Exodus 12:21-27 21Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. 22Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. 23For 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 and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. 24You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children.25When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. 26And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ 27you 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.’“ And the people bowed down and worshiped.
This scripture comes on the eve of a low point in the history of the world. Do you remember the story?
Because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart—because he would not release God’s people from slavery—the last of ten plagues is about to be unleashed. The firstborn of every creature in the land will die unless there is lamb’s blood on the lintels and doorposts of family homes. God institutes a meal that Jews have celebrated every year since as a means of remembrance. This meal has reminded Hebrews of every subsequent generation that the Lord passed over their family homes on his way to striking down the first born children of Egypt. The God who is able to deliver has done so, and God’s promise to redeem can be trusted.
But it’s a difficult story.
Why would God strike anyone down? Is it possible that the God who created life and delights in the goodness of his handiwork, would resort to killing the firstborn of a whole race? This is a mightily difficult story to understand and throws a kink in our theology of God as benevolent Lord. But the big picture of the story in Exodus is this: In Exodus, God confronts evil and God annihilates evil. And against all odds, a hopelessly enslaved people are liberated. It is vital that this big picture be kept at the front of our minds. The key to understanding this exodus is the meal that God told Moses to share with the people—the meal they ate early on that night of grave destruction. It was the night of the Passover.
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In my first call in Dardanelle on the Arkansas River, we got curious about the Passover Seder Feast. We decided to have one. The word seder, we learned, means order. And the Passover Seder Feast is a ceremonial meal where things are done in detailed order. Every single action bears the weight of meaning.
The fruit of the vine we drank was a symbol of joy. Built into the meal there are four moments to stop and drink: Four cups of wine, representing the four words of deliverance that God spoke in Exodus chapter six: “I will bring out,” “I will deliver,” “I will redeem,” and “I will take.” Four cups connecting us to the four Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah. Four cups for the four historical redemptions of the Jewish people: the choosing of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the survival of the Jewish people throughout the exile, and the fourth which will happen at the end of days. Sanctification, Deliverance, Redemption, Restoration. The fruit of the vine was understood to be a symbol of great joy. We raise a glass. We raise four: God, our redeemer, lives.
The meal was a cultural and spiritual field trip. It was the Season of Lent. We had been symbolically walking with Jesus from the wilderness of temptation, through his teaching ministry, making our way with him and the disciples to Jerusalem, to a hasty trial, to a cross, and even to a grave. Along the way, that walk would take us to an upper room where Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples.
This walk took us to our Fellowship Hall on a candle-lit night of Holy Week. Every step of our feast that sacred night was carefully designed to point backwards to a slave people freed from slavery. We prepared lamb, as instructed. We had unleavened bread; bread with leaven takes time to rise, and on that first Passover, the Hebrews had no time to wait for such a luxury. Over the centuries, the meal has become more complex. The ritualization of the meal has slowed down this once hastily eaten meal. Besides wine being added to symbolize the joy of deliverance, boiled eggs called to mind the hardships of our ancient ancestors; their struggle hardened them. (Hard eggs, get it?) Bitter herbs dipped in a bowl of salt water reminded us of all the tears shed as the people ran from an angry Egyptian army. The Charoset is the pasty mixture that reminds us of the mortar that the slaves broke their backs mixing. And so forth . . .
Our order of service instructed that one place setting at the table be left vacant. This, we learned, was the “Elijah” chair, left unoccupied in hopes that this would be the year that the prophet returned to us. Likewise, a door was left open to the dining room so that the prophet will know that we are waiting and that both the door to our dining room and the door to our hearts is open and that he is welcome. An evening breeze caught that door on our first seder; it slammed shut before its scripted time. We jumped. The candles flickered. The children fell silent, then giggled. The meal was seasoned with less dramatic but nevertheless surprising graces and connections.
We prayed with expectation of the coming Messiah—this was odd for us Christians, because we understand Jesus as the Messiah who has already come and who will come again. And wasn’t Jesus already with us—where three or more had gathered in his name? This Hebrew expectation hovered as a deep mystery in a night of mysteries.
We walked through the motions like lovers walk through a dance, practicing the steps, learning to trust. This ritual deepened our fellowship; remembering God’s saving acts of the past and his promises for our future did our souls such good.
The night ended with the washing of many dishes and snorts of laughter. Rachel and AnnieLaura broke out into an impromptu dance while we clapped and clapped. Children rushed to be the first to extinguish candles. We propped open the doors and the spring air flooded into the emptying Fellowship Hall. It was cool and clean and fragrant. My friend Gordon, an astronomer, took a group out into the field out back to explore the night sky. They spent a half hour looking up, silent, following Gordon’s finger from one prick of light to a string of others shining like little pearls.
God has delivered us, and here we are: free and enjoying a sweet night like this.
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REMEMBER! That’s the theme of this Passover Seder Feast. Later in the book of Exodus, more detail is shared about this Passover meal. Eat it with your family; if one family is small, let it join with another family. God is doing something communal here. It’s for the whole Hebrew community, and the whole Hebrew community is to eat this meal together. The lamb is to be unblemished, which is a way of saying this meal is special. The instructions are clear: Share this meal annually; never skip a year.
Remember, remember, remember.
Remember who you are: you don’t belong to Pharaoh; you are children of the most High God. Remember what has happened. Remember what it is you’ve been saved from. Remember the promises. Remember, once you were slave, now you are free. Remember that your life has purpose because God went to great lengths to save your life. You were lost, now you are found. Remember to live with gratitude.
Remember to remember God’s mighty acts of love.
As the first Passover Feast happened on the night of great travail in Egypt, we Christians know that Jesus last shared this meal in Jerusalem on the eve of his death. We call Jesus our Passover Lamb. We believe that he allowed himself to be betrayed, tried, and crucified. His life, his death, his blood reminds us of God’s sacrificial love. His resurrection reminds us of God’s amazing power—still—to confront and annihilate powers of great evil, and that through every manner of dark and travail, God still leads the way.
Blessed are you,
Lord our God, master of the universe,
who nourishes the whole world with goodness,
with grace, kindness, and compassion.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...