Easter Vigil, 2017
Matthew 27 57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. 62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[j] of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
Dear Friends of Christ,
I remember my parents having a sum of money to give to their little church one year. Mom suggested they give it to missions. I suggested a Lutheran Hour Gospel Tract Rack with Gospel outreach brochures. Dad made the decision to give it to the church cemetery fund. That was dad’s way of taking care of business as he waited and hoped for the resurrection of the dead.
I remember at the first church we served how there would be a cemetery work day every spring, dozens of volunteers would show up, stones would be repaired, fences would be mended, trees would be trimmed. Just taking care of business as they waited and hoped for the resurrection of the dead.
I remember my aunt Linny (who outlived her husband by over 40 years) and my mom going to four or five cemeteries in preparation for Memorial Day, pulling weeds, planting flowers, making sure things were in order. Just taking care of business as they waited for the resurrection of the dead.
Point of stories: It has been particularly important for my parents’ generation that visitations, funerals, and burials be done decently and in order, very important that their loved ones are prepared in a careful way for burial, that funeral visitations and services be conducted in a respectful manner, that caskets get placed in water tight vaults and professionally lowered into the ground, that cemeteries have fences around them, that the tombstones be purchased and engraved in proper fashion, and that lawns and flowers be perpetually cared for.
So also in our text for tonight, we find that the body of Jesus was carefully and lovingly cared for by his closest friends. We see Joseph of Arimathea asking for the body, we see him taking the time to purchase fine linens, we find Nicodemus purchasing all kinds of spices, we see Joseph and others doing the work of a funeral director. We see a wounded and bloody corpse removed from the cross, blood stains washed away, spices used to anoint, fresh linen used to wrap and preserve. We see Mary Magdalene and another Mary watching to make sure all was in order, we see Pharisees requesting and receiving permission to guard against the disciples stealing the body and claiming resurrection, we see the Jews going so far as to seal the tomb shut, we see Jesus resting quietly, the sun going down, the Sabbath now beginning.
Tonight, we give thought to our own fenced in church cemeteries, we give thought to our own loved ones resting in their caskets, perhaps their ashes resting in their urns, perhaps their ashes sprinkled into the wind and only God knows where.
We give thought to what theologians call the intermediate state, the time period between death and the day of resurrection. Here at Trinity Lutheran, we believe that the body is dead, but the soul lives on. We believe that our loved one’s bodies go wherever we put them, and our souls go into the presence of Jesus.
The bad news, according to Scripture, is that the souls of the ungodly are spirits kept in prison, that they are suffering excruciating and endless torments, and that death leads them directly into everlasting agony and anguish. This bad news can keep us up at nights as often as we think about friends and family who are not confessing Jesus Christ as their Savior, or perhaps they have been slowly but surely wandering away from Christ and His Church.
The Good News, according to Scripture, is that the souls of the godly are in God’s hand, they are with Christ in paradise, they are supremely happy, they are in their new heavenly life. We believe that the souls of the believers are in a condition of perfect blessedness and of perpetual enjoyment of God, although we cannot picture to ourselves exactly what this intermediate state looks or feels like.
Three lessons we want to learn again tonight in the presence of the guarded tomb, in anticipation of Easter sunrise service at the open tomb.
First, we would fix our eyes on the wages of sin, which is death, even as we celebrate the gift of God which is eternal life. At the same time we live as sinners and saints. Sinners who have sinned and fallen short, but at the same time saints by virtue of the death and resurrection of Christ. Sheep who have gone astray but at the same time people of his pasture and sheep of his hand. On the one hand our lives are short and full of trouble, and yet at the same time we wait, we yearn, we believe with all of our hearts and souls and minds that wherever there is forgiveness of sins, there is also live and salvation. Lesson #1 is to stay focused on Jesus Christ the author and finisher of our faith, even as we endure here and now.
Secondly, we would learn the importance of quietly, respectfully, hopefully, and prayerfully waiting for the resurrection of the dead. One of the lowest and loneliest days for many of us is the day of a loved one’s funeral. Dozens and even hundreds of loved ones have come and gone home. Many of said quite sincerely if there is anything they can do, please let us know. And then there is the quietness of the evening, the thank you cards get written, and the holes in our hearts seem to grow.
There is a difference between the intermediate state and that glorious day of resurrection. There is a difference between our souls being in the presence of Jesus and our souls reunited with our bodies living face to face with Jesus. Not so much that we would want to go around correcting people who want to talk about grandpa already fishing with his buddies in heaven or grandma already tending her flower garden in paradise, but in a quiet and respectful way we would stay focused on the real and fundamental joys of eternity which would be living in the full splendor of God’s glory. Lesson #2 would be to walk alongside of our grieving family and friends in a stronger way, to listen to each other’s stories in a more compassionate way, and to pray for more and more patience from God in heaven above.
Third, the Christ candle would remind us that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. As we entered the sanctuary tonight, candles were lit off the Christ candle. Gradually, darkness gave way to its opposite. Wherever the light shines, there darkness doesn’t have a prayer.
One can imagine the darkness in the Spirit of God when He found Himself cursing the serpent, cursing His beloved Adam and Eve. Quickly He gave them a promise that their offspring would bruise the serpent’s offspring. Slowly, but surely, God began to light candles By throughout history – in creation, at the flood, in the exodus, in the valley of dry bones, and with the three men in the fiery furnace. As we hear these foundational stories, we would recognize our assignment as individuals to be the light of the world in every one of our conversations, in every one of our circumstances, and in every chapter of life. Also collectively, every local congregation is to be like a city of lights set on a hill, a city of lights that cannot be hidden, a city of lights difficult to ignore.
The Kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town whose cemetery is closely guarded and well maintained. Even though there is much about which to worry, much about which they could complain, much that would cause them to be afraid, they spend their days thinking about that which is excellent, that which is of virtue, and that which is praiseworthy, Even though the world around them seems always to be in a hurry, even though so many of their friends and family seem to live life in frantic fashion, the Spirit of God has worked in their hearts an ability to live days quietly, respectfully, and patiently, as they look forward to the resurrection of the dead. And finally, even though the darkness is often gloomy and some days downright depressing, the Spirit of God has worked in their hearts a strength and a cheerfulness hard to ignore. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther