Here Comes the Calvary!

SJF • Easter A 2014 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.

Sending all of the children [to Sunday school] reminds me that when I was about that size — though perhaps a little bit smaller — I used to love watching cowboy-and-Indian westerns and TV shows when I was a boy. I confess I even had my own little cowboy suit (yes they made them that small!). It was a genuine Walt Disney Mouseketeer Cowboy Suit (probably a size zero), complete with shiny buttons and an imitation leather holster with a trusty pot-metal six-shooter cap-gun. What’s more, a couple of years later I had a Davey Crockett racoon-skin hat, and later a Bat Masterson walking-stick that fired caps when you tapped the end against the ground, and then, best of all, a genuine Rifleman toy repeating rifle that shot caps. (And we weren’t even members of the NRA!) Come to think of it, I wish I still had all those things — because they’d fetch a nice bit on eBay! But sadly, as Saint Paul said, when I became a man I put aside childish things, and who knows where all the paraphernalia of my childhood may be today? Maybe I should check eBay?

One thing, though, that stays with me from that period, though, is the spirit of optimism that was such an intrinsic part of those old westerns. These TV shows and movies evidenced an unshakable opinion that however dark and hopeless things might appear, rescue will come and all will be well.

You remember the situations: The family or the farmers are surrounded by evil cattle rustlers, or the wagon train is in a circle fending off the marauding attacks of Indians who are galloping around and around, the little farm cabin bristles with arrows and flaming torches are hitting into the sides of the Conestoga wagons.

And at these darkest and most dangerous moment, suddenly a voice rings out, Here comes the cavalry! The bugle sounds in the distance, and over the ridge there appears the rescuing troop of horses, thundering down the hill with banners flying and guns blazing, scattering the rustlers or Indians or desperadoes, sending them fleeing into retreat.

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Our Old Testament reading this morning carries with it that same spirit of optimism and hope at the darkest and most terrifying moment.

Deep in the past of Israel’s history, is an event that would come to be seen by them as the defining moment in their history, a dramatic scene of rescue unfolds. This one really does have a cinematic air — now wonder it has been put on film a number of times! The children of Israel are trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, caught between a rock and a hard place, or perhaps I should say between the devil and the deep blue sea! The situation looks hopeless, and the people shout curses at Moses for bringing this disaster upon them. “Weren’t there graves enough for us in Egypt, that you have to bring us here to die by the sea?” they cry out — for sure enough there were graves in Egypt,
some as big as mountains for Pharaoh and his family, but even the common workers, even the slaves such as they, had their own little tombs. Archaeologists discovered them not too many years ago, right there in the shadow of the pyramids, little tombs for the ones who built those big tombs, somewhat fancier ones for the overseers, simpler ones for the common laborers. But even such simple graves are much to be preferred to what seems to await the people now: slaughter by the seaside! Here on the shore of the Red Sea, it looks like these folk are doomed to miss their chance at a decent burial.

The Egyptian army draws on, and they get pushed closer and closer to the edge of the water. Then suddenly, the voice of God speaks out, the power of God in the pillar of fire moves in majesty and awe to cut off the Egyptian assault, God’s cavalry and chariots of fire opposing the horsemen of Egypt. Then the command is given Moses lifts his staff. The waves begin to push back as the wind from God blows mightily, and the sea itself begins to part, the water unnaturally flowing back and up, leaving dry land for the Israelites to tread through — as the hymn says, with unmoistened foot — to safety on the other side. Then Moses stretches out his hand once again and those walls of water collapse on the hard-hearted Egyptians, unwilling to allow this miraculous rescue, and themselves instead destroyed and drowned, all those chariots and horsemen.

What a scene, what a drama — it was something to sing and dance about; and that was what the people did, a song of the Lord’s glorious triumph, sung on the other shore. “The Lord has triumphed gloriously; the horse and its rider has been thrown into the sea. The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them; they sank into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might; your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy.”

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Such is the substance of our reading from the Old Testament, summed up in that phrase, “Here comes the cavalry.” It’s what God does, it’s what God favors, this last minute reprieve, this rescue just when things look their worst.

But this would not always be the case. There was a time when God did not send in the cavalry. There was a time when God did not send down ten legions of angels, even though he could have. There was a time when God was silent, a terrible time when a man was dying a most horrible and cruel death,
a man who was far closer to God than Moses was.

That was the terrible truth of Good Friday, that God did not intervene. The silence of God appeared to start in the Garden of Gethsemane. The gospel writers record no response from God when Jesus asked that, if it was possible, the cup might pass from him. (Although one of the Gospel writers couldn’t resist having an angel there to pat Jesus on the shoulder and give him some comfort.) The silence of God continued on up through the scourging, through the journey through the crowded streets, bearing that cross. Even when the nails ran in, the cross was hoisted, and the Son of God hung in shameful pain, there was no bugle sound in the distance, no angelic troop sweeping down through the clouds. Into that silence the man on the cross uttered words of desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where was the pillar of fire? Where was the staff to part the sea? Where was the legion of angels? No, there was no rescue then. There was no cavalry on Calvary.

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And yet.... and yet, it appears after all that God the master dramatist had a new twist in mind, an even greater rescue than any ever before. And that is why we are here today. That is why we will be here next Sunday, and Sunday after Sunday throughout the year. For God did act, though he delayed acting, delayed his entry into this drama to such an extent that some people couldn’t believe what he did when he did it.

The religious authorities deny it; the politicians immediately tried a cover-up to squelch it — nothing new there! — the women at the tomb trembled in fear even if they were joyful; the disciples doubt their story, one of them even to such an extent that he earned the nickname by would be his forever, Doubting Thomas.

But it wasn’t that God went too far. God went just far enough — though it was further than anyone had ever gone before. To rescue someone from impending death, to deliver someone from the danger of death — why, that’s the stuff of heroism. But to rescue someone from death after he has died! That, anyone could have told you, is impossible. That is not the stuff of heroism, but of miracle.

And so it was. It was impossible, but God did it. For all things are possible with God, working with and in those who believe. With the Lord all is provided, even the impossible, even the unbelievable. The Lord has provided, and the Lord provides, and the Lord will provide! That is just the way God is. God’s cavalry will keep on coming, even if it means working the miracle of resurrection rather than of rescue. God did not rescue his Son from death — he rescued him through death.

And he will do the same for us. We all will die, rest assured. But that will not be the end for us any more than it was the end for Jesus Christ. For we have been baptized into his death — and if that were the end, what fools we would be. What fools we would be if all we did was worship a dead god! What fools we would be to gather here week by week. What fools to baptize children into death — and not into life! For we who have been incorporated in him, by a death like his, will also share and rise with him, in a life like his. After our own mortality leads us to the grave, we will ride his coattails on up and out of the grave, whether they be as grand as Mr. Woolworth’s mausoleum up in a Woodlawn or as humble as a grave in a little country church; whether as notable and long-lasting as the pyramids or as anonymous and unmarked as a burial at sea, at the end we will rise with him, lifted up into life again.

Paul wrote, “For we have died, and our life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.” This, my beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, is better than any last minute rescue, a reprieve, a deliverance, a continuation of the same old same old. This is nothing less nor other than new life, transformed and remade as a new being, a new creation. This is the hope and promise of Easter, the hope and promise that the Lord provides, as he has provided so much else.

God has given us much for which to give thanks, But this — this promise of life everlasting with him — this is the best. This is really good. And it will last for ever.+