Pastor David Clark sermon: Midwives of Hope
August 24, 2014 Exodus 1:8-22
Today we begin our series “The God Who…” By looking at the story of the Exodus or liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, we’ll be asking who is God, what is God like and what does God want from us? If you don’t know much about the Bible, this is the story to learn, because this one is the grandmother of them all and most other stories either allude to Exodus or they are riffs on the themes uncovered in the second book of the Bible.
Exodus begins with the startling news that there arose a king who did not know Joseph, that is, he didn’t bother to learn his history. It’s always a disaster when leaders don’t learn history. If Pharaoh knew about Joseph, he would have understood that the only reason that he had a country to govern was because a man named Joseph saved his nation from extinction. If there were no Joseph and his Hebrew God—there’d be no Egypt, no kingship, no one to bow to him and call him Pharaoh. (When Exodus 1 calls him king instead of Pharaoh it’s a real slam because kings were a dime a dozen, but Pharaoh was the exclusive title for the son of the sun god).
If he had known about Joseph, he would have known about Joseph’s God, who works through human beings to bring blessings and an abundance of life. He would have known that God takes the evil that people do and brings something good out of it. Because Pharaoh did not know his history, he made bad decisions that brought about misery and senseless cruelty. The first lesson from Exodus is clear. Don’t be a know-not like Pharaoh: know. Know your spiritual history. Know this God who works through ordinary, fallible human beings to bless the world. Know the story. Know that you are a child of God meant for a life that makes a difference.
One day, Pharaoh looks around and notices there are a lot of foreigners living in Egypt. “By golly, it won’t be long before there are more of them than there are of us. Then what? They might take us over, with their culture, ally with our enemies. I’m going to use all the power of my government to stop them.” So, he set out to make their lives miserable instead of finding ways to build on common interests make his country stronger. Ultimately, it ruined him.
It seems to me that there are a bunch of people flapping their gums in our country today who do not know this history and they make the same mistake as Pharaoh. It seems as if it’s always been the American thing to do—worry about too many foreigners coming in and changing “us.” Early in our history, folks worried that too many Germans were coming in. About the only dumb thing Benjamin Franklin ever wrote was, “Why should they Germanize us instead of us instead of our Anglicizing them?” Like Pharaoh, we have an appalling track record of going out of our way to restrictions on sorts of immigrants. We’ve done it to Germans, Japanese, Irish, Polish, Latinos, you name it. Maybe someday we will learn from our history and figure out a better path.
Pharaoh forced the Hebrews into slavery, making their work hard and bitter. They built storehouses for the superabundance of Egypt–as if to have their noses rubbed in it. “We Egyptians are powerful and rich, while you Hebrews have to build the places to store our extra riches.”
Unlike the king of Egypt, they remembered Joseph and they cried out to the God of Joseph, “Remember us. Save us. Do something.” And now we find out who this God is. God is the One who hears and responds to the prayers of the people. God hears the cries of the oppressed and springs into action. This springing into action isn’t to wave a magic wand and make everything all better at once. We discover that this is the God who works through regular human beings, usually the most improbable people, to make a difference.
The Divine Liberator sent midwives. People assumed midwives were somehow cursed, not blessed by God. They were chosen from women who couldn’t bear children of their own and in that culture fertility was thought to be the measure of a woman’s worth. So God’s choice of midwives as the heroines of the story showcases what God thinks about human attempts to define who has God’s favor and who doesn’t.
Pharaoh saw that his plan (to work the slaves so hard that they wouldn’t have the energy to procreate) had backfired. Hebrews were everywhere, so Pharaoh decided it was time for population control and ordered the midwives to kill any male Hebrew children at birth.
Pharaoh was fearful about what might happen to his country so he acted with malice and violence. The midwives, the text says, feared God. Fear of God doesn’t mean that if you do something wrong, you worry that God is going to zap you. Fearing God means having a sense of reverence, awe, respect, and worship. The midwives fear leads them to love life, to save it, to even risk their own necks. Pharaoh’s fear results in self-preservation; the midwives fear results in self-giving.
The midwives defy Pharaoh. They refused to kill the children. It is the first recorded act of civil disobedience. They followed a higher law. They wouldn’t give in to what was expected of them. These women are our spiritual ancestors. Don’t be a know not on this. The Bible will have nothing of us being patsies in this world.
We are to stand up and defy the powers that oppress and incorporate us into their schemes.
- Defy those who try to pressure us into silence when they are corrupt.
- Defy that which is hateful and wrong.
- Defy those who would try to squeeze you into their mold.
The midwives refuse to kill the babies. They fabricate absurd stories about Hebrew women being tougher than Egyptian women so that they already deliver their babies before the midwives can arrive on the scene. “Sorry boss.” And so, these two women saved a generation. They saved the big brother of Moses, Aaron. Aaron turned out to be Moses’ spokesperson and was key in leading the people out of Egypt. No midwives, no Exodus, no ten commandments, no basis of western civilization, no Judaism, no Christianity. They saved it all.
God blessed them and produced life in their barren wombs. This is one of the recurring lessons in scripture: God produces life and vitality in places thought barren and dry. Maybe you have some barren place in your life. Remember your spiritual heritage, God hears your prayers.
The names of the midwives are lifted up: Puah and Shiphara. We are provided with their names, but the Pharaoh is not named. The great king is not named but the ordinary women heroines are named. In the Bible’s logic, these two women are more important than all of the Pharaohs memorialized in the valley of towering pyramids put together.
Puah and Shiphara translated into English mean: Beauty and Splendor. In scripture, names are significant. Beauty and Splendor saved a whole generation. Why do you think this story about Beauty and Splendor defying authority and saving a generation is told in the Bible? Do you think it is just a history lesson? By no means. It is about us. People who will stand up to what is wrong, and put themselves on the line for others have souls filled with beauty and splendor.
Alexander Solyzenietzen who survived some of the ugliest things that have ever happened to human beings in the Russian Gulag said that “Beauty will save the earth.” It’s more than superficial super-models on the covers of magazines beauty; it’s the honest and pure expressions of the human soul especially simple acts of self-giving in a fearful world.
Beauty is the compassion of she who practices hospitality, making sure others feel welcome. Splendor is the kid who decides not to pick on the new kid just because everyone else does. Beauty is the person who does the right thing even when it’s hard. Splendor is the one who devotes life not to making as much money as possible, but to make as much difference in people’s lives as possible.
The beautiful words by Marianne Williamson that challenged the people of South Africa when Nelson Mandela was elected are still powerful for us today:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
You are meant to shine. So often we let powers smaller than a king keep us down. We are afraid of what others might think if we put our wildest hopes and dreams and noblest ideals into action. They might think we are nuts. They might laugh. They might ridicule us. We might fail. We might succeed and be lonely anyway. But remember no matter what, you are the child of God. You are meant to shine, to be beautiful and live with splendor.
In this old world, God keeps on working through ordinary folks like the midwives and you and me to bring life, to bring beauty, to bring splendor in a world that forgets about God. There is a new generation that needs to learn who they are. Our children need to know they are part of this story. We need to learn it so we can teach it to them. We are midwives of hope. Hope to a new generation so that our children won’t be know-nots. So that they will know that God does not forget. Amen.
Pastor David Clark is interim senior pastor for the Redlands United Church of Christ. Pastor David Clark began his ministry in Redlands in 2013.
Pastor David Clark sermon: The God who Liberates. Preached at Redlands United Church of Christ, Redlands, California. Former Iowa Pastor David Clark is now Senior Pastor of Redlands UCC.