Saturday, March 9, 2013

Jesus and the Sea

“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground...Thus the Lord saved Israel that day...” Exodus14:12-22&30
“When they came to the place called 'The Skull', there they crucified Him...he breathed his last." Luke 23:33&46

There are times when we are reminded how broken this world is, and for our community this has been such a time. I love what Pastor Heath has said regarding how we can respond to evil when it strikes, if I may paraphrase and condense his opening argument from the 'Problem of Evil' podcast, "one can abandon faith in God altogether, which many do, or one can trust in God as they stand against and overcome evil, for Jesus has overcome the world and the evil in it.” Now is a time to, as a church, face evil and help one another struggle with and overcome it. There is no better place to become equipped for this than the Bible. The Bible is a narrative with a developing goal or eschatology. This goal is to see evil eradicated and God's creation and people redeemed and restored. This is the entire purpose of the covenant and the forming of Israel according to Torah. Israel was to be a people through which God would rescue this world from corruption and humanity from exile.1

Through the Sea

Most know the story so Ill be brief. Over 400 years after God made a covenant with Abraham, his descendants (Israel) were slaves in Egypt. It seemed as though God had forgotten them and his promise. Generations were born and died as slaves without so much as a peep from the so called God of Abraham. God however was not absent nor asleep. Moses was delivered from the hands of Pharaoh and as an older man was confronted by the God of Abraham in a burning bush. He here receives his commission: Go and tell Pharaoh to let Israel go free. Moses does just this and, as we all know, Pharaoh was not an easy one to convince. Plague after plague disrupted and assaulted Egypt until the final one finally brought Pharaoh to a place of surrender. This final plague was death to all the firstborn children in Egypt, including Pharaoh's son, who did not have a lamb's blood on their door posts. Pharaoh let Israel go with Moses but then has a change of heart, or a re-hardened heart and gathers his army to chase down Israel and bring them back to slavery. Moses and Israel have reached the Red Sea where God has led them. There is no way around and Egypt is very close at hand. God instructs Moses to place his rod in the sea and, as the text above says, the waters part. Israel is able to cross through the sea and when Pharaoh and his army try to follow them the waters come crashing down destroying them. Israel passes through the Sea in order to escape slavery and death, they begin the Exodus.

This story becomes a controlling narrative for Israel. They find their identity as the people of God wrapped up in this story of the Exodus. From this time on even into the present, Jews see the sea as an exile and as evil that God brought them through in order for them to experience Exodus and restoration. Exodus becomes the main theme, motif and hope of Israel.

A Sea of interpretation

It is important to take a moment to see a popular use of symbolism not just in the Bible but also in other ancient texts. The Sea was a very ominous and feared thing in the ancient world. Of the Sea there are countless stories of vanishings and monsters, dangerous forces that threaten from its depths, storms and waves wiping out whole villages and cities...the Sea is an unpredictable and dangerous thing. Thus in ancient literature, such as the Bible, the Sea is a metaphor and symbol for evil and chaos 2. Please do not think I am saying the Bible is just a collection of stories and metaphors! Metaphor and symbol do not mean untrue story, but rather that the Bible does not contain a history for the sake of history, but a history with more than literal truth 3 a history with a purpose. God has an intention to restore his creation and destroy evil, this means that everything he has ordained has something to do with this mission. This means that not just the forming of Israel but also the sea crossing and the exodus are things planned with a purpose of contributing to the grand scheme of restoration, a purpose of solving the problem of evil and humanity's fall and exile from Eden (Genesis 3).

It is important to also note that the exodus of Israel is the compact micro version of the grand final Exodus God promises the whole world and all the nations through his covenant. As I have heard N.T. Wright say in quoting a rabbinic saying, “We Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.”

The New Israel in Person

The Gospel writers want their readers to understand that Jesus believes he is the one that is to be and do what Israel was supposed to be and do but were unable. The Gospels reveal a deep sense of vocation within Jesus' thinking that help us to make sense of his radical movement. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is reenacting the story of Israel with his own version and twist. For example in his baptism by John, Jesus passes through the waters and then is out in the wilderness for forty days where he is victorious over the Satan. Jesus again reenacts the Exodus when he walks out on the storm raged sea and calms it. In feeding the multitudes be it the four thousand or the five, Jesus is deliberately replaying the wilderness wandering of Israel; As God fed them manna in the wilderness so Jesus fed them the fish and the loaves.

Through the Cross

Having hopefully established that Jesus was indeed the Israel in person, it is now time to look deeper into the exodus story in light of the vocation of Jesus. Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem. Crucifixion was an ultimate declaration of Roman victory over rebels. The Jews had seen many of their people and leaders, including would be Messiahs, hanged till dead. A dead Messiah was a defeated, false Messiah. There is not the space here to elaborate on this pragmatic characteristic of Messiahship, but it is interesting how Jesus was crucified as a revolutionary against Rome as were many of his contemporaries, yet Jesus is the one remembered in history.

If the sea is a literary device to denote and describe evil, then the cross is the place where this sea came in all its power and force in order to drown the son of God. As Israel went through the Red Sea so Jesus was brought through the real raw thing called Evil. The serpent that slithered seemingly out of nowhere into the Garden, the Satan that worked so hard to tempt and destroy him, the Roman oppression and domination system of violence and terror that haunted the dreams and waking thoughts of all under the Empire's control, being abandoned by those closest to him, unfiltered pain caused by violent torture, his mother's terrified and broken face, the nails, the thorns, the sin of the world, the dashed hopes and dreams of all who believed in his movement, the laughing and mocking of the centurion, the games at his expense, being forsaken by the One whom he loved and obeyed perfectly...Evil came upon Jesus and destroyed him in every way it could devise. He hung on the tree in the climax of history and the covenant, suspended for all to see, humiliated, naked and alone. The sea was exceedingly violent and terrible that day as every monster it could muster from its depths ravaged the dying messiah.

Then he died. What a relief it must have been to finally give up such a painful life. All the agony at Gethsemane was laid down when his labored breathing stopped and his body hung limp. He was placed in a tomb, and with exception of a few close family and friends, was headed like so many before and after him into the abyss of the forgotten and though with good intentions, the failures.


As Israel was brought through the sea so Jesus was brought through death and evil. Like Israel he too would be delivered. The God who declared Jesus his chosen son at his baptism declared again this affirmation by resurrecting him from the tomb. Resurrection is not merely a spiritual or metaphorical thing, nor is is seen anywhere else besides Judaism and Christianity4. It is the actual victory over evil, and the evil one. It is the new world promised by God through the prophets in Torah finally breaking in. That Jesus died and was buried and then raised back to life is the only explanation as to why Jesus could be crucified by Rome and yet still inspire a movement and community that would soon take over Rome. Resurrection reveals that Jesus was not a defeated Messiah, but the true one.

The New Testament declares that Jesus is a better Moses and the one who delivers through a final Exodus. This Exodus is not from only political oppression, violent people, sickness, poverty, or other tools and symptoms of evil, but from evil itself. Paul says that Jesus was the “first fruits” (I Cor. 15:20) meaning that all humanity who are restored through faith in Jesus will resurrect as well. Resurrection since Jesus is now the human thing to do. Resurrection is the final Exodus.

Already/Not yet

The resurrection is an event orchestrated by God through his Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:4). This resurrection means that we have a new life in Jesus NOW. Being people of resurrection means that we don't wait until after we die to demonstrate the new life, we are called to a present life as God's people. We are a kingdom of priests, the living temple of the Spirit, we are his ambassadors. This is all possible because of resurrection. Resurrection points to God's victory and that the new creation is in the here and now.

Follow him

All of this becomes quite heavy when we consider what Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This verse is used in different ways to describe the Christian vocation from everything to a moral calling, “What would Jesus do? Would he drink that or go to that movie?” to a mandate to live impoverished, “Since Jesus said he had no place to lay his head then neither will we”. The context of this statement by Jesus however is within a discussion about what he must do shortly, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Jesus is telling his disciples that they are to follow him, and he is going to Golgotha.

Christians are the people of God called for the purpose of continuing the work and movement of Jesus. Baptism is an act of joining into and accepting this vocation, in it we die with Jesus, going with him through the sea and death, and we are raised with him into the new world (see Romans 6). Baptism is a sacrament of recruitment into the community of faith dedicated to the Missio Dei, God's mission to see his creation restored, in the act of baptism we too are brought through the sea and resurrected...exile and exodus.

A final word to hopefully encourage the reader: Paul refers to God as the God of all comfort (2Cor.1). The cycle of suffering and comfort is directly connected to the biblical theme of evil and resurrection. Like Jesus, we will have to resist and suffer through evil. Like Jesus, our path of suffering is the path to resurrection. The sea that has, for most of the Earth's history, swallowed up all in its path has now itself been swallowed 5 and the eschatological outcome of God's plan is that “there is no longer any sea”6.

1. John Howell, Jesus: The New Israel

2. see N.T. Wright's, Evil and the Justice of God

3. Marcus Borg, Jesus: Life and Teachings of a Religious Revolutionary

4. see N.T. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God

5. I Cor.15:54-57

6. Rev.21:1

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