Easter Vigil 2016
“Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” (John 20:1)
Going all the way back to the apostles, tradition tells us that Christians have gathered on the night before the anniversary of Easter to pray together and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And nearly as far back, God’s people have celebrated with light. When Jesus rose from the dead, the Great Sun that has existed before all time and all worlds, the Sun that warms the whole universe arose, having conquered the darkness of sin and death, and began to shine.
By the time of the great Christian Emperor Constantine (A.D. 331), we are told that he had the city of Milan transformed “into the brilliance of day, by lighting through the whole city pillars of wax, while burning lamps illuminated every house, so that this nocturnal celebration was rendered brighter than the brightest day.” Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 394) describes the same night in one of his Easter sermons as “this glowing night that links the splendor of burning lamps to the morning rays of the sun, thus producing continuous daylight without any darkness.” And Saint Patrick himself is said to have begun the tradition of setting and blessing large bonfires outside the church on Holy Saturday night, symbolizing the rising of Christ, the Light of the World.
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:3-5). And again Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). This phrase, “the light of life” – what does it mean? John opens his gospel saying that in Jesus was life and that life was the light of men, and Jesus expressly announces: who ever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. What is this “light of life?”
The book of Acts and the life of Paul is one place to look to see what Jesus means. Paul, also called Saul, a young Hebrew scholar had been leading the suppression of Christianity in those early days after Pentecost. He was zealous for the law, for the purity of the Jewish people, and was absolutely convinced that Jesus of Nazareth and his followers were a heretical sect seeking to lead the Jewish nation astray. Perhaps he imagined himself as a Josiah or Hezekiah or perhaps an Ezra or even one of the Prophets calling the Jews back to the law and the covenants.
Armed with these convictions, Paul was leading the suppression of Christianity. He thought their leader was dead, and now it was time to wipe out the rest of them. Having received the blessing and commission of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Paul went to Damascus to find the Christians there and break up the fledgling community. On his way, a light from heaven suddenly shone all around him. This light was so bright, so surprising, so overwhelming that Paul fell to the ground. Then he heard a voice saying, “Why are you persecuting me?” And Paul asked, “Who are you?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” When Paul got up, he could see nothing, and so his companions led him into the city by hand. “And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:3-9). Later, when Paul recounted this event in Jerusalem, he again noted this “great light from heaven” and this voice of Jesus. And he noted that while his companions saw the light, they could not understand the voice, but Paul could not see because of the brightness of the light, so they led him into Damascus (Acts 22:6-11).
His story is repeated for a third time in the book of Acts when Paul preaches to the Roman governors Agrippa and Festus. This third time, Paul gives a little more of what Jesus said to him in the midst of that bright light shining down upon him. Jesus said that Paul was to go into the city because he was being appointed by Jesus to be “a servant and a witness” to the things he had seen in Jesus and to those things in which Jesus would appear to him (Acts 26:16-17). And Jesus says that He is sending Paul on this ministry in order to “open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). And as Paul summarizes what this means to Agrippa, he says that this is why he has not ceased from announcing this message to all men that they must turn to God just as he has, that this is nothing less than what the prophets and Moses foretold would come to pass “that the Christ must suffer and that by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23).
This is the light of life that appeared to Paul and which Jesus commissioned him to proclaim to all men. What is this light of life? First, do not miss the fact that this is Jesus alive and well. Paul thought Jesus was dead. He thought Stephen, the first Christian martyr was dead. And he believed that very shortly the whole Christian sect would be dead. Paul was wrong. Jesus was alive. Jesus had died, but He was alive again. And this could only mean one thing. This life that Jesus had was indestructible, eternal, invincible, immortal – fully and completely Divine. The light of life is God’s eternal existence shining forth. Jesus is that light, and when He shines on men, they begin to partake of that Divine life. Stephen wasn’t dead. And Paul could not kill this movement. Paul and all who place their trust in Jesus begin to shine; they begin to be transformed from glory to glory. Death can no longer hold them.
Second, this transformation is all about turning. Paul was turned from his mission of persecuting the Christian Church to being a Christian himself. This is not because Paul realized that it would be more lucrative or more respectable to join the Christians. Nothing in this world could explain Paul’s change. The only explanation is that Paul became convinced that what he thought was true before was actually wrong. When the light shone on him, it revealed him to be blind. And notice that the light did not blind his companions, but they couldn’t understand the words. This suggests that the light blinded Paul so that he could hear Jesus. This is the power of Satan that every human being needs to be set free from. Satan says that your eyes will be opened when you sin. He says you will be gods. You will be free. And when people believe these lies, they are held captive by them. And you can’t understand the words of Jesus. You can see the light, but you don’t understand the words. Is that you? Do you see the light but you can’t understand the words? If that is you, then call on the name of the Lord right now. Ask Jesus to shine on you this night. Ask God to reveal Himself to you. God does not refuse any who come to Him. All who seek Him will find Him. Knock and it shall be opened to you. For the same God who commanded light to shine in the darkness now commands the light of the knowledge of the glory of God to shine in our hearts in the face of Jesus Christ His Son. The light of life will reveal that you have been in the darkness, that your deeds have been dark and evil. But you will hear the voice of Jesus, and He will set you free.
Last, notice that the light of life commissions Paul. When Jesus appeared to Paul with that bright light, He was enacting the very thing that He was commissioning Paul to do. Jesus appeared in a bright light because Paul was being sent to open the eyes of the blind, to turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God. Jesus came and proclaimed light to Paul because Paul would then go and proclaim light to the world. And this is the light that the Christian Church has been proclaiming for the last two thousand years. This is the light of Christ, the indestructible, eternal life of Jesus Himself, whom death could not hold. He after three days in the grave, took His life back up again forever. This is the light of the truth, the light that reveals our blindness, our sin, our folly, and the same light that sets us free to walk in the truth, to life in freedom and joy. And if this is true, if Jesus is alive and He still speaks and turns men from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to the joy of God and we have experienced that, then we like Paul have been commissioned to bear witness to that light. Not every Christian is a pastor, but every Christian is a witness of this light. And in this sense, every Christian is a preacher, a proclaimer of that light to all people. Every Christian is a leader because every Christian is a light because Christ has shone on them.
So we gather this night like Mary Magdalene two thousand years ago while it is still dark to remember and celebrate the glorious fact that the stone has been taken away from the tomb and now the Light of the World is driving back all the darkness. So light the candles and bonfires, turn up the music and sing and dance, ring the bells and shout your joy in the streets, eat and drink and give gifts and share with those who have none. Christ is risen!
Arise and shine for your light is come.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.