Yeah, God Knows It’s Hard, But That’s Why God Is with Us

by Rev. Doug Gray

The story is told that one Sunday, the Sunday School was giving a presentation in worship. Every child had worked really hard to learn some of Jesus’ words, but one little boy forgot his lines. Fortunately, his mother was in the front row to help him. When he was drawing a blank, she gestured and formed the words silently with her lips, but it didn’t seem to help. Finally, she leaned forward and whispered the cue, “I am the light of the world.” The child beamed and with great feeling and a loud clear voice said, “My mother is the light of the world!” We chuckle, perhaps because we can imagine the relief of the boy, and perhaps the embarrassment of the mother, but throughout the ages, God has worked through women to let His light shine. Today our eyes have turned to two more of those women, what some might think are unlikely heroes, two midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. Why are they heroes?

First, they recognize who is really in charge. In the story, after Pharaoh commands the women to participate in his genocidal plans, our passage reads, “But the midwives feared God…” We need to remember that in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for fear is a complicated one. It can mean simple fear like “I’m afraid of the dark,” but it’s also used to describe the awe we can experience in the presence of something big and wild. That’s the sense we have in sayings like the one from Proverbs:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[1] Or Isaiah as he is talking about God’s anointed one,

      “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
                 the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
                 the Spirit of counsel and of power,
                 the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
     3     and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
            He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
                       or decide by what he hears with his ears;
     4    but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
                     with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. [2]

In C.S. Lewis’ fabulous book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Christ-like figure is a huge lion named Aslan. Through a talking beaver, Lewis says,

     “He’s the King of the wood, and the Son of the great Emperor Beyond the Sea…”
     Susan replied, “A Lion? Is he safe? I shall be rather nervous about meeting a lion…”
     “Safe?” [rejoined the beaver]. ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King
     I tell you.” [3]

I’m with Susan. If I were meeting a lion face-to-face, with nothing between us, I would be rather nervous too. So you see, fear makes sense if we are in the Presence of Someone so much bigger, so much stronger and so untamed. And our midwives, Shiphrah and Puah have that kind of holy fear of God. Paul would add, “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.” Faced with the imperial power of Pharaoh, still the midwives honor God by doing what God wants. They know that God is the one really in charge.

The second reason these midwives are heroes is that they know that life will find a way. The Book of Common Prayer reads, “In the midst of life, we are in death,” but I think the reverse is perhaps even more true:  In the midst of death, we are in life. That idea is everywhere in this passage. The language is all about multiplying, swarming, teeming, spreading…all about life. Have you ever tried to stop life? We have joked with each of our kids when they were growing fast, that we were going to put a brick on their heads to keep them from growing so fast. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it? One part enjoying the present and wishing it could continue, but also another part recognizing that no matter how hard we try to keep things from changing and growing and becoming, the more it will escape our limitations. How pointless are the Pharaoh’s attempts?! Fear leads him to try to block the growth of a people, even trying to twist the river (a source of life) into an instrument of death. And it fails! Shiphrah and Puah even say the Hebrew women “are lively and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Who’s in charge of life? It’s not Pharaoh! In the midst of his death-dealing, a couple gets married and by God’s grace brings life into the world, a boy who will change everything. Life is going to find a way.

Underneath all of this is the reality of God’s unstoppable, steadfast promise working its way in the world, for Shiphrah and Puah the Promise of a land, a people, and a Presence. The power of this promise can be threatening to the powers that be, as Pharaoh feels threatened by the multiplying Hebrews. But the harder people try to oppose God’s promise, the more out of hand things will get, as we read, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” The power of this promise brings hope to those who are beat up, beaten down and just beaten, and that grace is among us, and that God sticks with those who stick with God.

“Is He safe?” Beaver says. “’Course He’s not safe. But He’s good.” And in Jesus Christ, we see the same principles as in Shiphrah and Puah today. Are the Pharisees who sentence Jesus to death in charge? They have the authority to sentence Jesus to death, but they are not in charge. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden reminds us, “Daddy, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” Are the Romans in charge as they take Jesus to the cross? Perhaps in name. But as Jesus hangs on the cross, He prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And talk about life and love finding a way! The Resurrection proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that when we put God first, when we trust that God’s life will find a way, we will experience the power and Presence of God. Is God safe? Of course not. But it’s because I see God coming to us in Jesus Christ, because I hear the love in Jesus’ voice as He prays in the Garden and on the Cross, because I have experienced that love in Christian community, I can know that Jesus loves me—not safe, but loved.

For us living in the First World in the 21st century, our passage is a cautionary tale. If we align ourselves with the forces of oppression in our day, we will find ourselves on the losing side, because God cares about the poor and the needy, the widow, the orphan and the alien in our midst. Indeed, to the extent that we align ourselves with the forces of hope and equality, our lives will have less fear and anger, and more peace and grace, because we are bringing our lives in line with God’s promises. It starts simply:  by us choosing to do what God wants first, and by finding ways to add life and liveliness to those around us. It’s true what the little boy said, “My mother is the light of the world.” Wasn’t she trying to help her boy succeed? Of course! Did it happen the way she expected? Of course not! That’s life, working its way out in love. But what the little boy perhaps didn’t realize as he was trying to do his level best, is that he too was a light, sharing truth. Jesus would say to all who would listen and he says to us today, “You are the light of the world…Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Yeah, it can be a big, scary, hard world, but that’s why God is with us and God’s love shines through.

[1]Proverbs 9:10

[1]Isaiah 11:2–4

[1]C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Quoted from audio-dramatization “Help from the Beavers,” 5:30. ©1998

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