Our Hebrew scripture passage for today is a little different from the narratives we’ve been reading lately. Taking a turn from the plot staples of murder, theft, sex, treachery and deceit, today’s passage is more like a chapter in a book of religious rituals—it contains specific instructions for a meal the Hebrews were supposed to prepare, the first Passover meal.
But if you look past the specific cooking instructions, you’ll quickly see that this passage comes at the tail end of quite a dramatic turn of events in the life our friend Moses, and today’s passage is the merging of all these stories where Moses, his family and the Hebrew people—all of them, in unique ways, are being asked to pack up everything that’s familiar and set out on a literal journey of following God.
I asked you last week to join me in praying for friends and family down on the Gulf Coast. Last Sunday when we gathered for worship hurricane Gustav was roaring through the Gulf of Mexico straight toward poor, beleaguered New Orleans. We were on the telephone a lot with our friends and family there, trying to keep up with their plans for weathering the storm. This time it was particularly traumatic, coming right on the third anniversary of Katrina, but just like every other time a hurricane starts heading for New Orleans, I think about when we lived there and what the process of packing up and heading out is like.
It’s torturous, frankly. The first question is: should we go? Of course no one can predict the weather exactly, and who could predict the strength of levee walls? You’d hate to pack up and head out if there really wasn’t a need to go. New Orleanians and others on the Gulf Coast have weathered hurricanes for centuries; it might just be a few days of no electricity and a little bit of flooding. Is it really worth packing everything up?
Once the decision is made—we’re going to go—you have to decide where you’re going. Hopefully you have family not too far away but out of the reach of the hurricane; if not you have to compete with everyone else to try to find a hotel room in Birmingham or Jackson or Memphis.
Then, you have to decide what to take. Until Katrina nobody really thought whatever they left behind would be lost to them, but since then the reality has made it impossible not to consider that a serious possibility. What, in your life, would you take with you if you could only take a carful? The decisions are excruciating.
All of those agonizing decisions come before you even leave, before the storm hits, before the crisis comes. By the time you get to the point that you’re pulling out of your driveway a refugee, there’s already a whole lot of dramatic decision-making that has already happened.
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And so it was with Moses and with the Hebrew people, who were instructed by God in our Hebrew lesson today to make an elaborate meal, and then to strap their traveling shoes to their feet, pack their bags and be ready, ready to run! They didn’t know where. They didn’t know why. All they knew was God had given them instructions, and the instructions were to get ready to go.
Rewind just a little bit to where we found ourselves last week, shoeless in the sand in front of a burning bush with the voice of God echoing over the desert: “Moses, Moses!”
Over the chapters that followed God gave Moses a very detailed preview of what was ahead. God had heard the groans of agony coming from his people. God was ready to intervene to save them. And, Moses was the lucky one to get to break the news to the Pharaoh.
Last week Moses protested, but if you read on you’ll see that his protestations got more and more ardent the longer he listened to God explain exactly what he would have to do. Like, when God told Moses that step one in the plan would be for Moses to head over to the royal palace to inform the Pharaoh that God wanted him to let all the Hebrew people free from bondage to move out of the land of Egypt, Moses protested mightily, as you might expect (and as I would have done, I am quite sure). I have to say, out of all of his excuses I think my favorite has to be in chapter 4, verse 10, when Moses says: “O Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before now, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”
Good try, but even that didn’t work. God assigned Moses an assistant, his brother Aaron, who God said would speak for him in those moments when he was feeling less than eloquent.
So Moses and Aaron trooped off to the royal palace and explained to the Pharaoh that God wanted him to let the Hebrew people go. Predictably, Pharaoh was less than impressed. Moses and Aaron left and went back to report Pharaoh’s response to God—as if God didn’t already know. But narrative is narrative, and we need a big scene to stage the next dramatic turn of events. God said, “Well then, if Pharaoh won’t agree to my request, then I am going to stretch out my hand and make him sorry he declined.” Things were about to get bad for the Egyptian people . . . and they did.
The down-side for Moses and Aaron was that they had to keep going back to see the Pharaoh, delivering unlikely messages from God and hoping they’d get through each assignment alive. They turned sticks into snakes and water into blood. Hoards of frogs and insects infested the land; Egyptian cattle died by the thousands from unexplainable disease; the Egyptian people broke out in terrible boils; hail rained down and destroyed property and animals and people; the sun went out for three full days and the people walked around in darkness. And in between all of these horrible events, Moses and Aaron kept getting up, strapping on their shoes and marching to the palace, delivering the same message over and over. God says: “Pharaoh, let my people go!”
Finally, moving toward our Hebrew lesson today, God got fed up. Pharaoh’s resolve was weakening, but there was no way he was going to let the Hebrew people go. A whole workforce, gone? It would devastate the Egyptian economy. No, he would not let the people go.
Then the worst plague of all was announced, and once again Moses and Aaron were tasked with telling Pharaoh what was about to happen. God said, at midnight a great hush would fall over the whole land of Egypt, and the firstborn of everything in the land would die. The text says: “There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been, nor shall be any more” (11:6). And then, God said, finally . . . Pharaoh would let the people go.
This was the drama leading up to the passage we read today. Even with all the plagues, Pharaoh would not let the people go; the Hebrews could see what was going on but could never really imagine freedom. But all of the sudden, here it was. God instructed them to prepare a lamb and to mark their doorposts with its blood, a signal that they were ready, ready to get up and go to wherever God is leading them. Moses told them: “Get ready. Prepare your meal and eat it with your traveling clothes on; your sandals on your feet; your traveling stick in your hand. Eat quickly and be ready, because when God calls, it’s time to go!”
Can you imagine their fear and ambivalence? For generations they had weathered the storms of slavery in Egypt. They’d watched Moses and Aaron agitate the Pharaoh with their demands and they’d felt the effects of his intimidation as their workload increased and the conditions of their slavery got more and more harsh.
But they weren’t blind. They could see the pressure rising; they observed the plagues; they saw Moses and Aaron going back and forth to the palace to ask for their freedom. And so, when they got the list of strange instructions for dinner, they had to decide: were they going to pack up everything in their lives to follow the command of God? Were they willing to eat on the run, as God directed, even though they weren’t quite sure where they were running to?
Since the very first Passover, of course, Jewish people everywhere celebrate an elaborate Passover meal as a ritualistic remembrance. When Jews gather for Passover today they eat symbolic foods and tell the story of the first Passover again, when God asked them to put on their traveling clothes and get ready to go wherever God would lead.
As Christians, we also will celebrate a ritual meal today where we eat symbolic food and tell the story of God’s invitation to us as well. It’s also an ancient meal, celebrated by Jesus and his disciples two thousand years ago.
And, as people of faith, it’s awfully tempting to experience a meal like Passover, or a meal like communion today, as a dry ritual harkening back to a historical experience we didn’t witness and that holds little relevance for our 21st century lives. But be careful . . . gathering around a meal set for us by the God of the universe can only mean one thing: we’d better be ready to go.
Following God, as Moses and the Hebrews and all of us have found out over and over again, is not a life of static, predictable monotony. No, God is always calling us to be ready, ready to live out the faith we claim with courage, to travel to new and uncharted places, to show with our very lives the radical God we follow.
This is no static meal . . . as we come to the table of Christ today, we’d best come with our traveling clothes on, sandals strapped to our feet and walking stick in hand. Because gathering together as followers of Christ is no mindless social activity. Everything depends on our response to God’s call; we must be ready to pack up everything and go, because God’s kingdom is coming to be all around us . . . and, more than anything, we don’t want to miss it.
We’ll hear the rest of this dramatic story next week; sure enough, celebrating that first Passover was a prelude to the biggest road trip of the Hebrews’ lives.
And so it may very well be with us.
As you come to the table of Christ, know this: following God takes courage and conviction, the willingness to be ready to go, wherever God leads and wherever the Kingdom of God is coming to be in this world.
This meal is one that demands our response. As you come to the table today, come with everything you have and everything you are, ready to go to the next place God is calling you.
You ready? Let’s go.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.