three days; the tension of being trapped between death and the resurrection, in this waiting place. Let us pretend for a little while that we do not know what will happen tomorrow. Let us imagine what the followers of Christ on this first Easter vigil were feeling.
I want to share with you one imagined account of this story, told in a novel called Lamb. Anyone who has read Lamb can tell you that it is humorous, sometimes inappropriate, and certainly scripturally unsound. However, I find the treatment of the passion story in this novel very interesting. The novel is supposed to be a new gospel, written by a man who was Jesus’ childhood friend. As such, this friend has known Jesus longer and better than any of the other disciples; he has followed Jesus for twenty-five years. He has seen all the miracles and heard all the teachings. In the days leading up to the crucifixion, he realizes that Jesus is in grave danger from the Pharisees and Priests and does everything he can to protect Jesus. In the end, of course, Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and crucified—just as happens in the gospels. This friend, faced by Jesus’ death and his own failure to protect him, is horrified. He cannot comprehend the “Good” in Good Friday. He sees his friend, his messiah, murdered, and he cannot accept this outcome. He kills himself in this waiting time, after the crucifixion but before the promised resurrection.
There is no such character in the gospel stories, of course. But this imaginary character strikes a chord with me. Isn’t his reaction eminently believable? He knew Jesus better than anyone; he knew the miracles; he recognized Jesus as the Son of God. But the Son of God was not supposed to die, at least according to his understanding. His hope died along with Jesus. And is that response not understandable? What kind of world would kill its savior? How can we live in such a world? How can we go on living when the Son of God himself is dead and buried?
So much for one view of the crucifixion. From this perspective, it seems hard to find the joyful message of good news that we know is coming with the morning. But again, this character does not really exist. As terrified and grief-stricken as Jesus’ followers certainly were, they do not kill themselves like Judas does or like this character in Lamb. What do they do instead? The gospels are very limited in their treatment of the waiting time. We do know a few things: a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea requests Jesus’ body from Pilate and buries it in a tomb newly carved out of the stone. According to the gospel of John, a man named Niccodemus pays for myrrh and aloes and helps Joseph to prepare the body. The women watch and wait at the tomb. A guard is set and the stone is sealed in place to prevent anyone from stealing the body. Then, on the sabbath, which is today, they wait. The women plan to anoint the body after the sabbath, but for this day, the day we now call Easter Saturday, they are forced to wait, alone with their fears and sorrows.
What were the disciples and other followers thinking during this time? What kept them going, unlike the follower in the novel? What led Joseph of Arimathea to take the body and prepare it? What were the women waiting for outside of the tomb? Martin Luther, in a sermon on these passages from the gospel, makes a compelling argument. He focuses on Joseph of Arimathea, saying, “Joseph was not a plain and common citizen, like the apostles . . . he was a member of the council of Jerusalem and very rich. . . . Now, Joseph, who had taken no part in any of the proceedings against the Lord Jesus and did not want to be present at His trial, did a very dangerous thing when he sought Christ’s body for a decent burial. He was thus likely to incur the fury of the whole council and of Pilate himself, who had condemned the Lord, and he thus gave them to understand that in his opinion Christ had been a pious and good Man, who had been wronged in the sight of God and the world.
“What moved him so boldly to expose himself? Only this, he was waiting for the kingdom of God. That is, he still believed that God’s kingdom would not fail to come, and that Christ, although he had so miserably hung and died upon the cross, would be raised from the dead by God.” We can understand all of the actions of the followers of Jesus in the same way. Why would the women go to the tomb and wait there, unless they were expecting something to happen? I referred to the time between Christ’s death and his resurrection as a waiting time; this very phrase implies that there is something to wait for.
The followers of Christ did not know what was coming; but they struggled to hold on to their profound hope and faith that all was not over. When the rest of the world was laughing, “He saved others; let him save himself!”; when the rest of the world saw the defeat of a man who claimed to be God; when the rest of the world dismissed his story, believing it had come to an end; when the rest of the world was moving on, the followers of Jesus waited. They did not know what would come; they had no idea what to expect; but they had faith that their savior was not finished. This faith is truly remarkable. When everyone and everything around them told them that they had been defeated, made fools of, they believed in the words of a dead man. A dead man! The Pharisees and the Priests knew, the world knows, that death is the end. A dead man can do nothing and say nothing, yet this dead man still inspired faith in his followers. In this terrible waiting time, when there was nothing to support their faith, when all the evidence told them to give up, the followers believed nonetheless.
And we hear, in the gospel of John, what came of that faith. Mary, in her faith, returns to the tomb and finds it open and empty. She summons Simon Peter and John, the other disciple, and they, too, see the empty tomb. Something has happened, clearly; the disciples see and believe that Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb. But they still do not understand what this means; they return home empty-handed. It is Mary who remains, still waiting for something, still expecting something. She does not know what she is waiting for; her first thought is that someone has taken the body, and she wants to find it again. But she lingers, and as a result she sees exactly what she has been hoping for, what she was unconsciously waiting for. Jesus himself appears to her, calls her by name, and sends her out to proclaim what she has seen.
What a wonderful fulfillment of Mary’s hope! Even when waiting through the agonizing three days, with nothing to rely on and no one to turn to, she still hoped to see her Lord again. Would that God would grant us the same patient hope. Often, we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel when faced with far lesser adversity. Tonight, on Easter vigil, let us remember the hope of the followers of Jesus, and remember how that hope was fulfilled above and beyond what they could have expected. And let us, too, proclaim with Mary in the darkest times: “I have seen the Lord!”