Exodus 11:1-13:16

Sun, 14/02/2010 - 09:30 -- James Oakley


I’m sure there is not a child anywhere in the English-speaking world who has not had a phase of asking “why” to everything. Children are naturally curious. They want to know how the world fits together. So as they observe things happening, they ask why? They want to understand.

Much that we do here in church makes people ask “why” as well? Why do we eat a meal each week comprising a small amount of bread and wine? Why do we have readings from the Bible in church? Why do we have a sermon? And so on.

Ancient Israel had a number of customs that would get the children asking: Why are we eating only pitta bread this week? What’s wrong with yeast? Why do we have this special meal each year with such a particular menu? Why does each family kill a lamb when they have their first baby? Why?

The answer, in each case, is a story, the story of the Passover. Moses tells the people that, for each of these questions, the answer is to be: Tell them the story of the Passover. That is the reason why.

The Passover

Let’s remind ourselves of the story. I deliberately chose our reading to be from Exodus 13, because chapter 12, the story of the Passover itself, is much more well-known to us. Still: Let’s refresh our memory.

Chapter 12, verse 3: Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbour shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

This event was a defining moment for the people of Israel. God tells them that it is to reset their calendar, and is to be remembered forever throughout all generations. This occasion defined the shape of their relationship with God. Whenever they wanted to recall what kind of God they have, and how he relates to them, it is the Passover that they had to come back to. And the Passover must never be forgotten, because to forget this is to forget their God.

To be more exact, the Passover set up two particular lines along which their relationship with God ran.

They belong to God

The first contour that the Passover established was that they belong to God. They belong to God.

Chapter 13, verses 1 and 2, say this: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.’” On the surface, all the firstborn animals and people belong to God. We’ll think about the lamb’s blood and the lamb meal in a moment. But when we do, we’ll notice that the firstborn represented the whole family. The people belong to God.

So how does this work itself out for them? Well that’s the bit we had read. Whenever an animal has its first child, that animal belongs to God. The way you give it to God is that you kill it, and then burn it as a sacrifice. The smoke goes up to God as his portion of the meal.

But what about new-born people, babies? Should they kill them too? No, no again, and emphatically no. Molech, the God of the Moabites, used to demand that they sacrificed their children to him; the one true God, the LORD, repeatedly said that he detests this and would never ask his people to do such a thing. So they don’t kill the new-born baby; they redeem it – that’s to say, they buy it back – with a lamb. They kill a lamb in the place of the boy or girl.

But why do they have to kill all their firstborn animals – or a lamb in its place? Chapter 13, verse 14: “When in time to come, your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals.”

Why? Because of the story of the Passover. Because on that night, God took for himself every firstborn animal and every firstborn person. And any who are born afterwards, they are his as well. Their firstborn children don’t die because a lamb is killed in their place – just like what happened on the night they left Egypt. We’ll come back to the lambs in a moment. What the consecration of the firstborn shows us is why killing the lamb meant that the Israelite firstborn children were spared from death. The lamb was killed in their place, as their substitute. God accepted the lamb instead of them.

But what the consecration of the firstborn does quite radically is set up the relationship whereby these people belong to God. The firstborn are now his, and they represent the whole people. They are now God’s special possession.

They were rescued by God.

That’s the first contour of their relationship with God that the Passover established. The second contour is that they were rescued by God. They were rescued by God.

Another moment when the “why” questions might start to flow is the festival of unleavened bread. For the week following the Passover, they had to eat nothing with yeast in it. Why? Rather than guess, Moses tells them how to answer the question. Verse 8: “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” The unleavened bread reminds them that God brought them out in a hurry. Unleavened bread was travellers’ food. They didn’t have time to let their bread rise.

So a modern-day equivalent would be to take a week each year when we get out the Calor gas camping stoves, and we do all our cooking in tiny saucepans on these. We restrict ourselves to preparing our food in the way we would if we were on a long journey. It reminded them that God got them out of Egypt. He rescued them.

The other moment when the “why” questions come is the annual Passover meal. Once a year they would remember this great, one-off event by re-enacting it. They’d eat the same food that they ate on the night they came out of Egypt. The unleavened bread for a week invites them to remember the fact that God brought them out; the Passover invites them to remember how he did so.

And to do so, they each had to take a lamb, kill it and do two things with it. They had to paint its blood on their doorposts. They had to eat the meat as roast meat. We’ve already said that the lamb was a substitute – it died so that the firstborn son did not have to.

This makes the final plague different from all the others. With the others, God knew where Goshen was, he knew where the Israelites lived, and the plagues automatically passed the Israelites by. With this one, they had to kill a lamb in the way God had described. They had to stay indoors, protected by the lamb’s blood on the doorpost. They had to eat the meal, identifying themselves with the lamb.

Here’s where we see that, although it was only the firstborn who would have died, the lamb was for all of them. There had to be just the right amount of lamb to account for the size of the family and their exact needs. They all had to stay indoors.

This is how God got them out of Egypt: God came into Egypt, as the one who is the rightful ruler of all Egypt. God’s presence is terrifying, and God told the Israelites that they could be kept safe by killing lambs, identifying with them by eating them, and hiding behind the protection of the lamb’s blood.

And that great event established the shape of their relationship with God. They were rescued by God.

Christ, our Passover Lamb

So” why do we eat a meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs each year? Why do we go a whole week without yeast? Why does each family kill a lamb when they have their first baby?” Let me tell you a story. Let me tell you of the night that God brought us out of Egypt. That night changed everything. That night made us into a people who belong to God, and into a people who have been rescued by God. That’s why.

And their story is our story. It changed everything for us, although things have moved on a little.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking towards him, he said: “Look! The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 that Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. For the Jews, the death of the lambs on that first Passover was the event that made them who they were. Since then, we’ve discovered that those Passover lambs were only a shadow that looked forward to the death of the Passover lamb. And so, for us, the death of Jesus, Christ our Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, makes us who we are.

Now we are those who have been rescued by God. Now we are those who belong to God. And like the Jews, we must never forget that first Passover, at Calvary two thousand years ago – since then, things have never been the same.

That is why we eat bread and drink wine together each week. It was at a memorial of the Passover that Jesus passed around bread and wine, saying that we should now do this in remembrance of him. We must never forget. And just as with the Jews, one way to make sure we do not is by what we eat and drink together.

This is why we hear the Bible read in our services, and why we have a sermon. Since Jesus’ died as our Passover lamb, we are those who belong to God. You are not your own, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6, for we were bought with a price. We are those who belong to God, so we recognise that when we come together he is in charge. We allow him to speak, which is why we have the Bible read, and we pay careful attention to what he says, which is why we have a sermon.

This is why we end with the words “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We are those who have been rescued by God, so we can go from here in peace. We are those who belong to him, so we go from here to serve him.


So the next time you are tempted to wonder why we do certain things in church. The next time you are asked by a curious child, or even an adult, why we do these things. The answer is: Let me tell you a story. It’s a wondrous story of the Christ who died for me. I’ll sing that story all my life, and I’ll sing it with the saints in glory. It’s the story of Christ, our Passover lamb, who died so that God can come into this world to deliver his people – and we can live to tell the tale.

It’s a story that changed everything. Now we belong to God. Now we have been rescued by God. And that shapes the way that we live the whole of our life.

When the Israelites heard God’s plan for the first time, in Exodus chapter 12 and verse 27, they bowed their heads and worshipped. Their God is our God. He is a truly amazing God. We, too, bow our heads and worship, in wonder and amazement, and by living our whole life for him.

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