God of presence
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on September 29, 2019
•Exodus 1:8-2:10, 3:1-15•
Before we jump into this week we have some ground to cover. So baton down the hatches and hang on, friends. This is a story of epic portions and you are libel to get sick from the speed we will use to cover last week to today.
Last week it was Jacob wrestling with a man — whoever that man may be. Well after being embraced by his brother Esau, Jacob leaves through a backdoor and lives a really long time. He ends up with 12 sons. His favorite son (which is a recipe for disaster) Joseph, ends up being sold into slavery by his brothers. As Joseph is marched away it appears he is a goner, but alas that is not the way the story will end. And through a confluence of events Joseph rises to be the second most powerful man in Egypt in charge of the food stores. Joseph is reunited with his family in a story we don’t have near enough time touch upon. But through Joseph’s amazing administrative skills, he ends up storing enough food to sustain the Egyptians and Israelites through a terrible famine.
Then 400 or so years pass and as we read earlier “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”[i] A Pharaoh gained power who did not know or remember the one who saved the Egyptian people from starvation. And because this new leader didn’t know Joseph, he looks at the Hebrews not as honored guests, but as a threat to Egypt.
The Pharaoh doesn’t see the Hebrews as the descendants of an amazing policy maker who delivered Egypt from the most terrible famine, but instead all he sees is how many aliens, foreigners, non-Egyptians there are around him. “Look,” he says, “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”[ii]
The Pharaoh makes a huge leap in his logic and his worry about the guests is simply crazy. The Pharaoh was considered to be the one and only son of the sun god Ra. The name “pharaoh” meant, “great house.” The Pharaoh was the one with all the power and yet he was worried about these guests being a threat to the mighty and powerful armies of Egypt. There is a word for this: paranoia.
The Pharaoh has such blinders on that all he can see is the Hebrews getting more and more numerous. Tongue in cheek we might say that the Hebrews are masters at multiplication — and by that I do not mean that the Hebrews are good at math.
So Pharaoh tries three shrewd plans to subdue their multiplication skills. First, the Pharaoh enslaves his guests and forces them to build cities. He figures if he has them spend all day in hard and forced labor, the last thing on their mind when they get home will be math. Alas he figured wrong. In fact, “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Hebrews.”[iii]
As building cities didn’t get the Hebrews out of the mood the shrewd Pharaoh tries another tact. This time he forces them into the brick making business. This time his soldiers are more ruthless and more oppressive. They force more labor and again it makes no difference. The Hebrews are relentless at their multiplication tables.
So Pharaoh develops a third and much more personally destructive plan — a plan that will attack the Hebrews ability to multiply in the future. And for this plan Pharaoh needed two accomplices named — Shiphrah and Puah. To these two midwives the Pharaoh commands, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”[iv]
Just for a moment let’s consider the plan — no boys means no potential soldiers, insurgents and terrorists. Additionally, Hebrew girls without Hebrew boys would marry Egyptian boys and the people would lose their identity thus blending into the Egyptians. Overall, it doesn’t seem like a bad plan — except for the fact that it didn’t take into account two things — God and the Hebrew girls — both of whom prove very formidable.
Now as readers we are told that the midwives “fear God” and do not follow out Pharaoh’s plans. Some time passes when the Pharaoh is reading the morning paper and comes across an article about the continued increase in enrollment at the child care centers, especially for young Hebrew boys and he immediately realized his plans were not working. So the Pharaoh summons the midwives back to him. “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”[v]
The midwives calmly respond to this absurdity by telling him, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”[vi] Now not only is this insult to the Egyptian women, but an outright lie. Certainly not every Hebrew woman gave birth on her own. But the Pharaoh buys it all, and being a step closer to crazy calls out the command to all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”[vii]
The Pharaoh is a red hot mess. He is ruled by fear and it has him shouting all kinds of foolishness. Genocide is the name of latest plan. Sadly this is evil’s usual solution. Kill. Exterminate. Bring an end to them. But again, Pharaoh does not consider who his real opponent is — he is contending with God.
And in perhaps the craziest twist of the story — a young boy is thrown into the river, though he does not die as Pharaoh had planned. Rather that Hebrew child will be rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter — who will give him back to his mother and will pay her to nurse him — and when the boy grows up he will be raised in Pharaoh’s own home as his adopted grandson.
The story of that young boy, named Moses, reminds us that amidst the twists and turns of our own life, it can be hard to see any rhyme or reason for the random events that we encounter. And yet how often does God work to bring things together just when we’re least expecting it, and in ways we never could have imagined? Of course to catch a glimpse of God’s activity — one has to slow down, one has to turn aside from the task at hand, one has to stop. And thankfully that is exactly what Moses does.
Moses is watching his father-in-law’s sheep when he sees a burning bush. He is so taken by the sight that he stops to take it all in. Let’s keep in mind that God could have spoken to Moses anyway God wanted. God could have built a big sign with an arrow. God could have hit Moses upside the head with a 2×4. God could have done anything, but God doesn’t choose to speak until Moses stops what he is doing and takes notice of a burning bush.
This week I came across a rendering of the scene in a way that I hadn’t seen before.[viii] It was a tapestry, by American-born artist Abraham Rattner. The design places Moses kneeling before a mass of fire colors with no space between him and the bush. In other instances when I have seen this scene depicted, Moses is always looking across a landscape at the bush from a distance, but not in Rattner’s view. For Rattner there is intimacy in this scene. There is connection. God is close.
The fire-colored area of the bush does not include any leaves, trunk or branches you would expect to find on a bush. Instead there are hands, presumably of God, suggested through a number of line segments, and red lightning bolts. And the piece that caught and has ended up holding my attention is where the hands and lightening bolts and the Moses figure touch. The touch is accomplished when the left hand of Moses very gingerly reaches up to touch a lightning bolt that appears to be an extension of the heavenly hand.
The key word is gingerly. The sense is that Moses has not reached out to heartily grasp the hand/lightning/fire of God. Rather his thumb and middle finger are hovering over the end of the bolt… there is only the slightest space between them. The picture seems to share that Moses is understandably timid to reach out to hold God’s hand, recognizing that doing so is something akin to having a tiger by the tail. Or like sticking your finger in a socket.
And it is here in this picture that I sense the key difference between Moses and Pharaoh, because in the end of the story they are both dealing with God who is well beyond them. Pharaoh succumbs to feelings of loneliness and desperation. He senses his only option is to figure a way to power through it. Later he will make a deal he has no intention of keeping and he will drown under the weight of his own power. It becomes a cautionary word to us all.
And then there is Moses. He too is fearful, but he seems to recognize he is not alone. God doesn’t call Moses to rescue God’s people all by himself. God isn’t requiring Moses to work in isolation. God’s purpose isn’t to zap power into Moses or burn Moses to ash. Rather God offers Moses the power that is needed to do the task that is before him. Not a volume of power measured in pounds or watts, but rather the power of presence. “I will be with you,”[ix] God says.
Now Moses is probably right to be hesitant to take hold of this power. The God who will lead God’s people to freedom is not the teddy-bear-best-buddy-perfectly-manageable God that we like to think of. If we realized this as Moses did, we all might be a little more deferential to the power of God. For God’s power is promised to us as well. I will be with you, God says. And you are the you to which God speaks.
Does that mean we will always get it right, because God’s presence is with us? Of course not. Moses was a mess. Starting here and going much further in the story, Moses cannot stop questioning God. Moses lists a long series of objections to God’s plan. But rather than dismiss Moses, God deals with each objection, reassuring Moses, and equipping Moses with the confidence and presence he will need. And such is the truth for us as well.
For God has shown Godself to be faithful through his walk with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — and on with the 12 sons — and the 12 tribes — and all the people of the promise. For God is who God declares God to be — “the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… this is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.”[x]
God has been a God of presence to the people before. God is a God of presence to us now. And God will be a God of presence forevermore. Amen.
[i] Exodus 1:8 (nrsv)
[ii] Exodus 1:9-10 (nrsv)
[iii] Exodus 1:12 (nrsv)
[iv] Exodus 1:16 (nrsv)
[v] Exodus 1:18 (nrsv)
[vi] Exodus 1:19 (nrsv)
[vii] Exodus 1:22 (nrsv)
[viii] Found at http://artandfaithmatters.blogspot.com/2017/08/art-lectionary-moses-bush.html on September 25, 2019.
[ix] Exodus 3:12 (nrsv)
[x] Exodus 3:15 (nrsv)