Our text begins with the startling news that there arose a king who did not know Joseph. He didn’t bother to learn his history. What’s up with that? Didn’t he ask? Didn’t anyone think it was important to tell him his history? When leaders don’t know history, disaster follows. If he knew about Joseph, he would have learned that the only reason that he had a country to govern was because of the Israelite, Joseph, who saved the whole nation from famine. No Joseph and his Israelite God -- no Egypt, no kingship, no one would be around to call him Pharaoh, he’d be called dust.
If he had known about Joseph, he would have known about Joseph’s God, who works through human beings to save life, to bring blessing. He would have known that God takes the evil that people do in this world and always brings something good out of it. Because Pharaoh did not know, he made bad decisions that brought a heap of trouble on his head. The lesson from the beginning of the text is pretty clear. Don’t be a know-not. Know. Know your spiritual history. Know this God who works through human beings to save life and bring blessings upon people. Know the story. Know that you are a child of God meant for better than what sometimes you act like.
Pharaoh looks around and notices there are a lot of Hebrews. “By golly, it won’t be long before there are more of them than there are of us. Then what? They might take us over, with their language, their culture. That wouldn’t be good. I better use all the power of my government to stop them.” So, he decided to oppress the people instead of finding ways to build on common interests within the country.
Pharaoh turned the Hebrews into slaves, making their work hard and bitter. They built storehouses for the superabundance of Egypt -- as if to rub their noses in it. “We are powerful and great and rich, and you get beaten and have to build the places to store our extra riches.” But they cried out, stripped of everything human, to the God of Joseph. “God remember us. Have you forgotten us? Where are you? Come, save us. Do something.” Although Pharaoh forgot about God, God did not forget about his people. God does not forget. God remembers God's people especially in their time of trouble. God heard their cries. And Yahweh did what God always does when there is trouble. God worked through human beings to make a difference. And as God always does, God worked through those people everyone would consider the most unlikely to make a difference.
He sent midwives. Midwives were thought to be somehow cursed, not blessed by God. They couldn’t have children so God must not favor them. That was the thinking. So God chose midwives maybe to show that isn’t true.
Pharaoh decided it was time for a little population control. Back then they didn’t have fancy maternity wards and OB/GYNs. But they did have midwives. Pharaoh ordered midwives to kill any male children at birth.
Pharaoh was fearful about what might happen to him and his country so he acted with malice and terror and violence. The midwives, the text says, feared God. Fear of God doesn’t mean that if you do something wrong, you think God is going to zap you. Fearing God in the Bible means reverence, awe, respect, and worship. Their fear leads them to love life, to save it, to even put their own lives on the line. Pharaoh’s fear is self-centered; the midwives fear is self-giving.
The midwives defy Pharaoh. Obviously, they would have been killed if Pharaoh knew. It is the first recorded act of civil disobedience. They followed a higher law. They wouldn’t give in to what was expected of them. These women are our spiritual ancestors. Don’t be a not know on this. The Bible will have nothing of us being patsies in this world.
We are to stand up and defy the powers because we are not inwardly motivated, but outwardly motivated.
Defy those who try to pressure us into silence when they are corrupt.
Defy that which is hateful and wrong.
Lovingly defy those who would try to squeeze you into their mold.
The midwives refuse to kill the babies. They make up some funny story about Hebrew women being tougher than others so that they already deliver their babies before they can arrive on the scene. “Sorry boss.” And so, these two women saved a generation. They saved the big brother of Moses, Aaron. Aaron turned out to be Moses’ spokesperson and was key in leading the people out of Egypt. No midwives, no Exodus, no ten commandments, no basis of western civilization, no Judaism, no Christianity. They saved it all.
God blessed them and produced life in their barren wombs. This is one of the great themes of faith in the Old Testament. God produces life and vitality in places thought barren and dry. God a barren place in your life? Remember your spiritual heritage, don’t be a know not.
The names of these women are mentioned. Puah and Shiphara. They are named but the particular great Pharaoh is not named. I like that. The great king is not named but the ordinary women heroines are named. In the Bible’s logic, these two women are more important than all of the Pharaohs remembered in the valley of towering pyramids put together.
Puah and Shiphara. Their names are strange in Hebrew, translated into English the names mean: Beauty and Splendor. Whenever women are named in the Old Testament it means something. Here in this story we are told that Beauty and Splendor saved a whole generation. Why do you think this story about Beauty and Splendor defying authority and saving a generation are told about in the Bible? Do you think it is just a history lesson? By no means. It is about us. People who will stand up to what is wrong, and put themselves on the line for others have souls filled with beauty and splendor.
Alexander Solyzenietzen who survived some of the ugliest things that have ever happened to human beings in the Russian Gulag said that “Beauty will save the earth.” He was not talking about anorexic, airbrushed, digitally and siliconically enhanced super-models on the covers of magazines. He was talking about simple acts of self-giving in a fearful world.
Beauty is the compassion of making sure others feel welcome. Splendor is the kid who decides not to pick on the new kid just because everyone else is. Beauty is the person who calls you to account. Splendor is the person who devotes his life not just to making as much money as you can, but to make as much meaning as you can.
Hear the words that Nelson Mandela quoted in his inauguration speech to a people who had been put down and oppressed and depressed for generations.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
You are meant to shine. So often we let powers smaller than a king keep us down. We are afraid of what others might think if we put our wildest hopes and dreams and noblest ideals into action. They might think we are nuts. They might laugh. They might ridicule us. We might fail. We might succeed and be lonely anyway. But remember no matter what, you are the child of God. You are meant to shine, to be beautiful and live with splendor.
In this old world, God keeps on working through ordinary folks like the midwives and you and me to bring life, to bring beauty, to bring splendor in a world that forgets about God. There is a new generation that needs to learn who they are. Our children need to know they are part of this story. We need to learn it so we can teach it to them. We are midwives of hope. Hope to a new generation. So that our children won’t be know nots. So that they will know that God does not forget.
Like Moses being plucked from his basket in the river, God has plucked us from the waters of baptism, not only the assurance that our own life has been spared - but to fill us with God’s spirit and to make us living reminders of a God that does not forget. God does not forget the oppressed. God does not forget the forsaken. God does not forget the lost. God does not forget the broken. God does not forget the sin-sick. God has raised us up to keep God in the face of every person that would dare to forget. Know it, remember who you are and rejoice.