Mother's Day is just around the corner (May 9), and should you decide to offer a message for the occasion, Mark Mitchell's look at the life of Jochebed (Moses' mother) might provide some helpful direction for your preaching.
I don't know why, but it seems that when Mother's Day comes around each year, I can't let it pass without preaching a sermon on it. I'm more likely to let Father's Day pass by without a message specifically for fathers—which doesn't make a lot of sense, seeing as I'm a father myself, so I have a lot more to say to fathers than mothers! Maybe the reason I tend to do something special for Mother's Day is because I think mothers are some of the most under-appreciated people in the world. On Mother's Day I like to remind everyone to be good to their mothers and appreciate them more. But today's message is not about how to be good to your mother; today's message is about a mother who had to make some hard choices for the welfare of her son. Being a mother or a father isn't for the faint of heart. It requires some tough decisions—decisions that are risky and heart-wrenching, decisions that require faith.
Jochebed: A finely drawn portrait of a mother with faith
I'd like for us to reflect on the story of a woman who is mentioned only a few times in Scripture. Yet despite her low profile, she provides a finely drawn portrait of a mother with faith. In fact, she even made it into the "Hall of Fame" for faith in Hebrews 11:23. Her name, according to Numbers 26:59, was Jochebed. She was Moses' mother.
The nation Israel had been in Egypt for almost 400 years. They grew and prospered there, but before long, they became a threat to the reigning Pharaoh. So, Pharaoh forced them into slavery. By the sweat of their brow, cities like Pithom and Raamses were built. He hoped to break their backs, but they continued to grow and prosper. So, he turned up the heat a little more. He commanded the Hebrew midwives to murder the newborn sons of the Hebrew women as they were giving birth. When he discovered that he couldn't rely on the midwives because they feared God more than him, he tried another approach. He told his people to stay on the lookout for Hebrew babies. If they saw one, they were to throw him in the Nile and watch him drown. It was during this reign of terror that Jochebed became pregnant with her third child. She didn't have to worry about her older children, Aaron and Miriam, but the child in her womb would be fair game for any patriotic Egyptian in a bad mood.
Can you imagine living with such fear? When I think of the times in which Jochebed was called to be a mother, I think of some mothers today. I think of mothers in parts of Africa who face the very real prospect of having their son taken from their arms to be trained as child soldiers. These are challenging days to be a mother in our world! Though no one threatens to kill or steal our babies in America, there are forces at work which threaten to drown our children. Kids might drown in the river of violence and promiscuity that is pouring out of the TV set every day. They can drown in a sea of confusion as the lines between right and wrong are blurred in our society. They can drown in a competitive culture that rewards performance above character. Every conscientious parent knows how dangerous it is to grow up in our world!
In the dangerous world in which she found herself, Jochebed stands out because she did what she could to save her child. Then, when she could do no more, she depended totally on the faithfulness of God. She was a model of faith.
Jochebed had a courageous faith.
First of all, Jochebed's faith was courageous. Listen to what the writer of Hebrews says about Jochebed: "By faith Moses' parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king's edict."
Though the king said all the male Hebrew babies had to be thrown into the Nile, Jochebed and her husband disobeyed the king and hid Moses for three months. That takes courage! Imagine how hard it probably was to hide an infant. When our daughter was born, we were only 24-years-old. We didn't quite know what to do with her! I remember those first few months, because she had a bad case of colic. We couldn't have hid her if we tried. She made too much noise! But somehow Jochebed succeeded in hiding Moses.
We often think of faith as passive—this whole idea of "let go and let God." But real faith is an active thing. Faith sometimes calls us to do risky things. I think of mothers who have been unable to conceive but have seen that as an opportunity to adopt children who might otherwise have spent their lives in an orphanage. That's a courageous act of faith. I think of mothers who are married to unbelieving husbands but sometimes defy those husbands in order to expose their children to the truth of God's Word. I think of mothers who stand up to a teenage son or daughter, saying no to something when all the other mothers say yes. I think of mothers who choose to give up a lucrative career so they can stay home with their children when everyone around them says that's crazy. What gives these mothers the courage to act in such a way is that they fear God more than they fear man. They want to please God more than they want to please their friends or their children or even their husbands. And they trust God. They trust that as they're obedient to what he's calling them to do in the face of threatening circumstances, he'll take care of them and their child.
Jochebed had a sensible faith.
Jochebed also had a sensible faith. After three months of hiding her baby, she saw the handwriting on the wall. She made a little wicker basket, covered it with tar and pitch to make it float, and put it in the reeds on the banks of the Nile.
It's interesting that the word used for "basket" is the same used for Noah's ark. Noah's ark was covered with tar and pitch just like this one was. Both Noah and Moses were placed in the ark, which is not a very safe environment, because the occupants of an ark are at the mercy of the elements. The Nile was known for crocodiles. At three months old, Moses was completely helpless in a river filled with crocodiles! But I want you to notice that Jochebed was not careless about this; she was sensible. She didn't send him floating down the river. She placed him among the reeds along the banks of the Nile. This was a place women would congregate. It was kind of like placing a baby on the steps of a hospital today. She also didn't just put him in the Nile and wave good-bye, saying, "Have a nice life, Moses! Maybe I'll see you sometime!" She had Moses' older sister stand at a distance to find out what would happen to him. If Jochebed herself had stood by the reeds, watching and waiting, it would have been obvious who she was. But Moses' sister made a good spy. When Moses was discovered in the Nile, his sister offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse him, and the plan fell into place. You see, Jochebed was clever—she was sensible in her planning.
Part of being sensible is knowing how to improvise on the spot. Consider the story of one woman I met. At the beginning of her daughter's wedding ceremony, she was to light one of the candles. Not realizing the potential hazard, she got too close and set her acrylic nail on fire. Trying not to ruin her daughter's big day, she calmly lit the candle from her flaming nail and then, like a gunslinger with his six-shooter, blew it out. Needless to say, her blackened nail was the talk of the reception.
That's a funny story of a mother's sensibility, but sometimes the sensibility required of a mother is far more consequential. There are mothers who have chosen to give up their child for adoption simply because it was the best thing for that child. For some women that is a decision that requires enormous faith and foresight and fierce love. I also think of mothers who would love to be stay-at-home moms, but the family finances won't allow it. They find ways to make it work that are best for their kids. They find a way to work from home or they have a godly aunt or grandmother provide childcare or they stagger their work schedules with their husbands so that one parent is always there for the child.
Jochebed's courageous, sensible faith was rewarded.
Jochebed's courageous, sensible faith was soon rewarded by God. As Moses floated along the banks of the Nile, the daughter of Pharaoh arrived with her maidens. The text says that she saw the basket and had it brought to her. She opened it and saw the child crying. She had pity on him because he was a Hebrew and could just as well be dead. It was standard procedure for a wealthy woman to hire a wet nurse to feed a child until he was weaned, and the wet nurse would be the legal guardian during those first years. So, at just the right time, Moses' sister moved in and made an offer to help fulfill that custom. She then went to find Jochebed, who not only got to raise her child, but was now paid for her work!
Surely you see God's hand in all of this! The mother did what she could, but she couldn't have done all of this on her own. Pharaoh's chosen instrument of death, the Nile River, became the instrument through which Moses was saved. His mother even followed Pharaoh's orders in placing him there! A member of Pharaoh's own family came to the river at just the right time and rescued the future deliverer—who also seemed to know just when to cry. The baby was reunited with his mother, who was then able to raise the child during the most formative years, teaching him about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Jochebed released him to Pharaoh's daughter after he was weaned. Moses spent his youth in Pharaoh's court, where he learned law, rhetoric, mathematics, hieroglyphics, and even the art of war (see Acts 7:22). And then Moses ledtwo million people through a desert, putting all of these disciplines to work.
Did you notice that God is never mentioned once in this passage? Still, we know he's at work. There are things mothers can do, but ultimately they have to leave it in God's hands. That's the hardest thing, isn't it? Letting go? A mother's love never changes, but parenthood is a constant process of letting go: letting your child make mistakes; letting your teenager learn some things the hard way; letting your adult child follow God's call, even if it means he or she will live 1,000 miles away. Mothers, take heart! He'll use your courageous, sensible faith to accomplish his purposes. He's working behind the scenes to accomplish his purpose in your children's lives. He will use you, but it's not all up to you.
One of the interesting things about this passage is the prominent role women with motherly instincts play in the story. Jochebed "saw" that Moses was beautiful. Pharaoh's daughter "saw" the basket, "saw" the child crying, and had pity on him. Moses' sister stood in the wings to "know" or "notice" what would happen and when to act. All of this foreshadows what God would soon do for his people. Later in chapter 2, it's God who looks upon his people who are suffering. We're told in verse 25 that "God saw"—same word—"the sons of Israel, and God took notice"—same word—"of them." So you could say it's the motherly instinct of God which caused him to move forward to save his people. And it was God's motherly instincts to "see" us as worthy of delivering from our utterly helpless state through the death, burial, and resurrection of his own Son.
Someone once turned to a full-time mom and said, "And what is it that you do, my dear?" She responded, "I am socializing two homosapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in order that they might be instruments for the transformation of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia that God willed from the beginning of creation." She then added, "And what do you do?"
Mothers, your ultimate purpose is to foster a courageous, sensible faith that will instill in your children a knowledge of, a faith in, and a love for this God who sees and knows your child's deepest need for salvation and has decisively moved to accomplish it through the work of Jesus. But don't worry—it's not all up to you! God is partnering with you.
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.