Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our crucified and risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Eight souls in all, brought through the water safely in the days of Noah. That’s not many, is it? We have a few more than eight souls here tonight, sitting safely and comfortably in the ark of this nave. We are closed off and protected, for a little while at least, from the storm-tossed ravages of the world outside. But not a great many of us here tonight, are there?
I’m guessing that Easter Vigil is probably the least-attended of any Divine Service in the Church Year. But that’s OK; it’s not about numbers, is it? It’s about faithfulness.
First, it’s about God’s faithfulness to His very nature and His promises, and second, about the faithfulness He gives us to continue to trust that His righteous nature and His eternal promises are directed toward us, the unrighteous.
Peter opens the reading you just heard a moment ago with the statement that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. Peter was trying to encourage Christians to trust God in spite of the sufferings they would undergo from persecution in this world. The larger implication is that everyone suffers to some degree. There’s no escaping it, no matter how wealthy, intelligent, well-educated, good-looking, or hard-working we might be. Sinners suffer, and we are all sinners, as we have heard and confessed already this evening; as we have heard and confessed many times before and will do so again, Lord willing.
Yet if we must suffer as we will, ought it not be—as Peter suggests—for following the will of God, rather than rejecting it? Christ our Lord suffered, too. He suffered on account of sins, as do all people. But Jesus’ suffering was a suffering unlike any other.
Unlike our suffering, His suffering was unjust. He had not been conceived and born into sin like you and me, but was incarnate by the Holy Spirit. He had not committed sin, as we do—daily and much—but had lived a pure and holy life. Doing only good, yet suffering anyway. Contemplate this, too: His suffering did the ultimate good, for our doing of evil.
Unlike us, Jesus’ suffering was not limited just to the consequences of the sin of those in the family, job, school, community, nation, or world around Him. Jesus’ suffering was not even limited to the sins of those in the third and fourth generations of those who hate God, as was told to Moses when He received the Ten Commandments.
Jesus’ suffering was for the sins of you and me, too—all the sins of the few gathered here this evening. All of the sins of our Christian brothers and sisters not among us tonight, too. And all of the sins of every last human being who has ever lived, or ever will, believers or not.
Wrestle with that for a moment, if you can fathom it. Compared to much of the world, and most of the world’s history before us, much of our suffering from being sinners living in a sinful world has been alleviated. Medical care, ample food and water, safe and reliable transportation, adequate clothing and housing, and so on, have greatly tempered our physical suffering. Our ancestors and most of humanity have not been so fortunate.
Yet perhaps because of our physical comforts, our emotional suffering is amplified. We don’t have to focus almost every waking moment on basic survival like generations before. We have the luxury of time to think about our fears and our alienation from God and one another, perhaps more so than any people before us. We’ve made a spectator sport of our feelings, even.
Take, though, your rather minimal relative suffering, and multiply it by the six billion or so souls on this planet. Add up the many generations of humanity since Adam and Eve first set us on the path of suffering through their rebellion from God, a science we’ve perfected over the years. That’s a lot of suffering, because we’ve committed a lot of sin.
Now, imagine squeezing all of that suffering into a few hours, and lay that suffering upon one individual on a dark, stormy Friday about 1,980 years ago. A righteous person who knew no sin, suffering for the unrighteous.
Such a degree of suffering is unimaginable, isn’t it? Could we even take on the suffering of a handful of other individuals, spread over our lifetimes, let alone the suffering of all people of all time, concentrated into less than one day?
But wait—I haven’t told you the really scary part, yet. You see, our suffering is greatly tempered. Our gracious heavenly Father—who loves us and blesses us and keeps us—limits our suffering. He daily and richly provides what we need for physical life; He defends us from danger and guards and protects us from evil.
Yes, we face consequences of both sin and sinfulness, much of it of our doing and much of it caused by others, but we don’t face the full brunt of it because God never separates Himself from us and His creation. He never gives the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh full run of the battlefield, unchecked and unchallenged to wreak full havoc upon us. We wouldn’t last a moment.
And then there’s the really, really frightening truth: We only experience the tempered, limited, diluted suffering of the worldly consequences of sin. We do not have to face the fullness of the divine wrath of eternal punishment that we so richly deserve. Punishment without mercy; punishment without end. That burden of suffering the fullness of God’s punishment fell upon Him who has done only good. The righteous suffered for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
We gather tonight because we have been brought to God. We gather tonight, confident in being received by Him because He has been, and will always be, patient with us as he was patient in the days of Noah. Our ark has been prepared, and this little band of unrighteous souls is brought safely through the water once more. Our bodies remain soiled for a little while with the suffering of the consequences of sin, but our consciences have been made good by the washing which saves.
Through Jesus Christ, who obediently suffered once for sins but has been raised to eternal life by the Spirit, our disobedient spirits are redeemed, given faith, given hope. Connected to Christ’s death and resurrection, baptism now saves you. We are led out from the prison of punishment, the dungeon of eternal separation from God, and given the freedom of eternal comfort, joy, and communion with Him. Christ hath indeed burst His prison—and yours. Alleluia, Amen.