September 6, 2020
Today we go to the Old Testament and the book of Exodus. Jumping into the story, there have been nine plagues so far… nine plagues to convince Pharaoh to free and let the Israelites leave Egypt. Nine plagues and each time Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he refuses to let the people go. Now comes the tenth plague… the death of the firstborn. In our passage, God tells Moses and Aaron how the people are to prepare for this night so that death will pass over them. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from the book of Exodus.
READ Exodus 12:1-14
Like so many of you… I cannot read this part of scripture without thinking about the old Cecil B. DeMille classic “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston. As a kid, that movie was one of those yearly broadcast events … back in the days when you would gather around the TV with your family. I seem to remember that the Ten Commandments was a two night spectacle that happened sometime around Easter. And I bet a year didn’t go by that we wouldn’t be sitting there watching it… as a kid I would always be trying to stay awake… probably falling asleep around the same place every year. The movie is very much a product of its time… being made in the mid-50’s. Old Hollywood Biblical epic. To this day my brother and I will throw out our Edward G. Robinson impression in those times that call for it. There’s some weird stuff in that movie.
Still… I remember well this part in the movie… the night of the first Passover. The shots of this eerie fog making its way through the streets. I think there’s someone out there who falls down dead when the fog touches him. There would be those voices crying out in distress… wailing and mourning. For a kid… that makes an impression. It was scary. Maybe… since I wasn’t the first born… it might have been a little less scary… but it was still scary as Pharaoh’s little boy dies and he’s carrying his limp body around. That kid on the screen and I sitting there watching it at home were probably around the same age. So how could it not be scary.
As far as the plagues go… there really isn’t anywhere else to go from here with God killing the firstborn of everything in Egypt. It is a brutal story. And it took a long time for me to learn that when that old movie gets to this point in the story… they make a change to the story that’s in scripture. A new twist is added… and the idea for the last plague instead of coming from God… instead comes out of Pharaoh’s own mouth. A plot device gets created so that Pharaoh himself will name the last and final plague… and to Moses’ horror… it is the killing of the firstborn. In the movie, the blame is laid squarely at Pharaoh’s feet as an example of the darkness that resides in our own hearts. Pharaoh brings this on his own head… he suffers as a result of his own sins.
But in scripture… that isn’t the case. This scene between Pharaoh and Moses doesn’t exist. God decides what the final plague is going to be. This will be God’s act that will finally bring release to the captives… an act of overwhelming brutality and death that will break the will of both Pharaoh and Egypt. In scripture, the lesson is more like the consequence of when you go head to head with God. The power of Pharaoh… a god of human proclamation… versus the power of God Almighty. It’s like that scene where Moses throws down his staff and it turns into a snake. And then Pharaoh’s magicians throw down their staffs and they turn into snakes. But then… Moses’ snakes eats the other two. God’s power is greater.
Yet… if you’ve ever attended a Seder meal… celebrated Passover with a Jewish family or attended one at some point through a church… you will know that when it comes to reciting the plagues… there is a seriousness given to the suffering that occurs in the story… a sense of reverence instead of a callous victory celebration over the Egyptians. The Passover meal is not a celebration of God’s overwhelming power necessarily. In the Seder meals that I used to do with one of the congregations I served, I remember that we would dip our finger in the wine and for every plague we would put a red drop of wine on our napkin as we listed each one. Each plague had a cost. Recalling the plagues was not just about remembering the mighty acts of God, but it was also about remembering the suffering of the Egyptians… and taking that suffering seriously. Instead of a blind rejoicing over a victory won, there was a remembering of the real human cost that came with that act of freedom. Eyes were meant to be open. Not only did it make the event of the Passover more sobering and real in our memory, but there was now a need in us to see that it didn’t happen again. Sitting at a Passover meal so many generations later… even one done by Christians gathered in a church in an effort to better understand the roots of their own faith… there was this feeling that this was not the way… these plagues… this killing… this is not the way forward into freedom. There has to be a better answer than overwhelming violence and death. There has to be a better answer than trading one form of oppression for another so that… again… it becomes a never ending power struggle.
I mean… think where the story goes from here. The people are set free and they leave Egypt behind. How long does it take for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened again? How long does it take for the chariots to be assembled? How long does it take until revenge threatens the newly freed Israelites… until further acts of violence and brutality become the response to the killing of the firstborn? It will take another act of killing to finally break free as Egypt’s forces are drowned when the Red Sea comes back together. The freedom won by greater and greater violence is always tainted in some way. There is always a lingering enmity when the heart is not transformed. Such freedom doesn’t last. And it often doesn’t last because those who were oppressed soon become oppressors whenever they then gain power.
This being the first Sunday of the month… if we were gathered together in the sanctuary today we would be gathering around the communion table. The story behind the communion table represents a variation on the Passover story. Jesus gathered in the upper room with his disciples celebrating the Passover… telling the old story of liberation from Egypt and slavery… perhaps reminding themselves of the debt paid by the Egyptians who suffered and died. But this story of the Passover gets inverted in Jesus. Power is used differently. Jesus is offering a different type of liberation… and in this story God will pay the price. I mean… there is more here than just a reassigning of meaning for familiar symbols of two religious acts of remembrance… there is a change in method. God instead of killing… becomes the one who is killed in the form of his first born son. Instead of exacting the cost from others through death, God is the one who pays the debt. Instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence, the heart is to be transformed as Christ is resurrected… as death is defeated… as fear is replaced with love… as revenge is replaced with service… as struggle is replaced with peace… as intimidation and brutality are replaced with an unmeasured grace.
So yeah… if we were gathered together in this sanctuary today… we would be celebrating the sacrifice of the paschal lamb… the blood of Christ spread over us so that death in all of its forms will pass over us… that we are to be free from the bondage of sin… and with our freedom we are to serve as we have been served by God through Christ with a love that will go so far as to take up a cross so that others will know this same freedom. Death has no dominion over us for if we die a death like his then surely we will be resurrected into a life like his. The story of Exodus inverted. The cycle of violence broken. And if we were gathered here today… we would look like those described in our reading as we come forward for our piece of bread and taste of wine… This is how we shall eat it; your loins girded, your sandals on our feet, and your staff in hand; eating it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. And Saints, we are ready to leave bondage behind… going out into the wilderness of the world to proclaim the good news we have been given… and the freedom that comes from such a gospel. Amen.