Unforgettable [Exodus 13]
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Unforgettable – 10.30.2022
There’s an old story about a man and his son who were up camping at their family cabin up north. In the night, the cabin caught fire, and in the chaos the man got out the front door, but the son was trapped on the balcony with the room on fire behind him. And the father called up to his son, “it’s not that far, you just have to jump down to me.” And it’s the middle of the night, darkness everywhere and the fire is surrounding him, but when the boy looks away from the fire all he sees below him is inky blackness. Moving from the brightness of the fire, to the darkness of the ground – his eyes couldn’t adjust fast enough he couldn’t see anything. From his perspective he couldn’t see what he was jumping towards. But to the Father, down on the ground looking up at his son – what he saw was his son clearly outlined with a wall of flame behind him. The boy cried out, “I can’t see you.” And the Father replied, “I know, but I can see you clearly. I need you to trust me and jump.” Sometimes in life it can feel like we are jumping into the unknown, but there is comfort in the reality that while maybe we can’t see what God is up to, he can see us clearly – and he will catch us.
Today we are continuing our sermon series in Exodus. We have been following the story of Israel into Egypt and back out again for months – and the journey is nearly complete. They are finally free. They are finally leaving Egypt. Let’s dive in.
[read v.2-5]. So this touches on what we learned last week. What happens in Egypt is so important that they create rituals to help them remember the story. They had to leave Egypt quickly, and there was no time for the bread to rise – so they have this ceremony, a week long festival where they avoid yeast, all their bread is unleavened and they tell the story of how God set them free. Even when they get to the land of milk and honey – when all their troubles are over, still they will participate in this ceremony. You actually see the command to remember and tell the story over and over. Verse 8, [read it]. And then again down in verse 14 [read v.14-15]. So it’s not just unleavened bread, there’s also a tradition that every first born male of his animals will be sacrificed to the Lord. And the firstborn of his sons will be redeemed. We talked about that two weeks ago – the final plague emphasizes that the wages of sin is death. If you’ve got sin in your life – it causes death. But God reversed the roles of oppressor and oppressed, and the sacrifice of the firstborn brought salvation. The enemy uses death to bring slavery and fear and oppression, but God uses death to find liberation. The lamb is sacrificed and the son is redeemed.
And they didn’t know it at the time, but this is laying the groundwork for the imagery of what Jesus does in his life. Let me see if I can explain it like this. Think about background music. You know how famous movies have theme music? Like if you hear, [sing the Indiana Jones theme song] – you think Indiana Jones! Or if you hear [sing the Darth Vader theme song] – you know Darth Vader is coming! Or, a little Halloween theme, if you hear [sing the Harry Potter theme song] – you know it’s Harry Potter. And in those movies that melody comes back around all throughout the film, it actually builds expectation in you. If Indiana Jones is about to jump off a train or some other insanity, and you hear that theme start up – you know he’s going to succeed with whatever crazy stunt he attempts. The bible has the same kind of themes. The wages of sin is death, the sacrifice of the lamb causes judgment to pass over God’s people – that is a constant theme that comes up over and over in the grand story the bible is telling. It’s like a foundational musical movement. Death that leads to liberation is a key movement.
And you might be asking – why am I making such a big deal about these rituals and the stories they represent, but here’s the thing – rituals, when they are properly connected to their meaning – can allow the next generation to experience the story. The reason the text is so repetitive, and it says it over and over – “tell your children what this means” is because if you do it right, this ritual will let Jewish children EXPERIENCE the Exodus. To experience what it felt like to flee from slavery and find freedom in following God. It makes this event unforgettable. One commentator puts it like this, “All that is set forth here is to the single end that those who are to come may know the exodus, by taste and by feel, by cost and by results, as an experience of their own as equally as an experience of their father’s.” The goal – the whole point – is that the next generation would experience the exodus. Here’s a nice parallel – do you guys remember the stations of the cross? We don’t do it every year, but we had it this past year – where we walk through the stations of the cross. And if you’ve never done it, I highly recommend it next time it’s offered. It’s amazing. But the way it works is you walk in, and there’s a table with stuff on it. One of the stations has wood and nails and hammers. And it symbolizes the moment when Jesus was nailed to the cross. And you can literally use a hammer to drive a nail into the wood and imagine what happened to Jesus. It transports you into the moment. You can wash your hands like Pilate, you can feel the thorns, taste the sour wine, literally write down your sins and put them on the cross. And none of these events are all that significant by themselves, but when you connect them to the story – it’s like you’re experiencing what happened on the cross that day. Ritual when connected to the story can help you experience the significant themes of our faith journey.
But sometimes if we disconnect ritual and the story – we come up with some truly strange practices. Verse 8 it says, “explain it to your son”, but then in verse 9 it says, [read it]. And they repeat that theme again a few verses later. Verse 14 says, “explain it to your son,” and then verse 16 says, [read it]. Let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead. Now there’s a clear theme here – but what do you think it means? “Hands” pretty clearly represent our actions, right? Work of our hands is what we DO. Symbol on your forehead – is about what you believe. This ritual, this message, this musical theme needs to seep into our beliefs (tap forehead) and our actions (tap hands). But here’s what some people did with the belief [picture]. What you see in those pictures is called a Phylacteries, also known as a Tefillin. It’s a little box with little scriptures inside them, and they use a leather strap to literally secure it to their forehead and wrap it around their arm and hand for daily prayer. Devout Jewish folks will wear these during their daily prayer times. Even in the modern world, I’ve seen this done – I saw folks like this when I went to Israel. Let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead. Now I’m not trying to criticize these Jewish prayer practice, but it does strike me as very silly because they took the ritual and pulled it away from the story. Jesus even criticized some of the church leaders for their rituals that they perform to look good – rather than paying attention to the actual meaning. Let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead means to take this teaching, this ritual, this story and let it influence the beliefs in your mind and the practice of your hands. I read a commentary this past week who said it really well, “God never intended that these words would be carried out literally on the forehead and the arm. He commanded that His words will be accepted in the mind and applied in the life of His believers.”
Then in the last section of the chapter we get into the actual leaving of Egypt. It says in verse 17, [read v.17-18]. So apparently there WAS a road, straight out of Egypt, heading in the right direction, directly to where they wanted to go. It was easy to get to and easy to use. But God said, I’m not going to take you down easy street, because if things get hard – I know you – and you will turn around and run back to slavery in Egypt. If we face war, if we face hardship, if we face struggle – you will run back to slavery. And I won’t let you go back, so we’re going to do some off roading. He leads the people around on a longer, bumpier, more difficult route to freedom – and if that’s not the exact perfect metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Like, you ever have a plan in your life and you SEE the easy route? You’re like looking at the road of life, and you say, “you know, there’s really nice highway right there. We could get to my goals by dinner.” But no! God wants me to take the back roads, to get a flat tire, to get lost and then find my way again. God doesn’t take his people down the easy road out of Egypt, he takes them “along the road of the wilderness.” There’s two big teachings I want you to pull from this. It was what I needed to hear, and I believe it’s what you need to hear today this morning as well.
First – don’t be afraid of taking the long route. If you’re feeling frustrated in your life, you’re looking at things and it seems like you’re going in the wrong direction, and you’re feeling discouraged, walking on the edge of the wilderness – do not despair. Maybe you can’t see clearly what God’s up to right now, but I promise you – he can see you crystal clear. If it feels like it’s taking a long time to get where you’re going – be patient, maybe there’s a reason you’re not on the freeway. Number two, twists and turns are not the same as moving backwards. A lot of us worry when we get caught up in twists and turns that we are somehow moving backwards – but sometimes those twists and turns are exactly what KEEP us from moving backwards. God knows if it’s too easy to get where you need to go, when things get hard you will run back to slavery. Sometimes we have to fight for our freedom, take the long route on the edge of the wilderness to make sure we will NEVER go back. If there are bumps in your road, and you feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back – don’t be discouraged. That might be exactly the training you need to make sure you NEVER go back to your slavery. Don’t be afraid of taking the long route, and twists and turns are not the same as moving backwards. And boy that’s good news.
And I hope you understand, I’m not just making up platitudes from an old book. I have seen this in my own personal experience. Here’s an example – when I was in high school I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was a huge nerd with really good grades, particularly in Math and Science. I wasn’t particularly excited about med school, but that was the obvious road in front of me. I actually chose Calvin College because the year before I graduated high school they had the best pre-med program in the state. That year, Calvin College had 100% acceptance rate from their pre-med program into med school. Second place was Michigan State with 98%. So I signed up, but I had a visit to one other school already scheduled. Indiana Wesleyan University – gorgeous campus, wonderful school. And during my visit, I sat down with a guidance counselor – and we were talking about med school. And there was a moment when he leans across the table and he said, “You don’t seem that excited about the path in front of you.” And I said, “well, I’m not. I’m not really interested in all that schooling, but that’s what my grades tell me I should do.” I thought that was the obvious road in front of me. And I’ll never forget what he said. He leans across the table and he said, “You will never survive med school, if you’re not excited and committed to it.” We talked for a bit after, but he challenged me, “look at your life, and see where you feel God calling you.” It was the first time I opened myself up to studying and working in religion. That summer, one month before I started at Calvin College for the pre-med program – I transferred to the religion department. Took my very first religion course, Religion 101. And I immediately failed. Well, technically I got a D+. For the first time in my life, I struggled academically. It tanked my GPS. I didn’t know how to read this thing, it was so different from my other studies. It tanked my GPA, I lost scholarships. I called my parents in tears, I’d never gotten bad grades before. I was devastated. It felt like I was going backwards. But now, looking back, I can see that it was just the first twist and turn in my path on the long road walking the edge of the wilderness.
In every single one of our lives, there are hurdles, road-blocks, struggles, and moments where we feel lost. But God’s guidance is not to put us on the easiest and most obvious road – he walks with us in the wilderness, right next to us for every twist and turn. The chapter ends with this, [read v.20-22]. The promise of scripture is not the high road to easy street. If you believe that God’s plan is to make your life easy and have a smooth journey through life – you’re going to end up constantly disappointed by God. Or WORSE, you’ll slide right back to slavery to sin and death the moment things get difficult. Because the actual promise of scripture is not pavement it’s presence. The pillar of cloud, the pillar of fire – never leaves its place in front of the people.
The good news this morning is that God guides us to freedom. Not just away from evil, on a fast track towards our life goals. Not just away from evil, but towards freedom. God doesn’t just guide us away from bad things, but in all our twists and turns God is actually guiding us closer to freedom. Hard fought, deeply won freedom. And every pot hole and hurdle we cover is just a reminder that God’s not going to let us go back that way. God guides us to freedom.
Now every week we end with practical application – what did we just learn and how does it apply to our lives? And I think there are two clear challenges that jump off the page for us today. My first challenge to you is to follow God’s guidance. If God is guiding us to freedom, if there is a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire – we should keep that in front of us. Follow God’s guidance. Now remember, God’s guidance might not lead us down the super highway of our dreams. We might be off roading, traveling on the edge of wilderness. Sometimes, with all the twists and turns it feels like we’re going backwards. But even when we can’t see the path, we can’t see what God is doing all around us – God can see very clearly. If we are obedient and follow God’s guidance – however rough the path may be, he will lead us home.
My second challenge is that I want you to experience your exodus. There are rituals and practices we do to remind ourselves of the road we have travelled. If you connect ritual to story you can find true meaning. Don’t tie a box to your forehead, or wrap a cord around your arm – but instead take the story and let it change your beliefs of your mind and the works of your hands. Experience your exodus. Whatever sin you have been delivered from. Find a way to remember how God led you towards freedom. In the church, one of the best ways to remember is to take communion. We’re having communion next week, I hope you come and participate. It’s not a box on your head, it’s not just a wafer and a cup – it’s connected to our story.
There’s an old story about a man and his son and their cabin caught on fire. The boy was trapped on the balcony, and couldn’t see anything in the darkness below. But the Father could see the son perfectly, he knew exactly where he needed to be. In our lives it’s much the same. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you travel the road of life that God guides you to – even if he takes you off the easy route and right down to the edge of the wilderness. May you, through practice and ritual, remember and experience your exodus. And finally may there be unity between the actions of your hands and the beliefs of your mind – as we follow God to freedom. Amen.