1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do.
17 “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.
Last Monday many of us enjoyed a three-day weekend as we celebrated Labor Day. I’ve always thought that it was a little awkward that we celebrate the Labor Day holiday…by taking an extra day off. I’d think that we would labor on Labor Day, but that’s just me.
I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of Labor Day is, even after doing my “extensive” research on Wikipedia. It would seem that Labor Day is a celebration of various Labor laws that prescribe what is a work day and a livable wage, perhaps stemming from the abuses witnessed in any number of factories around the world. Others claim that Labor Day is a day to celebrate that we have jobs and decent incomes that allow us to enjoy a little time off every now and then.
I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is that I found some really good deals on meat at the local grocery store the day after Labor Day.
Holidays are great, but it seems like we often forget the reason for these celebrations. Just check out your calendar and see if you can remember what all of those holidays are meant to celebrate. And some holidays have been revised and given alternative meanings. Today Halloween is seen as a day to dress up and beg for candy, where it had been a night of preparation for All Saints’ Day.
So this got me thinking that maybe it would be fun to do a sermon series on the rituals and holy days of the church. No, I’m not going to designate a Sunday to explaining to you what Christmas and Easter are about, but I do want to look at some of the practices that are so familiar that we often don’t question them, and some that we really don’t celebrate any more. For instance, today we will be looking at the Passover celebration. Next week, on Baptism Sunday, we will take time to talk about the ritual of foot washing. No, we will talk about baptism! And we will keep going with this series until I run out of material or until we get tired of it all.
Now before we look at today’s ritual of remembrance, I want to give you a special challenge. I want you to remember what we talk about today because it is going to come back up in two weeks when we talk about communion. There is a strong connection between the Passover celebration and the ritual that Jesus instituted at the Last Supper. And as you will see, there is a lot of foreshadowing of what is to come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be found in the Passover event and celebration.
Let’s start with some background information. The book of Exodus tells the story of how the enslaved Israelites were able to escape captivity in Egypt. The Israelites had moved to the fertile land along the Nile when Joseph (of coat of many colors fame) was an advisor to the king or Pharaoh. The years went by, the Israelites grew in number and strength, and a king comes to power who did not know all that Joseph had done for the Egyptian people. So the Israelites were enslaved and put to work, building things like pyramids and sphinxes or something like that.
Then along comes a man named Moses. Moses was an Israelite, but he was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. So he really had one foot in each world, Egyptian and Israelite, which I’m sure gave him insight to both communities. God chose Moses, and his brother Aaron, to deliver a message to Pharaoh: “Let me people go.”
Of course, Pharaoh wasn’t interested in sending away his free labor, so he said no. This sets off a series of events that are meant to show the power that the God of Israel has over any false god of Egypt. We call these events “The Plagues.” This includes things like frogs, boils, and locusts. In all there were ten plagues, which culminated in the death of the firstborn child in every Egyptian home, but not in the homes of the Israelites.
Before we go further I want to address something for which I really don’t have a good answer. I have answers, but not good answers. The two verses that precede our text for this morning, Exodus 11:9-10, tell us of Moses coming to Pharaoh and demanding that the Israelites be released. “The Lord had said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.’ Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country.”
Not only does God seem to kill innocent children to make Pharaoh release the Israelites, he seems to make Pharaoh more obstinate so that Pharaoh won’t release the Israelites. We are told nine times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
As I said, there are a number of responses to this, but they aren’t really satisfying to me. One, people question the translation and what it means that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Some say that the word is better translated as “strengthened,” and that God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart to do what he was already planning to do. Others have noted chapter 12, verse 23b says that God is not the one who does the killing. “[God] will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.”
Some have said that there is some other spiritual force at play here that is bent on killing and destroying. What keeps that destroyer from killing is God’s protection. So at the Passover, God simply removed his protective hand and allowed the destroyer to do what the destroyer does.
That logic may help some, but if I could stop someone from hurting someone else, I would. If someone is impaired and should not be driving, I’m going to take their keys because they might hurt their self, and they might hurt innocent people.
So all of this is to say that I don’t know. But what I do know is that God shows grace and favor to the Israelites, and often showing grace to one group or one person means others don’t receive grace.
Before many sporting events, both teams can be seen praying in the locker room. If God does grace one team with a win (and I’m not saying that God is in that business), it necessarily means the other team loses. If you pray to get a competitive job and you get that job, that means someone else doesn’t get that job. Sometimes showing grace to one group means that the other group doesn’t get the grace. Sometimes they receive judgement.
So let’s look at what the Israelites are celebrating when they celebrate the Passover. And how they are to celebrate every year from here out.
Verse 2 says, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” Obviously this is going to be a big deal; they are resetting their calendar around the Passover! Each family is to get either a lamb or a goat. And there is something beautiful here that we can easily miss if we go too quickly. What is the smaller family to do if they aren’t able to eat an entire lamb in one evening? They are to share it. There is a communal aspect to this celebration, sharing with your neighbors.
Notice that the work is a shared experience too. In verse six it says, “all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.” So they are all to go to a bad vampire movie and then kill their lamb. No, when the sun goes down, they begin the process. They are to take the blood of the lamb and paint it on the lintel and door posts of their homes as a sign for God and the destroyer to pass over that house, which is where the name “Passover” comes from. And just a little teaser for our sermon in two weeks, you might say that the blood of the lamb was what saved the Israelite children.
Let’s go to verse 8, “That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.”
Everything is symbolic, though the symbolism isn’t always explained. Thankfully we have a couple thousand years of history to explain some of these things. Why must the meat be roasted and not boiled? Boiling takes a long time, especially over an open fire. And really, who has a pot big enough to fit an entire lamb in. Roasting is quicker. And if you go on, you will see that they were to eat all of the lamb that night and not save any for the morning. This is about hurrying. You don’t have time to boil that meat, and you won’t have time to grab a snack in the morning. Some have also argued that roasting over a fire is a purifying event, like the refiner’s fire of Malachi 3:2. I get that, but boiling something in water does a pretty good job of sterilizing it as well.
So what else is on the menu? Bitter herbs. I have an uncle named Herb, when he loses a card game he can get a bit bitter. No, bitter herbs, not bitter Herbs. I often hear about endives or horseradish being served at the Passover meal. The bitter herbs are often given two meanings or purposes: eating them is an act of self-denial, much like Christians give up something for Lent. More often I hear that the bitter herbs are a reminder of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.
Finally, the Israelites were instructed to eat bread made without yeast, or unleavened bread. As we know, yeast takes a while to spread and grow. So when you put yeast in dough, it needs to rise. So one explanation of the unleavened bread was that this was again about hurrying, and this is affirmed in Deuteronomy 16:3, where the instructions for observing the Passover are restated. But here unleavened bread is also called “bread of affliction.” Was this the bread they were given when they were punished in Egypt? As one Jewish scholar said, this was their slave bread.
But yeast can also be a contaminate. I got a gallon of freshly-squeezed apple cider a few weeks ago and we didn’t drink it fast enough. The wild yeast in our environment contaminates sugary drinks like cider and ferment it.
If we jump to Exodus 12:15, we find that the Israelites were instructed to remove all yeast from their homes when they celebrated Passover, and were to keep it out of their homes for a week. This is more than just a symbol of being in a hurry. It is a symbol of contamination. The Israelites were often worried about purification rituals like washing their hands and changing their clothes.
It is true that in the New Testament, the Kingdom of God is compared to yeast. So is yeast good or is it bad? I think it is like a plant. If you find corn growing in your cornfield, that is good. If you get corn growing in your soybeans, that’s called a weed.
Let’s look at verse 11 to find a few more acts of symbolism: “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.”
Some versions translate “cloak tucked into your belt” as “loins girded.” This is a way of turning the traditional robe that was worn by both men and women into something resembling pants. You can run faster in pants.
Keep your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. When the time comes, you need to be ready to move.
Every act, every item, is meant to be a reminder of what God has done for the Israelites at the Passover. Every year, they are to repeat these actions to remember.
So how do Jewish people today observe and remember the Passover? They celebrate what is called the Pesach (Passover) Seder. On the 15th day of the first month on the Jewish calendar, the people gather together at sunset to celebrate the Seder. While the festival of Passover runs for seven days, which means no yeast in your home for an entire week, the Seder meal is generally only celebrated on the first night (and the second night for those outside of Israel). Throughout the evening the people will sing, read scriptures, participate in ceremonial washings, and of course, eat. There is the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs, the lamb, and several other symbolic foods. According to Chabad.org, “Each item has its place in a 15-step choreographed combination of tastes, sounds, sensations and smells that have been with the Jewish people for millennia.”
Throughout the service, the children are encouraged to ask questions, like Why do we dip the food? Why do we eat the bitter herbs? This is addressed in Exodus 12:26-27a, “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”
The practice of asking questions serves two purposes, and this, I believe, will apply to all of the rituals that we will address during this sermon series: it provides a good teaching opportunity to pass on the faith and tradition to the next generation, and it helps to remind the older generation what and who has brought them to this point.
The Passover Seder has been growing in popularity among Christians over the last few years as there has been a renewed interest in understanding Christianity’s Jewish roots. Recall that in Luke 22:15 Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” That meal was the Passover Seder, and it was there that Jesus altered the practice, giving us the Lord’s Supper. As the disciples gathered to remember the Passover, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
More and more Christians are offering a Passover Seder on Maundy Thursday and ending with Communion. Perhaps we should, too, as we join with the faith communities gathered around the world. (Christians holding Passover Seder’s is not without controversy. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/march-web-only/jesus-didnt-eat-seder-meal.html)