From Leviticus 23:5: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, (in Hebrew between the evenings) shall be a Passover offering to the Lord.”
What a difference a day makes. So much happens during Holy Week both in our scripture reading and in our church life, that when we come to today’s reading of the Passion, it is almost impossible for us to remember clearly the timeline of events, let alone take in the fact that that all that we recall today happened in just one day. This isn’t surprising as our modern conception of time is distinct from that of Jewish folks. We observe our Christian holidays using our ‘common’ time. But that is not the case for many observant Jews both in Jesus’ time and today. It is for this reason that we at Epiphany recall the Triduum (or as Doyt refers to it Act I, II, and III) to help us adjust to the move from Pacific Daylight Savings Time to Holy Week and Easter Time. Because as Professor Alicia D. Meyers notes, when we were told in John chapter 13 verse 30 that at Jesus’ last meal with his disciples: “As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night” the day of Preparation for Passover began. So that everything that happened, beginning with the rest of chapter 13 and going all the way through chapter 19 led to what Jesus referred to as ‘the hour for which he came’ happened on the day of preparation.
Now this day of preparation was an important part of the Passover celebration and its timing was determined by the God of Israel as we heard in our beginning reading from Leviticus. We learn a little more about its timing in Deuteronomy. We read, “But at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name, only the shall you offer the Passover sacrifice in the evening at sunset the time of day when you departed from Egypt.”
Now, those of you who travelled with us yesterday at our Maundy Thursday service might recall our reading from Exodus which dealt with the tenth and final plague that befell Pharaoh and the people of Egypt in their refusal to free the Israelites held in bondage. In this story God told Moses to order the Israelite families in the first month on the fourteenth day between the evenings to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the door of their houses so that the angel of death would know to ‘pass over’ the houses of the Israelites when he took the lives of every firstborn male Egyptian creature. It is from this that the festival commemorating the Israelite’s escape from Egypt came to be known as Passover. With the death of his own firstborn son (something that he himself had ordered done to all Israelites previously), Ramses the Second finally relented [at least momentarily AGAIN] and freed the Israelites.
Yesterday, I mentioned that taken out of context by someone unfamiliar with Judaism or Christianity, this story can make God seem harsh and retributive. But taken within the context of life in the time of the Pharaoh Ramses II AND taken in the context of Jesus of Nazareth, it is a story that can inspire hope, resilience, courage, and grace in the most difficult of times. And we need this story now. This Passover – this Good Friday this story and its relevance to our Passion narrative speaks to us in a way we have never collectively experienced it before. During this pandemic, the ‘plagues’ of which we had once only read about in the Bible or history books became our shared world reality in a way in which we haven’t seen it in over a hundred years. And after five hundred years of empire’s expansion and acquisition of land, resources, and fellow human beings through exploration and exploitation the populations of these countries are changing with the once-majority now becoming minorities. And our very planet itself is showing us she can no longer sustain our endless want for more. And into this, God will still come back for us.
On this Day of Preparation – this Good Friday, we are recalling Jesus’ betrayal, Jesus’ arrest and conviction, Jesus’ death on the cross and his burial in a new tomb. All of this happening in the course of just one day. But this one day changes the course of history because what we are also witnessing, too, is the fulfillment of three thousand years of God’s promise to God’s people Israel. And that is God’s willingness to freely offer a sacrifice that God would never require of those who followed him: that is the offering of the God’s own blood in the form of his only born–or as we might be more accustomed to hearing it now—his only begotten son.
Now, last night I talked about our discomfort with Jesus as he humbly washes the feet of his disciples during their last supper. And while I do think we prefer to think of Jesus as some kind of superhero fighting all evildoers and we certainly admire the courage and the love that Jesus shows in resolutely choosing God’s people and God’s kingdom over the principalities and powers of this world again and again and again, I think we sometimes still fall prey to the idea that Jesus willingly gave himself as the perfect Paschal lamb as a type of propitiation which is theologian speak for ‘appeasement’ or ‘satisfying’ a rather mercurial and capricious-looking God of Israel. But what is going on this Good Friday is very different. It is atonement–the making of amends or reparations for sin or wrong-doing. Propitiation is a sacrifice to quiet or appease a God (with, of course the connotation that this God want to exact obedience to his law and that this action is given to keep said God from wrathful retribution). And atonement is to freely offer oneself in the place of another in a way that radically changes the future for another.
Looking over all that happens today, John’s Gospel makes it exceedingly clear that Jesus willingly made the choice to die for us. The evening began with Judas, who Jesus had long known would betray him, leaving the room to do just that. It continues with Jesus and his disciples walking in the Kidron Valley (the place where King David had also gone when his son Absalom sought to kill him) and they are met by Judas and a whole lot of soldiers (while a detachment of soldiers normally referred to six hundred men, scholars normally think this large of a group probably wouldn’t have been needed or useful) and police from the chief priests and Pharisees, Jesus knowing why they are coming, approaches them and asks them who they are looking for and then affirms it is him. And we are told, “When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. After the soldiers arrest them and take him to ‘trials’ in front of Annas and Caiaphas and even Pontius Pilate, Jesus is clearly not ceding his power as God’s son to these earthly courts. In the court of the Roman empire, Jesus makes this power clear in two different statements. First in response to Pilate’s question if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over….” And again, as Pilate suggests that he has the power to release him or to crucify him, Jesus answers: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”
Throughout the many things that occur in this long day, we hear again and again about the fear of the disciples, the fear of the soldiers and fear of Pilate too, but throughout it all Jesus alone is consistent and ready to do what he had lived his whole life to do–to, now that his hour has come, willingly give his life for ALL God’s children. His kind of quiet, humble strength came from his knowledge and trust in God. He knew exactly who he was and whose he was. And he willingly chose death, so that he could not only love us all our lives but forever too. Jesus is willing to die to invest our human bodies, once again, with the Holy Spirit and the gift of the kind, intimate, and loving relationship God has always desired. Once and for all–for the love of all of us, Jesus before the end of this Good Friday/Day of Preparation made reparations on our behalf and when his hour came, he changed everything for all time. Get ready friends… keep going today, tomorrow and throughout these difficult times. Jesus has marked us as his own through his blood, so we do not need to be afraid. It is almost Easter time. And there is no falling back. There is only going forward and being raised up…. Yes, dare to believe in the difference three days can make.