August 24, 2014

On the Birth of Moses

Passage: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
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Pharaoh’s daughter said to her (Moses’ mother), ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’

When I am at a reception following a funeral service and I meet people I do not know I often ask, by way of introduction, so how are you connected to this family? It is a way of asking, “Who are you?” When you were answer such question how do you begin? Name? Address? Social media identity? Would you go on to talk about your race, creed, occupation, family origin, country? With respect to family, for example, I am the sixth generation of immigrants to Canada of both my mother and father’s families.

But are we simply the collection of all these things? To what extent do they determine who we are? Philosophers name the era we live in as post-modern. It was the philosopher Michael Foucault who said, in essence, that all reality—including human life—is a social construct. So the social constructions of the past are not constitutive of your life in the present. Since these are simply the constructs of the people who went before us we can create our own. It is no mystery then, that people today are anxious about identity. You see this play out in the politics of gender identify, for example, as people self-identify with an increasing array of possibilities. (Historically this has been tried before. Read the Biblical book of Judges—“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Judges 17:6)

In many respects the older testament can be read as Israel’s response to and explication for the question “Who are you?” Biblically speaking the question, “who are you,” is addressed by answer to the more profound question “To whom do you belong?” All the particulars of identity are grounded in who God says you are. Christians, in essence, are identified as those people who belong to Jesus Christ. This is at the core of who we are. He names who we are. The pattern for the Christian is countercultural to post-modernism that reigns in our culture.

Now if we asked Jesus this question about his identity how would he answer? His answer is summarized in Peter’s declaration spoken at the disciples’ retreat with Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Clearly what Peter declared and Jesus affirmed was that he was Israel’s Messiah. This declaration only makes sense within the context of God’s long conversation with Israel. In other words, this older testament story is Jesus’ story; it constitutes his response to and explication for the question “who are you?” Jesus knows he belongs to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The story of Moses is his too. Therefore, since we belong to Jesus this older testament story is ours as well.
1. Let me come at this same point another way. Think with me about the doctrine of the trinity—that there is one God existent in three persons. (I share with you from and essay by Dr. Victor Shepherd.)

“Many of us ‘put on’ a false face, as it were, in different social situations in order to misrepresent ourselves and deceive others. I can hate you in my heart and yet ‘put on’ a face that suggests friendship. I can despise you in my heart and yet ‘put on’ a face that suggests admiration. In these situations (situations of sin, we should note) the face we wear contradicts the heart we possess. Plainly the person putting on the false face can never be known, and because she can’t be known she can never be trusted. If anyone is to be known and trusted, face and heart have to be one.

What about God’s face and God’s heart? If we think of Jesus Christ as the manifest ‘face’ of God, then the doctrine of the Trinity attests the face of Jesus and the heart of the Father to be identical. The face the Father displays in the Son is not and never can be a false face. Face and heart are one. God as he is towards us (the Son) is identical with God as he is in himself (the Father). This point is crucial, for otherwise God’s activity upon us and within us might be merely something God does, unrelated to who God is. If this were the case, God’s activity upon us and within us would be a manipulation that never acquainted us with the heart of God, with the result that we could never know God himself, and therefore we could never trust him.

The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial. At the very least it attests the truth that who God is in his dealings with us is who God is in himself; and no less importantly, who God is in himself is who God is in his dealings with us.”

You have no doubt heard people distinguish between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as if they were not the same. Jesus affirms otherwise. God is who he is in himself in his dealings with Moses as he in Jesus with his disciples. The force of these stories of God’s actions with Israel have not diminished in what God wants to do for us through them.

2. In the book of Genesis, we have been following the story of this family—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and how they come to be in Egypt. As Jacob moved his family from Canaan to Egypt to escape the ravages of famine God has said to him, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.” (Genesis 46:3) Jacob’s son Joseph was already ruler of Egypt—Pharaoh’s second-in-command. The way had been made. In these events God is keeping his promise to Abraham to preserve descendants in faith through whom will come that one descendent—Jesus of Nazareth—the world was waiting for.

Jacob’s family were shepherds with herds of sheep. There were seventy in the family who came to settle in Egypt. You could imagine that, had they remained in Canaan during the famine, larger clans could have easily decimated this family in any battle for scarce resources. In Egypt they live under the protection of Joseph and his ongoing influence. They are settled in Goshen—an ideal place for shepherding. They also were largely left alone because of the caste-prejudices of the Egyptians. They loathed shepherds.

In this protected and ideal setting it would be a vast understatement to say that Israel thrived. Here is how the writer of Exodus puts it. “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” (Exodus 1:7) They had gone from being a family to become a nation of people, as God promised.

The church here in Canada has also known such idyllic days. In the 1950’s in Canada 67% of the population went to church on a regular basis. In those days the United Church could fill churches as fast as buildings were built. The country was Christian. But not everyone was thrilled in Egypt nor in Canada. “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Those with their hands on the institutions of this country increasingly became those who did not know of Jesus. Secularism moved in and people of faith were marginalized. Christian commitment was increasingly ruled to be out-of-bounds for public life.

The new Pharaoh—as is the case for many oppressors, the oppressor fears the very one who is being oppressed—fearing the Israelites will overrun Egypt, Pharaoh decides to diminish Israel through hard labour and ruthless oversight imposing tasks to make their lives bitter. Forced labour quickly degenerated into slavery. Notice in this story how human wickedness is exposed. Slavery is a human invention perpetrated by humans on other humans. It isn’t some foreign idea that took us by surprise. As soon as you see another person as somehow sub-human then all kinds of cruelties are close at hand.

In our own country a divide has been growing for some time between the governed and those who govern; between those who pay the taxes and those whose incomes are paid from taxes. As soon as a citizen is categorized as merely a tax-payer then regard for how those taxes are spent changes. Canada’s Tax Freedom Day in 2013 was June 10—the day when the total tax bill to all levels of government have been paid. (Tax Freedom day in 1985 was May 5) Additionally, according to a 2014 Fraser Institute report “when all federal, provincial, and local government liabilities are combined, each Canadian taxpayer owes $243,746.” I am not saying that all taxes are evil. I am simply reflecting on the disregard for citizens that would pile up such debt.

But it is the racial component of this story in Exodus that the scriptures also expose as odious. In April of this year a pro-Palestinian rally in Paris, France became a riot; the crown ended up at Republic Square amidst shouts of “Death to Jews” and “Hitler was right” and “Palestine must finish the job (started by Hitler)”. On July 7 in Mississauga (Ontario) a march by a group of Jewish supporters erupted in violence when met by some pro-Palestinian supporters. One Jewish man was beaten and hospitalized by the Palestinian supporters using pipes and the poles that displayed their flags. Police were there and none of those who perpetrated this act were arrested. Peel Regional Police spokesperson Const. Thomas Ruttan said, “It appears that these two parties had opposing views and were voicing their opinions in a public forum and unfortunately brought fighting to the streets of Mississauga.”

3. When his plan of ruthless labour did not diminish the Jewish people Pharaoh turned to another tactic. He instructs the midwives of the Jewish people “if it is a boy kill him; but if it is a girl she shall live.” When the midwives thwart his plan he gives a decree to everyone: “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” Note how easy it was to move from hard labour to killing. Regarding others as subhuman never leads to an upward path of every better treatment. When the injustice of forced labour was excused it was easy to move to more degrading injustice. What is also exposed is how there is so little regard for infant life. Compare that with Jesus. “People were bringing little children to him (Jesus) in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mark 10:13-14)

Now it is easy to pick on Pharaoh but consider our own society where sex-selection of children is practised; human life aborted simply because it is female. And anyone who would point this out is considered strident and somehow against women’s health. Is our culture as “child” friendly as we like to think?

There are some very brave women in this story who will not abide by the Pharaoh’s unjust dictates. First the midwives Shiprah and Puah, then Moses mother and finally Pharaoh’s own daughter. The text indicates that God was at work in their lives and hearts giving them courage to do what they knew to be the right thing. Indicating for us how God was at work we are told, “But the midwives feared God.” “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” writes the Psalmist. In the same way as Shiprah and Puah, the Apostles before the Sanhedrin would respond to being forbidden to preach of Christ, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” In our culture that is increasingly hostile to Christian faith we will need courage to say no. Let Shiprah and Puah inspire you.

Also note these women stood alongside each other. Shiphrah had Puah. Puah had Shiphrah. And when they were threatened, they could say, "Well, at least when we go before Pharaoh, we'll go together." The church that has long thought of itself as gathered and scattered needs to understand that in the scatteredness of our daily work, we need companions; companions of conviction and faith and courage, who can help us do what God calls us to do.

Someone once asked, “If evolution is true, how come mothers still have only two hands?” Picture Moses mother and what she has to do to carry on the normal duties of her life with the additional strain of hiding the baby boy. And then the courage, ingenuity, and organization to hide Moses in a floating basket in reeds along the Nile. It is the last place anyone will look for a live baby boy since this is where they are supposed be drowned. You just have admire the way her mind works; to hide the boy in the Nile! Almost sticking it to Pharaoh. And because she does this she becomes the first woman in the Bible who gets a salary for being a mother. She has the utter joy of being able to raise him openly and freely. No doubt she has her husband’s support and help but clearly she is the driver.

And then there is Pharaoh’s daughter. She knows this is a Hebrew baby boy and is fully cognisant of her father’s decree. She rejects his despotism and I am sure knows full well she is paying the baby’s mother for weaning him. She is willing to do more; at great personal risk she is willing to take him as her own and give him the best education and life Egypt could offer. Imagine that the very one God will use to emancipate his people from Pharaoh is being raised in his own court. Only God does things like this.

Friends there is plenty of injustice in our world that impoverishes people and wreaks havoc for children. Whenever you reach out to help such a child you do what Pharaoh’s daughter does; what Moses mother does; what Shiprah and Puah do. You undermine the evil one and subvert injustice. Listen to the Apostle’s encouragement “you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:24)

4. Toward the end of Moses life God made this promise. “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” (Deuteronomy 18:18) When you read Matthew’s gospel it is evident that he has this theme in mind as he tells the story of Jesus. Jesus is the prophet like Moses who speaks the words of God.

Consider the parallels in the birth story of Jesus. Like Egypt, an occupying power—Rome—has imposed hard labour on the people through tax demands. Like Moses mother, a faithful woman obeys God to bear a son in trying circumstances. Rulers seek to destroy the lives of baby boys. In both stories God is at work to preserve their lives.

Please note that in the roles that Moses and Jesus play in God’s redemption of humanity that God rescues humans through humans. Yes, Jesus is the fully human and divine but his humanity is essential to our rescue. I point this out to simply say that as believers we are called to live as those who bless human life; who reach to build up the other. Bless children as you have opportunity for God has great things in mind for people who will serve him.