Sermons That Work

In Bach’s St. Matthew Passion…, Great Vigil of Easter (A) – 1999

April 03, 1999

In Bach’s St. Matthew Passion there is a musical theme that is connected to the time between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection. It is in a minor key but it is not sad. Rather it is hopeful. It is expectant. Some might say that it captures both the pain of Jesus’ death for our sakes and the emerging sense of hope that we have knowing that we are loved so much.

Another image for that time between Jesus’ death and resurrection is the line in the Apostle’s Creed, “he descended into hell…” A child asked his priest, “What did Jesus do while he was in hell?” The priest answered, “He preached to those who have never heard the gospel and gave them a chance to respond.” This is one of the pious traditions, an ancient tradition. We really do not know what Jesus did. But the interesting thing about the tradition is that it conveys hope. It also shows that Jesus is loving and compassionate after death.

Gustav Mahler’s symphony known as the Resurrection Symphony is a complex piece of music that in a strange way engenders in many a sense or feeling of profound hopefulness. The irony of the symphony is that it was completed prior to World War I. World War I marked the end of western Christian rational culture. Some scholars and musicologists think that Mahler had a prescient insight that enabled him to compose a source of hope while facing the end of everything that was precious and a base for culture and government.

A common experience reported by clergy as they care for people in a time of crisis is how the passage through the crisis feeds their personal sense of hope.

In short, it may be that we can best know hope when all of the indicators lead to despair. Or, to say it another way, if hope isn’t stronger than our worst fears, then this really isn’t hope, it’s just wishful thinking.

While each person has their own worst fears or set of worst fears, we can generalize about them.

One person, when asked about his worst fears, said, “I fear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t true.” Another person said, “I fear that I will not be in relationship with my wife, my children, my parents, my grandchildren, my brother, my sister and the other people that I love forever, for eternity.” A third said, “I fear that true justice never will come and prevail, that would make my whole life a waste.” Another said,” I am afraid that there really is a God and that he is really angry with me and that I am doomed to eternal torment.” The quotes could go on. But, just in these we can see some of our own worst fears. There is the fear of death, the fear of separation, the fear that life has no meaning, and the fear of a wrath of God.

These fears are real and they haunt us all.

In one of the traditions in the earliest Church there came to be a set of actions on Easter Eve that led to Baptism. In this process, those as yet unbaptized hear the reading of the history of salvation. The sequence began with the creation story, then onto the promise made to Abraham with Isaac’s deliverance, then the story of renewal, then the gift of salvation, the gift of new hearts and a new spirituality, and finally the promise of new life and the restoration of community. When mixed with Psalms, hymns, and prayers, this liturgy used the whole of the night.

After this recitation of the history of God’s saving work with his people, the as yet unbaptized were prepared for entrance into the water of Baptism. They were faced to the west, the very darkest part of the sky. They were asked questions to see if they then renounced Satan and all of his works, if they renounced the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy, and finally they were asked if they renounced the sinful desires of the flesh. If they passed this solemn examination then they were stripped and faced to the east, where the sky was beginning to lighten and examined again. They were asked if they turned to Jesus and accepted him as Savior. They were asked if they put all of their trust in his love. Finally, they were asked if they submitted themselves to Jesus’ lordship. If they were accepted then they were led to and entered the water of Baptism. After being raised from the water of Baptism they were anointed with good smelling oil. Then they were clothed in white. For the first time they joined with their new sisters and brothers in Christ and shared in Jesus’ body and blood in Communion.

We can be sure that the newly baptized were full of fears. Perhaps they were similar to ours. They certainly were afraid of persecution, enslavement, and death. These things were regular events for the early Christian.

But, and more importantly, they allowed faith and hope to triumph. Faith, hope, and love are the three great Christian virtues. Easter Eve and Holy Saturday are triumphs of faith, hope, and love. We wait in expectation. We are full of hope. Our knowledge of the love of God, known through the sacrifice of Jesus for our sake and through the endless small sacrifices that Christians make on a daily basis sustains us through the darkness and gives us courage. On Easter Sunday, we fully celebrate the realization of God’s power and love in Jesus’ resurrection. As St. Paul said, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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