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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Smite the Enemy? (Exodus 12.23-32, Matthew 21.1-9)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
April 17, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "All Glory, Laud & Honor" (Phillips)
Hymn of Praise: "All Glory, Laud & Honor" (ST. THEODULPH)
Song of Praise: "Hosanna, Praise is Rising" (Brown, Baloche)
Special Music: "On My Knees" (Billy Howell)
Choir: "Lift Up Your Heads" (Pote)
Song of Sending: "Lord, Reign in Me" (Brown)

Smite the Enemy?
Text: Exodus 12:23-32; Matthew 21:1-9

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

For the past two weeks we have been in a kind of interlude in the Exodus story. We’ve been through the burning bush and the plagues, and just as we got to the announcement of the last plague, the story paused for a description of the two memorial events commanded by Yahweh: Passover and the Feast of Unleavened bread. Today we heard the end of that interlude, then the action picks back up in verses 28-29.

What I’d like to focus on today is the question, “What is Passover about?” This is the same question raised in verse 26 by the children, and it is incorporated in family Passover meals even today. As I was pondering the answer to that question some months ago in preparation for this series, I realized that the question raised here is fundamentally the same question raised by the events of Palm Sunday. So, we will also ask the question, “What is Palm Sunday about?”

After asking those two questions we will return to the Exodus 12 text for some words of application and challenge.

What is Passover About?

There are longer ways to answer this question, but we’ve already gone through the symbolism of the various parts of the meal. We are also going to have a “Jesus in the Passover” service this Thursday night, and we will explore the meaning of Passover in greater detail.

Today I want to focus on a particular way of answering the question, “What is Passover about?” In verse 26, the children ask this same basic question, “What does this rite mean to you?” Let’s look at the answer given from Yahweh to Moses in response: “You shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’” (v. 27)

First of all, it is a sacrifice to the Lord – an act of worship, remembering, and thanks. We’ll see that this is where we end up as well.

But look at what comes next. What did the Lord do that we remember and for which we give thanks? Yahweh “passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians…” So here’s the basic choice – and I’m not sure it’s an easy or clear one. If you were a Hebrew father or mother, enslaved for generations to the Egyptians and suddenly about to be set free, how would you answer your child’s question? Will Passover be about the Lord smiting the Egyptians? Or will it be about freedom and a new start? Would you focus on vengeance and judgment or on mercy and grace?

The wording of the answer in verse 27 has the focus on worship and then on the mercy and grace of deliverance. Smiting the Egyptian slave-masters is subordinate to that and simply part of the context and story, not the center of the memorial meal. But, how hard would that be to get right!

What is Palm Sunday About?

That dynamic of choosing to worship God for His mercy and grace rather than the possibility of vengeance and judgment is also the dynamic of Palm Sunday. We heard that story as the call to worship today. Jesus was fulfilling all the Messianic prophecies, specifically one about riding a colt through a certain gate of Jerusalem. The crowd celebrated and received him as a potential Messiah, shouting the Psalm-cry, “Hosanna!” (“Save us now!”).

For several generations there had been a growing Messianic hope – that God would send the heir and descendant of the legendary King David to come and once again make Israel a great nation. This God-anointed king would take on the Roman conquerors and throw them off, restoring Israel to a place of prominence and power. The people were looking for a certain kind of vengeance and judgment on the empire that had been oppressing them for generations, not unlike the way Egypt oppressed Israel in the days of Moses.

But we know from Jesus’ teaching that he was not THAT Messiah, though he was God’s anointed one. But he came teaching about a different kingdom – not an earthly one, but the Kingdom of God. And he came preaching mercy and grace, a new birth and a new start for even the most outcast of people.

And so, those Palm Sunday worshipers were faced with a similar choice. Would they shout “Hosanna!” for the sake of vengeance and judgment against the Roman Empire? Or would they shout “Hosanna!” as a prayer to God to show them mercy and grace and to provide a new start like the Hebrew people of old experienced in the Exodus?

Rise Up, Worship, and Bless (vv. 31-32)

These two stories, with their similar dynamics, touch on a question that is not far from our own experience. Do we seek to use God primarily to smite our enemies or to lead us in our new life as Christ-followers?

Well, put that way it’s a no-brainer, right? I’m guessing no one here actually wants to smite any enemies. Or you certainly wouldn’t admit to it if you did. But, let’s press on that a little. In both the Exodus and the Palm Sunday story the people were in the midst of conflict, oppression, struggle, and discouragement. Are there ways in which we desire God’s vengeance and judgment in the here and now? While we would be slow to name someone as a literal “enemy,” do you have enemies by some other name? A boss? A bully? An employee or co-worker? That cranky parent on your kid’s soccer team? The teacher that seems so inconsistent and unfair? Foreigners? Young people? Old people? The poor? The rich? That OTHER political party from yours?

Once we get started, they come easier and easier.

And what did Jesus teach about enemies? To love them… really, Jesus?

In Passover and Palm Sunday, the text may not go that far, but it does summon our focus and prayers and praises beyond vengeance and judgment to mercy and grace. Both texts and stories are about God delivering enslaved and bound people into a new life. The Good News of Exodus and the Good News of Easter is not about crushing earthly enemies, but about a new start and birth as children of God.

That’s significant; that’s a lot to take in and live out. My prayers and praises are to be focused on God’s mercy toward me and the gracious re-start He has given to me.

But that’s not all. In fact, that is just the start, the “delivery moment.” Look back in Exodus 12 at vv. 31-32:

“Rise up… and go, worship the Lord… go, and bless me also.”

The Lord was speaking to Moses and Aaron, and all the sons of Israel, but these are also the Lord’s words to us, not unlike the Great commission.

Why have we been delivered, saved, and given a new life and a new start?

It is so that we might rise up, go worship (serve) the Lord, and bless the Lord as we go.

That’s ultimately the PURPOSE of Passover and Palm Sunday. God has saved us for a purpose and that is to get up and get out. Our new start and new life are as followers (servants/worshipers) of the Lord. We are to be a “blessing people,” speaking and extending not the vengeance and judgment of the Lord, but the mercy and grace we have experienced ourselves in Christ. We are blessed to be a blessing.

This is what Jesus meant by “love our enemies.” This is what Jesus meant by “Come, follow me!” This is why we reach out beyond our walls in Christ’s name, seeking to be a good neighbor in this community and beyond. God has rescued us for a reason and that is to bless His name through serving Him in the world.

Jesus would later say, “Come, believe, and follow me.”

Hear God’s Word from Exodus: “Rise up, get out, go serve the Lord, and go bless the Lord in all you say and do!” Smite your enemies? No; bless your enemies in the name of the Lord. Amen.

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