Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Sunday: The Kingdom of God and the Promised Land

This year Easter coincides with the Jewish feast of Passover.  It doesn’t always, which might seem strange, because the Gospels tell us that that was when Jesus was crucified, but over the centuries Christians and Jews have developed different ways of organising their calendars, and that means the two feasts can fall several weeks apart now.
Here’s how it works…because I’m sure you’ve always wanted to know…

Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox – got that? - which means that the date can vary by anything up to a month.
If you think that’s complicated wait till you hear about  Passover. Passover starts on the 15th day of the month in the Jewish calendar called Nisan, so you’d think it would stay in the same place every year. But it doesn’t, because the Hebrew calendar is made up of 12 lunar months of about 29 days. 12 times 29 doesn’t add up to 365, so gradually the Jewish year slips backwards through the seasons. To correct it, every now and then they add in a whole extra month and have a year of 13 months.

Confused? Yes, so am I. But the upshot of it all is that Easter and Passover both move backwards and forwards , but under different systems, so they aren’t moving in tandem.

But this year they come together – Passover started on Friday night. So it seemed as good a year as any to think about what these two feasts have to do with each other, and why it might matter that Jesus died and rose when he did.   

Passover celebrates the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, parting the waters of the Red Sea to escape from the Egyptian army.  It celebrates their deliverance from that terrible final plague that fell on the Egyptians, the killing of the firstborn. The angel of death literally “passed over” their homes, which they’d marked with the blood of lambs they’d sacrificed. It celebrates the start of the journey towards the Promised Land, where they’d eventually make a new life and build a new community.

When Jesus and his disciples gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival at which he’d be crucified, these were the stories and images that would have been in their minds.  They’d have been thinking of freedom, of new beginnings, of journeys to a new land flowing with milk and honey. How they thought Jesus and his message fitted into all this, if they thought of it at all, we just don’t know. Some of them may have wondered if Jesus was a new Moses, a new leader sent to rescue them. Some of them certainly hoped he would deliver them from the oppression of the Romans, as Moses had delivered the slaves from the oppression of Pharaoh.

Whatever they hoped though, the crucifixion put paid to their dreams. Jesus was dead. There had been no last minute rescue, no “passing over” the suffering and death of the cross. There was no deliverance, for Jesus or for them.

And there were no followers either, or at least, none that counted. Moses had led thousands of people out of Egypt, but Jesus was alone as he hung on the cross. Even his closest friends had deserted him. The only people who’d showed their faces anywhere near the scene of his death were a handful of women who’d supported him in his ministry as he had travelled around preaching and healing. In a  society that believed women’s voices weren’t worth listening to, what good was that?

So anyone who’d been thinking of Jesus as the new Moses would have consigned those ideas to the dustbin when he died.  Moses had won. The Israelites had escaped from Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies had been swept away as the waters of the Red Sea closed on them. But Jesus had lost. He was the one who had been overwhelmed by the deep waters of death.

And so Jesus lay buried in a borrowed tomb, with a stone rolled across the entrance. And that , it seemed, was that.

At this point the focus of Mark’s Gospel, which we heard just now, shifts to those women, the ones who’d been watching from afar when Jesus died. Frankly there was no one else to focus on. The rest of the disciples were hiding, and those who’d crucified Jesus were trying as hard as they could to forget he’d ever existed.  But these women don’t seem to have been able to stay away. Whatever the world thought of them, they knew that Jesus had valued them, and even if he was dead, something had changed in them forever. They couldn’t just abandon the memory of this man who had talked to them, listened to them, debated with them just as he had with his male disciples. They were determined to do for him what they’d do for any of their loved ones who had died; anoint his body with spices and oils, give him the dignity in death that he had given them in life. It wasn’t much, but it mattered to them to do this.

On that Sunday morning, they were expecting to find Jesus just where they’d left him. They’d been there when he was buried, and all they could talk about on the way to the graveyard was how they were going to move that heavy stone away.  But when they got there the stone had already been moved and the tomb was empty.  A mysterious “young man” – an angelic figure – told them that Jesus had been raised from death, but none of it made any sense to them, and Mark’s Gospel ends with them running away in terror and confusion.

Most Biblical scholars believe that very early on in the church’s history the last page of the Gospel was simply lost.  It wasn’t meant to end this way. But I quite like the cliff-hanger it’s left us with.  We share the surprise and bewilderment of the women.  “What’s going on? What’s going to happen next?” they wonder, and so do we. They thought they’d reached the end of the road, but now they find that they are really at the start of a whole new journey.

As the early Christians – people like these women - pondered this story, echoes of the Passover started to chime loud and clear in a new way.

This too was a story about freedom, they realised, just like the Passover stories. If Christ had been raised, then he must have been sent by God to them and the things he had told them about God and themselves were true; they really were of infinite worth to God, as he had told them. And they were on their way to a new Promised Land, a place where the poor and the marginalised  - people like them – really mattered.   

Jesus had talked about this world all along of course, this new Promised Land. He’d called it the kingdom of God. He’d said that you found it not by trekking through the desert like Moses and the Israelites, but growing gradually through acts of love and justice. It didn’t have borders drawn on a map; anyone could be part of it if they wanted to. And it grew from small beginnings, right where you were. It might seem no bigger than a mustard seed or a grain of yeast, but it could grow big enough to change the world. And though it continued after death, it started right now.

Like the nation that was formed during that first Exodus through the desert with Moses, people would need to learn to live together in this kingdom, and it wouldn’t always be easy. But whoever you were, whatever you’d done, you’d be welcome – Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor, women and men, and children too. It was a new start – exciting, but challenging too.

There’s a great poem by the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas called The Kingdom, which describes perfectly the Promised Land these women found themselves catapulted into on that Easter Day.  I quoted it in this month’s parish newsletter, but I’d like to read it today too. It talks about the Kingdom, the Promised Land, as seeming far off – very different from the way the world seems to work – but also very close, right here and now where any of us can reach out and touch it as we live out its values. This is what Thomas wrote:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

And that brings me back to where I started, with the date of Easter . In a sense, you see, it doesn’t really matter when Easter is at all because if we are serious about living in the Kingdom of God, helping it grow, being part of its community, then every day is Easter day. Every day is a day of resurrection and new hope, of love that defeats the hatred of the world and life that overcomes the power of death. Every day is a day when we can begin again, when we can hear the angel’s voices proclaiming that Christ has been raised and that God in his love can raise us too if we will let him. Alleluia!

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