How do you go about remembering? I know that's a slightly odd question, given that most of the time we just do or we don't. But, when you really need to remember something important, what do you do?
We have just commemorated a century since the Armistice, and remembered all of the service men and women who have given their life to serve our country. And to help us to remember this we have developed a complex series of symbols and rituals, which are subtly added to year on year, to keep on making them ours. And I wonder if, in your families, you've done the same? Do you have a family tradition or object that help you remember a significant person, place or time in your family's life?
Or, perhaps like me, you're known for a somewhat suspect memory. Hannah, my lovely wife, never fails to be amazed by my ability to remember something completely useless – like football stats from before my own lifetime – and yet to forget a simple request or item on a shopping list from mere minutes earlier.
As we approach Exodus 12, we should not be surprised to find that God's people were much the same. The later stories of Exodus are full of forgetting. Yet, here in Exodus 12, they are given specific instructions to help them to remember what they had been set free from, how they were set free and what they were set free to do. And it is these three ideas we're going to explore together this morning, as we seek to remind ourselves of the same truths, but with the benefit of the incredible perspective offered by the New Testament.
1. Remember What You Were Set Free From (Exodus 11)
Any reading of Exodus 12 can only make sense if we first think about what had happened to the Israelites.
Genesis ends with things looking great. The Israelites are loved in Egypt because of Joseph. But, it doesn't take long for things to deteriorate. The new Pharaoh didn't care or know about what Joseph did, he just saw a threat from these foreign people in his land. And so, step by step, he tries to eliminate them. First, they're made slaves. Then, a brutal assault on their children, with the command to kill newborn children.
It is into this scene that we are introduced to Moses. Having been rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, he eventually flees Egypt only to meet God, who commissions him to return to Egypt and free his people.
And, on the eve of the tenth plague, it's important to recognise that throughout his life God had been shaping Moses. He had endured trial after trial in his life. But, in all of these moments of deliverance God was instilling in Moses the 'Passover faith' that would be required to rescue His people from their oppression.
How do we respond to trials and suffering? What gets us through hard times? Where do we turn for help? Moses learnt through all of his own personal trials that the only one he could turn to was the Lord, his God. Is that where we throw ourselves? Because, in his own experience of trials and temptations Moses had learned what he needed to so he could walk with God's people through their suffering and to their escape and his life challenges us to do the same.
The Plague on the Firstborn is the tenth of the plagues that God sent to Egypt. In each of the plagues so far, God had shown that the Egyptian gods were fakes, powerless to do anything. And, in Exodus 11, there is a subtle shift in the way that God approaches Moses. Exodus 11.1 states:
"Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterwards he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely."
This plague will be different. This plague will be solely the work of God. And this time deliverance is promised.
Yet, as Exodus 11 ends and transitions towards Exodus 12 it must have looked like Moses, and by association, God had failed. The Pharaoh's heart was hardened and the Israelites were still slaves. Nothing had really changed! But Israel was about to be called to an act of faith. They were being called to have faith in the blood of another, who could bring them their deliverance.
At this point, I can't but help to try to imagine what it must have been like to be an Israelite in Goshen that night. Wondering if the words of Moses are true. Wondering if the God who had done so much could do more, could go even further to raise us up out of our bondage.
And isn't that just like us? I don't know about you, but I know that there are times in my life when I'm exhausted by my failure to deal with repeated sins, either by a failure to prioritise God and his word over trifling things in this world, or by a failure to really love my neighbour. It would easy to collapse, and to give up, and to conclude that either the promises of God, the promises of his incredible grace and steadfast love, are either not for me or not true at all. But, just like the Hebrews in Goshen that night, we are called this morning by this passage to show Passover faith.
2. Remember How You Were Set Free (Exodus 12.1-13)
Let's try to step back and into the story of Exodus, to picture ourselves there that night. What must it have been like, receiving the news from Moses that we had to go, slaughter a lamb and paint the blood on our door frames? Would we have gone and done it straight away? Or would we have questioned, quizzed and queried the wisdom of it? And, after the act was done, with the strange mix of smells that must have filled each home – the blood on the door frame, the roasting lamb on the fire, what then? Would we have gathered close together, huddled against the night outside and the uncertainty of what this night would bring? Or would we have been convinced that the God who could do all he'd done so far was going to deliver us up and out of the grim situation, we found ourselves in? As we step into the text of Exodus 12 and remember how the Israelites were set free, we find three lessons and one warning.
i. A Time of Great Unity
The first incredible message of the Passover is that it was a time of great unity. Those families not big enough to merit a lamb to themselves were to join up with someone else so that nothing was wasted. The people were to be united in their celebration of all that God was about to do for them, and in the future in their act of remembering what he had done. And, as Exodus 12.6 illustrates, this offering was for the whole people of Israel.
ii. A Time to Be Distinctive
Having sacrificed the animal, the Passover was a time to be distinctive. In the previous plagues, God hadn't needed any clues to spot who his people were. But, here they are commanded to paint their doorframes with the blood of the lamb. This must have looked surreal to their Egyptian neighbours, but this act of faith was a public demonstration of the people's conviction that God was indeed the Lord, and that he would recognise that in their homes a firstborn had died in their place.
iii. The Expectation of Freedom
And, as they ate, they were to dress as If they were about to leave the house. This wasn't to be a leisurely evening meal, but a meal shared with the expectation of freedom. They were to eat with haste because even if they hadn't physically made it out yet, they were eating as a people liberated and redeemed. This is the first-time God's people were told to meet in the future, eat and remember all that he had done.
iv. Prone to Forgetfulness
Why? Because they were prone to forgetfulness. Psalm 78 gives us a great picture of this forgetfulness, presenting a double history of the people of Israel's willful disobedience to God and wandering from him. Twice these events in Egypt are referred to, and twice Israel rebels. And we have got to be careful reading this and judging them! We are prone to forgetfulness too!
Do we look at these three lessons from how the people were saved, and the one warning and see them reflected in our own walk with God?
There's a challenge for us to be a people who are distinctive in the world and known firstly for our love of Christ. I don't know about you, but if I meet someone new the conversation normally starts with something like, 'what do you do?' And I can talk for hours about my career and everything else.
But how quickly do I take the conversation to 'what do you believe?' If we are remembering how we were set free then the desire to be distinctive has to be top of our priority list. We've also got to remember that we too are a people promised freedom, whether from present suffering or for eternity. But it's easy for this future hope to feel so far off that we don't really understand or think it is real. That's why it is so important we remember. That is why we celebrate communion as we are commanded by our Lord to "do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22.19). We forget. As the lamb slain for Passover was without flaw and given over to death, so Jesus went to the cross for us.
We know that we are forgetful – I know that I'm forgetful – yet, here we are commanded to remember again. To look to the lamb of Passover, and to the Lamb of God, and to see how we were set free. To see how we – who deserve so little – have been given so much. These truths led the author to the Hebrews to declare:
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful." (Hebrews 10.19-23).
3. Remember What You Were Set Free For (Exodus 12.14-27)
We live in an age where freedom is seen as an essential. We are free to do and to choose as we like or as we feel and any attempt from one person to restrict the freedom of another is condemned.
But, this freedom is restricted because it has too small a view of freedom itself! Freedom from something is all well and good. But it loses meaning if we don't have a clear view of what we've been set free for.
In these verses in Exodus 12 God explains to his people what they have been set free for; they have been set free for obedience to him. God's command to obey is an invitation to be truly free, to live life to the full in service of him. And it is this invite he extends to his people in the instructions on how to observe Passover in the years ahead.
Firstly, they are commanded to remove leaven from the household, and to only eat unleavened bread. Leaven performed a similar role to that which yeast performs today in baking, and a small portion of it was kept from day to day. Therefore, removing any leaven from the home there was a command to get ready for a completely fresh start! In giving the Israelites their freedom, God was granting them an incredible new beginning and in the annual removal of the leaven, they were not only to remember this but also to relive it.
Exodus 12.21-27 describe Moses' instruction to the elders of Israel to act as God had instructed, and to live by faith. The painting of the blood, the staying indoors overnight, the eating of unleavened bread, dressed ready to leave; all of these point to their faith that by the death of the lamb their salvation was accomplished. And Exodus 12.24-27 describe how in future years the Israelites were to recall what had happened. But not what they had done! Remember what the Lord had done! It is the Lord's Passover, when the Lord passed over the houses of the people of Israel, struck the Egyptians and spared the Israelite homes.
What are we set free for? The Passover vividly demonstrated then – and demonstrates now – that we are saved for worship. We are saved to praise the Lord of heaven and earth, and we are to entrust everything to him.
Are we full of rejoicing? When the Israelites journey across the Red Sea was complete, what did they do? They partied! They sang songs of praise, danced and celebrated because they were set free! How much more should we rejoice and celebrate, because if we are set free by the Son, we are free indeed!
So, how can we celebrate? How can we live lives shaped by thanksgiving for all that our God has done for us? What's the first thing you do in the morning? I know that all too often for me it's a quick check of news headlines and emails. I've resolved to start each day with a focus on saying thank you to God for all that he's done in the days before, and for the opportunities in the day ahead. I'm sure you can think of lots of little parts of your day that you could reclaim to shift your focus onto remembering what we've been set free for: whether it's a Christian podcast or music on the commute or taking ten minutes out of a lunch break to take stock and spend some time with God.
And we are to do this together. We are not saved to be individual islands, floating around in isolation. We are to be together, encouraging and challenging one another. So let's resolve to make the most of our time together and to take every opportunity we can to do so, whether on a Sunday or in the week.
I don't know if you've come across the Heidelberg Catechism. I must confess that, beyond it being something I'd heard of, it wasn't something I knew a great deal about. I've since learnt that it was the product of the 16th-century German reformation. And, in responding to its first question, it sets out in terms far richer than I could come up with, what we have been saved for. The question is posed, 'What is your only comfort in life and death'? And the answer states:
That I am not my own,
but belong with body and soul,
both in life and in death,
to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins
with his precious blood,
and has set me free
from all the power of the devil.
He also preserves me in such a way
that without the will of my heavenly Father
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, all things must work together
for my salvation.
Therefore, by his Holy Spirit
he also assures me
of eternal life
and makes me heartily willing and ready
from now on to live for him
[The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563]
My prayer this morning for us all is that the lessons of the first Passover will help us to remember that, having been saved by God through the blood of Jesus, we are inheritors of the promises given to Israel and more. We have been saved so that we can go out from here and live for him by the power of the Spirit, encouraging one another to good works and constantly reminding one another of the incredible power and goodness of God.