Exodus 13:3; 14-17; 14:10-14
by Daniel Harrell
This is the seventh sermon on our Five Core Values, five verbs discerned from a year of dedicated listening and prayer and seeking the will of God. We’ve welcomed, risked and wrestled and this morning move on to immerse—our fourth core value some of you have critiqued as too squishy. Maybe that’s because we’re not Baptists—we don’t have much experience with immersion.
Immerse in the New Testament does come from the Greek word for baptism—though it doesn’t always refer to water. Jesus speaks of his cross as a baptism, and about being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. Paul speaks of our being baptized into Christ Jesus and into his death. The New Testament also connects baptism to blood, not so much blood into which we immerse—Southern gospel hymns notwithstanding—but blood we imbibe. Here in Exodus, a hyssop plant immerses in lamb’s blood as a paint brush to mark Israelite doorposts with the signal to pass over when death came a-knocking. As we read, “When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go from our slavery, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt.” Only those marked with the blood of the lamb are spared.
There is water immersion in the Exodus story. Moses miraculously led God’s people out of slavery and then through the Red Sea by splitting it in half. The Egyptians gave chase, got immersed and totally drowned. Salvation came to the ones who never got wet. Now on the other side of the sea and on their messy path to the Promised Land, God commanded his people to remember what happened. “Commemorate this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; the LORD brought you out by strength of hand.”
Exodus is very specific as to the time and the way this sacred commemoration must look—a very particular rhythm and place. Specific words spoken in a specific way in a specific season with a very specific menu. Remembrance engages the mind and the senses, the tongue and the stomach. At his own last Passover Supper, Jesus took unleavened bread and wine and named them his body and blood. “Do this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.”
And so we do, month after month, Sunday to Sunday and season to season—Advent and Christmas, Lent and Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost, springtime and harvest—the stories of God rehearsed over and over, prayers of confession and surrender, songs of gratitude and praise, offering and sacrifice, blessing and peace, everything a rehearsal for heaven. Pastor and author of The Message translation, Eugene Peterson, called it practicing resurrection. Peterson died this past Monday—his own practice now made perfect.
To practice resurrection is to be caught up in the headwinds of eternity, lost in wonder, both blown away and filled up by the Spirit. We immerse into a mercy without limits, a peace that passes all understanding, an overabundant goodness, inseparable love and incomparable glory, amazing grace and blessed assurance, lavish abundance and immeasurable greatness, beauty and love and inexpressible joy, life everlasting in Christ Jesus our Lord who died and who rose and who fills all and is all—and about whom all “hyperbole is an understatement.”
Immersion is a whole body proposition—loving the Lord your God with all our our heart, your mind, your soul and your strength, head to toe. It is the act of worship—the all-in adoration of God, an all-encompassing devotion which forms and reforms and reorients everything. For our theological and liturgical forbears, hardcore Calvinist Puritans and Pilgrims, worship as the gathered church was the crucible of Christian identity. Worship cannot be done by yourself any more than love can be done by yourself. We gather with the people of God who by grace become the body of Christ. We breathe in the Spirit “under conditions, in space and with rhythms that do not cater to our personal needs or preferences but honor the priority of God and his word speaking to us,” Peterson wrote. “Christ giving himself for us, the Holy Spirit empowering us to live lives worthy of our calling—each woman, each man and child treated with the dignity and grace that comes with being sons and daughters of the Lord who loved us first.”
Churches too often reduce worship to music—and then argue over which music. It’s a tension we wrestle with here. The Puritans and Pilgrims were very suspicious of music—they only sang what was sung in the Psalms and never played instruments—no guitars or fiddles, and good Lord never drums or electric guitars. Of course for decades we’ve printed in our Thanksgiving Day service bulletin how New England Pilgrims believed an organ to be “the devil’s bagpipes,” which may be why the Pilgrims never got along with the Lutherans. Puritan Congregationalists situated pulpits high in the center of their Meetinghouses, adorned them with big Bibles and preached really long sermons.
Worship challenges our choices and reorders our priorities. It demands we let the word of Christ be that sword of the Spirit, “living and active, sharper than any double-edged, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” To worship God is to acknowledge we are not in charge and must change; that we abuse power and resort to anger and to envy; that we only want what we want, that we don’t listen and don’t love, and that even our best intentions are tainted by self-interest. Worship fends off the lies of the devil; lies that smile and seduce and distract and reduce the cross to a plaything we manipulate. When tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus resisted with worship.
Worship is whole body immersion—mind and body, body and soul. Here in Exodus, the Lord God demands your firstborn—a symbol of the Almighty’s ownership over everything—even things you thought were to be yours, be it the spoils of war, or harvests, or investment earnings or offspring. The ancient and primitive logic of Exodus makes it easy to dismiss, and yet even in our modern culture, the power of blood and birth and life and death—our children, our bodies, our mortality—these are still the core essentials of human existence and get our attention like nothing else.
Eugene Peterson worried that we wait until we’re in trouble before resorting to worship. We have so much work to do, shopping to finish, books to read, email to answer, errands to run, exercise to get in, finances to manage, lawns to rake and closets to clean out. We don’t need God to do any of these things. Jesus is consigned to the bench to pinch hit in emergencies. It’s a workable, but it is not the practice of resurrection. It’s Christian enough, but not spiritual growth toward maturity in Christ. The poet, Maya Angelou, remarked. “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say ‘I’m a Christian.’ I always think, “Already? You’ve already got it? My goodness, you’re fast.’”
For the Reformers, immersion also took the form of catechism, a sacred rhythm of question and answer meant to foster spiritual growth and maturity, pressing faith into behavior. Here in Exodus, children hear the Passover stories at the table and ask what they mean. Their parents and teachers answer: “By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of slavery.”
Reformed congregations composed the Heidelberg Catechism—fifty-two questions and answers, one for each Sunday. The first question frames up the rest: “What is my only comfort in life and in death?” The congregation answers: “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He watches over me such that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of God; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.Because I belong to Christ, the Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Jesus.”
Say it enough and you might start to believe it. Believe it enough and you might start to live it. It’s like learning to swim. Immersed in deep water, you have to be calm and attentive when you’re feeling most scared. Sometimes you have to be tricked. The adults who teach us to swim will say, “Swim to me, I’m right here,” but then they’ll back up. You learn with your body what is possible, despite what your mind tells you. You learn you have to trust things outside of yourself: your parents, the floor, chairs, bicycles, water, science, grace and God. You are not your own. You belong, body and soul, life and death, to one who is bigger and greater than you are.
We don’t do formal catechism at Colonial. Maybe we should, I don’t know. But we do a lot of other things. We do Milestones and Stepping Stones and Faith Trek for children and parents, we do Confirmation and Middle School and High School and camp, we do Meetinghouse on Wednesdays, and Bible studies and breakouts for adults, and we practice resurrection every Sunday—we sing and pray and bless and listen to Scripture and long sermons, and we eat and we drink Jesus’ body and blood at communion, and have bagels and coffee in community. We baptize and pass peace and make peace and give up our money and our power and give the devil the finger, and give thanks for all things over and over, again and again. We are not in charge and must change but we cannot change ourselves. So we surrender to the Holy Spirit and her doubled-edged sword, to formation and re-formation, to be pierced and honed into people with habits and identities, which with practice and devotion, we can live out in life as the best people we are in Jesus, wholeheartedly willing and ready to love and to sacrifice, to risk and to wrestle and immerse in an ocean of love from whence we rise up gasping with delight, ready to do good for Christ’s sake.
In his last days, Eugene Peterson despaired over the murky reputation churches endure amongst their cultural despisers. If banks were as defective at handling money, or hospitals as amateurish at treating the sick, if schools were as inept at educating, or concert halls as hokey at performance, or baseball teams as error prone as churches are with their worship, they’d all be as empty as so many sanctuaries on Sunday.
But there’s another way to look at this: worship is only the practice of resurrection, we’re not dead and raised yet. True worship demands our created and redeemed best, but we’re still sinners saved by grace and still sin and need grace. “Nothing resembling expertise exists in the Christian life. Who can be an expert at receiving the totally undeserved mercy of God on a daily basis?” We’re stubborn and messy and complicated as congregations, trying and failing, frustrated and ecstatic, delighted and disappointing, loving each other while at the same time driving each other crazy. English writer Evelyn Underhill compared the church to a post office, essential but exasperating. She wrote, “there will always be someone narrow, irritating and inadequate at work behind the counter.” Who goes to the Post Office anymore? Except maybe to get a passport. But passports are required if you’re going to go anywhere. It’s the only way to prove who you really are. There’s another analogy there somewhere.
My first foray into Africa almost thirty years ago involved my taking a team of teenagers and adults (including my dad who was younger then than I am now). We traveled to Benin, a small West African country where we lived and learned for almost a month. For many years I taught and worked with teenagers in church—catechized them, you might say. I took them on trips and gave them my time and my love, and tried to grow them up into Christian people, even as I was trying grow up myself. There was a Facebook reunion of sorts earlier this year, where some of the students who went on this first trip—all adults now in their forties—parents and farmers and actors and business people and lawyers—reminisced over the significance and importance of those relationships and experiences. One of them wrote, “I will say something embarrassing, you my friend have been one of the most influential people in my life. I say words because of you, I think thoughts because of you. Among your company are many of the people through our church and youth program, the friends who were family. I still wear on my ankle a string from my hammock in Benin—to remind me if ever I’m tempted to forget.”
His kind comments softened the cockles of my hard pastor’s heart—a heart too easily calloused by discouragement and futility. Others chimed in, all grown up since the days of that youth group. Among them was a woman named Cairn, whom I’d not heard from since she was in high school. Those experiences were “so formative” for my faith, she wrote, “in fact, I now work/live and am raising my kids in the same general neighborhood, just a few countries away. Thank you!!” The place Cairn now lives and works is just north of Benin. It is Senegal, the same country where I had the chance to travel with Carter and Jason Phillips and Mustafa Omar just two weeks ago. Cairn lives in Dakar with her husband and children, and works for UNICEF, doing justice on behalf of mothers and children in 24 other African countries. We got to reconnect in Senegal. It was wonderful and to see her again after so many years.
Unlike bankers and baseball players, or even postal workers, we can’t make ourselves better Christians so much on our own. We need to immerse. “Worship is an intentional act of redressing proportions,” Peterson wrote. “Christian maturity is not a matter of doing better or more for God; it is God doing more in us and through us. Immaturity is noisy with anxiety-fueled self-importance. Maturity is quietly content to pursue a life of obedient humility.”
Here in Exodus, the Israelites looked back and saw Pharaoh’s armies coming after them. They freaked out and begged to go back. “Better to be slaves in Egypt than die in the desert!” This is so like us humans, so scared and so resistant; it’s why we need worship. Moses barked at the Israelites, in the words of the Message translation, “Keep your mouths shut and get moving. GOD Almighty is fighting for you.” Practicing resurrection makes us ready to rise no matter how deep the water. “Swim to me, I’m right here.” We don’t have to be afraid or even worry anymore.