Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2020 (Matthew 26:17-30)

“Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament” (1458) by Dieric Bouts (1420-1475). M-Museum, Louvain. Public Domain.

Originally preached/written for Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”  This is the question often asked by the youngest child at a Jewish Passover Seder meal.  Perhaps you’ve attended one or been to a Maundy Thursday Seder service yourself and heard this.  “Why is this night different from all other nights?” What makes this night so different from every night of the year?  What are we commemorating? What are we celebrating? What is happening on this night, this Holy Thursday?

Perhaps you learned about the Passover questions from Shari Lewis’ Passover Surprise like I did when I was a kid. Also, Robert Guillaume’s song about the ten plagues of Egypt is awesome.
“The Signs on the Door” (ca. 1896-1902), by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902). The Jewish Museum, New York. Public Domain.

This night was a night that was different for the Jews.  It was night of the feast of the Passover, when the Jews commemorated the night on which God broke Pharaoh’s resolve to keep His people, the Israelites, from leaving slavery, by killing the firstborn of every family in Egypt.  The Israelites were spared, however, if they did what God directed them to do: they were told to slaughter a lamb and paint their doorposts with its blood, and then spend the night feasting on it while waiting up, ready to leave with staff in hand.  That night, God would pass overhead—pass over their homes—and seeing the blood on the doorposts, would leave them be. Anyone else, however, woke the following morning to find the firstborn of the household dead, both animals and people. This plague on the firstborn, God’s final judgment on Egypt broke Pharaoh, and he let the Israelites leave Egypt for Canaan.  It was at this Passover that God effected the salvation of His people from the Egyptians and began leading them out to the land He promised their forefathers. At Passover, the life of the Israelites began anew. God made a new covenant with them following His bringing them out—they would be His people, and He would be their God. And so at the Passover Seder, the Jews recalled (and recall to this day) God’s work in saving them from slavery and delivering them to their inheritance.  This night, then, is the night of the Passover and the night of remembering what God had done for Israel.

But it should be said that when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and slew Pharaoh and his army, the Israelites still needed saving.  They did not behave like a people chosen by God when they left Egypt. They grumbled. They complained. They made idols and worshiped them rather than the God who had made a covenant promise with them.  They were sinful, and many died as a result of their sin, like Korah and his people, who God condemned to be swallowed up by the earth. Even though they were saved from slavery in a foreign land, they still needed salvation from sin, death, and hell.  Indeed, Israel’s history following the Exodus out of Egypt is nothing but a litany of sinful behavior, of infidelity and violence and murder. Their story mirrors the story of all of humanity. Giving into sin, they were unfaithful to the God who saved them, giving themselves over to the worship of strange gods, to child sacrifice, and to forgetting the laws God had given them.  They “socially distanced” themselves from their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, while they were sometimes coaxed back to Him over the years by the words of prophets and the deeds of kings, they invariably kept turning away, turning inward.

“And There Was a Great Cry in Egypt” (1898) by Andrew Hacker (1858-1919). Private Collection. Public Domain.

But all the while that Israel was unfaithful and ruled by sin, God was faithful to them.  He had a plan that would save them from their continual wickedness and unfaithfulness, a plan to destroy the power of sin in their lives, forever.  And that involved His becoming a man, one of us, to die for the sins of all mankind and to rise again, triumphant over them.

And so this night is different from all other nights because it was on this night, some one-thousand, nine-hundred-ninety years ago that the incarnate Son of God, observed this Passover feast, commemorating the work that His Father had accomplished for His chosen people, saving them from slavery and leading them to a place where he made a covenant with them that they would be His people and He would be their God.  But this night was very different from those other so different nights. Because on this night, God the Son would make a new covenant with his people, to save them from their sins. He “took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

“The Last Supper” (1638) from the Orebygård Manor chapel altarpiece, by Henrik Werner. Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen. Photograph by Victor Valore, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

And it was in this covenant that He foretold the benefit of His coming death and instituted the medicine of immortality, giving His disciples and His whole church a sacrament by which their faith might be strengthened and through which they would receive the benefit of his sacrifice: eternal life, won for them through his death and resurrection.  His body and blood would be given up on the cross for the salvation of all people; His body and blood would be holy food for those who trust in Him for that salvation, medicine to feed their faith 

You and I have often, like the Israelites of old, socially distanced ourselves from God.  We’ve willingly violated God’s laws and rejected His promises toward us, instead seeking out illicit pleasures, following our own wills, and chasing after the false gods of money, possessions, sex, and power.  And if we didn’t chase those things actively, we have certainly chased after them in our hearts and in our thoughts. And when we do, we condemn ourselves; we seek our own destruction. In our sin, we seek our own death.

But thanks be to God, He did not abandon us.  He came and lived the perfect life we could not.  He took our punishment upon Himself and died in our place, and through His death and resurrection, we have received forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  And when we trust in his death and resurrection and we receive the Holy Sacrament of His body and blood, instituted for us and the whole church on this night, our faith is strengthened, our souls are fed, and we are given the assurance of eternal life with him.  We know our sins are forgiven, and we can live aright. That is why this night, for the church, is different from all other nights. On this night, Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday, the night when Christ told his disciples to love one another, the Son of God gave us a new covenant and promised to feed us with Himself to strengthen us in body and soul.

“The Last Supper” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

And of course, this particular night is different from all other nights, certainly different from all other nights we’ve experienced.  This year, during Holy Week of 2020, the SARS-CoV-19 virus has forced us to not be able to meet together to worship God and receive His gifts.  The virus and the regulations around it prevent us from coming together for a time, and we don’t know when we will be able to worship God together again.  We don’t know when we’ll be able to receive the sacrament together again. But during this time of forced isolation, we can still put our trust in Christ’s work on the cross.  We can still trust in the words of the covenant He made with us for our salvation, that by His body and blood the whole world will be redeemed. We can trust in His Word, His promises in Scripture.  We can look to our baptisms and trust in them, remembering that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb who died on the cross at Calvary, and that nothing— “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).  During this time of separation, we can remember all these things and put our hope and trust in Christ our Lord, who has redeemed us by His blood. We can trust that He will preserve us in the faith and hold us in His hand, regardless of what happens. And we can know that we are His now and forever and rest secure in that knowledge, looking forward to the time when we can come together again to receive His gifts and worship Him.  Let us pray that that day comes soon. Christ has redeemed you. Amen.

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