The Easter Vigil sermon from Christ Church, New Haven —
Gen 1:1-2:2/Gen 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13/Ex 14:10-15:1/Ez 36:24-28
Zeph 3.14-20/Rom 6:3-11/Matt 28:1-10
March 22, 2008
Moses said, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.”
In the name of God Almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.
It is hard to imagine that by this time you haven’t already figured out that Christ is risen, risen indeed! — so any sermon at this point risks belaboring the obvious. Everything is going according to schedule; we started pretty much on time, you all kindly arrived to praise God with us, we’ve said the appointed prayers and sung the appointed hymns in the order that the bulletin indicates, we’ve heard quite a repertoire of readings — we get the point. We get the point, except for the part about how incongruous a carefully-planned liturgy looks, compared to the scene in which Easter angels bring a message that catches Mary Magdalene and the other Mary so startled and unprepared.
Who wants to be unprepared for Easter? Not the rector nor the MC; not the music director or the choir; not the readers; certainly not the altar guild. And most of the time, the congregation doesn’t want the Easter Vigil to involve any surprises. Surprises frequently substitute sensation for spiritual wisdom, as though the preacher could enhance the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection by inflating and twisting some balloon sculptures of selected animals from the reading about Noah’s Ark. Startling gimmicks, though, belong to a different order of communication than do solemn theological declarations; they resemble more a tawdry sales pitch than an exultant confession of Easter faith.
You may rest assured that I have no balloon animals in store for you.
Don’t let that reassure you, though, because complacency undermines Easter faith; a misplaced presumption that ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation is likely to tempt us to assume that we know well enough what to expect of God?—?even though the cavalcade of tonight’s readings cries out to us that our expectations deceive, our assumptions enervate, our overconfidence baffles the trust and mutuality that bind us together in our sharing with Jesus.
The succession of readings tonight describe God’s providence as reaching out to us in ways that far exceed what we can ask or imagine. At a timeless moment in a placeless space, God brought into existence time and worlds — and not mere existence alone, but surging sea and seedbearing soil, fulsome and fecund and free. At a dead end moment among a band of desperate refugees, God made a way out of no way. And God has been telling us all along that even greater surprises lie in store for us. Though hardly a day dawns that doesn’t bear depressing testimony to human stony-heartedness, Ezekiel promises us that God will elicit from our selfish hearts the warmth of compassionate holiness. Zephaniah assures us that God will raise up from among us a people of peace and gentleness, who will not simply survive the brutal oppression of hostile history, but will arise triumphant over violence and predation. God teaches us, and God begs us to remember, that God consistently deals in improbabilities, in unexpectedness, in surprises — so when we confidently assert that we know what’s bound to happen, we substitute the futile effort to control God’s wild grace by imagining predictable outcomes for the humility that receives staggering gifts with faith. When we suppose that we know what can’t possibly happen, we exaggerate our capacity to figure things out and underestimate the grace that new every morning reveals God’s unforeseen proclivity to amaze.
If anyone should have been ready for the power of grace, one would think it would be the disciples who followed Jesus through Galilee and Judea, who marveled time and again at his healings, at his exorcisms, at the goodness that observed no boundaries. One might suspect that disciples who heard Jesus say, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” might have been alert for the possibility, the merest glimmer of a chance, that (oh, I don’t know) the Son of Man might undergo great suffering, and be rejected by his people, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. But such is the power of expectations, sisters and brothers, that the glaring impossibility of such a thing closes our hearts to the hope that life might be stronger than death, that grace might survive spite.
Sisters and brothers, I can’t tell you what the disciples were thinking. Although I work in the field of New Testament Studies, I lack the superpower of trans-millennial clairvoyance that many scholars in my discipline seem to possess. I won’t try to tell you how a resurrection really feels. I can say, though, that the disciples’ astonished incomprehension at the news of Jesus’ resurrection fittingly suggests the difference between having been told that something utterly improbable was about to happen (on one hand), and experiencing that prediction brought to reality (on the other). After all, people often enough disbelieve that even likely events will happen; we delay thinking about obligations even as the deadline creeps inexorably closer, we drive as though our cars render us invulnerable to catastrophe. I have sometimes told students that a particular question would be on a final exam, have in fact described what the correct answer to that question would be, only to find that on their exams one or two students gave a mistaken answer. They didn’t believe that I would actually ask the designated question, or that I would accept the answer that I had described to them.
Though behavior such as this provides a strong first stage for understanding the Marys’ reverential astonishment, they will have even more grounds for marvel when we pause to recollect that the Jesus whom they encounter on Easter appeared to them not as an ethereal vapor, nor as the shambling zombie of B-grade horror films. Scripture takes pains to narrate their encounter with a Jesus who not only has actual feet that they can grasp in adoration, but that his body, what St Paul calls a “spiritual body,” differs in kind from the ordinary mortal bodies with which we’re otherwise familiar; if he resembled the angel in tonight’s reading, we can imagine that “his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” The Jesus of Easter embodies the actuality of God’s goodness and glory more directly, more surprisingly, than earthen flesh could convey. And the glory of God stunned the soldiers, and the grace of God overwhelmed the reverential women.
They were, in a word, surprised, and more than surprised, by Easter — even though Jesus had instructed them explicitly about what these days would entail, even though some among them had witnessed Jesus transfigured in a coming attraction to the main feature of the resurrection day, even though they had, in their best moments, recognized that Jesus of Nazareth was among them as the Son of the Living God. They were surprised, rightly surprised, by Easter, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the new life that resurrection inaugurates tonight.
But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary exemplify our Easter Wisdom — for no one can be prepared for the power of resurrection life.
So tonight, the saints triumphant file into the church and take their places among us; tonight, all Christ Church’s beloved return and surround us in these rows, these stalls, strong and whole and more truly alive than ever. Tonight, the first and last night of creation, the sublime intensity of divine life bursts out of the tombs built by mortal imagination, and kindles Easter light in our very midst.
Tonight, we need no more preparation than to receive God’s gifts with joy, lifting up our hearts in the glorious Easter anthem: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”