APRIL 20TH, 2019: EASTER VIGIL
God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am, " he replied.
Then God said:
"Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you."
Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey,
took with him his son Isaac and two of his servants as well,
and with the wood that he had cut for the holocaust,
set out for the place of which God had told him.
On the third day Abraham got sight of the place from afar.
Then he said to his servants:
"Both of you stay here with the donkey,
while the boy and I go on over yonder.
We will worship and then come back to you."
Thereupon Abraham took the wood for the holocaust
and laid it on his son Isaac's shoulders,
while he himself carried the fire and the knife.
As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham:
"Father!" Isaac said.
"Yes, son, " he replied.
Isaac continued, "Here are the fire and the wood,
but where is the sheep for the holocaust?"
"Son," Abraham answered,
"God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust."
Then the two continued going forward.
When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Next he tied up his son Isaac,
and put him on top of the wood on the altar.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD's messenger called to him from heaven,
"Here I am!" he answered.
"Do not lay your hand on the boy," said the messenger.
"Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.
Abraham named the site Yahweh-yireh;
hence people now say, "On the mountain the LORD will see."
Again the LORD's messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
"I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessingC
all this because you obeyed my command."
The LORD said to Moses, "Why are you crying out to me?
Tell the Israelites to go forward.
And you, lift up your staff and, with hand outstretched over the sea,
split the sea in two,
that the Israelites may pass through it on dry land.
But I will make the Egyptians so obstinate
that they will go in after them.
Then I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army,
his chariots and charioteers.
The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD,
when I receive glory through Pharaoh
and his chariots and charioteers."
The angel of God, who had been leading Israel's camp,
now moved and went around behind them.
The column of cloud also, leaving the front,
took up its place behind them,
so that it came between the camp of the Egyptians
and that of Israel.
But the cloud now became dark, and thus the night passed
without the rival camps coming any closer together
all night long.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,
and the LORD swept the sea
with a strong east wind throughout the night
and so turned it into dry land.
When the water was thus divided,
the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land,
with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.
The Egyptians followed in pursuit;
all Pharaoh's horses and chariots and charioteers went after them
right into the midst of the sea.
In the night watch just before dawn
the LORD cast through the column of the fiery cloud
upon the Egyptian force a glance that threw it into a panic;
and he so clogged their chariot wheels
that they could hardly drive.
With that the Egyptians sounded the retreat before Israel,
because the LORD was fighting for them against the Egyptians.
Then the LORD told Moses, AStretch out your hand over the sea,
that the water may flow back upon the Egyptians,
upon their chariots and their charioteers."
So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,
and at dawn the sea flowed back to its normal depth.
The Egyptians were fleeing head on toward the sea,
when the LORD hurled them into its midst.
As the water flowed back,
it covered the chariots and the charioteers of Pharaoh's whole army
which had followed the Israelites into the sea.
Not a single one of them escaped.
But the Israelites had marched on dry land
through the midst of the sea,
with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel on that day
from the power of the Egyptians.
When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore
and beheld the great power that the LORD
had shown against the Egyptians,
they feared the LORD and believed in him and in his servant Moses.
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
Thus says the LORD:
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!
Why spend your money for what is not bread,
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
Come to me heedfully,
listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
As I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of nations,
so shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.
Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked man his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.
For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
At daybreak on the first day of the week
the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus
took the spices they had prepared
and went to the tomb.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb;
but when they entered,
they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
While they were puzzling over this, behold,
two men in dazzling garments appeared to them.
They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground.
They said to them,
"Why do you seek the living one among the dead?
He is not here, but he has been raised.
Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners
and be crucified, and rise on the third day."
And they remembered his words.
Then they returned from the tomb
and announced all these things to the eleven
and to all the others.
The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James;
the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles,
but their story seemed like nonsense
and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb,
bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone;
then he went home amazed at what had happened.
(Ideally all nine readings should be proclaimed tonight. But because of space limitations, I can only comment on four.)
If we’re determined to prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the four gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb, we have an impossible task. There are so many contradictions within those four narratives that, taken together, no one can be certain about what exactly happened at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning.
Each of tonight’s nine readings wasn’t chosen for what it could prove, but for what it could help us understand about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. There are probably as many implications of that event as there are people who believe it took place. In many ways, we’re free to look at it from any perspective we choose.
Early Christian communities frequently turned to tonight’s Genesis and Exodus narratives of Abraham sacrificing Isaac and the Chosen People crossing the sea as ways to understand the resurrection’s significance. Just as Yahweh delivered Isaac from death at the last second, so God also delivered Jesus of Nazareth. And just as the enslaved Israelites went from death to a new life at the Red Sea, so Jesus went from death to a new life by his dying and rising. In each situation, people expected death, but found life.
Yet as Deutero-Isaiah reminds us, one thing is consistent as they face their deaths: God’s word. No biblical author emphasizes that word more than this unnamed prophet. Preaching during Israel’s 6th century BCE Babylonian Exile, Yahweh’s word is the prophet’s only recourse. Few people believe him when he speaks about Yahweh freeing them and returning to the Promised Land. Such good news can only be a figment of his imagination. But over and over again he insists in the name of Yahweh, “My word shall not return to me void.” Once God’s word is spoken, it happens. Its effect is just as certain as the effect of the rain and snow.
One of our problems in experiencing that effect is that we simply don’t notice it. Dealing with God is completely different from dealing with human beings. Deutero-Isaiah refers to this in his well-known passage describing the contrast between Yahweh’s immanence and Yahweh’s transcendence. “Seek Yahweh while he may be found, call him while his is near . . .. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways . . .. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” In the same instant, God is as close to us as the air we breathe and as distant as the furthest galaxy.
No wonder our sacred authors only tell their readers about Jesus’ empty tomb and never attempt to describe his resurrection. That unique event is part of his transcendence. As Rudolf Bultmann observed, “How does one describe the ‘other side’ for people on ‘this side?’” The evangelists can only talk about the effects, and those differ person to person. Luke, for instance, zeroes in on the necessity of the death that precedes the resurrection. In tonight’s pericope, the angels tell the women, “The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified . . ..” It’s not a matter of choice. It’s the way God set things up.
Some in Luke’s community were looking for loopholes to attain life, akin to the ways we learned in grade school – such as wearing a special medal around our necks or receiving communion on specific days of the month. Luke’s angels assure us there are no shortcuts to dying with Jesus. Though there are a million ways to die, die we must.