Exodus 13: Remember Redemption - 15th June 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Luke 22:7-23

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So we’ve been walking through this story of Exodus together for the last few weeks, and we’ve seen it’s the great Old Testament story of God rescuing people. And now we’ve reached the high point of the action, haven’t we? Last week we were hearing that all that stuff God had promised about rescuing his people out of their slavery in Egypt – that was all coming true. Chapter 12 finishes with the line “And on that very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.” In a film this is where you’d have the swelling music, this is the bit that brings a lump to the throat as finally they are free! Next week we get to the Red Sea itself. It’s the high point of the drama.

But then, all of a sudden, right in the middle of all that, this happens:

Exodus 13:1-16   The LORD said to Moses,  2 "Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal."  3 Then Moses said to the people, "Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the LORD brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast.  4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are leaving.  5 When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites--the land he swore to your forefathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey--you are to observe this ceremony in this month:  6 For seven days eat bread made without yeast and on the seventh day hold a festival to the LORD.  7 Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders.  8 On that day tell your son,`I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.'  9 This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the LORD is to be on your lips. For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.  10 You must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year.  11 "After the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers,  12 you are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD.  13 Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons.  14 "In days to come when your son asks you,`What does this mean?' say to him,`With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.'  16 And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand."

Right at the high point of the action, what does God give them? A load of rituals. It’s amazing isn’t it? I can’t think of any film where, in the middle of the main action sequence, we get an interlude so we can learn a few key rituals. Why does God do it? Why does he put this here?

And, in fact, while we’re at it, why does God give rituals at all? Why are there so many repetitive ceremonies involved in Christianity? Are they just something we do because we’ve always done them? Or do they serve a purpose? Hopefully as we think about the rituals here we might get a bit of insight into the rituals that we have.

Well actually the reason for it is really clear. Have a quick look over some of those verses again. Verse 3: “Then Moses said to the people, "Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the LORD brought you out of it with a mighty hand.” Verse 9: “This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the LORD is to be on your lips. For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” Verse 16: “And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand."

Did you get it? It’s hard to miss. The rituals are there to help people remember. That’s why God gives them. So that the people will remember what he has done for them. This thing that has just happened, God rescuing them from Egypt by his power, that’s big stuff. It’s really, really important. God doesn’t want them to forget it.

Now, just to underline this point, let’s think for a second about what Jesus said. That other reading we had, from Luke 22, that wasn’t chosen by accident. It’s very similar, isn’t it? There at the high point of the drama, the night before Jesus is taken and crucified what does he do? He gives his disciples a ritual meal. It’s the same meal as we have here in Exodus, in fact – the Passover meal. And why does he do it? Well what did he say? “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Do this in remembrance of me. To remember me and what I have done for you. Do this, so that you won’t forget. The rituals are there so that people will remember.

Now I know I’m labouring this point, but there’s a reason for that. In fact there’s a couple of reasons. One is that we’re just so massively forgetful. The other is that we often have some pretty strange ideas about rituals.

People talk about having the memory of a goldfish, don’t they? Apparently that’s not fair on the goldfish – there have been studies that have shown that goldfish can remember some things for months. I’m not concerned about having the memory of a goldfish. I’m much more concerned about having the memory of a human. Because when it comes to the things of God, people really do have the most awful memories. The whole story of Israel in the Old Testament is peppered with examples of them forgetting the Lord. Forgetting what he’s done for them. Jesus heals those ten lepers, and nine of them… well they just forget him don’t they? It’s not just them, it’s me too. How many times have I learned something new about God and then just gone back to being how I was before? So that I’ve had to learn it all over again? How easily I forget the Lord. How about you?

So God gives his people rituals. Because rituals are how people remember.

But we do have some silly ideas about rituals, and sometimes that means that we don’t appreciate what God has given us. One of those silly ideas is that many of us modern people, and especially modern evangelical Christians don’t think that we like rituals. I say we don’t think we like them, because actually we do like them. Rituals are woven into everything we do; we just don’t call them rituals. Because we don’t think we like rituals. We think that being a Christian is about what goes on in here, in our heart, and therefore rituals are not helpful because they’re out there, they’re external, they’re repetitive. They’re formal. We hate repetitive. We hate formal. We want to be spontaneous and from the heart.

I think that affects us quite a lot as Christians, don’t you? I meet lots of Christians who are hoping for an experience, a feeling of God’s nearness. They think that if they had that feeling they’d be ok, their doubts and struggles would disappear. No they wouldn’t. The feeling would eventually evaporate and then they’d forget.

We’re often obsessed with the here and now. We want to feel spiritual here and now. But instead God has given us things that point us back to what he’s already done.

At this point I want to say that I am enormously glad that God hasn’t just left us with our hearts. I’m enormously grateful to God that he’s given me outward things like signs and rituals to remind me. Because if it was just down to my heart, I wouldn’t stand a chance. My feelings waver every day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Sometimes I feel like being spontaneously Christian, other times I feel like forgetting about it altogether. Some days I wouldn’t do anything for God at all, if it was just down to how I feel in here. The rituals, the repetitive stuff, the Bible reading, the church services, the creeds, the prayers, the Lord’s supper – those things force me to engage with God. Those things are so important in keeping me from forgetting the Lord.

We know, don’t we, that repetition is how we remember. If you want to learn a musical instrument, or a sport, what do you do? Practice. If you want to do well in your exams, what do you do? Revise. It’s as we repeat that we remember. You do those things over and over until it goes in. That’s what God has in mind here. The Passover, the redeeming of the firstborn animals and sons, those are given to drum in to the people the fact that God has rescued them from Egypt.

Notice too that the rituals themselves aren’t magic, are they? The rituals are meant to make the people remember. Look at that verse 9 again: “This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the LORD is to be on your lips. For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” Do you see that? The rituals are doing their job if the people are left with the word of the Lord on their lips. If they’re left remembering what God did back in Egypt. It’s not that the ritual itself contains some special magic or ‘wow’ factor. It’s a pointer to what God has said and done.

This is another way we get rituals wrong. Often we think of the ritual as magic. Almost like a spell in a Harry Potter movie. Like just being there does the trick. Like the bread is magic bread or the wine is magic wine. Really this is just the flipside of that thing I was saying before about how we want to feel the presence of God, instead of remember what he has done for us. People go to the ritual for the wow factor, they like getting carried along in the atmosphere and the spectacle and the sense of worship, and they come away feeling that something wonderful has happened. But that’s not the evidence God is after. The stuff we do in church is not just to make you feel spiritual. If the ritual has worked well, it should result in remembering what God has said and done. So that it’s right here on your lips. Not just an entertaining emotional spectacle. It’s a signpost to the words and actions of God.

So, God gives his people rituals so that they will remember. So that they will remember what he has said and done.

Well if that’s the case, here are a couple of questions to challenge us a bit:

How often are you in church? The Sunday gathering seems to be something that God has given us as a weekly event. Is it weekly for you? Everybody misses church occasionally, but are you missing it regularly? This is especially a challenge now. It’s easy to be in church in February when there’s nothing else to do on a Sunday morning. Now that Summer’s here there is plenty you could be doing. How often are you here? Honestly? If it’s not that often, the question is, why? Is it because you don’t really think you need to be reminded about what God has done? If so, be warned. The track record of humanity is pretty bad in that regard.

Other challenge: do you despise the repetitive nature of the Christian life? Have you swallowed the values of our advertising culture so much that you only like stuff that’s new and fresh and original? The novelty factor? Is that you? In which case again, be warned. Bypassing the things God has given in search of new ways to worship also has a bad track record. God gives his people rituals, so that they will remember.

Ok so what is it specifically that God wanted to show through these rituals in Exodus 13?

Well there’s two of them, aren’t there? Both reflecting the events of the first Passover in chapter 12. The unleavened bread, bread made in a hurry, like on that night when God suddenly broke them out of Egypt and they left in a hurry. And the firstborn, which picks up that theme of the Passover lamb, the lamb that died instead of the firstborn son. As we heard last week, if the lamb had been killed and the blood painted over the doorway, then a death had already occurred in that house and the firstborn son was safe. That’s what’s being remembered here.

Put it all together and what have you got?

God wants us to remember that we are his, one way or another.

I think you see this really clearly in that second ritual about redeeming the firstborn. Have a look at verse 11 again:

11 "After the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers,  12 you are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD.  13 Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. 14 "In days to come when your son asks you,`What does this mean?' say to him,`With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.'

The firstborn belong to the Lord, don’t they? One way or the other. That’s why what happens with, say, the donkey here is such a good picture of what the Lord did in Egypt. God here takes the donkey for his own. Do you see that? With the donkey either you redeem it with a lamb or else its neck is broken. It’s a bit macabre, but for a reason. Either God takes it in the same way that he took the firstborn of the Egyptians, or he buys it at the cost of a lamb. The lamb dies so that the donkey can live among the households of Israel.

That’s the lesson God wants the people to learn here. Their firstborn sons are redeemed, that is they are bought for God at the cost of the sacrifice of the lamb. This thing that God has done for them, this rescue from Egypt, it means that the people now belong to God. They are his people. He has bought them at the price of the death of the lamb. They were his already in a different sense. They were his to do what he liked with, they were at his disposal, he was free to kill them if he wanted. All that was true just because they were his creatures, and sinful creatures at that, creatures deserving of death. But now they are not just his creatures, but his precious firstborn children. God has bought them. He has redeemed them out of Egypt for himself. So now every time they carry out this ritual, they are reminded that God has done this for them. He’s bought them back from death.

And I think that’s exactly the same thing that God wants us to learn from our rituals. God wants us to remember that we are his, one way or another. We’re his creatures, sinful creatures, deserving of death. He’s entitled to take us in that sense whenever he wants. But instead he’s chosen to buy us back from death. To buy us for himself at the cost, not of a lamb, but of the Lamb. The Lamb of God himself – Jesus Christ.

It’s a simple thing, but have you ever thought just how macabre our rituals are, as Christians? Baptism, what’s that? It’s ritual drowning, isn’t it? As someone is baptised, the apostle Paul says, we are buried with Christ. It’s a sign of our death, and rebirth to new life with God. Or the Lord’s supper, what’s that? Eating Jesus body, drinking his blood. It’s no wonder that the early Christians were accused by the Romans of being cannibals. It’s the same picture, isn’t it? We who believe in Jesus now have been bought back from death. Raised from the dead through Jesus Christ. And that has only happened at the cost of his death for us.

So now, we’re his. We’ve been bought at the cost of God’s firstborn son so that we can be his precious firstborn sons. You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Whenever you see a baptism, whenever you think of your own baptism, whenever you eat that bread and drink that cup, remember that God has bought you for himself. He’s paid for you with his own son. You are his. Let the ritual, the repetition, drum that into you, so that you don’t forget. So that his words are right here.

You see the thing that makes us what we are as Christians is not just that we share some common values or interests. The thing that unites us and makes us is our story. It’s the things that God has done for us.

This week there’s been a lot of talk about Britishness and Englishness and things like that. There was the Ofsted report into those schools in Birmingham, with David Cameron saying that British values needed to be taught in schools. But of course the minute he said that the question went up “what are British values?” And people had fun trying to work them out, but to a very large extent didn’t agree with each other. At the same time we’ve had the start of the world cup, which means that all the old pictures of Bobby Moore lifting up the trophy and Geoff Hurst scoring those goals in 1966 have come out again, haven’t they? And the thing that strikes me is that those things – the events that happened, the common heroes, the fact that they won for us – those things have done a much better job of uniting English people than a set of common values decided by the government. And because of the ritual of hearing about the events of 1966 again at least once every four years, we don’t forget that story.

The rituals we have as Christians tell us our story. They remind us of what unites us. We are a family, not because we have a lot in common in and of ourselves, no, it’s because God has bought us back from death, at the cost of the death of his son. We are a saved people. That’s who we are. We’re his.

This from the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the great pieces of Christian writing from around the time of the Reformation: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ.”