Sermon: Midwives

Here is a manuscript version of the sermon preached this morning at Wesley Chapel from Exodus 1:8 – 2:10.

Since I preached from a few notes rather than a manuscript, what I said in the service was different than this text. But here is the sermon as written.

Last summer, an organization called the Pew Center Forum on Religion and Public Life polled Americans on their religious knowledge. The poll asked people questions such as:

What is the first book of the Bible?

What is Ramadan?

Where was Jesus born?

Who led the Israelites out of Egypt?

Seventy-two percent of Americans connect the name of Moses with the Exodus from Egypt. That number is actually higher than the number Christians alone, but just barely. Seventy-one percent of Christians got that question right.

I would dare say that if you asked most people to name five people from the Bible, Moses would come up on most lists. Moses is simply one of the most significant figures in the history of the world. That is part of the reason why we will be following his story the next several weeks.

From now through October, we will be following the Revised Common Lectionary as it takes us through the Book of Exodus. We will be walking together in the footsteps of Moses. We will stand before the burning bush. We will cross the Red Sea. We meet God high on Mount Sinai. We will come to the very edge of the Promised Land.

We will live through one of the great stories of the Bible with ones of its great figures. This is the story that Jesus would have learned as a boy. It is the story that the disciples would have known by heart. And it is our story, yours and mine. As people of God, this story belongs to us and we belong to this story.

But before we get to the big and colorful encounters between God and Moses, we have to have a beginning. We need to start.

And this story starts with a bunch of uppity women.

A new king had come to power in Egypt, the Scripture says, a king who did not know Joseph. Four centuries before, Joseph had led his family, his father Jacob, also known as Israel, and his 11 brothers into Egypt to escape famine. And there the children and family of Israel had flourished and grown.

Four hundred years later, a new king, a new pharaoh, rose to power and he looked out at the countless Israelites and he feared. He feared that a rival kingdom might ally with the Israelites and attack. He feared them, but he feared even more that they might escape. He feared they would flee Egypt. Then who would do the work? Who would carry on the hard and back breaking labor that the Egyptians did not want to do themselves?

Do you notice right away what is going on here? The fear at work? The king looked out over this hard-working people and rather than pride he felt fear. And fear would lead to anger. And anger would lead to death.

The king resolved to put an end to the threat he imagined he faced. He first tried to crush them. He increased their work. He reduced them to slavery. He oppressed them with cruelty – not for anything they had done, but for what he feared might happen.

But his efforts failed.

So, this king came to the Hebrew midwives with an evil order.

Can you imagine what Shiphrah and Puah must have felt? The king has told them to murder every infant boy, but to let the girls survive. What do you do? What do you say?

The midwives, it is clear, could have done what he ordered. At least for a time.

There is much we do not know about what ancient midwives did, but according to at least one scholar, in those days, when a child was born, one of the tasks of the midwife was to examine it. The midwife would declare to the mother whether the child was healthy and should be kept or whether it was deformed or otherwise not fit to be raised. If the child was deemed hopeless, it would be left exposed in a wild place, where it would die.

The pharaoh told these two Hebrew midwives he wanted no male Hebrew children to survive. If they defied his order, they could be killed.

The pharaoh here was using his power of death to instill enough fear in these women that they would join him in his kingdom of death.

The Scripture, of course, tells us how they lied and tricked their way out of pharaoh’s net. They feared God more than death, more than pharaoh.

And so the frustrated king decreed that every male child born to the Hebrews should be cast into the Nile. Every person in Egypt would be responsible for enforcing this decree. Every man, woman, and child, would serve the pharaoh’s death wish. Every official of the state, every farmer and merchant, every teacher and nurse. This alien people living among the Egyptians would be held down, by murder if necessary, and you and me, all of us, would be do this work for pharaoh under penalty of death.

Which brings us to the mother, the sister, and the pharaoh’s own daughter. Three more women who would not do as the king demanded. The mother who hid her child until he could be hidden no longer. The sister who watched over her little brother from afar. The daughter of the pharaoh himself who found the baby. She recognized it as a Hebrew child, but she took pity on it and raised him as her own.

She had to know, didn’t she? Her own father had ordered this child to be thrown into the river, but instead she drew him from the water.

What would I do in that situation? This is the question that comes to me.

In her shoes, at that moment, what would I do?

The great power for me in this story is the way that this handful of women set the stage for what was to come. All that we read about in Exodus, all the saving work of God, is set in motion by this handful of women who say “no” to pharaoh.

The mother and sister we could understand. The Hebrew midwives we could understand. We could explain it away. They were women who spent their days bringing new life into the world. They held bloody newborn babies in their hands every day and coaxed the first breath of life out of them. Even if they did not fear God, we could muster up some notion of “professional” responsibility that might explain their defiance of the king’s order.

But his own daughter?

When she held that baby in her arms and looked down at him — and recognized that he was a Hebrew — she became in that instant a midwife with the power of life and death over him. She became in that instant the one who would determine whether he would live or die.

Her own father commanded that she pronounce death on him.

But she, this one, said “no” to death.

And here is the lesson: God’s saving work begins when we say “no” to the powers of death.

Now, the powers of death are not only found in the hands of tyrants and kings. You don’t need to be living in pharaoh’s kingdom or Hitler’s Germany or Mao’s China to be caught up in the struggle between life and death.

The truth is that we are all, every one of us, caught up in this struggle.

Maybe we don’t always see it that way because we don’t understand death.

In the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy we read these words:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

Life is obeying God. Life is walking in the paths that God sets before us. Life is justice and mercy and love. And the absence of any of these things is the path of death.

Fear, anger, pride, hardness of heart, hopelessness, jealousy … these are signs of death. These are the shadows of death in our lives. These are the fruit of sin.

The story of Moses begins when these women honor life rather than death. The great liberating work of God begins when these people say “no” to death.

Saying “no” to death can be as little as refusing to let anger or fear guide our actions. It can be as little as refusing to tell a lie when the truth might be a little difficult. It can be as little as bringing a can of food to worship on Sunday morning.

Or it can be much, much more.

Ruby Bridges was a six-year-old girl living in New Orleans during the battles over school segregation in the 1960s. A judge had ordered an all-white school to let her attend classes. But the good, God-fearing white people were not about to let a judge tell them what to do. They pulled their kids out of class. They lined up outside the school in an angry mob to scream at her and wave hateful signs at her. Because the local police would not help her, the federal government sent in marshals to escort her into the school past the screaming mob.

And each day as she approach the mob and on her way home after she’d left them behind, little Ruby Bridges prayed this prayer:

Please, God, try to forgive those people.
Because even if they say those bad things,
They don’t know what they’re doing.
So You could forgive them,
Just like You did those folks a long time ago
When they said terrible things about You.

Little Ruby Bridges way a midwife of life each day as she walked a gauntlet of hate.

My brothers and sisters, we are invited by God to be the people who say “no” to death and “yes” to life. We are invited to remember the men and women who have been midwives to our faith and our life.

And we are invited to take our place in this story – alongside Shiphrah and Puah, Pharaoh’s daughter, and little Ruby Bridges. When the powers of death come calling, we are invited by God to say “no” and set in motion the powerful saving work of God.

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