For much of the twentieth century, history was dominated by the clash between the capitalist West and the Communist East. Both sides seemed to be avidly involved in the drama that unfolded. And sometimes the events were simply stunning. The Soviet Union was a major player in these world affairs. Apart from helping to defeat the Nazis in World War II, many or most people would say the USSR’s impact on world affairs was less than stellar. What other conclusion could you arrive at? Stalin killing hundreds of thousands of his own people. Religion in general, and especially Christianity, was suppressed. The USSR dominated and violently controlled Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union interfered in the internal affairs of many developing nations. Not surprisingly, many people just assumed it would take a third world war to do away with either the USSR or its archival the USA. The Cuban missile crisis didn’t give them many other ways to see the future. The present was so bleak for so long. Humans couldn’t seem to get a handle on the challenge, and God certainly didn’t seem to be interested.
But no one had taken March 2, 1931 into account. For many it was a day like any other day. However, it wasn’t like any other day. It was the day Mikhail Gorbachev was born. As leader of the USSR, he introduced Perestroika, or “restructuring,” in 1986 and Glastnost, or “openness,” in 1988. On Christmas Day (of all days!), 1991, he resigned his leadership role and declared the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics non-existent.
What many people don’t realize is the fact that God may well have been at work, behind the scenes, in the notoriously “godless Soviet Union.” You see, while Mikhail Gorbachev is probably an atheist, he sends mixed messages about his faith or lack of faith, he is an atheist who is enamored with people who take God seriously. He said Pope John Paul II’s devotion to his followers “…is a remarkable example to all of us.” And of St. Francis, he said, “his story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life.” I would like to think that God was subtly working in this man’s life and by extension in the USSR so as to avoid the horror of another world war. I believe that because the biblical text suggests God does that. At least, Exodus 2.11-25 would suggest this is the case.
11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.
But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. 16 The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. 18 When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” 21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. 22 She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”
23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
I don’t know if you noticed this, but God isn’t mentioned in the first two chapters of Exodus until the very end of chapter two. There was no mention of God in last week’s sermon text, Exodus 1.8-2.10, apart from the fact that the two midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh “feared God” (Exodus 1.17). And God isn’t mentioned in today’s text until verse 23. That is rather odd because Israel could certainly have used God’s help. After all Pharaoh was trying to wipe out the Hebrews. He had enslaved them and forced them into hard labor. He declared that any Egyptian citizen could murder any Hebrew infant boy they came across. If there ever was a time for God to show up and do something amazing it was then. However, as the story plays out the only hope Israel has is a few women who decide to trust God despite what they see around them. They are women who are willing to risk their personal safety to obey God and use basic moral decency.
The silence and seeming absence of God was challenging in 1275 BCE, and it is challenging today. In the summer of 1989, my father was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given one year to live. My wife, Wanda, and I had recently experienced our second miscarriage. It wasn’t a good time. We were on the verge of giving up. God and I weren’t on the best of terms. And that is being generous. I was wondering why God wasn’t doing a better job of being God. I suspect I am not the only person who felt this way at one point or another in life. I know I am not alone…at least Matt Tuckey is with me. He gets how difficult this waiting on God is. This week on the church discussion page, in response to this passage, he wrote, “I want what I want now. I’m on your side, God, now act. Save me. To know/believe/trust in the greater story (than my own). I believe. Help me on my unbelief.”
When God seemingly isn’t particularly interested in changing the world around us, we are often tempted to act on our own and find our own solutions. That happens in today’s passage, and at some level it isn’t a bad thing. Twice Moses is deeply moved to act against an injustice, and that motivation is right. The first is when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. And the other is when the Midianite women are driven away from the well by shepherds. Moses is incensed at these acts of injustice and he is moved to act. But his record is 50/50. The first time he murders a man and ends up in exile. The second time is much better…he gets a dinner invitation, married and starts a family.
Despite Moses’ wonderful concern for justice, he didn’t come to grips with the fact that he is a broken and flawed person. While we should avoid “pop psychologically analysis” of any biblical figure, it is difficult to overlook that fact that he must have been struggling with a lot of issues. First, and foremost, who is he? As a toddler, he was raised as a Hebrew. Then he spent his youth and young adulthood as an Egyptian. But he murders an Egyptian and his “step grandfather” wants to kill him. And his biological relatives, reject his influence when he tries to help them. Ultimately, he finds himself wandering in the desert, until he is taken in by a Midianite family. In fact, what he names his first son, Gershom, is telling about how Moses sees himself. As we are told in 2.22, that name could be translated “I am an alien, living in a foreign land.” He realizes he doesn’t belong. Talk about rough self-images. Seemingly, Moses’ way of coping with his identity issues, and his failure to bring justice to his people, the Hebrews, is to abandon them to their fate in Egypt. Moses settles down in Midian. He gets married, starts a family, and helps his father-in-law with the family business.
I wish I could say Moses was a unique and, perhaps, a horrible person for doing that, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t horrible, but he was flawed and weak. And he wasn’t unique. He was a person like the rest of us. It isn’t that he didn’t care. He did care. He just didn’t always act well or wisely upon his deeply held convictions. And when he made a terrible mistake, he gave up. He moved away from the place that needed him. He settled down with a new focus. He did what many of us are frequently tempted to do: protect ourselves. It seems to be normal, or at least a recurring temptation, for humans.
While Moses’ life settled down, life in Egypt hadn’t settled down for his fellow Hebrews. The old pharaoh died, and the new pharaoh was no better than his father. In fact, in one verse it becomes quite clear things are terrible there: “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” (Ex. 2.23) It was so bad that God entered the picture, having heard their groans and cries. And seemingly their cries remind God of a promise made to the Hebrews’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The promise was made by no one other than God, and the promise was the one mentioned last week. And the promise was to make Israel into a great nation to bless the other nations and be God’s agents of redemption for the whole of creation.
But that great nation was currently in horrid bondage and in no position to work with God to liberate the world. For that to happen, God needed a liberator to set the Hebrews free. God wanted someone who was well versed in Egyptian culture, politics, and language. Perhaps someone who had lived in Pharaoh’s court. God also wanted someone who understood the ins and outs of Hebrew life and faith. Maybe a person who was born a Hebrew and lived with a Hebrew family. God wanted someone who knew his way around the desert. Possibly a man who had led sheep, goats, and camels from one desert oasis to another. And God wanted someone who was humble and yet had a passion for justice. That person didn’t need to enact this passion perfectly. God knew a person who had such a resumé. All God had to do was convince Moses he was the person for the job.
I wonder if the details of that ancient story aren’t frequently repeated to one degree or another in our own times. People who have great strengths and passions are moved to act, and because they are not perfect and because they live in a flawed world they sometimes fail. And on occasion their failure is very memorable. It is so memorable, they tell themselves to avoid caring and acting in the future. Sometimes, other people push them into an isolated corner where they just settle down and find it difficult to engage the world around them. They opt for a quiet out of the way life. They don’t bother anyone, and no one bothers them. Meanwhile, the broken world still suffers. Broken people find no healing. And God looks for someone who will be a liberator. All that needs to happen is to convince them to work with God and use their unique life experiences, flawed as they are, to begin the liberation of the world and the people around them.