A meal to remember

What do we want our children to remember?  And how will they remember it?  A meal is not a bad place to start.

Full Text: 

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 30, 2012 – Exodus 12:1-13

A meal to remember


            In the beginning, God created all things good – indeed, very good!  But then things went south.  Life on earth descended into mischief, murder and mayhem. 

God had second thoughts about the whole thing.  But then God decided to try to set things right by going to one man – Abraham.  God promised Abraham land and descendants and blessing.  Abraham trusted God, although he did not always act like it.

Eventually Abraham and Sarah had one descendant – Isaac.  Isaac married Rebekah and they had twin sons.  The younger of the two – Jacob – received his father’s blessing and the blessing of God to carry on the promise.  Jacob had 12 sons.  God worked through Joseph – Jacob’s 11th son – not only to save Jacob’s family but to save a good bit of the world from starvation.

This is how things stand at the end of Genesis – the descendants of Abraham are beginning to sprout and grow, but they are in Egypt, not in Canaan, the land that God had promised.  As with every good story, some issues are settled, but some remain open.  The book of Exodus tells the story of how God begins to settle the second question – the promise of land in which the descendants of Abraham can dwell.

The first word in Exodus is good news – the descendants of Abraham are thriving in Egypt.  The second word in Exodus is ominous – “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”  This pharaoh did not remember who Joseph was or how God had worked through Joseph to save many people – including Egyptians.  So this ruler not only did not know Joseph.  This pharaoh did not know God.

This pharaoh himself was, in fact, something of a god.  The pharaoh was not equal to the God who created the universe.  But the pharaoh was certainly considered to be more than human.  So, we might think of the early chapters of Exodus as revolving around the question – who will be Israel’s God?  Will it be the pharaoh, who enslaves?  Or will it be the LORD, who frees?

We see this right away.  Rather than seeing the increasing numbers of Israelites as a blessing, the pharaoh saw them as a threat.  In order to quell the threat, the pharaoh first enslaved them with hard labor.  But this backfired.  The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied. 

Pharoah tried to get control of the situation through the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  He ordered them to kill any Hebrew baby boys.  But they disobeyed the pharaoh, because they feared the LORD.  When the pharaoh questioned them about it, they said, “The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women.  They are so strong they give birth before we can even get there.”  So, the pharaoh ordered all Egyptians to throw Hebrew boys into the river.

            One resourceful Hebrew mother did in fact throw her son into the river, but not before putting him in a basket.  As he floated, a daughter of the pharaoh found him.  She saw that he was a Hebrew baby.  She engaged a Hebrew woman (who just happened to be his mother!) to care for him. 

            So the pharaoh’s efforts to control the chosen people are frustrated by God, working through women – both Hebrew and Egyptian women – who is seeking to free Abraham’s descendants from slavery.

            This baby boy – named Moses – is nursed by a Hebrew woman, but educated in the Egyptian court.  One day, after he is grown, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave.  After checking for witnesses, Moses kills the Egyptian and hides him in the sand, thinking that no one has seen him.  When he tries to break up a fight between Hebrews, however, one of them says, “Who died and made you king?  Are you going to kill me like you did that Egyptian?”  Word eventually comes to the pharaoh about it, so Moses skips town.

            He goes to the land of Midian, where he works as a shepherd for a man named Jethro.  He marries Zipporah, one of Jethro’s daughters.  One could imagine Moses being very content in that life.  But God has other plans for him and will not let him be.

            One day he is tending sheep.  He saws a strange sight – a bush that is on fire but is not burning up!  Curious, he approaches.  A voice speaks.

            “Moses!  Take off your shoes!  You are standing on holy ground!”

            Moses takes off his shoes and the voice continues.

            “I am the God of your ancestors – of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  I have seen the misery of my people.  I have heard their cries for help.  Now I want you to go and lead them out of Egypt to a land that I promised.”

            Surprisingly, Moses does not jump at God’s offer of a new job.  First, he protests that he is not the right man for the job – he is not good a public speaking!  Then he questions whether anyone will believe that God has spoken to him.  Finally, he asks – And who are you?  Even if people believe that God has spoken to me, how will they know who you are?”

            And God says, “I AM WHO I AM.  Tell them I AM has sent you.”

            Certainly there is a good bit of mystery around this name.  It is a name which resists understanding.  And that is a good thing.  When we feel as though we have understood God, then we can be sure we have it wrong.

            The college professor who taught me Hebrew said that this name could also be translated, “I cause what I cause.”  You will know me by my actions, God seems to be saying.  Indeed, after the Israelites escape Egypt this God becomes “the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

            So, God provides Moses what he asks for – the name by which he may be known and someone to speak for him – his brother, Aaron.  And when they approach the pharaoh to request the Israelites be released for three days to go into the wilderness to worship their God, the battle is joined.  There is blood and frogs and gnats.  There are flies and disease and boils.  There is thunder and hail and locusts and darkness.

            The pharaoh is able to keep for a short time, but then things turn badly for him.  It goes so badly, in fact, that his own advisers beg him to let the people of Israel go and worship.   After the eighth plague – locusts – they say to him, “Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?”  That, however, is the way with such rulers.  They are more interested in their own power than they are in the life and welfare of their people.

            Finally, God pulls out the last stop.  Just as the pharaoh ordered the deaths of all Hebrew boys, God prepares to send the angel of death to kill the first born son of all in Egypt.  But the people of Israel will be saved from this disaster.  And they will be saved with a meal.

            Each family is to take a lamb – a male lamb one year old – and they are to roast all of it and eat it or burn it in the fire.  They are to eat standing, with their bags packed and their traveling shoes on.  (And you thought we invented fast food!)  Most important, they are to take the blood of the lamb and wipe it on the doorposts of their houses, so that, when the angel of death sees the blood of the lamb, he will pass over that house. 

            Further instructions in Exodus 13 tell the people of Israel that they are to eat this meal every year.  Why? So that they will remember – and that they will teach their children so that they too can remember.  God – the God of their ancestors – the I AM WHO I AM – brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and freed them from slavery.

            What is it that you want your children to remember?  This is a rhetorical question.  I’m not sure how I would answer it myself, even though my sons are grown and gone.  Nevertheless it is an important question for us all.  And it’s also important for us to ask, “How will we pass on what is important for them to remember?”

            In the church we pass on what we want our children to remember through Sunday School and confirmation.  But we also pass it on – just as the people of Israel do – through a meal.  The meal that we share week after week is also to help us remember.  It is a meal that Jesus first shared with his disciples on Passover.  Passover night is the night in which he was betrayed.  There are certainly parallels between the two meals.  There is wine – and we speak of the wine as the blood of Jesus – but we drink it rather than wipe it on doorposts.  There is bread – sometimes unleavened and sometimes not – and we speak of the bread as the body of Christ – we do not eat it as a sign of preparedness to leave in haste but rather a sign of participation in the body of Christ.

            Yet the importance of remembrance is still there.  In Passover, Jews remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and that they were freed by God.  In communion, we remember that we were slaves to sin.  Through Jesus’ death, we are freed from sin by the power of his forgiveness.

            In I Peter we read:

            But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (I Peter 2:9-10)

            This is who we are.  This is who God is.  And we remember it in a meal.