Exodus 2:1And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. 2 So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months. 3 But when she could no longer hide him, she took an ark of bulrushes for him, daubed it with asphalt and pitch, put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. 4 And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.
5 Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. 6 And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” 8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the maiden went and called the child’s mother. 9 Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. So she called his name Moses, saying, “Because I drew him out of the water.”
Last week, we found ourselves in Egypt with the children of Israel, where Pharaoh not only wants to take their work and their bodies, but their very future. But the midwives stood in his way. The people found ways to survive and even thrive in their captivity, but they are still captive. Pharaoh continues to kill their children. They are slaves. This was not what God had promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The people might be fruitful and lively in ways that drive their captors mad, but what they really long for, what they really need, is liberation. Not just spiritual therapy that says things will be better by and by even though Pharaoh’s boot is on our throat. No, real liberation that says yes a better tomorrow is possible which means maybe Pharaoh should get off our backs now.
There are many people who make this freedom possible when it comes, but in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible), one gets special prominence: Moses. Moses will see God and hear God’s name and talk with God like Adam and Eve did in the garden. Jewish tradition has it that even God grieves when Moses dies. Moses will look Pharaoh in the face and say “Let my people go,” he’ll place his staff in the waters to bring about blood and plague and swarms (God’s tactics might offend our sensibilities today, but apparently that is how God responds to fascism). God chooses Moses to lead the chosen people to freedom, and in our story this morning we meet this remarkable person.
Moses’ life begins in the waters. His name means “drawn out,” which is not just his name but his identity. He is drawn out of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, but he is also called out by God to be a liberator, a freedom fighter, unburdening the people from the chains around their wrists and then later their minds too. Moses is a teacher but he’s not a teacher who imparts information: he gives the people tools to get free and stay free. Moses is a leader but he does not stand above or apart from his people. He is drawn out by being drawn deeper in. His mother saves him from Pharaoh by sending him into the same river where his generation was murdered. He is one of them, a child of Israel. He was born in the era when Pharaoh was killing the Hebrew boys by throwing them into the Nile. His mother held onto him as long as she could, but eventually she gave him to the waters, too. She also gave him a chance to live. Often that’s the best we can do for those we love. We can’t guarantee their safety and clinging to them sometimes does more harm than good. So Moses’ mother, knowing that if she keeps him Pharaoh’s men will find him, makes her son a basket out of reeds, and covers it in pitch and sends him into the waters.
It is hard to sift her hope from her despair in this act. She must’ve hoped that someone who could keep him safe would find her child, but at the very same time some part of her must have known that it was likely he would meet the same fate as all the other Hebrew boys. She takes the only chance she has but that chance sends her boy into the waters. The waters are murky and gloomy. The waters are full of monsters like Leviathan. Sometimes things that go down don’t come back up. She sends her baby boy, who was beautiful—that Hebrew word can also mean “good,” the same description God had for Creation—she sends him down into the waters, the waters that threaten creation with undoing.
There are waters that would threaten to undo us, that we have seen undo other beautiful creations. Maybe you find yourself treading water as you grieve Ralph Bassett this week, and not just his loss but all the other griefs that tend to get dredged up anytime someone dies. We have many in our congregation who are trying to survive the waters of sickness. Waters of financial burden, poverty and debt and low wages, wash across our whole country: one third of American children live in poverty. We too would rather send many children into the waters than give their parents a “hand out.” Our world is awash in callousness that calls itself responsibility and lukewarmth that calls itself moderation as some of our friends and many of our neighbors sink to the depths. There are waters and we should long for everyone’s freedom from them.
But to find freedom from the waters, you have to get good at swimming. You cannot turn your back to the surf and pretend the waters are not there because they are rising and will sink you one day. You cannot avoid the waters if you are to be free of them. You have to learn how to navigate them. You have to be willing to dive down deeper.
In order to free us from the waters, God sends someone like us down into them where we are, first to pull us up and then to teach us how to swim. This is precarious, it is dangerous, but it is God’s way. As Christians, we do not worship a God who stands above, but who takes on flesh and joins us in the waters, in the murky places where the way forward is not always clear, where the future is precarious. We learn who Jesus really is at his baptism, so it’s no wonder that when God sends this minority group of slaves a savior, Moses’ life begins in the waters too.
It’s important to remember that in that dangerous place, the storyteller wants us to know that God had Moses. The storyteller calls this vessel an “ark” and an ark is more than just a basket. When the story calls this contraption an ark, we’re supposed to remember the story of the flood. Moses’ mother builds a future for him and the children of Israel just as Noah built a future for all of humanity. This is not just a basket randomly set adrift in the waters of chaos. This is an ark, built by a mother’s love, and blown by the winds of the Spirit hovering over the waters, holding the promise of a better world.
Moses mother, and his sister who follows his ark down the river, remind us that there are other forces at work in the world than the waters. The waters are dangerous and scary and sometimes they do overwhelm us, but they do not exhaust reality. I try to limit my Lord of the Rings references for all of your sakes, but I’m reminded of how in those books, the great enemy is so concerned with the major kingdoms and armies of the earth that he doesn’t pay any attention to two tiny Hobbit halflings who leave their comfortable home, walk right through his land, and destroy his greatest weapon right under his nose. Pharaoh is so concerned with the great hoard of Hebrews in his land that he misses the tiny Hebrew baby who washes ashore in his own house, and that very child will end up being his own undoing, all because the child’s mother set him adrift and something other than the waters carried him along the waters and into safety. As the wizard Gandalf told one of the Hobbits when he was scared about his journey: “There are other forces at work in the world than the will of evil, and that is an encouraging thought…”
This other force, which we might call love, makes it possible that going down into the waters can be an act of new creation, and so God chooses the kind of people who find themselves in the waters. This is the kind of character Moses will be, not a Pharaoh moving bodies from the safety of his palace, but one who stands up for the Israelites to Pharaoh’s guard, standing between the Israelites and God’s own anger, getting angry with the LORD on their behalf when there is no water in the wilderness.
This is how God works. God doesn’t stand back, aloof and let us figure things out for ourselves. God doesn’t pick us up and move us to another place by magic. God walks with us. That’s who we confess God is in Jesus, not a magic grandfather pulling strings behind a cloud, but a Jewish man, descended from Moses’ people, who suffers with them just as Moses did, who walks on the waters of this world, descends into the murk of the grave, and is raised to walk in newness of life so that we might do the same.
This is the pattern that is passed on to us as well. When God calls the prophet, God sends the prophet into the waters. When God calls a Christian, God sends us into the waters of baptism. We go into the waters to lose ourselves so that we might find ourselves with each other. We go down to die to “sin,” the muscle memories that Pharaoh has inculcated in us, and we rise to who we really are. And we don’t rise to a place above the fray of the world, but we rise to God’s call to “go” into the world, to meet our neighbors wherever they are, to put skin in the game, to swim in the waters of chaos that churn in our community, too.
This is how God brings about freedom, not freedom from responsibility but freedom to risk everything for each other. It was a risk to send Moses into the waters, it was a risk to send all of Israel into the waters, it was a risk to send Jesus into the waters, it was a risk when we went into the waters of our baptism, it should be risky when we go out into the world to meet our neighbors, too. Friends, we are called to meet each other in the waters, trusting that God will draw us out again together. We are called to check on each other and feed each other and cancel each others debts and help make sure that everyone’s needs are met. That’s the kind of savior God sends so that that’s the kind of people we will become because that’s the kind of world God wants to make. Amen.
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