Thursday, July 14, 2005

child of blessing, child of promise

The story, found in Exodus, is situated in an ominous setting. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph”. It is a regime change, a new administration is in power, and it is not good. The flow of salvation history that began with Abraham and Sarah and continued in the lives of Isaac and Jacob and Joseph is now interrupted. A new king arose who did not know Joseph, or his God”.

The Israelites are fulfilling the mandate given them in their creation story: be fruitful and multiply. They are growing strong, and they are doing the actual work, the actual labor, of the empire, Egypt, building cities like Rameses, for Pharoah. These manual laborers are growing so large in number and so prosperous that the thought occurs, in the minds of the politicians, “they could become a threat to us, to our way of life”. And so the Egyptians become more ruthless to them, they make their lives harder with bitter service. But this, apparently, is not enough. The word comes from Pharoah, the king who does not know Joseph, or his God: if you see a Hebrew woman giving birth to a boy, kill him….throw him into the Nile”.

The children are a threat to their way of life. This is not so far from us, if we ponder it. Use your imagination: how, in our world, do we see children not as a blessing, but a threat to our way of life? Pharoah saw these people, and the children who would come after them, as a threat. It is an ominous setting. As one of my favorite poems, written by Madeleine L’Engle, about a birth at another time in history begins, "This was no time for a child to be born".

The focus narrows, now, from seeing the larger world to an intimate setting, the birth of a child. A Levite woman, an Israelite, gives birth to a son, healthy, and she hides him for three months. Then she puts the baby in a basket---the literal Hebrew word here is found in one other place in the Old Testament---it is the word for ark. She puts the baby in an ark, and he sails down the river. She looks on, at a distance. What is going to happen to that baby? If you have children, you have been there. It is called “letting go”.

When we put them in a weekday school, we are letting go.

When we push them into the school bus, we are letting go.

When we send them off to camp, we are letting go.

When we leave them in the college dorm, we are letting go.

When we watch them go off to war, we are letting go.

When we see them walking down the aisle, we are letting go.

It is like sailing down the river, floating on the ark, in the midst of the winds and the wave, and we are hoping they make it safely to their destination. Have you ever had that feeling? My friend Jim Jackson is a Methodist minister in Houston, and he described this feeling well. He and Susan had prepared for their son’s transition to college. Jimmy, their son, would enter Davidson. He was a good kid. Davidson was an excellent school. Jim, the father, did not consider himself an “emotional” person. Susan, his wife, had been talking for months about how difficult this was going to be.

Finally they reached the point in the Orientation Schedule where it says “Parents leave”, and the family made their way to the parking lot. During the goodbyes and the tears Jim experienced a flashback. He remembered an experience in a parking lot a few years earlier. Jimmy was twelve, and had gone to his first week-long Boy Scout Camp. On Wednesday night there was a cookout for campers and their parents. The father drove out, and his son met him in the parking lot, begging him to take him home.

Jim said, “later that evening I left him crying in the parking lot. Driving away and leaving him sobbing was one of the hardest things I had ever done. I left him there because he needed to learn to stand on his own two feet and to see things through”.

Well the camp ended, Jimmy won a number of merit badges. He had taken a step toward becoming an adult. The child had, of course, quickly gotten over the trauma. The parents had lost two nights of sleep for nothing!

Now Jim realized that the shoe was on the other foot. He said: “I was the one who was crying in the parking lot, and Jimmy was the one encouraging me to believe that everything was going to be alright. “Things have a way of changing, don’t they?”

It is about letting go. Moses sails down the river, in the ark. And who should come to bathe at the river but the daughter of Pharoah? Oh no”, we might think. This is the end. But there is a surprise. She opens the basket and sees the child. He is crying. And she takes pity on him. She has compassion.

It is a dangerous world for a child. There are dangers we know about---the little girl in Idaho, a teenage girl in Aruba---and there are dangers we know nothing about---children sold into sex slavery in southeast Asia, children drafted into warfare in Africa. It is a dangerous world for a child. In the middle of the night a man and a little girl enter a restaurant, almost hidden from the sight of the public, they order their food, and then a waitress, who might have had all kinds of reasons for not getting involves, just working the third shift, takes pity, she has compassion. We know this story.

Pharoah’s daughter senses immediately that this boy is a Hebrew. But then another woman intervenes….the women in this story are the heroes….as they so often are, the women in this story outsmart the men, as they often do. Should I go and find a woman to nurse the child?”, she asks. Yes”, says the Pharoah’s daughter. Again, this takes some courage. And so, in a perfect gesture, the sister returns the child to his mother. And Pharoah’s daughter is even going to pay her to do this! The biblical scholars and the rabbis note how cunning the women in this story can be!

So the child grows up, and is later returned to the Pharoah’s daughter, where he is adopted into the royal household. He is given the name Moses, “because”, she says, “I drew him out of the water”. There are lessons to be learned as we think about this ominous setting and the birth of this child, in the midst of it all.

Lesson Number One: God has a purpose, for human history, for our own lives. Think of the decisions of Moses’ mother, of his sister. In the gospels of the New Testament, think of Joseph and his dream. God’s purpose is often carried out in the decisions that ordinary people make, to do the right thing, to do the courageous thing. The small decisions that you make may become a part of God’s purpose.

Lesson Number Two: God sometimes uses unlikely people to accomplish his purposes. Consider the actions of the Pharoah’s daughter, or the shepherds and maji in the New Testament gospels. Think about your own life, and the unlikely people who intervened---the parents of a friend, an aunt or uncle, a coach, a Sunday School teacher, a choir director. God uses unlikely people.

Lesson Number Three: The pharaohs of the world, the Herods of the world, do not always prevail, even though they seem to have the power. It sometimes seems that there is no hope in prevailing against evil, or inhumanity, or greed, or raw political power. And yet watch: God is not content to allow the pharaohs of this world to destroy the world that he has made.

There are lessons with this brief passage. But let’s focus for a moment on the child. Moses is a child of blessing, and he is a child of promise. He is blessed. He might have been drowned in the Nile. He might have been killed in some other way by Pharoah’s policy. He might have been discovered by a less compassionate person. Think about your own life, how it might have been different? Moses is blessed. We know this by the words at the end of the lesson, by the very name given to him: I drew him out of the water. I rescued him. I saved him. This is prevenient grace, the grace that goes before our human response. Salvation is not our work, our effort, lest we should boast, as Paul writes in Ephesians. It is a gift of grace. When a child is baptized, he or she is touched by these very same waters, and reminded that she is a part of God’s purpose, God’s plan.

Moses is also a child of promise. He is rescued, saved for a purpose. This is sanctifying grace, the grace that follows our salvation, that completes our salvation. We are saved for a purpose. Why was Moses drawn out of the water? Moses is going to lead his people to freedom. Sometimes, as Christians, we think that if we have been baptized or accepted Christ or been confirmed, this is some kind of revered status, maybe one that makes us better than other people. One of my favorite lines of late was spoken about a prominent politician: he was born on third base and he thinks he hit a triple!

We forget that it is all grace. Think about the people who saw you through the eyes of compassion, who took care of your needs, who kept you from falling in over your heads. And sometimes, once we have become a Christian, once we have been adopted into the royal household, we think that’s it, the equation is completed.

Every Christian is a child of blessing, and a child of promise. The blessing is what God has done for us. The promise is what God wants to do through us. The blessing is where we have been. The promise is where we are going. The blessing is what we receive. The promise is what we are asked to give. The blessing is that grace has brought us safe thus far. The promise is that grace will lead us home.

In 2005, it is an ominous world, a dangerous world to be a child. If a leader can crush the people, he or she often does. Pharoah is very much alive. And perhaps we wonder: Who will save us? Perhaps a new Moses is being born, even now.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Sources: Charles Wesley, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”; Jim Jackson, Spiritual Lessons From Life, First UMC, Lubbock, Texas. James Newsome, Exodus (Interpretation); Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth”.


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