The passage you just heard is an interlude between the ninth and tenth plagues that God brought upon Egypt and eight chapters have transpired since last Sunday’s reading, so clearly I need to bring you up to date. Last week we looked at the burning bush story where God called Moses to be his agent to go back to Egypt and bring the Hebrew slaves out to freedom. Due to Moses’ objections God agreed to send his brother Aaron with him to be his spokesman. So Moses took his wife and sons, met Aaron on the way, and went back to Egypt. They went first to the Hebrew people and got their leaders together and told them the Lord’s plans and performed the signs with the staff and the leprous hand that God had given them. The Hebrew people believed them and bowed down and worshiped the God who had heard their cries. So the first obstacle was overcome, that Moses had no credibility with his people due to having grown up in Pharaoh’s household.
But as with so many things, everything does not go so easily. Next stop is Pharaoh’s office, where Moses and Aaron managed to get an audience with Pharaoh. Remember that the Pharaoh who had ruled while Moses was growing up had died. I would assume that the new Pharaoh was a son of the old one and that he and Moses would have known each other growing up, but there is no evidence of this one way or the other.
Anyway, they came before Pharaoh with this message: “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” Pharaoh replied, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know this Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” Yahweh was the name God had given to Moses at the burning bush. Pharaoh would never have heard that name among all the names of gods he did know, and he had no reason to fear consequences if he did not do what was asked. As far as he could see the Israelites had no God who exerted power.
Not only did Pharaoh not grant the request, he told the taskmasters to double down on the slaves. No more would straw for making bricks be provided, they would have to find it on their own, and their quota of bricks for the day would not be reduced at all. Working harder would take their minds off wanting to follow Moses out to a religious meeting.
Well, when the slaves began experiencing this new reality they were very angry at Moses and Aaron. All they had done was make matters worse for them. Moses whined to God, “Why have you mistreated these people? Why did you send me here? Since you sent me here their lot has gotten worse and you have done nothing at all to deliver them.”
God told him to hang on because he was getting ready to see some good stuff. He told him what to say to encourage the slaves, but they were not buying it this time. So at this point the plagues begin. Nine times Moses and Aaron come before Pharaoh asking him to let them take the Israelites to the wilderness for a religious festival. Each time he says no and they institute a plague. Each plague is bad, and after a little while Pharaoh calls them in and asks them to pray to Yahweh to end it and he will let the people go worship. They do so, but Pharaoh always changes his mind and decides not to let them go after the plague ends.
At some places in the account it says that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and at others it says Pharaoh hardened his heart. I think Pharaoh was making his own decisions. God mercifully gave him nine chances before finally coming to the fatal solution which was the language of the Egyptian Empire – death. The Empire which had not thought twice about the killing of male Hebrew babies would never change unless it was visited with the same kind of devastation. After the ninth plague was ended God had Moses warn Pharaoh what the tenth plague would be if he did not allow the Israelites to go as requested. The firstborn of every Egyptian family and animal would die, and all his officials and people would then beg Moses to leave and take his people with him. Still Pharaoh refused to budge.
I don’t find that surprising, do you? He was operating under the “if you give them an inch, they will take a mile” philosophy. How could Egypt operate without slave labor? How could slave labor be counted upon without total domination and submission? This is the mind set of leaders of empires, whether they be political or financial or religious or whatever. Any change to the status quo, to the authority structure, to the minimum wage, to the distribution of wealth, and the whole thing might come toppling down. All kinds of warning signs may be ignored with the hope that we can just get through our watch without anything changing. But sweeping those all under the carpet and grinding the heel down harder just assures a more catastrophic event coming. As Pharaoh is about to learn the hard way. He has been given chance after chance to do the right thing. Now he is truly going to learn who Yahweh is and why he should fear him.
And the Hebrews are truly going to learn who Yahweh is and why they should serve him. During the interlude of today’s reading God turns to this task. He instructs Moses and Aaron both how to prepare for the night’s events and how to commemorate those events in the future. Each household is to slaughter a lamb. If the family is too small to eat a whole lamb it should join with another family so that there will be nothing left. There will be no opportunity to eat leftovers. Some of the blood of the lamb is to be sprinkled on the lintel and doorpost of the home. This is the sign for the Lord to pass over these homes and not afflict them with the death of the firstborn. They are to roast the lamb and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They are to eat hurriedly and wear their sandals and have their staffs in their hands.
When Moses and Aaron told the Hebrews all of this they bowed down and worshiped, then went and did just as they had been told.
Sure enough, when midnight came and the angel of death passed over, great lamentation arose over Egypt. Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and ordered them to go and take all the people and their flocks and herds. The Egyptian people urged the Hebrews to leave quickly before all of them died. So they left in haste in the middle of the night. We will pick up the story there next week.
What I would like to focus on out of today’s story is how the seeds of remembrance are planted in the midst of the experience. Memory is so important to us, both individually and collectively. Egypt’s troubles in the Exodus story began with the fact that after 430 years they no longer remembered Joseph. They had forgotten the important role this Hebrew had played in the survival of their society, and the fact that his family was brought to live in Egypt as honored guests due to their gratitude for Joseph’s contributions. But that memory was lost, and the Hebrews came to be seen as outsiders, aliens, threats to Egyptian society. And when you see people that way you begin to treat them that way, and when you treat them that way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So God carefully outlines for Moses and Aaron the shape of the future, the heart of which is remembrance. The first thing he tells them is that the Hebrews are to begin marking time from this moment. The month of the Exodus is to be the first month of the year, the first month of the rest of their life if you will. Time begins with God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage to freedom.
Gerald Janzen has an insightful view of this. He writes, “When Pharaoh is in charge of time, one’s days become an endless repetition of wearisome toil that in time may seem to have been going on forever. Past and future are just limitless extensions of an intolerable present. Such a present spreads itself into the past and the future, with the result that memory and hope are turned into a growing mountain of pain and a lengthening shadow of despair. Passover celebrates Israel’s experience of God’s redemption, which turns the past into a fountain of celebration to which one can return annually in remembrance and turns the future into an open prospect that one can anticipate in hope.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Exodus, p. 81) Many people are still living on Pharaoh’s time, seeing themselves trapped within a meaningless repetitive cycle of doing the same things day after day and no prospect of change. They are in need of an exodus, a deliverance from that mind set into the life of the God who makes all things new. It is a shift from living in chronos, the Greek word for time as on a watch, to living in kairos, the fullness of God’s time which is not measured or lived in the same way.
Another important memory is the slaughtering of a lamb and the placement of some of its blood on the doorposts. God’s deliverance is costly, there is a price to be paid. And though we be powerless slaves or everyman members of society, God is paying attention and can bring down whatever power stands in the way of our liberation.
Then there is the whole remembered aspect of being ready to move when the Spirit says move. Sandals on, loins girded, staff in hand, that’s how the Passover meal is to be eaten because you might have to leave in a hurry. You eat unleavened bread because the Hebrews had to leave in haste. Janzen says “this observance memorializes the way in which Israel had to flee Egypt quickly, before they had time to put yeast in their bread dough. What might this mean in the lives of later generations who eat unleavened bread? For one thing, it signifies that God’s deliverance, which sometimes seems as though it will never come, can then come so quickly that there is no time to prepare for it. One just picks up what one has at hand and moves forward in haste.” (p. 83)
The Passover thus becomes an annual sacred meal with significance to every element of it. That the Passover meal is still celebrated 3,000 years later is testimony to the power of such sacred meals to keep memory alive. Egypt had forgotten Joseph in 430 years. The people of Yahweh have not forgotten his name or how he brought his people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and wonders.
We know about this practice. We celebrate special birthday meals to remember and give thanks for our loved one whose life began on that day. We celebrate special anniversary meals to remember and give thanks for the beginning of our marriage and family. We celebrate a Thanksgiving meal remembering the pilgrims and Indians and their coming together after a tough year to be grateful together. And we remember another meal that was actually a celebration of the Passover, when Jesus and his disciples had their last meal together. It was the beginning of a new act of deliverance by God, and words were said about how it should be remembered. “This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. This is my blood, the cup of the new covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you remember and proclaim my death until I come again.” The next day the body of Jesus was broken and his blood shed for a new exodus, deliverance from sin and death. God’s deliverance is costly.
How easy it is to forget when we get caught up in the day to day pressures of working for the Pharaoh, overseeing the workers, making sure production stays high and quality is good and profits are healthy, scrounging for straw and quarreling with co-workers and resenting authority and fearing the underlings. How easy it is to ignore the signs and the warnings and keep plowing ahead into dangerous territory where God has clearly told us not to go. How easy it is to pray for help when the plague comes then go our merry way with no changes when it leaves.
People who want to live in the light know the importance of remembering – remembering who they are and whose they are. We are Yahweh’s people. He brought us out of slavery with a mighty hand. He brought us out of exile in Babylon when it looked impossible. He brought us out of sin and despair by sending his Son to save us. He is a God who delivers in this way not just once but time and time again. So remember. Eat sacred meals together. Tell the stories to your children and your children’s children. Put the symbols up where you will be reminded regularly. Mark time by it. Remember.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 7, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church, Anderson, SC