The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 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. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the lectionary is that in order to fit a story that spans thousands of years into a mere 52 Sundays, we end up skipping over large portions of the story so that we can be sure to get to all the really important parts. Hence, in our text for today, we find we have skipped ahead quite a bit from where we were last week. Last we heard, Moses was far away from his fellow Israelites, arguing with God that he was NOT the appropriate person to help deliver his comrades from slavery in Egypt. Turns out, that was a pretty futile argument (as most arguments with the creator of the universe tend to be), and now all of a sudden, Moses is back in Egypt, up to his eyeballs in confrontation with Pharaoh, and some seriously scary stuff has been going down. To sum up what we’ve missed in a word— PLAGUES.
Nine of them, to be exact— each one scarier and more disturbing than the last, with the scariest of all about to come. As each successive plague comes about, Moses attempts to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery and let them leave Egypt behind for good. After each plague, Moses says to Pharaoh, “See? See what happens when you don’t listen? It’s only going to get worse for you and your people, and sooner or later, it’s going to be too late. Stop being so hard-hearted, pull your head up out of the sand, and let my people go!” But every time, Pharaoh is blinded by his own desperate desire to hold onto power and domination (hundreds of thousands of free laborers goes along way towards holding onto power and domination, don’t you know) and he just can’t bring himself to let them go. Thus we find ourselves at the point of the story which we heard today— on the eve of the tenth and final plague, and on the eve of what would eventually become known as the most consequential Jewish holiday of all time—the Passover.
I’d like to spend some time reflecting on this important holiday, but before we can delve into the meaning behind this most sacred ritual within Jewish tradition, there is one rather thorny aspect of the text that sort of begs to be dealt with. It’s one of those thorny little details that makes some people think that the Bible is full of nothing but superstitious stories about a wrathful and spiteful God, causing them to throw the whole book the the curb. You know what I’m talking about here right? The tenth plague— the death of all Egyptian first borns— many of whom would be innocent children. The text tells us that even the animals would not be spared, which is just completely bewildering. I mean, what could the animals have possibly done to deserve such a fate It hardly seems fair, right?
Well here’s the thing— it’s not. But that’s not really the point. What we have to remember, when it comes to texts such as this one, is that these stories were passed down over a period of many years. They weren’t necessarily recorded as they happened, or even immediately after they happened. As one scholar notes, “while the central elements of the story are probably rooted in historical events, the narratives also reflect what thoughtful Israelites considered their meaning to be over the course of nearly a millennium.” This was a story that developed over a very long period of time, during most of which it was not even written down. And so over the years, as Israelites developed a stronger sense of cultural identity, different layers of meaning were added into the story—layers that would help them reinforce that cultural identity, particularly in the midst of adversity and struggle.
Let me give you one example of what I mean. Some scholars have speculated that there may very well have been some kind of devastating plague affecting large numbers of human beings and animals around the time that the Israelites left Egypt. It’s also possible that somewhere along the way, Israel’s developing notions of retributive justice— that old idea of an eye for an eye— began to mix with memories of that plague until those two elements of the story fused together, creating cause and effect. Remember that in the very beginning of this tale, Pharaoh ordered the slaughter of all male Hebrew children. In this case, therefore, retributive justice would dictate that the Egyptians and their children should face a similar fate. Measure for measure, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. This was how the early Israelites understood justice to work, and so this detail made it’s way into the narrative over the course of hundreds of years. Now it’s important to note that this is not to make an endorsement of retributive justice, or to say that this is even the kind of justice that modern Judaism would promote. This is just to say that this is where their society was in their thinking at that particular time in history.
Now— maybe this is how the story developed. Maybe not. This is but one example that scholars have offered up over the years. We don’t have nearly enough time to cover all of them. The point is, we shouldn’t get too caught up worrying about every single historical detail, because this wasn’t necessarily written as a literal history—at least, not in the way we think of history today. This was a story composed to help Israelites remember their communal identity when everything going on around them threatened to erase that identity forever. Scholar Walter Brueggeman has noted that one of the distinguishing trends of any empire is it’s desire to stamp out any distinct identities that are at odds with it’s agenda of domination. Israel was that distinct community under Pharaoh’s empire. They were a threat to the establishment, and so the powers that be did everything they could to make Israel forget who they were and the potential power that was at their fingertips— they enslaved them and inflicted them with cruelty and brutality to make them forget their identity as human beings created in the image of God.
Over the years, the Israelites would face many other challenges—from the Babylonian exile, to the Roman occupation, to many other existential challenges over the centuries. Through it all, however, this story, along with the ritual of the Passover meal described within it, would help them hold onto hope and remember who they were—not just in a cognitive, intellectual way, but through actual, physical reenactment, done in community, for the sake of maintaining community. Through slavery, through defeat and conquest, through exile and poverty, through betrayal and occupation—with every enactment of the Passover ritual, no matter what else was going on in the world around them, the Israelites were able to remember who they were and hold onto their faith in a God who deeply loved them—a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and sets them free— a God of justice and liberation.
Sacred remembrance. That’s what Passover is all about. Indeed, I would suggest that’s what’s really at the heart of our passage today— a people trying desperately to hold onto their identity and their faith in the midst of adversity. It’s no surprise then, that echoes of this sacred ritual show up everywhere throughout the pages of scripture, not the least of which for us Christians is the last supper that Jesus shares with his disciples.
The Last Supper shares many essential elements with Passover, perhaps the most important of those elements being that it is a physical act that we share in community to help us remember our story and to help us remember who we are as people of faith. It is a ritual of remembrance which reminds us that no matter what else is going on in our lives and no matter what else is going on in the world—through fire, through flood, though the mountains should tremble in the very heart of the sea— the God we believe in loves us so deeply that God chose to walk among us and suffer with us in order to show us that not only are we never alone in that suffering, but that suffering and death are never, EVER, the end of the story.
From Exodus to Revelation, these acts of sacred remembrance are found throughout the pages of the Bible. However this idea of sacred remembrance is by no means limited to the pages of our Bible. It echoes and resonates throughout all of human history.
When Africans were bought and sold as if they were cattle, when they were crowded onto slave ships and torn from their families for the purpose of strengthening the newly emerging American empire, the rituals of their faith helped them remember who they were—helping them to remember that they did not belong to their slave masters but rather to a God who loved them and heard their cries.
When Jews were rounded up and sent off— first to the ghettos, and then to camps, and even into gas chambers—when the very memory of their existence on God’s earth was threatened with annihilation— the rituals of their faith helped them remember who they were—helping them to remember that they did not belong to any occupying army, but rather to a God who loved them and heard their cries.
Time and time again, people of faith have relied upon the practice of sacred remembrance as the means by which they hold onto hope in turbulent times. Not only that, but time and time again, God’s people have relied upon that very same hope as what propels them to act towards a vision of a more just world. Through our acts of sacred remembrance, we remind ourselves that God has given us a vision of what that world could be—a kingdom, not of domination— but of radical love and grace. We remember that God has called us— just as God called Moses—just as God called the prophets—just as God called Peter and all the rest of the disciples—to join together in building that Kingdom, and in breaking down the barriers that keep us from seeing all the ways in which that kingdom is already here. Thus we are gathered here today, just as we are gathered week after week, to remember who we are, to remember to whom we belong, and to remember who God has called us to be— peacemakers and prophets, repairers of the breach, servants of love and justice, partners in the great work of restoration and reconciliation. We remember the commandment Jesus has given us—to love others as he first loved us. We remember the story of our faith— that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ has come again. Amen, and may it ever be so.