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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is the senior pastor of a nondenominational congregation in Washington, DC.

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Two Responses to Fear (A Sermon on Exodus 1:10-11, 17)

October 21, 2013

Each time making sure to highlight my birth in Okinawa, Japan, my sister used tell me that I was adopted.[1] I regret the horror she inflicted on my prized G.I. Joe action figures. After an argument I would at times find their dismembered legs, arms, and other remnants of plastic flesh flippantly scattered about my room. Preying on an impressionable young mind, she cheated at Monopoly, got me into trouble, and had a habit of borrowing my things without asking. Although she terrorized me as a child and we have our differences as adults, she is my sister. And if someone were to abuse or disparage her it would take serious intercession for there to not be, in the words of the late comedian Bernie Mac, some "furniture moving" on my part. Of course, this isn't a feeling, understandably, that all siblings have, but it does often come with the territory. We clobber and harass one another. We bicker. We torment and tattle. But at the relationship's core is love.

Summer is two years my senior, but I've always functioned as an older brother. How much of it is nature or nurture, I don't know, but it has been this way for as long as I can remember. Around the age of five, I recall scaring half to death a group of my sister's friends. Unbeknownst to me (again, I was five), they were just playing a game. But all I heard was Summer screaming, then giggles from her friends, and then more screaming. So like any good brother, I grabbed my bat -- the thick, plastic ones made for whiffle ball -- and I dashed down the hallway, swinging and yelling, "Stop hurting my sister." Here I was, this little boy inspired to action; fearful that his sister was in danger. A little later in life I discovered that Summer is extremely fearful of spiders. You can imagine how this only intensified when the 1990 horror-comedy film, Arachnophobia was released. I have been dispensing of spiders on my sister's behalf literally for decades. That is now her husband's job, but growing up she'd often find some eight-legged arthropod suspended from her ceiling or hiding in a corner and would plead with me to kill it. And I did; always the protective brother. But inevitably, there were times when the spider was positioned out of my reach. So in those moments, trading rooms was our longstanding agreement. She'd go sleep in my bed, fearful no more that spiders were out to get her -- at least that night. And I'd sleep in her bed. In the morning, I'd reconvene my search and destroy mission, and usually was able to depose of the spider without further incident.

Part of what I learned through sibling rivalry and my protective ways is that fear is real. It has been said that, "Fear is the devil prophesying." And while fear can be whispered into our ears by evil influences looking to disrupt or destroy God's plans, that isn't always the case. Fear is a natural emotion that we all experience. Most of us have not driven on Germany's autobahn or a NASCAR speedway, but I-95 during rush-hour is wild enough to fan the flames of fear in anyone. Maybe you fear being alone, parenthood, or the sight of blood. Or weight loss or weight gain, or you fear cats. Or it could be flying that causes fear to bubble up inside. Maybe you fear getting old and the related financial, medical, and relational issues that might affect your quality of life. Maybe you fear the Rocky Horror Picture Show; I know I do -- it's just spooky. Or it could be the thought of cancer, unemployment, underemployment, homelessness, divorce, or a host of other life circumstances that rattle your cage. But then again, instead of something perhaps you fear someone, feeling paralyzed by offenses already committed or threats lobbied overhead like grenades.

In the first chapter of what at times is referred to as the "Second Book of Moses," we see contrasting responses to fear. Lacking institutional awareness, clueless about the distinct impact and lineage of the patriarch, Joseph, a new Egyptian king is on the scene. As potentates and other power-brokers do, undoubtedly he was looking to assert himself. He feared that the Israelites, if given the chance by an opposing army would fight against them and flee the land, by default emancipating their subservient role under Egyptian rule. So he afflicted them with heavy burdens. But as oppression increased so did the Israelite population. And this caused the king to fear them even more, so like so many others have, he enslaved them. According to verse 14, the Egyptians "... made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field." Fear is a natural emotion that we all experience, but what we do with it means all the world.

To be clear, the king's fear about a potential Israelite revolt and escape wasn't totally without warrant; particularly in this circumstance as the numbers of the oppressed overwhelmingly surpassed those of the oppressor. This by no means excuses treating human beings like pieces of property or tools to be used, abused, and swapped like pawn shop items. This new king could have responded to his fear with an informed sense of friendship to the Israelites, right? He could have opened doors for them as allies, integrating them into society with full rights and privileges, right? He could have done this and more, but alas he did not. As we, you and I, have also been known to do, he let fear turn him into a living, breathing monster. No make-believe. No Halloween. This was the real thing. We read later of his decree to commit genocide. That is what fear, when responded to wrongly, can lead to. Whether our concerns are founded or unfounded, left to our own insecurities we develop a mentality resolute to destroy anyone and anything that obstructs our path to sustained power. We attempt to usurp God and become a cheap substitute, which I'm here to tell you never, ever works out well.

Fear is something we wrestle with, as all of our ancestors have and all those coming behind us will. It comes with the human predicament. It may be on our job, with our children, or more generally in our daily rising and setting, but we all have fears. We need not, however, respond to fear how Egypt's new king did. God has a better way. And as is the case with many good things, we have an example of that in two women. Shiphrah and Puah were midwives to the Israelite women, representing a people without communal identity or nationalistic protection. Though as oppressed as oppressed can be, there must've been a powerful elixir in the water supply because the Israelites were procreating like crazy. Call it a move of God, if you will. In response to fear of a possible insurrection, ultimately the king commanded the midwives thusly, in verse 16, while delivering these babies, "...if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live." He reinforced this later on, in verse 22 declaring, "Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live."

Thankfully, God is the supreme interventionist. This time, as it sometimes does, the resistance came from an unlikely, awfully vulnerable source: two women with low social standing and no justifiable moxy or protection to warrant challenging the king. Nevertheless, they chose the road less traveled. Exodus 1:17 says, "But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live." Talk about defiance. Talk about subversion. Talk about fear. This is the stuff of Pulitzer Prize novels. Shiphrah and Puah risked their lives to respond to fear with faith and verse 21 tells us that God rewarded their obedience and bravery. But let's be clear. I presume that Shiphrah and Puah were at least slightly fearful of the consequences that could follow defying the king's wishes. Possibly they chatted with one another like women do late into the night, sharing hopes and anxieties, with a bit of repetitive "girlfriend, honey child" sentimentality folded in for good measure. In antiquity, midwives -- these OB/GYN practitioners -- often were barren. But because they feared God, God gave Shiphrah and Puah families, which given the language and historical setting we take to mean children. In the end, when it counted, they feared God and only God, which is a beautiful thing.

Fear isn't inescapably evil as this morning's text illustrates, but what we do with fear matters greatly. In all circumstances we choose to trust God more, running towards God, or to trust ourselves more, running away from God. The midwives and Egypt's king are examples of this. We must recognize, though, that as an emotion, fear is also sometimes used as a tool of discernment. If someone violates your personal space while walking to your car, the fear that he or she may intend to do you harm is real. When we are in the wrong place or when we are doing the wrong thing it is appropriate for fear to creep in. Your heart begins to race. Your hands may get shaky. Your palms begin to sweat. You may begin to stammer in trying to lie your way out of being caught. There are situations where God uses fear to help protect us from poor decisions that can harm us or others. The spouse flirting at the office luncheon or while away on business. The accountant skirting professional ethics in hopes of a promotion. The college student who turns to exotic dancing or drug dealing to pay bills. Fear can be used by God as kindling for us to do the right thing. It's true that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but this doesn't automatically render fear sinful. How we respond to fear is key.

So in life when things fall apart, what will we do as Christians? Will we cling closer to God, recognizing our limitations? Or as dutiful Americans, will we roll-up-our-sleeves, break out the duct tape and power tools, and try to solve our problems by ourselves for ourselves? A normal yet provocative emotion, when handled improperly fear suffocates hope and haunts dreams. Fear can cause elephants and donkeys to bicker like caged animals, increasing hardship rather than lessening it. Fear can cause us to extinguish life by genocide, slavery, domestic violence, apathy, or other means of dysfunction. And so let us not look down our noses at the Egyptian king, as if our character is beyond reproach. The same things that led him down sin's slippery slope can also cause us to fall, resulting in broken bones, bruises, or even death for ourselves or others. But a healthy understanding of fear is something altogether different. We are wise to funnel our fear through God's periscope. Only the God of our salvation is truly capable of protecting us. This is why we are told in the New Testament, "Cast all your anxiety on him [Jesus] because he cares for you." Should we take reasonable, responsible efforts to protect ourselves and loved ones? By all means, yes. But that isn't the same as living in fear.


[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on October 20, 2013 at the Waldorf Vineyard Church in Waldorf, MD where the Rev. Tim Werner is senior pastor.


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