"Power and Glory"
A Message By Dr. Bruce Havens
BASED ON THE THEME: "Reading the Bible again, for the FIRST time"
ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, U.C.C.
July 7, 2019
“Power and Glory”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
July 7, 2019
Exodus 1:8-14, 2:1-10 [nrsv]
8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9“Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
11So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built … store cities for Pharaoh.12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly….
2:1Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. 6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.
7 Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”
8 “Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him.10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
If we are going to fully understand and live out our Christian faith we must understand the importance of this story, the Exodus story, to our faith. This isn’t just the cornerstone of the Jewish faith. If Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call Christ, was and is the Messiah – the Jewish savior king, which is what the word Christ means, then the story of Moses and the Exodus is the cornerstone of our faith too.
The story of the Exodus is the cornerstone of the Jewish faith because it is the source of their identity as the people of the God they knew as YHWH. The stories of Genesis – the creation, the flood, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were all written after the Exodus to explain what led to the Exodus. If the Exodus – the exit from slavery in Egypt hadn’t happened – then it would mean Pharaoh was more powerful than YHWH. It would mean the Hebrew people, who came to live in the land they called Israel and came to be called “Jewish” would have been erased from history. They would have been little more than a footnote band of slaves who anonymously contributed to Egypt’s glory. But that was not YHWH’s intention or destiny for the people YHWH chose to be his.
Moses became the leader who YHWH chose to face down Pharaoh, his adopted grandfather, to liberate the enslaved Hebrew people. Moses is the one YHWH spoke to directly, gave the commandments that were to be the rule of law for the people to live by in the land YHWH gives them. Moses is the one who talked God down from destroying this “stiff-necked” and rebellious crowd time and again when they disobeyed YHWH. Moses was and is always considered THE prophet of the Jewish religion. Our understanding of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, as our Messiah, as the Savior of the world is dependent on this story of Moses. So it is not too extreme to say this story of Moses is the cornerstone of our faith just as much as it is the cornerstone of the Jewish faith.
We begin at the beginning of Moses’ story. This is what theologians call “narrative theology.” It teaches us the character and nature of God and the meaning and purpose of our lives in relationship to God and one another through the story of the Exodus. It begins with words that warn us – almost like tense music in the background of a movie before the good guy gets attacked by the bad guys. A new king becomes Pharaoh, and this king new nothing of Joseph. He did not remember that a Hebrew had saved Egypt by his clever and God-given ability to interpret dreams. The new Pharaoh did not know and did not care that these Hebrew people had come down from their land and though they were immigrants they were welcomed guests because of their gratitude for what Joseph, wise counselor to the previous Pharaoh, had done.
The story begins with fear, an odd thing for the most powerful man in the land, fear of these immigrants from a different land. Pharaoh was afraid they were going to become too numerous and would fight against them in case of a war. Now there is no sign or mention of an impending conflict, but what this tells us is that those who rise to power often are beset with insecurities and paranoias that play to their own worst outcomes. But because of his fear Pharaoh begins to enslave the Hebrews living there. He takes away their freedom and their power and their livelihood. But even this fails because, as the Bible says, they continue to multiply, and the Bible does not mean they were doing math in their free time. One of the ironies of the powerful is how foolish their decisions become when they use their power to oppress other human beings in defiance of God’s purposes.
But let’s be honest this story is a story of how foolish and powerless the wise and powerful Pharaohs of the world always end up being. Threatened by the birth rate of the immigrant Hebrews Pharaoh comes up with a brilliant plan. He orders the killing of all the male babies and asks Hebrew midwives to carry this murderous genocide out against their own people. Why only the male babies? Apparently, either he thought the Hebrew women made good wives for Egyptians and would assimilate and be no threat. Like most men his ignorance of the wisdom of women knew no bounds, apparently! If he really wanted to stop the Hebrews from having babies he ought to have killed the girl babies – they are the ones who grow up to have babies. But that is just one of the myopic, male-centered thinking of this great powerful king of the great nation of Egypt.
He is so lame-brained that when he realizes that the birthrate is not diminishing, but actually increasing, Pharaoh calls the midwives in and asks why they aren’t carrying out his plan. Then he buys the story that the Hebrew women are so tough they can push those babies out before the midwives get there. Pharaoh swallows the tale and comes up with another sure-to-fail policy. “Throw all the boy babies in the river, but let the girls live,” he tells them. “Sure thing Mr. Pharaoh, sir.” They salute and leave.
Once again the women prove smarter, wiser, and more effective than Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the country! A baby is born – unnamed as of yet, and his mother seeks to protect him so she “sorta” does what Pharaoh has commanded. She puts him in the Nile – in a basket. Now the ironies really begin to pile up. First, while the mother of this still nameless child evidently cannot bear to watch what happens to her beloved son, the big sister takes over and watches to see what will happen. And we know the story. The daughter of Pharaoh himself comes down to bathe, she spots the basket, finds the baby, KNOWS he is a Hebrew baby and still decides to keep him, defying her own father’s legally commanded order. Not only does she keep him, but the wily older sister steps in and offers to bring a Hebrew mama in to nurse the baby. Evidently the Egyptians didn’t have any more wet-nurses than they had midwives to carry out the pathetic plans of the powerfully impotent, or impotently powerful, foolish and fearful Pharaoh. So big sister goes and gets the baby’s own mother to nurse him and PHaroah’s own daughter brings the male Hebrew baby into the King’s own castle and raises him as her own and names him Moses. The baby who would become the liberator of his people finally has a name!
What does this story mean to us today? What is the message that is confirmed for our faith and our living thousands of years later? It is a message that is repeated again and again in the Bible.
When tyrants and oppressors make plans that defy the purposes of YHWH, no matter how powerful they may seem, they will turn into foolishness and fail – YHWH sees to it. YHWH often works through the most powerless and overlooked people to accomplish God’s purposes. In this case immigrant slaves will be saved by women, and the least likely of women: midwives of immigrant slaves, the mother and sister of the very target of Mighty Pharaoh’s fears, and his own daughter are the agents YHWH God uses to save the future savior of God’s blessed people.
God’s purposes are liberation, freedom from fear, evil, and oppression right here and now – not just “spiritual” oppression but actual human-made and human supported oppression – even that which is “lawful” or sanctioned by Pharaohs, Caesars, Kings, Premiers and Presidents. Slavery in America was legal, the execution of Jews in many nations was not only legal but actively pursued from the time of Christ to the time of Hitler, the rights of women in the US have been unjustly limited by laws and is in many ways still sanctioned. One could say it is even increasing with laws being passed in state legislatures that deny women’s rights – and often in the name of God by those who call themselves “Christians.” And it is often done with lies that are as blatant propaganda as the lies used to persecute Jews as “Jesus killers.”
The story of Jesus echoes many of the same themes as Exodus – A baby is conceived [out of wedlock] to poor peasants. Caesar’s power and press to increase his personal wealth drove him to raise taxes which resulted in the hardship that made Mary and Joseph travel to their ancestral home when Mary was at the brink of delivery. The threats to kill all the baby boys [ ring a bell? ] by another Tyrant King [Herod] caused them to go as refugees, illegal immigrants into Egypt. Yet God worked primarily through the women in the story – Elizabeth and Mary, and they kept the faith and the men are mostly cowed in uncertainty and disbelief.
The story of the Exodus is the story of the power and glory of Pharaoh being nothing compared to the power and purposes of YHWH God, the God of the Jewish people, of Jesus the Christ, and of all people. This God will defend the powerless against the unjust actions of tyrants of every age. The beginning of this story of Exodus reminds us that we must choose which side we are on – the side of Pharaoh’s, Caesar’s, Herods, and tyrants of every age who defy God’s purposes, or are we actively working to move things toward God’s purposes as the women of this story did: will we be like those midwives, like the sister of Moses, and even like the daughter of Pharaoh who acted – saving the one who God would use to liberate the oppressed Hebrew people and prepare the way for the one we call Jesus Christ? Each of us must decide which side we will serve. AMEN.