Texts: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Theme: We are invited to number ourselves among those who fear God and do the right thing; even when that means disobedience to the one who wields political, social, or economic power.
The reflections this week and next week will focus on the Exodus texts.
The long Exodus reading tells a rich story — the story of Moses in the basket in the river is well known from Sunday school, but the back story gets much less coverage.
In the face of cruel orders and a confrontation with power the midwives would not join the forces of oppression. Vs. 17 is critical to understanding their motivation (repeated in vs. 21). They feared God not “the king of Egypt”, so they did not take the lives of the infant male children. Fear of God — reverence, awe, loyalty. Fear of God is a phrase not used much these days, and it certainly is not among the character traits that are highly sought after. Yet fear of God motivated the midwives right actions. Jesus said, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” (Luke 12:4) Pharaoh had limited power, therefore he was not be feared. God was another matter. The preacher should take the opportunity to ask their congregation, “Who are you afraid of? What is holding you back from doing the right thing? What is the worst they can do to you?” And then turn to reflect on the awe and reverence we are invited to show to God, not just in worship on Sunday but throughout our lives, including our work lives (like the midwives were called to do).
It is not clear if the two midwives are Hebrews who are also midwives — or if they are non-Hebrews who serve as midwives to the Hebrews. While ultimately it does not matter, the ambiguity opens the door to conversation about people outside the church who “fear God”, and what such a sign of faith says about the “household of God.” In a text where strong woman are the central characters, only the midwives have names — Shiphrah and Puah.
In fact they are the only two people whose names are given in this passage — other than Moses at the end. The Biblical narrator is little interested in whether the story Shiphrah and Puah told about the Hebrew women being more rugged in their giving birth is true or not, what is clear is that God honored their willingness to risk in doing the right thing. (In this case doing the right thing meant not doing anything. Doing the right thing meant simply not doing what Pharaoh ordered to be done. At times our doing the right thing will mean simply choosing to not do the wrong thing; to not obey the instructions of others.)
A second theme is the fragile helplessness of God’s way of bringing redemption. A male children who should have been killed at birth, put into a basket in the river sand watched over by a young girl his sister. Fact is more wonderful than fiction. But the parallels to the Christmas narrative are obvious — a male child is secreted away from the power of king and is watched over by powerless peasants. This is a pattern with God, the fragile, the helpless, become the places through which God bring redemption. Again the preacher needs to ask, “Where in weakness, in fragility, the helplessness, has God worked to bring redemption, renewal, hope?” The preacher needs to be ready to tell a story or two illustrating this truth.
In our time and place we are invited to be like the midwives and fear God not human beings and do the right thing in the context where we are. We are to have the courage to act, trusting that God will use our actions which seem so helpless and weak in the face of political, military, social, or economic power. Trusting the God of grace will shine through our weakness and helplessness.
The Psalm fits here for it celebrates what God did when the flood of human anger “would have swept us away.” The invitation of Romans to present our bodies as living sacrifices, reminds us who to fear and who not to fear. And the Matthew passage reminds us that confessing that Jesus is “the Son of the living God” is not just an intellectual commitment it is a promise of loyalty to follow this one against whom the “gates of Hades” will not prevail.
“The responses of the midwives is so clever as to have convinced not only Pharaoh, but a number of modern commentators who accept its veracity on face value….Actually, the true reason for the failure of Pharaoh’s plan has already been given in v. 17, namely, their fear of God. The clever response serves to highlight the stupidity of the king who would ‘act wisely’. Once again, the frail resources of two women have succeeded in outdoing the crass power of the tyrant.” — Brevard Childs
“The child has been rescued from exposure, even by the very daughter of the one who made the decree. God’s plan for his people rested on the helpless child, floating down the river. But the child is not lost, and the story points expectantly toward the future. What will become of this child on whom such care has been lavished?” — Brevard Childs
(Comment on quote: The wise preacher will resist the temptation of too quickly indicating that this child is the one who will save Israel from slavery. Better to let the as of yet unanswered hope in the text exist in the minds and hearts of hearers for the next week. Let them experience the waiting the people of Israel experienced.)
A host of literary images came to mind when thinking about the weak and helpless taking on the powerful and succeeding against all odds. The Lord of the Rings is built on such a premise and over and over again in the trilogy this is banged home.
The same could be said of the Narnia series (C.S. Lewis) with Aslan’s forces seemingly weaker, lesser, and in disarray when compared to those opposite them.
But the preacher would do better to find an example from their own community where weakness won out over strength, where quiet civil disobedience brought the right to the fore.
“Sleep holy child, now hid away” (Ruth Duck)
“God of grace and God of glory”
“When people despair we would bring hope” (Simper / Quintrell)
“Let streams of living justice” (Whitla)
“A prophet woman broke a jar” (Wren)
God of mercy and healing,
you who hear the cries of those in need,
receive these petitions of your people
that all who are troubled
may know peace, comfort, and courage.
Prayers of the People, concluding with:
heal our lives,
that we may acknowledge your wonderful deeds
and offer you thanks from generation to generation
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From Vanderbilt’s Revised Common Lectionary website