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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas in Exodus

It’s Christmastime and our pastor has begun a new sermon series. Naturally, it’s on the Book of the Exodus. At least, it seems natural to me, and even more after today.

I can honestly say that I love the gospels, I love the book of Acts, I love the Peters, the Timothy letters, the letter to the Philippians. At some point, each of those has probably held a position of highest favor among all the other books of the Bible. But every time we come back to the Exodus, I get excited. It’s my story. It’s the story of all of us. It’s the story that encapsulates all of it in one place—our condition, our nature, our perceptions, God’s seeming absence, God’s obvious presence and faithfulness, the practical, nitty-gritty, physical symbols of the great spiritual actions he is up to.

Today we read the passage in chapter 2 in which Moses’ mother has to do the unthinkable. Our pastor is particularly conscious of how instrumental God has made women to be in his redemptive history, and so he spent a good deal of time last week painting a robust picture of the role of Shiphrah and Puah, and again this week on the mother, the sister, the daughter of Pharaoh. But mostly, on the mother.

He also showed us images of the Nile River. “It’s not the French Broad,” he says. “The most dangerous thing you’re likely to find in the French Broad is a rock.” We look on banks writhing with crocodiles and waters with surfaces broken and bumpy with hippos. The threat is startling to our modern, urbanized sensibilities. But there was a greater threat in Egypt.

Pharaoh, we had seen last week, had put himself in the place of God over Egypt—except that he was a god who felt threatened by the abundance of human life. Suppose the Israelites rose up against him? Fearing for his own position and well-being, he tried enslaving them to control their numbers. It didn’t work. So he determined to coerce the midwives to kill the male babies as they were born. Failed again. Enact plan C, then. Pharaoh himself would have the male infants thrown into that predator-infested Nile. Between the current and the animals, the babes hadn’t a chance. The anti-god would control life and protect himself in it.

Then we meet the woman who becomes the mother of a lovely baby boy. She’s a mom of at least two already, we know. And at this point in history, she gives birth to her third, a boy. She knows his fate if the anti-god finds him, so for three months, she keeps him hidden. If you’ve been a parent of a newborn, then you know that around the three-month point, babies begin to spend more time awake, observing and interacting with their world. They find their voices and don’t just cry when hungry, but make happy cooing and gurgling sounds. They begin to imitate patterns of speak/pause/speak that will one day allow for interactive conversation. It became impossible for her to hide him any longer, and so she does what seems like an unthinkable thing: she puts him in the river—or at least in the tall grass by the water’s edge. Because she takes time to make a little “ark” and coat it with waterproof material, I think we can expect that it was, indeed, in contact with the water, though it is unlikely it would be picked up by the current and swept away.

Our pastor suggested that she may have placed it particularly where the Pharaoh’s daughter might find it—an appeal from one mother to the nurturing sensibilities of another woman, in a desperate attempt to bypass the brutal hard-heartedness of the murderous Pharaoh.

I so love this story. Long ago, I connected with the mother of Moses because my first daughter, as a toddler, wanted only one story: The Baby in the Basket. Every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. I could still quote the entire little book to you if pressed. I’m sure I could. And so over and over again, I thought of the mother who had to give up her little baby boy, at just three months of age.

In that same time period, our second daughter was born. She was a sick baby, from birth. And while there was no brutal king going door to door looking to throw her into the Nile, there was still the ongoing anguish over her. What is wrong? How do we help? Is she going to be OK? At one point, the speculation about her condition did include a rare genetic syndrome that could mean death during the preschool or early elementary years of childhood.

It was in that time that I had to come to my first point of real surrender to God. A mother surrendering her child. I thought of Moses’ mother on a daily basis—even when I wasn’t being compelled by a persistent two-year-old to “read it AGAIN, Mommy!” I felt her then, holding her warm little bundle against her body, and knowing: I have to let him go. I was in the same place. I could not myself help or fix or save my baby. I had to entrust her to someone outside myself.

The baby Moses was going in the river. There was no way around it. But how?

I met Pastor Dave in the hall after the service. Interestingly enough, he was on his way to do a baptism—presumably applying the water symbol to another infant, presiding over the surrendering of the parents, in submission to God’s authority and God’s means of salvation, applying the sign and the seal of that salvation to their infant—but he stopped, as he always, always, does, to give me a moment. My excitement over the book of the Exodus is probably puzzling to some, but for two weeks now, he’s taken it in stride and let me gush a bit after the sermon.

In keeping with the attention he calls us to give to the women in the biblical story, I emptied the contents of my head in a passionate verbal deluge: The mother, she’s like the Church, the Bride, the woman parallels the Church in being the physical Body, acting out God’s will in surrender and submission… and what surrender! To give up her little baby, so young, so dependent on her, but she knows, he’s going in the river. She won’t let him go by the hand of the anti-king, but she’s going to trust the sovereign King, the creator who made the river and the animals with her son.

I was excited over the parallel, but there was something else I had not even connected yet. And that’s when Pastor Dave leaned in, like he does. I’m beginning to realize that when he does this, something really good is coming: He touched me on the elbow, and moved to look me straight in the eye, and he said, “Rebecca—she’s not just like the Church. She’s like God.”

And my head exploded with that truth.

(As an aside here, I am going to mention that I have become convinced that what Pastor Dave does to get my attention just has to be what Jesus did to Mary Magdalene in the garden after he rose from the tomb and met her there. She was going on, all empassioned, and thinking she was spilling her guts and grief to the gardener, when, I believe, he leaned in to her, touched her on the elbow, moved to look her in the eye, and said, “Mary.” And her eyes were opened. I think it happened, just like that.)

But back to the point: She is like God. And in some regard, each and every one of us who has experienced that kind of surrender also gets to be like God—to know how he works. What he gave.

I said to him, “If it doesn’t feel like dying, it isn’t really surrender.” It must have felt like dying to her. That tiny baby needed her for his very life. A three-month-old cannot live long without the sustenance he receives from his mother. In just two hours separation from him, her very body would be joining her head and her heart in full awareness of her separation from him, as she would be ready to bring him again to her breast, and nourish him and be relieved and herself fulfilling her design to so supply him. And he was torn from her, by her own desperate submission. She chose to give him up, into the threats of the world. She chose to.

She just had to choose which way he would go, and whose hand she would give him into—the blood-thirsty, self-protective anti-god, or the creator and sustainer, the one her own parents told her about, and their parents before them, keeping alive the stories of the patriarchs and the life-saving deliverance that brought their people to Egypt in the first place.

Some years ago, a board member of the company I work for spent some time working intensively with me in evaluating our business model. It was in trouble and we were looking at all alternatives. He was a pilot, and he gave an example: When a plane is in a tailspin and falling, the gut reaction of the pilot is to try to pull out, opposite of the forces acting on him. But that’s the worst thing he can do, he said. The only saving answer is to drive forward, farther into the fall, create a nosedive, and from that terrifying position of giving in to the inevitable with vigor, the pilot can then regain control and pull out.

I see Moses’ mother as being in a situation like that. There’s no way out—only further in. But she’s trusting in that which is not within her own power, not even within normal intuition. She’s trusting in surrendering her child to the current of God’s will, like the pilot pushing forward into the nosedive. You take this, God. It’s your plan. It’s your child. And she gives him up…to save him, to get him back, to even allow for his placement to set all this people free from the oppression that brought them to the point of this choosing.

And here’s where it becomes about Christmas. Because her surrender of her child is like God’s of his own son. This world is reeling from sin, like the plane in the tailspin. Ruling authorities, who ought to be there for people’s good, are oppressing people and killing babies. We’re all moaning in the darkness, under the oppression. The pain and turmoil and separation comes from within us and from without, and we can’t fix it. And God could have walked away. He could have turned and left us spiraling down eternally. But he didn’t. In himself, he chose to act. He chose to surrender his own Son. The Son chose to surrender to the Father’s will. He willingly entered in, surrendering his glory that he had with the Father, knowing that the threats here were real, and they would get him and bring him down, but that even then, the Sovereign would reign, and his good purposes would be fulfilled.

He drove downward to meet us, with vigor, and in doing so, he rent the Trinity.

If tearing a baby from his mother’s breast is painful and unthinkable, then how much more—even inconceivably so—is this tearing of one person of the eternal Trinity from the others?

This is where the idea gets into me like a grain of sand into an oyster—like an irritant that chafes my very soul until blisters begin to form. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to take a baby from a mother. As a mother, everything in me says, “No!” But that is only a tiny taste of what it must have been like for God the Son to be taken from the Father.   I.can’t.even.imagine.

Christmas is when Jesus entered in to the world. We tend to focus on the humble conditions of manger and poor parents. There’s the good news of glad tidings. Shepherds and magi are united in the same community—worshiping the one true God. All of that is good. It is very, very good. But for it to happen, the bosom of God was torn open. He surrendered his own Son, his very own Son.

And that is the pearl that was produced this morning in me. God doesn’t ask us to do anything he himself isn’t willing to do. So any of us who have wrestled with surrendering to the point that it feels like death can know: He sees. He knows. He does. And in that, we are a little bit like him too.

Exodus 2:25  God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.

Oh, the wonders of his love!