“Keeping a night watch is received from Christ and His Apostles” Easter Vigil 2024

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30. March 2024
Easter Vigil

At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed (Acts 16:25-26)

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

When we confess, “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church,” we assert that we have and will always continue in the faith and life handed over to us by the Apostles. As Christ handed over Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms in fulfillment to His Apostles, so the Apostles have handed over the doctrine of Christ to the Church. As the Apostle Paul proclaims, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve…Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”

The doctrine and life of the Christian and apostolic Church then is given to us in the Apostolic testimony. For example, in Acts 2: “Those who gladly received his word were baptized… And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” And also in Ephesians 5: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.” Sound familiar? Yes! The congregations of Emmanuel and St. John deliver to you what we received from the Apostles, who in turn received it from our LORD Jesus. We are blessed to receive, remember, and confess Christ Jesus together tonight with them.

We are exhorted throughout the Scriptures to keep vigil, whether physical night or in the metaphorical darkness of this world. Jesus said, “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come” (Mk 13:33). “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning” (Luke 12:35). Also, St. Peter said, “Be sober-minded; be vigilant. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Or St. Paul, “continue steadfast in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col 4:2). “Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6). 

Keeping a night watch is received from Christ and His Apostles. This past week, we heard Christ Jesus keep vigil in His hour of deepest need as He prayed in Gethsemane. He tells Peter, James, and John three times to watch and pray lest they fall into temptation. To keep vigil is to stay attentive to God’s Word and prayer even through the night. While those apostles failed to stay awake (and maybe some of you did tonight?), they learned this valuable lesson and put it into practice. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, when suffering or in prison, we hear and see Christ’s people keeping watch by night. 

Consider the example of Acts 16. Paul and Silas got in trouble when they cast out a “spirit of divination” from a slave girl in Philippi, a lucrative kind of demon possession. Thus, the Apostle and his companion get thrown into prison. While there, they prayed and sang hymns through the night, comforting their fellow prisoners. Not surprisingly, God’s Word has its effect, and they are set free, just as Christ’s Word of absolution sets us free from the sin that binds us. As Paul and the prisoners remained, the jailer and his whole household were moved by the Spirit to confess Christ and be baptized that very night. And coming into his house, the jailer set food before them and rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household. 

Does this sound familiar? Of course! We continue the apostolic tradition of keeping night watch in prayer and praise. Some of the earliest Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, and Hippolytus of Rome, all mention nighttime prayers. Hippolytus mentions Christians waking at midnight and 3 AM praying in their homes. As these prayers moved into the Church and later monasteries, they became practiced by the professional church class and neglected by the laity. But I know many of you read God’s Word and pray when restless and awake at night. You may have sat at the bedside of the sick or dying, praying with them through the night. This is good and God-pleasing, as the Apostle exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).

Of course, how and when you keep vigil can vary. Your vigil-keeping might be formal, like this night, or informal, as when you cannot sleep and need the comfort and confidence of Christ’s Word. Even those most disconnected from tradition still know the Christ Mass vigil, as we gather by night with the shepherds and angels around Christ’s nativity. We all know the blessing of hearing lessons of prophecy and fulfillment, singing psalms, hymns, and carols, and receiving the Holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood. Granted, we abbreviate the Christ Mass vigil as we depart to our homes and then return at morning light rather than praying and singing through the night. But the same, you know the blessing of keeping vigil.

Thus, we have received from the Apostles, who “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14) as they waited for the Promise from the Father, the Holy Spirit. And tonight, you’ve been given again to gather with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to hear, sing, and pray until the Morning Star, Christ, rises on your heart. As tonight, so every night we gather, we receive Christ’s forgiveness, resurrection, and heaven. Don’t worry. We won’t be staying all night, but we will depart for our homes and return to our respective parishes to rejoice tomorrow on Resurrection morning. And then, as tonight, we will rejoice again with saints and angels and the whole host heaven, even the Apostles, as we hear, pray, sing, and receive Christ, our Paschal lamb in His Supper.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin