Maundy Thursday

“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). These are the words of Jesus to his disciples. On this holy night, Jesus and his disciples shared together this most solemn of all the Jewish feasts.

Our gospel lesson tells us about the talk around the table. Most significant for this day, which we call Maundy Thursday, is the new commandment that Jesus gives to the disciples, that they love one another. This special day in the Christian calendar, in fact, is named for this new commandment. For the word “maundy” means “commandment.”  

But today our focus will be on our first lesson, which recounts the institution of the Passover. The backstory is familiar to us. If it isn’t, we can read it in Exodus 1-15. There we learn that God’s people were slaves in Egypt. They groaned under the lashes of their cruel taskmasters. God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked on the people and was concerned about them (Exodus 2:25).

Did you catch that? God not only heard the groaning of his people. He also cared about them.

Have we not, each one of us, asked, at one time or another, whether God even cares?

The story of the exodus, which Passover commemorates, underlines a core truth for us. God is not just a Creator who sets the world in motion and leaves it to spin. Rather, he is a God who is involved in the world, sustaining us, guiding us, and intervening in our lives when we are in impossible situations that threaten to overwhelm us. The Psalmist, whose testimony we heard last Sunday, declares: “I called to the Lord and he answered me by setting me free” (Psalm 118:5).   

In the exodus, this is how Israel experienced God. He sent Moses and Aaron to confront Pharoah, the king of Egypt with the message. “Let my people go.” But Pharoah refused. God then brought plagues on the Egyptians. But this made Pharoah all the more determined to resist God. He scoffed: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I don’t know the Lord and I will not Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).  

But through the signs and wonders God performed when he brought his people out of Egypt, Pharoah, not to mention all the Egyptians and the Israelites, learned that there is no one like the God of Israel, who sets his people free. The signs and wonders demonstrate that God exists, that God intervenes, and that God is powerful to save.

For thousands of years, the Passover has kept the memory of the exodus before God’s people. “No one is like you, Lord. You are great, and your name is mighty in power” (Jer. 10:6).  

The Passover is especially associated with one event. On the same night the Israelites left Egypt, God carried out the tenth and final plague: the death of the firstborn.  

We can try to mitigate the horror of this event. We can point to the repeated warnings. We can point to the justice of God, remembering the cruel oppression of Israel as God’s firstborn son, which includes the drownings of Israelite baby boys in the Nile. But most of us will still find the event troubling.

But it’s worth noting that, for all our questions and concerns, the lesson doesn’t dwell on what happened to Egypt. It’s far more interested in how God’s people are to keep the Passover.

Central to the feast is a lamb. It is to be a year-old male, without blemish, selected on the 10th day, and kept with the family until the 14th day. During the four-day period, it’s observed closely to make sure it’s in good health and is also pure. Then it’s to be sacrificed. The blood of the sacrificed animal is then applied to the doorposts.

God sees the blood, a sign of their faith in him, and “passes over” them. And no plague destroys them when God strikes the land of Egypt.

In his great love for them, God spares his people. God chose to redeem them, to make them his very own.

But today is Maundy Thursday. And so we may ask: what is it about Passover, more than all the Jewish feasts, that makes it special to Jesus on this night? How does he use it as a vehicle to convey to his disciples—and to us today—who he is and what he is about?

On Sunday we celebrated the day when Jesus entered into Jerusalem, presenting himself as king, successor to the throne of his father David, the Messiah that God promised to his people Israel. We call it Palm Sunday. Then the multitude of the disciples erupted in shouts of acclamation: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Jesus cannot enter into the city otherwise than he does. He is her king. But his kingdom does not come in the way the people expected.

Some New Testament students believe that the day of his entry was the same day the Passover lambs were selected and brought into the households. Just as each lamb was examined to make sure it is perfect and without blemish, so Jesus enters into the household of Israel and allows himself to be examined for four days to show that he is the spotless and unblemished lamb (Richard Freeman, “Jesus, the Lamb of God.”).  

The religious authorities examine him. They ask him hard questions. They demand to know by what authority he does these things. But they cannot catch him in his words. They cannot charge him with sin. Later, even Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, despite condemning him to death, will declare that he is without blemish. “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). Truly, the Lamb is worthy to be slain.   

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This is the announcement that John the Baptist made when Jesus came to the waters of baptism at the beginning of his ministry. What this language means only becomes clear here at the end of his ministry, here at the Passover. Jesus uses Passover to help his disciples understand his sacrificial death, which he was about to undergo on the cross. “This is my body, given for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

Just as the Passover Lamb became the means by which God delivered Israel from its bondage to Egypt, freeing them so that they might belong to him, so too Jesus, the Lamb of God, without blemish, delivers all God’s people from bondage to sin and reconciles them with God.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the inner meaning of the Passover lamb, which anticipates him, points to him, and finds its fulfillment in him. Passover is about redemption from slavery by the blood of the lamb. But it points to a greater redemption from slavery to sin and death by the blood of Christ.

Let us keep our hearts and our minds fixed on Christ our Passover as we meditate today and tomorrow on his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Amen.   

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