Walking with Moses
August 25, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: Exodus 1:8 – 22
Pharaoh is afraid. Very afraid.
Pharaoh in this story is likely Ramses II. Years ago, when Pharaoh’s grandfather – Ramses the Great ruled Egypt, an army officer and member of the royal court brought a young slave named Joseph. This Joseph was the favored son of Israel. Within his family, Joseph was known for his flashy coat, dramatic dreams and ability to aggravate his older brothers. In Egypt, Joseph became known as a loyal servant and shrewd manager with an uncanny ability to interpret dreams. Over time Joseph, the foreigner, rose through the royal court and became second in command to Ramses the Great, developing and implementing policies to increase the Pharaoh’s wealth and political control.
In time a severe famine hits the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Through Joseph’s shrewd management, Egypt’s storehouses remain full of food. Joseph’s family, living a few hundred miles away on the northern edge of the Negev desert, comes to Egypt seeking to buy food from Pharaoh. At Joseph’s urging, Pharaoh invites the entire clan – Joseph’s father Israel and his wives, Joseph’s eleven brothers and their wives, all of their servants, assorted hangers on and all their livestock – to settle in the fertile Nile River delta.
Under Pharaoh’s protection and Joseph’s patronage, the children of Israel prosper. Their women birth strong, healthy babies. Their men nurture strong, healthy livestock. Time passes. Ramses the Great dies. Joseph dies. All those who remembered Joseph die. The Israelites loose their royal protection, their special status. They become unwelcome aliens in a land that to them is home. They have their own language, their own customs, their own religion, different ancestral origins and perhaps different loyalties. If we go to war, Pharaoh worries, they might conspire against us and support our enemies. We must, Pharaoh tells his courtiers, deal shrewdly with them.
Back in the 1970’s, the great American theologian Reinhold Neibur wrote a monumental book entitled the Nature and Destiny of Man. I had to read it in seminary. I remember almost none of it except this one phrase – anxiety, when its not turned over to God, leads to sin. Anxiety, when its not turned over to God, leads to sin. Think for a moment of a time when you were nervous about something, when you were scared about what might happen, and you tried to deal shrewdly with the problem.
A friend of mine, a frequent preacher and worship leader in his church, became anxious about maintaining a proper lifestyle for himself and his new wife. Soon he was using credit cards to pay for items he should have brought with cash and leaving major bills unpaid. At the same time he was promoted to a position of great financial responsibility at the Christian agency where he worked. Assuming their senior staff, who were vetted according to their Christian faith, were ethical and honest, the agency he worked had little oversight in place. My friend’s immediate boss, the Chief Financial Officer, was dying of cancer. My friend began dealing shrewdly with his financial difficulties by forging his boss’ signature on checks to himself. Very quickly the theft went from a financial bridge to an ongoing source of household income, to discrepancies in the audit, to fines, a prison sentence and permanent unemployment for my friend.
My friend’s anxiety about his social standing led him down a rabbit hole of sin in a way that would ultimately implode his life and the lives of those around him. If only my friend had accepted our savior’s invitation to exchange our burdens, worries, fears and anxieties for his. “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and humble in hear and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Maybe he would have found peace with his social status, with clothes he could afford. Maybe he would have heard callings to new jobs or opportunities that would have generated more money. Maybe whatever gap he was trying to fill by running up bills would have been filled by Christ’s grace. Maybe he would have developed the patience to save for what he wanted. Maybe he would have found the faith to take seriously those eternal words of Christ: “Do not worry,” for all you need will be provided.
Worry, anxiety, and the fear that comes with it are not themselves sins. Its what we do with them. Do we turn them to the Lord so that we can find peace? Or do we allow them to lead us down a rabbit hole of shrewdness. A rabbit hole not only of personal sin but of injustice and oppression.
Afraid of the Israelites, Pharaoh first tries to work them to death, mandating a system of forced labor far harsher than required for ordinary Egyptians. Not only was the labor itself crippling, but men who were working to build Pharaoh’s cities and work Pharaoh’s fields could not work their own fields and tend their own crops. When the Israelites continued to prosper, Pharaoh orders the midwives to commit infanticide. When they refuse, he orders ordinary Egyptians to capture Israelite boys and throw them into the Nile.
Pharaoh’s fear hardens his heart. His faith in his own shrewdness leads him far from any acceptable moral standard. He goes down the rabbit hole. Thousands of later we retain a stubborn ability to follow. Jim Crow and concentration camps, firebombed churches and mass deportations, endless wars and a blatant disregard for human rights. When we deal shrewdly with those whom we fear it never seems to end as God will have willed.
Our personal rabbit holes tend to be less dramatic, although my friend’s rabbit hole was dramatic enough. More often our anxieties lead to little white lies, a little fudging on our taxes, refusing to help a neighbor or projecting misplaced anger. But sometimes our fears and anxieties lead us to buy into the narratives and fears projected by the Pharaohs among us. We join in the ruthlessness. We celebrate the oppressors. We do our duty and throw the babies to the crocodiles. And the God who blessed the righteous midwives weeps along with those who experience the injustice and hatred born of our fear.