Some of you know that when I finished Clemson I had a chance to feel out a call to long-term missions by spending 6 or 7 months on Grand Bahama Island. We were in a town called “West End” that lies on a thin, 4-mile-long jut of land on the westernmost tip of the island. The village had been hit back to back by hurricanes Jeanne and Frances, so we were there for relief work. It was a good experience, but by the time we had to leave it was frustrating to see how much was still left to do. So, after coming home, we were excited to hear that a follow-up trip was scheduled six months out, just to go down for a week and check on the progress. The problem was that with all of our coming and going so far, our crew had exhausted our funding, so it didn’t look like we could afford to take the trip.
But then some strange things came together. You might have some vague recollection that back in 2005 AirTran Airways decided to partner with Wendy’s restaurants by printing a coupon on the back of their medium-sized drink cups. The deal was that if you mailed in 32 such coupons, you got a free one-way ticket anywhere AirTran flew, or 64 coupons would make a free round-trip. A person could max out at 128 for two round-trips. Initially, I saw the deal at lunch one day and blew it off, assuming that you could probably only fly to Saskatchewan in mid-winter or something, but finally someone checked the internet and found that AirTran flew to dozens of places, including a single location outside of the continental United States: the one place we needed to go, Freeport, Grand Bahama.
It felt like a sign or something, so a friend and I talked it over briefly, grabbed rubber gloves and a trash bag, got in the car and drove to the Wendy’s in Clemson. We parked around back, made sure the coast was clear, leapt into the garbage bin, and walked away with more than 40 cups. So, he and I hit every Wendy’s in the tri-county area, and several of them twice.
On the way back to Rock Hill, I stopped every time I saw a Wendy’s sign on the Interstate. And on the way to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, my brother and I even did some dumpster diving at the Wendy’s off of Clemson Road here in Columbia. Before it was said and done, we estimated that we’d gotten almost 2,000 cups combined. So we went on our mission trip, at almost no cost. Truly awesome.
Anytime I look back on that, it makes no rational sense in a lot of ways. How it all worked out, the timing, Freeport, the fact that we weren’t arrested. It boggles my mind and we gave God a lot of thanks for what very much looked like his grace at work.
But one of the most irrational pieces of the story, if you really step back and look at it, is that 32 Wendy’s cups could be worth a trip of up to thousands of miles. It made no sense. Turns it didn’t even make real good business sense either — AirTran posted a record multi-million dollar loss that quarter in part because they underestimated the dumpster divers. But, really, imagine it as a transaction – imagine that an AirTran executive walks up and hands me a ticket worth hundreds of dollars, and in return I hand him a stack of stank, Frosty-covered, ketchup-stained, cut-out pieces of cardboard cup.
The only way that transaction works out is that the company has assigned those cups value, by agreeing to buy them back at a great price. It’s how every kind of coupon works – these little pieces of paper with bar codes aren’t physically worth $1 or $2 or $10. But because the manufacturer agrees to buy them back at that price, the store gives us credit for them. If you see where I’m headed, we’re not just talking about coupons anymore. After all, there’s a pretty loaded word that’s used to describe these kinds of transactions, with these little pieces of paper.
We say that they are redeemed.
So Much Blood
The message of the first Passover night, in Exodus 12:1-14, is this very same lesson.
The Hebrews were going to be set free from slavery, to set out into new life as a new people, through God’s might and by deliverance through redeeming blood. As anciently strange as the Exodus text sounds, understanding this passage both prepares us for Easter and helps us answer some of our most difficult Old Testament questions.
Why was the Passover to be a “lasting observance,” meticulously kept every year by God’s people, with such particular instructions? So that the people could remember this lesson – of their freedom purchased through blood redemption – and it would become a part of their identity over thousands of years, right down in their DNA.
Why did this kind of sacrifice become so crucial and central to the Israelites’ worship going forward? In the ritual of the Tabernacle and then the Temple, it’s a core questions: why all these poor lambs and bulls and birds and so much blood? So that God could teach them, over and over, generation after generation, that they could be bought back from sin and evil.
But why should this whole transaction even work? Why should the lives of these animals take the place of human sinfulness? Because they were a model of the One who was to come.
“This is me…for you.”
The Hebrews called this season Pesach for the verb that described God’s action. He “passed over” those who had been redeemed by blood. And, in a way, we observe this season on Maundy Thursday, and remember Exodus 12 as our own heritage, because it was no accident that this was the time of year when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for his passion.
We’ve spent the 40 days of Lent trying to acknowledge that we need a means for atonement with God. We’ve confessed that, on our own and apart from God’s grace, we have all done much wrong, and caused much harm, even every day. As hard as it is to say it or to hear it, we have left so much good undone. We have turned our backs on God, and on others, and on the earth, over and over. In other words, on our own and apart from God’s grace, we have no redeemable quality.
But on this night in the light of Pesach, we acknowledge that because God steps in and offers to buy us back, to ransom us from sin and evil and hell and death, we are redeemed. Jesus was the most excellent person who will ever live – the most creative and intelligent, courageous and patient, just and forgiving, loving and compassionate person who will ever walk the face of the earth. He was God in the flesh. And, for all his infinite worth, he transmits great worth to us by being willing to trade himself for us.
That means, if we ever struggle with a sense of our being valuable, or loved, or forgiven, we should hear the truth in the words of this Holy Communion meal, as Jesus says: “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.”