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|"A Day of Remembrance"
The title for this Sunday’s sermon is taken from the
opening sentence of the fourteenth verse of the twelfth chapter of
Exodus, the closing verse of the text for this morning: “This day
shall be a day of remembrance for you.”
But there are additional meanings for this title, with September 11 coming up next Sunday.
And there have been other days of collective national remembrance in our lives. Perhaps the most notable in the twentieth century was December 7, 1941. But for my generation, another day of remembrance was November 22, 1963.
Days of remembrance are often those which raise the question, “Do you remember where you were when...? And what you were doing when...?
But each of these dates were times of tragic events. We do not enjoy remembering them. We cannot help but be saddened by them.
And yet, there are days of remembrance that are joyful. We all have personal days of remembrance that are joyful. We may even have forgotten the exact dates, but we find joy in remembering the events.
And the day of remembrance of which God speaks in the book of Exodus is a day that the Jewish people, thousands of years later, continue to celebrate with joy.
It is the day of passover. And Christians should at least be aware of passover, because it was for the purpose of celebrating passover that Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem for the last time before his death.
In the twelfth verse of the fourteenth chapter of the gospel according to Mark, we read, “On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him,
“Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
So, where did all this begin? and what is it all about?
Well, in the opening to the twelfth chapter of the book of Exodus, we read, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.”
We’ve all heard that cliche, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” But God is going even further. God is speaking for an entire people. And he is telling this nation that this month is the beginning of new life for them: the first month of the year, the first month of ALL months.
“Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.
“If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.”
So we are preparing for a meal. But not just any meal. It is a totally inclusive meal. It is not a meal just for the leaders. It is not a meal just for the affluent. NO ONE is to be left out. If your neighbor’s family cannot afford a lamb, then you share your lamb with them.
It has been observed that sheep were a treasured commodity in that culture, and that to purchase a lamb could be financially excessive for some families.
In any case, this is not just any meal. It is also symbolic of the unity of the Israelites in its requirements to share what it has.
But why a lamb? Well, the use of a lamb is filled with symbolism. Even today, we speak of Jesus as the lamb of God. Our liturgy speaks of him as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
When Abraham was on his way to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Isaac wondered where the lamb was, Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.”
Or maybe the reason for the lamb is much simpler than that. Maybe it was the most common form of livestock, the most common form of meat. When Jesus had his last supper with his disciples, possibly a passover meal, when he called upon them to remember him, he used the most common elements he could find: bread and wine.
“Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.”
And, again, we may be wondering about the specifics of selection. Why has God imposed them? Well, these lambs are not only for eating; they are also for sacrifice. They are being sacrificed to God. And when we sacrifice to God, do we not wish to give our best?
The lamb should not be just ANY lamb, but a lamb without imperfection, or at least as close to perfect as we can find. The lamb should not be too young or too old. But I certainly hope that God does not make those kinds of judgments about us humans.
“You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.”
Now, there is a reason for slaughtering the lamb at twilight.
For the Jewish people, a day began at twilight. For example, we think of the Jewish Sabbath as Saturday. But it does not begin on Saturday. It begins on Friday evening. It begins at twilight at Friday evening. Not at midnight or at sunrise, but at twilight.
So the slaughtering of the lamb will be in preparation for the first meal of the day--the evening meal.
Keep in mind that this is a joint act. “The whole assembled congregation of Israel” is to follow God’s instructions to the letter. And the timing must be perfect. This is not something that they can do however they feel like it or whenever they feel like it.
And then God’s instructions get especially interesting. “They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.”
The doorposts were the sides of the doorway, and the lintel was the beam at the top of the doorway. The bottoms of the doorways may have just been dirt floors.
Now, viewed objectively from thousands of years later, this may seem unusually creepy and messy. Most of us don’t slaughter our own meat. We let professional butchers handle that job. And we need not worry about the blood. But the Israelites are doing their own slaughtering, with the attendant messiness of blood all over the place. And then, they take some of that blood and and decorate their doors with it. SMEAR it on their doors.
And then, as if this is just the most normal thing in the world, God continues with God’s instructions regarding how to eat the lambs.
“They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs and inner organs.”
Have you figured out the MOOD of what is happening here? Now that we’ve slaughtered the lamb, we’re not going to put it in the freezer and save it for a special occasion. We’re going to eat it the same night that we slaughter it.
We’re going to eat it IMMEDIATELY. And HOW are we going to eat it? We’re not going to eat it raw, but we’re not going to spend much time in preparing it. We’re not going to boil it in water. We’re going to put it on the spit and roast it. And notice what it IS that we will be roasting: EVERYTHING, including head, legs, and inner organs. Lamb, well done.
And we’re not going to spend much time on the side dishes either. We’ll be eating unleavened bread, bread that has not had the time to rise.
This reminds me of how I prepare meals. How quickly can I put it in my mouth? Now maybe, in our fast-food, convenience-store, minimum-preparation, TV-dinner, 24/7 culture, the mood of this scripture is lost on us.
But there is a sense of URGENCY underlying all of God’s instructions. I know from living in the middle of a city that urgency is everywhere. And if that is built into your life-style, this story may not seem like such a big deal. But it WAS a big deal for the Israelites. And this urgency will become even clearer as we move through the story.
And God gives this final instruction for the care and handling of the lamb:
“You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.”
In other words, eat it all. And eat it all now. If you cannot eat it all, do not plan on leftovers for breakfast. If it is still around when you wake up at sunrise, get rid of it. Burn it. Continued urgency.
But why? Why these instructions? And I think God is telling the Israelites that this is a one-shot deal. It has meaning within itself, and it is over. We have a collective slaughtering, a collective smearing of blood on the doors, a collective meal, and collective closure. We put it behind us and move on.
And then, God highlights the urgency of this event:
“This is how you shall eat it; your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.”
I don’t recall the context, but I recall a seminary professor once remarking that married people eat sitting down, but unmarried people--referring to adults with the disease of being single--eat standing up. I told him he was wrong.
Unmarried people DO eat sitting down. On the sofa in the living room. Where we can spill things on ourselves.
But I think that the point my professor was making was that unmarried people cannot relax and settle down to a meal. They are standing because they are in the process of going somewhere else. Drive-in windows at fast-food establishments now allow the entire population to eat while they are in the process of going somewhere else.
But look closely at that passage. You are to eat fully dressed, not as if you were preparing for bed. You are to eat with your sandals on. NOBODY wore sandals indoors, and many did not wear them OUTDOORS either.
And the only reason for having one’s staff in one’s hand is to prepare to be headed down the road.
Now, I KNOW that such symbolism is lost in much of contemporary culture. We live in a time when baseball hats seem to be GLUED to some folks heads, no matter WHERE they are. One of the low points in my life as a pastor came when I found it necessary to ask folks to PLEASE remove their hats in the sanctuary during a wedding rehearsal.
And after all this preparation, God tells the Israelites what God is up to:
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.
“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.
“You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”
“When I see the blood, I will pass over you.”
This was before the tenth and final plague God has brought upon Egypt, the plague which finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
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