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Stories for Children and Grown-ups: The Baby Found in a River

January 16, 2011
Sermon: Stories for Children and Grown-ups:  The Baby Found in a River
Text: Exodus 2:3-7

 

A little boy came home from Sunday School, and his daddy asked, “What did you talk about in Sunday School today?”

“We talked about Moses.”

“What did your teacher have to say about Moses?”

“Our teacher told us about Moses going across the Red Sea with all the people of Israel.”

“And did your teacher tell you how that happened?”

“The teacher said that Moses called engineers to build a pontoon bridge.  While they were building the bridge, he turned his heavy artillery back toward the Egyptians to hold them off.  After the bridge was built, the Hebrew children walked across the pontoon bridge and got across to the other side.  When the Egyptians started following them across the bridge, Moses called in air support to bomb the bridge.  All the Egyptians were drowned.”

The father said, “Are you sure that’s what your teacher told you?”

“No, but if I told you what my teacher said, you wouldn’t believe it.”

As background for our story for today, almost 400 years have passed since the time of Joseph.  Conditions have changed in Egypt.  The ruling pharaoh, probably one of the Rameses kings, does not remember Joseph, the book of Exodus tells us.  He is quite ambitious and certainly wants to construct buildings, great monuments, and maybe even pyramids that will allow people to remember him.  Needing a labor force to do that, he presses the Hebrews who are living in the land of Goshen into slavery, bondage.  He compels them to build these projects for him but pays them literally slave wages, which is nothing at all.  They are an oppressed people.

The amazing account of Moses begins with his birth into a situation that is horrible for the Hebrew people.  Pharaoh has ordered the killing of all male children, which is known as infanticide.    You can see from the outset that God’s hand is at work.  We see His hand in the little things as a baby floats in the river in a basket of papyrus made by his mother.  Papyrus is the very material from which paper was later made.  It is the parchment on which Scripture would be written.  It is the parchment on which the Torah was written.  Moses has been credited with the Torah.  Is this fact a coincidence?  I tend to think that Scripture contains few coincidences.

Every great epoch in biblical history begins with the miraculous birth of a child.  Moses’ birth was not so miraculous, but the very fact that he was preserved from this infanticide is miraculous.  Think about the story of Samuel, whose birth marks the beginning of the Prophets and Samson, who is born at the time of the Judges.  The Christmas season is marked by the miraculous births of John the Baptist and Jesus.  Why does God begin these periods of history with the birth of a child?  Pay close attention, and you can see God’s hand at work in preparing for the future.

Exodus 2 summarizes an important event in Moses’ life when he is forty years old.  Moses sees an atrocity, an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.  Why does he so identify with the Hebrew nation?  He has been raised in the Egyptian household of Pharaoh, but Miriam, Moses’ sister, found a wet nurse for him, his own mother.  As a little child taking in his mother’s milk, he takes in the faith and values of the people in Israel.  Having a strong Hebrew background, Moses knows that he belongs with the Hebrew people.

When Moses sees this Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew, his hot temper rises.  He kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand in an attempted cover-up.  This attempt, like so many other attempts at a cover-up in the Bible, fails.  It does not take other Hebrews long to reveal their knowledge of Moses’ crime.  Now at age forty, Moses becomes a fugitive from justice.  He runs away to the land of Midian.

Though Moses had grown up in luxury with a silver spoon in his mouth, with the aristocracy of Egypt, his position in life now changes.  We read that he becomes indebted to Jethro, who later becomes his father-in-law.  Jethro allows Moses to tend his herds of sheep and goats for forty years in the wilderness of Midian.  You see that his job is preparing him for his future role as leader.  That role as herder is basic training for the task ahead.

When Moses is eighty years old, we come to the lengthy description of the events in his life.  We think of this story as one for children, but it is also for people who are eighty years old.  Here, we see Moses still trying to decide what he is going to be when he grows up.  God determines that role by giving him the most monumental task of his life, a task that God has prepared him for all of his eighty years.

While in the wilderness of Midian, at the bottom of a mountain, Moses sees something curious, a bush that was burning but not consumed.  When Moses goes over to investigate, God speaks to him.

I heard a story, though a bit anachronistic, about Moses walking through the corridor of an international airport when he saw former President George Bush.  Bush got upset with him and fussed, “You didn’t speak to me.”

Moses explained, “The last time I talked to a bush, I got in a lot of trouble.”

Thanks for laughing.  I know you have heard that joke before.  It is a story that is so corny you probably wish you had never heard it.

The bush appears to be talking to Moses, but it is not the bush at all.  It is God.  The appearance of God in a visible form to a human is called a theophany.

Moses does not recognize this mountain, which he will return to later, as a holy place.

God speaks to him, saying, “Moses, you are on holy ground.  Take off your sandals.”

Certainly those eighty-year-old feet already hurt, but he removes his sandals and walks on that hot desert sand in order to approach the bush.

God continues, “Moses, my people are crying out in Egypt.  They are in bondage.  I want you to tell Pharaoh to let them go.”

Moses replies, “Pharaoh is not going to let those people go.  I know him.”

“Moses, we are going to show him.  Take that staff in your hand, and throw it on the ground.”

When Moses does as God directs, the staff turns into a snake.

“Now, reach down and take the snake by the tail.”

Moses argues, “That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

“Do it.”

Moses takes the snake by the tail, and it turns back into a staff.

God then directs, “Put your hand in your cloak and pull it out.”  Moses sees that his hand is covered with leprosy.

“Put it back in your cloak.”  Moses does, and his hand is healed.

“Pour some water on the ground.”  It turns to blood.

“Moses, we can show Pharaoh that he has met the power of God.”

Moses said, “I know, but who am I going to say sent me?”

God answers, “Moses, you go tell Pharaoh that I AM I AM.”

God’s response sounds like a riddle.  When the name for the Lord is written in all capital letters in the Bible, the name being translated is Yahweh, sometimes called a tetragrammaton.  It is based on the verb “to be.”  The sacred name of God, Yahweh, is not even supposed to be pronounced, according to the Hebrews.  God is really answering, “I am Yahweh.  You go tell him that I am the Lord God.”

Moses poses another question:  “That is impressive, but is Pharaoh really going to listen?  Lord, you know I have a problem with my speech.  My tongue is made out of lead.  I stutter.”

I suppose if you tried to speak Hebrew and Egyptian hieroglyphics, you would stutter, too.

Knowing that Moses has a speech impediment, God says, “Moses, I have anointed your mouth, but you are right.  I am sending your brother, Aaron, with you.  He will be your mouthpiece in Egypt.”  Aaron was eighty-three, by the way.

Again skeptical, Moses asks, “What if the people of Israel won’t pay attention to me?”

“Moses, you tell them that I am the God of Abraham (the pioneer), the God of Isaac (the one who was so reticent he could not even pick his own wife), and the God of Jacob (the scoundrel, who tried to con his way into every arrangement).  You tell them that I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Reluctantly, Moses and Aaron travel to Egypt and begin pulling out that bag of tricks.  Pharaoh’s sorcerers, magicians, and court start matching Moses, trick-for-trick.  God reveals, “Moses, we have more ways to convince Pharaoh, some of which are horrible.  If Pharaoh won’t let my people go, I will unleash some plagues.”

God keeps His promise.  The first plague involves water turning to blood.  All fish die.  The fish kill means that nothing eats the tadpoles.  Frogs overrun the area.  Once the frogs die, nothing eats the insects.  Lice and flies afflict the people.  Then a pestilence on the livestock occurs, followed by terrible boils on everyone.  Hail falls from heaven, locusts devour crops, and darkness falls over the earth.

Each time God sends a plague, Pharaoh consents to releasing the Hebrews.  As soon as the plague passes though, Pharaoh changes his mind.  He reneges:  “I need this labor force.  I need these people working for me.”

Finally, God reveals, “Moses, we have to take a drastic measure here.  You tell all the Hebrew people to kill a lamb and put it on the lintel and jam of their door.  That blood will be a sign to the angel of death to pass over those homes.  My people are also to prepare a meal of lamb and bitter herbs because I have a journey planned for them.”

That night when the angel of death comes, the firstborn in every Egyptian household dies.  None of the Hebrew homes are harmed.  This final action results in Pharaoh releasing the Hebrews from bondage.

Anxious to leave, the people pack as quickly as possible, taking bread that had not had time to rise.  This Passover Feast became known as the Feast of the Unleavened bread.  Scripture says they also take the bones of Joseph with them.  When the group reaches the Red Sea, God directs Moses to raise his staff and go forward.  Moses follows those instructions, and the waters part, allowing the people to walk across on dry land.  No sooner do they get across than they see Egyptian soldiers in hot pursuit.  They, too, begin crossing the sea on dry ground.  When they are mid-lake, God tells Moses to raise his staff again.  He does so, and the water closes, completely annihilating the Egyptian army.

God has told them that they are going on a three-day journey.  Some three days!  Their travels take much longer.  They take a long, long circular path, returning to the mountain where Moses had seen the burning bush.  That mountain has two names:  Sinai and Horeb.  It is difficult to count the number of times Moses goes up and down that mountain.  I do know that he goes up the mountain when everyone else is afraid to touch it.  They build a border around it.

On the mountain, Moses has an encounter with God that seems quite dramatic.  Scripture says smoke and fire are seen on the mountain.  The sounds of an active volcano or maybe a thunderstorm with dark clouds and lightning are heard.  There, God gives Moses two pieces of stone, cuneiform tablets.  These tablets do not resemble the tombstone-like tablets Charlton Heston carries down from the mountain in the movies.  They were actually little clay tablets that harden like rock, the kind that have been found all over the ancient Near East in archeological digs.  On each one was written five words.

These tablets, the Ten Commandments, sometimes called the Decalogue, consist of ten words that offer a code, or standard, by which to live.  The first four commandments tell us how to relate to God.  The fifth speaks of our relationship with parents.  The last five tell us how to relate to each other.  At some point after Moses receives these Commandments, he spends forty days, conversing with God.  Meanwhile, the people at the base of the mountain grow impatient.

These former slaves combine what little jewelry they have with the jewelry they had taken from the Egyptians when they left.  They melt it into an idol, a golden calf.  Again, in the movies the idol is depicted as a very large object, but it was probably quite small.  Regardless of its size, it was still an idol.  Knowing the people are worshipping it through song and dance, God determines to kill them.

Moses, however, steps in the gap, saying, “Lord, don’t kill them.  Did you bring these people out here into the wilderness?  Did you ask me to lead them out here so that you could kill them?”  God changes His mind.  Sometimes when we pray intercessory prayers, God may actually change His mind.

When Moses comes down the mountain, he sees for himself the golden calf and becomes enraged at Aaron’s role as ringleader.  His hot temper rises again.  He slings those tablets against a rock, breaking all Ten Commandments at once.  People have been breaking the Commandments ever since.

God directs Moses to return up the mountain to redo the Commandments.  There God allows Moses to see Him from behind.  Later we read that He talks Moses face-to-face, like a friend talking to a friend.  This experience alters Moses’ countenance.

About two and a half years after they begin their exodus from Egypt, they come to Kadesh-Barnea, an area close to the Promised Land.  Moses selects twelve men, one from each tribe, to scout out the land.  All twelve report, agreeing that this Promised Land is, in fact, a land flowing with milk and honey.  They also comment on the large bunches of grapes they have found.  Only two of the men, Caleb and Joshua, feel that the group can enter the land safely.   They give the minority report because the other ten protest, “We cannot go over there.  The people are like giants.  We will be like grasshoppers.”  This attitude is known as the grasshopper complex.

Quite angry, God allows the majority to rule, but He informs the full group, “Those of you who dissented will never see the Promised Land.  In fact, your entire generation will not settle in the Land of Promise.  You will wander in this wilderness for forty years.”

Poor Moses!  He must now become the leader of these people for forty years.  He receives a tent of worship and an Ark of the Covenant in which the Ten Commandments are contained.  He also receives some manna.  Those two items symbolize the presence of God with them in their wilderness wandering.

They eventually reach a place named Meribah, which means “a place of arguing or complaining.”  They are thirsty and crying out for water, so God tells Moses to speak to the rock.  Instead, Moses hits the rock with his staff, perhaps angry because the people are complaining.  Though God does allow water to spring from the rock, He is upset that Moses has disobeyed Him.  Moses’ inappropriate response seems so small to me in the grand scope, but God holds an anointed leader to a higher standard.  A leader must obey God, even in the smallest details; and Moses had not.  This story is not about the many tricks Moses can perform with that staff.  The issue is about God’s provision for His people.

Because of Moses’ disobedience, God punishes Moses.  He does not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land; he can only view it from the top of another mountain with two names – Pisgah and Nebo.  The Bible states that he dies there with no monument, no marker.  Though people have looked for his grave, no one can find it.  Rabbi Liebowitz suggests that Moses has no marker because this story is about God and His liberation of His people.  Moses does not need to be memorialized.

Eventually, Moses places the mantle of leadership onto Joshua and Caleb.  They assume the responsibility of leading the people into the Land of Promise.

This story of a remarkable leader is not just for children; it is also for adults.  Through Moses, we learn the importance of a personal relationship with God.  Moses talks with God as a friend speaks to a friend.  God wants that type of intimacy with every single one of us.  He wants us to have a personal prayer life with Him, just as Moses had.

The story of Moses is appropriate today because this weekend commemorates the birthday of Martin Luther King.  King so often referred to Moses.  He, like Moses, knew that God did not want anyone to be oppressed.  God does not want the Islamic world to oppress the Israelis.  He does not want the Israelis to oppress the Palestinians.  He does not want the United States of America to oppress anyone.  He wants all of His children to be free.  That is His plan, His plan for redemption.  Somehow we have to find a way to work toward that end.

Moses was an excellent representative of God though his task was not easy.  Moses endured a sea of criticism, negativity, and pessimism.  Though he lived with a complaining and whining group, Moses continued to lead in the firm belief that God would keep His promise.  We can see an application here for Morningside right at this time in our life.  I have been praying, as many of you have, about the plan to have an extreme makeover of our facilities.

As I read the account of Moses in Exodus 2-3, several realities really spoke to me.  First, when God instructed Moses to continue across the Red Sea before it ever parted, God made a way.  He can open things up and provide a way.  Moses led by faith when the people seemed to be absolutely constrained.  Second, though ten scouts claimed the mission of entering the Promised Land was impossible, God expected them to do what He had asked of them.  When God says it is time for us to do something, it is time to do it.  Otherwise, we will be in the wilderness for a long, long time.

I also see in this story that everyone has a wilderness.  No one escapes it.  The wilderness itself is an opportunity for spiritual growth.  In the wilderness, we learn that we cannot take all our stuff, our cargo.  We must learn to put aside and do without many things we have depended on in life.  Only then can we learn to depend, not on our doing, not on our strength, but on God Himself, on His provision.

Moses, eighty years old when he finally figured out the purpose of his life, accepted God’s challenge.  God has something for each of us to do at every stage in life.  At no time in our life are we able to think that we can kick back and not obey God anymore.

God’s challenge begins when we understand that God’s great plan for redemption is to set us all free from slavery, from the bondage of sin and death the Apostle Paul addresses in Galatians 5:1:  “For freedom he has set us free.”  We are free in Christ Jesus.  Once we understand that and accept Christ as our Savior, we are invited to enter, by his grace, into a life of freedom and service.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2011

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