October 4, 2020
The people living in Egypt have been through several plagues involving environmental devastation, natural disasters, economic ruin, and disease. Through it all, their leader had a hard heart and, rather than working to ease people’s suffering, he only made the problems worse.
Maybe we can relate.
To be sure, we are not slaves the way the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. But I think even in our context these words from God are helpful as we struggle to figure out how to move forward; how to live in the world as it is right now.
I want to acknowledge that there are some difficult theological issues that come up in this part of the Exodus story—questions about the violence attributed to God, about hardened hearts, about an oppressed people looking forward to conquering others. As my New Testament professor used to say, it’s a bit of a “sticky wicket.” You all know that I’m not averse to wrestling with these difficulties and I’d welcome conversations about your struggles with this passage in the future.
But after the week we’ve had, I’m going to skip the theological struggles for now and just look at what advice we might glean from this week’s text—from one plagued community to another.
Our reading is Ex 12:1-13; 13:1-8. We’ll start with the passage from chapter 12:
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 neighbor 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 judgments: 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.
So, here’s the first piece of advice I’m taking from this:
Appreciate concrete tasks.
Did you notice how specific God is here with his instructions? The people are told what animal to use, when to acquire it, when to slaughter it, how to cook it, how to dress when they eat . . . In normal times, such specific details could seem overbearing and controlling. But in times of stress and trauma, specific instructions like this can actually be comforting, reassuring. With so much uncertainty swirling around, a clear task that can actually be accomplished often feels like a gift.
This past week, two of you gave this gift to me. Someone emailed to say my Zoom picture seemed fuzzy and it might help to clean my computer camera lens with alcohol. And it did! Someone else let me know about a link on our web site that was broken—and I fixed it in a couple of minutes! It was so nice to be able to do something positive, to solve a problem—however minor that problem might be.
The next thing we can take from this passage it that we should
Old Testament professor Jaqueline Lapsley notes the ethical aspect of these instructions from God: “If a family cannot afford to provide a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a better-off neighboring family to share what they have.”
On the surface, this instruction seems counter-intuitive. All of the Israelites are slaves. They are all beaten down; they are all struggling. Why ask struggling people to give some of what little they have to others?
When we share with others, we remind ourselves that we are not the only ones facing difficulty. Other people also have needs.
When we share with others, we recognize that even though we feel down and desperate, we do, in fact, have resources—even enough to share.
And, when we share with others, we take an important step toward the next piece of advice for hard times:
Professor Lapsley goes on to write that this text shows how “the good of the community as a whole must and should be intentionally cultivated. The emphasis in the Bible is on the responsibilities of members to the community’s welfare, not, in general, on the rights of particular individuals.”
The instructions God gives here are designed to strengthen the Israelite community. Building community is both a way to address our immediate struggles and a way to work toward a better future for everyone. Connecting with other people can help us feel better in the moment, and it can encourage us to consider the welfare of those others in the decisions we make.
Many people right now are struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Because of COVID, we are unable to attend events in the ways we are used to and we cannot gather with people in person in the same ways—if at all. Gathering on Zoom for sharing and prayer is not the same as gathering in person for worship.
And yet we still gather. And we make phone calls. And we send cards. Lots of people—in churches and beyond—are working creatively to help maintain and even build community right now.
When everything is going well we can live under the illusion that we are self-sustaining; that we can manage life on our own. But going through difficulties makes our need for each other clear.
Now, let’s hear the second part of today’s reading–Exodus 13:1-8:
The Lord said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.
Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out.When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month.
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory.You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’
What strikes me about this passage is God’s insistence that people remember this special day—that they
Have you noticed that time is kind of wonky during COVID? I thought maybe it was just me, but less-than-extensive Google research assured me that lots of people are experiencing a speeding up or slowing down of time right now.
I fit in the most common perception: day-to-day time has slowed down. A day can take a week. A week can take a month. But then when I look back, I can’t believe it’s been six months! Some people are having the opposite experience. And for some everything is going so slow . . . or super fast. But the majority of people (80% in one British study) are experiencing time differently than they did pre-COVID.
This can be a disorienting experience, and marking time becomes more important than ever. We need weekly markers. Like special meals, like worship. We need seasonal reminders—I’ve read advice to pay particular attention to nature right now, to which plants are blooming, to the migrating birds and butterflies, to the changing stars and the changing light.
We need the annual markers—of birthdays, of anniversaries, and of the religious observances that we share in community.
Back in Exodus 12, God says: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.”
Old Testament professor Anathea Portier-Young writes that “the whole calendar must now find a new fixed point of origin and orientation. Henceforth, for God’s people all of time originates in, is oriented to, and commemorates each year their release from slavery. Time for God’s people is forevermore freedom-time.”
How we mark time, how we orient our calendars, makes a difference.
Growing up Baptist, I expect I had a church rhythm similar to what many of you who grew up Mennonite churches experienced. We had Easter and Christmas, sure. And maybe even some Advent candles. But I had no idea what the church year was. I couldn’t have told you that the church year began with Advent. We were more likely to honor Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day than Lent or Pentecost.
Then my worship professor at seminary, Mike Graves, said something that has stuck with me. He said, “You will follow one calendar or another. If you do not orient your life around the liturgical calendar—our remembrance of the important events of our faith—then it will by default be oriented around the secular calendar.”
Pastor Geoff McElroy writes that “our priorities are shaped by our time, and thus the command to observe the Passover or other festivals of remembrance shapes our lives and gives them a contour that emphasizes God’s place in our story.”
How we mark time matters.
God’s instructions to the Israelites also encourage us to
Be ready for God’s future.
Maybe my favorite line from today’s reading is Exodus 12:11: “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.”
We are reading these instructions knowing that God does, in fact, free the Israelites from slavery. That they leave captivity behind and walk with God into the wilderness and freedom.
We know that. But when these instructions were first given to the Israelites, they didn’t know that. The Israelites really have no reason to expect they will be anything but slaves far into the future. They have been slaves for a while (430 years)—and recently, their oppressors have cracked down. Plus, Pharaoh has promised they could leave before, only to change his mind at the last minute.
And yet . . . God says to be ready to GO. Gird your loins. Keep your shoes on. Eat fast.
There may be a lot of worldly signs pointing toward continued oppression, toward ongoing suffering. But we know—as God’s people have always known—that our God is a God of justice and joy. We know—as God’s people have always known–that our God has a different future in mind.
And we need to be ready to GO! We need to be ready to participate in the future God has planned for us.
I don’t think this means literally eating our meals quickly with our shoes on. But this image of loin-girded, sandal-wearing Israelite slaves can help encourage us to consider how we can be ready for what God is doing.
- What relationships do we need to form and nurture?
- What lessons do we need to learn?
- What skills do we need to develop?
- What can we do to see more clearly what God is doing in the world?
Finally, these words from God to the Israelites help us
Remember that we do not belong to Pharaoh. We are God’s people who live within God’s promise.
Biblical scholar Waldemar Janzen cites this passage as the moment when “Israel changes allegiance from Pharaoh to Yahweh . . . from here on, Israel no longer takes orders from Pharaoh. . . . Passover teaches that the transference of allegiance from the powers of evil to the only legitimate Master can and must be made and celebrated on the basis of the divine word of promise. We must do this even while it is still night and the powers of evil seem yet undefeated.”
Even when our choices seem limited, we do not belong to Pharaoh.
Even when we feel trapped in systems of injustice, we do not belong to Pharaoh.
Even when so many people around us seem resigned to the status quo, we do not belong to Pharaoh.
We are not Pharaoh’s people. We are God’s people.
We live within God’s promise of love and justice and freedom.
We live within God’s promise even though it has not yet been fully realized.
We live within God’s promise because that is the way Jesus taught us to live:
- To do what needs done.
- To share and to build community.
- To mark time as we remember God’s faithfulness together.
- To prepare to act with God.
- To claim God’s promises—for ourselves and for all of creation.