The Promise of Passover

With enduring gratitude to RevGal Teri Peterson (who blogs over here) and Working Preacher’s commentary for this week (by Jacqueline E. Lapsley).  Some Sundays a preacher needs a lot of help to pull a rabbit out of her hat.

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If we pick up the trail of our narrative again, after Jacob’s death, we see that Joseph and his brothers stayed in Egypt. Joseph continued to have favor in the king’s court, and he lived to be 110… which was long enough to see three generations of the children of Israel born.  

God continued to bless each of these generations to be a blessing, keeping covenant with the descendants of Abraham.  As they prospered, Egypt prospered.

And then… a new king rose to power in Egypt.  

One who had not known Joseph, had not heard the stories of how the Israelites who had become so numerous had once been welcomed because of Joseph’s wisdom, because of his keeping Egypt and other nations from starvation during a horrible famine.

Instead, this new king only saw the potential for trouble.  

These people were not his people. They were a minority, rapidly gaining ground.  They were immigrants, really, taking up space and using resources that  – by right – would/should have gone to Egyptians.

This king had lost sight of the abundance that existed and could only see scarcity, the potential for loss, and even the potential for an uprising or alliance with other outsiders and enemies that could displace him and his people from their place in power.

And so, as we read in the first chapter of Exodus (11-14):

[The egyptians] set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

And yet… the king was still not satisfied. The Israelites were still a threat, and they would be as long as they continued to live and multiply. And so…
Against the will of the God who promises, the God who creates, this king was determined to destroy the Hebrew people.
Against the will of the God who brings life, the king ordered death for every male child born.

And as is God is wont to do in humanly impossible situations, God made a way.
And because God has an incredible sense of irony, it happened in the household of the king.

We know the story of baby Moses, who ought to have been destroyed at his birth, being rescued and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.How he eventually came to know the God who promises, the God who is who God will be, the God who calls those who seem least likely to lead.  

Which God did… making clear that this man who stammered would be the one to speak for God in the halls of the Pharaoh.  making clear that there would be no turning back for Moses, or the people of Israel.  

Now that the promise of God to Abraham, the promise that his descendants would be a mighty nation, the promise of land and on which to prosper, now that this promise was threatened by the destructive power of the Egyptian King, the time had come for God to intervene.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.  I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens.  

I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.

Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  

I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’”  Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

We also know the story of Moses being sent to tell Pharaoh that the people of Israel were not his to rule or oppress or destroy.  That the people of Israel were God’s people. And it was time to let them go.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.”

We know the story of the plagues –
the water in the Nile turning to blood,
the frogs, the gnats, the flies,
the death of the Egyptian livestock,
the boils covering the people’s skin, and their animals’ skin
the hail and the locusts and the darkness.
And finally, the plague on the firstborn.  

The God who promises, the God who creates… had, well basically, God had had enough.

But rather than destroy all the children of Egypt or even all the male children as the King had commanded, the plague would fall only on their firstborn sons.

God gave this warning through Moses:
“Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt.

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock.  

Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.  But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.”

And still hot with anger, Moses left Pharaoh

But God had words of instruction and warning for the Israelites, too.  And that is where we pick up today’s readings:

12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:

This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  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.

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.

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.

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.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.

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.

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.

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.

The episode is, of course, the one recalled every year in the celebration of the Jewish Passover. The story also has profound meaning for us as Christians for two reasons –
it reveals that delivering people from oppression is a core feature of God’s character,
and we cannot help but see its connections to our understandings of the death of Jesus in the New Testament (namely Jesus as the Passover lamb).  

But I’d like us to make note of something important, an ethic that is key to understanding current passover practice, as well as  Jesus’ teachings about community and abundance.

Did you catch the bit about families too small for a whole lamb? In that case – or if a family cannot afford to provide a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a neighboring family to share what they have.

The idea that “households join together” and that the lamb shall be divided proportionally to the number of persons present reflects a deep biblical conviction that the good of the community as a whole must and should be intentionally cultivated.

Over and over again, the Hebrew Bible and our very Hebrew messiah emphasize that members of a community are to be responsible for the community’s welfare, and not, in general, to be focused on the rights of particular individuals.

Yes, I know, that sounds like a socialist construct…  but it’s in there… especially in that commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves –  and even as Christ loved us… even sacrificially.

Whether under the oppression of an Egyptian regime or the Roman empire, or in Central Florida neighborhoods, we who know the God Who Keeps Covenant are to be a bodily representation of the God Who Loves, the God Who Provides.

You can imagine, these slaves who have been experiencing true scarcity must have been confused – or at least surprised – by God’s command to eat what they can that night and burn the leftovers. Normally they would have saved every scrap, gathered and wrapped it up to take it along.

With this strange meal, when God’s chosen people are told not to wait for the bread to rise, and thus, the economy of the wilderness is inaugurated. Israel is set to embark on a journey in which they learn to trust the God Who Promises as their Deliverer and as their provider of food – their daily bread. They must leave hoarding and scarcity behind, both as a practice and as a mental habit, if they are to embrace faith in this God who delivers them.

And there is more…
13:1 The Lord said to Moses:

Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.

Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out.  When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month.

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord.  Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory.

You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’

Telling the story in every generation — that God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the world — is a central task for those who trust in God. After all, the testimony of those who have experienced God’s saving power is both vital and necessary for God’s work in the world to go forward.

In fact, if we do not tell God’s story, other stories will fill the vacuum, and far too few of those stories are life-giving. Far too many stories make powerful people the heroes, and thus awaken our fears, stir up our need to dominate, and tempt us to abuse our own influence for personal gain.

Too many of our human-focused stories make us forget that we are, in fact, a WE.

When we tell the story of the God Who Promises, the God Who Provides, we join believers in every time and place to participate in what the Jewish tradition describes as the ongoing repair of the world (tikkun olam).

And doing the work of tikkun olam – doing the incarnational work of reconciliation that Jesus and the apostles embodied in their time, working for the flourishing of the world, here and now – in our neighborhoods, in our community, is how we love our neighbors well.

Being a part of the story – not just telling the story but being part of the story –  in every generation is a central task for those who trust in God.

But to do so, we must leave behind the destructive bent of empire, the scarcity and fear that leads to exclusion and division. It means putting on your shoes and grabbing a coat, and not waiting for the bread to rise, because leaving the empire is risky business.

Our God can and will topple the gods of the empire… The empire will not like it, of course. Those in power will fight to keep it – with everything they’ve got, as they always have…

But over and over, in every generation, in every year and week and day, God is working for freedom and for life, pushing on the gods of empire — the gods of consumerism and violence and self-sufficiency –

And in every generation, in every year and week and day, we are to remind ourselves and our children that we are different. We together are different because of what the Lord did for us when we came out of Egypt.

This isn’t about nostalgia —looking back with longing.

The past is the present is the future. So the people of God are told to re-live this moment, to re-enact it and experience again the simultaneous anxiety and awe of trusting God.

We will do exactly that in a few minutes as we approach the table and share in the Lord’s Supper. We will tell the story that Jesus told. Remembering that the bread he held up and blessed and broke was unleavened bread, bread that did not rise, because he was reminding the disciples again that the Hebrew people could not wait that night.

We will tell the story of our deliverer, who blessed the wine that represented the blood of the lamb and then said it was his own blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. A new covenant alongside the old, the present in concert with the past and looking toward the future.

When we eat and drink today, we proclaim the saving death of Jesus, and we proclaim that we refuse to be sustained by the bread of affliction, we refuse to claim the power of the empire

We claim instead the nourishment of the God Who Provides, the God Who Promises, the God who is Faithful. And we trust that the word and the table and the Spirit together will sustain and and empower this Body to live and do the work to which we are called – all to God’s glory.

May this be true in us and of us, today and every day. Amen.

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