Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September 4, 2011 - The Passover behind the Last Supper

Exodus 12.1-14
[I.] I want to tell you a story that belongs to you and me; in fact, the Old Testament portion belongs to Christians and Jews together. This ancient story tells how we came to be a distinct people marked by our faith in God.
            The Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years when God heard their cry of anguish. God sent Moses to go to Pharaoh to demand that he let Israel go. God had prepared a land of promise and freedom, and God was going to lead them out to enter that freedom. So Moses went to Pharaoh and told him, “The God whose name is ‘I am’ sends me to tell you to let his people go.” It was no surprise to anyone that Pharaoh did not believe this Moses, and it was no surprise that Pharaoh did not let Israel go.
            So, God began to deliver plagues upon Pharaoh and all Egypt to show him that this demand for the freedom of Israel was not one man’s claim; it was the claim of a powerful and relentless God. So, one plague after another was unleashed upon Egypt:
    1. Plague of blood
    2. Plague of frogs
    3. Plague of lice
    4. Plague of flies
    5. Plague of pestilence
    6. Plague of boils
    7. Plague of hail
    8. Plague of locusts
    9. Plague of darkness – 9 plagues so far.

[10. Death of the firstborn] When all this was not enough to convince Pharaoh that he must let Israel go as Israel’s God required, then Moses went one last time to the court of Pharaoh to deliver this warning:
            4 Moses said to Pharaoh, "Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. 5 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. 6 Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt such as has never been or will ever be again. 7 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. (Ex 11.4-7)

And with that strong warning, Moses left the court of the Pharaoh. He went to the Israelites to prepare them for the coming of the Lord.
            This tenth plague stands out because this was the only plague in which Israel had a part to play. It is a part that continues to mark Jews as the descendants of Israel; it is a part that prepares Christians to join Jesus in the Last Supper. But, I’m jumping ahead of our story.

[II.] The scripture we read today is God’s instruction to Moses.
[B.] 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.

            In a shepherding society, lambs would be available but valuable. Families did not eat meat except on special occasions; this was to be a defining occasion. By keeping these instructions they are going to become part of God’s visitation against Egypt. The intention is that everyone must take part in the ritual; no one should be left out.
            This is more than an old story; it is an order of worship for Sunday church. Every generation of Israelites is commanded to do this just as those who did it on the first night. As Terence Frethem explains this:
            When Israel reenacts the Passover, it is not a fiction, as if nothing really happens in the ritual, or all that happens is a recollection of the happened-ness of an original event. The reenactment is as much a salvation event as the original enactment. The memory language is not a “soft matter, recalling to mind some story of the past. It is an entering into the reality of that event in such a way as to be reconstituted as the people of God thereby (1).

[C.] 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male;

            That is to say that this must be the sacrifice of a valuable animal – one they could have sold at the market for top dollar. And more than its value, it calls Israel to come before God bringing its best. This is not the time for pocket-change or second-rate. This is the time to make the commitment of yourself and your treasure in a way that shows your commitment to God.
            [APPLIC:] This, of course, is the way we are still called to bring our offerings to God. When the offering plate is passed by you, don’t settle for a gift of pocket change – the coins you will leave on the dresser tomorrow morning when you get ready for your day. Bring your best as your offering. By bringing our best as our offering to God, we make the commitment that shapes us as Children of God.

[D.] 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.

            The blood smeared on the doorposts serves as a sign both to Israel and to Yahweh that no harm will befall the family during the night of destruction of the first-born. Understand that this blood was not just a marker, as if any colorful stuff would do. The blood was the life of the sacrifice given for the people who lived in the marked houses. The blood of the sacrifice is shed so that Israel’s’ blood might be spared.
            Remember that on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples were sharing the Passover Meal. Do you see how Jesus redefines the meaning of the blood?
+In the Passover story, the blood of the lamb is shed so that Israel’s blood might be spared.
+In the cross of Jesus, the blood of the Lamb of God is shed so that the blood of those who believe in him might be spared.
At the Last Supper, Jesus redefined the meaning of the Passover to make it a story of redemption for all time and all creation.

[E:] 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire….
            9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire….

            As a sign of God's decisive action, the people must prepare their meal in a hurry. The lamb is not to be dressed; rather the whole carcass is to be cooked in one piece. Even the cooking is done in the speediest manner. They cannot take the time to heat water and boil the meat. So the people are told to roast the meat over a fire.
            This is the language of sacrifice, not the language of a dinner cookbook. If this is only a dinner, then how the meat was cooked would make little difference. But, this is a sacrifice and thus the method of preparation is part of the ritual.

[F.] 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.

            All these actions are to be performed in an atmosphere of readiness and urgency. The time is at hand! It's a rush. They're dressed with sandals on their feet and staff in-hand, prepared to go at a moment's notice. In other words, what God is about to do is decisive. We have reached the climax of the plagues against Egypt. Death will only pass over the homes with doors painted with blood and will enter the homes of the rest to strike the firstborn. This will be the decisive act. It will release the Hebrew people from slavery into freedom.                                 
            [APPLIC:] A student of one of the great rabbis asked him why Israel had to eat the Passover dressed for a journey. Why didn’t God just set them free? The old rabbi pointed out that God could only offer the moment. Until the people decided that they would leave their slavery and begin the journey to freedom, they would always be slaves. They had to decide.
            As someone pointed out this week, the people of Libya have been under a dictator for four decades. If they have a different form of government, they will have to take responsibilities they have not held for 40 years. They have to decide.

[III.] So, Moses calls all the families of Israel to offer a sacrifice. He provides a detailed ritual for the sacrifice. Because we are not familiar with the ritual of sacrifice, let’s talk about this just a moment. While we use the term “sacrifice” as a metaphor and nothing as messy as blood will every touch this altar. The Israelites, in contrast, literally sacrificed animals as part of their regular worship in the Temple. The Bible mentions sacrifices of goats, sheep, cattle, and birds. This was the world of regular worship in the O.T. and -- in Jesus’ day -- the regular worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus talked about sacrifice, it was something he had seen for himself.
            Gerhard von Rad explains that sacrifice had three meanings for the ancients:
+gift – especially of the first fruits,
+and atonement.
            The gift of the first fruits comes from the conviction that the whole harvest belongs to God. So, in token of our obligation and gratitude, we give back to God what is holiest, the first-fruits or the first-born. Thus, the ancient farmer would sacrifice the first-fruits of the field or the flock as a way of giving thanks and dedicating the whole harvest to God. This is where our Christian conviction about tithing comes from.
            Communion in sacrifice is the conviction that God is sharing this meal with us. God is the unseen guest at the meal. In ancient times, a covenant between two families or kings would be sealed with a ritual meal. The idea was that God was the unseen guest at the meal who stood as the witness and guarantor of the covenant that had been established.
            This is the reason we celebrate our biggest occasions with a meal today:
            +Thanksgiving Dinner is rooted in offering our thanks to God, the unseen guest at the feast.
            +Weddings often call for a banquet. The bride and groom have made their vows before God.
            +The signing of a business contract is often followed with a dinner.
In each case, God is the unseen guest and witness at the meal. This becomes the earliest meaning of communion.
            The third meaning of sacrifice is atonement - repentance and cleansing from sin and anything which separates us from God. We have replaced this in modern times with the prayer of confession in church. In ancient times, it was understood that a sacrifice was an expression of repentance for our sins and our confidence that God is willing to forgive.
            For the Children of Israel, living as slaves in Egypt, all of these meanings are at work. As they ate the Passover lamb, they were grateful that God was leading them out of slavery and into freedom. They were turning away from the sin of Egypt, repenting of the sin of getting comfortable in that slavery. And, this meal placed them in a ritual shared with God – communion.

[IV.] Now you see how the Last Supper, which we share today gathers up all of these meanings.
+First, as far as the disciples knew as the supper began, Jesus was merely hosting the regular Passover meal on the night that he was betrayed.
+Then, it was a meal of thanksgiving. For the disciples on that night, it was thanksgiving for the ancient Passover feast by which God led them to promise and to freedom. For disciples like us, it is thanksgiving for Jesus and his willing sacrifice for our salvation.
+Then, it is a meal of communion – sharing the bread and wine with Christ, who is the not the unseen guest at the table; Christ is the unseen host.
+Finally, it is a meal of atonement. In Christ’s cross, we realize the depth of our separation from God and the cost Christ paid that we might be restored. In this meal, we make the turn back to God through Christ.
            So, you and I are invited to the Lord’s Table. It is a table of sacrifice.
+It is invitation;
+it is the gift of our first-fruits;
+it is our returning to God in atonement;
+it is communion with Christ;
+it is a renewing of our commitment with God.

            Knowing all this, I am surprised that Christians leave church planning to relax all afternoon after Sunday services. Communion sounds like a call to action. It comes as a call to freedom and out of slavery to all the things that would enslave us. Come to communion with your suitcase in hand. Wear your hat and your gloves. But don’t bring your keys; you won’t be going back to that old life anyway.

1. Frethem, Terence. Exodus, a volume in the Interpretation Biblical Commentary Series, John Knox Press, p. 139.
2. Von Rad, Gerhard, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 253.

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