What does it mean to fear God? When we say that someone had the fear of God put into them, we mean that they have been terrified, made afraid of punishment or retribution, that they are made compliant for fear of the consequences. It is a usage that leans heavily on the common meaning of fear, a meaning that is largely negative, a meaning that is about a state of terror. But when we describe someone as a good, God-fearing person, we are not saying that they are afraid, rather that they are pious and righteous and live in a state of profound respect toward God. It is a usage that leans on a more archaic meaning of fear, one that we rarely use in the world today. What does it mean to fear God? It is to be in a state of reverent awe of the divine.
The Israelites lived in a time of great fear, and not of the reverent awe variety. After Joseph and his brothers reconciled, as we heard last week, they all moved to Egypt to weather out the great famine that had settled over the land. And they stayed. Years passed. New generations were born. They grew old. They died. Soon a new Pharaoh came into power, one who could no longer remember Joseph and all that he had done for the people of the land.
A new Pharaoh came into power in a time of uncertainty and instability. What it was isn’t recorded and it isn’t important. There is always something that comes along to make a people anxious and concerned. There is always something that makes powerful people afraid that their grip on power might be more tenuous than they would like to believe. So Pharaoh pulled out the familiar tools of nationalism and xenophobia, choosing an easy scapegoat to channel the people’s fear and uncertainty.
Pharaoh said, “These Muslims will surely turn against us and terrorize us! We must stop letting them immigrate into our land, and we must stop letting them build places of worship in our communities, for the parking and traffic will alter the character of our neighbourhoods.” Wait. No. That’s not right, sorry.
Pharaoh said, “These Japanese Canadians will surely fight against us and undermine us in the war! We must send them away to live in internment camps, we must seize their property and belongings and sell them to others.” Wait. No. That’s not right either, sorry.
Pharaoh said, “These former slaves are great in numbers and now that they are free, they will surely rise up against us for the evil and harsh treatments we had dealt them. We must keep them subjugated, prevent them from growing in wealth and power, and stop them from taking their place and claiming their voice in society.” Wait. No. That’s wrong. They’re getting all mixed up in my head. I’m sorry.
Pharaoh did what we have always done, what we always do, and said, “These Israelites have grown in numbers and will surely turn against us, and fight with our enemies against us! We must oppress them. We must crush them with forced labour so that they lose their will to live. We must kill all their baby boys.”
I wonder how Shiphrah and Puah felt as they hurried into Pharaoh’s court. It was unheard of to receive a summons like this, and this amount of personal attention from Pharaoh was a dangerous thing. Did it fill them with fear and trepidation to come before the man who was spreading so much hate and fear about their own people? Could they have imagined the horror of what Pharaoh commanded them to do, to end the lives of the very little ones they were charged with helping usher into the world? As they left Pharaoh’s court, his hideous words still in their ears, did Shiphrah and Puah even hesitate for a moment about what their course of action would be?
It was a hellish and horrifying world. In a time of great fear, their reverence of God was greater.
How did Shiphrah and Puah come to have such reverence for God? How did they find such faith?
The truth is, we don’t know for sure. This was a time before the Ten Commandments, a time before the laws had been written, before the prophets had raised their voices to call the people back into right relationship with God, before the festivals had come into being and been given their names. It was an ancient time and we know little about what the Israelites religious practices looked like.
But the reverence embodied by the two midwives, this sort of reverence is an orientation. It is an orientation that we develop and discover through prayer and study. It is an orientation that we cultivate through mindfulness of God’s tracings in creations, and through relationship in community.
What’s more, it is an orientation that reveals the true nature of things; that Pharaoh and his armies, and all other powers and struggles of this world are fleeting trivialities before the majesty and awe of God. Pharaoh and all others who have taken his mantle in the world since then are like dry leaves caught in the swirl of wind, never to be seen again.
Grounded in reverence of God, Shiphrah and Puah did not hesitate to disobey the command of Pharaoh. The most powerful man in the world never stood a chance against the deep roots of their faith.
Like those who have come before us, we live in a time of uncertainty, instability, and fear. We have watched as climate change has made the residents of Yellowknife into refugees, forced to flee for their lives and journey through the wilderness. Closer to home, we have seen the smoke in our skies and felt it in our lungs as wildfires bring destruction and devastation to Kelowna and cities and towns all over our province. And in a summer that has already seen three times as much forest burned than any summer before, we are left in dread of future summers marked by smoke and loss and death.
As if that were not enough, we are also facing a housing crisis that has made it so that ordinary people are increasingly unable to afford shelter for themselves and their families. It is bad here in metro Vancouver, yes, with median prices for a one-bedroom rental exceeding $3,000/month, but it is also bad all over the country. There are no more affordable places to live. And politicians seem more interested in blaming one another for the problem and more concerned with protecting developer profits than they are with actually addressing the problem.
In the face of this uncertainty, instability, and fear, the old and familiar xenophobic, populist, and nationalist answers abound. We are eager to find scapegoats upon whom to dump our collective anxiety. So we blame it on foreign investors, on foreign immigrants, on foreign oil companies, and on foreign countries’ climate policies. Encouraged by our leaders, we assign blame everywhere else, refusing to acknowledge our own culpability, our own hand at work in the crises we face.
Before the immensity of it all, we feel insignificant, unable to change or fix anything. We are filled with despair and fear.
Remember Shiphrah and Puah, my friends. When commanded to do the unthinkable, they did not hesitate to defy the powers of their world. We need reverence.
In the face of a world filled with fear, our reverence for God must be greater. Seek the Lord and stand in awe before the divine presence. Grow in your reverence for God and all that God has brought into being. Then we will not fear or hesitate to stand in defiance of the powers of this world. We will not fear to create the goodness and healing and restoration and wholeness that this world so desperately needs, because there is only God, and before God, nothing else matters.
Pharaoh commanded the midwives to kill the children as they were being born, but Shiphrah and Puah did not, because they revered and were in awe of God. When Pharaoh demanded to know why his orders had been disobeyed, the two midwives had the strength of character and quickness of wit to use his own words against him.
By their actions, countless children lived and grew, who led full lives, whose stories we do not get to know. And Shiphrah and Puah saved one child who story we do know. Whose story we do remember. By their actions, they changed the world.
And so can we.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates