God Came Back
A sermon for the Paschal Vigil preached by Nathan Nettleton, 26 March 2005
The light has risen. The dark days of our Lenten journey are behind us, and the great fifty days of joyous celebration now lie open before us. We have journeyed far into the deep mysteries of our faith. We have travelled with Jesus on a road that looked as though it was leading to a dead end hell hole of bitterness and despair. We have travelled with the one whose race looked run, whose hopes and dreams looked over, whose life and promise lay snuffed out and sealed behind the stone of human hatred and hostility. But God came back.
God came back. Perhaps we should have seen it coming.
In time before our dreaming, there was only darkness and cold chaos. There was no sign of life, no sign of hope, no reason to believe in tomorrow, and no one to try. But into the darkness and chaos, a voice spoke. Let there be light. It sounded like a futile plea, but suddenly, there was light. Let there be earth and sky and sea. Let there be trees and plants and vegetables. Let there be birds and animals and fishes. Let there be people. Let there be a sacred day of celebration and joy. And lo, where there had been nothing, God came back.
For a while there was life and peace and joy and promise. But it all went sour. People became corrupt. There was greed, and envy, and callousness. There was hatred and rape and violence. There was pain and horror and despair. And creation went berserk, and the waters broke and life was swept away in a furious flood of outrage and disappointment. Would God ever try again? Or would it all be darkness and chaos and nothingness again? But then, from a little box bobbing around on the waves, a dove flew forth, circled around and returned to the box. A sign of life on an ocean of death. And the floating box eventually came to rest, and a door opened, and the world began to fill with life again. And the rainbow appeared in silent witness to the miracle. From disaster, from the waters of death, from catastrophic destruction, God came back. God came back.
Abraham had done a few stupid things along the way, but overall he had a track record of astonishing faithfulness. He had left his family and homeland far behind and gone to a new land God had promised him. He had believed Gods promises that he would father a nation, even when his body was shrivelling up and his wife, barren even when she was young, was old and grey, and still they had no child. And then one day, sure enough, they produced a child. There was laughter and tears of joy. And the boy grew strong and handsome. But then one fateful day, God spoke another word. A word dark and terrible. A voice of chaos and unthinkable horror. Take the boy and sacrifice him on the mountain. Had Abraham lost his mind? Was the dream over? Would death close over them and darkness return? Even as the knife was raised above the tender young throat, suddenly there was a voice, and an angel stopped his hand, and there was a lamb ready to die in his place. God came back. God came back.
There arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph the dreamer who had saved the nation. In fear and racist pride, he made the Hebrew people into slaves. He had them forced to do unbearable work under whip wielding tyrants and when they complained he had all their male babies killed. The first of many genocides against the Jewish people. And if you know anything about human psychology you wont be surprised to know that many of them were quite happy with their slavery. Sure the work was hard but they got three square meals a day and it wasnt so bad once you learned to adjust and not upset the masters. The bent back grows calloused to the sting of the whip and after a while you hardly feel it. At least you know where you stand. Theres no uncertainties. Adjust. Adapt. Live with the darkness. Grow numb to the smell of living death.
But God came back.
First to Moses, minding his own business in the paddock when a bush burst into flame. Ive heard the cry of my people, said the voice from the bush, and Im going to set them free. Im going head to head with Pharaoh and guess whos going to help me?
Moses is stammering But, but,... But there is not buts. God came back.
Once free, Israel didnt manage to stay free for long. Just a few hundred years and then down from the north came the chariots, war horses, and iron spears of the Assyrians. Cities burned and pillaged. Whole tribes carted off into cruel exile. And within a few years the Babylonians marched down and finished off what the Assyrians had left behind. Back into slavery. Deportation. Death. Serbia. Bosnia. Rwanda. East Timor. Iraq. Assyria.
But God came back.
A prophet named Ezekiel stands in the valley of death, having stumbled upon a mass grave. The gruesome evidence of his countrys defeat lies all around him. The God of Israel has evidently defeated by foreign Gods. The people are dead. Is God dead? All is darkness and despair. But the God speaks again. God speaks a word that firstly says that even the people who are still living are not much more alive than those in the mass grave. But then word of life comes into the valley of death. The breath of God, the Holy Spirit, breathes life into the dead. God came back.
A fiery tongued prophet named Isaiah, promises return to the downtrodden exiles. With words of inspiration and consolation the prophet points the way to a great home-coming party, a great dance of the merry-makers to outdo anything youve ever known.
Tyrants, Assyrian or any other variety, get pretty edgy and call out the troops whenever the people on the bottom begin to dance and sing and make music. When the tambourines begin to beat out the freedom songs, the secret service and the thought police want to know why. And how come they had the guts to sing and dance under the noses of the guards?
Because God came back.
A little two-bit town in the back blocks of Galilee, first century, Roman troops on every corner, registering these Jews, enrolling them in order to better control them, oppress them. The greatest, most powerful army the world had ever seen in service to the most ruthless dictator; what can anybody do? Assyrians, Romans, its all the same. Adjust. Adapt. Keep your head down. Say your prayers. Dont draw attention to yourself. But
Down in the back streets, in a stable out back, a young woman begins to sing. My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. . . for God has scattered the proud, and God has pulled down the mighty from their thrones.
Mary, theres Romans on the corner, why do you clench your fist and sing? Mary replies, Well Im going to have a baby.
God came back.
Friday didnt take anybody by surprise. Not anybody who knew anything about the ways of death anyway. If you knew the way the religious-political-economic establishment works, then you knew that Jesus was doomed from the start. He disregarded too may social conventions, associating with the wrong people. He invited too many disreputable outcasts into the sanctuary. Went to too many parties with publicans and whores. And the public insults he cast at the clergy. Fridays bloody business at The Place of the Skull came as no surprise. You cant fight the Legislative Assembly. Caesar had the troops. The crowd turned against us. The one who came inviting us all to life finds himself nailed to the cross. Death adds another trophy to its cabinet.
The campaign went well but we didnt get him elected Messiah, we said. We told the women, You go on out to the cemetery and take these flowers to show our last respects to Jesus. Well come out later in the day. And so the women went out to deaths memorial park and peered into the tomb. Surprise!
God came back!
And on the way back from the cemetery Jesus meets them and says Greetings! The funeral wreaths theyre holding look a bit silly at that point, and the fall down and worship.
God came back.
Just when we were again accommodating ourselves to the ways of death and keeping our heads down as the powers of death and tyranny revelled in their victory, there is Jesus, stepping forth, more alive than ever, greeting us who rejected him, betrayed him, denied him, stood back and turned a blind eye as they famed him, and killed him. There he is, stepping forth, with hands still holed, but breath warm again, greeting us with love and tenderness and not the faintest hint of resentment. There he is offering us a forgiveness unimaginable, and a promise of life beyond our wildest dreams.
Come, he says, Come follow me, into the deep waters. Into the waters of chaos and darkness and vulnerability. Into the waters of death, where your life is sacrificed and all that was is snuffed out. Come follow me for the armies of despair are closing in behind wishing to enslave you forever. Come with me into the waters, and trust me. For I have been this way before. And you have followed me these forty days. And when all life and hope was gone, God came back. Come, surrender to the waters, and rise with me this night, singing and celebrating and feasting, because when death did its worst, God came back.