Dr. Chris White November 24th, 2013
Unique Thanksgiving traditions abound, but the unique national tradition happens this Wednesday. That is when the president pardons a turkey. If ever someone new to this country had a reason to ask, “What does this mean?” it is Wednesday. This same turkey gets shuttled off to Orlando to be grand marshal of the Disney Thanksgiving Parade. A big deal, yet no one knows when or why it started. Some say it goes back to Abraham Lincoln, others to Harry Truman, but no one’s really sure. Because the tradition lacks real legs, it’s hard to care too much either way. In fact, some traditions carry little weight and are soon forgotten because so little is lurking behind them.
When it comes to our passage today, however, a tradition in Israel is started. I doubt it was accepted without some resistance. It was not wise or economical. In fact, no one with a drop of farmer’s blood in them can gently acquiesce to this. Read along with me in Exodus 13:11-13:
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, you are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn makes of your livestock belong to the Lord. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn from among your sons.
So the Law of Moses calls for a family to raise a ewe lamb and, upon reaching adulthood and bearing her own lamb, sacrifice it to God. It calls for a family to surrender a firstborn calf. As for a donkey, surrender a lamb. Beyond this, for every firstborn son a family is to give an offering. It’s not unexpected that we raise our eyebrows. It is not a small thing to hand over the first born of livestock, when so much time and effort went to getting the firstborn of livestock into the world. We might expect someone to eventually ask, “So, what does this mean?” What follows is the explanation.
From Exodus 13:14-16: In days to come, when your son asks, “What does this mean? Say to him, “With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 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. And it will be like a sign on your hand and symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.”
The answer to “What does this mean?” rests in the story of the Passover and the Exodus, the final night’s meal in Egypt and the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt. On the night God spared the homes of those with the lamb’s blood on the door, He did not pass over the homes of the Egyptians. The death of the firstborns in the fields and in the homes of Egypt would go forward with the Hebrews as they would redeem their own firstborns. This was a deep tie to a tragic, terrible move of God. They were spared, and so they offered their firstborns in this new land. But it is also a tie to the Exodus. A mighty hand brought them out of slavery. In the motion of sacrificing a firstborn is the memory of the Passover, God sparing them, and the Exodus, God delivering them. Deep in the gifts of these Hebrews is gratitude born of a great and terrible act of God. And so they give.
Our story is similar. It is no mistake that Jesus’ death in Jerusalem occurs so near the Passover. Christians early made the connection between his death and blood, which saves us, and the death and blood of the lamb in Egypt, which saved the Hebrews. First Peter 1:18-19 says this, For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. The connection is to the Passover night and the lamb’s blood. Jesus is that Lamb and his blood is that blood that saves us from God’s wrath.
Like the Hebrews then and Jews today, this Lamb pulls us back to a defining event. You cannot understand a Jew’s faith in God apart from understanding the role of God in their deliverance from Egypt. And it is the case that you cannot understand a Christian’s faith in God apart from under-standing the role of Jesus on the cross. First Corinthians 1:24 calls a crucified Jesus, “Christ the power and wisdom of God.” We are not only drawn to Jesus suffering and dying on the cross for us, we are honest about the great work of God that is behind the best changes in our lives.
So when our own children or neighbors watch an act of faith and ask “What does this mean?”, Jesus Christ crucified is the answer. Our gratitude is the answer. We are moved by gratitude because we are saved by the precious blood of Christ and not things as limited as gold or silver. Because of Jesus, we even make sacrifices that resemble the hard losses of a firstborn of the field and the flock.
How else can we explain forgiveness? What rationale can there be for knowing how someone has hurt you, taken from you, and yet you forgive? To release someone from revenge is no small decision, and yet it is what we do. Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15 that we are forgiven by God only as we have forgiven others, so the stakes are high, but it is still a great step. It is following the tradition of killing the firstborn. It can be that pricey. And yet we do it all the time. In fact, the day may come when the act of forgiveness is so great that a person would have to ask, “What does this mean?” It points to a deep gratitude, returning what we were given.
How else can we explain worship on Sundays? We are in the age of “don’t have to” Christians. The talk is so often about what we don’t have to believe or what we don’t have to do, and while it often frees us up in really healthy ways, it also is an excuse for leaving the church community. So if someone walked in this morning asked, “What does this mean?”, we would need to offer an answer. The answer is gratitude. Colossians 3:15ff says, Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. We do what we do in this house because of what God has done in Christ. We are changed by Him and so come to worship Him with gratitude together.
How else can we explain giving from our working incomes to the work of the church? If ever there was a “What does this mean?” practice, it is this. We just completed the church budget for 2014, and it includes many lines and ministry efforts. I always marvel at what our church body continues to give. People in this community of faith tithe, that is, give a tenth of their income by faith and through concrete change in spending. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 9:7, Each man should give what he has decided to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all time, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. We give not because of compulsion or fear but because of gratitude.
So, how do you answer the question? “What does this mean?” has one good answer: “I am grateful.” That is the answer above all answers,.