Plagues and Passover: A sermon based on Exodus 12
As I was trying to put together this sermon, I was having a very difficult time finding my way into the story. On the face of it, the passover story is so very different from everything I know. At the time of writing, I was sitting in the Vancouver Airport at the intersection of a Yoga Clothing Store, a Chocolate Store, a Virgin Book Store, and a Spa where you can get a public massage. People are walking back and forth with purpose, many are well dressed, many look sexy, many look fit and strong, many look like they could be a model for any of the dapper clothing stores I’ve passed while walking through the airport. All the while I’m trying so hard to enter into this story of the Passover and say how this connects with us today. But sitting here in the airport, the story seems incredibly far away… and it is so far away. The story comes to us from the distant, foggy past of ancient Egypt. The story comes to us with plagues, tyrianical pharaoh, ancient gods, roast lamb cracking on the open fire, and powerful displays of divine judgment. The story comes to us with blood smeared door posts, and a destroying angel from God dealing out death. How does this relate to the world around us? A world that is secular, sanitized, polished with superficial beauty, efficiency, technology, convenience and power. What do these two worlds possible have to do with one another? And the longer I sat in the airport, the more I felt discomfort with the passover story. Why are we bothering at all to read it? Clearly the world has moved on.
And maybe that’s the connection. Our world seems to have moved on, whereas the Egyptians in the story never really moved in. The Egyptians in this story had no idea who God is. So, let’s take that as our starting point. Both the secular world around us, and the world of Pharaoh do not recognize that God is God. When Moses first meets Pharaoh and demands, in the name of YHWH, for Pharaoh to let God’s people free — Pharaoh effectively says, “in the name of who?” Pharaoh scoffs, “Who is YHWH that I should heed him?” As Michelle unpacked for us a couple weeks ago, Pharaoh got a much clearer picture as to who YHWH was as the plague unfolded. Every time a plague comes, Pharaoh pauses to consider who in fact YHWH is. Yet Pharaoh still moves on and trusts his own gods or trusts in himself. So it is in this last plague that we hear YHWH tell Moses that he will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt, and show his power once and for all.
As you know, the Israelites living in Egypt were surrounded by images that pointed to other powers. Think of the Sphynx. Think of the pyramids. Think of the magnificent temples Michelle told us about a couple weeks ago. All these were designed to instil awe, worship and submission. We are in a similar boat. We need to continually remind ourselves to trust in God’s power because we are so completely surrounded by thousands of images of competing power. That must have been something of what I was feeling at the Vancouver airport trying to connect with the Passover story. I was surrounded by the gods of our age. The bookstore I walked past had a massive cardboard icon of Elton John advertising his new autobiography titled ME. The brightly lit yoga store had icons of beautiful women who will never age, always at the peak of beauty, physical shape, sexuality, and of course draped in the finest of athletic clothes. The men’s clothing store had sharp icons of rugged looking men in tailored suits, exuding strength, allure and money. And in case looking at all those images of success makes you hungry you can binge eat at the chocolate shoppe across the way with the 5 foot larger than life chocolates. We don’t have a Sphynx, we have massive pretend chocolates. If you can’t measure up to the attractiveness of the gods around you, you can at least gorge yourself and dull the pain. All these icons of success, sexuality, power, idolatry and indulgence seem to be crying out like Pharaoh, “Who is YHWH that anyone should heed him?” Actually, it would be quite something if they said that. Instead, there is not a hint that there might be any rival power beyond themselves. Just as the gods of Egypt and their icons projected power to one and all — so do our cultural images of success, indulgence, sexuality, and power. These are the gods of our age, and their icons are on full display, drawing us in. They assault you with the message that pursuing anything beside what they offer is meaningless. The only way to be happy and content is to sell out to their power. In the face of these things, you can sometimes forget who our God is, and why this bizarre ancient story of the Passover might have anything at all to say to us.
Remember that YHWH said that the final plague, the death of the first born is a judgment on all the gods of Egypt? In the face of these symbols of power — these symbols that claim to offer life — well, the final plague of death is a reminder that the promises of these false gods lead to death. In an age where faith is seen as backwater, foolish, impotent, and dead, there is a strong and powerful pull to let our faith go and instead place ourselves in the care of the icons of power we see around us. As I sat in the Vancouver airport there were so many living icons walking around me. It was as if the yoga models walked out of their pictures and into the terminal. It was as if the men in their power suits stepped out of their iconic pictures and hurried to their gate. We have become very good at imitating these gods. While I’m not saying it is bad to wear power suits and athletic wear, the Exodus story with its judgment on the gods of Egypt reminds us that the pursuit of other forms of power apart from the one true God, only to death.
Yet, when we are surrounded by images promising life, vitality and power, it takes great faith to consider that this cryptic, dark story of death, blood, roasted lamb, flatbread might have anything to tell us about the true source of life. When you are sitting alone by yourself, it is difficult to remember the true story you are in. Perhaps that’s why so much in our culture breeds technological and individualism. We are more vulnerable when we are alone and lonely. We are more easily swayed into following other forms of power, because we hope those other forms of power will ease our loneliness. Maybe if I look like that yoga lady I’ll be less lonely. Maybe if I look like power suit man, I’ll feel less insecure.
But we aren’t meant to be alone or lonely in the family of God. No one is supposed to be alone or lonely on the passover. The Passover Festival is to be repeated year after year, in the homes of the families of Israel. Friends and family are to eat flatbread and roast lamb together over the fire. They are do this generation after generation. Different generations will do this together. The children will ask, “why do we do this?” The grownups will say, “It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” It takes friends to hold on to the faith, and pass on the stories of faith. When we are on our own, alone, lonely, we will be more vulnerable to let the faith go. When we are surrounded people who love us that we are encouraged to hold on to the truth in our stories, from generation to generation. We are not meant to do faith alone, the cultural pull to drift from God is too strong. That’s why God told the people to celebrate Passover together, year after year.
But it’s not enough to simply tell each other that truth. It’s not enough to simply say, “you know God frees us from slavery and is the only source of life.” Saying words is not enough. God wants friends to reenact the passover together, like you’d act out a play. So each year the families are to come together and cook the lamb like they did that first passover. They eat flatbread, like they did that first passover. They say the same words, just like they did that first passover. It’s like they’re acting out a play called, “Passover”. This is important. Words are important, but they aren’t enough to root our faith. Together we need to eat, and drink, and swallow, and feel and smell, and hear the story. Those are the actions that deepen our faith, that make our faith take root. Faith involves acting and re-enacting the stories of our faith.
The secular world gets this far better than we do. Stores are full of pictures. Advertisement are all pictures trying to get us to do the things they do. Trying to get us to embody the advertisements by wearing what they wear, listening to what they listen to, speak like they speak. Pop culture knows all to well how to get us to embody its beliefs. Whereas in Christianity, we think the primary way we get people to know the faith is through words. So many of our devotional activities involve reading words. We preach sermons, we read inspirational meditations, we have bible studies. Words, words, words. I love words. Words are good, but not sufficient. The Passover teaches us that we cement the faith with word and action. So you eat the lamb, eat the flatbread, hear the stories.
The most important stories in our faith have these sort of plays associated with them? The baptism of Jesus has a play that we act out. We don’t simply say I want to die and rise with Christ, we don’t simply say I want my sins washed away by the water of rebirth, we re-enact the story in our own baptism. The Lord’s Supper is another one of these plays. When we remember what Jesus said on the night before his death, we do so by reenact that moment. We repeat his words, and we eat the bread and we drink the wine. We reenact the story, and the story goes deeper within us. The story becomes apart of us and we digest it in new ways. It’s interesting to note that while Protestant worship services seem to put most value on the sermon, Catholic and Orthodox services put most value on the Lord’s Supper, and they celebrate it every worship service. Maybe we’ve got something to learn.
This world is full of competing claims of how you can find life, I’ve been focusing in on the world of individualistic consumerism found in the Vancouver airport, but you can find these stories anywhere. These stories are powerful and compelling, and draw us in, especially if we’ve drifted away from the family of God. Yet the story of the plagues and the passover remind us that all roads apart from God lead to death. To keep on the road of faith, the story of the passover reminds us how important the community of believers is in keeping our faith. The story of the passover reminds us how important it is to not just remember the story with words— we are called to embody and act out these stories with actions. As we reenact and embody these stories together, the faith goes deeper and deeper and deeper. We will know within our bones that Christ is Lord of all, the one source of true life.