Covenant, Promise and Grace

Scriptures: Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8; Luke 22:14-20

As we approach the Scripture for the day, let me give a little background. It’s a well-known story, but one that perhaps bears a little bit of repeating. At this point in the narrative, there have been nine plagues for Egypt. Four hundred years of slavery for the Israelites, from the time of Jacob. They cried out to God, and God finally answered their prayers in His own time and His own way.

There were nine plagues, and each of those plagues dealt with one of the gods – and they had many gods – of Egypt. Each plague showed the ineffectiveness and impotence of the Egyptian gods compared to Yahweh.

A couple that are memorable are of course the Nile got turned to blood – and the Nile was seen as the lifeblood of the land and was a god – and this killed all the fish and everything that was in it and poisoned the ground.

Another was frogs – one of their gods had the shape of a frog and they worshiped him as a frog for their idol. And it says there were so many frogs you couldn’t avoid stepping on them. So basically, every time you went out to market or wherever, you were treading on your god, and squishing him. This was very distressing, I imagine, to the Egyptians. And so on. There were nine of these plagues.

The Israelites, on the other hand, had been spared, in the land of Goshen, where they were located. When they had, for instance, hives and boils and stuff on cattle and goats and sheep, that struck all of Egypt. It didn’t strike the land of Goshen. So the Jews were spared.

But despite these nine plagues, Pharaoh’s heart is still hard. So God declares one more plague. And it’s kind of poetic justice, I think, or irony, whatever you want to call it. Pharaoh’s father had slaughtered a bunch of the Jewish males when they were born, in the previous generation.

Obviously they didn’t get all of them, not just Moses, but they wouldn’t have had any slaves if they killed all of the boys. But they murdered millions of the children of the Hebrews. So God declares that the firstborn of the Egyptians would be killed, even their cattle.

Before this plague hits, He gives Moses some instructions on how to prevent the Hebrews from being affected as well. This is where our Scripture passage comes from today, the first one that was read. I want to show a little video clip from a well-known movie, that gives a couple of these instructions and displays the final plague that struck Egypt.

[Shows a clip from The Prince of Egypt. Click here to watch it.]

The killing of the firstborn was targeted, and important. It was more than just simple slaughter. The firstborn were the inheritors. The firstborn were the ones who had the authority and the power. The firstborn were the ones that were the promise of the future for Egypt, the next generation of leaders, if you will. This is what God took from them, and it broke their back, and Pharaoh let the Hebrews go.

During the time of these plagues and before, the Jews were still under the covenant that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had promised that He would be there with them. He had promised that those who blessed them would be blessed, those who curse them would be cursed. And for four hundred years that they lived as slaves, they struggled with this understanding.

Moses had been sent as a herald of God’s intention to fulfill the covenant in His own way and His own time. In that last four hundred years of life in Egypt and the time of slavery, many of the Hebrews had fallen away from their faith, and all felt as it God had abandoned them.

And let me tell you that even when they left, and crossed the Red Sea, they tried to make a Golden Calf, for instance, at one point. They tried to do things the way the Egyptians did it, instead of the way God had told them to do.

But during this time of trial for the Hebrews, before the final plague, they were freed. They cried out to God, and some misunderstood God’s timing. Why wait so long? Why have them suffer so much? Where was the blessing promised by God? All these things went through people’s minds, and we see it recorded in the Scriptures.

As an aside, I would ask, how many of you have felt that way? Where is God? Why wait so long? Why have to suffer? It is a challenge that I think all have faced and will continue to face, until Christ comes again.

The covenant is a kind of treaty, and it’s a formal thing. But God also made a promise. He made a promise to Moses at the burning bush, one that was for the people of Israel, one that was alluded to in the passage today that was read.

These are the people that He had called out and made a nation of. Exodus 3:14b-17 says

God said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God furthermore said to Moses, “ Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘the Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial name to all generations. Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I am indeed concerned about you, and what has been done to you in Egypt. For I said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt, into the land of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”’”

Then a couple of verses later, He says, “I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion. So I will stretch out my hand, and strike Egypt with all my miracles, which I shall do in the midst of it, and after that, he will let you go. I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and it shall be that when you go, you will not go empty-handed.”

In the scene that we saw, God was fulfilling that promise. As I said earlier, that night is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back. Pharaoh, for the moment at least, tells the Hebrews that they can go. And he doesn’t just let them run away. They have gold, and silver, and jewelry, and sheep, and cattle, and goats, and all those marks of wealth and trade, that they take with them.

The Bible says they have six hundred thousand men, fighting age men (depending on your source, fifteen to fifty or twenty to sixty, in terms of age). Many scholars actually estimate, since they were only counting the men, that we’re talking about close to three million people. I don’t know about you, but to me, that would be a really big parade.

The people are free to go. But it was a quick decision. And this is why, in the Passover, God tells them to do what they were to do. They had to make unleavened bread – that means without yeast – that’s made quickly. They had to use bitter herbs, like the kind that are found on the road as you are traveling, not the kind of spices and things that you get from merchants.

They were to wear their cloaks “tucked into their belts” is what one translation says; the liturgist read “with your loins girded up.” But ready to travel. And you were to be eating with your sandals on, that is, with your shoes on.

Understand, in most middle Eastern cultures, particularly in those days, you took your shoes off when you went into the house. Because your shoes were covered in dust and dirt, and the soles of your shoes might have been walking through who knows what, and they didn’t want to track it in.

Yet God says, eat with your shoes on. Eat with your coat on. Eat with your staff in hand. God was declaring the first fast-food feed. (Sorry, had to break the tension a little bit.)

This was such an important event that it even changed their calendar. The beginning of their year used to be in September/October. They still have a day there, it’s called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

But God said, you’re going to make the beginning of your religious calendar now the Passover. So that you remember, you start with freedom, and you always remember the freedom that I gave you, and that I brought you.

He told them, when they sacrificed the lambs, to paint the doorposts and lintels of their doors, the door jambs basically, with the lamb’s blood, so the Angel of Death would pass over them. Thus this Passover time, this final plague, presages the coming of Christ, as well as remembering the covenant with Abraham. It kind of bridges the two.

Because in the covenant with Abraham, God walked through the blood. He sealed it with blood. He said blood would be shed to cover you. And sure enough, blood was shed, to cover the Israelites.

And it presages the time when Jesus would come, and he shed his blood for us. The final time. No lambs needed anymore. Our sins washed clean from us. So that when God looks at us, He doesn’t see us.

It says in Scripture, Paul says we put on Christ’s righteousness, and the word for “put on” literally is the word that’s used for putting on a coat or a robe or a toga, a tunic, that kind of thing, an overcoat. So that when God sees us, He sees Christ’s righteousness and we are acceptable to Him.

This Passover that Jesus was celebrating with his disciples in Luke is the one we commemorate today, here on World Communion Sunday. It’s a time when we remember, once again, the shedding of blood, as the firstborn died for us.

The bread is his body, broken for us. The cup is his blood, shed for us for the remission of sin, the sign and seal of the covenant. And we’re to take that sacrament, and we are to experience, hopefully, the same kind of freedom that the Jews experienced after this plague in Egypt.

We’re hopefully going to experience the same kind of joy that the Jews felt, as they left the land of Egypt. And there was joy. Yes, there were scary times too. They ran and Pharaoh changed his mind and was coming after them with chariots. But God stood between the Egyptians and the Israelites, as a pillar of fire.

He went with them when they were in the wilderness, as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Always with them. And they were joyful when they crossed the Red Sea. Miriam had there in the Scriptures a whole poem, a song, she sang, so they sang and they danced.

They hit the drums and they played the lyre, which was their version of the guitar. They played the harp, and they sang hymns of praise and psalms, in joy for the freedom God had given them.

The Sacrament today can do the same for you, as you are freed from the bondage of sin and guilt and shame. You can experience the joy of knowing the love of Christ.

I pray that the Sacrament today will strengthen that faith, strengthen that joy, strengthen that sense of freedom, that liberty, so that you can know that you are loved by God, and that you can give Him praise and glory with all that you do, experiencing God’s grace even as the Israelites did, recognizing God’s promise fulfilled, and praising the new covenant that was made for each and every one of us.

To God be the glory for the great things He has done. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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