Thursday, February 16, 2012

Exodus 1 - Ironically, Powerfully Weak

Exodus 1

1 These are the names of the sons of Israel (that is, Jacob) who moved to Egypt with their father, each with his family: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, 4 Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. 5 In all, Jacob had seventy descendants in Egypt, including Joseph, who was already there.
6 In time, Joseph and all of his brothers died, ending that entire generation. 7 But their descendants, the Israelites, had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land. 8 Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. 10 We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”
11 So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labor. They forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses as supply centers for the king. 12 But the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more the Israelites multiplied and spread, and the more alarmed the Egyptians became. 13 So the Egyptians worked the people of Israel without mercy. 14 They made their lives bitter, forcing them to mix mortar and make bricks and do all the work in the fields. They were ruthless in all their demands.
 15 Then Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, gave this order to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah: 16 “When you help the Hebrew women as they give birth, watch as they deliver. If the baby is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 But because the midwives feared God, they refused to obey the king’s orders. They allowed the boys to live, too.
 18 So the king of Egypt called for the midwives. “Why have you done this?” he demanded. “Why have you allowed the boys to live?”
 19 “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,” the midwives replied. “They are more vigorous and have their babies so quickly that we cannot get there in time.”
 20 So God was good to the midwives, and the Israelites continued to multiply, growing more and more powerful. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
 22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Throw every newborn Hebrew boy into the Nile River. But you may let the girls live.”

    Two women.  Two women against a King.  Two little slave women against the King of the most powerful nation in the world.  And yet they win.  They, the weaker ones, prove to hold the true power. 

    We know their names: Shiphrah and Puah, but the king remains nameless.  To this day, scholars are debating about which historical pharaoh this was.
    Pharaoh said in verse 10: “Let us deal shrewdly with them,” but these two little uneducated women deal shrewdly with him.
    The King of the Egyptian Empire, in the midst of building pyramids, stoops to ask a favor from the servants of his slaves.  And they turn him down.  Not only that, but they offer him an insult him with an impossibly lame excuse: “Sorry, we would like to follow your orders and enact genocide on our own people, but the Hebrew women don’t actually need midwives.”  Hello!  These two women ARE Hebrew midwives!

   It’s almost as if I can hear Alanis Morisette singing in the background:
And isn't it ironic... don't you think
It's like rain on your wedding day
It's a free ride when you've already paid
    This irony is part of the story of the book of Exodus.  Pharaoh’s great power becomes weakness and Israel’s great weakness becomes power. 
Why?  What is the cause of this great, ironic reversal?  God.  The midwives honor God even in their place of weakness.  Pharaoh rejects God even in his place of power.  This ironic power runs like a scarlet thread through all of Scripture.
The Creator of the universe shares his creative identity with humans.  He joins them up close and personal – walking in the garden with them.  Yet, in their quest for power, in their quest to be even more like God, they use their Godlike power of choice to turn away from God.  And that poor use of power causes the disintegration of their power.  Isn’t it ironic?
Then, God chooses one small, extremely old man and woman as the starting place for his plan of global redemption.  Then, he waits a few more decades.  Then their grandchildren start fighting.  Then, they wind up in slavery in Egypt, yet God uses even that to help save the world.  Isn’t ironic?
Finally, Israel grows up and leaves Egypt and settles in the Promised Land.  Yet, despite the miraculous Exodus, despite the miraculous victories in Canaan, despite the prophetic warnings, Israel still consistently rebels against God.  Finally, God brings down massive armies against his own people.  He chooses to destroy them so that he can heal them and recreate them.  Isn’t it ironic?
Centuries later, the King of the Universe, the Owner of all that is, the Source of all power, enters the world as the scandalous child of poor laborers in a minor vassal state under the mighty Roman thumb.  Ironic, don’t you think?
This child grows up to become Jesus of Nazarene, the great Jewish rabbi.  He teaches this ironically powerful weakness:
  •  “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). 
  • “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). 
  • Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17).
  • “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matthew 16:25). 
  • Isn’t it ironic?
But despite his miracles and powerful teaching, the most religious Jews reject the fulfillment of their own religion.  The only totally innocent One who has ever lived was convicted as a felon, an enemy of the State.  The Prince of Peace was spat upon, beaten, and crucified.  Ironic, right?
Yet, Jesus was raised to new life.  Somehow, in the mystery of God, Jesus’ death defeated death.  “By his wounds, you are healed” (1 Peter 2:24).  His death gives life.  Isn’t it ironic?   
 And in John’s vision of the end of time, an angel comes out with a huge scroll containing all of God’s plans for the world and says, “Who is worthy to break the seals of this scroll and open it?”  But no one moves.  All of heaven and earth are powerless.  No human and no angel have the power to make God’s plans happen.  There is total silence.  The only sound in heaven and on earth is the bitter weeping of John because God’s plans are stuck.
Then someone says to John, “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah … has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  You can almost hear the trumpets and drums, the fanfare and applause.  Finally, someone who has the power and integrity to make God’s plans happen in the world!
And John looks up for the Lion, and he sees a Lamb.  He sees “a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered.”  John looked for the most powerful being in the world, and he saw the crucified Christ.  Jesus died, and Jesus is risen.  Jesus holds the world in his nail-scarred hands.  Isn’t it ironic?

 And so here we are now, reading this text about midwives in Egypt, and we are preparing to begin the season of Lent.  Yes, it’s already that time.  This Tuesday we will feast together at our annual Fat Tuesday Pancake Supper.  Then, we’ll begin the fasting of Lent at our Ash Wednesday Service. 
Throughout Lent this year, we’ll be exploring how God prepared the Israelites for the Exodus.  And we’ll be asking two basic questions.  1) What did they need to give up for God to bring them out of slavery in Egypt?  2) What do we need to give up for God to bring us out of slavery in our world? 
Yes, we live in Egypt, too.  We live in a world dominated by superpowers that are essentially against us.  Like the Israelites we participate in systems in which others want to use us for their selfish gain.  Like the Israelites and Egyptians, we are always tempted to play the game of the system, tempted to use others so that we’ll be used a little less.  Just like for the Israelites, our world has a thousand oppressive social rules, and it is SO hard to go against our cultures. 
We can start to feel trapped in our systems.  Go to work.  Go to school.  Do the laundry.  Make money.  Spend money.  Save money.  Study.  Teach.  Entertain.  Be entertained.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Our systems can strip our humanity.  Our systems can enslave us and conquer our spirits.  It is no accident that the depression and suicide rates are the highest in the most developed nations.  It is no accident that movie stars and rock stars get everything they hoped for and then find out it’s not enough.  Our systems are not only corrupt, they are also corrosive.  We are chained to systems that cannot satisfy our deepest longings.  And, we are so enslaved that we cannot even imagine acting on other options.

That’s why these two little Hebrew midwives are so important for us.  They resisted the system.  The most powerful man in the world gave them a direct order, and they refused.  They had a fear of God that made them fearless.  They had a powerful weakness that revealed the weakness of Pharaohs power.  And God blessed them.  Quietly, surely, God blessed them.
This was the first lesson for the Israelites.  What did they need to leave behind for God to bring them out of Egypt?  They needed to give up their powerlessness.  They were not stuck.  They were not helpless victims of the powerful social system in which they lived.  The first step was to imagine another possibility, a possibility inflamed by awe of the Almighty God, who makes the power systems of this world look like a child’s house of blocks. 
They were not powerless.  God was with them.  Sure, it didn’t feel like it.  But he was there – quietly blessing, quietly listening, quietly waiting, quietly faithful.

 What do we need to leave behind for God to bring us out of Egypt?  We also need to give up our powerlessness.  We are not helpless victims of our world.  We are not incapable of changing our direction or our actions or our patterns of living.  This world’s systems do not dictate our lives to us.  This world’s values do not determine our values.  We are not defined by what this world says is good or right or beautiful or worthy.
 By God’s grace we are free, and we are powerful with the Spirit’s power.  We need to hear the voice of God redefining us.  You are beautiful.  You are good.  You are powerful.  You are the holy, beloved child of God.  God chose you before the creation of the world to be his own child.  Jesus died for you so that you could live in the Father’s arms forever.  You are beautifully loved.  God’s love defines you, and nothing else.  God’s love is the source of your inner power. 
As 1 John says: “But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (1 John 4:4).  We have a deep and abiding power because God’s Spirit lives in us.
 But remember, God’s power is an ironic power.  This is not like the dominating, fear-based, grasping power of our world.  It is a power housed in weakness.
We have the power of holiness – but only as forgiven sinners.
We have the power of freedom – but only as rescued slaves.
We have the power of wholeness – but only as God restores our brokenness.
We have the power of love – but only because God loves us beyond all measure.
We have power, but it is God’s power living in our weakness.

Aimee Mullins was born deformed.  Her legs were missing the fibula bones, and they were twisted and misshaped. 
When she was a year old, her parents took the radical step of having her legs amputated just below the knee, with the hope that she could learn to walk with prosthetic limbs.  It worked.  She walked and played and swam like all the other children. 
When she was in elementary school, she had to have another surgery on both legs.  She was confined to a wheelchair for months.  Her teacher wouldn’t let her come back to class because “she would be a distraction to the class.”  She fought for her rights and rejoined the class.
When she was a teenager, she bought an Easter dress with her own money.  But her dad wouldn’t let her wear it because it showed the line between her prosthetic legs and her real legs.  “It wouldn’t be appropriate,” he kept saying. She wore it anyway, despite the promise of being grounded.  She refused to let anyone tell her that she was somehow unacceptable or less than others.
At the age of 17, she won an internship at the Pentagon.  She worked as an intelligence analyst as the youngest person in history to hold a US military security clearance. 
 At Georgetown University, she discovered a love for running and eventually joined the track team.  Remember – she doesn’t have legs below the knee!  She decided that her artificial legs were too heavy and clunky for real running, so she teamed up with designers and engineers to make the first ever artificial sprinting leg.  It was modeled after the hind leg of a cheetah.  She set records in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and long jump. 
 That opened the doors for her to enter a whole new world of public speaking, modeling, and acting.  Soon, the world’s best designers and engineers and artists were custom designing artificial legs for her.  On a speech at TED, she showcased her twelve sets of legs – hand carved wooden legs, hand-painted life-like legs made for high heals, glass legs, sequined legs, feathered legs, jelly-fish legs.  Her legs even have different lengths so that she can adjust her height by up to five inches, depending on the event and her mood. 
 She now says that her artificial legs actually give her super powers: beauty, speed, height, fame.  She has been featured in Glamour, Vogue, Life, Elle, Sports Illustrated, and loads more magazines.  She was named one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People.”
Aimee Mullins completely redefined the world of prosthetic limbs.  It was no longer acceptable just to have a limb that was enough to help you get by.  Now, your leg or arm could be something to help you excel, something to set you apart as something great. 
When Aimee was born, the doctor told her parents that she would never walk.  Decades later, he met Aimee in the grocery story of her home town.  He told her that he had been saving the newspaper clippings telling of all her amazing feats.  He now uses Aimee’s story to teach his medical school students about the mysterious “X-Factor” that allows people to thrive beyond all rational expectation. 
In fact, Aimee said that the only true disability she has ever experienced has been societal systems which say that she is incapable and uncomfortable and undesirable.  For her, the greatest key to her success was resisting society’s oppressive expectations for her.
One of the highlights of her life came when a six year old girl found her in New York.  Inspired by Aimee Mullins, this little girl had talked her mom into trading in her huge club foot for an artificial leg.  She pulled up her jeans, and showed her new leg to Aimee.  It was hot pink and tattooed with the characters of High School Musical 3.  She was proud of it! 
When Aimee got free, it started setting others free.  When Aimee redefined the boundaries of what is possible, others were suddenly released from their bondage.  When Aimee said NO to the oppressive systems of this world and said YES to her God given freedom, that radically changed her and our world.

So, as we prepare for Lent, here is the first message. 
Be like the two midwives – Shiphrah and Puah.  Be like Aimee Mullins.  Don’t let the power systems of our world keep you from God’s freedom and grace.  Embrace your Spirit-filled powerful weakness.  Embrace your powerful weakness in the face of the world’s great powers.  Resist the powers of the destructive systems of our world with Godly weakness.  Imagine another possibility.  Act in bold resistance and allow God to lead you out of Egypt.
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