From a distance
From a distance, the lie of the land was obvious. Visibility was good, and we could see the path winding its way up the mountainside, zig-zagging back and forth on its way to the summit.
It was the day of our annual day trek in the Lake District. My Dad and I had packed our bags the night before and set our alarms early. We left the house before most of the rest of the family had stirred. As we stood looking at the challenge ahead, it was reassuring to recognise the familiar shape of the dotted green line on our map, and we set off with a spring in our step.
Then as the path got steeper, our pace began to slow and each step became harder than the last. But while we could still see the route ahead, we were still encouraged to continue upwards, step by step towards the top.
And then the cloud descended, gathering over and around us like an eerie white darkness. Within minutes we could barely see more than a few steps ahead, and were wholly reliant on a map and a compass. Our motivation to go on now stemmed solely from the knowledge that the path did not go on forever; that the summit was getting ever closer despite being hidden from view.
And finally, as our muscles ached and groaned, and our hearts and lungs had nothing left to give, the path levelled off. As we reached the top, the clouds parted to reveal the most stunning of views. Once again we could see the route of the path we’d climbed, and how it fitted into a far greater landscape, a whole network of paths snaking their way across mountains, ridges and valleys, disappearing towards the horizon. It was a fine reward for a long hard slog.
The book of Exodus begins in much the same way as our day walking last summer. As we begin reading Chapter 1 we’re reminded of the big picture: the path that God has mapped out for the descendants of Abraham.
Just as God promised, the Israelites had become exceedingly fruitful, multiplying greatly and increasing in number. But God also warned that his people would face many years of oppression at the hands of foreign rulers. And so it came to pass: living first as honoured guests in Egypt, a new Pharoah came to power who felt threatened by God’s people, and so the oppression began.
In many ways this twist in the story doesn’t seem to make sense, much like the zig-zags of a mountain path. But armed with the Bible we can see God’s purposes – his route to the mountaintops – mapped out throughout history, with his name running all through the middle like a giant stick of rock. The Bible reveals to us the bigger picture.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Bible doesn’t just gloss over the nitty gritty of everyday life and leave us to figure out the details. Every journey is made up of hundreds of individual steps, sometimes joyful and sometimes painfully difficult. And for every well-known hero, there are many dozens of ordinary people who played their part.
As the going gets tough, and the clouds descend, Exodus introduces us to its first ordinary heroes: two midwives named Shiphrah and Puah.
Fearful now of the power these people in his land could wield, Pharoah hatched a shocking plan to keep them in check. He commanded Shiphrah and Puah to kill any Israelite baby boys who are born. It’s not just evil, it’s immensely cowardly: not only would he kill the men who could one day stand up to him while they’re still defenceless babies, but he would spare the women who he could oppress and treat like objects.
Imagine the fear the two midwives would have felt. Being commanded to do this horrendous thing by the most powerful man alive, who could snuff out their lives at the click of his fingers. Sure, they understood that God has his plan, but right now it didn’t feel like it was doing them any favours.
And so we reach the crucial moment in which Shiphrah and Puah stepped up and played their part in history: The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.
Because they could see Pharoah for who he really was: a frightened man who just happened to have a bit of bling to hide behind. A cowardly man who was seeking to build his own little earthly empire around him at the expense of anyone who got in the way.
And they also saw God for who he really is. A loving Abba Father, Daddy God, who chose Abraham and his descendants to be his special people. And a powerful, protective Yahweh, the Great I AM; King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, creator of everything seen and unseen.
They feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do.
It sounds obvious: God is bigger than Pharoah. But sometimes it’s the things of this world that seem biggest to us. When they are up close and in our face, it’s hard to get things in perspective – God feels distant and so also somehow smaller. This reminds me of one of my favourite moments from 90s sitcom Father Ted. Father Dougal is confused between some toy cows on the table that appear large, and some real cows in a field that seem small.
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s the same mistake I know I often make when the going gets tough; when the cloud descends, and each step forwards takes a supreme act of will. For the midwives, although Pharoah commanded armies and vast cities, they knew that their God commanded the heavenly hosts. In a game of top trumps, there was no category in which Pharoah came out well.
Shiphrah and Puah followed God’s commands not Pharoah’s. And so God’s people continued to thrive, the book of Exodus continues its story, and these little known midwives received blessings from God in the shape of families of their own. The cloud did eventually clear, and they received their reward.
Life to the full
None of us are likely ever to face a situation quite as extreme as the one the midwives faced. But we do each have our part to play in the big picture of God’s plan for creation. And that will include some zig-zags along the way, when the cloud sets in, and each step forwards must be taken on trust.
There are many lies in the world around us, playing the role of Pharoah, constantly vying for our attention. The world would have us believe that our value comes from how we look, the things we own, or how much we earn. It would have us live in conflict with one another, quick to judge, slow to forgive, casual in our gossiping, forgetting the power of words. It demands that we act dishonestly in the workplace, just because that’s what everyone else does; and that we treat our bodies as disposable commodities or fleshly idols.
If we believe these lies, and allow them to shape our lives, thankfully it won’t lead to immediate and violent death in the way it could have for the Israelite baby boys. But it will lead to a gradual sapping of the life to the full that Jesus promises.
God wants the best for us. If we choose to put him first, and trust in his way, then however winding the path, he will lead us to the mountaintops. And when the clouds part, the views will be incredible!
This blog post first appeared as a sermon at the Bullbrook congregation of Warfield Church. For more information visit www.warfield.org.uk.