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This Is the Night: A Sermon for Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil

April 19, 2014

A Sermon for Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil


Genesis 1:1-2, 4a

Exodus 14:10-31, 15: 20-21

Isaiah 55:1-11

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Zephaniah 3:14-20


Have you ever found yourself in complete, total darkness? The kind where you can't see your hand in front of your face? It can be a terrifying place.

My parents used to tell me about one particular Saturday when I was about 4 years old. They were sitting in the kitchen when they heard a stifled cry. They couldn't tell where it was coming from. And they panicked. It sounds like Peter! Where is he? What's wrong? They searched the bedrooms upstairs, the closets, the pantry, nothing. They couldn't find me. Finally, Dad tracked the cries to a tiny storage compartment outside the basement, under the back steps. It had a tight door. Apparently it was so dark in this little space where I'd crawled for whatever reason that I was unable to move, powerless. The door was jammed or latched or something, and I was stuck in this small space in total darkness. Dad yanked the door open and pulled me out. The strange thing is, I have no memory of this. I think my mind blacked out the memory of being stuck in a place of utter darkness and powerlessness.

Have you ever been in a place like that? We all have. Maybe you haven't been stuck in a small storage compartment, but sometimes it sure can feel like it. It is the darkness of the loss of someone dear to us, whose absence we fear we will never be able to deal with. The darkness of a terrifying diagnosis. The darkness of not knowing where a child of ours is. The darkness of a shattering reality that we had no idea was coming our way.

The Easter Vigil service begins in darkness, at least it's supposed to. It is the darkness of the closed up tomb where Jesus' body lay on Holy Saturday. The stone has been rolled in front of it. No light enters. It is utterly dark. Jesus' torn and beaten body is already beginning to stink-the women are planning to bring spices to help preserve his body in the morning. But now, it is Saturday, in the dark, airless, deathly still tomb. It is not a pleasant place to be.  

Unlike the hosannas of Palm Sunday and the glory of Easter Day that we yearn for, this day in Holy Week, Holy Saturday, speaks most directly to the daily reality of our lives. After the shock of death or words that bring despair--words like cancer, divorce, terminal, downsizing--we find ourselves living with the "what next" of life--and we enter the dark void of unknowing.

This is where many of us live, from time to time. Yes, there are times when we experience the stark gut-wrenching pain of Good Friday, and there are times when we know the jubilation of Easter. But this night, Holy Saturday, is the time in between death and resurrection. It is the valley of grief and unknowing--for us as well as for the first disciples. On Holy Saturday we, and they, don't know what the future will bring. Whether the cancer will be cured, or we will love again, or find a job that fulfills our calling. It is a time of dark uncertainty.


"In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep..." (Genesis 1:1-2a). In the beginning, all was a dark void. And in this tomb we find the same reality--it is a dark void. Beloved, how many times will we find ourselves in that dark place? A place where any ray of hope is extinguished in the vacuum of fear, of not knowing, of total emptiness. that place, somehow through the grace of God, we must be patient. We must wait for the wind of the Spirit, the "wind from God [that sweeps] over the face of the waters" in Genesis 1, to fan the dim embers of our faith.

"Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light.... God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day" (Genesis 1:3,5).

You see, both darkness and light are part of the first day. Darkness and light are halves of every day ever since that first day. Darkness and light are essential parts of our lives. And when we find ourselves in that dark, tight, stinky, lonely place, we must remind ourselves of this truth. There will always ultimately be light in the midst of the darkness.

One of my favorite authors and people, Barbara Brown Taylor, has a new book that's just out. It's called Learning to Walk in the Dark, and I recommend it highly. We talked about it on a recent Day1 program. In it she writes, "Darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me--either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love. At least I think I would.

"The problem is this," she writes, "when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life, plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light--things that have saved my life over and over again. So that there is really only one logical conclusion: I need darkness as much as I need light."

In her book, Barbara guides us on a journey to understanding darkness--and it's a journey that takes her spelunking in totally dark caves, learning to eat and cross the street as a blind person, and rereading scripture to see all the times God shows up at night. Because God does.

In the reading from Exodus 14, as God leads Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt at night, the Israelites cry out to God in fear and uncertainty as they see the massive army of Pharaoh in pursuit behind them, while in front of them is the sea--they are trapped in the darkness of fear and faithlessness. "It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!" they cry out. But Moses tells them, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.... The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."

It is so hard to keep still in the fearful dark, isn't it? It is so hard to trust that the wind of God's spirit will, finally, blow on the dim embers of our cooling faith.

And did you notice verse 19 and 20 in Exodus 14? "The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them." Why? "It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night."

The divine presence, the angel of God, glowing within the cloud in the darkness, blocks the oncoming threat of the Egyptian army. You see, there will always be light in the midst of darkness. God will show up at night. We have only to keep still.

Beloved, darkness is part of every day. But there will be light. What would our lives with God look like if we trusted this rhythm of darkness and light instead of fighting it?

The Exsultet, which is sung during the Vigil, beautifully proclaims this rhythm of dark and light, of night and dawn, of death and resurrection: "This is the night...when you brought our ancestors, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt....

"This is the night...when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life....

"This is the night...when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave....

"How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.....

"How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God."

Even in the darkness of our lives--darkness that comes and goes like the night--we are reconciled to God. Our baptism is the sign of this reconciliation, when we are marked as Christ's own forever.

So hear the invitation of God through the prophet Isaiah, whose words we heard tonight: "Ho, everyone who thirsts"-- for hope, for joy, for light, for reconciliation--everyone who thirsts, "come to the waters."  We may find ourselves in darkness now, but just wait. Wait for the dawn of hope and resurrection.

"How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God."



Bruce Epperly, "Living through Holy Saturday," April 15, 2011, Mainline Protestant Channel

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, HarperOne, 2014.

Harper-Collins Study Bible NRSV.




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