Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sermon: Easter Vigil

16 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 20:1-18

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Victory has come in the most unlikely of all places: a tomb. The dead body of Jesus lies in a lonely, deserted, cold, stone vault. Tombs are dark, musty, clammy, and creepy places. Tombs are places we avoid. They are reminders of our own mortality, and they hardly bring us joy.

But this tomb is like none other. Number one – it’s empty. Number two, it’s empty because it’s occupant of his own divine power got up and walked out of it. Number three – this tomb is no longer a place of death, but is today a Christian Church, a place where the real and physical Jesus appears to all who join there, giving them eternal life.

In this day and age, all sorts of so-called scholars and moviemakers, and even some who call themselves clergymen – do not believe what St. John has testified, the account of the resurrection of Jesus and his empty tomb. Some will tell us that Jesus’ apostles stole the body in order to create a religion – a religion that would see all but one of them dead because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Some will say Jesus faked his own death – a rather tricky thing to do with professional executioners and Roman soldiers everywhere. Still others claim that Jesus was never put into a tomb at all, that he simply died and the animals consumed him – which might be a good explanation were it not for the ancient empty tomb in Jerusalem – along with contemporary non-biblical accounts that explain that Jesus was in fact put into the tomb, and that he turned up missing on Sunday morning.

My favorite recent Jesus debunking came about a week ago. Some scholar figured out how Jesus did his water-walking trick. Simple. It was a cold winter that year, and Jesus simply walked on the ice – somehow fooling all of those people into thinking he was doing a miracle. You know, wouldn’t it be easier just to claim the whole story was made up rather than come up with stuff like this? But they can’t make that claim – for the evidence for Jesus and the truth of the Gospels is utterly overwhelming. So people who choose not to believe have to come up with some pretty silly explanations.

But look at what our texts point out: Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Lord in the flesh. But it didn’t stop there. Jesus appeared numerous times to his disciples – leading them from being a terrified group huddled in the corner into a courageous band of preachers. And furthermore, Paul identifies some 500 eyewitnesses, who testify to the resurrection in spite of the fact that Christianity was persecuted by the Empire, and the Jewish synagogues would refuse to take care of those who confessed Jesus.

And the amount of historical and eyewitness evidence simply won’t convince people that it’s true. Jesus once said tongue in cheek, “Someone could even rise from the dead and confirm everything I’m saying, and some people still wouldn’t believe me.”

And there’s nothing I can say to make anyone here, or anywhere else, believe in Jesus. I could cite all sorts of historical evidence, and it wouldn’t matter. Some people will scoff, others will believe, and some will simply ignore the matter entirely and just click through 329 channels of satellite TV in a vain search for something interesting.

That makes my job as a preacher easy. All I have to do is proclaim the Gospel – and God takes over from there. The Word of God has power of its own, and it does amazing things – bringing people to belief, calling people to repentance, and teaching them to scoff at death and to no longer live in fear of their own graves.

Let me be blunt. A lot of you only come here once or twice a year. Maybe you believe all of this Jesus stuff, maybe not. Maybe you’re a life-long member of this church, maybe not. But here’s the deal: God has placed you here, right here and right now, because he wants you to hear this. You might as well listen. You are going to die. Every last one of you. The oldest and the youngest. Some of you will die in your sleep of old age, others will suffer long and painfully. Some will die of terrible accidents, and others will be crushed by disease. It’s going to happen.

Why does this happen? Even reason tells us we can’t exist only to die. There must be some explanation. If you’re inclined to believe the Scriptures, we brought this death thing on ourselves, by our sin, by our rebellion against God. By making ourselves a priority instead of serving him who gives us life – we are choosing the opposite of life. And as a result of our rebellion, we choose death over life, condemnation over salvation, we choose to be afraid of death rather than to destroy it.

How do we destroy death? How do we laugh at death?

Well, to be fair, we don’t destroy death. I just read to you how death was, in fact, conquered. Jesus took all of our death-producing sins to the cross, suffered for us, and defeated death by dying. And he further conquered death by coming back from the dead – in front of hundreds of people, causing even his enemies to scramble to explain it. Jesus has changed the world, and his Gospel continues to change the life of everyone who hears it.

Jesus is not only God, but also Man. Jesus is our champion. He has defeated death once and for all, for all of mankind. He has several ways in which he transmits this victory to you. Holy Baptism isn’t just a chance to see a baby and take pictures. It is a serious and cosmic event in which the person is welded to Jesus, so that his victory is ours. When God’s called and ordained pastors proclaim the Gospel, he works miracles into your ear to bring you to faith. When you confess your sins and the pastor absolves you, something supernatural happens. And as our risen victorious Lord has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world, he is physically and bodily present here at this altar when we participate in the miracle of Holy Communion.

Just as when the Israelites were literally stuck between the devil and the deep Red Sea, God comes to the rescue. His prophet Moses snatches life from the jaws of death, and squeezes out a resounding victory when it looked for all the world like nothing was left to do but say goodbye and wait for the inevitable. And look at the joy that resulted from this victory over death! The Israelites were freed from their slavery, were released from their fear of the once-powerful and awesome Pharaoh, and they could point back in time at this episode as evidence of God’s grace and favor upon them.

In response, the children of Israel worship God, participate in his holy covenant, and listen to the Lord speak to them through his prophets and priests. What a joy to live day by day in this victory, surrounded by God’s holy angels to protect us and watch over us!

And look at what St. Paul tells us in the epistle reading. He tells his listeners that the Gospel that he himself preaches to them, saves them. It saves them from the chariot-mounted Pharaohs in their lives: from fear, the devil, doubt, and even death and hell itself. And what is this Gospel? Unfortunately, this word “Gospel” is often misunderstood. It’s not a style of music. It’s not simply a way to say that something is true. It’s not any generic good news. No, the Gospel is the Good News, the Good News that is being proclaimed and sung this morning – that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died for us, rises for us, and lives for us.

Paul delivers to his listeners – which includes us who hear him preach through the Scriptures – that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures.” The risen Lord was seen by hundreds, and is believed today by billions.

All of our sins, our debts, our doubts, our frailties – have been abolished by the one Man who ever got up of his own accord and walked out of his grave. On this day, billions of people – Christians and non-Christians alike – around the world pause and remember. And in Christian Churches, more than mere remembrance happens – and even more than celebration happens. Every Sunday is a reunion between Jesus and his followers – and Easter is the highest celebration of the Gospel of the year.

So welcome to the Lord’s house! Welcome to the place where the Lord works miracles year-round!

And so, dear friends, if you want to laugh at death, come to this place – and more than once or twice a year. Come often for these miraculous means that our Lord established. For the strengthening of our faith, the forgiveness of sins, the power of the resurrection – are made available week in and week out. These gifts are expensive – for they cost our Lord Jesus his passion and death. But they cost you nothing. These gifts are freely distributed every week, every year, every century by the Church. And unlike FEMA money, these gifts literally have no end.

Obviously, Easter draws us here, to Jesus, to the church, to holy things, to thoughts about death and resurrection. And Easter happens not only once a year, but actually, 52 times a year. Every Sunday is another Easter, a commemoration and celebration of our Lord’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. I invite you to come back next Easter – that is to say, next Sunday! For every Sunday we proclaim the Easter Gospel, we hear his Easter Word preached, we eat and drink his holy Easter body and Easter blood, and we hear those precious Easter words that destroy death and recreate our unblemished relationship to God:

“I forgive you all your sins...

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

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