Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 26, 2014

2014.08.24 “Stories from the Family of Faith: The Birth of Moses” – Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Central United Methodist Church
Stories from the Family of Faith:
The Birth of Moses
Pastor David L. Haley
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
August 24th, 2014

He, Qi. Finding of Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  Original source: heqigallery.com.

He, Qi. Finding of Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: heqigallery.com.

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.  But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.  The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”  The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”  So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.  And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.  Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months.  When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.  His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.  When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.  Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”  Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.  Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.  When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, the New Revised Standard Version)

It has been a troubling summer, has it not, with too much bad news and too little good news. There has been so much bad news, I’m not sure I can summarize the list without forgetting something: the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, resulting in the death of an estimated 1,350 people so far; the shooting down of Malaysian airlines flight 17 over the Ukraine in July killing 298 people; the whole situation between Russian and the Ukraine; the Israel/Palestinian war; the spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, including the situation with the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq; the suicide of Robin Williams; the killing by police of two unarmed black men, Eric Gaines in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri; and in addition, the beheading of American journalist James Foley. It seems this summer’s list of depressing news items just keeps increasing.

In our congregation, these are not remote issues: we have families from West Africa; we have Assyrian Christians; we know people like Robin Williams who suffer from depression; we are people of color, sometimes treated differently because of the color of our skin.  What to do?

As Christians, one of the most important things we can do in the midst of bad news is come to church to pray and seek God’s and each other’s help, and to hear good news, through the stories of Scripture, about how God works in the world, using people like us; not only in times past, but in the present, to change people and nations.

Never is it more important to hear how God does this than when the news is bad, because it is at such times that we often feel powerless to affect change, feeling like what we do in our lives and through our actions makes little difference, maybe none at all.

On the contrary, today’s Scripture is a powerful story reminding us what a difference our lives and actions can make in the world. Today’s story, the birth of Moses, is the most important story in the Old Testament, the story of how God saved God’s people from enslavement in Egypt. It is the Old Testament equivalent of the Jesus story in the New Testament; which, in fact, a significant part of the Jesus story echoes, so we need to know it. It is the story of how – when the news was bad and things were at their worst – God raised up through the lives and actions of ordinary people, one who would be the Deliverer of his people, Moses.

BTW, you might also want to pay attention, because I understand in December yet another “Moses” movie will be released, starring Christian Bale as Moses, entitled, God and Kings.  That’s right, Batman as Moses. Even funnier, his sidekick, Joshua, will be played by Aaron Paul.  That’s right, Jesse Pinkman, former sidekick of meth maker Walter Whyte in Breaking Bad.  Batman and Jesse Pinkman against Pharaoh, how can we lose with that?

So far over the summer the plot has of Genesis has been this: God chose two people, Abraham and Sarah to create a nation, through whom all people of the earth would be blessed. So far the promise has survived the character flaws and family favoritism (which have been considerable) not only of Abraham and Sarah, but their children: Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel.  Then came Joseph, whose own brothers almost did him in. But ironically, because the “Lord was with him,” and through all the bad things that happened to him, he saved not himself, his family, his people, but all of Egypt. As Genesis ended, it appeared the Children of Israel might live happily ever after. But as we have learned in the Bible and in life, just when things look up, they get worse.

The ominous note sounds in Exodus, chapter 1, verse 8: “A new king arose who knew not Joseph.”  By this it means that this new Egyptian king not only did not know Joseph, he did not know Joseph’s people, what they had done for his country and his people, and how – as he was about to find out – they were a people who thrived on adversity.  Up to now they held favored immigrant status in Egypt, but no more.

As I pointed out in my email teaser today, the story of what happens next sounds too familiar. A dominant majority looks out the window or on TV, to see a threatening minority, people different from themselves. Furthermore, they have a higher birthrate, meaning that soon there may be more of them than of us, and we will lose control. As the rumors and trash talk accelerates, especially on social media, things get ugly, and soon extreme measures are taken.

Extreme Measure 1; enslave them, make them work harder, build pyramids and monuments to our people, the Egyptians.  Maybe when they come home, they’ll be so tired they won’t have time or energy, you know, to make more Israelites.  So, as the story says, the Egyptians became ruthless, making their lives bitter through all the tasks imposed upon them. But still they increased.

Then came Extreme Measure 2: Kill them, at least all the males who are born, possible future rebels. As we shall see, if Pharaoh had had any sense, he would have gone after the women; not only were they the ones having the babies, they were also the ones who would outsmart him and eventually undermine him.  Starting with the two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who bowed and smiled politely before Pharaoh in his presence, but had no idea of carrying out his genocide, because they feared God.

So Pharaoh called them back, wanting to know what had happened? Don’t you love how these women, Shiprah and Puah, put him off by feeding back to him his racial prejudice: “Well, you know these Hebrew women, they are not like Egyptian women, they are animals.” How often we hear that, especially when people want to use it as a rationalization or excuse to treat people badly. Even though we now know for sure, that race is a social concept, not a scientific one, because the human genome – our common DNA – is 99.9% the same, in all people, regardless of race.

Then comes Extreme Measure 3, throw them into the Nile. Not that I can imagine ANY Hebrew mother doing that, but there was one in particular, whose name we will learn later, Jochebed, who when she saw – as most mothers see in their children – that her son was “ki tov,” good and beautiful and special, she builds a little basket-boat for her infant son (which we Christians might think looks a lot like a manger), so that even as she casts him into the river, he will survive.  BTW, the word she uses of her son is the same word God spoke about creation: it was ki tov, good and beautiful and special. And BTW, the boat that she built for her son was the same thing that Noah built, a tevah, an ark or basket-boat, to bear him through the flood. Never discount the love or resourcefulness of women, and especially a mother, which is timeless and universal.

Who should find the child, but Pharaoh’s own daughter.  Through the help of Moses’ sister, Miriam, who should she hire to nurse him, than the baby’s own mother?  Where should she raise him, in security and in privilege, than in Pharaoh’s own house. How’s that whole “not knowing Joseph thing” going for you, Pharaoh?

There is a frightening irony in history; sometimes, our best efforts achieve exactly the opposite of what we intend them to achieve; and never more so than when they involve war and violence.  In this story, it involves, on one side, Pharaoh and all Egypt; on the other, five women, and one baby.  And – oh yes – God; always on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden,  as Jesus made even more clear, the people who are “special” to God.

Where is God in this story? One of the things I like about the workings of God through the book of Genesis and in these first chapters of Exodus, is that there are no overt acts of God recorded, no plagues, no wind and pillar of fire, no parting of the seas, as later. Instead the story unfolds and the situation is resolved through the courageous and compassionate actions of people, working with God.

Here, it was a courageous act of civil disobedience by these Hebrew women that was to change history. In our time, it would be like Rosa Park’s refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, which would give rise to a young black preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.  Or, as we saw last week, as the result of a conscious choice of an old man walking out of prison, Nelson Mandela, which would bring an end to apartheid in South Africa.  I doubt very much whether either Shiprah or Puah or Jochebed or Rosa Parks or even Nelson Mandela thought at the time that they were changing the world. But they were, just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience to do what is right in the sight of God. Frankly, as girls and women and especially mothers gain a greater voice throughout the world, I look forward to seeing what they will do to do to bring about a reduction – if not an end – to the violence perpetuate by so many of us men.

But maybe an even more important question is this: Where are we in this story, especially in light of the sense of helplessness we often feel amidst all the recent bad news?

In 1963, Edward Lorenz made a presentation to the New York Academy of Sciences and was literally laughed out of the room.  His theory, called the Butterfly Effect, was that a butterfly could flap its wings and set air molecules in motion, that, in turn, would move other air molecules – which would then move additional air molecules – eventually in a ripple effect, influencing weather patterns on the other side of the planet.  For this this was an interesting myth, until in the mid 1990’s, physics professors from several universities, working in tandem, proved the butterfly effect was viable and accurate.

In 2010, author Andy Andrews published The Butterfly Effect, pointing out how The Butterfly Effect also works through people, citing historical examples of people, who by their actions, changed history, affections millions of lives. Except, in any given historical example, when you go back, you can never completely identify whose efforts made the biggest difference. (Andy Andrews, The Butterfly Effect, 2010)

Because sometimes, amidst all the more sensational bad news, their names and accomplishments and the good deeds that people do, do not get reported. In West Africa, there are the health workers who have literally given themselves to care for people, and to attempt to stop the virus from spreading. In the Middle East, there are those of various religions who have intervened to protect the vulnerable, whether Christian or Yazidi, in Iraq, or to care for the innocent victims in the war in Gaza and Israel, or who have worked tirelessly to negotiate a peace.  In Ferguson, it is my understanding that a measure of calm has finally been achieved not so much through the efforts of police, as through the efforts of pastors and churches and peacemakers like the Rev. Willis Johnson, of Wellspring United Methodist Church,  (See the NPR interview with Rev. Johnson on Central’s Facebook page), people who have physically and spiritually intervened, knowing that continued violence is counterproductive.  Their story has not been told, and yet they are examples of people making a difference by their lives and actions.

Who knew this ancient story could still echo so powerfully, in our lives, in the life of our congregation, our nation, and the world, raising issues of race and gender and power, war and peace, immigration and hospitality to the stranger; in short, in all the issues still before us today.

Even in our depressing times, in the light of this story, it is still true that what we do – our decisions, our choices, our actions – ripple with consequences, for good and for evil, among people and nations, in ways that we may never know.

Just as God blessed the lives and actions of those Hebrew midwives so long ago, may God bless our lives and actions for good, as we go about our lives not only this week, but as long as we live.  Amen.

ARTWORK: He, Qi. Finding of Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  Original source: heqigallery.com.

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Responses

  1. It is great sermon David. I enjoyed and learned a lot of things about preaching from you. Peace!!


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