Monday, April 25, 2011

The Night of Liberation

Sermon preached at St. Stephen's Church at the Great Vigil of Easter: Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Matthew 28:1-10

Back in chapter five of Exodus, after having been convinced by God that this is what he was called to do, Moses, with Aaron at his side, met Pharaoh, and said, “Yahweh, the God of Israel, has a message for you. He says, ‘Let my people go.’”

And Pharaoh replied, as Pharaohs do, “Who is this Yahweh, that I should pay any attention to him? I do not know this Yahweh and I will not let Israel go.”

For nine chapters of the Book of Exodus this struggle goes on. Yahweh vs. Pharaoh. Yahweh shows his power in plagues, extraordinary displays of divine power. The Nile and all Egypt’s water with it turned to blood. Frogs that cover the land. Gnats as thick as the dust of the earth, then flies. A deadly pestilence among Egypt’s livestock. Festering boils on humans and animals. Hail heavy enough to kill. Locusts. A “darkness that could be felt” (probably a dust storm). And finally, the death of all the firstborn of Egypt, that “passes over” the homes of the Israelites because of blood spread on the doorposts and the lintel.

Finally Pharaoh relents. He summons Moses and Aaron and says, “Get up and go, go far away from me and my people. Take your flocks, whatever you want, but just go! Go be with Yahweh, and ask him to send a blessing on me.” It seems as if freedom has been won.

But once they had gone Pharaoh and his officials changed their mind, and Yahweh, it is said, “hardened their hearts.” And so we come to this confrontation at the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites panic and do what panicked people do—they find someone to blame and attack their leader. They say the kinds of things people say in the stupidity that grows out of the midst of their anxiety. “We would rather be slaves again!” This was never our idea in the first place. You made us do this, Barack (I mean, Moses).

Speaking of stupidity, you would think that a pillar of cloud and a divided sea would be enough for the Egyptians to decide that perhaps this pursuit was not such a good idea. But people who are consumed by anger and think they are superior and right never think clearly. And the Egyptians are drowned.

In some ways it is not a very nice story. It doesn’t portray a very nice God, however, who uses plagues, indiscriminate murder and mass drowning to get his way. But if we spend too much time dwelling on these unpleasant things, we can get caught up in a kind of fundamentalism, obsessing about the literal details of the story. Something far bigger is going on here, something very powerful, and we should not miss it.

Yahweh, the God of Israel, who we know also as the God of Jesus Christ, is on the side of freedom. Liberation is the name of Yahweh’s game. In Yahweh’s world there is no place for oppression.

It is sad if we hear that announcement and do not think much of it. In the ancient world a God who was on the side of the oppressed was unheard of. Gods were oppressors by their very nature. To relate to them meant to try to find ways to please them so that they would oppress somebody else and not you.

The whole rest of what we call the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s wrestling with this radical reality of their God. They got it wrong a lot. They themselves slipped into being oppressors from time to time. They had particular trouble with the rich oppressing the poor. Attempting to follow the Liberating God was confusing at best.

Into that confusion came Jesus. And Jesus revealed this Liberating God anew, and his revelation was so clear that we came to understand that he was the Liberating God incarnate, in the flesh. Brian McLaren quotes the Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood, “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It means that God is like Jesus.”[1]

You may be wondering by now what all this has to do with Easter. Easter is the Christian Passover. In some ways it is unfortunate that in English we call this holy day “Easter,” which comes from the name of an old Germanic goddess whose month of celebration fell at this time of the year. Most of the rest of the world calls today some form of the word pascha, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew word pesach or “Passover.” See we call this celebration by the same name that Jews call their celebration of the Exodus.

“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” we frequently say or sing at the breaking of the bread, quoting St. Paul. What is this “Passover?”

It is first and foremost the Passover from death to life proclaimed in the story of the resurrection. But that Passover is not just about Jesus. It is about us. It is the pattern for our living and the pattern of our hope, a pattern that we cannot effect by ourselves, but which we trust God to effect in us.

It is the pattern of liberation, of justice and reconciliation. Brokenness, injustice, violence, division, sin, despair, and, yes, death do not have the last word. We are stubborn in this belief. When everything is lost we still trust God, as we say in the Burial Office, “Yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Tonight we celebrate the fact that you and I know this Liberating God. And we more than know him. He is liberating us even as we speak. We have been united with Jesus in a death like his. That’s the bad news. God didn’t make death go away. But the good news is that he used it to do what he does best: to liberate us. For if we are united to Jesus in a death like his, then surely we are also united to him in a resurrection like his.

Why is this night different from all other nights? Because it is the night of our liberation.

[1] Quoted in Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (2010), p. 114. There is no citation.

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