This is the third sermon in my series on the life of Moses.
SCRIPTURE – The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
Delivery Man Sermon Series
#3 – God Passed Over
You remember those decisions you make that at the time sound like a great idea? Like that decision to sign up for bungee-jumping on your next vacation, or that decision to see if tin foil can be microwaved. That’s kind of the way I feel about choosing to preach on this passage a few months ago. “Sure! The Passover will be an interesting scripture. I’m sure I’ll come up with a clever way to talk about God killing all the first-born sons in Egypt.” To quote Ron Burgundy when he jumps in the bear exhibit at the zoo in the movie, “Anchorman,” “I immediately regret this decision!”
Before we deal with this passage, let’s get caught up on what happened since last week’s story. When we left Moses, he was hemming and hawing at God’s call for him to go to Egypt and confront Pharaoh. After Moses turns aside to see the burning bush, God calls him to be a deliverer of the people of Israel. Moses churns out a bunch of excuses, but ultimately God – “I am who I am” is the name God gives – persuades Moses that he is indeed the man for the job.
So Moses sets out toward Egypt and is met by his brother Aaron, who will be Moses’ spokesperson. The meet with Pharaoh, who not only doesn’t free the Israelites from slavery, but increases their workload. Moses complains to God, “Why did you send me to do this if it’s not going to work?” God says, “I’ve got this.” That starts the 10 plagues that God sends to Egypt, each one designed to force Pharaoh into giving the Israelites their freedom. In case you were wondering what the plagues where, I think they included boils, frogs, gnats, hail, flies, slow internet connections, lane closures during rush hour, and 24-hour news channels. Can you believe the Pharaoh still didn’t give in after all that?
Finally, God announces the 10th plague, which will be the death of the first-born sons of all the Egyptians, from the lowliest slave to Pharaoh himself. So let’s pause to deal with this, because we can’t hear the rest of the story unless we get some kind of explanation here. The question on my mind is this: Why would God kill children to free the Israelites? I wish I had an easy answer. I wish I could wave an interpretive wand and explain away this horrific part of scripture. But I can’t. Here’s what I can say. I don’t believe in a God who would do this. The God portrayed here doesn’t sound like the God I believe in. So how do I reconcile this? I try to make sense of it by telling myself that this is simply a literary technique used by the writer to explain how God dealt with Pharaoh’s evil oppression of God’s people. I tell myself that this story conveys the lengths to which God would go to free God’s people from slavery because God loved them so much. I tell myself that back in those days, the people understood God to work this way, that it was a much more violent, primitive society. I tell myself that the character of God changed once Jesus came along, from a God of vengeance and punishment to a God of grace and love. I tell myself those things to help me process this story, but it’s still right there in the Bible, and each time I read it I have to live with the discomfort it causes. There are some things in the Bible to which I simply have to say, “I don’t like this,” and this story is one of them. But despite my discomfort, the narrative continues, and there is more to see and more to learn.
In the midst of announcing this 10th plague to Moses, God pauses the story to give the instructions we read today. It’s a peculiar piece of scripture because of the level of detail it gives. Who gets what portion of the lamb, how it is to be cooked, what you’re supposed to wear while eating it. This would be an easy part of the story to gloss over. But there is deep meaning here from which we can learn something about what it means to be God’s people.
The first thing God does in the instruction is he changes the Israelites’ understanding of time: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” Do you get the significance of what God is doing here? It’s as if God came to us today and said, “OK, timeout! From now on, July 5 is going to be the first day of the year.” God is basically hitting the reset button the whole Jewish calendar. Why would God do that?
If you’ve ever golfed, you know the term “mulligan.” If you hit a shot and it goes horribly wrong, then you can take a mulligan, a second shot, that won’t count against you. Sometimes I need several mulligans until I get a shot I like. Or, as a kid, while you were playing a game, did you ever call for a do-over? You’re playing kickball, you make an out, but you hit the reset button by shouting, “Do-over!”
In our story, God is taking a mulligan. God is calling for a do-over. This moment in time, this exodus from Egypt, marks a new chapter in the lives of God’s people. No longer will they be slaves in Egypt; no longer will they be held captive by Pharaoh. From this day forward, they will be free, and God marks that by restarting the calendar. From now on, every time this part of the year comes around, the Hebrews will remember the Exodus.
We still do that today, don’t we? We mark certain days as special and remember their significance. Why do we remember the 4th of July? It’s just one day among 365 days. But something significant happened on that day, and so we commemorate it as a way of remembering what happened. We need to remember how we got here, the sacrifices that were made, the courage that was shown. Granted, the day may have evolved into a celebration of cookouts and fireworks, but the true meaning of it is still there with us, and so we remember it each and every year. It is the day that symbolizes our freedom, just as the Passover symbolizes the Israelites’ freedom. It’s no coincidence that the word “holiday” is derived from the term “holy day.”
There’s something very special about the way God wants this day to be remembered. All the details spelled out in the passage are important because subsequent generations will be expected to do the same things as a way of remembering. If you’ve ever attended a Passover meal, you know they use the bitter herbs and the unleavened bread. When a Jewish family celebrates this meal, they are not only remembering it; they are enacting it once again. They are participating in the Exodus all over again, so that the meaning of the original Exodus is real for them today.
What does that have to do with us? Well, we also have a meal we re-enact. Ours is on a weekly basis. And part of the re-enactment ceremony is the repetition of the words said at that first meal. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and said, “Take and eat, this is my body, broken for you.” Likewise, after supper, he took the cup, and after blessing it he shared it with the disciples saying, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of their sins. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, do so in remembrance of me.”
Like the words of scripture we read this morning, those words are our instructions on how to enact this meal. When we come to the table, we don’t just read those words and hold up the elements for you to see. We share them, we pass them through the midst of the congregation, we drink and eat just like they drank and ate at that meal in the Upper Room. As we re-enact that meal, we participate in it ourselves, we experience the meaning of that meal anew in our own lives.
What is that meaning? The same thing we celebrate on July 4th and the same thing the Israelites celebrated at the Passover. Freedom. Freedom from the captivity to sin. Freedom from the voices, external and internal, that tell us we’re alone, we’re not loved, we’re not good enough. Freedom from the world’s expectations and pressures.
But the Exodus and the Last Supper were not just about freedom from something. They were and are about freedom for something. We are freed to be the people God created us to be. We are freed to live out the call God has placed in our hearts. We are freed to treat people as God wants us to treat them, not as the world says we should. At this table, just as at the Passover, we celebrate both our “ freedom from” and our “freedom for.” What freedom will you claim at this table today? What are you being freed from? What are you being freed for?
That’s the significance of ritual. Passover is celebrated every year so Jews will remember what God has done for them. We celebrate this meal each week so we remember what God has done for us. The more we do this, the more familiar it becomes, the more it becomes a part of us. And that’s important in today’s world, where most of us probably know 10 commercial jingles better than we know any words of scripture. We need to hear this story over and over and over again until it becomes a part of us, until the words roll off our tongues, until we start to actually believe the message we hear about being loved and accepted and forgiven. It’s a message I know I need to hear each week, because at some point in the past seven days, I’ve forgotten.
The story of our faith is not just something that occurred back then, but it’s something we continue live out now. We continue to live out the freedom we’ve been given. And as we do, we continue to tell the story of the Exodus and the Last Supper, a story which resonates down through history with the words, “God is with you. God has not forgotten you. God loves you.” We need to remember how we got here, the sacrifices that were made, the courage that was shown.
The Passover story may not have much meaning for us today, but this story reminds us that before God ever came to earth as a little baby in a manger, before Jesus ever held up a loaf of bread and a cup, God came to the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. And God set them free. Do we take that freedom for granted? When we come to this table, do we remember the sacrifice that was made so we can be free? It’s a freedom we must not disregard, but must claim and live in this world. What still holds you captive? A failed relationship, an addictive behavior, a feeling of not being good enough? Remember Jesus’ words. You are free. You are free. Thanks be to God.