Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, points out the risk of Christians being objects of pity, in fact being the most pitied people around. Did he think that because they were denied the hedonistic lifestyle of those around them, because their choice of meat for the menu might have to avoid that sacrificed to idols, or because of some other limitation placed on them by their faith?
Find out by reading the sermon preached in the Cathedral on April 14th. The readings for the day were Psalm 136, Exodus 12:14-36, 1 Corinthians 15:12-19.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen
I wonder if you’ve ever been to some event where lots of people are gathered who don’t know one another. The person in charge often seems to want to force us to relate to those around us, in my experience. So you get some command from the front such as: ‘Turn to your neighbour and tell them what you had for breakfast’ or ‘Turn to your neighbour and say “God is good”’ or, horror of horrors, (and I experienced this one): ‘Give the person in front of you a shoulder massage’. The variations are endless. For the extravert this is done happily; for the more introverted, failure to find a hole to disappear down forces them to comply as best they can, feeling thoroughly uncomfortable all the while.
Stepping out of our comfort zone is not something most of us relish. We generally don’t like taking risks and don’t like the thought that people might laugh at us. When you look at this story from Genesis there is plenty of potential for the Israelites to be mocked. They were slaves in a land where they were once honoured guests as the family of Joseph, the man who saved Egypt from starvation. Things changed so much and they found themselves working hard all day at the mercy of Pharaoh’s commands. Their children, the boys at least, were supposed to be killed at birth. The Israelites were nothing, nobodies. Imagine the potential reaction when, in response to Moses’ command which he received from God, they went and asked their Egyptian neighbours for jewellery and clothes. You might expect that the derisory laughter would echo throughout the kingdom but it seems that the Israelites got what they asked for.
I wonder if that helped to build their faith for the big event. God told them to make elaborate preparations for the angel of death’s visit. The instructions were very precise with the day of the month given for selecting a lamb and the day for slaughtering it. Can you imagine the questioning looks from the Egyptians as the Israelites daubed the lintels and doorposts with blood from the lambs? They probably thought that some kind of mass delusion had taken hold. However, the Israelites lived as if what God had told them was the truth. They prepared their lambs and bread and bitter herbs, they ate with sandals on, belts fastened and staffs in hand. And then they waited.
Just think if the angel of death hadn’t come and they had waited up all night. In the morning they would certainly deserve to be pitied for having been deceived, for believing a lie, being naïve. We express pity in much the same when we hear about various cults. They proclaim the day when they will be taken to heaven in a space ship or whatever. The day comes and goes with nothing happening and we wonder why anyone allowed themselves to be taken in by such fanciful ideas. The outcome can be very sad indeed with whole groups of people committing mass suicide.
Of course, the faith of the Israelites in God’s word to them was justified. The angel of death did come as promised and they were soon on their way from Egypt, out of slavery into the Promised Land of plenty. A new life was available to them. God knew that hard times would hit them and they would yearn for the old life. In anticipation he built in a memorial of this time, in fact he built it in before the event had even happened. It wasn’t a case of the escape happening and then God instituting a memorial. He instituted it in detail beforehand. In future the Israelites were to have a week of remembering from the 14th to 21st of the newly designated first month of their year. They were to celebrate Passover and remember God’s fulfilment of his promise to them of freedom from their old life of slavery. The unleavened bread, the lamb, the bitter herbs were to remind them of the day the angel of the Lord passed over their houses. When you listen to today’s psalm you can be in no doubt that the people remembered what God had done for them.
What we see in the story of the Israelites is really pointing to the experience of the whole human race. We started out as honoured guests in the world, given a beautiful place to live in by God just as Joseph’s family were given the best land by Pharaoh, the land of Goshen. However, we too became slaves, not through the actions of Pharaoh but by making wrong choices and becoming slaves to sin. Just as for the Israelites, our children are killed at birth, not at the hands of people but by inheriting our sinful nature, being dead in their sins.
During the season of Lent we have mirrored the experience of the Israelites. Many of us will have attended an Ash Wednesday service and been marked on the forehead with a cross made of ash in oil. The ash is taken from the residue when palm crosses from the previous year are burnt. The palm crosses remind us of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ final week as he moved towards the time when his blood was shed, when he was ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter’, as Isaiah tells us, on Good Friday. The Israelites daubed their lintels and doorposts and we have our foreheads daubed. And then, we wait, not for just a night, but for the 6 weeks of Lent.
Paul points out in his letter that, if what we wait for is not true, we are to be pitied above all people. The Israelites waited for the angel to arrive to give them freedom. We wait for Jesus to be resurrected, because only if he is are we freed from the slavery of sin and death. It was the death of every first born in Egypt that finally bought freedom for the Israelites. It is the death and resurrection of God’s only Son which buys freedom for us from our old life into a new and wonderful life full of promise. The resurrection allows us to walk into the Promised Land of abundant life.
We are just into the beginning of the 6 weeks of the Easter season. It took Jesus’ followers that time to piece together their understanding of what had happened on Easter Day. Jesus had done his best to prepare them but they were still not ready for the resurrection when it came. God in his mercy provided lots of evidence to help them. As Paul tells earlier in Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, Jesus ‘appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.’ We can choose to ignore these eye witness accounts or we can do like the Israelites and live as though they are true.
God knows we will doubt and find that the life of faith is rocky at times. Just as the Israelites were given their Passover, we have our great feast of Easter Day and our regular lesser feasts of Sundays through the year when we eat bread and drink wine in communion services to remember what Jesus did the night before he died. We are not objects of pity, putting our faith in something that never happened. Our faith is not futile; we are not still in our sins; those who have died in Christ have not perished; we have hope for more than just this life. The resurrection happened and we have been raised with Christ. Our sins are forgiven.
Did you notice that Pharaoh asked for a blessing from the Israelites? As they gained their freedom he asked to be blessed by them. We too can offer a blessing to those who have done wrong to us. As forgiven people we can live in the joy of being forgivers.
As John Bunyan wrote:
Far better news the Gospel brings.
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
Doubt not his sacrifice can save.
God sealed it with an empty grave.
And by his blood and life we live,
and now have freedom to forgive.