Today we’re beginning a brand new summer series that celebrates stories of courage. Last Sunday in the Children’s Time, Georgia mentioned that one of the most prolific biblical instructions is this: Fear Not.
All through the Bible, the angels keep telling us: Do not be afraid. All through the Bible, there are stories of ordinary people acting with exhilarating bravery, and I want to know how they do it. I want to know how the immensity of the love of God—which drives out all fear —how this love finds its way to ordinary people and changes how the story has to end, and makes them braver than they ever meant to be.
And all I’m saying is, if it could happen to them…
Today our scripture begins when the Israelites were living in Egypt, and a new king had taken the throne. Now this pharaoh was afraid of the Israelites. He thought their population was growing too rapidly. And what if the day comes when they rise up against us?! Why, we won’t stand a chance! The king began to govern from a register of panic.
First, he tried to oppress the Israelites by forcing them to work to the point of collapse… but that didn’t work.
Next, he got the Egyptians to practice cruelty, to make the lives of the Israelites miserable… but that didn’t work.
All this time, Pharaoh is growing more and more afraid. So he summons to his court two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah— the only people in our story who have names. Now we don’t know whether these two were Egyptian midwives who worked with Israelite mothers or whether they were Israelite midwives helping their own people. Either way, what goes down is one of the most stunning stories of civil disobedience.
With fear glittering in his eyes and a tremble in his voice, Pharaoh tells the women: Look, here’s the new rule… When you go to deliver the babies of the Israelites, see if it’s a boy. If it is, you’ve got to kill him during the birth. If it’s a girl, you can let her live. (I mean, What’s she gonna do? Grow up to be a midwife?)
The next part of the story is not in the Bible. We don’t know what Shiphrah and Puah said to each other on their way back from this conference with the king. We don’t know which one of them came up with the idea. We do know they worshiped God.
We do know a flash of insight unspooled before them, like a brilliant ribbon of light piercing the gray… Now they knew what they had to do.
Maybe Puah’s heart was racing the next time a big sister came to her home pleading: You have to come right now! Sure enough, once Puah got there and the baby was already crowning… Once she delivered him, she remembered the fear glittering in Pharaoh’s eyes, and she saw this squinting newborn all covered in goo, and there wasn’t even a question in her mind.
Puah set the baby on top of his mama and whispered the words she has said a thousand times: Look, he’s perfect! You did it. Hallelujah.
Maybe Puah thought she would have been more afraid, and it’s not that she wasn’t. It’s that there are real reasons to be scared when you’ve got a girl on the birthing stool and you’re the only one who knows what to do. So yeah, let Pharaoh come arrest her if he needs to. Right now she knows exactly what matters and what doesn’t.
As it goes in the Bible, Pharaoh does come after Puah and Shiphrah. He has them hauled into his court, and there’s no missing the fear in his voice. “Why aren’t you guys following my rule? The Israelite women keep having baby boys, and you’re not even stopping them, and what’s going on!”
So your highness, ventures Shiphrah. The thing is, the Israelite women are more vigorous in labor than your delicate Egyptian ladies. Puah and I keep hurrying, trying to get there in time, but by the time we show up, it’s too late. The babies are already born!
Now Pharaoh does what frightened kings do. He issues a new law that’s even worse. Surely this will end the Israelites forever, he thinks…
In our story, Shiphrah and Puah break the law and lie to the king, and maybe, they have the courage to do this because the choice is vividly clear. You can follow the LORD whose love leads the people to liberation. Or. You can follow the Pharaoh whose fear leads to infanticide. It’s literally a choice between life and death. And maybe the clarity of this choice is the secret to their bravery.
Only thing is, in our world, the choice is nearly never so clear…
You and I know. In our world, the forces of death and life wrap around each other until we can’t even tell which is which. Sometimes oppression is unmistakable like the forced labor imposed on the Israelites, but sometimes oppression is subtle and seductive. It makes us come apart from who we really are.
Maybe your job tries to own you, to convince you that you live to serve productivity, or achievement, or financial gain… Maybe dysfunctional family dynamics are killing your spirit, but how do you extract yourself without disappointing the people you love…
Maybe it’s racism that keeps trying to convince us that we need to be afraid. There’s only so much to go around, says the lie, so we better not let them take what it is ours (what?!)… Maybe there’s an addiction fighting to make us believe that it is whom we worship instead of the LORD…
If only all we were up against was a cruel, frightened Pharaoh!
Instead, these swirling forces of slavery obfuscate the differences between the choices that lead to life and those that lead to death. Now how can we even trust ourselves? I mean, even if we want to choose the way of the LORD, how do we know that’s what we’re really doing?
Most of the time, these are the questions that get us wrestling with the angels all night. Most of the time, the choice between liberation and oppression is nearly never so clear…
Except when it is.
All I can tell you is sometimes, your life will come and find you. It will unspool before you like a brilliant ribbon of light piercing the gray, illuminating a path you never imagined. The first thing you’ll notice is this really is life… The next thing you’ll know is, it’s really yours.
Sometimes, when a husband or a wife dies, their partner who’s left living’ll say: I will never fall in love again. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, years later, you’re at a concert with a friend of a friend, and the stars align, and the angels sing their Hallelujahs, and who would have ever guessed that love can be fallen into again! Who would have guessed that you’d risk letting your heart get broken again! But it can, and you will, and the angels are right, Hallelujah.
Sometimes when people are battling cancer, surviving each day is the whole point. When you are thick in the fight, the choice is clear: it’s giving up or hanging on. And what nobody tells you is there could be an entire life on the other side of surviving! All those days you were fighting to keep going, you couldn’t let yourself imagine this, but now it’s coming for you.
Maybe it’s like this…
Imagine being in a crowded airport concourse. Say you’re there with your whole family. The kids are at the Cinnabon. Your mom is sitting in the gate area with the baby. It’s the perfect time for you to pop into the newsstand to get a magazine, until suddenly you’re heading back to the gate because it’s not just that you heard a baby cry across the crowd. You heard your baby, and you knew it was yours. And you can believe, life will do the same thing.
Your own life is trying to bring you back, and so is the Holy Spirit, and sometimes, you know it for sure. You know your life like you know your own child.
Whenever we follow this ribbon of light, what we’re doing is proving that we can trust ourselves. We’re resisting those swirling forces of oppression. And every time we choose this, we make it easier for someone else to choose this too.
If you ask me, we’re always saving each other’s lives— even by saving our own.
Once Shiphrah and Puah lie to Pharaoh, he does what what frightened kings do. He issues a new law that’s even worse. Surely this will end the Israelites forever, he thinks… The new rule is that everyone’s required to drown the Israelite baby boys in the Nile.
But there’s one woman who breaks the law, and if you think she got that idea from Shiphrah and Puah, yeah. I do too. Instead of drowning her baby, she builds him a little ark made of papyrus with bitumen and pitch. She sends the baby ark into the water at precisely the location where Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe. Then she sends her older daughter to keep watch, and wouldn’t you know, all these women conspire to rescue the baby who grows up to set the people free.
The handmaid drew the baby out of the water, and Pharaoh’s daughter takes him in her arms, and it’s like life itself had come to find her! It made her into a mother.
All this got started when Shiphrah and Puah heard a call to life. They knew this call was from God. They knew this life was their own.
And all I’m saying is, if it could happen to them…
What if we have the same courage as those midwives? What if we’re braver than we ever meant to be… Thanks be to God.