Easter Vigil — Redemption is a Gift

Saturday after sunset we began our journey into Easter by gathering around a fire pit and kindling a flame in the darkness.  We then lit the Paschal candle, and smaller candles held by everyone, and moved into the darkened tomb of the church.  We baptized 3 adults, a teen, 2 older boys and finally a baby boy as part of our celebration of moving from the darkness of death to the light of resurrection.  My sermon from that night, the first of Easter.

Based on Exodus 14:10-31

On this most holy of nights we hear the stories of God’s deliverance, of God’s redemption of the people of Israel. We tell these stories as we gather in the darkness to remember that God has offered salvation before and continues to do so, especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As the people of Israel stood on the edge of the Red Sea, they feared for their very lives.  They began complaining against Moses—and against God—because they could have stayed in Egypt rather than die on those watery banks.  Much earlier, God had heard their cries for help to be delivered from the slavery they experienced under the oppression of Pharaoh.  God sent Moses to free the Israelites, and Moses came before Pharaoh begging for their release so that they might go and worship the Living God.  Pharaoh refused; he liked having the slaves to accomplish his immense building projects.

So God began sending the plagues.  You may remember them from Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston (which, by the way, we are currently missing; it’s on ABC tonight and runs till 11:45 if you’re interested).  First the water was turned into blood, killing fish and other aquatic life.  Then there were plagues of frogs and lice and flies.  Each time Moses came back to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh declared that if God would remove the plague, he would free the Israelites.  Each time, the plague was lifted, but then Pharaoh changed his mind, thinking he was more powerful than God.

This continued through the other plagues: disease of the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness.  Each time the same: Pharaoh promised to release the people of Israel and then reneges. Until finally God resorts to the ultimate plague, the death of the firstborn.  On that night, God instructed the people of Israel to kill a lamb and to place the blood from that lamb on their doorposts.  Then God told them to roast that lamb and eat it with unleavened bread and prepare to depart.  During that night, an angel of death came into the land of Egypt and whenever that angel saw the sign of the blood he passed over the house, knowing that the people inside belonged to God.  But those who didn’t have that mark lost their firstborn child to death.  This deliverance became known as the Passover of the Lord, a celebration among our Jewish friends even to this day.

Pharaoh, mourning the loss of his own son, called Moses to him and released the children of Israel that very night so that they could go and worship YHWH.  This conflict, we must remember, was between God and Pharaoh, not between Moses and Pharaoh.  And God only resorted to violence as a last option because Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

But Pharaoh had second thoughts and chased after the Israelites with his chariots in the morning.  As the Egyptians advanced, the Israelites moved as close to the water as possible.  That’s when God brought deliverance; the Red Sea was parted and the people walked across on dry land.  Then the chariots of Egypt tried to follow only to have the waters crash back in on them.  Miriam—Moses’ sister—in her exuberance begins to dance and sing about the deliverance God has given to them.

In the Jewish Hasidic tradition, the story gets told of this scene playing out on the earth while angels watched from the heavens.  As the dancing and singing began, some of the heavenly host took up their tambourines as well, joining in the celebration.  “’Wait,’ says one of them, ‘the Creator of the universe is sitting there weeping!’  They go to God.  ‘Why are you weeping when Israel has been delivered by your power?’ ‘I am weeping,’ says the Creator of the universe, ‘for the dead Egyptians washed on the shore are somebody’s sons, somebody’s husbands, somebody’s father.’”[1]

While on this night we speak with joy of God’s deliverance, let us not become people who believe they have earned this deliverance, or that we are somehow special.  Yes, tonight we will gather around the waters of baptism and proclaim our Easter joy, but this is not due to something we have done.  God gives this gift of deliverance freely, and we should approach the grace of God with a sense of humility. And we were reminded in the prayer after our Exodus reading that the deliverance of the Israelites was “to be a sign for us of the salvation of all nations by the water of Baptism.”  We went on to pray, “Grant that all the peoples of the earth may be numbered among the offspring of Abraham, and rejoice in the inheritance of Israel.”  All nations, and all people.  God desires to bring deliverance from evil and death and destruction to every human being.

One of my great joys as a priest is to bring people together to explore the faith, to ask questions and to learn about God from one another.  These past months have been filled with that as Victor and Julia and John joined with three others both this past fall and then this Lent to explore the faith.  We’ve spoken at length about the way of Jesus, his call to love and serve others.  We’ve discussed how frequently the church is more concerned with self-preservation than in true discipleship.  We’ve discussed how many in the church have used guilt as a motivation to good works, rather than relying on the love found in Jesus Christ and the desire to share in that love that leads us to a new and transformed life.  Fear-fueled guilt does not lead us to Christ, rather it leads to a feeling of privilege when we do all the right things, or to lives of timidity when we mess up.  Jesus came to bring us life, which he offers us as he delivers us from the power of sin.

That is why we are gathering to baptize Hunter and Chris and Nick and Cameron and John and Julia and Victor.  To provide an outward and visible sign for an inward and spiritual grace that has been taking place for some time.  God has been working in the lives of these seven people, drawing them closer to the life of love and freedom and peace and forgiveness that God has planned for them.

That is certainly a reason for rejoicing this evening.  We rejoice with these seven, and the many others entering the waters of baptism tonight around the globe, recognizing that God continues to bring deliverance.  God loves us—and all of the people of the world—deeply, and God longs to bring us peace.  May we all experience that this Easter as we encounter the risen Lord.  Amen.

[1] Albert C Winn, “A Way Out of No Way: Exodus 14:5-32” qtd in “Exodus 14:10-31: Pastoral Perspective” by O. Benjamin Sparks in Feasting on the Word: Year C Vol 2. Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds.  Pg 330.

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