Encounter – I AM

Encounter – I AM

This Sunday is the beginning of the Narrative Lectionary cycle and we are diving into the Old Testament all the way up to Advent. Over the next 6 weeks we will be looking at some different characteristics of what it means to be part of a family – and in particular the family of God. This Sunday we will be exploring what it means to belong.

The best place to start is the beginning and we will be ponding the creation stories in Genesis and in particular how the 2nd creation story talks about a God who is passionate and committed to being part of our lives.

Scene 1 – A New King

  • Story of UTC Chapel service where a colleague asked if she could give a lament. 
  • She had been a missionary in East Timor and a big supporter of the local church.  This was the time when East Timor had just voted for independence and in the days following, pro-Indonesian forces massacred and oppressed thousands of East Timorese.  
  • She came to the front of the chapel, knelt down and started to wail.  You could hear and feel her heart breaking as she cried out to God on behalf of these people, pleading with God for help, asking how long they must suffer.
  • I still remember that moment – it was the first time I had experienced someone lamenting before God in that way.

We are just about to hear the beginning of the Exodus story.

(Yes I know we heard the end of it with Liesl two weeks ago but now we are jumping back to the beginning).  The Exodus story starts with oppression, suffering and lament. 

READING – Exodus 1:8-14

In know this story well, having heard it all my life from Sunday School onwards – but I line jumped out of this reading which struck me for the first time this week.  Verse 8…

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.

You know the back story.  Abraham and Sarah are called by God, travel to the promised land, and God gives them a blessing of family … a son Isaac, grandsons Esau and Jacob (who featured in last weeks sermon), and 12 great grandsons – one of which was Joseph. 

Joseph has a rollercoaster of a few years going from being sold into slavery, going to goal, ending up as the prime minister of Egypt and saving Egypt from famine.  Even though Joseph is an Israelite and not an Egyptian – a foreigner in a foreign land – he is loved and respected and blessed.  Joseph brings the extended family (the rest of the Israelites) down from the promised land to live in Egypt so they may also be blessed by his fame and influence. 

This goes well for a long time … until … a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.  Life can be like that can’t it?  Things are going well then then one small change causes a massive disruption.

The Hebrew people had gone from being loved and the respected family of Joseph … to being foreigners who are to be feared, who are perceived as getting too powerful and who knows – might even side with the enemies if war breaks out. 

The Israelites had done nothing to suggest that they were planning a revolt – it was purely the new king stirring up division through fear and distrust.

And as such, the oppression began.  The Egyptian leaders forced the Hebrew people into hard, low paying or no paying jobs – taking away an opportunity for them to succeed – to keep them in their place.

All sounds a bit too familiar doesn’t it?  A powerful person or group wanting to cement power, chooses a minority group and gets everyone to fear them, to think that they are the problem.  They set up systematic structures which disadvantage and oppress the ones that are feared and give more power to the powerful – to keep people in their right place. 

It has happened all throughout history, is still happening today, and certainly was happening to the Hebrew people in Egypt in Exodus chapter 1.  Verse 14 tells us that the new king and Egyptian leaders purposely “made their life bitter” by ruthlessly working them in harsh labour-intensive work.  Then in Exodus 2:23 we read…  The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.

The Hebrew people, struggling under the oppression and unjust system, cry out to God for help.  Just like my friend at UTC chapel all those years ago, I imagine them falling to their knees, weeping and crying out to God – why do we deserve this treatment?  Why are you not helping us?  How long must we suffer, how long will this last?

Lament is a biblical spiritual practice, and I am going to encourage us to engage in a simple lament now.  Not necessarily coming up the front here and crying out to God (although I wouldn’t stop you) but rather I am going to invite you to (as a song plays):

  • Think about what issues are weighing heavily on you
  • Write them on the pieces of paper in your pack
  • Place them on the table in the middle for the kids to put together in a chain

Scene 2 – Standing up for what is right

The next reading is a long one – from Exodus 1:15 right through to chapter 2 verse 10.  And instead of getting Lucille to read it, I thought that it might be better to retell the story.  Hearing the story told instead of read can sometimes give a different perspective.

In Exodus 1:15 we find this new king is still looking for ways to oppress the Hebrew minority and to make their lives a misery – but this time he takes the fear to a new and violent level.

He approaches two Hebrew midwives – Shiphrah and Puah.

(Note – the text is unclear whether they are midwives who are Hebrew or if they are Egyptian midwives who work with the Hebrew mothers.  Probably the second but it is unclear).

The King gives an outrageous command to Shiphrah and Puah.

If the Hebrew women give birth to a boy, then kill him – if it is a girl, let her live.

How do Shiphrah and Puah respond?  Verse 17 – did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.  The Pharoah summons the midwives – a powerful man in his place of power – and asks them “Why have you done this”

How do Shiphrah and Puah respond?  V19 – they blatantly lie to Pharoah.  “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

Two powerless women standing up for what is right.  And then in verse 21 we have this intriguing verse “and because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”

Once again, the Hebrew is unclear – it could be read that God blessed Shiphrah and Puah with children … but it also can be read that they were brought into an extended family … that the families whose boys they stood up for adopted Shiphrah and Puah as one of their own.  I quite like that.

Now Pharoah is angry and says that any Hebrew boy should be thrown into the Nile.  The story goes on in chapter 2.  A Hebrew woman – a Levite – becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy.  The hide him for a while but ultimately put they baby in a papyrus basket floating among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 

Here we meet the next amazing woman – this baby’s sister.  Exodus 2:4 tells us that she stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.  Why?  Because she loved the baby?  Possibly although she was probably a little jealous of him – after all the male babies are valued more than she would have been.  But family is family and she is there to make sure things don’t go wrong.

Another woman comes into the picture – Pharoah’s daughter, the princess, who comes to bathe in the river, sees the basket and recognises the baby as a Hebrew boy.  Under her father’s rule – she should immediately throw the baby into the river to drown … but she doesn’t.  She feels sorry for him.  The princess makes a moral decision to do what is right.

The baby’s sister approaches the princess – which is crazy because approaching people in power without being asked can lead to death – and offers to get “one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”  and ends up taking the baby back to her/his mother who gets paid to nurse her own child.

And when the child is old enough to be weaned, the princess takes this Hebrew boy – a Hebrew boy whom her father fears so much – as her own and Moses becomes her son.

What a story – one fearful, insecure king and five amazing women:

  • Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives – who stood up for what was right and even lied to Pharoah’s face to continue to stand up for what was right.
  • Moses’ mother – who did everything she could to save her child, even letting him be adopted by Pharoah’s own daughter
  • Moses’ sister – who watched over Moses in the river … and took the risk to approach the princess uninvited with the plan to let Moses’ mum nurse him.
  • And the Princess – who disobeyed her father’s law by not drowning Moses, who accepted the offer of a Hebrew girl and who accepted Moses – a Hebrew – as her own son.

I am going to give you a few minutes to decide how you would rank these four/five women on standing up for what is right.  Maybe on the risk they took, or how hard it was for them to make this stand?  From #1 – most upstanding for what is right … to #4, still amazing but not quite as upstanding for what is right as the others.  And why?

Have a chat with the people around you and see what you think?

Invite Anne to come and share in our prayers for others – especially those who are standing up for what is right.

Scene 3 – Holy Ground

I am going to invite Lucille to come and read us our second reading from Exodus chapter 3.  To catch you up, Moses has grown up, and in a moment of standing up for what was right but doing it in the wrong way, killed an Egyptian taskmaster and fled into the desert, where he married and lived for around 20 years … all while the Hebrew people continue to lament and cry out to God … How long?

READING – Exodus 3:1-15

One again, I know we all know this story well.  We have all heard lessons and sermons on this … so I will just make three simple observations…

  1. Moses encountered God

At its core, this passage is about Moses having this encounter, this experience with God.  He found himself on Holy Ground in the very presence of the Almighty God.

But what I find interesting is that God did not force this encounter on Moses.  It was not like Paul on the road to Damacus when he has hit with a blinding light – but rather it was a burning bush over to the side … which apparently was not that uncommon.  It was only because Moses was inquisitive and when over to look why it wasn’t burning up that Moses drew near and then God called out to him – “Moses, Moses”.  

I think it is the same with us.  I’m not sure if it is the nature of God to push into our busy lives and offer us an divine encounter – but rather to surround us with prompts and when we draw close, God responds generously with an encounter.  But we need to be looking and respond.

  • Moses encountered a calling

This passage is one of the many biblical examples of a “call narrative.” Moses receives his call from God in much the same way that other figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel do.  They all follow a similar pattern – God appears and God calls them to do something, they have doubts and God assures them that God will help them with their calling.

In Moses’ case – God has heard the lament and in inviting Moses to be a vessel through which God will bring freedom, life and hope to the Hebrew people.

It should not be surprising how often an injustice and a calling come together – that God calls us to stand up for what is right.

  • Moses encountered family

The overarching theme of our Narrative Lectionary Old Testament journey is being part of God’s family, and I love the response from God when Moses asks, “Who shall I say that has sent me”.

Last week when Jacob asked God during the wrestle, what God’s name was, God did not respond … but here in his encounter God gives Moses an answer. 

What is God’s name?  Verse 14 is often the answer we remember – God saying, “I am who I am. Say I AM has sent me to you” but verse 15 is just as powerful…

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers [or the God of your family] —the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

God is saying … I am who I am … I am the God of your family.  I AM your family.  You are part of my family.  We are family.   God is saying to those who are crying out for help.  I have heard you and I will help you because … that’s what families do.

And this amazing affirmation was not only for the Hebrews of Moses’ time, as God goes onto say…

This is my name forever, the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.

Are you hearing this?  We are part of God’s family.

And God is totally committed and invested in the family.