A strange God (April 20, 2014)

Easter Sunday
April 20, 2014

Matthew 28:1-10: After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

Last night we had a service known as the Easter Vigil. It has its roots in the ancient church when people gathered to spend the night in prayer awaiting the dawn when new believers would be baptized and brought into the community of faith.

We don’t go all night anymore; the service goes for about an hour and fifteen minutes. But it has the same structure as the practice of the ancient church. We begin in the darkness with a single candle that represents Christ as the light of the world. We listen to the scriptures – the ancient stories that speak to the character of God and of this night when the Christian version of Passover is celebrated – commemorating not just Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but our deliverance from the power of sin and death. Then we go down to the font that’s in the middle of the sanctuary, bless the water, and renew our baptismal promises.

Following the sharing of the peace, the cry goes out “Christ is Risen,” and the lights come on, the black drape on the cross is pulled down, and the sanctuary is transformed into Easter. We hear the resurrection story and celebrate the first communion of Easter: just as the risen Jesus eats with his followers, the risen Christ invites us to his table.

To be honest, part of what makes the Vigil so much fun is the party at the end of the service when we break our Lenten fast. Whatever people have given up for Lent they bring to share and we feast on the goodies in that first light of the resurrection. But the power of that night is in these ancient readings – tales from thousands of years ago that bear witness to this strange god who gets slaves out of Egypt and who opens the tomb and raises the dead.

I use that phrase on purpose: “this strange god.”

The first reading of the night is the creation story. What we say about this morning and the tomb of Jesus, goes all the way back to the beginning of the Biblical story. The story of Jesus is not just one story – it is the climax of the whole Biblical narrative. It may be that you could watch the car chase at the end of some American movie and get the gist of the whole movie, but it doesn’t work that way with the scriptures. Everything that happens to Jesus is deeply rooted in the ancient stories and the ancient faith of Israel. It is rooted in their unique experience of God. Or better – it is rooted in the experience of their unique god.

The god of the scriptures is not like the other gods of the ancient world. And he is not like most of what you hear about God even now.

The gods of the ancient world were gods who blessed the king and the ruling powers of ancient society. The gods were on the side of the wealthy and powerful. The gods were about fertility and prosperity and victory in battle and things staying the same.

The god of the scriptures is a god of change. He tells Abram and Sara to leave their homeland and go to a new place. In the typical frustrating way of the god of the scriptures, he doesn’t even tell Abram and Sara where they are going. It’s more like “I’ll tell you when you get there.” I don’t know if you have ever taken directions in the car from someone like that; it drives me crazy. I want to know where we are headed, and about how far it is. I don’t want to live in limbo with you suddenly saying, “Okay, turn here.”

God just says, “Trust me.”

God tells Abram and Sara to go out, to go to a new place, to leave the familiar, to leave their land and the gods of their land, to leave the safe ordered life they know and become pilgrims.

God is not a god of the status quo. All the gods of Egypt supported the king and priests. They blessed the ruling powers. The validated the established order of society. They were content to let slaves be slaves – but this god of the scriptures wants to set slaves free. He wants to overturn things.

It’s not that God loves change for the sake of change. It’s that the world is upside down and the god of the scriptures wants to set it right. God doesn’t want the rich to stay rich. He wants the poor to be fed. God doesn’t want the powerful to keep their power; he wants the weak to be protected and those in need lifted to their feet.

Among the many interesting things in the scripture are the laws about slavery. People get all hot and bothered that God endorses slavery but they never really read or understand the Old Testament laws. Slavery was a fact of the ancient world. The question is what did God’s laws do with the fact of slavery? Slavery was an answer to poverty. If you couldn’t feed yourself and your family, you could “sell” yourself to become a kind of bondservant. Another family would take you in and provide for you and you would work for them. But here’s the deal – after seven years they not only had to set you and your family free, they had to provide you with enough money and possessions to get you on your feet. God doesn’t endorse slavery. He acknowledges it and transforms it so that slavery becomes a path to independence.

The same with war. The same with violence. People point to all these things in the scriptures without seeing how God challenges and changes all of it. In a brutal world brutality must sometimes be fought – even fought brutally – but, again, the rules God gives about warfare are remarkable for the ancient world. Compared to God’s rules about war, we are a barbaric people.

War is usually about maintaining and extending power. But God goes to war to free slaves and the oppressed. When God opens the grave, this is an act of a god whose whole work in the course of human history has been about breaking open prisons. And we are good at building prisons. I don’t just mean physical prisons. I mean prisons of poverty, prisons of class, prisons of ignorance, prisons of debt, prisons of fear.

In the book of Acts there are prison escape stories. The book of Acts tells what happens among the followers of Jesus after his resurrection. It includes prison escape stories. There are shipwreck survival stories. There are stories of deliverance from demonic oppression and economic oppression. The god of the scriptures is a revolutionary god. He overthrows kings and kingdoms. He topples even his own country of Judah and Israel because they have become cesspools of injustice. What other god in the ancient world attacks his own city?! The god of the scriptures is a strange god.

So our evening last night – and indeed the whole Biblical story – begins with this fabulous account of the origin of all things. It is a marvelous, stunning, brilliant, and radical vision of the source of life. God brings order to the ancient chaos, creating a good and perfect world by his word, by the command of his mouth. What God speaks comes into being: the world and all its creatures. And everything God creates is beautiful and good and noble. The world is not brought forth from the slain body of the chaos monster. Humanity is not cast from the blood of the ancient dragon. All that God makes is good.

And we know this. We know this as we watch the sea from the shore, as we look at the golden hills around us, as we walk through Yosemite Valley, as we stand atop the mountains and look down at Lake Tahoe. We see the majesty and beauty and perfection of the world.

But then we look more closely and we see the brutality of existence. We see the wolves pull down a newborn elk. We see a lion kill cheetah cubs to eliminate the competition. For that matter, we see bedbugs and ticks and mosquitos sucking our blood. But mostly we see humans robbing and slaying and enslaving one another. We see the brutality of a Syria or the Central African Republic where Muslims killed Christians because they’re Christians and Christians, gaining power, are killing Muslims because they’re Muslims.

We see a world littered with war dead and killing fields. We see the cruelty of rape and domestic violence and poverty. We see the devastations and cruelties of addiction. We see the seas and soils and air polluted.

The god of the scriptures declares that the world didn’t start this way. Life isn’t supposed to be a story of suffering. Our existence isn’t a trial for heaven or a path for disembodied souls to gain Nirvana. Existence is good. The world was meant to be good and beautiful and in peace.

The story of the creation of a perfect world is followed by the story and Adam and Eve turning away from God and losing the garden. Cain rises up and kills his brother Abel. God eventually looks out over his broken world and considers wiping it out altogether.

We keep giving children cute little books and toys about Noah and the Ark when the story is a terrifying one of humanity losing its right to exist. Genesis 6 has those terrible lines: “Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth.” Look around. See how cruel humanity can be.

But God looks on Noah and remembers what we could be. What we were meant to be. What we still can be.

God saves Noah. God isn’t ready to give up on us. He sees a future for us. He wants to open the prison doors. He wants to set us free from sin and death.

So God calls Abraham. And he watches over Isaac and Jacob. He upholds Joseph in Egypt. God provides a refuge in Egypt for all Jacob’s family. But then they are turned into slaves. So God delivers them. In another frightening set of stories God gives Pharaoh ten chances to repent and give up slaveholding, but Pharaoh is determined to hold onto his slaves even if it costs him the lives of his own first born.

God isn’t on the side of Pharaoh. God isn’t on the side of power and privilege. God chooses to free slaves. Again and again in scripture God violates the accepted order of things. The first-born inherits the blessing. That’s the way it has always been, but again and again God chooses the younger sibling. God chose Jacob over Esau. God chose Ephraim over Manasseh. God chose Joseph over his 10 older brothers. God chooses outcasts. God chooses women. God chose the Samaritan woman at the well and the maimed Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman centurion – all people who could not enter into the temple because they were unclean, but they are all gathered into Christ.

This god we come to worship is a god of trouble: a restless god who will not allow his world to be held in the prison of sin and death, to be held in the prisons of ignorance and fear, to be held in the prisons of shame and guilt. This god forgives! He forgives the unforgiveable. He heals the sick. He embraces lepers. He betrays his own laws for the sake of justice. He raises the dead.

The crucifixion of Jesus is the ultimate act of people in power crushing the opposition in order to maintain their wealth and privilege. And God says “un uh. We ain’t havin’ none of that. You want to railroad Jesus, fine. But no way are you keeping him in the grave. Put all the soldiers you want to guard the tomb; they won’t do any good.” They all fall down like dead men and the dead man rises.

God is in the business of shattering the gates of hell and setting all its prisoners free. Christianity isn’t about piety and conventional morality. It is about redemption, transformation, deliverance. It is about shattered prison doors. It is about the world changed. It is about us changed – about passing over from darkness into light, from death into a true and eternal life.

I hesitate to even use the word love, because love sounds so sappy to us. But this god is about love: the kind of love that sits patiently at a Woolworth drug counter while people pour milkshakes on your head because it knows that the future is justice for all, that the future is deliverance from hate and prejudice, and because the future is God’s and this is who God is. That’s the kind of love this god is talking about. Radical love. Love that will take up the cross, knowing and trusting and living on the conviction that God is a god of resurrection, a god who will descend into the darkest prison to set each and all of us free.

So the angel comes down to let us in, not to let Jesus out. The angel comes down to let us in, so we can see what kind of god this truly is. The angel comes down so we can go to Galilee and see him – and be called into his service. The angel comes down so that we can be called into his grace, that we can be called into his freedom, that we can be called into his life.

This god of the scriptures is a strange god. But he is worth following.


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