Passover Plan, Exodus 12:1-14
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, September 8, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
The festival of Passover is the liturgical celebration of the central theological belief of Judaism: the remembrance and thanksgiving that God saved Israel from bondage in Egypt, laying the foundation of the covenant between Israel and God. The first commandment given by God to Moses states, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2). Worship belongs to God who saves, and the exodus from Egypt was the mightiest of God’s mighty acts of salvation. This saving act was not performed because of Israel’s worthiness, might or power, but because God loved them, and so that God could be shown as the Most High God of the universe, more powerful than any of the “gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12).
At the root of our Christian faith is Judaism; Jesus was a faithful Jew, a rabbi, a teacher of the law, whose crucifixion took place during the Jewish festival of Passover. The central feast of the Jewish faith, their affirmation of God’s gracious choice for them above all others, their most holy reminder of God’s saving power forever coincides with the central feast of the Christian faith, with our affirmation of God’s gracious choice for humanity, our most holy reminder of God’s saving power. It’s no wonder that the early church found the image of the Lamb of God an appealing title for our Christ. The blood that saved the Israelites, celebrated during Passover, for us is focused on Christ’s blood as he died on the cross, saving the world. We’re reminded that the symbolism of the sacrificial lamb of Passover, whose blood was painted on the doorways of the faithful turning away the angel of death, coincides with Christ’s dying for us, shedding his blood for us, giving up his life to save ours.
Let’s return to the biblical story, to Moses, and his reluctance to lead God’s people out of bondage. It just seemed like it was more than he could do. He recognized the significance of what God was calling him to—it was so crucial to his people, that surely, God, you can find someone who is more qualified, better equipped.
We understand Moses. We don’t want to get in over our heads, either; to embarrass ourselves before God and everybody. We don’t want to let anybody down. But God promised to be with Moses, God said, I’ll give you signs, I’ll put the words in your mouth, and your brother Aaron can speak for you. You put your words in his mouth and I will guide and teach both of you.
With that, Moses stepped out and began this task that he could only accomplish through God’s power and might.
You’ll remember that all of this began back in Midian, while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s sheep. Moses goes to his father-in-law, Jethro, and tells him that he needs to return to Egypt. Jethro offers his blessing, and Moses takes his wife and children and leaves. They meet Aaron and Moses tells Aaron what they’re about to do, and together they assemble the elders of the Israelites. Aaron speaks the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and they perform the signs in the sight of the people. The people believe: they are grateful that God has seen their misery and they bow down and worship.
Now it’s time for Moses and Aaron to go talk to Pharaoh. Moses says to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”
Pharaoh is unimpressed. He doesn’t know Israel’s God and feels no need to respond to God’s request.
Aaron and Moses persist and Pharaoh replies that the people have work to do. And unfortunately, they’re about to have more work: Pharaoh orders that straw will no longer be provided, which apparently was of major importance in the production of bricks. The people will have to find their own straw. And oh, by the way, the daily quota of bricks to be made remains the same as it was, so better get in gear, you’ve got a lot of work to do.
The quota isn’t met, and the Hebrew taskmasters are beaten for the failure. They appeal to Pharaoh who accuses them of laziness. They find Moses and Aaron and unload their anger and frustration: you’ve only made it worse for us.
Moses, of course, takes their complaints to heart, and turns back to God, asking once again—why have you given me this task? These people have been mistreated and you’ve done nothing at all to deliver them!
Though God has told Moses from the beginning that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart, it’s hard to know what that means until it happens. It’s happening now, and it’s awful. God reassures Moses of his promise, that God has seen the suffering of his people, that God will deliver the people and redeem them.
We all need a bit of cheerleading now and then, words of motivation and encouragement. Moses hears God and repeats the words to the people, but their spirits are too broken by the cruelty they’ve experienced in slavery to hear them.
It’s hard to understand sometimes, isn’t it, how a person will choose to stay in a bad situation instead of doing what it takes to leave that situation. Perhaps it’s because—like the Israelites in captivity—it just doesn’t seem possible that life could be any different. The pain that you’ve come to know is somehow more comfortable than the uncertainty/mystery of what’s ahead and whatever pain must be endured in order to get there.
At Moses and Aaron’s next encounter with Pharaoh, the plagues begin: First, the water of the Nile turns to blood. Pharaoh’s magicians can do the same thing, and so despite this gross thing happening, Pharaoh is unimpressed. (It’s interesting to me that his magicians are successful in reproducing some of these plagues, not eliminating them, which would seem a better result than being able to do the same thing that Moses and Aaron can do.)
Seven days later, the second plague happens due to Pharaoh’s continued refusal to let the people go. Frogs, frogs, everywhere. Pharaoh’s magicians with their secret arts are able to produce even more frogs. Fine, take the people away, Pharaoh finally relents. “Kindly tell me when to pray for you, your leaders and your people,” Moses asks. Pharaoh says tomorrow, the people can go tomorrow. So Moses prays, the frogs die, and once they’re no longer hopping around his palace, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened again.
Plague 3: Gnats. This time the magicians can’t reproduce them. “This must be the finger of God,” they say to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.
Plague 4: Swarms of flies. Pharaoh says the people can go into the wilderness, but not very far. Moses agrees, Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he changes his mind.
Plague 5: Pestilence. All of Egypt’s flocks and livestock die. Israel’s flocks and livestock live. Pharaoh’s heart hardens.
Plague 6: Don’t you wonder what all the people are thinking by this point? The Egyptians and the Hebrews? Moses takes handfuls of soot from the kilns and throws it up into the air. A fine dust settles over the land, creating boils on people and animals.
God now sends Moses to Pharaoh to explain the purpose of the plagues: “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go so they can worship me. For this time I will send all my plagues upon yourself, upon your officials and upon your people, so you will know there is no one like me in all the earth. By now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth. But you are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.”
Plague 7: Through Moses, God warns that the following day will bring hail, and that anyone, human or beast who is out in the open will be killed.
Scripture says that those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock into a safe place. (Though Pharaoh isn’t listening, it seem that some Egyptians are). Huge hail accompanied by lightening and thunder fall upon the land, and Pharaoh this time admits that he has sinned, that he is wrong, and that the Lord is right. But when the hail and the lightening and thunder stops, so does Pharaoh’s remorse. His heart hardens.
Plague 8: Locusts. Pharaoh’s officials go to him—can’t you see we’re ruined? This time he says, the men can go, only the men. But that’s not good enough, of course. The locusts devour what’s left of the land.
Plague 9: Three Days of Darkness. Go, Pharaoh says, but leave your flocks and herds. Moses doesn’t agree, “our livestock must go, not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of God, and we won’t know what we’ll need until we arrive to the place we’re going.”
“Get away from me,” Pharaoh says to Moses. “If you see my face again, it will be the day that you die.”
Before the 10th Plague, God instructs Moses to send the people out to their neighbors, asking them for their silver and gold. It seems that while Pharaoh’s heart has been hardened against them, his officials and their Egyptian neighbors see Moses as a man of importance, and see the Hebrew people in a different light: they gladly give what they’re asked to give.
The 10th plague is then announced, Pharaoh is warned, and the people are given instructions to prepare. The firstborn in every household from Pharaoh to the slave, human and animal will die. And with this, Moses tells Pharaoh, all will know the distinction between Egypt and Israel. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, until the awful night happens, and he tells the people to go…and at that moment, he really means what he says, and wants Moses and the Hebrews to go. For now. (You can read all the details of the plagues in Exodus 7-12.)
The instructions we’ve read in this morning’s scripture tells the story of the original event and gives instructions for its continued observance. Some of the practices on that first Passover can never be repeated, while some of the laws laid down later could not have been observed on that first Passover. But the people are called to remember. You and I are called to remember.
We are to remember God’s saving acts in history.
We are to remember the sacrifices made: the blood shed and painted across the doors of the Hebrew homes, the blood shed by Jesus on the cross, the final and ultimate sacrifice for our sins.
It’s a powerful story, and in some ways a troubling one.
I think of the 10 chances that Pharaoh was given to release God’s people from bondage, and how his heart was hardened each time in order to reveal to everyone in Egypt, as well as to God’s own people—that there is no ruler or power above God.
I think of his choices and all of Egypt who suffered because of his hardened heart. And yet, it was through his hardened heart that God’s purpose was ultimately made known.
As all these plagues were happening, and as we read how Moses came to be revered in Egypt, I can’t help but wonder how many Egyptians were convinced to join the Hebrews as they painted their doorways with blood, as they prepared to leave Egypt. Chapter 12 verse 38 says “a mixed crowd” also went with them, who according to the notation in my RSV describes as “other” Hebrews and rootless people. Later in chapter 12 it also says that if an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the Passover to the Lord, they are welcome to when the males have been circumcised. There are conditions, rules to follow, rules that we can describe as a willingness to follow God, to be obedient to God’s ways… Perhaps this would be similar to the invitation to Holy Communion: Christ invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. There are things we’re called to do, to prepare ourselves, to fully receive its benefits.
And I think of the firstborns who died that night; some who were innocent and some who were not. I don’t understand that part of the story and the sacrifices of human life that were made. I know that we were all created by God, that God loves us all, and so I find that piece confusing.
So I wonder about these things. And yet, there are other things I know:
I know that God loved the people of Israel with a love that was persistent and mighty and true. God acted to bring justice, to release them from bondage, setting them free. And that continues to be God’s desire for God’s people today.
I know that God calls up leaders—simple people like you and me who are very human, imperfect and insecure in our abilities to be and to do what God might call us to be and to do.
And I know that the rituals that we do today—like the Passover of Judaism and the Christian Sacrament of Holy Communion that we will share together today—is more than a simple ritual. The sacrament is more than bread and juice. It’s the way we remember who we are and who we belong to. The body and blood of Christ was shed for us. We receive it in humble obedience and in deep thankfulness for
God’s faithfulness to us in every generation.
That’s the good news.