Before the victory, we party
When I was at Bible college, my tutor was a Messianic Jew, and every year he would hold a Passover celebration. I remember it was a very moving experience and it helped me to understand more about the Jewish identity and also my own identity as a Christian. It helped me to understand the Eucharist better, and it helped me to understand more about God’s plan for salvation.
What we’re looking at today is the institution of the Passover celebration. God is telling his people how to celebrate the Passover. Now I want you to understand two things about this celebration. First, it’s definitely a celebration. Most of the instructions that God gives are about how to prepare a meal. This is a meal for families to eat together. There is a part where God talks about putting blood on the door, but the rest of the instructions are about preparing a meal. This is a recipe: whole roasted lamb with bread and herbs. It sounds great, doesn’t it? But why is God suddenly so interested in cookery?
The second thing I want you to understand is that the Israelites are still in Egypt when this happens. They are still slaves. There’s been nine plagues on Egypt so far. God has shown His strength through these plagues. And He has also shown that He distinguishes between Egypt and Israel. All the Egyptian’s livestock died. None of the Israelites’ livestock died. Hailstones fell on the land of Egypt, but not on the part where the Israelites lived. For three days there was thick darkness over the land of Egypt, but not on the part where the Israelites lived. So the Israelites knew that God was on their side. But they were still in Egypt and they were still slaves. Their liberation was close, it was so close they could feel it, but it wasn’t realised yet. God was asking them to have the party before the victory.
We don’t normally do this, do we? Last week we had our engagement ceremony. And then after the ceremony we had the party. That’s the usual way around. You celebrate something that has already happened. You don’t often celebrate things that haven’t happened yet. But this is what God asks the Israelites to do. Can you imagine having a victory party next month for Hanshin winning the league in the 2009 season? You’d have to be pretty sure they were going to win. You would need faith. And based on recent performance, you would need a lot of faith. So God is asking the Israelites to exercise faith in Him, and to trust that He will give them the victory.
But they had already seen the nine plagues that He had sent upon Egypt. They knew that He was on their side. They knew that He looked after Israel in a special way. They had not seen His total victory, but they knew enough about what He had done that they could trust Him. I think that we are called to live in the time between the ninth plague and the tenth plague. We have seen so many things that God has done for us. We know that we can trust Him. But we have not yet seen his total victory. And yet we are still called to celebrate. We are called to proclaim and declare and enjoy the victory of God even though there are parts of our lives and parts of this world which are not under that victory yet.
With all of the previous plagues, the Israelites have just been spectators. God told Moses to do a few things, like put his staff in the Nile or throw soot into the air, and in response to that God would do a miracle. The whole people of Israel could just watch it happen. But before the final victory God asks everyone to do something. They had to kill a lamb and have a feast. They could not leave it all to Moses. They had to do something in order to own this victory.
And what they had to do had a cost attached to it. They had to kill a lamb. Remember that they were slaves, and slaves do not have much property. For some of their families, this would be the only livestock they had. In verse 5, it says that if they didn’t have a lamb, they could kill a goat. So some of them didn’t have any lambs at all. Or maybe they only had two lambs. Now if you have two lambs, you can make more lambs. If you kill one of them, you can’t make any more lambs. For some of them, killing a lamb was a real sacrifice. It meant sacrificing their future. It meant that they would have to rely on God to provide food for them in the future.
And God told them to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their house. Before when God made a distinction between Israel and Egypt, it was automatic. God knew His own people. But this time God wants people to stand up and make a visible signal that everyone could see as a symbol of saying for themselves that they are His. God says in verse 13 that he will see the blood and pass over the house. They have to really believe that God will do what He says. And they have to really believe that their actions will make a difference.
God challenges His people not just to faith in Him but also to put that faith into practice. To do something which says “We belong to God”. To show that they trust Him by giving up their own dependence and their own provision for their future and to rely on Him for their future. It’s the same today. We do not just leave it to Moses. We do not just leave it to the pastor or the missionary. We are living in a time where we have seen God act and although we have not seen His final victory yet, we know it is coming. If we know that the victory is going to come, then we can celebrate now. If we know that the victory is going to come, then we can stand up and do things for God now. The Israelites could hold the Passover festival because they knew what God had done and they trusted what God will do. It is because we know that God is faithful, because we knew what He has already done for us, because we know that He will give us the victory in the future, we can exercise our faith now. We can stand up before our families and our friends and say “We belong to God.” That is the first challenge that God brings his people in the Passover.
The next challenge He brings is the challenge to community. The Israelites are told that each family has to kill a lamb. You celebrate the Passover with people who are close to you. But in verse four there is something else. If your household is too small to eat a whole lamb, then you have to get together with your next door neighbour and eat the Passover with them. Now a one-year old lamb is pretty big. When Jewish scholars of the law came to explain this passage, they said that it takes at least ten people to eat a lamb. There is no way that a single person can eat a whole lamb. I used to eat lamb when I lived in the UK, but you don’t see it very much here in Japan. When I went to Hokkaido in February we went to the Sapporo snow festival, and there are lots of little food booths. And my friend there bought me a minted lamb steak. It was fantastic. And until then I didn’t realise how much I miss lamb. I occasionally get cravings for lamb. But even I don’t think I’d be able to eat a whole roast lamb. I wouldn’t mind having a go, but I don’t think I would be able to. It’s not something you can do on your own.
So in this verse God is saying that you cannot celebrate the Passover on your own. And equally if you have more lamb than you can eat, you must share it with someone else. In other words, God provides a community for those who have no community. God wants to take the single and the lonely and the isolated and put them together into communities. And there is a strong link between worship and celebrating God, and the creation of community.
The other day at Nomura-san’s house group we looked at repentance, and people who claim to repent but show no fruit of repentance. And one of the most visible signs of repentance is coming into community with others. In the English service, we’ve been looking at the book of Acts, and how when people come to Christ, God brings different people together. First it’s Jewish people and Samaritans; then it’s Jewish people and Gentiles; then it’s the church and its enemies. But when you come to God you have to let Him bring other people to you. You cannot shut out other people if you are coming to celebrate God. If you have more lamb than you can eat you must share it. You might not really know the person you have to share it with, but you have to be open to your neighbour. And conversely, if you are on your own, if you are lonely, then God will provide a community for you. Psalm 68:6 says that God settles the lonely people in houses, he frees prisoners and grants them prosperity, but sinful rebels live in the desert. This is exactly what happens here in the Exodus. The prisoners of the Egyptians are freed and they go out with singing. Then when they are in the desert, those who rebel against God get left behind. But before all that, God puts lonely people into families. He brings people together into community as they worship Him. This is the challenge for us today, too. To accept people and be open to sharing our celebration with people we might not know. People we may not like. But we have to be open because we do not come to God on our own. That is not His plan. His plan is that we come together the families and communities into which He places us.
The third challenge is the challenge to memory. God sets up this celebration and He commands that it will be celebrated every year. In fact, he organises a calendar for them around this celebration. This is going to be their New Year celebration, so that they can remember what God has done for them. So many times in the Bible things are done as a memorial - when the Israelites entered the promised land, they built an altar of stones. When they crossed the Jordan with the ark of the covenant and the waters stopped before them, they put down stones as a memorial. A memorial is a public acknowledgement of what God has done. It is something that everyone can see. Whenever someone becomes a Christian we ask them to get baptised as a sign of making their faith public. I don’t exactly remember when I decided to follow Christ, but I remember when I was baptised. And that memory reminds me of the good things that God has done. It’s a shame but we do not have very many public celebrations of our faith here in Japan. Next year, there will be a “Walk With Jesus” along the old Tokaido road from Tokyo to Kyoto. As they walk, people will be witnessing to people that they meet along the road. They will be celebrating their faith in public. And it will be something for people to remember. Japanese festivals are regular public celebrations that help people remember who they are as a community.
When Jesus celebrated this festival with his disciples he turned it into another kind of memorial. It was still a celebration of what God had done. But this time it was not about bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. It was about bringing us out of sin. The pure, unbroken lamb was Jesus himself. He was our costly sacrifice. It is a memorial that we cannot do on our own, but we must come together as the Church to celebrate. As we take part in the Passover, we declare that “We belong to God”, and we show our faith that his salvation will come to us. It is a memorial of all the good things that He has done for us and a promise of the victory he will give us in the future. We know that He will deliver us. We know that He is on our side. Even though there are things in our lives and in our world that we long to see changed, we know that He will give us the victory. But before the victory, we party.