Easter Day - Dawn Vigil

  • Preacher

    The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove

  • Readings

    John 20.1-18

“While it was still dark.” The sun has not yet risen, but the Son of Man is risen. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” Who are they?

Not mischief-making soldiers, not friends stealing the body to pretend a resurrection, not even the demonic emissaries of death and hell. No. They are none other than the powers of the Eternal God, the powers of grace and truth laying claim on the One whom the grave could not hold. For “love is strong as death”, as it says in the Hebrew scriptures; “many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it”.

On Good Friday St John’s passion story ended in the garden where he was laid to rest. And now we are back there in the darkness and the grass is wet with dew and birds are still silent and the tomb is empty. It’s the first day of the week and like the disciples we are perplexed, maybe a little afraid in this sombre place of death. Would we have the courage to peer inside that rocky cave? And if we did, might we begin to glimpse what it could mean and find ourselves wondering what if…what if?

We mustn’t miss the symbolism of the garden and the first day of the week. It takes us back to the creation story in Genesis when in the picture language of ancient myth, God placed our first parents in the Garden of Eden and invited them to take care of it. In John’s story that we heard just now, it’s here in a garden that the risen Jesus appears to Mary, and she imagines him to be the gardener! On this first day of the week when God once said “let there be light” and now there is light, for the sun has risen and the Son of Righteousness has risen too. So thisparadise, this garden (which is what the word literally means) is once again a place of creation. Here is where the new creation begins, the new heaven and the new earth, the promise that everything will be different now that this last Adam has come back from the dead and a new day has dawned over all the world.

But let’s stay with the half-light of breaking dawn. Night shadows still linger in the garden before the full light of day has dawned. That empty tomb and those what ifs? What if this deep magic is true? If only it could be! What a difference it would make to our lives. What a new perspective it would bring to the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a hope to live and die by? I think many of us are living in this twilit kind of world a lot of the time: puzzled, but open to what could happen; feeling for God in the dark, if only we knew where we might find him; not expecting too much of life yet wishing we could have hope and envying those who do. 

Easter is the answer to that search. It changes everything. I can’t prove to you that the tomb was empty and that Jesus rose from the dead. But there is evidence that has touched the lives of people down the centuries, convinced them that the resurrection changes everything, that what happened in that garden matters more than any other event in human history. This has been going on ever since the days of Mary Magdalen and Peter and John who were the first to come to that garden before dawn on Easter Day. It has been happening across history in every place under the sun. It happens today. And it’s why I am here as a priest speaking to you about it on this Easter morning.

What evidence? I mean that the resurrection of Jesus touches lives and transforms them. It really does. I was brought up in London in the 1950s in an entirely secular family. I was a chorister and that played a key part in my formation. But I became a convinced Christian as a schoolboy because I saw the difference faith was making in my friends, a faith clearly rooted in the cross-and-resurrection of Jesus. It wasn’t just a matter of ideas and beliefs. It was being lived out in front of me with hope and love and real joy. I was profoundly moved by it. I still am as I look back more than half a century. That kind of evidence spoke for itself. And as I read the New Testament I saw that this was how the truth of the resurrection began to take hold on people across the world. In St John’s story, we can see it as a journey from darkness through twilight into the full light of day, from the grief and puzzlement of the disciples in the garden to the joyful meeting with the risen Jesus when he calls Mary by her name and she recognises him and acclaims him as her Lord. 

All of us are somewhere on this journey of faith and hope, somewhere between the shadow of death and the full light of resurrection. So let me say something specifically to those of you who are being baptised and confirmed this morning. In a sense, you are standing by the empty tomb where those disciples stood on the first Easter Day. Ahead of you lies a lifetime of discovery – finding in your own experience what it means to say that Jesus is Lord and to live by his light of life. At times, the light will be strong and steady, a sun high in the sky to brighten your days and strengthen you to travel well. At other times it will be more like a fragile candle flame, a precarious light amid the encircling gloom where we see just enough to put one step in front of the other on the rough steep path of faith and discipleship. What matters is your memory of today and the empty tomb  and your baptism in the risen Christ that change everything and remind us he is risen. Easter faith is his gift to you today, and a hope that I pray never dies. And because he loves you to the end, he will see you through to the end when travelling days are done and you will see him face to face.

Such small beginnings in that garden before dawn; such big truths for those first witnesses to grasp hold of and take to others; such great hopes welling up within us, such dreams that are dreams no more but the fulfilment of everything we have longed for. This is resurrection. This is Easter. This is what it means to be truly alive. Can there be any day but this? So let there be flowers and songs and feasting and fun, and most of all, alleluias without end.