In the past few months I have had more than one conversation with different people which were almost identical. They all went like this: ‘My mother/grandma/aunt/whatever is beginning to talk about death, and it turns out that in spite of being a staunch Christian, someone I’ve looked up to all my life as a pillar of faith, it turns out they they’re not at all sure what to expect as they know their life is drawing to a close, and are actually quite frightened. What do you say to people like that? And where on earth has the Church’s ministry of teaching been?’
I also read an article from the ChurchTimes which asked ‘Do we believe in the resurrection of the dead or not?’ The author was bemoaning the fact that in all the pronouncements coming from the C of E centrally about Covid 19 there was very little which spoke about a Christian response to death and dying, or of the Easter hope of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. All we were getting was good advice on how to avoid dying.
So in response to these two events, and in case it helps, I offer a sermon which I preached at my church in Lincoln a while ago.
Since I am now on furlough and therefore not allowed to do any work for the Diocese, I’m afraid that all the podcasts I recorded before I left come to an end this Sunday, and I will not be producing any more here. However you can still download the printed versions from the diocesan website here:
Just as the resurrection is the central act in the drama of the NT, so the Exodus is the central point of the OT. And just as we have four separate accounts of the passion and resurrection stories, so we have three accounts of the exodus, one of them, perhaps like John’s Gospel, more poetic and two, like the Synoptics, more narrative. Ex 15 is in the form of a prophetic (that is inspired) psalm which sets a retelling of the events in the context of a song of praise, while Ex 14 interweaves two other accounts. Biblical scholars who have nothing better to do with themselves can easily unpick the two accounts, using the distinctive vocabulary of each source, and make two coherent but different stories.
In the first account, from around 1000 BC, Moses has to do nothing, merely stand still and see what God will do. Yahweh plants his pillar of cloud/fire firmly between the Israelites and the Egyptians, who panic and run into the sea to their deaths. But in the later account dating from after the Babylonian exile, maybe the mid 5th century BC, Moses, and the people, are far more active: Moses holds out his staff, the sea opens (think Cecil B. de Mille), and then closes again over the pursuing Egyptian army.
Fascinating though this is, there are some important theological truths which we can only find through refusing merely to harmonise these stories. For example, we might ask the question – How exactly are we saved? The first, or Jahwistic source, would say by standing still and letting God do everything. Jesus’ death on the cross was entirely God’s initiative, to which Jesus willingly agreed, and there is nothing required of us, like ‘trying his works to do’ or, worse, trying to earn or deserve God’s salvation. But the later Priestly source would put much more emphasis on our response: our salvation is a combination of God’s initiative, Moses’ obedience, and our walking through the gap to the other side. To open the sea took God’s power and Moses’ stick, and the rescue of the people required them to enter into the sea and walk to the other side. Merely to ‘stand still and see the salvation of God’ would simply not have cut it. Both these truths need to be held in tension, in paradox, and in particular we need to ponder what would have happened to people who, even though God had opened the sea, refused to follow on the journey. It is also worth asking when are the times when we are called, as it were, to hold up our staffs, to work with God so that God’s salvation might come to others.
But of course there is a huge elephant in the room, one which requires us to read this story in a fourth, more symbolic way. What about those poor Egyptians? The later, Priestly writers, had spent time in exile in Babylon, and were very familiar with the creation story according to Babylonian religion, where Marduk, the chief god (goodie), battles with a great sea-monster called Tiamat (baddie), and ends up cutting it in half and making the heavens and the earth from the two halves. This story is referenced a few times in the OT, with Tiamat going by the names of ‘The Deep’, Rahab and Leviathan, and God, of course, winning the fight. So the writers couldn’t resist seeing in the dividing of the Red Sea the cutting in half of something which formed the supreme symbol of all that is evil and destructive. Pharaoh, too, symbolises everything and everyone who stands against God, hardens his heart and refuses to submit to his will, and in so doing keeps people in slavery, and sends others to their deaths. Even at the bank of the Sea the army could have given in and admitted defeat, but no, they had to follow the Israelites in, and the very evil which God was defeating became their destruction, as evil always has been and always will be to those who sell their souls to it. And the poor soldiers who were simply obeying orders? They were collateral damage, as there always is in war and conflict. Tragically to set our hearts on evil, to choose to become a tyrant, means that it is not just us who gets hurt, but many innocent bystanders too. ‘Twas ever thus.
So this story, now that we have looked at it a bit more deeply, encourages us to give heartfelt praise to God for his initiative in saving us, to make sure that we follow him and help others to do so, and above all to get rid of anything and everything in our lives which plays into the hands of evil, harms others, and puts us in the way of our own destruction.
Jeremiah is not known as one of the most cheery or celebratory of the OT prophets, apart from that bit in chapter 29 which well-meaning people write on cards to you about God knowing the plans he has for us, a passage we might send a lot less if we consider what actually panned out for Jeremiah! But amidst the doom and gloom there are passages of hope which shine out, and todays OT lectionary reading is one of them, and it seems appropriate for this day of celebration, muted though it might be this year.
In fact all the OT prophets have to juggle the twin themes of judgement and salvation, of punishment and restoration. In our passage the people whom God has loved with an everlasting love are the same people who have survived the sword. The words of hope and future blessing in v.4-5 are spoken to people oppressed, exiled and far from home.
This tension, between judgement and promise, is one which Christians today have to negotiate too. So what does Easter Sunday have to say to us about it? Maybe there are three things in particular that it will not let us believe in.
It will not let us believe in cheap grace. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was to lose his life under the Nazi regime in Germany, coined the term to mean ‘the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’ In other words we celebrate the triumph of Easter through the lens of the cross, knowing that the resurrection is the way of salvation for those who understand their desperate need of a Saviour, and who commit themselves wholeheartedly to him from this day forward. Jeremiah’s words of hope come to those who know punishment, and are living with the consequences of sin.
It will not let us believe in a vengeful God. The fact that the prophets had to cope with both the anger and the mercy of God witnesses to this. Punishment is never something God does, and certainly not what he enjoys doing: it is simply the consequences of disobeying and rejecting his will. We do that all the time, of course, and sometimes we pay the price, but his perfect will is never vengeance or retribution, but rather forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. Today we celebrate, in the words of the Christmas carol, ‘God and sinners reconciled’.
It will not let us believe that this is all there is. This morning I woke up to the news that a very good friend had just died from Covid-19 – the first time the pandemic has really come that close to our family. In the announcement of his death I was struck by the phrase ‘He is more alive now than he has ever been’. Resurrection opens the gates of glory to all who choose to walk with Christ through them, and while we might read Jeremiah’s promise of eternal tambourine-playing as a picture of heaven (I so hope that it isn’t!) there is both a present and a future power to the truth of the resurrection. There is nothing that can’t be undone by God, no situation too powerful for him to turn around, but, as the young men in the furnace realised, if not, there is still eternity.
This is a very strange Easter Day, but our resurrection hope is for far more than a return to ‘normal’ as soon as possible. Indeed there are many things I hope will never be normal again. Our hope is eternal, and, like Job, even if he slays us, yet will we hope in him.