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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=37

 

Great Vigil of Easter (April 19, 2014)                                                    St James', Peace River

 

The first thing I want you to know about this service is that it goes way, way back. In some ways it's the Original Christian Worship Service, the pattern for everything else we do in church. Back in the very first century of Christianity, the one celebration our forebears had was Easter – not Christmas or Epiphany, not Ascension or Pentecost, not Advent or Lent, just Easter. Their calendar wasn't very complicated. In fact they celebrated Easter every week – on the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead, the Lord's Day: Sunday. That's why we worship on Sunday.

 

Back then, though, when being a Christian was barely tolerated if not downright illegal, you didn't have the day off. In many places, Christians gathered at the beginning of that day (which from them was sundown on what we now call Saturday) – as the sun set, in someone's house, to read from the stories of God's people, to pray with and for one another, to share a meal, and as they broke bread and drank wine, to know that Jesus was with them, as he promised.

 

If they did that every week, you can imagine what it was like when they came round to that one Lord's Day in the year which was the anniversary of the discovery of the empty tomb. On that day, or rather in that night, they did one more thing which we'll be doing this evening – they baptized people who wanted to commit their lives to following Jesus along with them. They chose this time because what we celebrate in remembering Jesus' death and resurrection is also what we celebrate in baptism; because the new life that you begin when you're baptized is the new life Jesus began for himself and inaugurated for all of us; because the way the world changed in that spring night long ago is exactly the way your life changes when you ask him to let you make a new start and, with water and the gift of the Holy Spirit, he says yes.

 

Even in the first century, though, they were reaching back far into history to tell that story, almost as far back as we reach today when we remember those first Christians. The story of their lives, the story of Jesus, was itself rooted in something much older. That's why we began this service hearing again the oldest words of all, beginning in Genesis and walking us through God's interactions with human beings through what we call the Old Testament. These are not just random excerpts from a rambling text. They tell us that there is a point to the whole story, that there is really just one “whole story”, and that it's about a God who never gives up.

 

Throughout the Old Testament, that's what we see. In practically every chapter of it, not just the ones we heard, we meet a God who should have given up, but didn't know how. We began tonight with Noah, which is the first time in the Bible it becomes really obvious. Going all the way back from there to Adam and Eve, we see how much God hated what human beings did (and still do), to God's world, to themselves, and to each other. Instead of scrapping the whole project, this God finds a way – at great cost – to wash the world clean of human evil, and yet cannot throw it away entirely. God brings out of the flood the seeds of life, and gives Noah and his family a fresh start, a fresh choice. If you saw the movie – or read the book! - you'll know there was no guarantee they would choose right. But God cannot let go. And so the story continues, with the builders of the tower of Babel, with the family drama of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the people of God enslaved in Egypt being set free at Passover by the mighty hand of God who would not let go of them.

 

And we know how that turned out. Within days, they were asking to go back to the relative comforts and certainty of slavery. But God, who cannot let go, wrestles and cajoles them into the promised land where they can become a great people. When they keep ignoring and turning away from him, he sends them judges and prophets and kings to bring them back on course. It doesn't work. God gives them up to the consequences of their actions, in disaster and defeat and exile; but God cannot give them up altogether. He persists with them, in the humiliation of living once again under tyranny, and after seventy years leads them on another journey home. There the tides of history keep running over them from one direction and another – the Persian empire, the Greek, the Roman.

 

But something bigger is going on while all this happens. It is not just about the fate of one nation. It's about God creating new possibilities where none were visible before. It's about God's thoughts and ways which are not our thoughts and ways, as Isaiah wrote – about the word of God going forth into the world to accomplish its purpose. It's about God creating not just a new relationship with humanity, but a new kind of humanity altogether – one which beats with a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone, as we heard Ezekiel say. God's persistence, God's refusal to give us up, is on the verge of creating that new heart, that new kind of human being. If we would simply see what God is willing to do for us, how there is nothing God will not do to win us back – our hearts would melt and we would be that new humanity.

 

So God himself lays aside heaven and power and glory and everything else, and comes to be with us in his Son Jesus. And hearts begin to melt as Jesus brings God and God's kingdom near. Some hearts begin to melt; others harden, as they have since the dawn of time. God knew, Jesus knew, what that would mean, and it was a price he was willing to pay – there was no price he was not willing to pay. He broke himself on the hardness of those stony hearts, and died. Which, it turns out, was the only sure way to ever get through to us. And ever since, people have gathered on this night to remember Jesus, who broke open the heart of God to us, and broke open our hearts to God.

 

Some time in this night, one world ended and another began. The world in which human evil was inevitable and where death ruled, ended. A world in which a new choice could be made, and where a new kind of life could be lived, began. Cole, you are at that moment tonight: from this moment on, God has given you an incredible gift – you are baptized into the death of Jesus, knowing that it was for you; and into the life of Jesus, because that's also God's gift to you – to live the new kind of life which Jesus began, where you are always in God's sight and he is always in yours. You still have many choices open to you, and I'm sure you'll get a lot of them wrong, just like the rest of us! The important thing is that you know now that God is on your side, opening the doors you can't open by yourself; and that what you choose and what you do matters to God, infinitely more than you could ever have imagined, because God isn't someone far off looking down any more, but someone who is sharing life with you – sharing your life, and sharing with you that new kind of life which began the night of the first Easter.

 

I realize that's kind of heavy. The good news is that you're not the only one! Every single one of us here, and a billion Christians around the world, and a billion or so more on this earth before us, are also united to Jesus in his death and new life, dead to sin and alive to God. We don't always get it right; we don't even always get how serious it is to be living a whole new kind of life in a world which still causes God so much heartache. But when it comes right down to it, we know that's who we are. We are Easter people. We are living the life that began in Jesus when light was kindled in the darkness before dawn. We have that as a gift from God, and in awe and gratitude we want to live that life for God – live it in such a way that people around us will discover God's gift to them too; live in such a way that we do our part, in the hope that one day we will be talking about not just a new kind of life, but a new kind of world, where everyone and everything is permeated by the life God shares with us in the risen Jesus.