Sermon from September 7th, 2014. The text for the sermon was Exodus 12:1-14.
I Saw the Sign
Every once in a while I get an email of funny church signs. Since photo-editing became so easy, it’s hard to tell if any of them actually existed in real life. But they’re usually good for a chuckle. For example, one of the ones sent to me was a sign in a church parking lot that said, “Church Parking Only; Violators Will Be Baptized.” Or another one that may not be heard for its intended meaning: “Having trouble sleeping? We’ve got sermons? Come hear them!” Now to add to these, when Hannah and I got lost on the way to the airport last week, we ran across a sign that didn’t seem to mean what they think it means. It said, “Tired of life? Come try the alternative.”
Signs are an important and necessary part of our daily life. They help us navigate traffic, find businesses, and know where we are going. A sign is something that points to something else. Golden Arches point to McDonald’s, a yellow diamond signifies warning, and a red cross signifies that help is on the way.
The Exodus story continues this week with the Hebrews still stuck in Egypt. Moses has heard God’s voice from the burning bush, and he and Aaron have told Pharaoh “Let my people go!” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he said, “No.” So God unleashed plagues upon Egypt. The Nile ran with blood; their flocks all came down with disease; the whole country was plunged into darkness, but still Pharaoh said, “No.” And now God is about to unleash one of the most devastating acts of destruction found in the Bible. God will take the life of every firstborn, human or animal, in the land of Egypt.
God gives the Hebrews a sign to put on their doorframe, so that God will pass over their houses. And as God gives them this sign, God declares a festival for them, the festival of the Passover, so that this great and terrible night will be remembered forever.
The sign that the people are given is the blood of the lamb. They are to roast the lamb over a fire and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs with their loins girded and their sandals on. In other words this is the first instance in recorded history of “fast food.” They must eat ready to run. And God declares that they should not only do this on the night of the plague, but every year from then on.
Their year will be ordered around it, the Passover will mark the first month of the year. Every year they will gather dressed to leave and sit down at the table to eat lamb and crackers, to remember the night they put blood on their doorframes and God passed over them on the night of the final plague.
I spoke a month ago at our 140th anniversary about the importance of remembering what God has done for us. God gives us signs to help us remember what God has done, and this is what is happening in our text. God is giving a sign to the Hebrew people. Genesis 12:13 and 14: “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.”
The blood is a sign that they will be passed over. And the meal is a sign that they will be delivered. God orders them to keep this sign as a festival for themselves, so that they would remember what happened here. Future generations of Hebrews, long after their slavery in Egypt, would be reminded that God delivered them from slavery. The Passover would come to represent freedom from slavery. It was a sign that existed to remind the people that their God was a powerful God who cared about them. It would remind the people that they were unique and special, chosen by God to be God’s people. It was a sign for them when they were in Exile, that God would deliver them. It was a sign for them when they were under the thumb of the Romans, that God’s power was greater than Caesar’s. This festival would be maintained for hundreds of years, so that the Hebrews would not forget their redemption from Pharaoh through the work of God. And it is still celebrated today.
Like the Hebrews, we too have been given a sign of our redemption. The sacrament of Communion is a sign for us, it shares with Passover the image of blood and the image of the lamb. Communion signifies something similar to us: freedom from sin. On the night that he was handed over, Jesus took the cup and offered it to his disciples. He told them that this cup is the new covenant in his blood. The sign of communion is a sign to remind us that Christ gave himself over to free us from sin and death. It is a sign to remind us that no matter how strong the chains that hold us, through Christ we can be free. But above all, it is a sign that God cares about us. God sees the mess we’re stumbling through, whether we created it or someone else, and God will deliver us from it, through his son who offered his life so that we might be free.
And the incredible thing about this sign of our redemption is that it is not limited to people who deserve it. Back in the early days of the Reformation and the Presbyterian Church, Communion was done a little differently. I’ve mentioned before that Calvin said that Communion should be done as often as possible, as many times as twice a year. It seems strange that Calvin would think of twice a year as frequent. But at that time it was the custom for the elders of the church to go out and interview each and every member and see whether they were sure enough in their convictions to receive communion. When you were interviewed, they would give you a little wooden token, that you could bring on communion Sunday as a sign that you had been approved for communion. You can imagine that that might take a while. It’s a practice known as fencing the table, and has long since been abandoned.
The reason we no longer do this is because we have a stronger understanding of God’s sovereignty and grace. We don’t come to the table together because we deserve it, or because we have earned it, but the opposite. We come to the table because we do not deserve it, but God gives it to us anyway. We come to the table in the awareness that we are imperfect, unholy people, whom God chooses to make holy and perfect through his Son. If you feel one day that you are not worthy to receive this gift from God, then that is the time that it is most important to take communion, because it is at that time that we can see that it is not about our goodness, but God’s. God’s love for us is powerful enough to reach through our own weakness and sinfulness and failures, and shape us into something better.
I talked a lot about two signs that help us to remember the past, but signs are also essential for us to know where we are going. Street signs, road signs, highway signs, are all there to point us down the road. When the Hebrews were in the wilderness, God gave them two great signs that God was present with them, a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. That’s what our sacraments are. They are visible signs of God’s presence among us. They show us where we are going. They proclaim for us, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, that we are loved by a great and powerful God. God delivers us from the chains that hold us: the chains of oppression, the chains of sin, and the chains of fear. This is the character of God’s love for us. We are loved, we are forgiven, we are set free. Let us share it with each other.