The midwives “feared God.” Like me, you may have sped right past that little phrase in the long Exodus reading. The Pharaoh commands the Hebrew midwives who bear the new life of Hebrew babies into the world, if they are boys, to drown them into the Nile: “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” And then, when they are summoned into the imposing “East Room,” they spin a story for the king that sounds, dangerously, like fake news: “These Hebrew women! They are so strong, so vigorous. By the time we get there, they’ve already given birth.” Not only that, they are already back out in the fields lifting 50 pounds bags of straw and running ultra-marathons and developing flying cars. It’s a tall tale, and yet, it works!
They feared God. It’s easy to blow right by for how often it is thrown around, but the phrase is worth pulling off to the shelf to take a closer look. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah—their names preserved for all of history as monuments to heroic acts that save an oppressed people—feared God. They feared God more than they feared this king, this Pharaoh and his ruthless ecosystem of intimidation and oppression—the tyrannical managers to enforce it; the military industrial infrastructure to support it; a public works project that constructed whole cities to sustain these systems of oppression against a people whose vitality puts the Egyptians to shame.
Walter Brueggemann observes that faith always has a note of fragility to it. Referring to the promise God made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—the promise to make of them a great nation, to provide for them, and to make them a blessing—he says, the power of the blessing given, "is received in deep jeopardy, for there is always some regime that wants to nullify it." Pharaoh's regime turns on the Hebrew people when it "deals" with their vitality as a problem rather than a gift. It is an error in judgment I suspect all forms oppression share.
I wonder who we “fear” more in this way? Do we attribute more power, more efficacy, more influence to kings and presidents and their threats and promises than we do to the God we proclaim on a Sunday like this? Who do we say Jesus is? And what are we going to do about it?
Now, we are, of course, catching Peter on a pretty good day in the Matthew story. Let’s just say he has had worse. Another one not too long ago started out pretty well. A boat, a storm, a sighting, and suddenly Peter finds himself out on the water walking wet to the one who calms the seas. We can imagine him on the waves, the realization slowly circling around him, and suddenly on him, like a lobster who realizes the water is getting pretty warm, and that he’s in a pot and it is on a stove and the burner is raging.
“How did I get here?” he wonders, as he sinks into realization. And us too, from time to time in between our going out and coming in. How did this happen? How did we get here?
No doubt Peter did not wake up that morning imagining that he was going to wow the class with this killer answer to the professor’s question: “Who do people say I am?” I’ll bet you he didn’t even know he knew the answer: You are the Messiah. You are the one to turn the world right-side up. And I’ll bet he didn’t think through to Jesus’ next response.
“Good answer Rocky! And guess what? You're going to be a big part of that turning.”
The novelist Frederick Buechner once wrote about the potential in everyone that can rise without warning,
If you’re a writer like me…you avoid forcing your characters to march too steadily to the drumbeat of your artistic purposes, but leave them some measure of real freedom to be themselves. If minor characters show signs of becoming major characters, you at least give them a shot at it because in the world of fiction it may take many pages before you find out who the major characters really are just as in the real world it may take you many years to find out that the stranger you talked to for half an hour once in a railway station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies than your closest friend or your psychiatrist.[i]
The thing is our freedom dances with this Spirit of Life in a way that we can never predict. We can never know how it is all going to work out. So Jesus can say to Peter in the next breath, “and flesh and blood did not reveal this to you.”
Perhaps another way to understand this is to note that God’s intervention into history rarely comes in dramatic, sweeping events. We can say this, even of the central event of the Christian story captured in Jesus’ cross. You see, the earliest of these gospels are a full generation removed from the event. It took time to see it. It always does. Our acts of faith are quite simply that. Acts of faith. Whistling in the dark as Buechner says elsewhere.
And this Exodus story only affirms this idea. It’s the small things, the insignificant people that bear God’s salvation into the world one small, courageous event at a time—the birth of a little baby, the cleverness of midwives. The rich irony of a tiny basket-boat, floating much like Jesus and Peter centuries later, saving life on the very waters that were intended to it, bearing a powerless infant to its salvation under the care of a pagan princess under the nose of the impotent tyrant who couldn’t stand the success of these Hebrews.
These are the stories of this God. This is the fuel for our faith. This is what it means when we are invited to remember our baptism.
God is at work through the “little” people, around the edges, and under the heel of power that has gone bad… God’s compassion, God’s faithfulness, God’s tender care are present in the compassion, faithfulness and care of the courageous women, the compassionate response, the perceptive insight that sees a better future and brings it into being. So the Psalmist can sing with joy: It is God who saves and protects, otherwise the “flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us.” And thousands of years later, we can remember two midwives by name, Puah and Shiphrah, while this Pharaoh is just a Pharaoh, because if you have seen one Pharaoh, you have seen them all.
This faith of ours and this God have a history. This story has seen its share of challenges, and it continues not only to survive, but to thrive. Truth be told, it seems to be most potent in the face of threat.
But its strength always seems to pivot on this question, “Who do you say that I am?” Is there enough of a promise here to take a chance. To stand up and even resist? Is there enough promise here to continue to bend our actions toward justice and goodness, toward generosity and courage? Is there enough evidence here to lead us to fear God? If so, then there is only one reasonable response. Let’s sing it.
[i] Frederich Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (HarperCollins, 2009). Quoted in Christian Century, August 16, 2017, p. 23.