Reading: Psalm 124, Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 27 2017
When you think of Egypt, you think of pyramids. When Joseph was in charge in Egypt times were good for the Israelite's But Joseph died and people started to treat the Israelite's as the outsiders. As successive Pharaoh’s came along the treatment they received grew worse. Ambitious building projects were started and cheap labor needed. The Israelite's were forced into slavery. By the time that Moses was born, the Israelite's plight was desperate.
A pyramid like power structure had come into play. At the top was the Pharaoh, and just below that, the governors of Pharaoh’s court. Then various layers of government reached down to the Egyptian people. Below them were the foreigners and slaves, referred to in some ancient texts as the ‘hapiru’ - ‘lower class folks’ who were both despised and feared. They had a purpose in that they were necessary to carry out the work that the Pharaoh’s needed doing.
There was even a power structure among the ‘hapiru’ (or Hebrews as the Israelite slaves became known.) Those who would collaborate with the government were given the job of overseers. Those who were the strongest were honored above the weakest. Of least importance were the women and children. Their place was very much at the bottom of the pyramid of power.
Impressive as the Pharaohs pyramid of power may have been, there was a power in Egypt that could flatten the tallest pyramids. That power rested not in the hands of the Pharaoh, nor the government, or in the Egyptian population, or in some Israelite warrior, but in the lives of 3 women and a young girl. The power of faith.
That’s one of the things that frightened Pharaoh about those Hebrew people. They appeared to be blessed, despite their lives of servitude. Their numbers were growing and their influence was spreading. Some of them seemed to have their finger on some thing that eluded everybody else. They didn’t seem to fear him in the same way as everybody else did.
They had their faith in a higher power than Pharaoh. No doubt at times they worried what would become of them, but they clung to the promises made to their ancestors, that one day their people would prosper. Right then, it must have seemed a dim and distant hope. Yet it was a hope that lived in the life of three women and a girl child at the bottom of the pyramid of power. They had a faith that went against the odds.
The odds were that the Israelite people could look forward only to a long and unhappy life of drudgery. The odds were that Pharaoh’s jealousy and fear of them would bring nothing but trouble. Their chance of survival in such a hostile environment was extremely slim.
Everyday brought more bad news. They were forbidden to marry. They heard an order that at birth their sons were to be murdered. When this order failed to be carried out, they had the threat that all their boy children who were born would be thrown into the river and drowned.
Despite all of that, the faithful actions of three women and a girl-child were about to set in course a chain of events that would bring the Egyptian nation to it’s knees and have Pharaoh begging for the Israelites to depart from the land.
The first two women to give voice to this life transforming faith are two mid-wives, “One of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,” Not exactly household names these days, but without their faithful refusal to carry out Pharaohs commands, then Moses would not have survived to be a child, yet alone a leader of the people of God.
Pharaoh calls the women to him and tells them that, at the time of birth, if it is a Hebrew boy child they are to kill it, if it is a girl then that was fine. But, Scripture tells us, Exodus 1:17 “The midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”
Pharaoh is not pleased by this and demands an explanation. The midwives are less than truthful and inform the Pharaoh that these Israelite women are so blessed and fertile that they kept having babies before the midwives could even get to them. Of course Pharaoh is not pleased and then gives the order for all the new baby boys to be drowned in the river.
The first two ladies expressing “faith against the odds” are Shiprah and Puah. The third is the mother of Moses, Jochebed, who was married to Aram. They were both from the priestly tribe of the Levites and after getting married they have a daughter, followed some time later by a son who appears on the scene at the time the Pharaoh is trying to murder all the baby boys.
Now there are hints in the story that this new born is no ordinary child. There is almost a mirroring of the early chapters of Genesis, that may not have been as lost on the original hearers of the story as it has become for us. First of all there is Exodus 2:2 “The woman conceived and bore a son; and she saw that he was a fine baby”
The word structure in the Hebrew for the phrase ‘saw that he was a fine baby’ is similar to that of the Creation narrative, where God looks upon all the earth that has been created and proclaims “It is Good.” The idea of new beginnings is here hinted at, that through this child something new and creative was about to happen.
We are familiar with the story of Moses mother, Jochabed, placing the child in a specially prepared basket, and floating him on the river so that he may escape the wrath of Pharaoh. Here the images of Noah and the Ark that became the people’s salvation are evoked. Again the impression is given that this is no ordinary child.
Something more than just self-preservation is going on here. The mother of this child is acting with a faith that went against the odds. To simply hide the baby in a basket and let it float away would be a rather foolish action. The impression is given that she was following some barely discerned plan; acting in faith that these were actions God was directing her to take.
Then, the boldest of them all, the fourth in our quartet of faithful ladies, is the sister of Moses, Miriam, who sticks around to see what was going to happen to the baby. That the daughter of Pharaoh should come and find the child, then adopt it as her own, was not anything that either the baby’s sister or mother could have predicted, but that’s what happens.
Think of the boldness of that little girl in approaching the daughter of a Pharaoh! The daughter was a princess whilst she was the child of a slave. And how quick witted she is, arranging that the child’s nurse be her mother. Who could have seen that one coming? Truly these are examples of women and a little girl who had faith that went against the odds! Shiprah, Puah, Jochabed and Miriam. Four great (female) hero's of faith!
We have the benefit of hindsight. We have not only watched the cartoon “Prince of Egypt” but even read the original script in our Bibles. Not surprising they made a movie out of it. It’s a heroic story. Moses the adopted Prince, coming to terms with who he is, then leading the people towards freedom.
BUT… were it not for the faith of two-mid-wives, Shiphrah and Puah, of mother Jochabed who faithfully obeyed what she sensed God was calling her to do and the boldness of a young girl called Miriam in approaching a princess, then Moses would never have survived being born and his name would be lost among all the others who fell foul of Pharaohs madness.
There is a lot of talk around these days about the future and even survival of the traditional churches. It is no secret that most of the major denominations have seen a numerical loss. It’s part of our story here in this church that congregations once were larger and membership figures were once higher.
The world has changed. This is a land where many people believe they can live comfortably without needing a religion to help them through. We live in a period of history where people are more and more defined by what they do rather than who they are.
We are a fast food, speed of light, instant gratification society across the generations. The processes of sustained thought and disciplined action; the whole idea of denying of self in order to serve others has become increasingly devalued. We are just too complacent, too stimulated and too busy for the things that Jesus suggests are Kingdom priorities.
That’s a lot to deal with. It’s a huge pyramid of ideology that we labor under. It’s a difficult thing to truly influence when there are those that tell us right and wrong no longer have any meaning and that the only thing that really matters is that we do as best as we can.
BUT... we can learn from this story of three women and a little girl. They had the one thing that could bring the pyramids down. Faith. A trusting, uncomplicated reliance on God and ability to respond to what God was calling them to do.
Remember some of the things that Jesus said about faith?
(Matthew 17:20) “He said to them, (Because of their little faith), truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."
(Luke 17:6) “And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you.”
To those who felt his healing touch. (Luke 8:48) “He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace."
To those needing to know they were accepted by God:- (Mark 2:5) “And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the man, "My son, your sins are forgiven."
Mountain removing, tree-planting, wholesome making, sin forgiving, pyramid shattering faith. That’s all those ladies back in Pharaohs day had. What a difference it made. How it changed things. What sort of difference should faith be making to our lives? What sort of changes can faith in God bring about in our situations?
We’ll never know, unless we like those ladies, seek to be people who are faithful to God. Such is the challenge they lay before us today. To embrace a faith that goes against the odds. A faith like that of Shiphrah, Puah, Jochabed and Miriam.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
Through the power of God’s Spirit
May that be a challenge we take on board
To the Glory of God.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.