Yes, as cliché as it is, I’m watching the new Bible mini-series on the History Channel. I’m actually enjoying it. A few things are odd (the ninja angel, for one), and they made some interesting choices on what to leave out (was the extended Sodom sequence really worth cutting out the entire Exodus story, Wilderness wandering, and golden calf rebellion?). But there is still a sense of ownership, that this is our story.
(Side note: for those of us that study the Bible and don’t necessarily think historicity is the highest purpose for which it was written, it’s encouraging to still feel that feeling of identity-formation when encountering our story–even when it’s seen as “just” a story.)
Anyway, a review of the show is not why I’m writing today. I just had a brief thought I wanted to share.
In Episode 1 of the mini-series, we see Pharaoh’s son die at the end of the plague sequence. Watching him carry the pale, lifeless body of his son, it reminded me of Michelangelo’s la Pieta (a version of which you can see above). It was actually quite moving, and I was surprised that I only realized now the sadness of this part of the story.
I noticed that there are lots of times that freedom for God’s people comes at the expense of human life, and many times, at the expense of the life of a first-born son (or the chance of it, as in Isaac).
But Pharaoh’s son being dead was saddening. It seemed cold and callous that this scene was right before the scene of the Israelite’s joy at their resulting liberation.
Freedom always comes at a very high price. Blessing for God’s people seems to have a very high body count. And with Jesus and the cross, it can seem like one more human life lost for the sake of salvation.
We are meant to mourn the loss of life in the world, even if God’s people think God decreed or commanded it. God himself says he does not delight in the destruction of the wicked.
And yet, he seems to want us to have joy, even as we meditate upon freedom through the death of another. How?
This is a theme in the latter half of the book of Hebrews. After talking about the amazing things people did by faith, the writer talks about how Jesus exemplifies this:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Resurrection gives us the opportunity for real joy. And this “joy” is not simply the result of “stuff”. It gives us joy, even through death, by relocating the foundation of our joy beyond this world–in fact, beyond the very grave.
Resurrection offers us joy in the midst of death, precisely because it offers us freedom from needing what death can strip from us. We can now have joy in death, being killed, or even obeying God (which is a type of death to self), because we are delivered through a death with a Resurrection.
This is why the writer of Hebrews, who presses the Old Testament story through the strainer of the cross and tomb, can say this about saints of old:
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back….
Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy.
So Pharaoh could have no joy, because there was no Resurrection for his son, like there was for God’s. And similarly, we can have no joy in pain and death if there is no Resurrection for us as well.
And so this Lent season, as we meditate on all the things in us and around us that led to the death of another, may it lead us not to despair, insecurity, or fear, but may we remember this:
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
[photo credit: “La Pieta I” by user ~touch-the-flame on DeviantArt]