“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.
“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.”
1. We are sometimes confused about what Passover celebrates. It is not the passing over the Red Sea or passing over the Jordan into the Promised Land. It is a memorial to be observed forever to the “destroyer” or the Angel of Death passing over the first born males of Israel at midnight before the people leave Egypt. It is the final plague to break Pharaoh’s hold on Israel.
As well, it is the foreshadowing of what we call today the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. It is the way we remember not only the sacrifice of Christ but of his delivering all of us – not only the first born males – from the Destroyer. The blood of the perfect sacrifice is a sign to the Destroyer that he is to pass over our house and everyone in it.
2. It is not a celebration of the death of any enemy. It is a celebration of being protected by the sign of the blood.
If you look at Passover from the perspective of today’s Egypt and non-Jews you can begin to understand the long lasting significance of this celebration.
What if our country (like Egypt in Scripture) were the symbol for generations of people for slavery, sin and captivity – the personification of evil. Of course, that is true for some, isn’t it? In Iran we are called The Great Satan. It is not just the President or even the military who are considered evil but the whole idea of America as a symbol for what is hated. We don’t take it seriously or we cannot imagine anyone thinking of us as a symbol for evil. We think of all the good we have done in the world and we sometimes overlook how that is perceived by others.
(I’ve thought about this with the death of Hugh Hefner this week. While some may have seen him as a champion for free speech and free expression and even the liberation of women, it is hard to imagine the harm he inflicted on not only this country but the world. When I travel outside the country I am sometimes reminded by conservative and religious people of the sewage we have exported to the world in the form of entertainment, pornography, violence, distorted values and images of greed, corruption and license. For us, it is the downside of freedom but for others it has come to represent who we are as a people. We may not be threatening to overthrow their government but they do see us as overthrowing their own struggle to raise their children and establish moral values. America is emulated around the world. People want to share our values and our success. They want what freedom offers and, unfortunately, that same freedom has enslaved the minds and spirits of people. It’s hard to explain these things, isn’t it? In a way, we have hacked into their moral values and disrupted their best efforts to raise their children.)
What if those same people who thought of us as the personification of evil celebrated an event that killed thousands of our innocent children and adults for no fault of their own? What if they celebrated every year an event described as the worst tragedy in the history of our country? What if we not just remembered the date but celebrated the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima every year? What if Jews in Germany were to celebrate the fire bombing of Dresden every year? Again, not just to mark it on the calendar for the sake of history but to spend seven full days celebrating their deliverance and the death of thousands of Germans? Would we ever trust people like that?
You can understand why there is concern about Jews in the Middle East when they seem to celebrate the death of the first born in Egypt. For us, it is a Bible story. For the Middle East it is alive and only reinforces what they think about the Jews. Why can’t the Jews move on? Why keep opening up old wounds year after year forever? Why celebrate the death of innocent people as if they were not only collateral damage but the intended victims?
3. I am sure some would probably like to do that because it is celebrations like this that are genuine obstacles to peace. All it does is remind everyone of Israel’s arrogance and sense of being special. Remember the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors? What was the reaction of the brothers when they heard Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37?
”Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.”
I can only imagine their response if every year on Joseph’s birthday he were to say to them, “God told me to remind you of this every year for the rest of our lives.”
But that is exactly why the Jews celebrate Passover. They do not have a choice. God commands it and it is permanent. It is a sign of their identity as a particular people. It is not a military victory like the seven days war. There is nothing they did to earn it. It is entirely God’s doing…and that only makes things worse in some ways for Egypt and those who suffered the loss.
We have a hard time understanding permanent traditions, don’t we? We even have a hard time with an infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper. Many churches used to announce ahead of time when they would observe it but stopped because attendance went down. People don’t want to spend the extra few minutes. They don’t want to be inconvenienced with all the waiting between the wine and the bread. I was at a church recently where they gave you the bread and a small cup on your way out so you could serve yourself even before you were out the front door and on your way to the car. Another time the wafer and the grape juice were in a small sealed container together so you didn’t have to wait for them to be served separately and they were only ten cents for each packet which saved on expense.
As New Testament people we have to borrow our value for tradition and the sense of generations from the Old Testament. We have been shaped by the nearness of the end of the world and our eyes are not on permanence – but the end being nigh. Even now, the most popular books, movies, and Bible studies are on the end times being any moment now. Yes, the early church anticipated the imminent return of Christ and being ready for the end of the world that was soon to come. As a result, it’s hard for us to think about long futures, isn’t it?
As American Christians we tend to distrust tradition and looking back. We want to make everything contemporary or relevant to where we are today. We are more interested in the future than history. Even then, we are more interested in the near future and predictions about it. How many books and magazine articles do we see every year about future trends that we should know about? We even have people who are called “futurists” who keep us always thinking about the future and often at the expense of enjoying today – and certainly at paying attention to the past. C.S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters” had a wonderful description of men and women who were constantly thinking about the future and its uncertainties:
“His (God’s) ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we (Screwtape’s demons) want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the the Enemy’s (God’s) commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap on the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”
The Old Testament lived with a long past and a long future. They prepared themselves for the future out of the past. “In the future when your children ask, tell them..” is repeated over and over throughout the Old Testament. They were rooted in the past but not chained to it. It gave them meaning and a sense of belonging. But it is not just history. It is the history and reminder of the direct intervention of God time and again. Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Jews have survived because they have these traditions. Even in the concentration camps or Russian pogroms they celebrated Passover or Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah at great expense. In the midst of horror they remembered the God of deliverance because it defines them. It is not merely a tradition or a ceremony. It is their whole identity. We are the people who God delivered.
I am ashamed to say I do not think of that when I observe the Lord’s Supper. I think of it as a periodic ceremony but not as the source of my identity and yours. Some church historians have said we are a “cut flower” religion. We have no continuing source of life.
4. But Passover is not the Jewish Fourth of July. It is not Independence Day. The focus is on being delivered and redeemed but not set free as we would see freedom.
The Lord protected the first born sons from death but they became His possession. They became the priests who were literally separated for service in the Wilderness until God set aside the Levites as a tribe for that role. This is not deliverance and freedom in the way we understand it. They were saved but not made free. They now belong to God instead of Pharaoh or even themselves. “Live free or die” is nowhere to be found in Scripture. Instead, what we find is “giving over’ and dedication that is commanded – not voluntary.
Exodus 13:1: “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal. After the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers, you are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb.”
Romans 6:18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “You are not your own. You are bought with a price.”
Passover and the Lord’s Supper are not about a release or freedom but about a transfer of ownership. We are not made to be free. We are made to be owned. We are made to belong. Yes, the sons could be redeemed but first they became completely the possession of God.
But, for us, the sense of freedom and personal choice is so deeply ingrained that everything in us rises up against it. Freedom is our mantra and while we can understand giving over a certain amount of ourselves voluntarily we do not understand being required to offer up ourselves as being owned by anyone – especially God.
Think about how differently we would see our children’s dedication ceremonies if we were literally turning our first-born over to the service of God. We don’t give over, do we? In fact, we almost do the opposite. We dedicate our children hoping to protect them with the help of God. As well, who would say today that a parent has a right to give their child over to God without the consent of the child? No parent has that right or authority. We even might see it as child sacrifice or offering up a virgin to a pagan deity. Our children are precious and they are ours until they are adults. That is why we find it so hard to understand how literally this was taken. Freedom was not free. There was a high price to be paid that was not negotiable.
I want you to think about these things the next time we have child dedications. Is that how we seriously we see dedication or do we see it as merely welcoming and blessing the child and congratulating the parents? Do we understand what dedication and giving over mean? When I think about what the mother and father were giving over I can only imagine. For them, the first born was the inheritor, the one who passed on the family name, the future, the only legacy they could leave. Giving him over was giving up everything that mattered. It was not a ceremony. It was the release of themselves.
Second, think about these things the next time you take Communion. It is not just a ceremony we repeat periodically. It is our recognition that we are not our own. We are the Lord’s to do with as he pleases.
As I get older I think more about some of the traditional hymns and how they planted themselves permanently in my life. I’ve often avoided them and even made light of them but then they pop up again and I have to deal with them or, better yet, I recognize them for the gifts they are to me from a generation long past. This week I thought about this hymn I resisted for years and now find to speak a truth I could not understand until now.
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
*Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise.
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice and let me sing,
Always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
Every pow’r as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.
That is my prayer for you and me this morning. You and me are not our own. We are bought with a price.