The readings for the day include the first Passover meal, to be eaten hurriedly, with shoes on and staff in hand, in anticipation of Pharaoh’s frantic release of his Hebrew slaves after the devastating tenth plague hits his house.
You could be forgiven for feeling apocalyptic lately. Between wars and rumours of wars, earthquake, flood, wind, and fire; even the sun turned dark for a moment. Hundreds have lost their lives in mudslides in Sierra Leone. Entire island nations have lost their homes in the past week. Closer to home, the image of Aaron and Moses eating their Passover meal hastily, ready to run, can’t help but bring to mind those persuading themselves to leave or not to leave Florida, Georgia, the Carolina coast ahead of Hurricane Irma; those hoping that the storm might, after all, pass them by.
Just to be absolutely clear, the idea that these natural disasters are some kind of pseudo-biblical punishment upon our political or social enemies does not bear up under the weight of the gospel, is contrary to the teachings of Christ and the cross, and has no place – no place – in our churches. God so loved the world; all of it, all of us. God loves the child who died as the hurricane battered Barbuda, the first responder who drowned in Houston, the mothers crying out in Sierra Leone and South Asia. The passover that we pray for them is not a relief from punishment, but the compassion of a God who draws us out of the deep waters, and speaks peace in the midst of the storm.
A lot has happened since we last met Moses near the burning bush. His own people, not to mention the Egyptians, must have been feeling pretty apocalyptic themselves, after suffering undrinkable water, infestations, and rampant disease; aka rivers of blood, plagues of frogs, flies, locusts, and boils. Through it all, Pharaoh has barely wavered from his initial position, the one in which we found him three weeks ago when Moses was born, placing himself in the throne of God with the power of life, death, and liberty over the people of God.
It would be nice to think that Pharaoh was converted by the compassionate actions of his daughter to adopt a Hebrew child, to relinquish his racial animosity against them; but he wasn’t. It would be great if a plague of flies had convinced Pharaoh of the error of his ways, turned him to the abolitionist cause, and ended his system of slavery; but it didn’t. A few times, under extreme pressure, Pharaoh almost conceded justice for the Israelites, promising to let them go; but each time, once the pressure was off, he rescinded his orders, and resumed the status quo.
Even after this night, the night of the Passover, the Pesach, in which God had compassion over God’s people and protected them from evil and death; still Pharaoh failed to understand, and obey. If Pharaoh had learned mercy earlier, perhaps the story would have had a different ending. This is, after all, the story of a God who desires mercy, not sacrifice; a God slow to anger, and full of steadfast loving-kindness. But the bond forged by Pharaoh’s daughter’s act of mercy, drawing the infant Moses out of the deep waters, was not enough to build a bridge of mercy to connect for Pharaoh the cry of the Hebrews to the cry of the Egyptians.
But God hears their cries.
We have a tendency to read this story as though we were the people oppressed and imprisoned by the Pharaoh. We read the Passover as our revenge, and our righteousness as the lintel that saves us from the punishment of God, well deserved by Pharaoh. We tend to make the story our excuse for escaping the storms that afflict others, literally or metaphorically; we make it our justification. But when we do that, paradoxically, we become Pharaoh, placing ourselves above our neighbours, who are like us the people of God, made in God’s image. We wear our skin, our immigration status, even our geographical location as our badge of office. When we sit on Pharaoh’s throne, we fail to notice the intimate mercy that God enacts through little things like a family meal; signs of God’s love and presence with God’s people.
And perhaps it would be an occasional comfort to think that we could daub our lintels with lambs’ blood and be delivered from the effects of the hurricane, flood, or fire; but we know that it doesn’t work that way. If we thought that we could anoint our heads with oil and be protected from cancer, heart disease, and heartbreak; but that is not necessarily how it works, either. The idea that daubing the lintels of houses with lambs’ blood directs God, guides God, diverts God’s punishment away from our family forgets that God already has counted every hair on our heads. God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows what we deserve, and what we desire.
But what if the Passover is not the story of God turning a blind eye to the people of God while wreaking devastation on everyone else in sight. What if the moral of the story of the Passover meal is not “duck and cover,” but the story told by the prophets: ‘“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” says the Lord.’
The Pesach, the Hebrew word that we translate Passover, is about protection.[i] It is a sign of God’s mercy. We anoint ourselves with oil, we daub our lintels not to divert God away from us, but to draw God close. These signs are not to point God away from us, but they are signs of God’s covenant with us; a covenant of mercy and compassion, to bear with us and be with us through thick and thin, hell and high water, come what may.
Something terrible happened that night in Egypt, and after it was over, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and tells them to take their people and leave; but that is not all. Something terrible happened that night, and in the darkness, Pharaoh finally saw that there was a compassion available beyond that which was his to grant. He summoned Moses and Aaron and asked them to bring him a blessing. Pharaoh, in the depths of the darkness, had finally the humility to ask for the grace of God, to recognize the compassion that he was missing, and to know that even now it was his for the asking. It is the most human face that we have seen Pharaoh wear, and it will not last till morning. Still, for a moment, his heart was broken open, and he saw God waiting on him with compassion, offering mercy.
In times such as these, our prayer is not for God to pass us by, nor to turn a blind eye. Our prayer is not to batten down our defences, but to break open our hearts, to hear the cries of those in need of a blessing; and to admit our own need of grace. Our prayer is for God to be with us, to share with us a sign of God’s covenant: the blood poured out, the meal hastily shared.
We pray for those in danger of death, dispossession, deportation, destruction. We pray for those hiding in closets and in plain sight, not that God would pass them by, but that they would hear Jesus’ promise to them: “Wherever you are gathered, I am with you.”
[i] The Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition (Oxford University Press, 2001), Exodus 12:11-13, text notes