Sunday, August 10, 2014

Christ Our Passover

(Sermon delivered to Meadowood Senior Center, August 10, 2014)
Observe the month of Abib and celebrate the Passover of the LORD your God, because in the month of Abib he brought you out of Egypt by night.  Sacrifice as the Passover to the LORD your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his Name.  Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste-- so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.  Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days. Do not let any of the meat you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain until morning.  You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the LORD your God gives you  except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary of your departure from Egypt.  Roast it and eat it at the place the LORD your God will choose. Then in the morning return to your tents. … Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed. (Deuteronomy 16:1-7, 16)
When I read narrative or prescriptive sections of Scripture I like to ask myself how I would make a video of the action. What happens in what order? What little details would I need to add, things that those who were actually there would have assumed but are not part of our everyday life so we wouldn’t think of them.
For example, in Exodus 16, we read, “The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt!’” Did they all stand there like an opera chorus and say the same thing at the same time, or is the text simply summarizing the sentiments the people were expressing in different words? Or when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, how long did it take the people to fetch the water they used to douse the firewood? (Remember, his altar was at the top of Mt. Carmel, a 1700-foot climb; it hadn’t rained for three years; and they made three round trips in succession, not in sequence, beginning after noon.)
When I read the passage from Deuteronomy in my quiet time a few days ago, I found myself asking the same kinds of questions. I see God’s command that the Israelites leave home and go to “the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name” three times a year – for Passover, Pentecost, and the Festival of Shelters – and I find myself asking, “How long will it take them to walk there? Where will they stay while they’re there? Who will milk the cows they leave behind? Who will tend the sheep? Who will keep the burglars and foreign invaders out?”
Part of the problem with figuring out how the people will travel and where they will stay is that nowhere does the Old Testament tell us where God chooses the place for his name to dwell. Moses uses some variant of “the place the Lord will choose for his name to dwell” twenty times in Deuteronomy, but I can’t see that after the conquest of Canaan was over the Israelites ever got around to asking him where that place was to be. They did set up the tabernacle in Shiloh, which is located pretty much in the center of the Promised Land, and then Solomon built his temple in Jerusalem, which is pretty much in the center of Judah.
We see no record of the Israelites asking where they should place the one place of worship, we also have no record that they ever celebrated the jubilee years, where debts were to be forgiven, and as we’ll see in a bit, they don’t seem to have celebrated the Passover properly. I’m guessing that these festivals were abandoned early in Israel’s Golden Age.
I call the time of the judges Israel’s Golden Age on purpose. You’re probably thinking of the famous refrain “There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” and thinking of the time of the judges as a time of degeneration. But that’s only part of the story. Doing what is right in your own eyes is a good thing if your eyes are good. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light” (Matt 6:22). Paul tells the Romans the same thing: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is” (Rom 12:2). God wasn’t upset that the Israelites had no human king; instead, when the people asked Samuel for a king, God told Samuel that he was angry that the Israelites weren’t allowing him, God, to be their king. He said, “They have rejected me as their king.” So I conclude that the Book of Judges describes how the Israelites blew their chance to live as Moses promised them they could. The problem wasn’t that they were doing what was right in their own eyes; the problem was that they weren’t letting God fill their eyes with light.)
Let’s get back to the practical questions and get the easy ones out of the way first.
When the conquest was complete, the people farthest away from Shiloh would have been the members of the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, and Naphtali, as well as those whose homes were in the southernmost part of Judah. These folks would have had to travel as far as 120 miles each way to Shiloh. On the one hand, these were people who were accustomed to spending their lives on their feet, so walking, say, twenty miles a day for a six days wouldn’t seem as daunting to them as it would to us, but then again, the roads weren’t as good. And I’m not sure how the elderly and infirm, or those with really young children, would make the trip. At any rate, we’re talking about three weeks at a time away from home three times a year for these festivals.
The passage says that they were to return to their tents at the end of the Passover feast, so I assume they were carrying tents to sleep in while at the festival. The schedule seems to have been to eat the Passover meal as families, party all night with people from all over Israel, then sleep and party until the last day of the festival, when they would celebrate the Sabbath and then go home. The only thing missing from the party was to be leavened bread, which I don’t think they would miss, given everything else they could eat.
That leaves us with the question of who is going to take care of the flocks and herds and fields and houses all this time.
Some Bible interpreters say that the practical impossibility of being away from home for so long is proof that Moses never really got these commands from God – they were written by priests in the days of Josiah. They might be right. But if we can write off this “thus saith the Lord” passage, on what basis do we believe any of the others? If the Bible is false, it’s false: we’ve been fooled, and that’s that. But if we’re going to believe that the Bible is God’s word, we need to make an attempt to take hard passages seriously.
One way of taking the passage seriously is to note that in verse 16 it specifies that those who are to appear before the Lord three times a year are “all your men”: the women and others are to stay behind. But that contradicts verses 1-8, which parallel the description of the Passover in Exodus, which is clearly instructing families to celebrate it as families.
I think that leaves us with saying that Moses did indeed get these instructions from God, and that the impossibility of carrying them out is evidence that God was not through working miracles for the Israelites on a regular basis. Just as he had brought plagues on Egypt, made a path for Israel through the Red Sea, and been supplying manna for them every day for forty years, he was going to protect them and provide for them once they entered the Promised Land. He himself would keep invaders and criminals at bay. He himself would see that the cattle and flocks and herds and crops were taken care of in the absence of the owners.
In exchange for his provision and protection, he wanted them to get rid of all the yeast in the land, drop everything, and come together for a week-long feast that began with an all-night dance party. Psalm 149:3 says, “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp,” and Psalm 150:4 says, “Praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute.” The Lord loves music and loves to be honored with dancing. (I assume you’ve seen community folk dances in sexually circumspect cultures, so you know they are nothing like our sex-oriented social dances.)
So while we know from the description of Passover in Exodus that it was a solemn family occasion, we see here that that solemnity was to give way to a community celebration.
Now notice that according to this passage, Passover cannot be celebrated properly without a central place of worship. To have the family celebration without the entire faith community coming together at the central place of worship is to celebrate Passover only halfway. In 2 Chronicles 30 we read, “Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel. … It had not been celebrated in large numbers according to what was written.” The implication is that whatever the Israelites had been doing as families, they had not been celebrating Passover the way God had intended for them to. After Hezekiah died, the Israelites neglected Passover again until the days of Josiah: 2 Kings 23:21-23 says, “The king gave this order to all the people: ‘Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.’ Not since the days of the judges who led Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, had any such Passover been observed. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was celebrated to the LORD in Jerusalem.” Passover is not mentioned in connection with the exile after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple until it is rebuilt by Zerubbabel.
You can’t have Passover without the Lord’s Temple. You can go through the liturgy described in Exodus at home with your family, but you can’t really do Passover right until you celebrate with all God’s people at the Temple.
So where does Jesus fit in with all this?
The most obvious connection between Jesus and Passover is made by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast-- as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
The yeast Paul is referring to there is sexual immorality. He has just castigated the church in Corinth for tolerating adultery and incest, and he goes on to describe it as “malice and wickedness.” He then calls them to the “[unleavened] bread of sincerity and truth.” The world is full of sexually immoral people – with sinners of all kinds, for that matter – and we will have to be in contact with them whether we want to or not. God will judge them. But we are not to allow sin to take root in our own lives, and we are not to associate with those who allow it to take root in their lives. We are to drop everything – like Hebrews 12:1 says, “Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” – and “keep the [Passover] Festival … with the bread of sincerity and truth.”
Only Christians can keep the Passover correctly, because not only do we have the Passover lamb in Christ, we also have the central place of worship to go to to celebrate. You remember that when the Jewish authorities asked Jesus what authority he had to drive the merchants out of the Temple, Jesus replied that if they were to destroy the temple of his body, he would raise it up in three days. The Temple in Jerusalem, and the sanctuary in Shiloh before it, were both reminders beforehand of Jesus’ body. In the unity of the Holy Spirit, wherever we are, we can celebrate Jesus with all Christians everywhere. And in what Jesus called “the regeneration of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne,” we will indeed all be together, celebrating with feasting, music, and dancing.
But before we celebrate, we need to have our solemn moment of watching our Passover lamb be sacrificed. Israelite families needed to watch as the throat of a lamb was slit. It went through its death throes, then was hung up so the blood would drain out, then was gutted and cooked. Jesus suffered horribly to bleed and die to save us from our sin, our malice and wickedness, the “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” that we are so reluctant to throw off. Yet he has promised to be with his people to the end of the world.
He doesn’t promise that our earthly goods will be safe when we travel to the festival. In fact, he promises that in this world we should expect to be persecuted and have other problems. But he promises to be our king and that if we obey him from our hearts he will give us true life.
Let’s “keep the [Passover] Festival … with the bread of sincerity and truth.” In other words, let’s party!

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