Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last night at the Easter Vigil, as I sat at the back edge of the courtyard in the gathering dusk, I noticed a junebug stuck on its back. It was flailing around, trying desperately to right itself. I’m not much of a bug enthusiast but I was struck by the pathos of this little animal, straining and straining to get out of its predicament. One solitary being in a silent universe, trying desperately to turn itself out of danger.
At the Easter Vigil we hear the stories of God’s saving actions from the beginning to the exile of Israel in Babylon. We heard about God’s free and loving creation of light and life, calling it good; Noah and his family surviving through the Flood; God delivering Israel at the Red Sea; the prophet Isaiah’s word of food and drink, life and salvation freely offered to all; the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, a multitude of dead whose bones are picked clean, being knitted together and breathed back to life; and finally the great story of the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refuse to serve the idol of the wicked king Nebuchadnezzar and survive the terrible punishment of being thrown into a fiery furnace.
These stories (and the other six we chose not to read last night) show us, from a sort of God’s-eye view, what we call the history of salvation. But from the ground’s-eye view, from the perspective of people in the middle of these events, they are stories of the struggle of life against death. The battle of the little junebug to right itself and carry on. It is a remarkable thing that we humans share these stories and pass them hand to hand, life to life, generation to generation, along with our very lives.
We share with all life a stubborn will to prevail. Unique among all life, we hand on those things that endure past our own deaths. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are wonderfully rescued from the fire by God. But they are still mortal, and they died a human death a long, long time ago. Their story speaks to us in two ways: to our human eyes, the three men are a witness to courage in the face of death and persecution. To the eyes of faith, their story is a foretaste of God’s final triumph over all death.
That is one difference between ourselves and the junebugs. If the bugs produced epic poetry or tragedy or streaming television, the story of the one who was flipped on her back while the giant creatures spoke and moved around her in a pattern she could not perceive or decode would perhaps be recorded and added to the great store of bug lore and wisdom, an attempt to make sense of this huge and hostile world in which they move.
Perhaps, in the scheme of things, our own attempts to make meaning of life’s chaos are no more significant.
The other difference between us and the junebugs is that we are capable of resignation. We struggle to survive, but we can also cease from struggle. This is not the surrender of despair, like the Israelites at the Red Sea who complain bitterly to Moses that they could just as well have died in Egypt. But when God asks Ezekiel the prophet if the dry bones choking the valley can live, the prophet says only “Lord, you are the one who knows.” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not try to escape or survive; they don’t lie or dissemble; they don’t make a break for it while the king is in the midst of one of his pompous speeches. They simply say “cast us into the fire if you wish, O king. God will save us or not. But living or dead, we will not bow to your idol. So put that in your furnace and smoke it.”
It is out of resignation that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early in the morning. She knows how this story ends. She will anoint the body of her teacher and lord. She will pay the respects to the dead that her religion and culture have given her to pay. She is not a fool and not delusional. This will be another story with two meanings: to human eyes, it will show forth her courage and devotion in defiance of the great evil that has crushed Jesus’ life; and to the eyes of faith, with the benefit of hindsight, when this story is told and retold, it will become part of the history with the flood and the Red Sea and the fiery furnace, in which God shows God’s faithfulness even past the point of death.
And she is so grounded in reality, so perfectly reasonable in her grief and devotion, that she cannot recognize Jesus when he appears to her. It takes her a moment, and the sound of her own name, to see something else.
And in a moment, the eyes of her faith and the eyes of her human reality become one.
In a moment, the story of her own devotion and the story of God’s salvation become one.
In a moment, she sees that Hell has been robbed of its prize, that the grave has been burst asunder, that the power of personal cowardice and collective evil that killed her lord has been broken and lies in ruins at his Hell-crushing feet.
“Tell the others that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and yours.”
Mary has entered a new age. Mary woke up that morning as one link in the great human chain of endurance. But she witnesses a very different triumph. It is a triumph not just for one, but for all. It is the plundering not just of one tomb but of all the tombs of God’s saints. It is not just an escape from the flood, the pharaoh, or the furnace. It is the defeat of death itself.
The struggle for her, and for us, is to hold on to this victory in the midst of a world that has not yet grasped its own redemption, in the flood of days that have no obvious order or meaning and in which we move now forward and now back. The vigil last night was accompanied not just by visiting junebugs but by passing traffic, loud music, and the bustle of life that will not pause for death and resurrection. As we’ve opened the windows and worshiped outside in this season, we hear the world rushing in. Our world. We have stepped out of that world for a moment, but it flows on around us. And to me, at least, it has made our hour together each week, at the cross and at the empty tomb of the altar, at the power of God’s law and the promise of God’s Gospel, even more precious. It is Jesus’s world, right now on the other side of those windows. It is our world, It is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s world. It is the junebug’s world.
And in the middle of it, there was a tomb that could not hold its dead. There was a grieving woman whose tears turned to awe and joy. There was sin that could not prevail. And above it there is a God whose final word is not struggle and death but life and salvation.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!