With all the unrest in our world, do you wonder how God saves the world? God hears the prayers of suffering people and responds by calling ordinary people to make an extraordinary difference. This sermon based on Exodus 1:8-2:10 shows how God heard the cries of Hebrew slaves and worked through midwives to save children– including baby Moses. Their acts of civil disobedience against systemic racism provide inspiration for us to put ourselves on the line to make a difference. The midwives’ names, Puah and Shiphara, translated into English mean “Beauty” and “Splendor.” Discover how your beautiful acts of resistance to evil can help save the world. The Rev. Dr. David Clark, preaching.
Today we begin our new sermon series: What God is Trying to Achieve and What it Means for You. Exodus is a word that means to leave a place. It’s about how the Hebrew people, escaped from slavery in Egypt. This is the core story of the Old Testament. Every other part of the Bible assumes the reader is intimately familiar with this story. It’s the key place where you find out who God is, what God is trying to achieve, and what God expects of us as humans. So, let’s get started.
Three fast slams on Pharaoh
The story gets rolling in chapter 1, verse 8 and the author comes out swinging. There arose a king who knew not Joseph. It may not sound like much, but in a single sentence, the author lands three devastating blows against the Pharaoh, the villain of the story.
First, he identifies Pharaoh as “a king” and not by his official title. Kings were a dime a dozen. Pharaoh is a designation of the divine nature there is only one son of the Egyptian god, Ra. He thinks of himself as a god. Exodus’s author says, “Err. Not so much. Check your outsized ego, king.”
Second, he does not name which Pharaoh he is talking about. Is it King Tut or Ramses II? Exodus doesn’t give him the dignity of naming him. He’s kind of like Voldemort in Harry Potter, that is, “He whose name shall not me mentioned.” It’s as if Exodus is saying his name should be canceled from history.
Third, John Holbert, my doctoral professor said, he is not “the sharpest tool in the shed.” He knew not Joseph; he doesn’t know his history. Leaders should know their history if they hope to be successful. If he had bothered to learn it he would have known the story of Joseph (of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame) from Genesis. He saved the whole nation of Egypt and was invited to bring all his relatives as permanent citizens, guests under the protection of Egypt. The only reason there was an Egypt for Pharaoh to rule was because of a Hebrew, Joseph.
Don’t be a know-not
Thus, the first lesson is don’t be a know-not. Know your history. For us, we are invited to know these stories to know our spiritual history so that we might be guided on the right paths so that we might know who God is and what God wants. So, you are to be commended for engaging in this sermon series. Good for you. Be a know something. This is your spiritual DNA.
The Second Lesson: Don’t Treat People Based on Fear
The next blow the author lands is to say that Pharaoh governs out of a place of fear. One day he looks out across his empire and grows fearful that there are too many Hebrews. Too many of these immigrants. He worries that someday there will be more of “them” than “us” Egyptians and they will take power away from him, maybe even join with an adversary to overtake them entirely.
There is no indication that the Hebrews were anything but good loyal citizens. They’d done nothing wrong, but the ruler gets all worked up, and instead of working with them, building good relationships, he shows his colors as a cruel racist tyrant. There is no way around this. He commits the first antisemitic atrocities. He imposed a system designed to hurt people based on nothing other than the fact that their race was different from his.
The trouble starts from a hardened heart. The lesson is clear: don’t treat people based on fear.
Pharaoh’s First Failed Plan
He concocts a plan. Put the Hebrews in chains, and told Egyptians to do everything you can to make their lives difficult. Increase their workload and put every obstacle you can to make their lives miserable. That way, they will be too tuckered out to produce any more children. Mistreat these slaves, he orders. And horrifyingly, the Egyptians bought in and obliged their king, acting with malice and hatred based on race. But the plan doesn’t work. The harder they made life on the Hebrews, the more their population grew. As hard as the Hebrew slaves’ lives were, they still had hope for a better future for their children.
Is it a Sin to Break the Law?
After failing with his first plan, he concocts something more diabolical to deal with the proliferation of immigrants. He summons midwives and tells them to kill any boys who are born. Throw them into the Nile. A dumb plan. Who’d he think was going to build the cities and monuments he was making to himself?
But the midwives, we are told feared (which really means revered) God more than Pharaoh. So, they disobeyed. They refused to kill the boys. It is a blatant act of civil disobedience. The first of many in scripture. Some people think it is a sin to break the law. There is one verse in the New Testament that says we are to obey civil authorities. Generally, yes. But an unjust, law that takes innocent life must be opposed and thwarted. There is a higher law. A moral consideration. The Hebrew midwives risked their own lives to oppose an unjust law. As civil rights hero, Rep. John Lewis once said we should be willing to, “Get into trouble. The good kind of trouble.” And like the biblical precedents, he meant non-violent, peaceful actions. Puah and Shiphrah are the opposite of violent, they save life rather than take it. Through simple acts of civil disobedience, that is how God will change the world.
Beauty and Splendor show how God will Save the World
Although the mighty king is not named, these childless women (the lowest rung on the social ladder at the time) are named. Their names are Puah whose name means “Beauty” and Shiphrah whose name means “Splendor.” Beauty and splendor saved a generation.
Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” It’s not about a shallow physical attractiveness, but your beautiful acts of standing up to evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves are the splendor of God at work in this world. Beauty is your acts of taking the higher ground, offering forgiveness, being generous and creative, elevating others, and doing your best. It is through your beautiful acts, that is how God saves the world.
God used these two humble, lowly, ordinary women to do great things. Girl power! They are the first heroes of the story, without them, there is no Moses. God uses ordinary people, male and female to make the world better. That what we learn about God from the get-go in Exodus.
An incredulous Pharaoh sees this plan is failing so he summons the midwives and asks how is it that the population is still growing. They lie. “The Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. We can’t get there fast enough; the babies are already delivered by the time we are summoned and can get to the mothers.” Dumb Pharaoh buys it. “Uh, okay.” There is nothing in the story that condemns the falsehood. The midwives serve a higher moral duty. They are midwives of hope. You can be one, too. Whenever you take the higher ground and act out of a loving inclusive way. This is how God saves the world.
When People are Moved by Human Compassion is how God will change the world.
Consequently, after having failed with his first two plans, the king implements a sicker strategy. He tells all the Egyptian people, not just midwives, to murder the baby boys by throwing them into the Nile.
Again, the cruel king is defied by an ordinary woman. She gives birth and hides the baby for three months. And when she could hide him no longer, she builds a little vessel for him–that Hebrew scholars note is reminiscent of the ark Noah built. Imagine the heartbreak, the horror.
The big sister of the baby, whose name is Miriam, watches. That’s what big sisters do. She watched the ark carrying baby Moses as it gets caught in the reeds. The baby cries just when the king’s daughter is bathing nearby. “This must be a Hebrew child,” she says. She is emotionally moved and shows pity for the abandoned child thrown away because of his race. How God saves the world is through simple acts of human compassion.
Instead of obeying her father’s command, she too, defies him and draws him up out of the water and gives him the name Moses. Moses means, “drawn out of water.” The almighty Pharaoh is defied by yet another woman, his own daughter. That’s 4 civil-disobedient women in the story so far. More girl-power! Yay.
The King of Egypt is no God. He gets played like all the other dime-a-dozen tyrants.
How about a fifth? Sure. Miriam, the big sister sees an opportunity. She joins in the king’s daughter’s conspiracy. She says to the king’s daughter, “Hey, you need a babysitter to raise this kid? Pay me to do it. O, and I know a woman who lost her child who can nurse the baby, who is of course, Moses’ mother.
So Pharaoh is totally played. He is paying the mother and sister of a child he had ordered executed to raise him in his own house, right under his nose. The child who will grow up to lead all of the Hebrews through the water to their freedom. How God saves the world is through courageous people who take risks to do what is right–even if it means defying a king.
What an opening to this story!
The small-minded, fearful tyrant who thinks of himself as a god with no empathy or regard for human suffering is exposed for what he really is as he gets played. This is in contrast with the God of the Hebrews. We find that the objective of the true God is not a pogrom of systemic racism that kills young males. It works toward liberation for those who suffer and are oppressed.
In Many Ways, Jesus is Portrayed as the New Moses Who Carries on this Theme
Just as Moses escaped Pharaoh’s infanticide, so too did Jesus escape Herod’s. Look at how the theme of liberation reverberates in the words of Jesus. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He described his primary agenda in Luke 4:18-19:
‘“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
What we learn in this story and Jesus reiterated is that God takes sides in social issues. Latin American scholar Gustavo Gutierrez God calls it “God’s preferential option for the poor.” As we ask How God saves the world, we are reminded that God is always on the side of the poor, the oppressed, those who suffer from the effects of systemic racism. And calls upon people of faith to remember this history and embody it in our own lives through beautiful acts of love. Amen.
Prayerfully submitted at Bay Shore Community Congregational Church (UCC) in Long Beach, California.