September 21, 2014 – The Passover of God

Luke 22:14-20

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

Exodus 12:1-14

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. 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.

Exodus 12:21-28, 37-42

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’“ And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron…

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations.

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Pentecost 15   Sept 21, 2014   Psalm 135, Luke 22:14-20, Exodus 12:1-14, Ex 12:21-28, 37-42          The Passover of God

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‘The day of resurrection! Earth tell it out abroad; the Passover of gladness, the Passover of God…’ One of our ancient hymns portrays the Passover as a joyful celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Setting aside for a moment the fact that the Passover happened at least twelve hundred years before Christ’s birth – I’ve been wondering – Where does this hymn find all this joy and gladness – in the Passover? After all, every family in Egypt is weeping bitter tears for it’s firstborn, struck dead… And yes, now Israel will be free – that’s to celebrate – but even once freed we know that Israel’s still going to be fearful and complaining all the way to the promised land… So where’s all this joy coming from?

Questions of interpretation like this have kept me pondering the Passover all week… And thinking about how we interpret the bible. On the one hand it can be straight forward… We read looking first for the plain meaning of the word. Then we look for applications.

But what are we do to do when the plain meaning isn’t so plain? Or when the plainest applications are not very appealing. When the apparent meaning of scripture appears to go against what we believe are the main themes of the bible. Like ‘Jesus loves me, this I know… for the bible tells me so?’

I believe ‘Jesus loves me’ is the heart of the biblical message… But there’s still a lot of scripture that seems to strongly suggest that yes, Jesus loves us – but – God is also sometimes more than a little ticked off with us….

The plainest reading of our scripture today tells us…. Plague upon plague has come upon Egypt…Because Egypt has enslaved Israel. The plagues are payback for grave injustice, delivered by God, working through Moses and Aaron, to get the king of Egypt to change his heart and mind. First the River Nile is turned to blood…Then a plague of frogs has swarmed in every household of Egypt… Plagues of biting insects, plagues on crops and livestock, boils on the flesh, days of total darkness… All this has come over the land…All this by God’s design, to persuade Pharaoh to change his heart. As if all heaven and earth are singing together – “tell old Pharaoh, let my people go…

But after each plague, Pharaoh continues to harden his crusty old heart. After several plagues Pharaoh starts to relent, saying ‘go already, be gone.’ But then each time after the pressure’s off and the plague’s removed, Pharaoh changes his mind and hardens his heart again. Now the final plague, death of the firstborn of Egypt is finally coming… .

But just when we’re expecting the death of Egypt’s firstborn imminently – the story stops – and now instead of action – we’re studying the arts of worship. Scripture shifts direction abruptly, telling us that we are first to prepare, then eat the Passover meal – in haste, with our sandals on our feet, standing up, ready to leave Egypt in the dark of night – no time to wait even for our daily bread to rise…

Then – with hardly a pause – scripture gives instructions in how to observe Passover worship every year, forever – with a whole-week-long festival of worship – reenacting release from slavery, through living worship…

And the combination of – ready or not we’re leaving – right now! Tonight! – And – here’s how to do this worshiping-our-way-into- freedom thing forever… feels a bit like ‘hurry up and slow down…’ at the same time…

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Passover is, among other things, a study in apparent contradictions, reconciled in living worship of our living God…

We know from scripture that Jesus and his family practiced Passover worship every year. Luke’s gospel tells us Jesus and his family journeyed to Jerusalem every year for Passover. Notice now that by this time, Passover practice has changed considerably from the plain meanings of scripture, which calls for celebrating in homes. But by the time the law of Moses is written down – hundreds of years after Moses – now the Passover festival is held in Jerusalem, in and around the temple.

In the original Passover account, every Israelite family is commanded to slaughter and roast it’s own unblemished lamb, which they are to eat with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. If a family is too small to eat a whole lamb, it shall join with it’s nearest neighbor to share a lamb. Each part of the meal takes on symbolic significance. Bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery. Unleavened bread reminds Israel of flight in haste, no time for bread to rise. The blood of the lamb protects Israel from the angel of death, differentiating homes of Israelites from those of Egypt. (Sacrifice in those days often had to include blood, symbolizing the life force.)

When Israel settles in the land of Canaan, Passover becomes now a week-long festival, celebrated without haste… With four glasses of wine, one for each symbolic question, the first question always asked by the youngest person present – “why is tonight different from all other nights?” A ritual question designed to spark lively discussion about the meaning of Passover. How should we interpret is a question for the whole gathered community, including it’s very youngest members. None of this done in a hurry… (I’ve been to two Jewish Seders. I remember each as solemn and serious; also lively and joyful at the same time…)

Later, all the lambs of Israel will be slaughtered by priestly assistants in Jerusalem, all at the same hour… The experience of the first Passover, leaving Egypt, is translated again and again into new forms of worship…Worship which both preserves and also transforms our original experience of Passover.

Christian traditions and understandings of Passover, like those of our Jewish ancestors in faith, have also undergone changes…Holy communion has come to us in Jesus translating the Passover. Some of us now do communion every day. Others once a week or once a month or once every three months. Some of us believe the bread and wine are literally the body and blood of Jesus. Others believe they are living but not literal symbols of Christ’s real presence. (We Methodists are in this latter group.) Some take communion standing, some kneeling, some passing the bread and cup…

Passover can be a study in contradictions and reconciliation of opposites… Not meaning mushing opposites together till they become all one. But learning to look at scripture from other vantage points… Seeking to understand scripture – and the views of other believers – more fairly, completely and generously… Remembering that we the people of God have not always done things exactly this way….

The earliest Christian church was entirely Jewish, participating in the life of the synagogue and temple as well as specifically Christian worship… The Jewish scriptures were the only Bible there was for at least the first century of the Christian movement. The New Testament letters (first) and gospels (later) were written by 100 AD, but not all were considered scripture for at least another century. The church decided from the get-go that the Old Testament would always be a vital part of the Christian bible. From our earliest days Christians have interpreted the Old Testament through the words and example of Jesus.

But – the specifics of how we interpret the bible have always been changing, depending in part always on where we are in time and culture. For example, the Cape Cod Times ran a story last week that caught my eye, in which a college professor was quoted as being critical of a new American history text book to be used in Texas public schools, because, in the professor’s words, the book ‘made it sound as if Moses was the first American.’ Moses comes up so often in this text book, she said, kids will think Moses was more important to our American ancestors than our own founding fathers like Washington and Franklin and Jefferson. (I don’t think we have the same debate happening over text books in Massachusetts…)

But Jewish scholar Michael Walzer in his book Exodus and Revolution notes that American revolutionaries did often quote Exodus as inspiration for what they called (quote) “God’s new Israel.” (That would be us.) Walzer writes “In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should show Moses with his rod lifted and the Egyptian army drowning in the sea; while Jefferson urged a more pacific design: the column of Israelites marching through the wilderness led by God’s pillars of cloud and fire…” (We can wonder whether the two founding father’s preferences might relate to one being a slave owner, the other not… perhaps another day….)

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How we hear the word – where we hear the accents falling in the story – does always depend in part on who and what we identify with most in the story. Exodus has probably never been a popular book among kings and rulers. Exodus appeals much more naturally to those who have known slavery or bitter oppression. (Maybe I find myself fretting over the fate of Egyptians in the Passover text because I suspect I may have a little Egyptian blood in me… Not literally. But the bible also works, most of the time, as parable. )

Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr was devoutly committed to the practice of nonviolence. Still, he preached powerfully from Exodus on the theme of evil washed up dead on the Red Sea shores… The death of the Egyptians is to be greatly lamented, King would say… And now it is, he would say, a parable or metaphor… But the Pharaoh of slavery and the Pharaoh of segregation alike are evil… And evil must perish… for the kingdom of God to flourish…

And no one in their right mind proposes any literal re-enactments of the plagues on Egypt or the death of Egypt’s firstborn, or the drowning of Pharaoh and his troops in the Red Sea…

But as long as anyone anywhere lives in cruel bondage, God’s heart will still be with the enslaved, and the Passover is alive forever, in the heart of God.

And here in the first Passover are the roots of our Last Supper. The last meal Jesus shares with friends and followers is the Passover.

Jesus is named in John (chapter 1) as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, named again in First Corinthians (chapter 5) as our Passover Lamb. Jesus becomes now our new Passover, for all nations and all peoples.

Passover begins in the twilight of the old order…As judgment on all the gods of Egypt, and the dawn of the new beginning for Israel… And now, in Christ, even judgement becomes invitation…into freedom from all bondage to sin, death, and slavery in any form…

And it’s only the blood of the lamb that separates Israel from Egypt… There’s nothing special in the bloodlines of Israel, or America, or any nation, tribe, or family on earth…  It’s nothing but the blood of the lamb that saves…

But at the heart of the Passover of God is the power of His blood – strong enough… to take away not just a little part but all the sins of the world…

For all who come to the feast and partake of his living Word.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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