What the first Passover teaches us about worship
Chag Pesach Sameach!
Passover begins today. On this annual festival, the Jewish people celebrate their emancipation from the slavery of Egypt. While Christians don’t typically celebrate Passover, later this week, on Good Friday, we will remember a Passover meal that Jesus and his friends celebrated, right before he was crucified. (You’ll want to read this excellent post on Passover from a Jewish AND Christian perspective from Michelle VanLoon.)
In honor of Passover, I want to share an excerpt from my forthcoming book, GodSpace, which explores seven spiritual practices, including worship. Worship is much more than singing. It is giving God honor, it is making sacrifices. It involves not just our minds or even our souls, but our bodies, according to Scripture:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship,” declares Romans 12:1.
This embodied spirituality is a theme in GodSpace—because it has been a theme in God’s story since the beginning. Our faith is not just mental assertion or correct opinion, but right practice. God has, since ancient days, invited his people to live their faith, to worship with their whole selves. The first Passover contains principles for worship that transcend time and tradition.
In the Old Testament account of the children of Israel’s Exodus from slavery in Egypt, Moses repeatedly asks Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” The songs I grew up singing in church left out the second part of that sentence. It was just “let my people go!” The implication was because they were oppressed, they were slaves, and they didn’t want to be slaves. They wanted freedom. But freedom to do what? According to the text, they wanted to worship.
Moses’ campaign for freedom begins with a request for a long weekend off—a three-day festival in the desert. Maybe he spun it as something similar to the Wild Goose Festival. (That part is not in the Bible.) The text actually says:
“Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.”
“Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.’
“Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.’” (Exodus 5:1-3)
Pharaoh scoffs. He does not know their God, and is not interested in losing his labor force. And in fact, he makes their work harder and things get worse before they get better. Moses is bummed, to put it mildly. “Bummed” is not in the Bible but read Exodus; Moses does file an honest complaint with God.
From there, the story grows increasingly fascinating and terrifying. Pharaoh eventually begins to be worn down by the plagues that God keeps bringing: frogs that show up and then die in stinky piles, flies, the list goes on. After the eighth plague (locusts) Moses, with his trusty sidekick Aaron, goes back to Pharaoh and repeats his request, again asking to be let go so that they can worship. Pharaoh appears to be caving, however slowly. He makes desperate attempts to hold on to control, but you can see he’s crumbling. Frog and locust warfare will do that. The text says:
“Then Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. ‘Go, worship the Lord your God,’ he said. ‘But tell me who will be going.’
“Moses answered, ‘We will go with our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, and with our flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to the Lord.’” (Exodus 10:8-9)
Pharaoh bargains with Moses and Aaron and says that just the men can go to worship, ostensibly, just for a short time. Moses refuses, saying that the women and children, and all the animals, need to come along. Pharaoh says no, and the next plague (darkness) soon descends.
Moses goes back again and repeats his demand: Let my people go, so that we can worship the Lord. And Pharaoh, trying to get the plagues to stop, says, okay, fine, the women and children can go too—but not the animals. Moses bravely holds his ground.
“But Moses said, ‘You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the Lord our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.’” (Exodus 10:25-26)
Moses says, I need to bring the cows and the sheep and all that, because I’m not sure which one God will want us to sacrifice. Moses’ negotiations are almost comical. Pharaoh basically says, no way. So Moses says, get ready, you’ll be sorry. Before the final plague, in which the first born of every household will be killed, God instructs Moses about the Passover. A lamb sacrificed, its blood spread on the doorposts. What a beautiful visual foreshadowing of Christ on the cross. The homes with the blood painted on the doorframe would be “passed over” and spared death.
That worship required actions, done with their bodies—each family choose a lamb, slaughtered and roasted it. Imagine it: a branch of hyssop, dipped in the slaughtered lamb’s blood and brushed on the lintel; the doorposts red and dripping. With their hands they made bread without yeast, then sat down and ate the bread and roasted lamb. God’s people worshipped in that moment not by thinking good thoughts about God, but by doing, even by eating. They experienced “embodied spirituality.”
This happened not after God had freed them, but before. There’s a quiet irony in the story. Moses asks Pharaoh to let his people go so that they can worship. But they worship right there, in Egypt, waiting for the word to flee for their freedom—and possibly not sure that they will get it. They worship while they’re still in slavery, when things are still a mess, when their pain is unresolved, when they’re facing a Pharaoh who has so far been unmoved by nine horrific plagues.
God spells out an order of worship, of Passover, steeped in symbolism that they don’t yet understand. In that first Passover, God allows them to practice how they will worship for generations to come.
They don’t need to go to the wilderness to worship. They worship right where they are, before their pain is resolved, while things still look bleak. They learn the liturgy right there, under Pharaoh’s nose, before they are free. And then they flee, taking their freedom, and God goes before them and with them.
When we worship, even in captivity, we experience freedom. We can worship right where we are, even if we feel hopeless, enslaved, exhausted. The intimacy we seek with God comes when we worship, even in the midst of our pain and unresolved problems.
Where is God inviting you to worship with your whole self? What freedom are you longing for? Can you worship God, like the Israelites, while still holding out for your deepest longing? Can you worship, trusting freedom will come? Leave a comment below with your thoughts, questions, ideas.
Adapted from GodSpace: Embracing the Inconvenient Adventure of Intimacy with God. Pre-order from amazon, Barnes&Noble.com, or your favorite online seller.