From an uncertain date, at least 1200 years before Jesus, let us encounter the word of God in Exodus 12:15-16; 24-28.
From approximately the year 10, let us encounter again the word of God in Luke 2:41-46.
When you read through Exodus 12 and 13 you will likely ask yourself, “Didn’t I read this already?” Yes, you did. The Bible often repeats itself. This is why studying the Bible is so important because through study we sift through layers of tradition as recorded and edited in the scriptures. This is what Jesus was doing, studying the scriptures after the Passover festival at the age of 12, when he failed to reconnect with his family’s caravan and stayed behind in the temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”
More than 12 centuries had passed from the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and here was Jesus asking his elders questions. I suggest this is the greatest part of the Passover tradition, that the scriptures and the tradition teach us that our children will ask us deep and profound questions, especially about what we practice. As I was preparing this very response on my laptop, surrounded by biblical commentaries and other study aids, Tim asked me a question out of the blue, “God created everything, but who created God?” Good question. I didn’t pull out the Bible or grab a work of theology off the shelf or try to distract him while I ignored giving an answer. I simply answered the question the best I could.
Now imagine yourself watching with small children Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses. You get to the point of the movie that depicts the original Passover event when the “Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt.” The whispy, green smoke drifts down from the midnight sky, seeking out all the firstborn to kill them. This is the tenth and final plague, which Moses invokes with the Lord’s authority to convince Pharaoh that he should let the Israelites go. The killer haze passes over the Israelite houses marked with lamb’s blood on their doorposts, as Moses instructed. The firstborn of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh are killed. Pharaoh finally relents and lets Moses’s people go. Your young child, or maybe niece or nephew, turns to you and asks, “Why did God kill Pharaoh’s son?”
That’s a much more difficult question to answer than the question Tim asked me. Tim’s question was about logic and philosophy. The “killing” question is about conflicting understandings of God’s nature and why God would allow bad things to happen or even cause bad things to happen. How would you answer this question? I suppose we could pull out the Bible and tell our little children, “See, it says here in the Bible you’re not asking the right question.” Or we could simply shush the little children and tell them to quietly watch the rest of the movie. The problem with this simple, yet troubling question, “Why did God kill Pharaoh’s son?” isn’t the question itself, the problem is our context as passive movie watchers. We’re not doing anything but passively watching a grand production with its purpose of entertainment.
Recall the Exodus text we heard this morning: “You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children … And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” Curiously, these instructions for remembering Passover come before the Passover event itself in verse 29: “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt … ” Later in Exodus 13:8 we read, “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” And Exodus 13:14, “When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
A little child watching The Ten Commandments may ask, “Why did God kill Pharaoh’s son?” and be fully justified in asking that question to understand the movie. Our answer should be then about the movie and not about some grand theological problem. When our children or we ourselves ask these difficult questions within the context of the Bible, we should dig deeper into the world of the Bible. I think you’ll find as you study the Bible you will come to accept more and more that often the worldview of the Bible is very different than our modern worldview based on scientific knowledge and humanitarian ethics. The Bible often has an agenda to demonstrate that Yahweh, the one true God, is alone the ruler of the cosmos and is over other “local” gods of the time. A clear way to demonstrate divine superiority was to depict Yahweh as driving human history for his own purposes, often at the expense of the worldly rulers, such as Pharaoh.
From at least 40 years after the exodus, let us encounter the word of God in Joshua 5:10-12.
From approximately the year 30, let us encounter again the word of God in Luke 22:7-13.
The Israelites entered the Promised Land 40 years later and they “ate the produce of the land … they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” “The manna ceased.” You could say, as did Luke of the Upper Room, “So they … found everything as he had told them.” The Israelites had arrived. They no longer wandered in the wilderness and now their practices and traditions would serve as institutions of remembrance of the events from and through which they were delivered. The historical connection to the Passover and the exodus themselves would become more and more ceremonial.
Jesus’s disciples asked factual “where?” questions in making preparations for the Passover meal. They didn’t ask “why?” questions. They knew why because for centuries their people had practiced the Passover rituals.
We physically remember the exodus story here through the communion elements so that we can be people who live out the exodus story of liberation beyond the walls of this sanctuary.
We physically remember the exodus story here through the communion elements so that we can be people who live out the exodus story of liberation beyond the walls of this sanctuary. The Passover and exodus story has formed many millions of people and much of human history for thousands of years and continues to do so today. This story may be the single most formative story of our country and of our diverse people.
From at least 600 years after the exodus and 600 years before Jesus, let us encounter the word of God in 2 Kings 23:21-27.
From approximately the year 30, let us encounter again the word of God in Luke 22:14-20.
And now we see the danger in growing too comfortable with “having arrived” and “settled down” in the “Promised Land.” 2 Kings tells us, “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.” This was a period of about 400 years. It’s unclear what the author means precisely by “no such passover,” but the consensus is that King Josiah instituted the Passover celebration as a national observance in the Temple and eliminated pagan rituals. For 400 years there had been no nationwide celebration of Passover. At best, Passover was something observed privately in homes. Think of the federal government and the president of the United States not celebrating the Fourth of July for 400 years in Washington D.C. and then, finally, a president re-instituting the celebration of independence. This gives us a way to think about the significance of what King Josiah did.
The sad part of King Josiah’s story is that though he was one of the best kings of Judah, his reforms were too late to change the character of the people and to turn away “the fierceness of God’s wrath.” About 25 years after Josiah was killed in battle by the Egyptians (ironic, isn’t it?), Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian empire and Judah’s ruling class was taken captive to Babylon. Again, to understand this kind of talk we have to inhabit the worldview of the Bible and understand the author is invoking God’s supremacy as the director of human history. God raises up nations for his purposes and judges nations for his purposes. God’s people were again captive in a foreign land.
The Babylonian captivity lasted 50 years. Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, after the assumption of Babylon into his own empire, issued a decree that the Jews could return to their land and rebuild the Temple. Cyrus holds the distinction in the Hebrew Bible of being the only non-Jew to be called “messiah,” that is, “anointed one.” You can find this proclamation in Isaiah 45:1.
Into this long history arrives Jesus, the true and long-expected messiah: 430 years of slavery in Egypt, 40 years in the wilderness after the exodus, 200 years of judges, 400 years of kings, good and bad, and 500 years of foreign domination by the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Into this complicated history steps Jesus. What does he do? He preaches and teaches, heals and forgives. And he practices the rituals of remembrance. After the Passover at 12 years old he stays behind in the Temple to ask questions. At 30 years of age he roams the countryside telling stories and asking questions to challenge the comfortable leaders of his day. In the final year of his young life Jesus transforms the ritual of the Passover meal by becoming the Passover Lamb himself for the next 2000 years and beyond so that we, the Church, “may be for the world the body of Christ.” Christ redeemed the whole world. We pray during the communion liturgy that we “may be … the body of Christ.” How are we, as Christ’s body, practicing the redemption of the world? How are we answering the Passover questions from Exodus, “What happened to me when I got delivered?” and “What groups of ‘us,’ humans beings, are being delivered or need deliverance?” Imagine a little child asking us these questions.
How do you answer these questions? We are not Jews, but God delivered us, too, from “slavery to sin and death.” We are also “Passover People.” We can boldly practice and proclaim in our rituals and in our daily lives the communion liturgy (UMH #9): “You formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life. When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast. You delivered us from captivity, made covenant to be our sovereign God, and spoke to us through your prophets. Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.”
Jesus did those things and does them even more so now that you all are doing them as the body of Christ on earth. You are “Passover People!” Claim this story! Live this story! And when a little child asks you a difficult question about faith, you can answer with your very life because you are living the Passover and exodus story. Amen.