“Spare Me” – Exodus 6-11
Last Sunday of the Church Year – November 26, 2017
When I was growing up, we had a pretty homogeneous community in Regina. Homogeneous means similar, uniform, consistent. Most of the people in our neighbourhood were Caucasians of European descent. I don’t remember many school classmates that had different coloured skin. As I glanced through my yearbook this week, I noticed one or two black kids at my high school of 1000, one or two from India, a handful from China, and a couple of first nations kids. But a full 99% of the students were white. And although not everybody went to church, most would associate with the Christian religion. However, I remember in junior high school I had one friend whose family was Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had to learn what that meant, and for a 10 or 12 year old the most noticeable distinction was that they didn’t celebrate Hallowe’en or Christmas. I don’t think it even dawned on me that there were Jewish people in Canada until, as a pastor, I moved to Winnipeg. I still recall the first time I unintentionally drove past and noticed the Mikvah-Chabad Lubavitch Synagog on Hartford Ave. in north Winnipeg. That was an “aha moment.” Then when I was in Calgary, you couldn’t miss the Jewish Community Center on 90th Ave. just south of Heritage Park. We even took our church youth group or maybe the confirmation class to the Beth Tzedec (House of Righteousness) synagog one time. Of course I had heard about the Holocaust in WWII Germany, but somehow I guess I thought that Jewish people were mostly relegated to Israel, or maybe New York, and Toronto. That’s why it was surprising to hear someone tell me that if you walk past a Jewish home around Easter time, and if you look in the window, you will see the finest dishes set out on the family table, with linen table cloths, and candles / menorah, and wine glasses and all the fixings in preparation for their celebration of Passover.
- Plague Number Ten – Egypt’s perspective
a. Death of the Firstborn
Last week we dealt with the ten plagues that God sent on the land of Egypt in order to convince the stubborn Pharaoh to let the people of Israel return to their Promised Land of Canaan. Actually, we only dealt with nine of the plagues. I saved the last one as a surprise for today. Remember the fictional dialog between Moses and Pharaoh that characterized the story line…
Moses to Pharaoh: “God says, ‘Let my people go.’” P to M: “In your wildest dreams.”
Moses to Pharaoh: “God’s going to send a plague of…” Pharaoh to Moses: “Bring it on.”
God to Egypt: “Take that!” Plague comes and devastates Egypt.
P to Moses: “Take your people and get outta here!” Plague stops.
Pharaoh to Moses: “You’re not going anywhere!” And it started all over again.
Well, after nine episodes of this, one more time Moses said, “God’s going to send a plague of… (drum roll) the death of the firstborn.” God’s words through Moses to Pharaoh were explicit: “About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh… to the firstborn son of the slave girl… There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt – worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.” But of course, like before, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he refused to listen to Moses. So, God let loose with His wrath over Pharaoh’s stubborn sinfulness, and the first-born were killed that night.
b. God’s holiness / judgment
One of God’s purposes in sending all these plagues on Egypt, and especially this last one, is for judgment against the Egyptians. Abraham’s descendants, the family of Jacob, had come to Egypt peacefully in a time of famine hundreds of years earlier. But over the course of time, a new pharaoh instructed the mid-wives of the Israelite women to kill any baby boy that was born, and then he cruelly forced the Jews to be slaves and to build cities for the Egyptians, maybe even some famous pyramids. God was not happy about this oppression and suffering of His chosen people. The Egyptians were also deeply involved in idolatry. We heard about their various gods last week – the frog deity, the fly god, the sun god, and the gods associated with cattle, and the Nile River, and other things. Again God is not happy when people worship anything or anyone other than Him. In a few weeks, at the base of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites would discover that that is Commandment number one – number one on the list, and number one in importance: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” God had to stop the oppression and the idolatry with a severe punishment to demonstrate His holiness and His judgment over their false gods. The final plague was a theological statement in response to Egypt’s / Pharaoh’s rebellion, stubbornness, and sinfulness. In fact, just as Pharaoh had killed the Israelite baby boys 40 years earlier, so now Pharaoh’s own first-born son was taken from him in that tenth plague.
Today we may not oppress people with whips or by slavery, but we often oppress people with bullying, with words, by ostracizing others because of appearance or economic status or abilities or country of origin. I think that happened in some ways at my high school. Oppression is alive and well in our society and in our own lives, and God is still not happy with it.
Today our idolatry may not involve carved statues (although they are certainly prevalent in certain cultures), but our idolatry may be as simple as caring too much about how we look or what others think about us or how our favourite sports team is doing or how much money is in our bank account or how many gifts will be under the tree a month from now. Again, idolatry is alive and well in our society and in our own lives, and God is still not happy with it. I’m not here today as prophet Moses saying, “God’s going to send a plague of…” The point is… we are on dangerous ground when we put people down in any way or when we let something or someone become more important to us than God. This Old Testament story, to which we may not relate well, carries the purpose of pointing us to our failures which are similar to those of the Egyptians.
- Plague Number Ten – Israel’s perspective
a. The Passover
Now, just so that you understand, there were two ways of looking at Plague Number Ten. From the perspective of the Egyptians it was the death of the firstborn. From the perspective of the Israelites it was the Passover. The Israelites had instructions with respect to how to avoid Plague Number Ten. Those instructions were no less explicit than God’s warning to Pharaoh. “Take a lamb for your family. If it’s too big for your family members to eat, share it with your neighbours. Each lamb – sheep or goat – must be a year-old male, with no defect. Slaughter them at twilight. Put the lamb’s blood on the sides and tops of the doorframes of your houses. Roast the meat over fire, and eat it all. Eat it with your cloak tucked in to your belt, your sandals on your feet, your staff in hand, and gas in your jeeps. Eat it in haste. Be ready to go.”
At midnight, the angel of the Lord, the angel of death, would swoop into Egypt and take the life of every firstborn. However, whenever that angel of death saw the lamb’s blood on a door frame, it would pass over that home and go to the next one. That’s why the Israelites version of the plague was categorically different. While the Egyptians were experiencing death in every household, what the Israelites experienced was an angel passing over their homes as they huddled inside eating a meal – pass over… Passover. So, Passover was an event.
b. A celebration of God’s deliverance
But Passover was also a meal. For the Egyptians, God’s purpose in sending the tenth plague was for judgment. For the Israelites, God’s purpose was to give them, in the Passover meal, a perpetual yearly reminder of His goodness and grace and deliverance. Every year as they ate the Passover, they would recall and retell for their families and for future generations the rescue that God worked, and the exodus out of Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea. God wanted them to remember how He had set them free from oppression. The meal helped them tell the story:
The roasted lamb told of the lamb that was sacrificed and the blood on the doorframes that saved them from the angel of death.
The bitter herbs, usually horseradish these days, represents the bitter slavery in Egypt.
The charoseth – apples, cinnamon, nuts, wine – represents the mortar that the Israelites had to use to make bricks for the buildings in Egypt.
The salt water told of the tears and enslavement during the years of slavery, and of the waters of the Red Sea that they crossed in their escape.
The matzah bread – unleavened – reminded them of their haste in preparation to leave Egypt. They did not have time to bake bread for their journey.
Other elements of the meal also refer back to their time in Egypt.
All in all, the meal was critical for the on-going faith and life of the Israelites.
- Jesus – Our Passover Lamb
a. Satisfied God’s Judgment
But there is also an aspect of the Old Testament Passover that relates to our New Testament faith and life. Jesus was called the Lamb of God by John the Baptist. That imagery takes us back to the Moses event in Egypt. For 1400 years, from Moses’ time to Jesus’ time, if you peeked in the windows of a Jewish home at Passover you would see Jewish families solemnly gathered around the table – yes, with their best dishes, their fine linens, their wine glasses, and all the foods with their special meaning – recalling and retelling those ancient stories of Egypt.
Just as the tenth plague, the death of the first-born, satisfied God’s judgment over the sins and idolatry of the Egyptians, so God’s judgment for our sins and idolatry must be satisfied, for we, like human beings of all the ages, have disobeyed God and deserve His punishment. The Passover Lamb was a symbol of that judgment, and even in between Passover celebrations, especially on the Day of Atonement, lambs would be sacrificed so that, by the shedding of blood, God’s punishment would be deflected from people to the animal. Hebrews 9 explains that the shedding of blood is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. It adds that Jewish priests would need to offer sacrifices over and over again, including for their very own sins. But when Jesus came, He did not offer sacrifices again and again. Rather “He appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself… Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.” The sacrifice of Himself! That made His sacrifice qualitatively different from every lamb sacrifice. Like the Passover Lamb, Jesus died in place of the people, in place of us, but because it was His own holy and precious blood that was shed, God’s judgment was satisfied, for sin had been adequately punished.
b. Achieved our deliverance
Whereas God’s greatest act of deliverance in the Old Testament was this whole Passover story and then the subsequent crossing of the Red Sea, God’s greatest act of deliverance in the New Testament was the account of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross. He was the perfect Lamb of God – spotless, without defect, holy and righteous. Just as the unblemished Passover Lamb of the Old Testament had its blood shed, and spread on the doorframes of the Israelite homes so that the angel of death would pass over, so Jesus, the unblemished New Testament Lamb of God, had his blood shed at His crucifixion. That blood covers us, protects us, defends us so that the angel of eternal death passes over us, and we travel toward and are welcomed into God’s promised land of heaven. This fits nicely into this end of the Church Year theme of waiting for Jesus’ return. In fact, that’s what Hebrews 9 says: “He will appear a second time… to bring salvation.” We look forward with anticipation to that day when Jesus comes back to fulfill the promise that His deliverance on the cross accomplished.
c. A meal to celebrate
One other connection from Old Testament to New Testament to our own time and lives as God’s people is the meal. The Israelite families were commanded to remember and retell that great act of God’s deliverance by celebrating the Passover meal every year at the same time. That’s kind of like what we will be doing as families a month from now – gathering together around food and remembering and celebrating and retelling the wonderful story of the birth of our Saviour, Jesus. And then four months from now, we will again gather around our family tables to rejoice in the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus, and especially His resurrection from the dead – our hope, our life, our joy.
But in between those times, we gather around this table to celebrate Holy Communion, our New Testament Passover meal. It was on the night before He was crucified that He gathered with His disciples to celebrate the Jewish Passover. But He gave it a new and fuller meaning – not just an eating of the lamb and those other significant foods pointing to the Exodus events. Jesus took bread and wine, elements of the Passover, and connected them to His body and blood which would be sacrificed the very next day. Like the Old Testament lambs were sacrificed for forgiveness, Jesus said that He would be sacrificed for forgiveness, for our forgiveness. Then Jesus commanded His disciples, and us: “Do this in remembrance of me.” And as we do, we cry out for mercy, “Spare me, pass over me, a sinner, and take me to your Promised Land.” Amen.