MARCH 26TH, 2016: 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 blessing—
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, "Stretch 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.
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.
No matter how many readings we employ this evening from the Hebrew Scriptures, we must proclaim the reading from Exodus 14: the crossing of the sea. Whenever Jesus’ earliest followers thought of his death and resurrection, their Jewish roots always brought them back to the book of Exodus and the miraculous crossing of the sea. Just as that event formed them into Yahweh’s people, Jesus’ death and resurrection formed his disciples into the new people of God. The parallels were obvious: both events took people of faith from the depths to the heights. There originally was no hope in either situation. The Israelites hit a dead end: the sea. Jesus’ followers hit a dead end: his death.
Yet a surprise lurked in each situation; a path of dry land appeared in the sea, and a transformed life came from the tomb on Easter Sunday. But in each case, the participants were forced to experience a real or psychological death.
Years ago, one of my students, a farmer, made an interesting observation. “You know,” he said, “that seed really has to be dead when I plant it. Green seed will just rot.”
Abraham discovered that reality when he followed Yahweh’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Though the passage’s original readers would have interpreted it as an argument against child sacrifice, Abraham’s dedication to carrying out Yahweh’s will is its major theological point. Many of the pagan religions in Canaan not only tolerated such sacrifices, they demanded them. The community for whom the Genesis Elohistic author wrote lived in that environment. When the pagans claimed they were more dedicated to their gods than their Israelite neighbors because they actually killed some of their children for them, the sacred author replied with this story.
Our Abraham-Isaac story reinforces the theology we find in tonight’s first reading: Yahweh is a God who creates and sustains life. And that life is always “good.” If anything’s going to be killed to show dedication to Yahweh, it’s an animal, not a person. The reason the biblical author doesn’t have Yahweh stop Abraham from killing until the final second seems to be his conviction that Judaism’s founder also had to reach the point of dying before he could reach the life Yahweh was offering. Whether we’re in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, the message is the same: no life without death.
“Quantum” theologians tell us the same thing. These modern reflectors on God and God’s word carry their reflections far beyond just this planet. Exploring the entire universe, they remind us that nothing comes to life until something dies. Our universe is in a constant process of dying and rising. It’s the normal way God continues to create. If we’re to play a role in that creative process, we also have to die. Abraham found that death in carrying out Yahweh’s word just as the Hebrews discovered it when they took their first steps into the sea.
That’s why, in tonight’s gospel pericope, Luke employs one of his most important theological words: “must.” The angles remind the women, “. . . The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.” The evangelist’s relationship with the risen Jesus had convinced him that dying with Jesus wasn’t an option; it was an absolute necessity.
If we’re not actually receiving the life Jesus attained perhaps it’s because we’re not actually dying; not giving ourselves completely to others. We no longer have to worry about sacrificing our children. Our God expects us to die by sacrificing ourselves.