OT Lectionary April 20th Easter Sunday Exodus 14:10 – 31, 15:20-21

Just as the Passover has symbolised for Christians the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, so the crossing of the Red Sea has symbolised resurrection and deliverance. The links with water are important in Christian baptism, and as with Maundy Thursday and the Passover we have today a rich vein of symbolism as we celebrate today the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the grave.

The starting point of the story is the sheer hopelessness of the Israelites’ situation. With the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind, they quite literally have nowhere to go. There simply is no human solution to their problem: what is needed is nothing short of a miracle. But God is a God of miracles, and so just as it is needed, one is provided. The sea opens, and they are free. In fact they are a lot freer than they expect as those who would kill or recapture them are drowned in the very waters which have parted to allow them the road to freedom.

 

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One of my more memorable sermons, about Mars Bars and Lifebelts, asks the question ‘How do you understand your salvation?’ Many Christians see their relationship with God as a bit like if I were to give them a Mars Bar. Most of them would be really grateful to me (apart from once when I chose a member of the congregation who was allergic to chocolate, but that was just an unfortunate pick on my part). But if instead of my giving them a Mars I had given them a lifebelt just as they were drowning, they would be more than merely grateful: they would quite literally own me their life. Jesus doesn’t just come along to make our quite nice days even better with a little gift called ‘salvation’: he quite literally provides a miraculous rescue for those who without him would remain dead in their sins. What we need to save us is nothing short of a miracle: the rising of Jesus from death, when we had nothing in ourselves to save ourselves, is that miracle.

Exodus 14 also encourages us to hope for a miracle when all looks hopeless. The famous words in verse 13 ring down the ages to all who face impossible situations: ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you’. Our instinct is so often to rush around trying to sort out our own problems: God is the God both of the 11th hour and of those who can hold onto their trust in him with quiet faith.

Another motif is the glorification of God through this mighty miracle. ‘The Egyptians will know that I am God’ says the Lord to Moses, although in the event they won’t know it for very long before the sea gets them. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates him, and his Father, before the world which has hounded and condemned him. It is in the nature of judgement that there will be those who realise the truth too late: Revelation 1:7 talks about the mourning of those who had pierced Jesus but them seen him gloriously vindicated as he comes in glory. The celebrations of this greatest day of the Christian year also have a bittersweet flavour as we are reminded of the urgency of the task of telling others about Christ’s victory.

OT Lectionary April 17th Maundy Thursday Ex 12:1-14

The gospel writers disagree about the exact relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover meal. But there clearly is a link, and the story of the first Passover can help in our appreciation of this most holy day. The essence is that it is a night of God’s dramatic judgement on a nation whose monarch has consistently refused to comply with God’s instructions to him, preferring to keep Israel as his slaves, working in appalling conditions and under cruel domination. To our minds it seems profoundly unfair that just because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart the entire Egyptian nation should be bereaved, but God’s ways are different from ours, and we are reminded not of the unfairness of a vindictive God but rather of the awesome responsibility of leadership. Politicians make bad decisions and nations suffer: it was ever thus, and continues to be so today.

 

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But it is also a night of rescue, as the people God has called as his own find their freedom from slavery and oppression, and begin a new journey to a home of their own. The blood on their doorposts provides a dramatic symbol of the cost of their freedom, and this most momentous of events becomes the turning point for Israel, the night to which all further generations will look back as their reference point.

These twin themes of judgement and rescue come hand in hand in Holy Week too: evil is defeated by the shedding of the blood of an innocent victim, and there is freedom and the beginning of a homeward journey for God’s people. It is symbolised, perhaps a bit strangely, in both cases, by a meal. The blood of the Passover lamb becomes the wine shared by Jesus’ disciples, but it is wine which refers both backwards and forwards to shed blood. The Israelites eat with coats and shoes on, ready for their escape; Jesus finds nourishment before his journey through death and hell to resurrection. And Christians down the ages have tasted the wine which speaks of the shed blood of redemption. The author to the Hebrews tells us that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness for sin (9:22), and so the Christian community is constantly reminded of the cost of their salvation in the context of a celebratory meal.

What a bittersweet night this is! We eat and drink to celebrate but also to remember death and sin. We are rescued and saved, but at the cost of enormous pain and suffering. Our journey begins, but will take us a lifetime to complete. And at the centre of it sits Jesus, both Moses the host at the feast and the silent sacrificial lamb. Only later, in Gethsemane, does his anguish reveal itself: for now he is content to share a meal with his beloved friends.

Passover reminds us graphically of the cost of our salvation: on this of all nights we must not take it lightly, seek cheap grace, or forget those who suffer innocently because of the hard-heartedness of others.

OT Lectionary April 13th Palm Sunday Isaiah 50:4-9a

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As we enter Holy Week we are looking at some particularly New Testament stories as we walk through the week with Jesus and reflect on some of the events of these fateful days. But in spite of this the OT readings can help illuminate the narrative, and give greater understanding to those seeking to travel the way of the cross.
Our first passage is from one of Isaiah’s ‘Servant Songs’ which we have encountered before in this series. We’ve discussed just whom the ‘Servant’ is, and said that most likely he represents the Israelite community, not as it actually was in the 6th century, but in an idealised way: this is what Israel would be like if it was perfectly living out its vocation as the nation chosen by God to make him known to all the other nations of the world. So the first thing which strikes us, and we’re going to see this even more clearly before this week is out, is that God’s calling involves suffering. We so often live with the sense that if we were really really in the centre of God’s will life would be great: indeed much of the OT tells us precisely that that’s how it should be. Yet the Servant Songs give the lie to this: to live in obedience to God is to suffer, as so many Christians have found out. Beating, mocking, spitting: these are the daily currency of Christians in many parts of our world, reminding us of the Jesus who said that he had come not to bring peace, but rather the sword, representing conflict. As we journey through Holy Week the conflict becomes steadily more overt, and culminates, of course, on the cross.
Yet like the Servant whose ministry is perfected in him, Jesus faces his calling with determination and confidence. He knows that the Sovereign God helps him, so he grits his teeth and goes onward, knowing that there will be vindication, and that all those who have so violently opposed him will be proved wrong once and for all. ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’ might be a translation, albeit a bit approximate, of v 8b. And have a go they do, but even death can’t keep him down. The Sovereign Lord has the last word.
I think we sometimes go through Holy Week with the kind of attitude which realises how terrible it all was for Jesus, but thanks God or its lucky stars that he did it instead of us. Isaiah would remind us, perhaps, at the start of the week that this kind of suffering is not exceptional. It is the reality for many Christians, and it ought perhaps to be ours. Certainly we are promised no immunity, and to walk Holy Week with our faces set like flint to obey God come what may might just give a sobering jolt to our British consumerist, comfort-driven faith.