[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the Portland UCG congregation on the First Day Of Unleavened Bread, March 28, 2021.]
There are some things that are rather obvious but that are still worth talking about anyway. Today, for example, I am speaking to you all on the First Day of Unleavened Bread. It is not called, as one might expect from the balance of messages that we tend to hear, the first day without leavened bread, but rather the first day of unleavened bread. This day and the week it is a part of are labeled by the positive obligation that we have to feed on unleavened bread rather than the negative obligation that we have to remove leavening from our lives. How often do we stop to ask ourselves or others why this is so? Why is it important for us that this is the Days of Unleavened Bread and not merely the days without leavened bread? This is the question I would like to examine today as we look both in familiar places and perhaps some places that are less familiar, so that we may understand that it is vital not only that we should get sin out of our lives, but that we should replace that sin with godly, righteous acts motivated by love and by the transforming power of God living within us.
When we think of the spiritual meaning of the Days of Unleavened Bread, it is natural for us to think of the writings of Paul to that struggling congregation in Corinth nearly 2,000 years ago. Let us turn to 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 to look at a familiar passage relating to the symbolism of this feast. When Paul was writing to a congregation that prided itself on its tolerant attitude towards sexual sins that were prohibited by Leviticus 18, Paul’s reply to them was quite severe. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul told this congregation: “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Paul’s message in this passage is one that we have heard many times. Paul drew from the symbolism of leavening and unleavened bread contrasting lessons about the sin and wickedness that were rampant within the Corinthian congregation as well as their corrupt local community with the righteousness that they were called to develop as brethren. These lessons are not unfamiliar to us, and many of us take for granted that leavened bread is a fit symbol of sin and wickedness that we are to put into our lives. How often, though, do we ponder what we are to put into our lives?
When the Days of Unleavened Bread are first mentioned in scripture, the removal of leavening is already closely tied to the putting in of unleavened bread. These verses are also very familiar to us. Exodus 13:6-7 gives us the physical contrast between leavened and unleavened bread that Paul drew upon to make his memorable discussion about the difference between the leavening of malice, wickedness, and sin, and the unleavened bread of righteousness, sincerity, and truth. Exodus 13:6-7 tells us: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days. And no leavened bread shall be seen among you, nor shall leaven be seen among you in all your quarters.” When we read these verses in messages, it is most often reminding us to put out leavening from among us, but these verses twice tell us that we should eat leavened bread seven days. It is not enough that we put sin out of our lives, but that we have to replace it with something else.
Let us ask a further question here: Was Paul the first person in the Bible to make the connection between unleavened bread and righteousness? Not at all. The first mention of unleavened bread in the Bible, interestingly enough, occurs in Genesis 19:3, when Lot gives unleavened bread to the angels who came to visit him and to deliver him and his family from the wicked city of Sodom, which was soon to be destroyed. While the corrupt and wicked men of that infamous city were filled with the leaven of malice and wickedness of a proverbial kind, Lot himself, the only righteous man in the whole city, fed his guests unleavened bread. This makes for an interesting conquest, and one which I do not think gets enough attention. Nor was Paul the first person to draw the obvious conclusions this story provides us between leavened and unleavened bread and their spiritual counterparts. In Ezra 6:19-22, we find that those who returned from the Babylonian captivity had some understanding of what it meant to not only remove from themselves leavening but also to partake of the unleavened bread that we partake of today and for the next week. Ezra 6:19-22 tells us: “And the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were ritually clean. And they slaughtered the Passover lambs for all the descendants of the captivity, for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the Lord God of Israel. And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy; for the Lord made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.” The brethren and the religious leaders of the time clearly understood the connection between leavening and the moral corruption of the heathen people around them, and also had made themselves both morally and ceremonially clean to seek God and to celebrate His feast of unleavened bread, an effort that was blessed by God because of their repentance and their turning to Him.
What does this mean for us? What is at stake for us if we view the Days of Unleavened Bread only as an occasion for spring cleaning and not as a period of time to practice righteousness? What is so bad about only ridding sin out of our lives and not replacing it with the transforming presence of God within our lives? We find the answer in a rather chilling passage in Matthew 12:38-45. The first part of this passage is familiar to us as it is Jesus giving his wicked generation the only sign He would give of His death and resurrection in the three days and three nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish. It is after that reminder that He gives a chilling description of the fate of His generation and our own. Matthew 12:38-45 reads: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here. When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”
It is this last section of verses that lets us know what truly is at stake for us and for our present evil age. If all we do this time of year is to tidy our homes and to tidy our lives, we only make a more tidy home for loathsome and evil spirits. Those who only seek to remove sin from their lives without practicing righteousness and without filling their lives with the presence and power of God are only tidying up a place for some unwanted and unfriendly tenants. That is not the sort of fate we want to share for ourselves. Like the people of Jerusalem during the time of Ezra, and like Paul’s message to the brethren at Corinth, we not only wish to turn away from the wickedness and corruption and evil of our present age and of the heathen people around us, but to turn to something else. We celebrate and rejoice in following God’s way, in fellowshiping with our brethren, and in being made by the power of God into unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Let us therefore pay heed these Days of Unleavened Bread not only to what we have put out of our lives, but also to what we are putting into them.