Thursday, 1 October 2020

The Passover Lamb

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation, 

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 

October 4th 2020

Exodus 12.1-13; 13.1-8

If last week’s passage found its artistic resonance

            in the musical genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice,

this week’s surely is all about DreamWorks’

            all-star vocal cast animation The Prince of Egypt,

or possibly if you’re of an older generation,

            Charlton Heston, Cecil B. DeMille, and The Ten Commandments.


The image of enslaved Israelites marking their door lintels with blood,

            as the angel of death passes over them to visit the houses of the Egyptians,

is one which is written deep into our cultural memory,

            just as it has been foundational for the central religious traditions

            of both Judaism and Christianity.


This is the original Passover,

            celebrated within Judaism as the revelation of God

                        as the one who delivers people from oppression.

And it is also the origin of the Lord’s Supper,

            the moment when Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples

                        and revealed himself as the one who will bring deliverance

                        from enslavement to sin and death.


Our reading today gives us two stages of the story

            of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery:

In chapter 12 we meet the story of the Passover lamb and the blood on the door lintels,

            and then in chapter 13 we hear of the institution of the Feast of Unleavened Bread;

and it is this blood and this bread

            that we will meet in the bread and the wine that we will use

            as we remember the body and blood of Jesus on the cross

            as we celebrate communion later in our service this morning.


We’ll come back to the idea of Jesus as the Passover lamb in a minute,

            but first I want us to consider what, for many people,

                        is a deeply troubling aspect to this story,

            and this is the divine violence that lies at the heart of it.


When our God-daughter was a little girl,

            her primary school did a series of assemblies on different religious traditions.

And when they came to the story of the Passover,

            she came home from school that day deeply troubled.

She had heard, time and again, her parents and her church

                        telling her that God was a God of love,

            so when she encountered the story of God sending the angel of death

                        to kill the firstborn children of the Egyptians,

            her concern was that, as a firstborn child herself,

                        if she had lived in ancient Egypt, would God have killed her?


Her parents decided that this was definitely a question for her God-parents,

            and so the next time we were round there,

            the question came our way…


Did God kill the firstborn children,

            even though they had done nothing to deserve it,

and might God do the same again under similar circumstances?


It’s troubling, isn’t it,

            because it takes us right to the heart of what kind of a God we actually worship.


Well, trying to frame an answer to the question of theodicy

            for a seven year old is never easy,

but I can remember asking our God-daughter

            how she would feel if she wasn’t an Egyptian first-born,

            but a first-born of the Israelites.


And together we remembered that earlier in the story,

            Pharaoh had given the order

            that every first-born male Jewish baby was to be killed,

and we imagined how it felt to be a Jewish slave in Egypt

            with no freedom, no hope, and terrible hardship.


And what we realised was that this story feels different,

            when it is read from the perspective of the Jewish children,

            than it does when it is read from the perspective of the Egyptian children.


And we reflected that as those who, in global terms at least,

            sit more at the Egyptian end of the economic and power spectrum

                        than the Israelite-slaves,

            our natural tendency was to identify with the Egyptians

                        rather than with the Israelites.


Well, as liberation theologians have consistently shown us,

            learning to read texts from the bottom-up,

            amplifying the voices of the oppressed that are usually silenced,

can be a way into fresh encounter with otherwise difficult stories.


I’m not sure that reading this text as an Israelite rather than an Egyptian

            entirely excuses God’s actions against the Egyptians,

            but it certainly takes us a step towards hearing the story more helpfully.


But of course, there is more to say on this

            than I was able say to our God-daughter all those years ago.


Because of course these stories are not first-hand accounts of ‘what God did in Egypt’,

            these are stories told a thousand or more years later,

            and written down by the Jews in exile in Babylon in the seventh century BC.


The question to ask of the book of Exodus is not,

            ‘why did God kill the firstborn Egyptians?’,

but rather,

            ‘why did this story emerge and evolve to say that God did?’


This is a question of theology, not history,

            and the answer lies in the Israelite experience of the Babylonian exile.


At a time when they were oppressed, enslaved, exiled in Babylon,

            they told and re-told this story from their pre-history,

to explore the question of how it might be

            that God is at work to bring release for the captives

            and judgment on those who violently cause their oppression.


But we’re still not quite there in excusing God’s divine violence, are we?

            We may have read the text from the perspective

                        of the Israelites rather than the Egyptians,

            and we may have contextualised the story

                        as a non-historical theological exploration

            of the Israelite experience of Babylonian exile,

but God is still a character in this story,

            and, within the story, the firstborn of the Egyptians still die.


Just because a story isn’t historical,

            doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to answer for its assertions.


And here I think we come to the heart of the issue,

            which crops up for us again and again as we read through scripture.


Do we accept that God is violent,

            or do we not?


And here we find ourselves back at the story of Jesus,

            and the events of the last supper.


The images of blood and bread from the Passover story

            become the blood and body of Jesus,

            soon to be broken on the cross.


The question of divine violence

            is as much present in the story of the cross

            as it in in the story of the Passover.


Does God kill Jesus on the cross,

            or is something else going on here?


There are certainly many Christians who would indeed assert

            that God kills Jesus.


The logic, known as the theory of substitutionary atonement,

            runs as follows:

                        the wages of sin is death,

                        and we all sin, so we all deserve death,

            but God wants to grant us eternal life,

                        so Jesus dies in our place

                        as God’s wrath at human sin is placed on him.


There was some considerable controversy a few years ago

            about one line in that otherwise magnificent hymn, ‘In Christ alone’,

which has lost its place in several hymn books,

            because of the authors unwillingness to allow a change to their text:

            ‘Till on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’.


None other than Tom Wright, doyen of thinking evangelicals

                        and the former Bishop of Durham,

            has said that in his view this line should be changed to:

                        ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died The love of God was satisfied.’

            and indeed many congregations just sing this alternative version anyway.


Well, I don’t want to get into a discussion on the legalism of copyright legislation,

            but I do note that at stake here is a key question

            regarding who we think God is.


For my money, this view of a violent God is inadequate,

            and that the cross is not God violently killing Jesus,

it is God-in-Jesus reaching into the depths of human suffering

            to redeem all those who suffer the violence caused by human sin.


God did not crucify Jesus,

            the Romans did.


And in this we catch a glimpse of God-in-Jesus,

            whose response to suffering is to embrace those who suffer,

            and to redeem those who are enslaved.


And so we’re back to Babylon, and to Egypt:

            both stories from our inherited faith tradition

            that show God at work to bring release and redemption.


And I want to suggest one further re-reading of this story,

            where we read it not as Israelite children, nor as Jewish exiles,

            nor even as historical critics.


I want us to read this story through the lens of God’s revelation in Jesus.

            God-in-Jesus is never violent towards the innocent,

            and is always angry at oppression.


The violence in human history, by this reading,

            is always the consequence of human sin;

            and this includes the suffering of the Israelite children in Egypt.


Empires that oppose God’s kingdom of love

            are always destined for destruction,

and those that embrace violence in their quest for domination,

            contain within their violence the seeds of their own violent demise;

because however powerful they may become,

            they are always going to reap what they have sown.


Those who sow the wind, will reap the whirlwind,

            as the prophet Hosea put it (Hos. 8.7).


Reading the story of the Passover as a theological exploration

            of the futile efforts of human empires

            to destroy God’s in-breaking eternal kingdom,

but taking our understanding of God’s action

            from the revelation of God in Jesus,

takes us to a place of hope,

            where those who seek to destroy God’s kingdom

                        whether through enslavement of his people

                        or the execution of his son,

            are ultimately destined for failure.


Ultimately, I would want to suggest,

            that on the cross, as Jesus died

            the love of God was not just satisfied, but magnified.


And as we come towards the Lord’s Table,

            to encounter Jesus as the Passover lamb,

            through his broken body and shed blood,

let us focus our worship

            on one who came to redeem the captives,

            and bring peace to those trapped in violence.



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