“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household.’”
The first verses of our text for Maundy Thursday tell us that the Passover had a very specific timing. The month in which it occurred was to be the first month of the religious year. On the tenth day they were to take a lamb. And then our text goes on to say, “you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” On the fourteenth day of the month that was later given the name Nisan, the Israelites were to kill and eat the Passover meal.
We have gathered on Maundy Thursday to remember our Lord Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, and especially the Sacrament he instituted at that meal. The Last Supper was a Passover meal. However, if you look at your calendar you will find that it appears we are a day off. Tomorrow is actually Nisan 14 – tomorrow is the fourteenth day of the month described in our text - and so tomorrow is Passover. Maybe we should just stop the service now and come back tomorrow. But before we do that and mess up our entire Holy Week schedule, let us first take a closer look at our text.
During the mid-week Lent services we considered the events in the first eleven chapters of Exodus that led up to tonight. Because of a famine, Jacob and his family had gone to Egypt, where Joseph was now second in charge of the nation. There God blessed Israel and they became a numerous people. Yet eventually a new Pharaoh arose who didn’t remember Joseph and what he had done. Instead, he saw Israel as a threat.
This Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites and used them as forced labor. Yahweh had called Moses at the burning bush and sent him to Pharaoh with this message: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.” Despite nine terrible plagues that Yahweh had sent upon Egypt, Pharaoh had refused to allow Israel to leave.
The moment had arrived for Yahweh’s tenth and final plague – the one that would force Pharaoh to let Israel go. In preparation, God told the Israelites to choose a year old male lamb that had no blemish. On the fourteenth day they were to kill the lamb at twilight. Yahweh told Israel: “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.” The Israelites were to eat the meal in haste, ready to leave, with their belt fastened, sandals on their feet and staff in hand.
The reason for this was that Yahweh was about to do something awesome and powerful. God says in our text, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”
Yahweh was going to execute judgment on Pharaoh and all the false gods of Egypt. He was going to kill the first born of the Egyptians. However, the blood of the lamb on the Israelites’ houses would keep them safe. It would be a sign that would cause God’s destructive wrath to pass over the Israelites and spare them.
The Passover meal was to be eaten in preparation to leave as God delivered Israel from Egypt. Yet the meal would not be a one-time event. Instead our text says, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” The Israelites were to continue to celebrate it each year as a reminder – a memorial day – of Yahweh’s great saving action in the exodus.
Jesus was a faithful descendant of Israel, and so he gathered to eat the Passover meal with his disciples. However, that Passover was different. It was different because as the incarnate Son of God he was about to offer himself as the once and for all sacrifice to redeem us from sin. Jesus was the Passover lamb. The next day he would shed his blood on the cross as the suffering Servant described by Isaiah. He was going to be numbered with the transgressors because you are a transgressor of God’s will in thought, word, and deed. Jesus would receive God’s wrath against those sins in your place. The shedding of his blood for you causes that wrath to pass over you unharmed, just like the Israelites.
A normal Passover meal looked back. It looked back to God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. But Jesus took the Passover and reoriented it. Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when it had given thanks he gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this as often as you eat it in remembrance of me.” Later in the meal he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you this cup is new testament in my blood which is shed for you forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.”
The Lord Jesus spoke not about what God had done in the past, but about what he himself was about to do by dying on the cross. He spoke about a remembrance that no longer was about the exodus, but instead was about the saving action he would carry out.
And Jesus also changed the focus of the meal. The Israelites had been commanded to eat unleavened bread and lamb roasted over a fire as a reminder of what God had done at the Passover. Now Jesus said that he was using bread and wine to give them his true body and blood. This was not merely mental recollection. Instead, Jesus’ creative power was providing the body given and the blood shed on the cross. Jesus was giving the price paid to redeem you from sin.
At the Last Supper, Jesus took the Passover meal and transformed it. He made it his own because of who he is and what he was about to do. He is the incarnate Lord, true God and true man. He was about to die on the cross to win forgiveness and salvation for you and every other sinner. But that was not all. As they went to Jerusalem, Jesus had said to the disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
Jesus would die. But he would also rise on the third day. It is now as the crucified and risen Lord that he gives us his true body and blood. This death and resurrection has reoriented everything. No longer is the Passover itself the focus. Instead it is his saving death on the cross of Good Friday and his resurrection from the dead on the third day – on Easter Sunday.
And so the Church which receives from Jesus the blood of the new covenant has changed the timing of the celebration. The Passover has not been forgotten. Not at all – for the death and resurrection of Jesus is not a mythical event that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Instead it happened in our time and history. It happened when Pontius Pilate was prefect over the province of Judea. It happened at the time when the Passover was celebrated.
The Church continues to acknowledge this timing of the Passover, something that changes every year because it is based on a lunar calendar rather than our solar one and so it doesn’t always fall on the same day. But now the reference point is the first Sunday after the Passover. This is Easter and the Friday that proceeds it is Good Friday – the days linked by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maundy Thursday, of course comes before Good Friday. She does so no matter whether Thursday is actually the Passover or not. Indeed this is now not a Passover meal. Instead, it is a remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper in which he instituted the Lord’s Supper – the Sacrament of the Altar.
We gather to remember how Jesus prepared to offer himself as the sacrifice for our sins. As he did so, have gave us the gift that we continue to receive tonight. He gave us the Sacrament of the Altar by which we do not merely remember that Jesus died on the cross for us. Instead Jesus gives us his true body and blood, given and shed for us on the cross. He gives us the very price he paid to redeem us from sin, and as we receive this in faith we know that this forgiveness of sins, life and salvation is ours now and forever.