What gives you courage? What gives you courage to do hard things, unthinkable things?
If you grew up watching sports on television, you probably noticed at some point that Red Bull became the main sponsor of every extreme sports event out there. I’m not talking about football or basketball. No, I’m talking about the X-Games on ESPN, things like cliff diving, skateboard mega ramp, wingsuit flying.
Watch those sports and I guarantee you’ll see Red Bull somewhere. And the energy drink has sponsored those kind of sports for years because they want to send a message. They want to tell you that “Red Bull Gives You Wiiings.” Or in other words, Red Bull gives you courage.
Now, the reality is that when a normal person drinks an energy drink, we don’t do any of that: The most courageous thing we do is staying up all night to meet a deadline (and maybe even fail at that)! Because real courage doesn’t really come from Red Bull, or Monster, not even from Celsius.
So where does it come from? What gives you courage to do the hard things of life? What gives you courage to stand up against evil? What gives you courage to refuse to participate in the violent system of our society? The violence that threatens the lives of immigrants and children? The violence that weaponizes different opinions and polarizes churches, neighborhoods, and families? That is the question we are asking today: What gives you courage?
The Courage of the Midwives
That is the question we are asking the text today. What gave Shiphrah and Puah the courage to stand up against Pharaoh? If you remember, by the end of Genesis, the king of Egypt owned all of Egypt: both the land and the people. Pharaoh was an extremely powerful person. And powerful people usually get what they want.
That was a reality back then just as it is nowadays. We see it every day in our time. A powerful leader wages war against another country for months, years, without being personally affected by anything. Another one harasses several employees without ever going to jail, or even being fired. And millions of other powerful people get to waste food and water while entire countries go days without.
Powerful people usually get what they want, Pharaoh was a powerful person, and he wanted the Hebrew population contained. What could Shiphrah and Puah do? What could have given them courage to even try that?
(Read Ex. 1:15-22)
Looking at verse 15, perhaps you think the answer is obvious: The text reads, “the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives.” These are Hebrew midwives; they simply won’t kill their own people, right? The problem is that the text is not clear about their nationalities. The Hebrew is ambiguous, so you could translate “Hebrew midwives,” or “midwives to the Hebrews.”
Besides, if you look at the rest of this chapter, Pharaoh is always trying to use Egyptians to kill Hebrews. He does it in verse nine, and he does it again in verse 22. So it’s more than likely that the same thing is happening in verse 15. Pharaoh is using Egyptians to kill Hebrews. If the midwives are Egyptians, we cannot say that it’s their nationality that gives them courage.
Then, perhaps you think it’s work ethics. They’re midwives and midwives give life, they don’t take it. Maybe they are trying to protect their reputation, their prestigious midwifery license. If they kill a baby, they will never get to exercise their vocation again. So, maybe they stand up against Pharaoh to keep their jobs.
But if they don’t kill the babies, they won’t need a license anymore. They won’t need a job. Because when you disobey a powerful king, you don’t need no license or job because the king has a license to kill and he’s will probably kill you.
The midwives are not standing up against Pharaoh to protect themselves. Their courage does not come from their nationality. Their courage does not come from their occupation. So, where do they find courage?
Keep reading the text and you find the answer in verse 17. The midwives feared God. They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. The courage of the midwives did not come from their nationality or their vocation, it came from the fear of the Lord.
The midwives were able to stand up against the powerful king of Egypt because they feared an even more powerful King. The midwives were able to reject death because they knew the God of life. The midwives were not afraid of Pharaoh because they feared the Lord. And the fear of the Lord gives you courage.
The whole narrative of Exodus is about fearing God. At each stage, more people catch on to it. At the burning bush, it’s just Moses and barely; as the plagues come, the Hebrew people began to fear God; and then after the Passover, Pharoah finally fears God enough to let the people go. The Book of Exodus has this crescendo demonstrations of God’s power, and the more you see, the more you fear. But it all began with the powerless midwives.
Fear of the Lord Is Found Among the Powerless
These women without much status or power feared the Lord even before the burning bush. These women are not part of the Egyptian elite. They are not the most important people in society. They don’t even have the cool job status because “Call the Midwife” isn’t available in Egypt yet. These are simple people and that’s what makes them prime candidates to fear the Lord. To fear God is to know God, and knowledge of God is often found among the powerless.
That has always been the case in Christianity. If you have studied Christian history, you noticed that from the very beginning this has been a religion of the disenfranchised. It began with the powerless learning to fear the Lord. Every time the powerful came on board, it seems like the fire of the church moved somewhere else. From Jerusalem to Europe to America to South America, and now to Africa and Asia.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that rich and privileged people cannot know God. What I am saying is that when we have all the resources, all the connections, all the means to do it on our own, it is harder to recognize that we need God. As Tim Keller puts it, “If you want God’s grace, all you need is need!” That is why the fear of the Lord is often found among the powerless.
Knowledge of God Comes from Our Need for God
We get to know God when we realize that we need him. We learn to fear God when we come empty to face our biggest challenges. That’s how Shiphrah and Puah found themselves in the presence of Pharaoh: empty and powerless.
Have you been there? Have you found yourself completely powerless in the face of evil? Do you feel like the challenge ahead of you is beyond the strength you may have? There, it is right in that moment that you can find courage in the fear of the Lord. When you experience your absolute powerlessness, you access God’s eternal powerfulness. Powerlessness is an opportunity to fear the Lord and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of courage.
As I say this, I imagine there are at least two responses floating in your minds. Some of you, are like “Yes, yes, yes! This is awesome!” You feel encouraged, you feel on fire. All you want to know is what to do with so much courage in your heart, amen? Because you feel you just had some Red Bull and you are about to go jump from a plane and do some crazy stunt! Hold on, because the story of the midwives tell us what to do with the courage that comes from fearing the Lord.
But I also imagine that some of you in this room may not find the courage thing encouraging at all. You may have experienced complete powerlessness in the face of evil and courage didn’t show up. You feared the Lord, but you couldn’t stop it. You couldn’t stand up for the oppressed, you couldn’t stand up for yourself. Hang on for just a couple of minutes, because I will get there.
Fear of the Lord Gives Us Courage
First, let’s see what to do with courage. The fear of the Lord produces courage, but of course it is not courage to do crazy stunts. It is not even courage to go and punch Pharaoh in the face! It’s the very opposite. The fear of the Lord produces courage that breaks the cycle of violence.
The women of Exodus are lifesavers. It begins here with Shiphrah and Puah, but it continues with Jochebed, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Zipporah. Even in a patriarchal context, the Book of Exodus names six women that put their lives at risk to save Moses. Think about that! Except for Pharaoh’s daughter, all of them had a very high probability of failure. These women are putting their lives at risk to save a baby from a powerful ruler.
In verse 18, when Pharaoh summons them back into court, Shiphrah and Puah have no guarantee that he won’t simply kill them and find another away of killing the babies. But that’s not the point. The point is not whether they will succeed or not.
Because to fear God is to trust God. And when you trust the Lord, you don’t think as much about what will happen in the system. You do the right thing yourself, trusting that God will do the rest.
I am so thankful for all the women who trusted the Lord and did their part. Women who challenge violent systems so that I could live. It took at least six courageous women doing their part for Moses to live.
How many system-defying women did it take for you to be here? Perhaps you think of a mother figure. But don’t forget those schoolteachers who spent money from their own meager salaries to buy classroom supplies. Don’t forget those preachers who proclaimed you the gospel while everyone tried to silence their voices. Don’t forget Mary, who accepted the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock to bring Joy to the whole world!
What are their examples calling you to do? How are their stories inspiring you to find courage in the fear of the Lord and break cycles of violence in your family, in your church, in Waco, or wherever you are? Because the fear of the Lord gives us courage to break cycles of violence.
Fear of the Lord Give Us a Place with His People
If you’re here today feeling discouraged, if this message is a hard word for you because you do not feel courageous, I want to direct your attention to verse 21. “Because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” Let me repeat, “Because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.”
Friends, the fear of the Lord gives us courage. Courage is a reward, not a requisite. The text doesn’t say that the midwives received a family because they were courageous. They received families because they feared God.
So, today you may feel weak, sad, and burdened. Today you may remember a day when you did not receive that system-defying courage. That is ok. Because like the midwives, we are not rewarded on account of our courage, but on account of our fear. It is not about what we do, but because of who we know.
You say, “That is unfair,” and I say, “Thank God it is!” Because there is no way we could earn this reward here.
The word for families in verse 21 is actually “houses.” Which means that if Shiphrah and Puah were Egyptians, as I believe they were, their reward was more than a husband and kids. Their reward was adoption into the people of God.
Yes, the fear of the Lord gives us courage, that is true. But much more than that, the fear of the Lord gives us a place with his people. When we empty ourselves to know and trust him fully, to know and trust him in the revelation of Jesus Christ, we are adopted into his people, we are made his children.
And like beloved children, we give our best to please our Father every day. But we do so in peace, we do so by his grace. We do so confident that whether we fail or succeed, the fear of the Lord will give us a home. That is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of courage.