"Ready to Roll?"

September 5, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  Exodus 12:1-14

Are you ready to roll? Face it, the calendar year may start January 1st, but for most of us in this country, we roll into more new ventures in September, don’t we? Labor Day unofficially draws the summer season of rest and relaxation over, and we seem to turn an important page in our book. Now, no ball descends in Times Square at the stroke of midnight on August 31st, but there is a scent of freshness in the air this month - a new start, a time to step out, a new beginning on the road of life. Are you ready to roll?

The pace really quickens for many of us at this time, more than we might like. In our household, the big yellow bus now stops by at 7am, 9am, and 1pm every day to take our children to school. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it also brings them home. How many trips to various stores did Karen make to gather in all the supplies needed? And then there were the clothes to buy. Young people just don’t stay the same size, nor do they want to wear any of the old clothes that may still fit. I’ve got one word in response to this desire for all new stuff: "tough crunchies!" (I guess that’s 2 words, isn’t it?). To be honest, such a fatherly statement doesn’t seem to hold much weight.

I’ve tried to get ready to roll, myself. I really have! This year I’m ahead of the curve. Not only have I mapped out my sermon trail to the end of December, I’ve also made a plan for all the meetings of Mitchell’s cub scout den which I lead, all the way up through next May. Those who know me realize this is not fully "in character" for me. Even so, I’m not sure I’m really ready for this "new beginning on the road of life." And you? Are you ready to roll?

This coming weekend is "Rosh Ha-shanah" for our Jewish neighbors. For them, this is a religious new year celebration, a time for a fresh start in life. Unlike some new year celebrations, though, Rosh Ha-shanah is a solemn occasion. It’s a day for looking at your life thus far, and paying attention to the stuff that isn’t so great. It’s a time for examining where you’ve fallen short of what God wants you to be. It’s an opportunity to repent, to turn away from sin, to start the new year on the right foot, facing in the direction God wants you to go. Actually, the Jewish new year involves more than one day. There are ten days of repentance in all, the last of which is "Yom Yippur," the "Day of Atonement," when (according to Jewish faith) the gates of God’s mercy are wide open. That’s not a bad way of starting a fresh, new year - is it?

Of course, that isn’t our tradition, but it does remind us of another beginning, this one in the book of Exodus. Just a little while ago, you remembered with me the background story behind it. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and Moses was about to finally convince Pharaoh "to let my people go!" In preparation for that leap out of captivity, that window of opportunity to step out into a different day, God gave some instructions to the people.

Now, we can think of these words of instruction that Ian just read as a message foreign to us. After all, we’re not slaves like they were, are we? We’re free men and women, girls and boys. There’s nothing chaining us down, is there? We aren’t held captive to anyone or anything, are we? Maybe ... Maybe not. Could it be that the Pharaohs of our life just take on different names? Do our Pharaohs live in some distant palace, or do they reside close by? Might we say that there’s even a Pharaoh living inside each of us, giving orders left and right, making us do things that really aren’t the best for us, especially in the long run?

You know, I see that Pharaoh in my children when they get that "attitude of combatitude" which seeks to gain the upper hand in a situation no matter the cost to others they love, or the cost to themselves. On the other hand, I bet my children see Pharaoh in me, as I can be just as much a tyrant as any Egyptian monarch. How many plagues does it take to move any of us out of where we get stuck in a power struggle? You think the Pharaoh of Egypt was stubborn? Look in the mirror.

Some of us have gotten into real binds in our lives because we have allowed certain Pharaohs to rule us. There’s the Pharaoh of fashion, the Pharaoh of finance, the Pharaoh of fun, the Pharaoh of food, the Pharaoh of "what everyone else thinks," the Pharaoh of ______ (you fill in the blank - whatever can take over your life if you let it, things not necessarily bad unless you allow them to rule you). When it comes down to it, the voices of all these Pharaohs are the same, and that voice demands that we work to build a pyramid - a monument of the dead.

Back to the story of Exodus. "This month shall mark for you the beginning," God told Moses and Aaron, who were to pass the message on to the rest of the people. "It shall be the first month of the year for you," God said. In other words, throw away the old calendar, the calendar of your oppressor. That’s what God said. Toss it out! You’ve been living by Pharaoh’s time for too long. Get ready to live by God’s time - "People Saving Time," "LIFE time."

I’ve had friends who vividly remember the day they were "born again," when they shifted calendars from Pharaoh’s time to God’s time. Isn’t this really what spiritual rebirth is all about - a shifting of allegiances from Pharaoh to the Living God, operating according to a different call, walking to the beat of a different drummer, orienting each day in a new way? I dare say many, if not all of us could stand to begin a new year every day, to start fresh.

Now, it’s interesting to note that this new calendar God instructed the Israelites to follow didn’t begin on the day that the Israelites were, indeed, set free. No, according to this text, it started two weeks before. The people were to be living out of a whole new calendar before anything actually happened to change their state of affairs. That’s something to remember in this age of instant everything. We want things to happen "now." But God works in his own time.

Those instructions from God, which Moses told the people, concern a meal. This is the primary text for Passover, another Jewish celebration, a feast of remembrance. To this day, our Jewish neighbors still gather around a table and with this meal remember what God did to finally convince Pharaoh to let his people go. These words are central to their identity. It is no mistake that Jesus chose Passover as the time to fulfill God’s promise. Most scholars believe his last supper with the disciples was a Passover meal. It was a meal he didn’t just eat. He lived it out.

God told the Israelites to take a pure, year-old male lamb, and on that fateful night when God totally changed the course of their history, slaughter it. Some of the blood was to be painted on the 2 doorposts & lintel of each home as a sign that herein lived children of Israel. When death came and took the life of every firstborn Egyptian, this blood served as a sign for death to "pass over" this home. It was the death of the Egyptian firstborn, the last plague, that finally persuaded Pharaoh to let God’s people go.

During the fateful Passover several centuries later, Jesus himself was slaughtered, just like that lamb. Our Christian faith, in fact, has come to see him as the Passover lamb. And the feast we call communion is a time to remember, again and again, what God has done to free us from slavery to the power of sin and death.

Let me pick out a few other things we should take of in the 12th chapter of Exodus. First, there is the "gathering together." God instructed the Israelites to pull together as "households." We’re talking extended family here, not just Mom, Dad, and kids. Small households were told to join with others for the meal. Pragmatically speaking, not every family could afford a lamb. But spiritually speaking, it wasn’t a matter of each family out for itself. There is power in gathering together when the storms of life rage. We don’t face Pharaoh, we don’t face the power of sin and death alone. We support one another, even as we trust in the blood of the lamb.

Second, did you notice that the lamb was to be cooked in such a way as to have a bitter taste? There are various explanations for this, but allow me to highlight just one of them. If we’re to face our own Pharaohs, especially those who rule from inside us, and seek to be free of them, there needs to be a bitter taste to remind us why we’re doing this. We can grow quite comfortable with our situation, even as we know it may ultimately be killing us. The bitter taste is a wake up call. Does anyone turn from sin if they have not tasted its bitterness?

Finally, let me repeat verse 11. It’s printed at the top of your bulletin. "This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD." God wanted his people to be ready to roll at a moment’s notice, to follow his lead as soon as Pharaoh let go, and get out of harm’s way.

I like that part about having "your loins girded." It has a real "manly" sound to it, more than "be dressed and ready to go." I don’t want to go into detail about how people dressed back then, but there was a difference between lounge wear and what you’d wear to really get down to business. Think of an athlete of how he or she needs to dress to run a race. That’s what this means. Be dressed for a strenuous journey. Have your walking shoes on, and your walking stick in your hand as you eat. There are windows of opportunity in life that, if we’re not ready to roll, we will miss.

Now, I know this is labor day weekend, a time most of us devote to laying back and relaxing before heading into the busyness of fall. And "rest" is a good thing, especially for those who labor hard. Let’s hear the encouragement of Moses, even on this day, to be prepared to move out and follow wherever God leads, stepping away from whatever Pharaoh is bossing us around - even the Pharaoh who looks out at us in the mirror.

Our final hymn is one I’d like us to sing as a marching song, not a funeral dirge. Can we sing #599, "He leadeth me," as people who have their loins girded, their sandals on, and walking sticks in hand? Are you ready to roll?

1999Peter L. Haynes

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