Subversive power in the face of oppression : report of Duncan’s sermon this morning

Hope and fear

A very powerful sermon from Duncan this morning on parts of first two chapters in Exodus: 1:8-22 and 2:1-10.

The Jewish people had been invited to live in Egypt by an Egyptian Pharaoh, deeply grateful to Joseph whose God-given wisdom had saved Egypt and the surrounding nations from starvation at a time of severe famine.  But time passes. The Jews multiply. ‘A new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’   (Exodus 1:8) This new Pharaoh was afraid that the Jews would turn against the Egyptians, and so he gave orders for them to be enslaved, and instructed the Hebrew midwives to kill newly-born boys as soon as they were born. (Exodus 1:16)

Fears and prejudices

How contemporary this is! Pharaoh sought to whip up the fears of the Egyptian people, fanning their antagonism towards Jewish people.  Over the last century, similar fears have been stoked up against Tutsis, Kosovans, Bosnians, Jews, Mexicans and many others. Since the Brexit vote, in Scotland and the UK as a whole, there is evidence of anti-semitism, and violence against people from other European nations.  Thus the ancient story in today’s passage is bang up to date – revealing  a dark human capacity to scapegoat and dehumanise other ethnic groups and other human beings.

Cycles of light and darkness

Duncan also drew attention to what he called ‘cycles in life and in history.’  In our personal lives, there are times when we feel ‘on top of the world’, other times when we are conscious only of darkness and struggle. This was true in Joseph’s life: the darkness of slavery followed by the light of his elevation to second-in-charge of the nation, and the joy of reunion with his father.  It is true of the Jewish people too – the darkness of famine gave way to the light of new life in Egypt. But history moves on, and the Jewish people find themselves  again in a time of darkness.

Duncan asked us individually at which point we currently find ourselves in this cycle of experience. Am I hopeful today, or fearful? Do I see these days as a time of light, or a time of gathering storm?

Once again, the passages we read speak powerfully into our situation.  Pharaoh was the very essence of power in Egypt in the 13th century BC. He was considered a god. He wielded unquestioned power. Egypt was like all our contemporary centres of global power rolled into one.

Women subvert imperial power

So the fascinating thing is that in Exodus 1 and 2 the focus is not on Pharaoh and the centre of power but on ordinary people who stood up and thereby made a difference.  They were ruled not by fear, but by hope in God, and the story has great subversive power.

In these passages the Pharaoh isn’t named – but two very ordinary Hebrew midwives, close to the bottom of the social pile are named – Shiphrah and Puah.  (Exodus 1:15)   Told to kill every Hebrew baby boy, they quietly ignored Pharaoh’s instruction. And when they are called to account, the midwives tell the Pharaoh what he wants to hear: that Hebrew women, being much coarser than the elite Egyptians Pharaoh lives among, give birth too fast for the midwives to get there in time.

It sounds crazy that Pharaoh would believe that Hebrew women were somehow less than fully human, but a similar stupidity lies at the heart of so much of the prejudice and fear that we see around us in the world, which views other people less than human. It’s this thinking which leads to gas chambers and dividing walls.

Do you see the lesson? It’s this – that kings, presidents and prime ministers are not as powerful as they, and perhaps we think they are. Pharaoh’s plans are scuppered by two apparently powerless women, and ironically, the Hebrew population grows more and more.

Next, Pharaoh orders all the Egyptians to drown Hebrew baby boys on sight.  (Exodus 1:22) It’s back to women to defy Pharaoh, women in a patriarchal society where woman personify weakness and lack of power.

Moses is born. (Exodus 2:2) Moses mother hatches a plan to give him a chance of survival. She makes a basket out of bulrushes (the word used for ‘basket’ is the same as that used for ‘ark’ in the Genesis story of the Flood.)   She places Moses in the basket among the reeds close to the edge of the Nile.  His sister Mirian watches from a distance. What would happen? Would the basket sink? Would someone tip the basket over and drown Moses?

Enter Pharaoh’s daughter, who sees the baby not through eyes of fear and prejudice, but as a human being, and she reacts with compassion.  And so she is prepared to disobey her father.

Seeing her caring reaction to Moses, Miriam runs up – would you like me to find a Hebrew woman to nurse this child, she asks.  Yes, says Pharoah’s daughter – and I’ll pay her for looking after the baby.

So Miriam runs and gets her mother, who looks after Moses until later, he is entrusted to Pharaoh’s daughter as her son.  It’s crazy – a slave woman is paid to look after her own child!

It was a dark and difficult time in the history of the people of God: the future looked bleak. And yet five women – the two midwives, the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ mum and sister – were prepared in different ways to take risks, willing to stand for a hope and a future. Subversively, they stood against the king.

The subversive power of powerless people

The lesson for us today is that the most powerless people in God’s upside-down world have the capacity to change the world.

The world we live in today is different because not only was Moses saved, but his life and his journey ultimately led to a  new  Moses being born in Bethlehem.

A new Moses, whom the Pharaoh of that day, King Herod tried to kill.

A new Moses, who ironically made the journey back to Egypt as a refugee.

Our faith story today, Duncan said, is rooted in the story of Moses who was saved by the courage of five powerless women.

Alan Turing said ‘Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no-one can imagine.’

The seeming weakness of five women is powerful in God’s hands.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

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