Life is filled with mystery. Many of our sorrows and if we would admit it many of our successes are attributable to powers other than ourselves. It can leave us feeling helpless. It is as there is a deeper spiritual battle raging just beyond the veil of our existence.
This past weekend I had Chaplain duty. I am the command chaplain of U.S. Military Intelligence. A Soldier came to me and said that she had heard me in Chapel that morning and was intrigued by the message and the Spirit that was pervasive in the Chapel. I listened. She confessed that, of all things, she had been tempted to “nick” a picture framed Bible verse. It was a verse that dealt with this very theme. The Scripture was telling her to “commit her ways to the Lord and He would direct her paths” (Proverbs 3:5,6). “Chaplain, what does that mean?” I had to tell her that it meant for her to avoid stealing, first of all. Then, I gave her the framed Bible verse! I explained that we serve a God who goes before us, behind us, and over us, and under us, to providentially arrange—orchestrate, if you will—all of the pathways of a believer to lead towards home, home with the Lord Himself, so that, even death—cancer, traffic accidents, homicides, war, and old age—were God-guided paths to lead us home.” She said, “Chaplain, I think you just gave me another sermon!” I told her she got a “two-for-one-deal today.” Then, I had to tell her that while that was so, on this side of the Scripture promise, the pain can be unbearable. Faith in Jesus is how we hold on to the promise that providence will in fact overturn the events and providentially transform the bad into good. It is hard. It is, in fact, life.
How many are here today living in the pain of a pathway with a bridge out? A bad diagnosis from the doctor this week? The death of a loved one? A lingering depression of the spirit that has idiopathic origins? A strange feeling that you are working like crazy…for what? A battle within yourself about your faith in God? A chronic illness that is chipping away at your spirit? A feeling of betrayal from someone at school whom you thought was your best friend? A struggle about your vocation?
Pastors and their families are not exempt for such pains. My family has experienced many of these pains of life and others. It is called life. Sometimes we bring things on ourselves. But sometimes it seems that forces are out of our control, conspiring against us to hurt us, even to destroy us. And this is where we pick up the Bible story of the Hebrew children in Egypt and God’s answer to our pain, His providence, and His promise.
Exegesis: Call the Midwife
Exodus 1 and 2 tells the story of the seventy years from Joseph to the reign of a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. The Hebrews had grown in number in their slavery, had remained true to the faith of God, and had become a threat to the rule of this new Egyptian king. So he orders the death of the male babies. This motif will repeat itself in the Scriptures all the way down to the birth of Jesus. Another feature that repeats itself is the miraculous intervention of faithful servants of God. In this case, it is the midwives.
“The important principle emerges here that God will honour those who defend the principles of righteousness, showing respect for his creation and his rule over life. The midwives are more anxious to please God than to please Pharaoh, and God rewards them.”
Because of the faith of these women, chapter two of Exodus, then, records the supernatural events concerning the birth of Moses, his salvation from infanticide, his divine protection, and engrafting into the Egyptian household, while being reared by his Hebrew mother and sister, all to demonstrate the providential power of God over the diabolical plans of a human king.
The divine message is clear to us today: God’s promises transform pain into providence.
Yet, what kind of divine algorithm creates this supernatural dynamic? Hoes does this dynamic of the celestial world work in our world? Well, life is mystery. However, every now and then, in the Bible, God kindly pulls back the great curtain between infinity and time to reveal the glorious inner-workings of a God of great, loving determination with limitless resources and unconquerable ways. In the passage our wonderful Savior works on our behalf to accomplish our salvation through four improbable ways:
God transforms our pain into providence through his promise through a father.
Joseph’s blessing extended through the generation to these people. We are the recipients of those spirituals fathers and mothers who have gone before. Recently I visited the grave of a church planter, my third great-grandfather, Jephthah Vining, who had written a letter to pray for his progeny to be faithful and to preach the Gospel. He planted several churches, in North Carolina, South Carolina, and his final church, where he is buried, in Warren, Georgia. I stood at his grave, three weeks ago, and asked God to bless me with a thread of his mantle, for the work of the Gospel. My beloved we are all the spiritual descendants of loved ones or even people across the oceans from another country who were ordered by God to pray for us, generations before we were born.
“We are not our own, we have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20)” and we live not for ourselves, but in a larger community of the Church, both here and in heaven.
My beloved, let this truth encourage you in your walk today. You are a product of many prayers. You may even be here, be born, because of the prayers of someone you do not know nor will ever know, but God loved you so much He made a way for you. This does not diminish your pain, whatever you are facing, but, my dearest friend, your pain is in the hands of a sovereign God who will work all things together for your good, IF you are His and If you are surrendered to His Son.
There is another way that our wonderful Savior works on our behalf to accomplish our salvation:
God transforms our pain into providence through his promise through a pharaoh.
Now what do I mean here? This Egyptian king was really a pawn, not a king. He was a pawn in the hands of the True King, Almighty God, to bring about His Grand Design to save the race of mankind. Every evil move that the pawn made against the True King was a move that was countered and used to advance the True King’s noble and good cause. So, the diabolical activity of the Pharaoh was, in fact, moving the Hebrew children closer to the birth of Moses, closer to the exodus, closer to the Promised Land, closer to the Theocracy, closer to the Kingdom of David, closer to the birth of Jesus, closer to the Resurrection, closer to the Ascension, closer to Pentecost, closer to your birth and mine, and closer to the Second Coming of Christ and the final establishment of the Kingdom of God in the entire world!
And you thought that your cancer was just the end? You thought you son’s death in Vietnam so many painful years ago was the end of the story? You thought your failure at work was the nail in the coffin of your career? Well, it might be, unless you are hidden in the side of the Son of God. If you are in Christ and He is in you, then, pain becomes the fodder for the providential activity of a glorious God who moves at the impulse of His own promises to bring about good for His own glory and your own good.
God transforms our pain into providence through his promise through a midwife.
Now we get to the midwives. These are there heroines of the story. If you want a theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a defense of his underground church and seminary activities during the Nazi regime of WWII this is the place to go. These midwives, who cared for expectant mothers, and used their nursing expertise, to birth children, defied the Egyptian king’s death decree to save lives. They also are directly responsible for bringing forth Moses, the one who would save the Hebrew people and bring about a nation of Israel.
Last year the BBC produced and aired a wonderful television series called Call the Midwife. My wife and I were devoted viewers. But, I must say, I was often uncomfortable during the birthing sequences. I am a husband and a father, but they showed images and scenes that gave me quite an education. I frequently had to leave the room because I couldn’t take the screaming. I have been in the military on active duty or reserve all of my adult life and have seen a lot, but I cannot stand a screaming lady and I would hide my eyes and cover my ears, which caused my wife to really laugh. But, I loved the show because these women were really heroines and helped bring life into the world often in unlikely situations.
God the Holy Spirit is the midwife of the Triune God. He specializes in bring life out of death, order out of chaos, and hope our of despair. And He often uses real life heroes and heroines to be His instruments.
Who in your life is the midwife who helped bring life to you? Who worked silently behind the scene to birth hope? To deliver your dreams? To bring forth faith? Maybe it is time today just thank God for that person. Or, maybe, it is time to rededicate yourself to the Lord and say, “Lord, I am ready to be the midwife for another. I am ready to do your will. I am ready to bring life, faith, hope, healing, to another. Use me, Lord.”
Finally, Our wonderful Savior works on our behalf to accomplish our salvation through this fourth way:
God transforms our pain into providence through his promise through a miracle.
The miracle was the birth of Moses. He was born by the intervention of a midwife, through the care of his sister, through the unlikely compassion of the evil Pharaoh’s daughter, and the nursing love of his birth mother. The miracle is that God intervened on Israel’s behalf, at just the right time, when no-one was looking, no one knew, with the birth of their savior. Sound familiar?
Jesus Christ our Lord came this way: as a miracle, to an obscure place, in supernatural arrangements, and with threats all around.
And the answer to your own prayer will come this way, as well. God most often comes to us, not as a king on a steed, but as a baby in a reed basket, surrounded by crocs, unseen, unknown, and yet all-powerful to save.
God has allowed us to see read this Word, to hear this Word, and to experience the Holy Spirit applying this Word to our lives. He shows us the ways that He arranges His providence to bring our His promises to heal our pain:
- Through a father, who prays for us before we are even born;
- Through a pharaoh or pharaoh-like figure, who is used to leverage the goodness of God at just the right time;
- Through a midwife, the Holy Spirit of God who ministers, often through a kind, loving, faithful soul who acts on our behalf to bring about our good; and
- Through a miracle: the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, alive in us, born is us, living in us, and who will raise us from the dead with Him.
I saw this at work in my own life as I was an orphan as a child. I was reared by my Aunt Eva. I was a prodigal who lost much. My wife and I married more than thirty years ago, both broken and battered by the slavery to sin and shame that the world had brought to us. Then, Christ came to us and saved us, showed us His grace, gave us a future and a hope, and after many years of prayers, our son, John Michael, was born to us, just as we were also finishing seminary in answer to His call to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. We are here to tell you that pain is always answered in providence and providence is fueled by the promise of Jesus Christ and His life, and providence is leading us home.
This morning we come to the Table, to the Bread and the Cup, where the authoritative seals of the kingdom are, once more, presented, tasted, consumed, to draw us back to the everlasting truth of Jesus’ promise demonstrated by His death on the cross, a death sufficient to save the whole world. For just beyond the veil a battle is raging, but the outcome is now determined. The cross brought the victory. The empty tomb sealed the fate of all who would trust in Him. Our journey will have ups and downs, but it will never fail to lead us home.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Iain D. Campbell, Opening up Exodus, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), 24.
A Sermon preached before the Congregation of Church of the Redeemer PCA Monroe, North Carolina, the Second Sunday in Lent 2016.