A SIGN FOR YOU
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Last week we gathered around the communion table. We shared what is known as the Eucharist meal. The thanksgiving meal. How appropriate! You know I often like to ask the question “What are we doing here?” Not in a “I can’t believe I’m here” kind of way (hopefully) but rather in a “What is the thing that is going on here that is unseen? What is the deeper meaning to what is happening here?” We gather together regularly to celebrate this meal. Once each month at the start of the month. Some churches do it more often, some less. Some not at all. We consider it an ordinance – that is something that was ordained by Christ, along with baptism. Do this in remembrance of me. Go and baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
So why do we do this? Should we at all? I heard someone speaking out against religion recently. He said “Nowhere in the Bible do I read the word religion.” It is the age old faith versus religion debate, or the “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” stance, to which I would reply, “What does it mean to you to be religious?” If the word religious to you means empty ceremony then no, none of us are called to be religious. I would counter though, that there are things that we are called to do religiously – that is regularly and imbued with great meaning. What are we doing here? Why do we do this? What does any of this have to do with Exodus 12?
We have said that the Exodus marks God’s proleptic saving act. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” We have said that God was about to get obtrusive in this story and here we have God getting obtrusive. The Passover. The crossing of the Red Sea, which Pastor Abby will look at next week. Protection. Deliverance. God’s great saving act of the Hebrew Bible. Look at what the events are surrounded by. A rite. A ritual. Passover in chapter 12. A hymn in chapter 15. What we call liturgy – from the Latin for “work of the people.” What we do together publicly in worship. What we do together, dare I say, religiously. Why all the importance? Why so many directions to the Israelites with regards to the food – how it should be served, what the side dishes should be, what you should wear whilst eating it?
The Passover is the event through which God is bringing life. The Passover is the event through which God is bringing presence and protection and life and ultimately deliverance. We didn’t get a chance to go through chapters 7 to 11. The plagues. Known as signs and portents in the text. Signs of what? Signs of creation in disarray. Creation in disorder. In chapter 1 we talked about how the oppression of the Israelites was disordered. How a turning away from God, a reliance of self, an exaltation, a lifting up of self before others and before God was disordered. How fear is the opposite of faith. In the plagues we see the results. Water – life giving water becomes blood. Frogs rampant. Dust turning into gnats. Disease. Boils. Thunder and destructive hail. Swarming locusts. Creation gone awry. Penultimately darkness. A return to the darkness on day one of creation before God said spoke the words “Let there be light.” Darkness.
And finally – death. The death of the firstborn. This is difficult I find. There are no easy answers here, I don’t think. You may say “Well that didn’t really happen and what this is about is what it tells us about God.” Still tough. You may say “It’s commensurate with Pharoah’s edict to kill all male Israelite children. This doesn’t make it easy. I would say two things about it, however. The first is that God is God of justice, and God will not let forces work against his saving and delivering purposes – God’s purpose is to bring life and blessing. The second is that God brings life, even from death.
Which is what this whole ritual is about. God bringing protection and deliverance and life. This is not just for us, but for all of creation. Note Ex 9:16. What is the first thing this act of God does? It leads to a re-ordering of time. God’s deliverance is where we must begin. It becomes the beginning of everything. One writer describes it like this – “When Pharaoh is in charge of time, one’s days become an endless repetition of wearisome toil that may seem to go forever. Past and future are just limitless extensions of an intolerable present.” How much does this resonate with people? Endless days of wearisome toil. It’s like the Preacher talks about in Ecclesiastes – there is nothing new under the sun, while we look for deliverance in all the wrong places. God’s deliverance results in a reordering of time. A new beginning. This shall be the first month of the year, for the ancient Israelite. For us we gather around this table and perform a rite at the first of the month. For some it’s on the first day of every week, or the first of each new day, depending on your tradition. God is doing something new, you see. It means a new beginning. Listen to this description of the new situation – “But my, what a monumental change happens in a person’s life when God is in charge of one’s time instead of Pharaoh! Expectation replaces resignation. Hope replaces numbness. Rhapsody replaces routine. Celebration replaces drudgery.” This is what happens when we gather around the table. We expectantly await the wedding banquet of the King. We are reminded of our hope. We celebrate together and give thanks. We are reminded that in Christ we have a new beginning, just as the Israelites did when the blood of the lamb was applied to their doors.
We are reminded of our identity. We are reminded that we are one. These are moments of transcendence, these moments where we are reminded that we are part of something that is much bigger than ourselves. We are made for this I believe. Richard Rohr talks about moments of faux transcendence that people look for in places like sporting events. Moments that claim to unite us.
Not that I have anything against sports! I love sports. We need to recognize the difference between faux and true transcendence though. It is in this act of deliverance that the sons of Israel as they are called in Ex 1:1 are given a new identity. “Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household” This word for congregation will be used to describe the people of Israel over 100 times between now and Joshua. This is the very first time. The thing that makes up their identity is their deliverance. They are a community. They have come under the grace and protection of God!
Acts like gathering around the Lord’s Table are moments of transcendence for us. In gathering around this table regularly and meaningfully we are reminded in whom our identity is founded. We are reminded of what it means to be “in Christ.” To be reminded and to take part in an ongoing way in our deliverance. To be saved is not just a one time event – though many of us can look back to a time when we first turned to Christ. To be in Christ means that we have been saved, we are being saved, and that we will be saved. To take part in this ritual is not just commemoration, any more than it was for the Israelites when they observed Passover after their deliverance. Someone has described it like this – “… in and through the celebration of the Passover God works salvation initially, and ever anew, in the lives of the participants, (re)constituting them as the new redeemed exodus community….It is an entering into the reality of that event (Passover) in such a way as to be reconstituted as the people of God thereby.” In the same way when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we enter into the death and resurrection of Christ, and in so doing, we are constituted as people of God.
That is why we do this friends.
We do this to pledge ourselves newly – to pledge ourselves newly to the protection and presence afforded in Christ. The word that has been translated Passover means to stand, to watch over, to protect. Look at the language of protection and presence that Moses uses when he recounts God’s words to the people – “For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door (stand, watch over, protect) and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down.” The blood of the Passover points forward to the blood of Christ which marks God’s protection and presence with us.
And so we are called to mark God’s protection and presence with thanks and praise.
We can get our minds around this mystery in a way because God gives us a sign. Note that the blood on the doorposts is not a sign for God, as if God is some bloodthirsty sovereign. “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live…” The sign is for the Israelites themselves, not for God. God works through creation to show us the way to redemption. He works through a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger, which would be a sign to us. He works through a man who is at the same time fully human and fully divine suffering and dying and everyone understands that greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
All to deliver us.
And so we observe this ritual of the Lord’s Table that was birthed from a Passover celebration just over 2,000 years ago. We do it for the children too. So that they may know. I like how we bring the children back from The Orchard into our service as we gather around the Lord’s Table. You shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this observance?” (Ex 12:26) you will tell them. God has delivered himself and has made himself known to us and he makes himself known even in things as seemingly mundane as squares of Wonder Bread and grape juice.
There is so much symbolism going on here and both the Passover and Lord’s Table celebration contain so many layers of meaning. I want to close by drawing our attention to two things. The first is transformation. The blood is applied with hyssop. Look at Psalm 51:7 – “Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean.” The bread is to be unleavened. Seven days of bread without leaven. Originally this signified the haste with which the Israelites were to leave Egypt. It took on new meaning with Paul when he speaks about being transformed. Being purified. “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” (1 Cor 5:7) We gather around this table religiously because part of being reconstituted as the people of God is to be transformed.
Finally, the instructions as to how to eat the meal included a dress code. “This is how you should eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…” In other words be ready to go. The meal was not an end in and of itself. It was not a destination. It was the start of a journey. This table is not a destination. We’re called to go from it ready to travel. Ready to take part in God’s delivering work, having known God’s deliverance in our lives. We are constituted as the people of God to make God’s kingdom known. James wrote that faith without works is dead. Liturgy without transformation and participation in God’s delivering work out there is dead, I would say. There has been talk recently around prayer without any action resulting in the US in the wake of another mass shooting. Prayer, communion, praise, anything liturgical we take part in together is to equip us to affect our world for God, in the power of the Spirit. Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel was heavily involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. He said at one point on a return from a march in Selma Alabama “I felt that my legs were praying.”
And so friends may it feel like we are celebrating deliverance each time we go from here. May we go from here with our robes cinched up and staff in hand ready to go. May we see God’s hand in everything from rescued cats to helping with a Thanksgiving meal at a shelter. From comforting someone who grieves by being present for them to reflecting the gentleness of Christ. May God continue to constitute us as his people.