Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday

Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 5, 2012 (Maundy Thursday)

Most families have traditions as to how they celebrate certain holidays.  The same things happen every year and give the holiday something of a timeless quality.  The same foods are served, the same kinds of things are said, the house is decorated the same way every year.  In my family we would get up early, to see if the Easter Bunny had brought us anything, and then get ready and go to Church.  After Church several relatives who lived in Fort Wayne would come over for the big dinner.  Churches also have specific traditions connected with holidays.  There are evening services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with the altar being stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday service.  There is a Tre-Ore service at Lutheran High every year.  Even with a new pastor who may do some things a little differently, most things don’t change.  The paraments go through the same cycle of colors, from Lenten purple to to nothing on Friday, to white with full decorations and Easter lilies on Sunday.  We sing many of the same hymns, and hear the same story every year.

The Jewish Passover was like this for Jesus and His disciples.  In fact, the traditions surrounding the Passover meal were quite a bit more rigid than our own Easter traditions.  Certain things were said in a specific order, certain psalms were sung, and certain foods were eaten at specific times, with specific explanations given to remind the people of specific aspects of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  Everyone went through this ritual meal every year, and everyone probably knew it by heart; even if they couldn’t recite it from memory word for word they would know if anything was different.  And so when Jesus diverged completely from the Passover ritual toward the end of the meal, it probably made a big impression on the disciples.  Something new was happening.  What Jesus was saying was different from what they expected to hear.  They weren’t expecting Him to connect the meal they were eating with His body and His blood in this way.  Instead of looking backward to the Passover when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, Jesus was looking forward to His own death.  This particular Passover was different from all the others that had gone before, because the next day the Passover itself would be fulfilled when the Lamb of God Himself was sacrificed for the sins of the world.  The people of God stood at the junction between the Old and the New Testaments, and Jesus changed the Passover ritual to reflect that fact.

The purpose of the Passover meal was, of course, to remember and to proclaim the events of Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt.  Israel’s very identity as a nation came from that series of events.  God sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go.  When Pharaoh refused, God sent the ten plagues to punish Egypt for keeping Israel captive.  The last plague was that God killed the firstborn sons of every Egyptian family, and even the firstborn of all the cattle.  The Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb without blemish, and to put some of its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, so that the destroying angel would not harm their own firstborn.  They were to eat that lamb as their final meal that night, along with unleavened bread.  Afterward, they were to eat a similar meal every year to remember the great victory which the Lord won for them that night and the next day over the Egyptians, and as part of the meal the head of the household was to preach to the whole household concerning these events.

The first Maundy Thursday was at the time of the Passover, when every household would gather to hear the story again and partake of the meal which the Israelites had eaten.  If you read the Passover liturgies, you will see that the Israelites didn’t just think of the Passover as a historical reenactment.  Even generations later, even after many centuries the people of Israel thought of themselves as the same people who had been led out of Egypt by the pillar of cloud and fire, who passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, and so on.  It wasn’t just that God had freed their ancestors from bondage in Egypt, it was that God had freed them from bondage.

Of course, the Angel of the Lord, who was with Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire, who guided and protected them, who spoke with Moses at the Tabernacle, and who provided the community with food and water, was none other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, whom we know as the Son of God.  This very same Person was the one who took upon our flesh and sacrificed Himself for our sakes.  The man Jesus who presided over the Passover meal that first Maundy Thursday was in fact the same Person who had appeared to the Israelites in the cloud and fire and who had freed them from their bondage.  He had every right to change the Passover ritual, because He was the One who had instituted it in the first place.  The Angel of the Lord who led the people out of Israel was now changing the Passover ritual to reflect the new thing He was doing for His people.

In fact, when He first instituted it back in the Old Testament, the Seder meal was intended as a symbol of what He Himself would do for His people.  He would become the true Lamb of God, whose blood protects His people from destruction.  His death gives us life, not simply a temporary protection for the firstborn sons of our families, but permanent protection from eternal death and damnation.  We have been delivered, not just from physical bondage to earthly rulers, but from spiritual bondage to sin, death, and the devil.  The Passover sacrifice, as well as all the other sacrifices of the Israelite Temple, pointed forward to the sacrifice of the Son of God.  Everything that happened to Israel during that first Passover in Egypt was a picture of the salvation God would accomplish for the whole world on Good Friday.  Instead of killing our firstborn, God allowed His own firstborn Son to die, that we might have life.

An important part of the Passover was that the blood of the sacrificial lamb would be sprinkled on the door frames of the houses where God’s people lived, as a sign for the destroying angel to pass over that house.  In this way the sacrificial lamb died that the people in the house might live.  Christ, who died on the cross, gave Himself so that we might live.  He has sprinkled us with His own blood, not on the outside, but on the inside, where it counts.  He gives us to drink of His own blood, and thus He marks us repeatedly as His own.  Since we have that mark, the destroyer passes over us and does not bring us down to eternal damnation.  Instead we inherit the promised land of eternal life.  Come and receive the blood of Christ which marks you as one who belongs to Him and who will inherit eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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