Sep 09

The Passover Lamb

            As we journey through the Old Testament this summer and fall, we’re really getting the highlights reel version of the story: key moments rather than intense details. A week ago we encountered Moses at the Burning Bush, face to face with the Living God. This week we have skipped all the way to the Passover. A lot has happened in Egypt since last week’s reading from Exodus 3. Moses and his brother Aaron have confronted Pharaoh again and again, pleading and demanding that Pharaoh let the Israelites go. Nine plagues—water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, diseased livestock, sores, thunder and hail, locusts, and darkness—have tormented Egypt, but Pharaoh has not been swayed. He has toyed with Moses and Aaron, pretending sometimes to respond to their complaints and changing his mind just as they thought they had tasted freedom. But Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he refused to listen to Moses or to the Lord. The Lord’s deliverance will come without the cooperation of Pharaoh.

            Instead, Israel’s deliverance, Israel’s salvation, will come through a lamb. Not the powerful, zealous ruler of a famous people but the weak, innocent, powerless offspring of a herd animal, a sheep or a goat. The lamb is how God will save his people from the final, tenth, most terrible plague. The blood of the lamb will mark Israel’s doors as the judgment of the Lord passes through Egypt. The meat of the lamb will satisfy the hunger of a people about to embark on a journey. “You shall eat it [with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hands; and you shall eat it hurriedly,” the Lord tells Moses and Aaron. This is not a luxurious banquet, a feast to savor. It is the final rations of a people on the move. The exodus is coming, the Passover of the Lord is at hand: be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
             I wish we Christians would eat our Passover meal with such impatient expectation and haste. I wish we would receive the body and blood of our Passover Lamb knowing that his blood had already shielded us from God’s judgment, waiting for the moment when God would release our chains so that we can escape quickly in the night and follow our Lord along the Freedom Trail into the Promised Land. I wish that our celebration of Holy Communion each week would be as electric as that first Passover.
            Do not be deceived: God has not changed since that first Passover. God did not return to heaven after delivering Israel from Egypt. God still observes the misfortunes of his people; God still hears their cry; God has still come down to deliver them out of bondage. God still commissions us, just as God called Moses and Aaron, just as God sent Jesus Christ, to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives, to proclaim the time of the Lord’s favor.
            This is not a matter of liberal or conservative politics. It is a matter of hearing and responding to the whole gospel. The first Passover meal was not about delivering Israel from her sins. There is nothing about Israel’s sin in the first fourteen chapters of Exodus. The first Passover was not for the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. The first Passover was about freeing God’s people from bondage in this world, to a power of this age, into freedom in this life—and not just in the life to come. The first Passover was about physical bodies, physically enslaved, and physically released from Egypt. God is not indifferent to the suffering that happens in this world. God’s salvation is every bit as much about deliverance in this world as it is about deliverance for the world to come. The story that lies at the foundation of the Old and New Testaments, the story that Jesus himself reenacts in his own life, the story of the Passover and Exodus is a story of deliverance in this life.
            Do not be deceived: God has not changed since the first Passover. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—what John the Baptist calls Jesus in John 1:29—is the Passover Lamb who feeds us on the path to God’s deliverance. Christians have recognized for millennia the Christ is our Passover Lamb, but all too often we have emphasized that the Lamb has conquered sin and forgotten that our Passover Lamb is sacrificed for the world to free the world from its bondage.
            If we are to be Christ’s followers, his disciples, we must be the ones who proclaim the whole gospel to the whole world and do not give the good news of our Savior short shrift. Right here, in Harford County, there are people living in bondage. There are people who have been wrongly jailed, who have been arrested or imprisoned because of how they look or how they speak. There are people who have so much debt that they can see no way past what they owe. A new casino has opened down the road in Baltimore City, and already there are advertisements to help gambling addicts—gambling slaves—from the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling. Each week at Centre we serve people in our food pantry who are enslaved by poverty and cannot afford food. A new heroin epidemic has seized and destroyed the lives of thousands around us. And this past week I heard that BWI airport is the U.S. center of human trafficking, of modern slavery, and that Harford County is at the epicenter of Maryland’s human trafficking problem. When this was announced at our district meeting on Tuesday, one of our pastors revealed that his daughter, who died of a heroin overdose this spring, was trafficked by her drug dealers just down the road.
            Friends, God is calling us to respond to the suffering of his people. Since I’ve been at Centre I’ve heard more than a few people say, “We need to grow.” I couldn’t agree more. But growth that matters—and not just growth that counts—will only happen if we come face to face with the suffering in our community and proclaim the deliverance, the salvation, of our Lord. We cannot solve every problem; we cannot address every situation. But we can pray for God to guide us as a congregation, so that the whole church is involved, to people in bondage in our community. We can find one situation, one form of bondage to work against. We can tell of the Passover Lamb who feeds all people for their journey to God’s freedom, a journey that may last forty years but that can begin tomorrow.
            Starting this past July and for most of the next year, I am engaging our congregation in an extensive study. The first part of this study involves listening to your stories of being part of Centre. I will be inviting you to share your story with me in the coming months. There will be several other components. The purpose of this study is to discern where God is calling Centre to put our resources and where God might be telling us to let go of some things we have done in the past. Please participate in this study as much as possible. Please join me in praying for the next year for our congregation as I, the church council, and other church leaders seek to hear God’s voice for our congregation.
Christian people, Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us. “Eat this meal with your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hands; and eat it with haste. For tomorrow is the day of your exodus.” Amen.
Aug 18

The Tears of Joseph

            The scene is tense. The sons of Jacob stand before the throne of Egypt’s most powerful prince. They are tired and hungry—they are desperate. Already they have been before this throne and sent away. Now their youngest brother, Benjamin, has been detained and accused of stealing the prince’s silver. If they had anyplace else to turn, they would have done so, but they are poor, and they need this prince’s help. Their family will starve without it.

            The prince, for his part, has been toying with the sons of Jacob. He knows something they don’t. He has helped them bit by bit, but he hasn’t decided yet what he’ll end up doing. Will he get his revenge for his brothers’ betrayal? Or will he turn away from his anger and hurt in order to help out his family, Jacob’s family? For the prince, as we know, as he knows, and as his brothers only learn in this morning’s story, is Joseph, son of Jacob, brother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.

            A lot has happened to Joseph since Genesis 37, which we read last week. He has been put through the wringer in Egypt, but it has worked out for the best for him. His dreams, which got him into so much trouble back home, make him a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Meanwhile a famine has struck the region. Egypt, because of Joseph’s dreams, is prepared for the famine and has good stores of grain and food. But the wandering sons of Jacob have had no such fortune. This famed Egyptian prince, whom they did not know was their brother, was their last chance. The big reveal—that this prince, on whom they depend, is the brother they tried to kill, the brother they sold into slavery—the big reveal is not exactly good news for the sons of Jacob!

            Ah, but the big reveal is not really that the prince is Brother Joseph. The real news, the good news, in this morning’s story is that God has sent Joseph to preserve life. Jacob’s sons had thought they were in charge when they tossed Brother Joseph into the pit. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. They were sure power (and money, of course!) was in their hands when they sold him to their Ishmaelite cousins. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. And now, face to face with the brother they had betrayed, Jacob’s sons found themselves emptied of all their power, convinced that Brother Joseph, this prince of Egypt, now had all the cards. But God sent Joseph to preserve life.

How like God it was to choose this young brother, this nobody, to become the salvation of his people. The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, indeed! How like God it was to make Brother Joseph, abused and mistreated most horribly by his brothers, the herald of good news for Jacob’s family. Despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, cut off from the land of the living—this was our Brother Joseph.

You see, Joseph is not just the story of a younger brother in an ancient Semitic tribe God happened to rescue. Joseph’s story, the last story in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Joseph’s story sets up a pattern that God follows over and over again. The pattern of Joseph’s story is the pattern of King David’s story, the pattern of the prophet Jeremiah’s story, the pattern of the story of the people of Israel. The pattern of Joseph’s story finds its fulfillment in the story of Jesus, the unexpected Savior who is despised, rejected, and crucified for the salvation of Israel—and the whole world.

Up to the moment he disclosed his identity to his brothers, I don’t think Joseph himself knew that God was working in his life for the good of Jacob’s family, that God had sent him to preserve life. I’m not sure he had yet decided whether he was going to help his brothers or return their evil deeds tit for tat. Joseph had to take a risk—the risk of being a peacemaker. The risk of choosing reconciliation over revenge, love over hatred, peace over violence. It may not have been an easy decision. But once Joseph committed to the path of reconciliation, he set himself on a journey with God toward a more peaceful future.

It’s interesting—the Bible does not say, at this point, that Joseph forgave his brothers. The journey toward reconciliation begins here in Genesis 45. Not until Genesis 50, after Jacob has died, do the sons of Jacob seek forgiveness from Brother Joseph. Forgiveness even at that point is not inevitable—Joseph’s brothers fully expect their request to be denied and even offer to become Joseph’s slaves. But Joseph does forgive them and reassures them that though they “intended to do harm to [him], God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). In this case, starting down the path of reconciliation leads to forgiveness, but there are no guarantees.

There is, however, a cost. Even at the start of his journey with God to reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph cannot turn to his brothers in love without weeping. He doesn’t just shed a few tears. He sobs. He wails. His weeping is so loud, the household of Pharaoh hears him. Over and over again, Joseph weeps. He weeps as he turns down the path of reconciliation. He weeps as he embraces his brother Benjamin for the first time. He weeps over the other sons of Jacob as he offers them the kiss of peace.

Joseph’s tears are the salve, the healing balm, the anointment desperately needed for the wounds separating him from his brothers. They are tears of sorrow over being separated from his family for so long. They are tears of joy for the reunion that has finally happened. They are tears of lament over the evil deeds of his brothers. They are tears of relief from the burden of anger and revenge that has weighed on Joseph ever since he was thrown into the pit. Joseph weeps, and his tears are the beginning of Israel’s salvation.

If only we would learn to weep like Joseph! If only we would have enough faith in God to risk reconciliation with those who have hurt us. If only we would learn to shed tears as Joseph does in Egypt, and as Jesus does on the road to Bethany and in the garden of Gethsemane. If only our tears could mark the beginning of the path to forgiveness and healing! Do you not yearn for the faith of Joseph as I do? Do you not wish to weep as he did? Pray that God would heal our hardened hearts.

Sadly, like the sons of Jacob, everyone but Benjamin, we watch Joseph’s tears in dumbfounded silence. What do we say? What do we do?

All of us—whether as individuals, as a church at Centre, as the body of Christ—all of us have a Brother Joseph, a friend, a relative, a neighbor whom we have harmed, someone who owes us nothing more than the evil we have committed. Today, for those of us Christians who happen also to be white Americans, our Brother Joseph is Michael Brown and every other black teenage boy who cannot leave his house without fearing for his life, either because of the ghettos this country’s policies have created or because of the anger of an insane vigilante, or because of the prejudice of a militarized police force.

If our lives have been preserved thus far, it is not so that we can lord God’s grace over those around us. It is so that we can seek forgiveness and mercy from our Brother Joseph, in the hopes that we might yet be saved.

It turns out that it wasn’t really Jacob who favored Joseph more than all his other sons; it was God. And God’s faithfulness and love for Joseph went ahead of him to the pit, into the bonds of slavery, and up to the throne of Egypt’s Pharaoh. God did not love Joseph in order to spite the other sons of Jacob. He loved Joseph in order to save all of Israel—and the whole world. As Christians, we benefit from God’s love for Joseph thousands of years later. God’s love for Joseph spared Israel and prepared the way for the birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. When we claim the benefits of this love, however, we must realize that this love of God makes a claim on us as well. We must flee to our Brother Joseph to seek his forgiveness and mercy. We must learn from our Brother Joseph to weep for reconciliation with those who have hurt us. For if we would claim Jesus as our Lord, we must always remember that Joseph is our brother.