Out of Egypt: First Annual Exodus
I went to seminary at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Drew is a University, so aside from the theological school, there was also a graduate school and an undergraduate school. My first year on campus, I saw signs for an undergraduate event called “The First Annual Picnic.” I didn’t think much of it, until I heard people talking about how much they always looked forward to “The First Annual Picnic.” What? Turns out, the event was always called The First Annual Picnic, even though it had been happening for many years. I don’t know if it started out that way – if they intended from the start to create a new event, or what. I've certainly known that to happen in church events – you try something one year with an unspoken understanding that if it goes well, you will do it again, year after year.
I couldn’t help but think of The First Annual Picnic as I read this week’s scripture text. Today, after spending the summer in the gospel of Matthew, we’re shifting gears and heading into the Old Testament. In particular, we’ll spend the next few weeks journeying with the Israelites as Moses leads them out of Egypt, an event known as the Exodus. It’s a word that means literally: the road out, and that’s why the second book of the Bible is so named – it’s the story of the journey of the Israelites as they literally and figuratively leave the life they knew as slaves in Egypt and head, eventually, for the Promised Land.
You may be familiar with the story of the Exodus – although you might have more images stuck in your mind from the Charlton Heston movie then from reading the actual text. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt. They ended up in this circumstance because Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham – Joseph made a deal with the Pharaoh to feed his family, his elevenbrothers who would be the starting points of the tribes of Israel – when Israel suffered a great famine. But eventually a Pharaoh arose in Egypt who didn’t remember Joseph, and the Israelites became poorly treated slaves, rather than friends rescued from starvation. The Pharaoh treats the people harshly, eventually ordering death of Israelite male newborns, lest the Israelites increase in number and power and overthrow their captors. God calls Moses to speak to Pharaoh and persuade Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Pharaoh, of course, will not agree to do any such thing, even after a series of plagues. Finally, God tells Moses there will be a plague killing the firstborn of all the Egyptian households. But God will spare the Israelite families, passing over their homes. Then, the Israelites will flee to safety across the Red Sea.
It is this Passover – the passing over of the home of the Israelites, this plague of the first-born sons – that our text for today describes. God tells Moses how each household should prepare for this first Passover, describing the meal they should prepare, a meal meant to be prepared and eaten with haste, with bags packed and shoes on and staff in hand, and ready to go. But blood on the doorposts and lintel from the lamb eaten for dinner will be the sign for God to Passover that home, keeping the firstborn safe. And then the passage concludes with “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.” In other words, right from the start, before the first Passover takes place, God lets the people know that this will be an annual event. It’s the First Annual – and God already knows this action, this event, will be so important to the identity of the Israelites that they must remember it every year.
Indeed, the Passover is a significant event for the Israelites. It’s significant in Jesus’s life, and he makes it significant to us when, long after this first Passover, Jesus uses a celebration of Passover, an anniversary Passover just like God promises there will be, to share what we know now as the Last Supper – the first celebration of what has become Holy Communion for us. But as significant as it is, I’m also mindful of what a hard story this is too. Regardless of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, and the enslavement of the Israelites, a story where firstborn children are killed – Israelite or Egyptian – and where God is guiding the action – is hard to reconcile with the God of love we talk about so often. I wish we could spend more time on that now. This is something we’ll be talking about in our Wednesday night Bible Study in the weeks ahead. But for now, for today, let me try to point you to what I think are the key parts of our text. Why is God so sure already that the people will need to celebrate Passover again and again? Why will they need to remind themselves of this day, the day they left Egypt and slavery? Was there a chance they could ever forget such a significant event?
As we think about this text and our own lives, I think there are two key points here. First, we have to know why we’re leaving Egypt, and second, once we leave, we have to remember why we left. That might sound pretty simple. And it is – simple to say. But the story of Exodus that we’ll follow this month will remind us that it is apparently quite difficult to do. The Israelites left Egypt because they had become slaves. They left because their living conditions were worsening. They were facing abuse and oppression and loss of life. I hope that our own situations are not so dire. But in these weeks that we think about what it means for God to call us out of Egypt, I do want us to seriously examine our lives and ask ourselves what we need to leave behind. What are the situations in our lives that are not life-giving? What about our lives is in conflict with what God hopes and dreams for us? What in your life is preventing you from responding with your whole heart to God’s call? These are the reasons God calls us from Egypt. Whatever keeps us from experiencing God’s abundance, and whatever keeps us from offering our whole selves to God – these are the reasons why we risk a journey into the unknown. That’s point one. Know why we’re leaving Egypt. What we’re leaving. Do you remember point two?
Point two is: remember point one! Remember what we’re leaving and why we’re leaving. This is why God institutes a First Annual Remembrance of the Passover and Exodus before it has even happened the first time. God, who created us and loves us also knows how prone to forgetting even the most important things we are. The farther we journey from what Egypt means to us, the harder it will be to remember how much Egypt kept us from experiencing the life God wants for us. That’s what happens with the Israelites, as we’ll see in the next weeks. Think about it. This week is the thirteenth anniversary of the horrific tragedy of 9/11. How could we forget? And yet, I work with our conference youth, and my oldest youth, those who are seniors this year, were four or five years old when 9/11 happened. They don’t remember! And my youth who are just starting middle school – they weren’t born yet on 9/11. So this huge event that shapes our national identity still in significant ways – people who are now becoming legal adults – they already don’t remember. The farther we journey from Egypt, the less we remember why it was important to leave the things that were keeping us from drawing closer to God.
And so, before the Israelites even leave Egypt, God sets them up with a plan to remember. Remember always that they were once slaves in Egypt, oppressed and abused, and that God led them to freedom. Remember that they had the courage, once, to follow, and to leave behind what was awful, but still known and so, in a way, comfortable. God starts them out with a way to remember. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us. God is trying to help us in our discipleship all the time with ways to remember. With a rainbow in the sky. With the waters of baptism and renewal. With the bread and cup we will share today, remembering Jesus calling us to remember!
God is calling us, even now, to leave Egypt, to leave our crutches, our addictions, our struggles, our excuses, our grudges, our settling for less than the Promised Land. I want you to think hard, in the weeks ahead, about what it is that you need to leave behind in Egypt. And even as you recognize what’s keeping you from offering your whole heart to God, plan to remember. Today we gather at the table: the table of forgiveness, the table of invitation, the table of reconciliation, the table of hope and life, the table of remembrance. We remember the whole story of God and God’s people. We remember the Passover. We remember Jesus transforming this meal into an offering of his life poured out for us. We listen for God’s call. We prepare for a new journey. We acknowledge what God is asking us to leave behind. Christ invites us to leave it there. And when we gather at the table again, we’ll remember. Amen.