April 20, 2019 – The Great Vigil of Easter
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the Easter Vigil can be seen here.
“The women’s words struck the apostles as nonsense.” Where have we heard that before? In every generation, leaders of the church have ignored the testimony of one disempowered group after another—women, people of color, the poor, those whose marriages ended in divorce, members of the LGBT community, the young, the old, and countless other groups whose words were dismissed as nonsense. Nonsense. Idle chatter. Folly. But God had given these women a story to tell—good news to share—and God was going to be sure that the world heard what they had to say.
All four gospel accounts record the miracle of Easter as coming first to the women. Why? History, of course, has something to do with it. The women alone were faithful enough to go and do for Jesus’ body what the Jewish custom prescribed. But it’s more than that. God could have brought the news of the resurrection to anyone, but God chose to reveal it to the women. The men who are credited for recording the gospel accounts might have thought that was a pretty bad strategy. In first-century Palestine, if you had something important—something monumental—to declare, you wouldn’t think to entrust it to women—at least not if you were a man. Women were too easily dismissed as empty gossips or unreliable witnesses. Their words counted for little more than nonsense. But God had something else in mind.
Easter reminds us that revolutionary truths always start at the bottom and work their way up. When God revealed the transformational hope of the empty tomb, God began with women because the men hadn’t yet made enough room in their minds and in their hearts to hear that news as anything more than nonsense. “It can’t be,” they said when they heard the women’s tale. “We don’t believe you.” The men were too accustomed to a world in which things worked out the way that they thought they should. The presumed defeat of the cross was too much for them to see beyond. They were too blind to see that God was doing something new even when it was staring them in the face. There was no room within them for the memory of Jesus’ words to sink in. We learn, therefore, that only those who are completely empty and lowly and vulnerable and powerless have the space available for God to come and fill it with good news. Maybe that’s why little children, like the three baby girls who have been baptized tonight, have so much to teach us about God.
In earthly terms, the message of Easter is pure nonsense. That God would bring back to life a three-days-dead man is absurd. More than that, that God’s anointed one, whom God had sent to rescue God’s people, would be rejected by those he came to save be and crucified as a shameful criminal is preposterous. And, even more than that, that the path to true victory and full participation in the reign of God would lead not in a parade of triumph over the Roman oppressors but, instead, through death and the grave is incomprehensible. It is all nonsense…unless. Unless you, too, have experienced complete loss and total destruction. Unless you also have known what it means to have no reason to hope in the powers of this world. Unless you, like the women who followed Jesus, have known what it means to have your story dismissed as idle chatter. Those are the ones among us who know first what it means to be filled with the hope of the resurrection.
But the good news of the resurrection did not stop with the women. God chose them because they had the capacity to be the apostles to the apostles. Having beheld the miracle, they returned to the city to find the disciples and bring the revolutionary truth of Jesus’ victory over death to them. Even though the men did not believe it, one of the disciples had enough space within himself for God to begin to work. Perhaps without saying a word, Peter left his companions and ran to the tomb to see it for himself. Sure enough, just as the women had said, the stone had been rolled away. Jesus’ body was not there. Only the grave cloth remained. But Peter didn’t understand it yet. He wasn’t able to put all the pieces together, but, in the end, that didn’t matter. Peter went home, wondering what had happened, pondering what he had heard and seen. Later that day, Luke tells us, when the time was right, when enough space had been opened within him, the risen Jesus came and revealed himself to Peter.
All of us are beckoned by God to come and behold the miracle of the empty tomb. Some of us come with the vulnerability and brokenness of the women and are among the first to receive the good news of Easter. Others race to the tomb after a delay, running not with certainty but with openness because, although God has begun to work within them, they need a little more time for the space within them to grow enough for God’s truth to take hold. Some are still waiting for the nonsense to give way to the truth because they are still wedded to the powers of this world. Yet to all of them, God’s invitation is the same: “Come.” In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are first or last. As John Chrysostom preached in his Easter sermon,
If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward. If any have come after the third hour, let [them] with gratitude join in the Feast! And [the one] that arrived after the sixth hour…and…any delayed until the ninth hour…and [even the one] who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let [them] not be afraid…for the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.So come. You that are empty and broken, come. You that are beginning to break free from the bonds of this life, come. You that have not yet found space to exchange your dependence on the powers of this world for the hope that God has given us in Jesus Christ, come. Hear the story of the women who have seen and believed. Run beside Peter to the empty tomb and stare in wonder. Return to your home and push aside your power and privilege until there is enough space for the risen Lord to come and meet you. This great proclamation of hope has come into the world, and it has already found those who have enough space within themselves to receive it. But it is not finished yet. It is still bubbling up from the bottom and spreading through all people. And it will grow until all of us can see and know the victory that God has won in the resurrection of God’s Son.