Scripture Readings: Exodus 1:8–2:10 | Psalm 124 | Romans 12:1–8 | Matthew 16:13–20
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
So much of the destruction we humans bring into our world flows from our fear: from seeing each other as a threat, and the impulse to hold onto our own sense of security and power, no matter the costs.
We can see this fear-driven mania at work all over, and once again in the headlines this week: first of all, there was the death, likely an assassination, of the Wagner Forces commander, who led a failed mutiny earlier this summer against the Russian military leadership.
And secondly, just to the South of us, we’re privy to the endless debates and escalating divisions of our American neighbours, who seem bent on tearing their country apart grasping after political power… casting aside concern for the greater good, as long as “their side” comes out on top.
But we don’t have to look to the news to see the damage that fear can do in our world. In our own lives, how often does fear drive us to foolish and ungodly places? When our own insecurities wreak havoc in our homes, or in our relationships… and perhaps even tempted us to dominate those around us to make ourselves feel more in control?
And what about the damage unchecked fear can do within a community? Even a Church family? How much outright evil has been done even in the name of God by those driven by fear, and grasping for power?
We know that our world is all too unpredictable. And that these days, it feels even less secure than it used to.
We face questions, like: What does the future look like for ourselves… for our kids, and grandkids… for our Church family here at St. Luke’s? How are we going to keep going, when everything around us seems so uncertain?
In our Scripture reading this morning from the book of Exodus, we find the theme of faithfulness in the face of fear playing out again in a dramatic story, offering us wisdom and insight, not only into a godly way forward in times of real danger, but also into how God Himself is at work in our frightened and fractured world.
Our reading today from the first chapters of the book of Exodus marks the continuation of the story of God begun in Genesis: the story of the Living God, seeking to rescue and bless all the families of the earth, and to restore their shattered relationship to Himself and each other, through the family of Abraham.
Genesis ends and Exodus begins with the Israelites dwelling as honoured guest in the land of Egypt… embodying God’s blessing… just as God had intended for all humanity, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. In Exodus 1:7, we’re told, after Joseph and his brothers died, “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” It’s an image of God’s divine blessing at work, and the abundant life that flows from it.
But instead of rejoicing in and sharing in this blessing, the new king of Egypt saw the growing Israelite presence in his land as a curse… a threat, to his own power, and the security of his people. Exodus 1:8-10, Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, 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.” Like so many tyrants, before and since, Pharaoh was deeply afraid. And his insecurity made him even more desperate to hold onto power.
Though this story is thousands of years old, we can still feel echoes of these same fears in our own corner of the world today. How do you and I respond when we feel like the fortunes of others are on the rise? When groups of people who might seem different from us, in ethnicity, politics, religion, social values, and so on, begin to grow in number and influence? When we start to feel outnumbered, and like our sense of control is slipping away?
In situations like this, it’s easy to be afraid. So often throughout human history, it is the strong and powerful who take advantage of those who are vulnerable… leaving us little reason to believe that if we lose too much influence, then one day we will find ourselves under someone else’s boot.
And all around us, in our world today, what response to we see to these kinds of fears? Example after example tells us to “Do anything it takes to stay on top!” And that the ends of our own security and survival justify any means… no matter how divisive, destructive, or corrupt… even if it means crushing our neighbours… those whom God has called us to love. I mean, what else can we do? Is there really any other way?
There is. But before we explore it together, Exodus also offers us a full fledged example of what happens when those with power are driven by fear:
In Pharaoh’s mind, the wise course of action is to first oppresses the innocent people of Israel, exploiting their strength for his own desires and purposes, through brutal and ruthless forced labour. In short, he stole their freedom, and made slaves of God’s people.
But the more Pharaoh oppressed them, the more it seemed God’s blessings spread. So, Pharaoh then tries to divide the people, and ensnare some of the Israelites to serve him instead of being devoted to the Living God and their neighbours.
But that plan also falls apart, so Pharoah throws aside all bounds, and turns the Nile red with the blood of the innocent… slaying every Israelite baby boy in the land. Well, almost all of them.
Oppression. Corruption. Death. These are the tools that tyrants use to get their way in the world. Yet, try as they might, they are all no match for the saving ways of the Living God.
Intertwined with the account of Pharaoh’s frightened plotting from the throne of Egypt, we’re also introduced to three of the most powerless and vulnerable people in the land: two Hebrew midwives, named Shiphrah and Puah, and a Levite mother. Three women who in the face of fear put their faith into action in some remarkable ways.
The two midwives come onto the scene when Pharaoh orders them to secretly kill all of the Hebrew boys when they were born… but these two women won’t: Exodus 1:17, But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.
They refused to follow Pharaoh’s evil orders… because they “feared God”.
But wait, isn’t fear the whole problem? Isn’t fear what led Pharaoh, and so many other tyrants, to these horrific deeds?
Well, as you may know, the Holy Scriptures offer us a more complex understanding of fear, and its proper place in our lives… and when it is directed to the Living God it is linked to the gaining of wisdom.
For instance, the Book of Proverbs makes the claim that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). And the book of Ecclesiastes, which explores life and all it’s paradoxes and mysteries, concludes with these words: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
But again, what kind of “fear” are we talking about? What does it mean to faithfully “fear God”?
We might easily think of fear of God as terror… the uncertainty and dread we might feel before a bully or tyrant we do not trust. In this light, many see God as an unpredictable, capricious oppressor… eager to crush those who stand in His way, and condemn all who fall out of line.
I grew up with this vision of God… with this kind of fear. And I can tell you, it did not lead me to wisdom. Or virtue. Or faith… but only towards despair. But thankfully, this is not the only way that the fear of the Lord is understood.
Fear can also refer to reverent awe… to a humble deference to one who deserves our wholehearted loyalty… inspiring not dread, but devotion.
Fearing God in this light means that He is the one anchor point around which all of our life is built. It means that when everything else around us crumbles, He is the One we look to for help. As the poet says in Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
This second kind of fear is what we see at work in Shiphrah and Puah… leading them to choose to act faithfully, and out of reverent devotion to the Living God, as they courageously defy Pharaoh’s wicked demands.
Can you imagine their situation? Slave women called before the mightiest ruler in the region. They’re choice of God’s ways over the King’s orders was incredibly brave. If their deception was detected, they were done for. But despite all the pressure to go along with the fear-driven schemes of Pharaoh, these women remained true to the Living God and His ways, and as a result, God’s blessings continued to flow.
Exodus 1:20-21, God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” God worked through the faithfulness of two humble midwives to throw off the plans of a tyrant.
But as we know, terrified tyrants don’t give up easily. In desperation, Pharaoh resorts to an open act of genocide.
Exodus 1:22, “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’”
In the face of this kind of bloodthirsty “wisdom of the world”, what can one do? How can we faithfully follow God when placed in this kind of position?
The next example of faith that our reading from Exodus offers to us is perhaps one of the hardest to imagine: the faith of a mother, who knows full well she will have to surrender the newborn life of her beloved child.
There was no way for her to avoid this loss. She was powerless in the face of Pharaoh’s decree.
But instead of giving into despair, she musters what hope she has and places the boy in a basket before letting the mighty river bear him away. For her, the boy is still gone for good. But she does what little she can out of love to preserve his life. To save him, she has to let him go.
In this crisis, she chooses to let go of all control, and leaves the boy in God’s hands. It’s a truly heartbreaking, desperate situation, but one that she faced faithfully.
And as it turns out, God was at work even as she surrendered her beloved son, for the river brings the basket to the palace of Pharaoh, and into the compassionate arms of the tyrant-king’s own daughter!
We’re meant to see God at work in this story bringing hope and life even up out of certain death… and against all hope, the boy is even returned to his mother’s keeping until he had grown up, and then he was brought back to the palace. God raises the child up from a watery grave, to the very household of Pharaoh.
And this is all just the beginning of the remarkable story of Exodus, and God’s gracious rescue mission involving this one Hebrew baby boy, Moses, in which God’s power and saving love are revealed, to the Israelites, and to the world: working through the lives of His faithful people, as powerless and vulnerable and oppressed as they may be, to bring His blessed abundant life.
And this story of Exodus points us to Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, and His ultimate act of saving love, as Jesus gave up His life on the cross to rescue His people, His enemies, and His world.
Like Shiphrah and Puah, Jesus refused to play along with the powerful people vying for influence in His day… the religious and political parties that divided the people of God, as well as the Roman tyrants and governors who held God’s people under their boots.
Like the Levite mother, Jesus let go of control… surrendering Himself to death at the hands of His enemies at the cross, not out of despair, but in faithful devotion, trusting in His Father’s love to overcome even the power of death.
And like the boy, raised up from the waters that threatened to overwhelm him, Jesus, the Son of God, was raised up alive again from the dead, resurrected not just for His own sake, but to bring God’s saving love and New Life to those who are lost.
Jesus has overcome all our true enemies through His life, and death, and resurrection. He has offered all who turn to Him in faith God’s forgiveness, freedom, and New Life forever.
And Jesus has opened up for us the way of faith, of trust in the Living God… revealing the self-giving, saving love of our Heavenly Father, so that we can share our hearts and lives with Him… empowering us to truly trust in Him no matter what troubles or tyrants we might face today, or someday down the road.
And as we follow Jesus, we too are called to faithfulness in the face of fear. Whether we’re tempted to feel like we have power we need to preserve, or if we feel vulnerable and oppressed… in Jesus we can trust the Living God to be our refuge and strength, our Saviour. With His Holy Spirit at work in us, and leading the way, we can find a way forward where we are not bound by fear, but by wholehearted devotion to the Lord of love.
As St. Paul says to us in his letter to the Romans:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2).
Our world will keep on finding reasons to be afraid, or to use fear to grasp after power. But as Christians, with the Spirit of Jesus guiding us, we can learn to live a different way.
So when we are being pressured to compromise with wickedness… what will we do?
When we must completely let go of control, where will we look for help and hope?
Let us look to the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer, and place our trust in His faithfulness to lead us into God’s blessed, abundant, and eternal life. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School