April 3, 2015 by jmar198013
This little homily was presented March 22, 2015 at Cordova Church of Christ in Rancho Cordova, CA.
I’m supposed to talk about the Passover this morning. But first I want to talk about Star Wars. Okay, Star Wars fans; imagine you’re watching The Empire Strikes Back. We’ve come to the iconic scene where Darth Vader has just cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand in the lightsaber duel. Now, instead of the classic, I am your father exchange, you get something like this:
Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
No. I . . . You know what else Obi-Wan never mentioned? My savory haggis recipe. First, you need all the entrails of a lamb. And steel-cut oats. It’s very important that the oats be steel-cut! Are you writing this down, Luke?
If you were making a film, and your script-writer brought you that, you’d fire that writer, wouldn’t you? Yet at first read, it seems like the author of Exodus has done something very similar to that. You see, details related to the Passover stretch from Exod. 12.1 through 13.16. In our Bibles, that’s sixty-seven verses! And of those sixty-seven verses, fifty-three are ritual instructions regarding Passover. Now think about that. In Exodus 5-11, you have these spectacular special-effects sequences with all those grisly plagues. And Beginning in Exod. 13.17, you’ve got this nail-biting dramatic tension: the Israelites are trapped between the Sea of Reeds on one side and Pharaoh’s imperial goon squad on the other. Of course, the waters part to make a highway for the Israelite refugees. But right in the middle of all this epic story-telling, we get fifty-three verses of excruciatingly minute instructions for how to make dinner. What kind of lamb to eat. How to cook the lamb. How to bake the bread. How to divide the lamb among households. What side dishes to serve. The pace at which the meal is to be eaten. What to wear to dinner. What to do with the lamb’s blood. From a story-telling perspective, it’s really sort of a buzzkill. I suspect even a few of the Israelites grew impatient. Moses, is this really the best time to be doing this? We’re trying to flee from an imperial superpower here!
I’ll admit to skimming over Exodus 12 in my reading. I want to rush through the boring details of Passover. I’d rather hurry on to the part where Pharaoh’s army got drownded / O, Mary don’t you weep! But we really shouldn’t do that. See, unlike my Darth Vader haggis recipe analogy, the instructions for Passover aren’t a non sequitur that intrudes upon the real drama. Rather, the Passover was how the people learned to interpret what was happening. It was God’s gift to Israel. The Passover taught them how to tell the story of their oppression and God’s rescue of them truthfully. And having the resources to rightly tell the story of what God has done for us is essential to the ability of God’s people to live holy lives.
The first lesson we can learn from the first Passover emerges from the difficulty I’ve already noted. The Passover is to be celebrated in the midst of Israel’s struggle for freedom. As the people are making their preparations to go on the lam from Egypt and Pharaoh, Moses comes to them and says: God says that each household needs to get a perfect year-old lamb. Slaughter it and roast it. Serve it with bitter herbs. Eat it in a hurry, with your sandals on and your staff in your hand. No leftovers, either. Oh, and take the lamb’s blood and smear it on your doorposts if you don’t want your oldest boy to die. That’s a lot to ask of thousands of soon-to-be refugees! I know how well that probably went over; I’ve been in church business meetings. Someone objects, Moses, my grandmother’s lamb recipe is better! A young mother protests, My kid’s allergic to bitter herbs! Don’t you care about my kid’s health! Then someone else declares, Moses, this is just wasteful. We’re going to have to be better stewards of our resources if we expect to survive our journey through the wilderness. Oh brothers and sisters, how easily we miss the point! God was calling the people to make time and space in their lives to celebrate what he was doing for them. In the midst of turmoil and upheaval–perhaps especially then–God invites his people to worship and remembrance. Passover was about shaping the priorities of God’s people, creating holy time to honor God’s care.
Here’s another cool lesson we learn from the first Passover: Not only did God want his people to create holy time in the midst of distress; he wanted them to mark their time by Passover. Notice what he tells Moses and Aaron in Exod. 12.2: This month–Abib, the month of the Passover–this month will be the first month; it will be the first month of the year for you. That’s God’s way of telling Israel, What I’m about to do for you, what I’m about to do with you–this changes everything. A people who have been slaves for generations are about to get a fresh start because of the Exodus. This represents a clean break from a brutal and painful past, a passing over into God’s time. By calling Israel into his life, into his story, God offers them a future that would be otherwise impossible, one they cannot even imagine. What’s more, the Passover is meant to bind future generations of Israelites to God’s faithfulness through the Exodus. For Exod. 12.14 says, This day will be a day of remembering for you . . . You will observe it in every generation as a regulation for all time. This means that no matter where Israel lands, they have a tangible way to remember God’s care for them. Passover assures them that they will not be lost among the nations. It teaches God’s people to mark their time by God’s mighty deeds of liberation and compassion. This is what allows us to see our lives as coherent, meaningful stories, and not just a series of random events.
Here’s another thing we won’t notice if we gloss over Exodus 12. Look at verse 4: If a household is too small for a lamb, it should share one with a neighbor nearby. You should divide the lamb in proportion to the people who will be eating it. This is how God assures that no one has too much and no one goes without. Equality and sharing are essential hallmarks of God’s people; it’s written right into the Passover! This simple instruction offers the people another sign that everything is new. They have not been treated equally; their needs have gone unmet while the Pharaoh has grown fat off their labor. This provision is one way God teaches his people not to act that way toward one another. The Passover nurtures God’s people toward fairness and generosity.
Finally–and this is crucial–we learn from the Passover that God’s people are formed by sacrifice. Not sacrifice to placate the wrath of an angry deity whose holiness has been offended. Rather, the sacrifice of obedient lives from people who know that their existence depends entirely on God’s faithfulness and generosity. That’s what the blood on the doorposts was about. Remember, God was passing through Egypt in judgment. He had claimed the lives of all first-born sons in Egypt as his own. But he gave Israel this provision: The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (Exod. 12.13). The reason that blood protected Israel when God moved across Egypt in judgment is that they had already offered their first-born sons to God by smearing blood on the doorposts. How did that work? Well, in the sacrificial logic of ancient Israel, shedding the blood of an animal meant offering your life. Thus, Lev. 17.11: the life is in the blood. The firstborn sons in turn represented the entire nation. This function was later taken over by the Levites. So Numbers 3.12-13 explains: I claim the Levites from Israel in place of all the oldest males . . . The Levites are mine because all the oldest males are mine. When I killed all the oldest males in the land of Egypt, I reserved for myself all the oldest males in Israel. Understanding this point is crucial to the ability of Christians to correctly tell the story of God’s salvation through Christ. Jesus, after all, gave us the Lord’s Supper in the context of a Passover celebration. That’s because Jesus has taken on the function of the Levite, the first-born Son, the Passover Lamb, for all humanity. He is our representative, offering his obedient life to God on behalf of us all. Through Christ, we are enabled to also offer our obedient lives to the God who saves.
What Israel did with the Passover is what we do with the Lord’s Supper: tell the story of how God formed us into a people. Israel was formed by the dedication of its firstborn sons to God. Likewise, the church is formed by Jesus’ obedient offering of his life as a first-born Son to God. Both Israel and the church are made possible by God’s initiative, faithfulness, and generosity–which, when woven together, form that profound theological concept we Christians like to call grace.