TEXT: Exodus 12:1-13
I suggested last week that you might want to take some time to read the book of Exodus, and I want to repeat that suggestion. I am going to be preaching from Exodus right up until and even into the first week of Advent. I'm not just doing that because I think Exodus is interesting or have stock in any of Charlton Heston's productions. I'm doing that because I truly believe that the keys to understanding the New Testament are here in the Old, especially here in Exodus.
This is one of my strongest convictions. I don't believe we can correctly interpret the work of God in Jesus Christ, or any of the teaching and events of the New Testament without first understanding the Hebrew Scriptures. This is all there was in Jesus' Bible and in Paul's Bible. When Paul said that all Scripture was useful for teaching, the New Testament had not yet been written. He was talking about the Old Testament...the Hebrew Scriptures...including the books we Protestants call The Apocrypha that we took out and the Catholics left in.
To me, the book of Exodus is for the Hebrew Scriptures what the Gospels are for the New Testament...it is that important. What I believe we have in Exodus is a physical representation of the spiritual truth revealed in the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus often tells a parable and then explains it to his disciples. That is the relationship I see between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The sweep of salvation history is an acting out...a parable of sorts...of the truth made explicit by Jesus. By saying that I don't mean that it didn't happen. I mean that God used the stuff of history to teach us in our infancy what would later be explained to us after we had grown in the knowledge of God and ourselves.
If you want to go into this more, take one of the Disciple classes. For now, we are going to the heart of the Exodus narrative...to the night that is different from all other nights...the Passover. It is a terrifying story. You can go tremble at the Blair Witch Project if you want to...or you can stay home and read the story of the plagues on Egypt, ending with the night of terror when the angel of death sweeps through every household in Egypt, taking both children and animals. Israel survives only by the slaughter of precious and perfect lambs that they have taken in to live with them for several days, getting to know them and then smearing their blood on the doorposts and having them for dinner.
They are told by God that this horrible night is to be so important as to change their calendar. Exodus 12:1, "This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year." And they are to make the remembrance of this particular night into a ritual that will define Judaism right down to the present day. And THEN, as Jesus celebrates that night with his disciples, he takes it a step further, telling them that the bread of affliction and freedom was his body and that the third cup of wine...the cup of redemption...was his blood. The earliest Christians were accused of being cannibals.
And here we are...two thousand years after Christ, thirty-two hundred years after Moses, still remembering the night that the firstborn of Egypt and the firstborn of God, the lambs of Israel and the lamb of God are slaughtered with the same symbols of body and blood, affliction and salvation. What on earth is this about?
Exodus is clear. It is about freedom and the God who makes a way for slaves who have no power of their own. It recognizes that this is not a milk-toast God who grovels before kings who think they are god saying, "It's not nice to keep slaves, please let my people go." This is a God who burns hot for justice, yet who gives Pharaoh nine other warnings before this that God is serious about freeing Israel. It is a God who gives according to the measure that Pharaoh has given to others. At the time Moses was born, Pharaoh had demanded that all boys born to the Hebrew slaves were to be drowned in the crocodile infested Nile river. God's judgment was kinder...only taking one from each household...taking each without pain as they slept. When God later gives King David a choice of falling into the wrath of God or the wrath of human beings, he wisely chooses the wrath of God as the more merciful.
A lot of people have trouble with the wrath of God, but would you really be comfortable with a God who looked at us and just said... "Oh, look, they've been slaves for 400 years...beaten, oppressed, not even treated like human beings at all...isn't that too bad. Hope they can sort it all out." When someone drags a man behind his truck because of the color of his skin and then curses the man's family in court, I want a God who is spitting mad about that. I want a God who will forgive when someone recognizes the wrong they have done, but I also want a God who will do whatever it takes to free me from my abusers if they refuse to let me go.
The night of Passover combined with the night of the Last Supper shows us exactly those two sides of God. At Passover all of Egypt pays for the sin of Pharoah, who they worshipped as a god, and for their own complicity in 400 years of slavery. The children are taken without pain to be with a merciful God, and the parents are left to realize that sin is costly.
On Israel's part, as they tremble inside their homes, they recognize the incredible power of their God. As they obey the command to prepare the Passover meal, they realize even the practical nature of God's providence. They are to eat meat...a whole lamb for every family and they are not to leave a bit of it until morning. Slaves did not eat meat often, but they would need strength for the journey ahead. The bread was to be unleavened...there would not be time to let it rise. This was the first fast food...eat and run.
On this Passover night Israel learned that God demands justice, and if the demands are not met, God exacts justice. God is extremely patient, but God is not a pushover. Then, as the disciples remembered that God of justice at a Passover meal 1200 years later, Jesus shows that God is ready to free the people once again. The old tyrant was Egypt, but that was child's play for God. The greater tyrant, the one that held even Pharoah in its icy hands was death. This passover night, Jesus would be both the firstborn of Egypt and the lamb of the Israelites. This freedom was for everybody. Jesus the perfect lamb, Jesus the firstborn child who dies because of the sins of others, Jesus the new Moses in obedience to God leads both Israel and Egypt out of bondage...Jew and Gentile alike can be free from death.
Now, there's a key word in that phrase...Jew and Gentile alike CAN be free from death. It is not automatic. That is one important way that we as Methodists differ from those who are "universalist" in their faith. We believe that what Jesus did made a way for everyone. But we believe that it takes some effort on our part to follow that way. It is not imposed on us. Why not? Because the way is the way of love, and love by its very nature must be free...it cannot be forced. Look back at the first Passover again and the steps that Israel needed to take to get to freedom.
The first step was faith. They had to believe Moses when he showed up saying that God was going to set them free. That was a very hard step, because there wasn't a shred of evidence. The Egyptian taskmasters were not beginning to form abolitionist groups. Egyptian priests were not publishing anti-slavery tracts. In fact, when Moses shows up and says this, the Egyptians make life even worse. Now the slaves have to make their bricks without straw being provided. They have got to gather their own straw and not cut back on the already burdonsome quota of bricks to be produced. Rods turning into snakes notwithstanding, it looked like death was more imminent than freedom. But they had to believe despite their experience...it is the faith of the Canaanite woman we talked about a few weeks back...to believe that God intends the loving and good and just thing and is capable of bringing it about...no matter what the situation looks like from the outside.
They had to believe that enough for step two: obedience. Faith isn't really faith until it spills over into our actions. They had to believe what God said enough to follow through and DO what God said...to put the blood on the doorposts, eat the meal, and make ready to leave in a hurry.
Then, as the sounds of wailing and terror filled the midnight air around them and the way had been made...they had to get up and go. Step three: move...go...step out. Having a road to freedom open up before me does me no good if I don't get up and follow it.
Those were the steps to freedom: faith, obedience, and active movement in a new direction. That wasn't just God's pattern for freedom for ancient Israel as they fled from Egypt. That is God's universal, eternal pattern for freedom...which is why God didn't end the instruction with instructing the Hebrew slaves just to go. Their last instruction was to remember with thanksgiving...and to make that memory into a ritual that would teach all future generations how we are to find the freedom that God provides for us.
This is still the way that we find freedom from the things that enslave us as human beings. This pattern of the Passover can be seen underlying the Twelve Step process for recovery from addictions. Sickness and healing is one metaphor to use for addiction and recovery. I prefer the metaphor of slavery and freedom; and the steps to freedom are basically the same three, expanded in their detail to twelve. These are instructive...maybe we are addicted to alcohol or drugs or other things for which there are formal twelve step groups. But maybe we have yet to recognize our addictions to work, to time, and...the most pervasive and harmful addiction of our culture...to money.
What enslaves you? What controls your life? From which God are you seeking your freedom? Do you imagine you will be free when you have enough money? Enough time? Enough power? Enough knowledge? The answer to that question tells you who or what your God is...and if your God is anything but Yahweh...the God who is...you are enslaved to a tyrant that will eventually drag you down into the nothingness that is the nature of all other gods.
That is why just as soon as Israel packs up and heads out of Egypt, God sends them to Sinai and gives them the Ten Commandments...the first of which is "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Having gained their freedom, that is the only way to remain free. The instant they take up with other priorities, slavery will follow.
If you are serving another God...if you are looking to something else to set you free, hear the wisdom of the Passover as it is expressed in the form of the Twelve Steps. You may substitute any tyrant here...I will use the chief god of the American pantheon...money. First the three steps that represent the step of faith: Step 1: I admit that I am powerless over money--that my life has become unmanageable. Step 2: I came to believe that a Power higher than myself could restore me to sanity. Step 3: I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God.
Those are the first steps to freedom...the steps of faith. Next come the steps of obedience. Step 4: I made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. Step 5 is confession: I admitted to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrong. Step 6: I was entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character, and Step 7: I humbly asked God to remove my shortcomings. Step 8: I made a list of all persons I had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
Now the night of Passover is gone and the way before us is plain...we must go. Step 9: I made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step 10: I continued to take personal inventory and when I was wrong promptly admitted it. Step 11: I sought through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for me and the power to carry that out.
The twelve steps even have the last step of remembrance. Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, I tried to carry this message to others who are enslaved and to practice these principles in all my affairs.
The table is before us, telling us that the God of justice and freedom, mercy and love has made a way for us to leave behind all that holds us captive. I am not here to force you into it. I am merely here to point the way, to say that in my life this is the way that has brought true freedom. It is not a way that I completely understand, although I understand more now than when I started. I couldn't map out every stretch of the road. But the God who led Israel out of Egypt and who came to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ is the God I trust with my life. I invite you this morning to do the same.
© 1999, Anne Robertson