Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday - Covenant Remembrance

Last Supper - Durer

The night of the Passover from its very beginning was a night of both fear and comfort. It was a night of fear, because it was a night of the judgment of God. The angel of death went throughout all of Egypt to destroy the first-born of every creature. As Cecil B. DeMille depicts the night in his movie, The Ten Commandments, the whole land would have echoed with screams of terror and sorrow that night. But, in the house of all those, Jew or Gentile, that had obeyed Moses and placed the blood of the lamb upon the posts and lintels of their doorways, there was comfort. The comfort was not just that the angel of death would pass them. The comfort was that the day of deliverance had finally come. This was God’s last stroke upon Pharoah which would make him let His people go. It was a feast of comfort that 400 years of slavery under Egypt’s yoke had come to an end. The day of redemption had finally dawned for God’s people.

How much more was the night of the Passover on which Jesus ate with his disciples for the last time a night of both fear and comfort. Fear struck the hearts of the disciples when they learned that one of them would betray the Lord. But there was fear in Jesus’ heart as well – fear of the wrath of God. On the next day, death would visit Him, as He would suffer the full stroke of God’s wrath for the sins of all humanity. He was Mary’s firstborn; He was God’s only-begotten; and He must die. Why? For the redemption of God’s people, not from an earthly slavery, but from the slavery of sin, the devil, and death.

There was comfort in that room as well. The comfort of redemption. Jesus Himself was glad to be there, for He says he had long desired that dinner with them. It was here that He would celebrate the Passover with his disciples and give them an object lesson of who he was and what he had come to do. He was their Passover Lamb. His blood would bring them safety and the defeat of the devil – their Pharoah – in his death would bring them the redemption that he longed for them to have.

It was also the night in which he would inaugurate a new feast for his people. As with the feasts that he had established with Moses in the wilderness over a thousand years previously, this feast would be a memorial, and that of a particular nature. It would be a covenantal memorial; a special occasion in which God’s people took time and performed deeds which would remind them of their God and what He had done for them.

Remembering is a very important part of the life of the believer. The nature of our life in God, corporately and individually, is personal. Our main duty is to love someone, to love God. We all know from personal experience how true the saying can be, “out of sight, out of mind,” and how that can lead to a chilling of affections between friends and relatives. Coldness of heart in our relationship with God is very dangerous! We do not want our hearts to grow cold toward him, yet he is indeed quite out of sight. And because he is invisible, out of sight, our earthly life can so preoccupy our attention that we can begin to forget the presence of our God and His wonderful loving and redeeming works on our behalf. And when we forget God, we slip into unbelief and disobedience. It’s just human nature to do so.

This is why God repeatedly in the Old Testament commanded Israel to not forget him when they got to the Promised Land and to faithfully keep the feasts that he had ordained for them. Those feasts would regularly remind them of what He had done for them in redeeming them from Egypt and therefore stay loyal to him. You will recall how the feasts did that. The annual Passover feast is obvious. We read in Exodus 12, 14: And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. 25: And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. 26: And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? 27: That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the LORD's passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.

The Feast of Weeks, wherein the children of Israel celebrated the harvest in the Promised Land, about which Moses said, 10: And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the LORD thy God with a tribute of a freewill offering of thine hand, 12: And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt.

Last, there was the Feast of Tabernacles, in which the Israelites would set up tents – if they didn’t live in them already – and eat their meals and sleep in them. Why? Moses wrote: 42: Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: 43: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

All these feasts, under the Old Covenant, were memorial feasts; feasts to lead the people to call back to their minds who their God was and what He had done for them in redeeming them from Egypt.

So Jesus, the Lord of the Feasts, establishes a new feast for a new covenant. This covenant would be made, not in the sacrifice of animals, but in the sacrifice of his own body and blood. It would be the mighty act of God, greater than had ever been done before, indeed, the fulfillment of all God’s mighty redeeming acts of old, to save his people from their sins. And as with his previous feasts, this feast would be a memorial. He said, “do this in remembrance of me.” In other words, do this as a memorial of me. This is to be a regular act in which the disciples would labour at remembering. Jesus knows we love him, but he also knows our weakness, and as we have already noted, we need help remembering who our God is and what He has done for us, just as much as the children of Israel did, for we too are in the flesh.

Jesus also knew he was going to leave them and be out of sight. So what does he do? He gives us that which in some mysterious way is He with us in sight. In the Passover, the Lamb represented Jesus. It would be a very moving and fearsome thing to be the one to kill the Passover lamb, knowing that, wouldn’t it! But here, the bread and wine, Jesus says, do not simply represent Him. They are Him. It’s as if, with the incarnation, and with the fulfillment of all the symbols and types of the Old Testament by Him, the people of God may now have a ceremony in which the things they handle are no mere symbol of Him who is out of sight, but they may now have him in sight, in the bread, in the wine. The matter of the feast – the things we handle to celebrate the feast – have a divine nature and reality unknown before the incarnation and death of the Son. They are thus a stronger reminder than anything given to his people before, for he himself is, in some mysterious way, present at the feast with them, in the bread and wine.

Thus, we remember him. And the remembering of him includes so many different elements for our faith. The Holy Communion is a call to us for covenantal faithfulness, for remembering. God has come down and delivered us; He has bought us; we are His people. We remember that, with great thanksgiving. He calls us to remember Him personally – His dying love for us, and we are amazed by it. He also gives Himself to us, in a spiritual fashion, in the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine, in order to strengthen the faith and obedience which is the response of our remembering. Thus, in the Feast, he not only requires faithful remembance, which stirs our love for Him, but grants us the grace of that stirred heart as well. And we are able to hold that bread and wine and have him with us, so personally, while he is at the same time away, out of sight. Oh, strong reminder!

But because the remembering is of Him and not just his death, so we remember that he will some day return to us in full sight. The Feast is thus, not only a feast of fear – as we remember Jesus’ death for our sin under the hand of God’s wrath; not only a feast of comfort – as we remember His atoning death for us, which paid the price that we might be the children of God forever, but a feast of joy. For herein we remember, we shall see Jesus – flesh and blood - and, with those disciples who were with him on that Passover night, sit down with him in his kingdom and enjoy a Feast the like of which has never ever been seen. And great will be, not only our Joy, but His Joy – it will be a Feast of joy for Him too! Oh, may the Lord have this joy! And may he have it soon!

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Amen.


Image: http://spaightwoodgalleries.com/Media/Old_Masters/Durer/Durer_LP_Last_Supper.jpg

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