Text: Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8
Several years ago, when I was serving another church, I became friends with the local Rabbi and we thought it would be great idea to do a joint study with our congregations during the season of Lent and Passover. It was a fun and fascinating experience as we had a chance to compare and contrast our two historic and biblical faiths.
One of the questions we were asked by a member of one of our congregations was a simple one: “How would you sum up the message of your faith in one sentence?” Josh went first saying, “That’s an easy answer for Jews: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” I loved the simplicity of that and it reminded me that the whole identity of the Jewish people is found in the story of slavery, redemption, and celebration.
We see all of that in this week’s passage from Exodus, the story of the Passover, but to get there we need to catch up in the story. Last week we ended the book of Genesis with the story of Joseph, a righteous Hebrew who became a high official in Egypt after he was sold into slavery there by his brothers. A great famine hit the region, and Joseph’s brothers came down to Egypt to buy grain. There Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and forgave them. The whole family then moved to Egypt and there they began to fulfill the promise God had given to Abraham and the mission God had given them at the beginning of creation: they “were fruitful and multiplied” and the whole land of Egypt was filled with the family Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But Exodus 1:8 tells us that “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The king, the Pharaoh, who is widely considered to have been Rameses II, decided that a numerous people group inside his borders was a danger, so he set about oppressing them and used force to make them slaves, making bricks to build the “supply” cities of Pithom and Ramses (not the pyramids, which predated the Israelites by several centuries). Joseph had once been in charge of the grain supply, now his people were slaves building the granaries.
And yet, the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more numerous they became—so numerous that the Pharaoh decided to engage in a genocidal means of population control. He ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill every male child born to a Hebrew woman. The midwives, however, refused to obey the Pharaoh and claimed that the Hebrew women were too “vigorous” and gave birth before they could get there. Without these faithful women, there may not have been a story to tell! Pharaoh, however, decided to double down on his plan and ordered the Egyptians to throw any Hebrew baby boy they found into the Nile River. Pharaoh acts as an anti-creation force, wanting to wipe out the very people God intended to carry our his redemptive plan.
But despite Pharaoh’s plan, God’s people are preserved. A baby born in a slave household is hidden by his mother and when she couldn’t hide him any more, she put him in a basket and sent him down the river. He is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who raises him as an Egyptian named “Moses,” which means “drawn out” of the water. His very name is a foreshadowing of his mission of drawing out his people from slavery through the water of the Red Sea and to freedom—God’s liberator for God’s people.
Moses’ story dominates the rest of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. We’ll dive more into the details of Moses as a person and leader next week, but for now it suffices to say that Moses’ mission is first to be God’s messenger to Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go free. Pharaoh, of course, refuses—slave labor being a cheap and valuable commodity in every empire. Moses will be the arbiter of a battle of wills between Pharaoh, whom the Egyptians considered to be divine, and the God of Israel.
That brings us to the ten plagues God sends on the Egyptians. Interestingly, each of these plagues seems to be designed by God as a direct challenge to the pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Egyptians worshipped the Nile as a goddess, for example, so God turns it to blood, demonstrating that he is in control of creation. The Egyptians worshipped frogs because they can live in two environments. God says, “You want frogs? I’ll give you frogs…” The Egyptian gods represented by insects, livestock, the sky, and the sun are all demonstrated to be under the control of YHWH, the one who created them in the first place. But despite evidence to the contrary, Pharaoh held on to his beliefs and his power, believing he could outlast the God of Israel.
But it’s the tenth plague that will force Pharaoh to buckle. Through Moses, God tells Pharaoh that all the firstborn males in Egypt will die—whether human or animal. In the ancient world the firstborn male was often dedicated to the deity (sometimes offered as a child sacrifice to the local god), but in Egypt the firstborn—especially the firstborn of Pharaoh—was considered to have inherent divine properties. They were little gods.
Pharaoh had tried to act like a god, wielding life and death over the children of Israel. The tenth plague is God’s judgment of Pharaoh’s claim over life and death and a direct response to Pharaoh’s genocidal killing of Israel’s children. Exodus makes it clear that Pharaoh himself bears the blame for this plague, though God’s response will be less severe than Pharaoh’s genocide. God unleashes the anti-creation force of death, which Pharaoh and so many other empires have wielded, as a way of bringing life to his people.
This is a tough passage for modern people to read. We are uncomfortable with God’s judgment, which is why many Christians want to skip the Old Testament altogether. We prefer a God who is quiet and soft rather that a God who dispenses judgment. But we have to keep in mind that God’s judgment and God’s love are two sides of the same coin. God loves his creation too much to allow the anti-creation forces to win in the end—his judgment preserves, protects, and corrects his people and his plan. Remember that his covenant with Abraham was cut in blood, and God will go to any lengths, even getting his hands bloody and his boots muddy, in order to maintain it. God’s judgment is not arbitrary, and God provides a way out for those who will hear and obey and be in relationship with him.
And Exodus 12 tells us that the way out is through blood. The Israelites were instructed to slaughter an unblemished lamb or young goat and smear its blood on the doorposts of their homes as a sign of God’s protection and presence from the angel of death. The blood was a sign of life—the blood of creation shed so that Israel’s own blood might be spared. A life is given so that more lives might be preserved.
The lamb is also the centerpiece of a meal—a meal eaten in haste by slaves about to be released from bondage. It’s a meal so hasty that there is no time even for the yeast to rise, so the bread—the staple of life—is unleavened. Blood and bread become the signs of freedom—a sign to be enacted as a reminder and a memorial for generations to come.
It’s no coincidence that the Passover meal reads like an instruction for liturgy. It’s designed to be used over and over again. It’s “remembrance” is not just about recalling a past event but also a present reality—“You were once slaves, but remember that you are free because of what God did.” That’s why the Passover meal begins with the youngest child asking, “Why does this night differ from all other nights?” It’s an act of bringing every generation into the story—their story. It’s not merely a retelling, but an acting out of the story with all the senses—taste, touch, smell, as well as hearing and seeing. It’s a meal of freedom and hope, a reminder that no matter the present circumstances God wins. You were once slaves, but God made a way…
“They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”
It was then my turn to answer the question. How would you describe Christianity in one sentence? My answer was remarkably similar. “They killed him. He won. Let’s eat!”
Jesus came from this family of Israel. He would have participated in the meal as he grew up. As a firstborn, he would have understood the gravity of the tenth plague. Matthew tells us that, like Moses, the infant Jesus survived the plans of a genocidal king. And like Moses, Jesus was sent to liberate his people from slavery—but slavery in an even larger sense—the slavery of humanity in bondage to the anti-creation forces of sin and death.
Like Pharaoh, those forces would not let God’s people go easily. It would take God’s judgment to convince them—God’s fierce dedication to keeping the covenant that he made with Abraham for the blessing and benefit of the whole creation—a covenant cut in blood. But the twist is that this time, it was God himself who would shed the blood, God himself who would provide the lamb, God himself who would give up his firstborn so that his people might be free.
On the night before death came calling, Jesus gathered his disciples at the table for the Passover meal. All the familiar items were on the menu. The roasted lamb with unbroken bones, the bitter herbs, the unleavened bread, and the wine. The youngest disciple would have asked, “Why does this night differ from all other nights?” Jesus’ answer, however, was a new liturgy that completed the old, old story—his story, their story, our story.
He took the unleavened bread, the sign of a hasty run for freedom, and he broke it. He gave thanks to God, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, who brings forth bread from the earth.” And he gave it to his disciples saying, “Take and eat, this is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” The one who broke Pharaoh would be broken himself to lead his people to freedom.
And then he took the cup. There are many cups of wine in the Passover Seder—the cup of blessing, the cup of suffering. Jesus took the cup and said, “Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” It is his own blood, the blood of the lamb, that would mark those who belong to him—not on the lintels of their homes but on the doorposts of their hearts. It is his blood that purifies and preserves his people from death, that forgives their sins, and makes it possible for them to journey to the kingdom which God promises: The people of God in the place of God living in the presence of God.
The firstborn over all creation will die on a cross the next day—the innocent child dies for the sins of his obstinate people. But in dying, he provides their way out of slavery to sin and death. He offers the freedom of forgiveness of sins, then he rose from the dead, breaking death itself and freeing his people from its enslaving power. In the cross and the empty tomb, Jesus stood before the powers of this world and proclaimed, “Let my people go!”
They killed him. He won. Let’s eat! This is the story we share—the story of God’s people. It’s the story we remember every time we come to this table, which is why we do so often along with Christians around the world. It is a reminder of past, the sign of the risen Christ with us in the present, and the guarantee of a future in the promised land of his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
This is the meal that reminds us who we are—we were slaves to sin and death. Oh, like the Israelites, there are times we want to go back to that slavery, that Egypt. Things there were rough but at least they were familiar. But the bread and the blood remind us every week that the only way to real freedom is forward into God’s promised kingdom. We touch them, taste them, smell them, and we remember who liberated us. We are marked by them and by our baptism—a people led to freedom through the water just like the Israelites. Jesus said “Do this…” do this so you won’t forget. Do this and become part of the story. Do this and follow me to the place I have promised.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” said the Apostle Paul to the Galatians (5:1). “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Would you be free? Come to him; come to his table and taste the meal of liberation. Come and experience his grace, his life given for you. Come ready to leave your slavery to sin in haste as you eat the bread and drink the cup. Come and be free.
They killed him. He won. Let’s eat!