“Stroll Through the Seas”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, April 9, 2023
Reading: Exodus 14:26-31 & 15:20-21
Good morning, everyone, happy Easter. The resurrection of Jesus is the reason we’re here, it’s the reason there is something called Christianity at all. Without Easter, all things are lost. With it, all things are possible.
I greeted you with happy Easter, but the first Christians had a particular way to greet one another this day. It was this: One would say, “Christ is risen.” And the other would say, “He is risen indeed.” Let’s try that, shall we? Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Good.
Now, let’s take up the difficulty a notch. Many churches keep that greeting in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written and many of the first Christians spoke. One would say, “Christos anesthe.” The other, “alethos anesthe.” Got that? You’ll say, “alethos anesthe.” Are you ready? Good. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to speak in tongues, now you know.
We’ve been in a series on the book of Exodus here since January, it ends today. Next week we start a new series called: “That’s in the Bible?” on texts we usually ignore, the weirdest and strangest ones. But since it’s Easter let me read the weirdest and strangest story of all.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s the first Easter. Kind of a modest affair. No horn section or lilies or bonnets or bunnies or chocolates. No church yet. Just an empty tomb, a young man in white (we’re not even told he’s an angel), the women flee and say nothing. They’re afraid. You can understand. I mean, if death isn’t final, what else is uncertain?
The church has traditionally read the story of the crossing of the Red Sea as part of our Easter celebrations. As they say in the black church, in both the Exodus and Easter, God makes a way where there is no way.
A theologian I admire says this about God. God is whoever raised Israel from Egypt and Jesus from the dead. God is a verb. God is the raising one, for whom slavery and death are a pause, not the end. Tombs only have a front door, no back way out, and there’s a boulder in front no one can move. There is no way. At the Exodus, newly freed slaves have the great sea in front, the world’s greatest army behind, there is nothing to do but die. There is no way. Until Moses raises a staff, the sea starts to move, and then the people do. In our faith, seas split and graves are just the beginning. Now be careful with this. Neither Exodus nor Easter is the end. They’re just the beginning. The Exodus is the start of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, on the way to the promised land. Easter is the start of resurrection life, not the end. God is planning to raise every molecule just as surely as God raised Jesus. I mean, the women thought Jesus no longer being dead was terrifying. What about when everything is resurrected, and the whole world made new?
Historians say the songs in Exodus may be some of the oldest portions of the entire Bible. As literate people, we trust the text written down: it’s linear and sturdy. Non-literate people trust the story or the song, performed. That’s what grandma first taught around the fire. It’s what we still celebrate in worship. And Exodus 15 is mostly song, it’s liturgy, it’s praise. Poetry is not decoration. It’s original speech. And the Jewish people first set this story to paper and edited it and treasured it likely in Babylon. In exile. ‘One people enslaved us once. Egypt. How’d that turn out for them? Another people is enslaving us now. Babylon. How’s that going to turn out for them?’ The writing down is, mind you, hundreds of years after the events. Don’t worry. This isn’t a game of telephone where the story comes out garbled. You know—how you whisper something to someone in a circle, say, Tom Selleck, and each person whispers it to the next until it comes out “the bike shop sells toupees.” No, this is a saga that makes a people. Our forebears treasured it well. The prophet Miriam, Aaron’s and Moses’ sister, takes a tambourine, and she and her sisters sing and dance. And they remember the story well for us. This is the base level of biblical worship and identity, the foundation we stand on, and it’s a song sung by women.
Sing to the Lord, for he has
horse and rider he has thrown
into the sea.
Miriam is a Hebrew name, it’s Greek version . . . is Mary. Miriam’s successor and namesake, Mary of Nazareth, knows what to do when God brings revolution. She sings well too. “My soul glorifies the Lord.” Miriam and sisters sing at the shore of the Red Sea. Mary of Nazareth sings well when God births a new world through her untouched womb. Mary Magdalene, another Miriam, and her sisters see the first evidence of the resurrection, but they don’t sing yet. They don’t know the song. We in the church do. Christ is risen (he is risen indeed). See? Songs are sturdy. They make us who we are.
Israel doesn’t like the sea very much. There are some ancient peoples who take to the water like fish. The Phoenicians tell stories of their sea-faring prowess. The Greeks have stories of island hopping and trade across the Mediterranean and great naval battles. In Israel, the sea is full of monsters and it’s where you go to drown. The flood is the ultimate terror. The world nothing but sea. The great sea story in the Old Testament is Jonah, using the sea to run from God, thrown overboard, and swallowed by a fish. It doesn’t get any worse. Jesus walks on the sea to show, hey, I can tame your terror. And Revelation promises one day the sea will be no more. Sorry surfers and sailors . . . the Bible’s not your book. The sea in front is more terrifying than the soldiers behind. There is no way.
But God made the sea in the first place. God can undo it. The sea is like a drawn bath in a tub, and God pulls out the plug. And old people and tiny babies and sick people and animals stroll across where the sea was.
A way out of no way.
There’s no way out of death either, is there? It’s the end. You’ve heard the jokes about the only thing being as reliable as death: taxes. Happy tax season to all who celebrate. I was on campus at U of T recently, and found myself looking at the class photos of students from the 1800s. All white men of course. In suits. Top hats in some cases. Impressive facial hair. I wondered about their lives: which ones succeeded with their degree? Which deserved to but didn’t? Which were scoundrels? Which ones loved Jesus? No way to tell from the pictures. But it got me thinking about longevity. Which one died first? Which one carried on the longest? No matter now. They’re only memories. That’s what it means to be alive. We are born and we live and we die. There’s no way around it, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. One day someone will look at our photo and say, “hm, dunno.” There is no way out of death.
Here’s what Easter says. Death is not the end. In fact, it’s only the beginning. There is a back door to that tomb, blown open by Jesus. For he is risen, but he’s not the last one to be raised. One day, we’ll all be raised as sure as he is. And not just us. But every atom God made to begin with. If creation was good enough for God to love it into being in the first place, it’s good enough for God to love it into new being in the last place. That’s why we celebrate Easter. It’s about Jesus, but not just about him. It’s about us, but not just about us. It’s about everything living being made new. And that’s worth an hallelujah or two.
There is an Easter tradition I love. It’s called Holy Saturday. Most here know about Good Friday. Some neighbours at our Good Friday cross walk didn’t know: they were mad traffic was stopped and demanded to know why. Good Friday, we said. What’s that? The answer came back. Church, we got some work to do. Now Easter, you know, it’s why you’re here, life overcomes death, swallows it up, annihilates it. But what’s in between Friday and Sunday for the 36 or so hours that Jesus is dead? Well, the creed says, he descended into hell. What’s he doing there? Differing traditions about that, as you might expect. For some that’s the lowest level of his suffering. Hell couldn’t have been much worse than his cross, but either way it’s the bottom rung. For some it’s the beginning of his exultation. He’s in hell liberating the place. He’s making a raid, taking everyone with him who’ll go. Lifting out Adam and Eve. Others say he is there looking everywhere for his lost friend Judas. C.S. Lewis says no one is in hell involuntarily. To be in hell is to sit in a jail cell with the door wide open, refusing to leave. Because Jesus broke the locks on Holy Saturday. There’s a way, you’re just not taking it.
For most of us, in our imaginations of the afterlife, there’s heaven for good people, and hell for bad people. But here's what the gospel actually says. There are no good or bad people. There are only sinners forgiven who know about it and sinners forgiven who don’t. Heaven is for those sinners glad to receive mercy. Hell is for those sinners who think they don’t need mercy. Nah, I’m good, I don’t need forgiveness. I like my jail cell. And Jesus is Lord in both places. Wherever there is misery, there is also Jesus, offering life, raising the dead. No hell is safe from grace. Never will be again.
The Coen brothers are my favourite moviemakers. I don’t know why these two secular Jews, Ethan and Joel Coen, can see what Christianity is so much better than most others. They have a series of short films called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. One is a western short in which a man survives a hanging. James Franco’s character robs a bank. In frontier justice the marshals get ready to hang him. Just then a battle breaks out with native peoples who shoot the rope he dangles from. Not very likely, but hey, it’s a movie. Later Franco is on another gallows—he didn’t really seize his second chance at life. This time there is no rescue. The man to be hanged beside him sobs. And Franco turns to him with a casual smile and asks, “first time?” I can imagine the writer starting with that concept, how do we get a man on a gallows twice, to be casual and cool the second time? To be that collected in the face of death. “First time?” As Christians we’ve all died before. We were nailed to that cross with Jesus. We passed through drowning in the Red Sea with our baptism. We’ll face death again, short time or long, pleasant or not. And when we do, we can say, oh, hey, you’re back. That must mean Christ will be here to raise me soon. And all the rest of creation.
In my own life some of my best “successes” have come after defeat is assured. The worst has happened. Okay, I can relax. No need to white knuckle things, we’ve already lost here. Let’s exhale and do our best. Do you know how a sports team, once it can’t make the playoffs anymore, starts playing its best of the season? The pressure is off, they play loose and relaxed and start winning. You Leafs fans have any experience with that since 1967? Our culture still thinks it can ward off death. Maybe with exercise! Or chemicals! Or surgery! Or diet! Or all-natural food! Or computers! We’ll upload ourselves! None of it works. Death still comes. Here’s the good news. Death’s victories are temporary. Illusory. Because life comes for us too. The one who blows open a hole in his own grave knows where all our graves are. So, we can look at death, whenever it comes, and say ah, no worries, it’s temporary. It’s not too serious. Not my first time. I’ve been to Easter service, and I know how the story turns out.
The first Christians shocked their Roman neighbours by celebrating at funerals. Roman funerals were tragedies with no reprieve, mourning and sorrow and endless tears. If you didn’t have enough people crying, you hired actors. Sort of like Victorian or gothic funerals actually. Christian funerals became parties. Death is here. That means life is coming. Like Irish wakes—with drinks and jokes and joy. Death wants to be taken very seriously. Don’t. It’s life that’s serious. Because life wins. We can tell a joke or two. And sing a song of freedom. Like Miriam and the other women.
Some churches that read the Exodus story at Easter have a song they add to it. The chorus sings, “horse and chariot he cast into the sea.” Then by the end, they add a few more enemies that are drowned. Horse and chariot. Hate and prejudice. Chains and slavery. Horse and chariot he cast into the sea. Exodus is not just about the defeat of Egypt, the freedom of the children of God. It’s about the destruction of all that makes for death. And the resurrection of all that makes for life. Friends. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. He has made a way out of no way. Hallelujah. Amen.