Vigil of Easter: Christ on Holy Saturday

Lessons: Genesis 7-9, Genesis 22:1-18, Exodus 14:10-15:1, Deut. 31:19-30, Zephaniah 3:12-20, Mark 16:1-8
Hymns: LSB 458, 488, 601, 633, 478

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      On this day, the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ rests in the tomb. After enduring mockery and scorn, beatings and crucifixion, Christ our Lord died, declaring, “It is finished!” Jesus fulfilled His Father’s will. He shed His innocent Blood. He paid for the sins of the world.

      The Creed rightly says, “He descended into Hell,” but the Creed is not complete. Most details concerning our Lord’s life are omitted from the Creed, and that is also true of the events surrounding our Lord’s Passion, Burial, and Resurrection.

      You see, Jesus told the thief on the cross something startling. He said, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43). The thief died yesterday on Good Friday after his legs were broken. Repenting of his sin and believing in Christ, the thief’s soul went to Heaven. His body would have been buried to await the glorious resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day.

      But what do we make of Jesus’ words when He says the thief will be with Jesus in Paradise? How can Jesus be in Heaven when He descended into Hell? This is where the Creed doesn’t tell us something else Jesus did. After all, Jesus suffered Hell on the cross. To suffer Hell is to be separated from God the Father. Jesus was forsaken on the cross by His Father because He was held accountable for committing all the world’s sin. So when Jesus said, “It is finished” the work of salvation was complete. Jesus would not descend into Hell to suffer. Instead, He would descend there to announce His victory.

      When Jesus died, He committed His Spirit to His Father’s hands. He trusted His Father, who accepted the payment of His Blood. Jesus died, and didn’t go straight to Hell, but went to Heaven first. He was there to receive the thief on the cross into Paradise. As the explanation of the Small Catechism (1991 edition, question 143) states, “The Scriptures teach that Christ, after he was made alive in His grave, descended into hell, not to suffer punishment, but to proclaim His victory over His enemies in Hell” (and quotes 1 Pet. 3:18-19). Jesus did not go there to suffer further, for He had endured all the required suffering on the cross and rightly said, “It is finished.”

      Upon our Lord’s death, His Body was carefully and lovingly placed in the grave. The soldiers secured the tomb as well as they possibly could. Those who hated Jesus were afraid our Lord’s disciples would steal His body and attempt to stage some sort of resurrection. After all, Jesus did state that He would rise from the dead on the third day. The intent of the soldiers was to make it impossible for anyone to gain access to the Body of Jesus in just a few days, thereby preventing anyone from deceiving people by staging a fake resurrection. The soldiers also stood watch, ensuring no one would even try.

      Of course, as we know from the accounts of the Resurrection of our Lord as recorded in the Gospels, no human was needed to remove the tombstone or stage a resurrection. Instead, the angel rolled the stone away and Jesus rose victoriously from the grave through the glory of the Father. He rose bodily.

      Before the Body of Jesus was laid in the grave, the soldiers needed to ensure Jesus was truly dead. So, they pierced His side and out came blood and water, indicating His heart had stopped beating and He was truly dead. His Spirit had left His Body.

      Blood and water are means of life. We cannot live without them. And Christ has instituted sacraments in the Church which grant life through blood and water. In Holy Baptism, water is applied to sinners as the Word is spoken, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As we heard in Luther’s Flood Prayer tonight, God drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea, yet led God’s people Israel through the water on dry ground, foreshadowing this washing of Holy Baptism. In our Baptism, Jesus takes our sin away and clothes us with His very righteousness, adding us to His family, and granting us salvation.

      And on Thursday night, Jesus took bread and gave His Body to His disciples. He took the cup of wine and gave His Blood to His disciples. Through this, Christians are united to Christ and receive His forgiveness, granting us the gift of salvation.

      This gift of salvation is sure, not because of our performance of some sort of commanded ritual, but because of what God is doing through His Word and Sacraments. He is bestowing on us what they say, namely, forgiveness of sins. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

      Just as Jesus rose bodily from the dead, so also will we. Jesus will return. He will raise our lifeless bodies from the grave. Therefore, our own rest in the grave will be temporary.

      Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Because they have been united to Christ (dying and rising with Him in Baptism, and receiving His Body and Blood in Holy Communion), we take care of the dead with the same type of care and concern as did the disciples of Jesus when He died. We don’t burn them up or discard them in the sea or in the forests or the mountains. But we bury their bodies carefully, tucking them in for their temporary rest in the grave. Normally their bodies face east, the rising sun, as is the normal direction for a church, to await the return of Christ who will raise our bodies to be glorious and immortal, not unlike Christ’s own body.

      It is with this hope and confidence that we keep vigil tonight through the Word and prayer, and in remembrance of our baptisms, and receiving Holy Communion.

      Christ has triumphed!  He is Risen!  Alleluia! Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen