Remembering the Faithful

Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

We are in week 724 of our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days. Maybe not 724, but we have been at this for a bit, and we will conclude this series next week when we celebrate Reformation Sunday. We’ve been through quite a bit: Passover, Hanukkah, Sabbath, Baptism, Communion, and last week we considered both Advent and Lent. Each week we have used a symbol that has been left near the front of the sanctuary as a reminder of these holy days, but last week I failed to even mention the symbol that I brought for Lent and Advent, which was a clock. I spoke about how Advent and Lent build anticipation as we near the day when Jesus sets things right, and someone asked after last Sunday’s sermon if I intentionally did not mention the large clock behind me as a way to build the anticipation.

Yes, let’s go with that.

Maybe you give me too much credit, because I just flat-out forgot it. Which is even funnier because the whole point of this series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days and all of these symbols were meant to help us remember.

So I’m going to lead with my symbol today, which may not bring you back to a certain memory in the same way it does for me because this is unique to someone I lost this last year, my grandfather. My grandfather passed away on January 3, 2017, fifteen years to the date after my grandmother’s passing. I’ve got a few things from him: some coins, a cuckoo clock, and my pointy nose.

What may surprise you is that what I want to share today is my grandfather’s dog tags from World War II. I’ve mentioned before that my grandfather served in a non-combatant role in WWII. I’ve also mentioned that I believe in nonviolence. So what I have in my grandfather’s dog tags are not only a reminder of him, but also a challenge to my idealism.

Today we are discussing a Holy Day called “All Saints’ Day.” This one may be new to you, but I’m pretty sure that you are at least familiar with some of the spin-offs from this day of remembrance. So what we are going to do today is look at our scripture to see what we can learn from the past, consider the ways All Saints’ Day has and is celebrated, and ask how we can best remember those who have come before us.

I love this passage from Hebrews 12 and the idea of a “great cloud of witnesses.” Let’s work backwards through this phrase. The word we translate as witness is “martous,” and it is where we get the word martyr from. Witness is an interesting word, because it can describe people on both sides of an action. If there was a crime or a good deed committed, and you saw it, you might say that you witnessed that event. Or we can flip that around. If you are telling about an event or a story that happened to you, you might say that you are witnessing. We sometimes use the phrase “to witness” to describe when someone shares their faith story. We are bearing witness.

So to witness can mean to see something first hand or to tell about something that you have seen first hand.

The word we translate as cloud is “nephos.” Nephos can literally refer to the clouds in the sky, or it can be used metaphorically to describe a great number of people. Imagine a group of people filling a city, looking like a cloud, moving slowly, filling every inch. Some have even claimed that the word nephos was used to describe the cheap seats in a stadium. We might call it the “nose bleed section.” Some scholars believe that nephos martous was like a stadium filled with this great number of witnesses, watching every aspect of our lives play out in front of them.

I’m not sure that I love that image. But let’s put it together. There is this large group of witnesses. With the dual role of the word witness, we can assume that these people are telling us their story and watching as our stories unfold.

To understand this even better, we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 11, where the author of Hebrews gives us a definition: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”

The author then goes on to tell the stories of people from the Old Testament and their faith. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses are all listed by name. Abraham knew a thing or two about faith, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Moses, well he had some doubts, stumbled along the way, but he was faithful in the end.

These are the people who make up a small part of the great cloud of witnesses. Five people a great cloud do not make, so I think we can assume that the cloud of witnesses is made up of all those people of faith who have gone on before us.

And just to be clear, with the way this passage is set up, I believe that these faithful people are bearing witness to a life of faithfulness, not just watching us from the nosebleed section of the stadium. These are the saints, the holy ones, whose lives we look to as an example of how to persevere the trials and temptations of this world. So you can feel comfortable taking your time when you change clothes, they aren’t watching. J

Like I’ve said before about other holy days, All Saints’ Day does indeed have its roots in the Catholic Church, but many protestant churches observe All Saints’ Day today as well. We just often do it differently.

For instance, in the Catholic Church you are probably aware that they practice something called the veneration of the saints where members of the church go through a process known as “canonization.” Each step provides a different title for the person, and in the final step they become recognized by the church as a saint. Many of these saints have been given a special day of celebration; you may heard the phrase, “The Feast Day of St….” Today is dedicated to John Paul II.

But here’s the problem. There are over 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church, and only 365 days a year, maybe 366 if you’re lucky. So how do you celebrate the saints who didn’t get their own day?

You have a little something called “All Saints’ Day.”

All Saints’ Day is a part of a three-day celebration. And to prime you for this, I want us all to recite the Lord’s Prayer, from the King James Version, until I say “stop.” And don’t worry, I won’t make you go very far.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed…” STOP!

Hallowed, like God’s name has had the insides all cleaned out and now it is hollow?

No, hallow is simply an old English word for holy. Shakespeare wrote his plays about the same time the KJV was written, and he even refers to All Saints’ Day as Hallowmas. So if Hallowmas is All Saints’ Day, what is the night before? That would make it All Hallows’ Eve, or what we commonly call Halloween.

In our culture, Halloween is a strange time of year where we carve pumpkins, dress up in costumes, try to scare one another, and beg our neighbors for candy. And that just goes to show you how people can take a holiday, forget about its origins, grab a few traditions, and run the opposite way with it! But I can totally see how celebrating the lives of those who have passed away can become a bit scary with talk of the dead, ghosts, spirits and the like. There is some debate about this, but some historians claim that the practice of trick-or-treating comes from the tradition of Christians going from house-to-house collecting food for the poor on All Hallows’ Eve. Growing up I was told that trick-or-treating was invented by a dentist who wanted more children to get cavities so that he would have more work. I could believe either of those scenarios.

I said that this was a three-day event in the church, so what is left after All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day? Every year on November 2, the Catholic Church celebrates All Souls’ Day. Guess what, not everyone who has gone before us has been a saint, and surely not everyone has been recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint! So the Catholic Church observes a day to remember all of the faithful who have passed on.

If you are familiar with Latino/a culture, you have probably heard of Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is a day of celebration where the dead are honored and remembered, often people dress up in deathly costumes and decorate with skeletons. Dia de Muertos is the way Latinos do the three-day celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. When the Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism to Latin America, the locals incorporated some of their own customs into the event. And if you are going to remember a beloved relative, what better way is there than with churros?

I’ve been pretty careful up to this point to differentiate between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches because there is a significant amount of differences in how we approach All Saints’ Day. Since we Protestants don’t officially canonize saints, we use this word differently. If I speak of my dear Aunt Sally and say that she was quite the saint, I’m not saying that she had been recognized by the church as such. You wouldn’t ask me, “Oh really? When is her feast day?” I’m saying that she was a good example, someone that I think I could learn from.

When we recognize All Saints’ Day in the Protestant church we tend to treat this day like the Catholic Church treats All Souls’ Day. My time with those rascals, the Methodists, has shown me that they really take All Saints’ Day seriously. I found this quote online: “In Methodist theology, All Saints’ Day revolves around ‘giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints,’ including those who are ‘famous or obscure.’” Wikipedia, Joe Iovnio.

It is tradition in the Methodist Church to read aloud the names of everyone in that congregation who had passed away in the last year. The Methodist website, “Discipleship Ministries” lists 24 different hymns from their two hymnals to choose from that focus on the faith of their ancestors. There are many liturgical readings available, including prayers, like this one:

We bless your holy name, O God,

for all your servants who, having finished their course,

now rest from their labors.

Give us grace to follow the example

of their steadfastness and faithfulness,

to your honor and glory;

through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

For me, All Saints’ Day isn’t about praying to a saint or feasting in the name of the departed faithful. It is about remembering the ones who practiced their faith and passed it on to us. It is about remembering my grandmother, who wore her prayer covering at all times, even fixing it to her wigs when the chemo took her hair. It is about remembering the beloved members of this congregation with whom I have walked through the final days of their lives. It is about remembering my first pastoral mentor, Howard Schmitt—or Schmitty as I liked to call him (but not to his face), who died in a car accident and spent his last few breaths making sure his wife knew he loved her and that he had forgiven the young man who crossed the center line.

Were these people saints? Not literally, no. There is no Saint Schmitty. But can we learn from the examples of these people? Absolutely, but only if we put forth the effort to remember them.

I know that you have remembered the saints in your life as well, and you do so in various ways. I have been collecting the names of your dearly-departed loved ones over the last few weeks for our time of remembrance, and some of these names were familiar to me, even though I’d never met the deceased. I saw names like Anna and Carrie from one family, names I recognized as the first-born great-granddaughters of these saints. And Edna Mae, whose granddaughter shares a name and an acronym, and is here today. My brother’s twins have my maternal grandparents’ names as middle names.

Whether we celebrate All Saints’ Day on the first of November or not is of no importance to me whatsoever. What really matters is that we remember the faithful who have gone on before us. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have lived a life worth emulating. Not because they were perfect. Abraham, Moses, these people weren’t perfect. But because they were people of faith.

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Remembering the Anticipation


Matthew 4:1-11

Today we are continuing our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days in the church where we are intentionally slowing down and looking at these special days on our church calendars and asking why we celebrate or don’t celebrate certain events.

When I first started working through this series in my mind I began listing some of the church holidays and practices that I wanted to cover. Days like Passover, Hanukkah and events like Baptism and Communion seemed like really great places to start. I recall making the comment to myself that I would not be talking about Easter or Christmas. These days are well known and really, I’m going to guess that most people who come to our church are at least somewhat familiar with Christmas and Easter.

But as I was trying to figure out the last few weeks of this series, I thought maybe I too quickly dismissed Easter and Christmas. And no, I don’t plan to focus on those two holy days today, but I do want to look at the seasons around them. We are going to expand our sermon series to Rituals, Rites, and Holy Seasons. Today I want to look at both Advent and Lent.

Like me, many of you did not grow up observing Advent and Lent. Someone once asked me what I was going to give up for Lent and I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Lent? Like the stuff in your belly button? (I know a guy who can make coins appear in his belly button, but that’s a little off the subject.)

When I did start hearing about Advent and Lent in my early adult life, I often heard people say things like “Those are Catholic things” and “Those aren’t biblical.”

True, Advent and Lent started in the Catholic Church. So did pretty much every practice in the church because for the first 1500 years the Catholic Church was one of the only churches. It is also true that many of the Protestant churches discontinued these observations because they are not laid out in the Bible, so yes, they are not biblical.

But over the last few decades, more Protestant churches have come back to these holy seasons, and I hope to show you why. And to paraphrase a theologian, it is true that Advent and Lent aren’t biblical. But then again, neither is shampoo. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. Today we will look at some of the history behind these holy seasons and ask what they might mean to us and for us today.

Let’s start with Advent. Advent always begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Sometimes this date falls in November and other times in December. Sometimes Advent begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving, other times there is a week in between. This year Thanksgiving is early and Advent doesn’t start until December, but it all depends on how both Thanksgiving and Christmas fall on any given year.

We get the word Advent from the Latin adventus. Adventus simply means an arrival. The next time you are waiting on an order from Amazon, you can tell people you are waiting on an adventus from UPS. Maybe it will come on the adventus caboose? Perhaps you know someone who likes to use fancy words in the church. They might use the Greek equivalent: Parousia. So in the weeks leading up to Christmas, when someone talks about Advent, Adventus, or the Parousia, they are obviously talking about the arrival of Jesus.

I have from time to time mentioned that I like to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The RCL is set up on a three-year cycle, and includes readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and an Epistle. The RCL cycle begins with the first Sunday of Advent and I would say that the Lectionary kind of builds around Advent and Lent.

What I mean by that is that every year you will find similar themes each week during Advent. The first Sunday always focuses on a prophetic passage from the Old Testament, often from Isaiah, telling about how God has broken into the world and how the people long for God to act again. The New Testament passage is usually a reference to the Second Advent, the second coming of Christ. This coming Advent the New Testament passage is from Mark 13, which is often called “The Mini Apocalypse,” and contains such things as verse 26: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

Week two we move to comfort. Again, we draw from Isaiah, which is a popular book that Handel used in his Messiah. Comfort ye, my people. Week two is John the Baptist Sunday as John prepares the way for the Lord. The high places are made low and the crooked path is made straight. The second Sunday in Advent is often designated at “Peace Sunday.”

The third Sunday of Advent might be my favorite. It is sometimes called “Stir it up Sunday.” This is when things start to change. Our Isaiah passage is the one that Jesus quotes in his first sermon: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and the year of the Lord’s favor. And we find John out in front of Jesus, stirring things up.

Then on week four, we have the announcement of Jesus’s birth. Mary sings. We celebrate.

Advent is repeated every December as a way to point out that this world is not as it is supposed to be. And just as God has broken into this world and dwelled among us, God has promised to do it again. Advent is the movement from despair to hope and from hope to celebration.

Throughout Advent we perform a number of acts to build the anticipation. Some churches have a special “Hanging of the Greens” ceremony at the beginning of Advent. The Hanging of the Greens is a service where evergreen wreaths and boughs are hung around the church. We literally deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fall la la la la, la la la la. The idea is that in the midst of the darkest and coldest time of the year, there is still hope. There is hope in the everlasting life of Jesus. The greens symbolize the movement from despair to hope.

We often have an Advent wreath with candles. The greenery is again a symbol of eternal life and each candle marks the coming of Christ, the light of the world. Advent wreaths were first introduced in the 16th century in the Lutheran tradition, but it has only become popular in the US in the last 80 years or so. Each week we light an additional candle each Sunday as the light of the world grows brighter. All four candles are lit on the last Sunday before Christmas, and then the center, white candle, called the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Eve.

Some families have incorporated the use of an Advent Calendar into their home lives. These calendars can be very simply, where you cross off a day every 24 hours, counting down the time until Christmas. Others can be quite elaborate, opening little doors to reveal yuletide scenes and sometimes little treats. All of these things are meant to draw us from despair to hope; from tragedy to promises fulfilled.

What I really like about Advent is that we are building anticipation over a period of four weeks. I think about the way children look forward to Christmas, mostly for selfish reasons. They want presents. They want candy and visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. It is no big secret that Christmas has kind of become commercialized over the last few generations. When the last drumstick drops on Thanksgiving, we switch to shopping mode. Black Friday now begins on Thanksgiving Day and we push, shove, and plow our ways to the best deals, buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have.

Advent is a way to capture some of the excitement and anticipation of Christmas that we enjoyed as children without the thin veil of consumerism. Rather than the anticipation of toys, we anticipate a world where there is no pain, no suffering, no hunger, no unmet need.

Yeah, Advent might not be laid out in the Bible, and it might be a “Catholic thing,” but I believe it is a good thing as well. And really, who doesn’t like to sing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel?”

That was the simple one. Let’s be honest, Advent is an easier sell than Lent. Which sounds better, “Hey, let’s light some candles each week,” or “Hey, let’s give up something we really like for about 40 days.”

And if we don’t understand Lent, we shouldn’t be surprised when people outside of the church don’t get it. Some of you may remember in 2010 when a reporter on the air was questioning the black smudge on the forehead of Vice President Joe Biden. “It looks like some kind of bruise,” she said. What it was was ashes in the shape of a cross; it was Ash Wednesday.

Let’s back up a bit. Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting, moderation, and self-denial. Like Advent, there is no biblical mandate to observe Lent, but there is reason to believe that a form of Lent has been a part of the Christian tradition since the beginning. Some in the early church would fast from Good Friday until Easter morning for a period of about 40 hours. Some sources note that baptismal candidates were required to participate in a fast for 40 days before their baptism on Easter Sunday. Yet it wasn’t until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that the practice of Lent became an official part of the church.

Today, those who observe Lent do so for a period of 40 days, not including Sundays. Sundays are a “mini-Easter.” Why 40? Well, 40 is a common number in the Bible. The rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights, Elijah walked for 40 days to Mt. Horeb. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and then later led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years. And of course, Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days. And since we are called to be like Jesus, maybe we should fast for 40 days as well.

Most people do not do a complete fast for 40 days. That’s just not healthy. It has been a tradition to only eat one meal a day, or to fast from certain foods, like meat, during Lent. Meat is a luxury in some communities, and denying yourself that luxury is an act of solidarity with our God who humbly took on the form of a human in Jesus.

Different traditions measure the 40 days of Lent, well, differently. The most common way is to count 40 days backwards from Easter, again, not counting Sundays. And since Easter always comes on a Sunday, Lent always begins on a Wednesday. That day is called “Ash Wednesday.”

The Hebrew tradition lifts up a number of external symbols of repentance, such as sackcloth and ashes. Sackcloth is a rough material that was likely made out of coarse goat hair; you will sometimes hear a sackcloth garment referred to as a hairshirt. It’s like that really itchy sweater that your grandmother made you when you were a kid, times 10. Ashes are ashes, and they were often dumped over a person’s head.

The idea behind wearing sackcloth and putting ashes on your head is that you are taking your internal feelings and putting them on display. I’m uncomfortable. I’m dirty. I need to repent.

Ashes and sackcloth were used when someone needed to repent of a personal sin, when they were mourning the loss of a loved one, and mourning a national disaster. There are really good examples found in Esther 4, Daniel 9, 1 Samuel 13, and Jeremiah 6:26, which says, “Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

I know, this stuff sounds fun, but that’s not really the point. One of the pushbacks that I hear about Lent is that this is an attempt to earn God’s grace. And if that is how someone presents Lent to you, I don’t think that they understand Lent. Jesus Christ is sufficient and his grace does abound. We don’t put on sackcloth and ashes so that God will give us grace. We do this because God has given us grace.

The idea is to begin the period of Lent with mourning and self-denial, but to move toward celebration and new life. These holy days and seasons are about living out and living into God’s promises.

Let’s just look at a couple of Lenten practices real quickly. First, Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of Lent where some traditions smear ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. Traditionally, these ashes are supposed to come from the previous year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds. But come on, who has that kind of storage? Since people often give up something they like to eat on Ash Wednesday, they often gorge on that item the day before. That day goes by several names, including Shrove Tuesday, which means “repentance,” Pancake Tuesday (no kidding), and Fat Tuesday, which me may know better in the French, which is Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the day of preparation for Lent. Eat your sweets while you can!

My pushback on some of the practices of Lent is that we sometimes make it too public. Look at Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I’ve never put ashes on my forehead, in part because Jesus says that when we fast we are to wash our face. This may be a direct critique of people dumping ashes on their heads when they fast. This is supposed to be done in private, and it is between you and God.

But also notice that Jesus says, “When you fast…,” and he says it twice in these three verses. The Bible might not directly tell us that we need to fast for a period of 40 days before Easter, but it does seem like Jesus expects us to fast.

I’m not an expert of fasting and I think that we in the modern, western world just don’t understand the whole idea of self-denial. It isn’t a way to gain God’s graces or to assure God’s blessing. This is an act of devotion. Like reading your Bible or devotional readings, or praying, fasting is meant to be a way to connect with God.

So when we come to Lent again in a few months, I encourage you to give something up. Give up social media, give up sugar. Give up gossip, give away some more money. The idea is that Jesus gave up everything for us, what can we give up for him?

Advent and Lent are seasons of the church that are moving us, pulling us, drawing us from something toward something. We move from despair to hope. We move from self-denial to abundance. We move from repentance to new life.

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Remembering the Sabbath

Romans 14:1-9New International Version (NIV)

1Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

We are at week five of our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days, where we slow down and consider the meaning behind some of these days that we may take for granted, moving too quickly on to the next thing. I promised last week that I would light these thirty-minute menorah candles at the beginning of my sermon today and quit speaking when they burn out, and I’m going to use this practice as an intro to our next holy day.

I mentioned last week that there is one candle on the menorah that is set aside, taller, or out of line from the rest, which is called the Shamash. The Shamash, the servant candle, is used to light all of the other Hanukkah candles. Here is why it is important. The Hanukkah candles are not to be lit until the sun has gone down and since Hanukkah is eight nights long, at least one night will fall on the Sabbath. The Hebrew people celebrate the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday. And Exodus 35:3 says, “Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”

So during Hanukkah, the Shamash is lit on Friday before the sun goes down. After sundown, when it officially becomes the Sabbath, the other Hanukkah candles can be lit by using the Shamash because you aren’t lighting a new light, you are passing on an existing flame.

I can think of a number of these seemingly-strict Sabbath Day restrictions. Did you know that some of the more conservative forms of Judaism prohibit the use of technology on the Sabbath? This isn’t just about putting down your iPad or smartphone. This means operating any device that runs on electricity. But please note that there is a difference between operating an electric device and taking advantage of an electric device that is already operating on its own. For instance, I’ve mentioned the Sabbath elevator in a sermon before. In Jewish communities it is common to find an elevator with a Sabbath setting. The elevator will stop and open its doors on every floor from bottom to top, allowing people to get on and off without ever pushing a button. If it is going to be stopping at the fifth floor anyway, why not just go along for the ride?

One of you mentioned a few years ago that your refrigerator has a Sabbath mode on it and I have since learned that this is common on both refrigerators and ovens. When you open a refrigerators, what normally happens? The light comes on. Ours doesn’t, but they are supposed to. There is a switch that flips when you open the door and the light comes on. Some rabbi has decreed that opening the refrigerator door is considered operating an electronic device, so when you put it on Sabbath mode, the light won’t come on and the compressors won’t kick in. The Sabbath mode on an oven is essentially a timer that you set before the Sabbath so the oven will come on at a certain time and then turn off by itself without you having to operate a switch.

Whether or not a person can adjust the temperature on an oven on the Sabbath is a hot debate right now (pun intended!). Some claim that a traditional dial is not the same thing as operating a switch so as long as there isn’t a digital readout that changes. Others require a delay after the temperature change is called for by the user before actual temperature change is initiated so that the change wasn’t a direct result of the person’s action.

Really. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

My default mode is to go directly to sarcasm. I really want to make some jokes, poke some fun, and laugh at these strict practices. For me, this feels a lot like what I seen in the Amish communities near my childhood home. Phones are forbidden in the Amish community, unless it is a cell phone. You know, because it doesn’t have wires. There are some people making decent money in Holmes and Wayne Counties, Ohio, picking up cell phones at the end of the day, charging them, and returning them to their Amish customers in the morning. The phones aren’t the only thing being charged!

Why do we observe the Sabbath? Or should we? I think that it is important to take time for Sabbath, but I also think that some people are a little legalistic about the Sabbath. That applies to Jews and Christians. So today we will look at the reasons for observing the Sabbath, reasons not to, and what this practice might look like today.

The origin of the Sabbath goes all the way back to the beginning. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and everything therein. Genesis 2:2-3, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

God rested, but God does a lot of things that we don’t do. And you have to think that creating the entire world is going to take a lot out of you. There really isn’t reason to think that people observed the Sabbath until the time of Moses and the Exodus.

When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt they stop at Mt. Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:8-11 we find the first time that God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Don’t work. Don’t make your children work. Don’t make your servants work. Don’t even make your animals work. And if there are non-Israelites living in your town, they aren’t supposed to work, either.

The Sabbath laws will be laid out a little more clearly throughout the Hebrew Bible, and more clearly in the Mishnah, a commentary written by the Rabbis. The Mishnah names 39 categories of prohibited actions on the Sabbath, with hundreds of subcategories. And according to the Hebrew Bible, breaking the Sabbath is punishable by death.

When you consider all that the Old Testament had to say about the Sabbath, you soon realize that the Sabbath Day was meant for one thing: rest. Before I started research for this message, I would have said that the Sabbath was for two things: rest and worship. But looking at passages like Exodus 20, is there any reason to think that worship is to be a major part of the Sabbath?

Now I will admit that was a bit of a trick question, because in ancient Israel, worship was a part of every day. The Temple was always filled with people reading and studying the Torah, giving sermons and lessons. The priests offered sacrifices and prayers every day. So worship wasn’t just something that was done on the Sabbath. It was done every day. For sure, worship was a central act that took place on the Sabbath; attendance and participation was higher when people were forbidden to work.

Make no mistake about it, the Sabbath was meant as a day of rest. The Hebrew word Shabbat even means to cease, to end, or to rest.

When I was in seminary, my Hebrew professor invited a Hebrew professor from James Madison University to come and give a guest lecture one day. My Hebrew professor was a Mennonite. The visiting Hebrew professor was a Hebrew.

I remember one thing from this lecture that this very serious professor said that we thought was a joke, and I remember one student laughing out loud and slapping his desk even after the professor assured us that he was not joking. The professor said that he gets a little annoyed at Christians for keeping the Sabbath because the Sabbath was not meant for us, it was meant for his people, the Jews.

And you know what? In a way, he is right.

Exodus 31 lays it out pretty clearly as God speaks to Moses. Beginning in verse 13 and jumping around a bit: “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed’” (13, 16-17, emphasis mine).

After we realized that the professor wasn’t joking, the immediate response of our class was that we Christians had been grafted into the covenant that God made with Israel. But he wanted to know why we didn’t keep all the commandments then. We were cherry picking.

Again, he was right. We are never commanded to keep the Sabbath in the New Testament. And in the famous discussion among the early church about the requirements for Gentiles to enter the church, known as the Jerusalem Council, we can find the teachings of the early church: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things” (Acts 15:28-29).

So was Sabbath keeping commanded of the church in the New Testament? Nope, but they did it anyway. Just a few chapters later in Acts 20:7 we read, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” That may be a reference to the disciples coming together for Communion, an act of remembrance and worship.

Even though Sabbath keeping wasn’t commanded, the disciples knew that it was a good thing. We all need rest, and that it abundantly clear in the New Testament. What we don’t need are all of the rules governing how we are to rest and what is and is not acceptable.

We always need to go back to not only our Lord, but also our perfect example, Jesus. Jesus regularly broke the Sabbath laws by doing such heinous things as…healing the sick. Come on, Jesus. That paralytic can wait until after sundown!

I think that one of the best examples is found in Mark chapter 2. In this chapter we find the story of Jesus’s disciples walking through a grain field, plucking a few heads, shaking out the grain, and eating the seeds on the Sabbath. This act was considered harvesting and was strictly forbidden. The stealing of the grain was okay, but the harvesting was a big no-no.

Jesus’s response in verse 27 sums it all up: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

You are missing the point. The point isn’t about what one can and cannot do. The point is that we need rest. We physically need to change things up on a weekly basis, and I would add that we need the mental break as well.

Throughout the Gospels we find stories of Jesus feeding large groups of people, and then going away by himself to rest and pray. At one point Jesus is healing the sick and the lame, and he takes off to go rest. There were still people to feed. There were still people to heal. I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but Jesus is setting an example for his followers to set aside time for rest and worship. Call it Sabbath, call it taking a break. It doesn’t matter what you call it, we need it.

There will always be hungry to feed and sick people to care for. But if we don’t care for ourselves, we won’t be able to care for others.

So what are we to make of our scripture from Romans for this morning? Paul seems to be addressing two different yet similar issues: eating meat-perhaps meat sacrificed to idols or unclean meat, and those who consider one day of the week more sacred than another. The second one seems to be a debate among the Roman Christians about when they should be observing the Sabbath. Is one day really better than another? I mentioned the Acts 20 passage earlier that said the Apostles gathered to break bread on the first day of the week. Act 3 says that they met together every day. So when should we meet?

10:30 am on Sundays.

We meet and observe the Sabbath on Sundays when God is said to have rested on the seventh day because Sunday is the day of the resurrection. And in Revelation 1:10, John refers to Sunday as “The Lord’s Day.”

There was a pretty big debate in the early church about when Christians should observe the Sabbath. It was such a debate that it took an edict from Emperor Constantine in 321 AD to settle the matter, when Constantine declared Sunday to be the Christian Sabbath.

I’m glad that’s settled! No, we still have churches that debate this. The real Sabbath should be Saturday, the 7th day! No, it’s Sunday, the Lord’s Day, Resurrection Day!

No!!!! Don’t miss the point. The point is that we need to rest. We need to step back and say Today I will not chase the almighty dollar. Today I will spend time with my family and friends. Today I will worship my Lord and Savior. Today I will sleep in a bit and eat pancakes.

A few years back a group was scheduling a golf outing for a Sunday and a dear lady (not from our church) overheard these men and came to me with a concern. “They shouldn’t be golfing on the Lord’s Day!” she told me.

It is a lot easier to just make rules and say what we should and should not be doing. It is easy to say, “Don’t operate an electronic device.” “Don’t walk more than x miles.” “Don’t heal or pluck heads of grain.” And for some people, that’s okay. Paul says to those people, If you are doing it for the Lord, that’s great. And we aren’t supposed to judge people who do it differently.

But Paul also calls those people weak.

It is a lot harder to simply say to make sure to rest. How much? When? Where? What can I do? No, just rest. God rested, Jesus rested, and so should you.

For me, golf is very stressful. I spend way too much time in the woods looking for a ball. But if playing golf is restful to you, play golf for the Lord.

I’m not interested in a list of do’s and don’ts. I’m interested in one question: Are you finding time to rest? One the seventh day, God rested, and set the day aside as holy. As people created in the image of God, we are hardwired to need rest on a weekly basis too.

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Remembering the Dedication

2 Chronicles 7:1-10New International Version (NIV)

7 When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2 The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying,

“He is good;his love endures forever.”

4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the Lord. 5 And King Solomon offered a sacrifice of twenty-two thousand head of cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats. So the king and all the people dedicated the temple of God. 6 The priests took their positions, as did the Levites with the Lord’s musical instruments, which King David had made for praising the Lord and which were used when he gave thanks, saying, “His love endures forever.” Opposite the Levites, the priests blew their trumpets, and all the Israelites were standing.

7 Solomon consecrated the middle part of the courtyard in front of the temple of the Lord, and there he offered burnt offerings and the fat of the fellowship offerings, because the bronze altar he had made could not hold the burnt offerings, the grain offerings and the fat portions.

8 So Solomon observed the festival at that time for seven days, and all Israel with him—a vast assembly, people from Lebo Hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. 9 On the eighth day they held an assembly, for they had celebrated the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival for seven days more. 10 On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people to their homes, joyful and glad in heart for the good things the Lord had done for David and Solomon and for his people Israel.

We are a full month into our current sermon series on Rituals, Rites and Holy Days where we are slowing down and looking at some of the celebrations of the church, discerning together what these events mean and how they are or aren’t celebrated in our churches today. We’ve looked at two common practices in the church, baptism and communion, and we have looked at a traditional Jewish holiday that we in the church often don’t observe: Passover. Today’s holy day will fall into the second category as we are talking about Hanukkah.

As I prepared this message I realized that I have never heard a sermon dedicated to Hanukkah. Sure, we’ve mentioned Hanukkah and maybe looked into it a bit, but never have we spent our entire time together talking about Hanukkah. So to paraphrase the great Adam Sandler, Put on your yamaka, it’s time to talk about Hanukkah!

We know that Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, so let me quiz you just a little bit before we dig into our scripture for this morning. Can you tell me how many times the holiday of Hanukkah is mentioned in the Old Testament? That would be a big old goose egg, zero. There is one mention of it in the New Testament, and we will get to that shortly. But from Genesis to Malachi, there is no mention of this holiday. That’s because it didn’t become a holiday until what we call the “inter-testimonial period,” which means the time between the writing of the two testaments.

We find the story of Hanukkah in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, as well in the Jewish commentary known as the Talmud. The first Hanukkah takes place around the year 167 BC, in a time when the Greek Seleucids or Syrians had control over Jerusalem. The Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, was in power and he was a strong advocate of the Hellenization process where the Greek culture was to be spread throughout the known world. The Greeks had the best government, the best religion, the best food, and the best practices…you know, according to the Greeks, and they wanted to make sure that everyone adopted this culture for their own good. Even if they had to be forced to do so.

Sounds kind of like they are full of themselves, doesn’t it. It gets worse. Antiochus IV believed himself to be a manifestation of God and outlawed all other religions. Jews were not permitted to observe the Sabbath or practice circumcision. The reading of the Torah was outlawed and the scrolls were destroyed, burned, and banned. Eventually, the practice of Judaism was outlawed, punishable by death.

Antiochus would go on to place statues of Greek gods around the city of Jerusalem, including in the Temple. The Temple was the most sacred place in all of the Jewish tradition, and Antiochus placed idols inside the building. And there on the altar, Antiochus sacrificed a pig to the Greek god Zeus, defiling the Temple, and ticking off the wrong guy.

A family known as the Maccabees, and their leader, Judas, led the Israelites in battle against the much larger and more powerful Seleucids and took back their land. Maccabee is the Hebrew word for hammer, so Judas Maccabeus became known as the Hebrew Hammer! The Hebrews would govern Jerusalem until they were overthrown in 63 BC by the Romans.

When the Maccabees took back Jerusalem, they made rededicating the Temple one of their primary goals. We find stories of dedication in the Old Testament in Numbers 7 and in our text today from 2 Chronicles 7. In the Numbers passage we find Moses dedicating the portable tabernacle and in 2 Chronicles it is Solomon dedicating the permanent temple in Jerusalem. In each case, there are prayers to be said, sacrifices to be made, and gifts offered to God. And of course, there is much celebration!

Within the tabernacle and later the temple was to be a special lamp called a menorah. Exodus 25 gives us a lot of details on how the menorah was to be built. It was to be made of pure gold with seven branches that held seven cups of olive oil, which was burned to give off light. But it wasn’t just any olive oil that was to be used. It had to be the purest olive oil that had been consecrated in an eight-day-long ritual. Tradition says that the original menorah in the tabernacle was 5.3 feet tall. That’s a lot of gold!

So when the Maccabees went about with their rededication of the Temple, they looked at Numbers and 2 Chronicles 7 to see how to do it. But all of the oil that was to be used in the menorah had been defiled and it would take 8 days to consecrate more oil. Thankfully, they found one jar of oil that had not been defiled. One jar of oil would usually burn for one night, but this is the miracle of Hanukkah. That one jar burned for…you guessed it, eight nights straight.

The word Hanukkah means dedication.

So with that background, let’s look at every occasion that the festival of Hanukkah is mentioned in the New Testament. That one occasion is found in John 10:22-24, “Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’”

John mentions the Festival of Dedication because the Jews are looking for a messiah to free them from the Romans just as the Maccabees freed them from the Seleucids. We aren’t ever told if Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, John just mentions it.

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember hearing much about any Jewish holidays when I was growing up. I would maybe see them on a calendar, but that was it. The one I did at least know of was Hanukkah and I assumed that it was kind of like the Jewish Christmas, only they got eight days instead of just the one that we Christians got.

But according to many historians, Hanukkah has not historically been a major Jewish holiday. If you rank the Jewish holidays, usually Passover is near the top, then things like Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, follow. Hanukkah is somewhere around 4th or 5th. Hanukkah seems to have risen to its level of prominence after World War II, in part because Christians became more aware of this holiday and because the Jewish community was searching for a way to keep their faith community engaged with their religion while the Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus.

I want to spend the rest of our time together this morning looking at three traditions that are almost universally practiced among Jews today on Hanukkah: the lighting of the menorah, the spinning of the dreidel, and the eating of latkes.

Let’s start with the menorah. If you look for menorahs online, you will find some with seven arms and some with nine. The seven-armed menorah is representative of the menorah used in the temple and the nine-armed version is to be used for Hanukkah. On each version, one branch holds the Shamash, or the servant candle. This candle is used to light the others, and is sometimes removable. It is always at a different height or place than the others. Originally, there would have been cups at the end of each branch, which held the olive oil. But the more modern ones have candles and some are even electric.

The modern Hanukkah menorah holds eight candles, one for each night of Hanukah plus the Shamash. A true menorah will have all eight candles in a row and at the same level, with the exception of the Shamash. Some families have one menorah, others have one for each member of the family. On the first night of Hanukah, which falls on the 25th of Kislev, the menorah is placed on a window or table opposite of the main entrance in a home. At sundown the Shamash is lit and a series of three Hebrew prayers are sung. These prayers translate as follows:

Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe. Who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah

Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who made miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time.

Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

A single candle is placed in the farthest right arm and lit with the Shamash on the first night. The following night, after the prayers, candles are placed in the furthest two arms and they are lit from left to right.

The oil or candles must burn for 30 minutes, and they can be any color.

So what do you do during those 30 minutes? You celebrate! This is when families get out their dreidels.  A dreidel is like a top, and dreidel simply means to spin. The dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side which is intended to help remember the first Hanukkah. The letters are nun, gimel, hay, and shin, and they are a sort of acronym for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “a great miracle happened there.”

The game is played with candy or pennies. Each person puts one piece of whatever they are playing with, let’s say M&M’s, in the center of the table at the beginning of a round. If you land on the nun, you get none of the pieces. If you land on the gimel, you get all of the pieces on the table. A hay will get you half of the M&M’s. And if you land on shin, everyone is to chant, “shin, shin, put one it,” while everyone puts an additional piece on the table and you get to spin again. You play until there are no more pieces to play with. I have three dreidels and a rulebook, you may feel free to play a game or two after the service today.

Finally, I want to address one of my favorite Jewish traditions, the eating of fried foods. And you thought that eating fried Oreos and fried Twinkies was just something that you do at the State Fair! Nope, it is a part of a major religious holiday, my friends. If that isn’t reason enough to convert, I don’t know what is.

While any fried food is acceptable, the most common fried Hanukkah food is called a latke. Latkes are a fried potato pancake, sometimes mixed with other vegetables, various seasonings, and cheese.

Latkes are a traditional Hanukkah food tracing its origins all the way back to…about 150 years ago. Judas Maccabeus did not make potato pancakes to celebrate the rededication of the Temple on the first Hanukkah because potatoes don’t even grow in that climate or that region of the world. Potatoes have really only become a common crop in the western world in the last 200 years or so. So what’s up with the latkes?

Let me ask you why do we eat cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Eve, and ham on Christmas? Nothing says “Happy birthday, King of the Jews” like a spiral-cut ham!

A lot of these traditions say more about where our families came from than the actual religious practice. The potato became a major part of the German cuisine a few hundred years after it was first cultivated around five hundred years ago, and many of our North American Jewish neighbors come from Germany. The idea of the potato pancake has nothing to do with the potato and everything to do with the oil that it is cooked in.

Though the latke is the most common food, you will find Jewish families eating fried donuts and fried breads on Hanukkah as well. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you found some eating fried Oreos and fried Twinkies, too!

So each night of Hanukkah, you will find observant Jews lighting of the eight candles of the menorah, spinning dreidels, and frying foods in olive oil. All of these actions are meant to remind those who are celebrating Hanukkah that “a great miracle happened there.” But even more so, the Festival of Dedication is meant as a time for the people to rededicate, not only the Temple, but themselves.

Should Christians celebrate Hanukkah? You’ll find debates on both sides of this argument, and I’ve found arguments on both sides to be convincing. What we can’t argue is the need for us all to remember what God has done, and to rededicate our own lives.

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Remembering to Re-Member

1 Corinthians 11:17-29New International Version (NIV)

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

We are in the third week of an indefinite-in-length sermon series that I am calling “Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days” where we explore the reoccurring practices and holidays of the church that we tend to celebrate but not always take time to understand. We have already considered Passover and baptism; today we look at Communion…or maybe we will look at the Lord’s Supper. No, no I mean that today we will be looking at the Eucharist. That’s it, the Eucharist.

In the Mennonite Church we often call this ritual Communion, and there is a reason for that, which I’ll get to shortly. Today I want to consider why we call it what we call it, how we practice it, and what this ritual means (spoiler alert: not everyone agrees!).

Our scripture for this morning is one of the first places that we find the phrase “Lord’s Supper” used to refer to the celebratory meal that Jesus initiated the night before his crucifixion. And if you haven’t picked up on this yet, Paul isn’t really excited about how the Corinthians are practicing this meal. In Verse 20 he writes, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.” It might be a supper, or dinner, or whatever you like to call your evening meal. But what the Corinthians are doing isn’t the Lord’s Supper. We will get into why in a few minutes, but notice that Paul is either the one who coined the phrase “Lord’s Supper” or he is borrowing it from some other source without giving appropriate credit. And this is why we sometimes call it the Lord’s Supper today.

That was an easy one, but what’s with the name “Eucharist?” This word comes from the Greek eucharista, which simply means “thanksgiving.” Nowhere in the Bible is the Lord’s Supper called the Eucharist, but there are plenty of times when the word eucharista is used to describe the Lord’s Supper. In our scripture for this morning we find this in verses 23b-24, “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”

The word translated as “thanks” is a form of eucharista. You may also notice that in the middle of eucharista is the Greek word “charis,” which is the word we translate as grace. When you give thanks, you are showing appreciation for grace, for a gift from God. And this is why we sometimes call a prayer a mealtime “Saying grace.” The first known written usage of the word Eucharist to describe the Lord’s Supper was in the late 1st century document known as the Didache, so like the phrase Lord’s Supper, this one goes way back.

Now what about Communion? Where do we get this name from? In the chapter just before our scripture for this morning, we find this: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16)

This one can throw us a bit. The word that is translated as thanksgiving here is eulogia, which means words of praise, and it is the word we get eulogy—like at a funeral—from. The word I want to look at is the one that is translated as “participation” in the NIV. That word has the base “koinonia,” which means community. Communion is the act of sharing something, thoughts, feelings, or possessions. Communion and community are different forms of the same word and same concept. When we participate in Communion, we are a community founded in the blood and body of Christ.

There are several other names given to this practice as well, but out of these three big ones, which is right? Should we call it the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or Communion? I think all are appropriate! Call it what you want, just don’t call me late for supper…the Lord’s Supper, that is.

Where we often run into disagreements is when we ask questions about how to observe Communion and what this event means. This is important stuff, and you are very welcome to disagree with me here. But trust that I’ve come to my opinion on the matter through study, prayer, and personal experiences, and I’ll trust you have as well.

There are obviously a lot of difference in how we observe the Lord’s Supper. How often? Who’s invited? What do we serve? How do we do it? All of these things are debatable, and though I have my own opinions, I’m very flexible on some of these concerns.

How often? It used to be that Mennonite churches held Communion services once a year. Today it is more common that we do it quarterly. Some want to see it done more, others less. There is always the argument that if we do it too much, it will lose meaning, that we are just going through the motions. Others see Communion as the highlight of the service and something that we should do more. I personally think that the sermon is the highlight, but that’s just me J. The Bible never says how often to observe Communion, just that we are to observe Communion.

Who is invited? Some churches practice what is called “Close Communion,” which means that only members of the church can participate. It is “close” because the community is to be close. Sometimes this is called “Closed Communion” by people who don’t practice Close Communion. Closed Communion has more of a negative connotation to it.

I grew up in a church that practiced Close Communion. The service was held once each year at a special worship gathering. I never joined that church, so I never even saw a Communion service until I was in my early 20’s.

Some churches make an announcement that all baptized believers are welcome to participate. I usually invite those who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus to the table. In my mind, this is a part of the self-examination process, which we will address shortly. We are never told to examine one another!  Then there are always questions about whether a visitor can take communion. This is awkward, I know. I’ve been on both sides of the Communion table! So I always try to be clear: Christians are welcome.

What do we serve? I usually go with an artisanal bread because it looks nice on the table and grape juice. Some people demand that the bread be unleavened bread, bread made without yeast, because that’s what Jesus would have used. I find it odd that those people also don’t find it necessary to use real fermented wine. And if you need to be as accurate as possible to the original, Jesus probably used a common cup and passed it around for everyone to have a sip. There are also stories of churches serving Pepsi and potato chips for Communion because that would be a modern equivalent to what Jesus served.

I personally think that Jesus is mostly interested in the fact that we do observe Communion, and less interest in what we serve. My concern is that we try to be aware of the needs of the congregation. If there are people who are opposed to using real wine, or if there are people who are recovering alcoholics, use grape juice. If there are gluten-intolerant people in your church, serve gluten-free bread.

And how do we do it? Do we share a common cup, passing the chalice around to the entire group? That’s a good way to spread germs, which I’m told is actually less of an issue if you use real wine because the alcohol kills bacteria. Some people like the little cups and a personal wafer. I usually serve Communion by allowing you to tear off a piece of bread and dunk in in the cup, a method that is called “intinction.”

I personally would chose against the common cup, even if it is the most accurate. The little cups are convenient, unless you are the one trying to fill and then clean each little cup. And how many should you prepare? I use intinction because it is the easiest to prepare and clean up.

Finally, what does Communion mean? Like everything else in this sermon series, Communion is symbolic, but symbolic of what? I tend to take the “more the merrier” approach, so I have a list of about 5-6 things that Communion means, and you could probably convince me to add a few more as well.

Communion is an act of remembrance. In our passage for today, Jesus repeats a certain line after each element of Communion is introduced: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus was about to give up his life on the cross, which would understandably change the way that he would relate to his disciples in the future. So he gave them a ritual to repeat. Every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup, do this in remembrance of me. Remember my teachings, remember my sacrifice, remember my promises for the future.

If you recall, the first Sunday of this series we talked about Passover and we specifically looked at the Pesach Seder. The Seder is a meal that the Israelites were to eat every year as a reminder of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. This is the meal that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating in the Upper Room the night he was to be betrayed. Jesus takes this meal of remembrance and tags onto it a new meaning. Yes, eat the lamb and the bitter herbs in remembrance of the Passover. But do this in remembrance of me, your Passover lamb. Much as the Israelites were saved by the blood of a lamb, the Church is saved by the blood of the Lamb.

This is also an act of proclamation. Paul writes in verse 26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” I’m not sure to whom you are proclaiming the Lord’s death, but at the very least we are proclaiming it to one another. Every time we participate in Communion, we retell the story, and we reenact the story. “On the night when Christ was to be betrayed and handed over to the authorities…” It is an act for us to remember the death of Jesus.

And in some ways Communion is a way to proclaim the Lord’s death to people outside the church. In the early years of Christianity, the Christians were accused of being cannibals because they talked about eating the body and drinking the blood of their leader. Bunch of weirdos! If that doesn’t scare people away, it would surely make a great conversation starter.

I think that this is a good critique of Close Communion done in a members’ only meeting. As I said, I didn’t even see a Communion service growing up, so how was I to even know that I should be asking questions? Communion is an act of proclamation.

The Lord’s Supper is a time for Fellowship and Unity. If we look at today’s passage, the entire pericope is set up as a critique of how the church is breaking into groups based on social status when they observe the Lord’s Supper. The rich eat first, and they eat the most. Sometimes those who are poor go home hungry while the rich get their fill. This is what prompts Paul to say in verse 20, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.”

Call it what you want, but that ain’t the Lord’s Supper. When there is disunity, it isn’t the Lord’s Supper. When one group is elevated above another, that isn’t the Lord’s Supper. That isn’t a healthy fellowship, that isn’t full communion, there is not unity, and it isn’t the Lord’s Supper.

We’ve talked about this being a time of Thanksgiving, so let’s move on to Expectation. And let’s look again at verse 26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

I think we can interpret this as saying that we are to observe Communion, and not just do it once. Do it again, and do it again. Keep doing it until, well, until Jesus comes back. We don’t serve Communion one Sunday and say, “Well, that’s good. We’ve done our job.” It isn’t like baptism, where we baptize believers one time and call that good. We keep serving Communion, and we will keep serving Communion until we can’t serve Communion any longer.

And finally, Communion is a time of self-examination. Verses 28-29 say, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”

Examine yourself. You check yourself for ticks after camping in the woods. You check yourself for spots after bathing in the sun for a lifetime. In the words of the great lyrical poet, Ice Cube, “You better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

Paul seems to be building upon Jesus’s teaching from Matthew 5, where Jesus says that if you are making a sacrifice and remember there that a brother or sister has something against you, first go and be reconciled. Paul says to both discern yourself, but also discern the body, that is, the church.

I mentioned several weeks ago that years ago when the bishop would come to your church to serve Communion, it was common to meet the night before and the bishop would ask each individual, “Are you at peace with God and your fellow man?”

Self-examination isn’t just asking if you and God are cool. This is about the entire community of believers. Are you living as Christ would have you live among one another?

I heard a former megachurch pastor talk about what he would do if he were to start a church again, and without hesitation, he said that he would focus on the Eucharist. But to him, this wasn’t just about tearing off a bit of bread and dipping it in a bit of juice. The Eucharist is about community. So he said that before they break the bread and pass the cup, he would ask, Okay, has everyone paid their rent this month? Does anyone have any outstanding medical bills that need paid?

            The point isn’t that you don’t get to take Communion if you haven’t paid your bills this month. The point is that none of us get to take Communion if someone in our community has bills that they cannot pay.

My friends, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. We haven’t spoken about what to do with the extra bread and juice after it has been blessed. We haven’t talked about transubstantiation, whether the bread and juice really become the body and blood of Christ!  Perhaps the mystery of Communion will have to remain…at least for another week.

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Remembering Our Baptism

Romans 6:1-10

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

On July 19, 2003—fourteen years ago this past summer—Sonya and I stood before God, our family, and friends, and declared our love for one another. We promised to love, honor, and obey…wait, not that last one, one another for as long as we both shall live. We then signed a piece of paper and sent it to the county courthouse, who in exchange sent us another piece of paper. The transaction was indeed beautiful.

But let me ask you this, do you think that Sonya and I loved one another more on July 18th or 20th? I’m going to guess that it really didn’t change that much. We didn’t get married and file the paperwork so that we could or would love one another. No, we did those things because we love one another. The paperwork made it legal, and the marriage ceremony wasn’t even necessary. We could have gone to the courthouse and just filed the necessary paperwork. So why go through the effort of putting on a wedding? Why search for the right dress, the right cake, the right photographer, and the right church if none of it is really necessary?

A wedding ceremony is about making a public declaration of our love for all to hear. Having our friends and family there and having a religious ceremony is our way of saying that we are glad that you are a part of our life, and we recognize that we will need you and we will need the grace of God to make this thing work.

And of course we got together for a party with lots of food and cake. It was a time to celebrate, after all!

I think of baptism in much the same way. In a few hours we will be dunking five candidates into the chilly waters of Todd Lake. I don’t think that the baptism candidates are going to love Jesus more after the act simply because they were baptized, and I sure wouldn’t want to say that they weren’t going to heaven before the baptism. But baptism is like a wedding, a marriage to our Lord and his church. And in our baptism we are making a public statement that we plan to love, honor, and yes, obey God for as long as we both shall live…and then some!

Today we will be continuing our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days by looking at the ritual of baptism. This series will hopefully cause us to slow down and ask why we do the things that we do and celebrate the things that we celebrate, because we really shouldn’t just be going through the motions here. We tend to hold baptism services every other year or so around here, which means it isn’t the most commonly practiced ritual in our church, but it is a ritual nonetheless. So why do we dunk people in lakes every so often?

As I alluded in my opening, I think of baptism as a symbol or a sign. It is a symbol to everyone else that you have made a commitment to follow Jesus and to participate in the life of the church. But not everyone would agree with me. For instance, if baptism is a symbol that you have decided to follow Jesus, then an infant can’t make that decision. So we can see that the stage of life when a church practices baptism says something about what they believe baptism means. For instance, the United Methodist say “baptism, as a means of grace, signifies God’s initiative in the process of salvation.” In Methodism, the decision to baptize a child is a way of inviting God to work in the life of the child. It is a blessing, and a symbol of the parents’ decision, not the child’s. It is a way of claiming this child, marking it for Christ. There’s beauty in that, and even though I see baptism differently, I still recognize the value in that ceremony.

Now the Catholic Church sees baptism differently from even other churches that practice infant baptism. Catholics also see baptism as a way to enter membership in the church, but would also state that baptism is necessary to remove the blemish of original sin from an infant. From the very helpful website Catholicism for Dummies, “To the Catholic Church, original sin isn’t a personal sin of the unborn, but a sin transmitted from generation to generation by birth. All men and women are born with original sin, and only Baptism can wash it away. Baptism can be regarded as a vaccine against sin.”

Original Sin is the concept that Adam’s sin is hereditary and has been passed down from one generation to the next for all of human existence.

This is why when a Catholic family has a baby and the child is not going to live, there is often a rush to have it baptized. The Catholic Church does not have an official policy on what happens when an unborn baby dies, but they want to be safe and wash away that original sin.

Is baptism a symbol of a personal decision to follow Jesus? Is it a way to claim a child for God? Or is it the necessary method of removing the stain of Original Sin and other sin? My point isn’t to argue for the public symbol interpretation, though that is what I believe in, but to point out that what we believe happens at baptism is the main driving force in when a church practices baptism.

What I want to affirm about churches that participate in infant baptism is the practice of confirmation. See, I don’t believe that water saves people. That’s Jesus’s job. But confirmation in these traditions is a chance for the young man or woman to stand up and make a public profession of their faith. In churches that practice infant baptism, confirmation is the symbol to the watching world that a person has decided to follow Jesus. And as Paul reminds us in Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Since we in the Mennonite Church tend to see baptism as a symbol, we really don’t get too hung up on how baptism is performed. We tend to emphasize three different methods of baptism: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. The first two can be done anywhere with very little as far as special equipment. Sprinkling is just taking a little water and spritzing the baptismal candidate. Pouring takes a little more water, usually a few teaspoons full. We often have someone pour water into another person’s hands and they wash it over the head of the person receiving baptism. You can do this anywhere, anytime. As long as you have a little water, you can have a baptism.

Immersion is a little more complicated, because you need enough water to cover the person’s entire body.

I’ve seen some interesting baptisteries in my day. Old bathtubs, livestock watering troughs, and large, walk-in tubs can be used inside churches. Often we see immersion done outdoors in swimming pools, rivers, lakes, and at the beach.

Since everything is symbolic, it shouldn’t surprise you that these different methods can each symbolize a different aspect of the faith. Sprinkling is a reminder of the Jewish sacrificial system where the blood of an animal was sprinkled on the altar. Leviticus 7:2 says, “at the spot where the burnt offering is slaughtered, they shall slaughter the guilt offering, and its blood shall be dashed against all sides of the altar.” The New Testament authors picked up on this idea and attributed it to Jesus. Hebrews 10:22 says, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

The act of pouring draws us back to the anointing of priests and leaders in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God poured out his Spirit on the church (Acts 2). (See Michele Hershberger’s God’s Story, Our Story).

But since we are going to be immersing our baptismal candidates today, I want to spend the most time on this practice, its origins and meaning.

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:3-4, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Paul connects baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we immerse people in baptismal waters, they are experiencing a death, a death to the ways of this world. Our old selves were crucified with Christ and our new selves emerge out of that water. We are, if you will, born again.

And as you might imagine, there is debate about just how this should be done, because we Christians need to debate everything. Many denominations baptize by immersion by dunking a person backwards, just like you are laying a body in a grave. Then you bring them up, sitting them up as you might imagine the resurrected Jesus rising on that first Easter Sunday. But our friends in the Church of the Brethren dunk the candidates forward three times. Three times makes sense, once in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some denominations dunk three times backwards.

So why do our brethren from the Brethren Church dunk forward? I had to do some digging to understand this, or at least to find a convincing explanation. The Brethren baptize forward because this imitates the way Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus breathed his last he would have fallen forward. Granted, he still would have risen forward, so maybe they should dunk people forward, turn them over in the water, and then raise them out of the water face first???

I have much love for the Brethren and they see this as a symbol, so they aren’t going to deny a person membership if they are baptized backwards.

When I immerse someone, I choose to baptize them backwards one time as I repeat the phrase, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” Jesus commands this Trinitarian liturgy in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. I only do it once as I repeat the three names of God because God is three in one. And I do it backwards because it is just easier (and I like to get water up people’s noses).

One thing that hope to do as we explore the Rites, Rituals, and Holy Days of the Church is to get back to the origins of these practices. Nothing could be more “New Testament” than baptism. Some have even gone so far as to say that baptism is to the Church what circumcision is to Judaism. The first time we read about baptism in the Bible is when Jesus’s cousin, John, is baptizing people. Let’s jump around a bit in Matthew chapter 3, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (v.1-2). “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (5-6).

So John, a man who dresses in camel hair and eats large insects, comes on the scene, inviting people to be baptized, and they just did it. They came from Jerusalem and all Judea to do this thing that nobody had done before. I imagine it working out like this:

“Hey Bill. Wanna go with me to the river and have a baptism today?”

“Sure, Bob. But what’s a baptism?”

“I don’t know, but I think it’s like a cannoli. I hear it’s wild.”

No, people didn’t come from miles away for something that they were totally unfamiliar with. Without doubt, John’s baptism is slightly different than the Hebrew practice, but not altogether different. John seems to reappropriate a traditional Hebrew practice, giving it a slightly different meaning and purpose.

Remember that the Law, the Torah, was filled with commands and protocols for ceremonial washing. There are two main types of ceremonial washings in the Hebrew Bible: a hand washing, which was done with a simple cup, and a full immersion in a bath called a mikveh.

Some of the situations that require hand washing we might say is just practicing good hygiene. After going to the bathroom, before eating, or after touching something that is unclean, an Orthodox Jew is to wash their hands or else they are considered ceremonially unclean. Remember that Jesus’s disciples were criticized for not washing their hands before they ate. A priest is also required to wash their hands before reciting certain prayers in the Jewish synagogues. This is symbolic, a way of cleansing and purifying one’s self before a religious act.

Other acts require a full-body immersion in the mikveh. Mikveh is a Hebrew word that refers to any gathering of water, and usually a Hebrew mikveh is filled with “living water,” which is to say that it must be filled by a spring or a river. After menstruation women are required to be fully immersed in the mikveh, as are both men and women after they have certain relations. If you touch a dead body, you must wash in the mikveh before you are considered clean. And it isn’t just people who are considered unclean. The Torah is also very specific about clean and unclean food; we call these kosher and non-kosher. Kosher simply means “fit” or “appropriate.” Modern Jews are required to wash new cooking utensils, pots, and pans, in a mikveh before using them in their kosher kitchens.

While handwashing is generally appropriate for most acts in the Jewish Temple and Synagogues, on high holy days, like Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the priests were required to immerse themselves in a mikveh (Lev. 16). This isn’t because they are dirty, or even ceremonially unclean, but because they are unholy. This washing is symbolic of grace and forgiveness, it is a purification ritual before entering into God’s presence.

There is one additional practice requiring full immersion that came into the Jewish tradition before Jesus’s time that I want to address. When a Gentile wished to convert to Judaism they were required to participate in a full-body wash in a mikveh, in a naturally-occurring gathering of water. You won’t find this in the Old Testament, but it is in the Talmud, which is a collection of teachings from Rabbis, kind of like a commentary. The Talmud tells us, “When a gentile is willing to enter the covenant…He must be circumcised and be baptized and bring a sacrifice…The gentile that is made a proselyte and the slave that is made free, behold he is like a child new born.”

The Talmud actually bases this practice on God’s commandment for the Hebrew people to wash their selves before they received the Torah in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.

So it doesn’t take much of a jump to come to the conclusion that John took this practice of ritual washing of all converts in the mikveh and repurposed it as a way for people to mark their entrance into the kingdom of God.

As we close this morning, I just want us to stop and think again about our own baptisms. And if you haven’t been baptized before and you want to be, I know a guy who does that sort of thingJ. This ritual is repeated often in the church, and I think it gives us a chance to reflect on our own baptismal vows and what it means to be baptized.

Every year, on July 19, Sonya and I take time to reflect and remember the vows we made to one another. I encourage you to take time to reflect and remember the vows we have made to God and his church in our baptism.

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Remembering the Passover

Exodus 12:1-17

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, “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

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