Exodus 1: 8-2:10
Does anyone here remember the epic, socially-redeeming, world-changing cartoon, Dudley Do-right and the Mounties? Who remembers the name of Dudley’s sweetheart? What about the villain?
OK, we’re going to set up the basic plot of every episode of this classic cartoon. Left side, you be Nell, and your line is, “Save me, Dudley!!”Center, you be Dudley, and your line is, “I’ll save you, Nell.” Right side, you be Snidely Whiplash, and your line is, “Curses, foiled again.”
This forms the basis of one of the great devices of the fairy tale world; the rescue. Someone faces imminent death; there are only seconds to spare. The villain seems to have thought of everything and the death-dealing device (usually something like tying the innocent person to the railroad tracks) seems all too reliable. But out of nowhere, and against all odds, and sometimes bumbling, comes the hero, swooping in to whisk the innocent one to safety.
There’s something deeply satisfying about a rescue story, and modern film makers have brought the rescue to whole new levels with the lengthy rescue scenes of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But beyond being satisfying, the whole idea of being rescued touches us at an incredibly deep level. It touches us at the deepest level of our faith, except that we use a different term than rescue; we talk about being saved. Listen to the theme of being rescued, of being saved, in the words of the old gospel hymn:
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more;
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.
Let’s do some treasure hunting in scripture and see if there’s some guidance related to being rescued; because if there is, we might get a little more insight into our deepest selves.
Some people refer to today’s Old Testament story as the story of the birth of Moses. Well, it does talk about Moses’ birth, but only for a millisecond. Isn’t it amazing how quickly some of the biggest events of scripture are described? Jesus’ birth is described in the blink of an eye; so is the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; so is the appearance of God on the Mount of Transfiguration. We’re left to imagine, wishing that James Michener or some other novelist had written the Bible so that we could get a little more detail.
No, this isn’t a story about Moses’ birth. It’s about a series of three crises, and the way in which an amazing rescue happens in each case. It’s about Moses being saved, but it’s about much more than that.
We meet the Egyptian king who is not described by name, but simply by the fact that he didn’t know Joseph. He didn’t know anything about former dealings with the Israelites and, evidently he didn’t care. He’s a disgustingly utilitarian guy. He saw that the Israelites are having lots of babies, and he worried that soon they would outnumber the Egyptians so badly that they might just revolt. Or even worse, they might go away and be unavailable to be cheap labor for the building of all the monuments to himself that he wanted built. So he went to the Hebrew midwives and got blunt. “When those babies come out, if they are boys, kill them. If they’re girls, let them live.”
Here begins Rescue #1. The midwives were not about to follow Pharaoh’s orders, so they didn’t kill the baby boys. Pharaoh came back for an interim report on how the baby killing was going and was steamed to find out that there were still baby boys around. He demanded an answer. “Well,” said the midwives, “these Hebrew women must all do power yoga and eat lots of broccoli because before we even get our CD players plugged in to play mellow birthing tunes, they had already delivered.” So crisis number one was averted because Shiprah and Puah, these Hebrew midwives, made Pharaoh’s evil look like insanity.
Pharaoh may have been an insane idiot, but the trouble is that he was a homicidal idiot. Since the midwives had thwarted him, he widened the net. He commanded all Egyptians to join in the frenzy to kill the Hebrew boys. His command was simple, “If you see a Hebrew boy, throw him in the Nile.” So this desperately cruel man turned the nation’s richest symbol of life, the Nile, into its most ominous symbol of death. It may have watered the crops and quenched the thirst of the entire nation, but its primary purpose now was to be an Auschwitz for little boys.
Into the midst of this insanity, an unnamed woman conceived and bore a son. Death was decreed, but birth happened. Isn’t it always that way with God? The mother of this baby took one look at him and said, “He’s good.”
So what’s the crisis? The crisis was that the baby did what babies are supposed to do; he grew. He grew so much that it was impossible to conceal him anymore. So we’re ready for Rescue #2.
This enterprising mother, driven by love and fear, fashioned a little basket and waterproofed it. She set her baby afloat among the tall reeds along the river.
There’s something quite amazing within this story telling. When Moses’ mother said about her new baby, “He’s good,” the Hebrew words are the same used by God after each of the days of creation (and God saw that it was good). The author of this story is putting wonderful little hints in this story that even though God is not mentioned by name, God is active in every moment.
But there’s more. The word used to describe the little basket in which Moses was placed is the very same word used to describe what Noah built to house all the animals for their new start in a new world. And the reed-filled water in which Moses’ mother deposited her son is the very reed-filled water through which the full grown Moses led the Israelites after that water was miraculously parted. This is a story teller of incredible skill. A new thing is going to happen, because this ‛very good’ baby, raised in an ark, will one day lead his people to freedom through reedy waters.
Who knew that Pharaoh’s daughter, who had access to just about any bath tub or pool she could ever want, would choose to wander down to the Nile in this very spot to bathe? The possibilities are intriguing:
-Was this discovery planned by Moses’ mother?
-Did Pharaoh’s daughter willfully, rebelliously bathe in the very river which had been made a place of death by her own father?
-What will she do when she sees the baby?
-Will she replicate her father’s rage and kill the baby?
The drama that unfolded is somewhere between Spielberg and Disney. The bathing princess heard the cry of the baby. She lifted the ‛roof’ off the little ark, and what happened? She said, “Oh, it’s a little Hebrew.” Not, “get this disgusting little Hebe out of my way.” Not, “Why don’t we just drown him? No one will know.”
Now we’re ready for Rescue #3. Moses’ sister, undaunted in the presence of Pharaoh’s daughter, said, “You know, Your Highness, that little boy is going to need a nurse, and I hear that those Hebrew women do yoga and eat a lot of broccoli. Should I go get one of them to nurse the little fellow?”It’s completely unlikely. A young slave girl completely changed the course of her peoples’ history by making up this wild plan to reunite her mother and her baby brother. What’s more, the mortal enemy, the Egyptian princess, has feelings. Not only did Pharaoh’s daughter consent, but she turned to her itinerant treasurer and said, “Give them some money for Huggies.”
So where are we? Three women, none of whom are named, are part of something bigger than themselves. Pharaoh’s daughter could hardly advocate the liberation of a slave, and the Hebrew women could scarcely have believed that liberation was possible. AND the outcome of this story is governed by a God who never makes an appearance. The hiddenness of God is in stark contrast to the stunning, daring visibility of the women.
This story is the story of Israel’s entire life. They are always under threat, they are always about to be inundated by some chaos, and then God weaves some life-changing, despair-crushing, hope-producing, freedom-making grace into things.
Now the question is, Is this the story of our life? What is the basic plot line of our lives? Mine is something like this:
• I didn’t deserve to be born, but I was. I didn’t have a right to born, but I was.
• I stumbled my way through childhood and adolescence trying to figure out who I was and what I was supposed to be.
• I learned about accomplishment, discipline, and integrity somewhere along the way, but I seldom feel truly accomplished, deeply disciplined or thoroughly honest.
• I’ve fallen in love, and I’ve made close friends, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I were a better husband, a better and more forthright friend, a better listener, a really sacrificial neighbor.
• I still haven’t figured what I want to be when I grow up.
• When I look at the world, when I look at my role as a Christian, as an American, as an educator, as a neighbor, I tremble. I’m frightened that this pathetic, contentious, sinful standoff of liberals and conservatives in America will continue. I’m frightened that my own daughter may live in a world that my generation de-stabilized by just sitting around and allowing greedy people to rape the earth and hijack the economy. And even though all of that is true, I wonder if I care enough to do anything about it.
In other words, I’m sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore. Because of this persistent apathy, I’m very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. So my life story seems to indicate that I need to be rescued. I need to be saved from myself; from my cynicism and apathy; from the narrowness of my vision.
I wonder whether anyone here today has a life story anything like mine. I wonder whether anyone here today needs to be saved. If you do have a story line like this, I know a God who can save. I know a God who, whether working on the front line or puttering quietly in the background, can keep me, and you, from sinking. I know a God who put a holy rebelliousness in two Hebrew midwives, and who put holy cleverness in a Hebrew mother and her daughter, and I know a God who put a kind and penitent heart in an Egyptian princess. And I know a God who is in the re-construction business, in the salvage business, in the rescue business, in the SAVING business. So my question is, “Does anyone here need to be saved?”
Sermon by John Thornburg
Vice President for Area Representatives
Senior Area Representative for North Texas
Texas Methodist Foundation