Setting the Stage
This is a sermon about faith. I want to say that right away, so we all can keep on the right track this morning. But it’s a lot less “this is how faith works” and a lot more “have you ever noticed?…”
Our text today is comes near the end of the story of the Hebrews’ slavery in Egypt, and near the end of the story of their liberation through the astounding miracles and plagues God wrought through Moses. These verses contain the instructions that establish the Passover sacrifice, which later became an intrinsic part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126). The modern Passover seder (the meal) has evolved significantly since these instructions–and even since Jesus’ day–and so it looks quite different than what happened a few thousand years ago. Symbols–of course–need to evolve if they will continue to evoke the reality they represent.
At this point in the story, God is working on liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, but Pharaoh is having none of it. God keeps instructing Moses on how to perform these remarkable signs or predict the coming of terrible plagues. But Pharaoh keeps doubling down. These plagues escalate from mere inconvenience to the deaths of thousands before Pharaoh will finally tell them to leave. And in that moment–on the eve of this final, terrible plague–between life and death, between slavery and freedom, between let go and leaving–that is when God offers these symbols and these rituals to commemorate what is to come.
Everything has meaning:
The young sheep or goat must be “without blemish” (v.5), which is consistent with the sacrificial code they have not yet received–that’ll happen in Lev 22:17-25; Deut 15:21; 17:1; usw. Such valuable animals are offered to God to remind us that God is due our best, not our leftovers. In addition, the animal is to be roasted over the fire, an anticipation of the kind of cooking they will be performing in their wilderness journeying.
Bitter herbs are the type that shepherds would eat in the wilderness–where the Hebrews are about to spend the next few decades, though they don’t yet know that. In modern Seder celebrations, the bitter herbs recall the bitterness of the slavery they endured in Egypt (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126 and here).
Alongside these foods, they are to eat bread made without yeast–unleavened bread. Such bread was actually a fairly common type to use, not altogether different than the various flat breads baked even still in that area of the world. But here the unleavened bread–the matzah–acquires new meaning: it is unleavened because the Hebrews will be quickly leaving Egypt; they do not have time for yeast breads to rise (Exod 12:39). As this meal evolved, rabbis eventually dictated that matzah may only be made of flour and water, which in turn represent the only two “ingredients” necessary for faith: humility and submission to God (see here).
Notice too that even what they wear and how they eat matters. Verses 11 and following tell us that they need to eat it with their traveling clothes and shoes on–even holding on to their walking sticks! They need to scarf it down quickly. All of this refers to the urgency of their departure–an urgency that they don’t yet know about, an urgency that comes about because (in Exodus 14) Pharaoh will regret his decision to let his cheap labor leave, and he will chase them down with chariots and the weapons of war.
In all of these cases, the symbols God prescribes commemorate events that haven’t yet happened.
The Israelites haven’t yet been forced to gather wild greens to survive the wilderness.
They haven’t yet been limited to roasting meat over an open fire.
They haven’t yet realized the urgency of their departure.
They haven’t yet heard the instructions about offering God your best.
When instructing them to ritualize these symbols. God is inviting them to remember events that haven’t happened yet: pre-remembering—-or pre-membering, as I’m calling it.
This is particularly fascinating to me because this isn’t how faith usually works in the OT. “As the OT understands it, faith is always [humanity’s] reaction to God’s primary action” (Artur Weiser, TDNT VI:182). For Jews, “faith in God is not just general trust. It is grounded in what God has done in the past” (TDNT, VI:198).
Yet here, in one of the most significant stories of the OT, God invites faith on account of what God will do, instead of merely on account of what God has done.
Perhaps we think God just expects them to shut up, obey, and take what comes…… Yet that is at odds with virtually every depiction of God in the bible.
Perhaps we think God expects the escalation of plagues was sufficient to prove to the Hebrews that God can do more…… Yet they can’t even begin to understand the meaning of these symbols until a future time when they’re living them out for real.
Perhaps we think God knows that it doesn’t take much faith for big things to happen…… Yet for all of us who have searched, we know how difficult it is to muster up even a mustard seed’s worth.
I wonder if we should see something else. I wonder if God is planting seeds of God’s own–seeds of hope that will sprout and grow and produce fruit in the most difficult times they have ahead.
I wonder if–as the Hebrews mobilized and moved out of Egypt–if some of them didn’t think: Gee, we wouldn’t have made the wagon train if we had tried to make yeast bread.
And I wonder if–as they crossed the Reed Sea with Pharaoh’s chariots chasing in hot pursuit–if some of them realized that leaving as rapidly as they did allowed them to get to the other side of the sea instead of being overcome by the Egyptians before they got there.
Did they remember the pre-membering God gave them?
I wonder: as they traveled in the wilderness or sat encamped at Sinai, eating what they could gather form the barren landscape around them, did they remember their pre-membering about the bitter herbs? As they roasted the God-gifted quail each day to eat, did they remember their pre-membering about the roasted lamb?
You get my point, I hope. It seems to me that these symbols came into meaning at the precise times when the Hebrews would have needed assurance the most.
Without their realizing it, God planted seeds of grace in them–seeds that would bear fruit at the appropriate time, whether or not they understood.
I think the Last Supper–itself connected to the Passover meal prescribed in Exodus 12–is another biblical example of this pre-membering.
In Matthew 26, Jesus and his disciples are observing the Passover meal–a ritual rich with symbolism and meaning about events long past. Yet Jesus takes these symbols and gives them new meaning. Just as does God in Exodus 12, Jesus makes these symbols about a future event–his suffering and death–events that will soon take place. The disciples at that time pre-member:
Jesus’ body is broken,
Jesus’ blood is shed,
a new covenant is established that ensures the forgiveness of sins.
Were these, too, seeds of grace, planted to bear fruit when grace was needed the most?
Did the disciples remember–when Jesus’ body was being whipped and torn and pierced–did they remember how Jesus broke the bread and said “this is my body”?
Did the disciples remember–when his blood flowed from his pierced head, his flayed back, and eventually his pierced side–did they remember when Jesus said “this is my blood”?
But I also hope. I hope because of all the times I have discovered such seeds of grace bearing fruit in my own life–all the times that I finally realized I needed God’s grace, only to discover that such grace was already given and present.
Such is truly the way of our loving God and friend Jesus. In the very moment we are broken apart, we discover God has already been there, quietly and fastidiously endeavoring about the work of healing, protection, hope, peace, provision, and love.
Praise be to God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom all things were made and find their being,
and in whom we discover life abundant.