August 21, 2011
That Exodus story expresses very modern and present fears. The Egyptians are afraid in the same way many Americans are – who’s out-populating us? Is it Muslims, Mormons, or Latino immigrants? You can hear those fears being stirred on talk radio, about how all those people, the ones who aren’t the mainstream of what America is really all about, who are just here by sufferance, or here to work illegally – just look at them! They’re having so many children that they’re going to conquer us by force of numbers!
In this nation, population pressure is mostly understood in economic terms – all those people are taking away jobs that belong to “real Americans.” We usually ignore the realities that this nation has prospered largely because of the hard work and creativity of continuing waves of immigrants, people who value the possibilities of education and a better life here than what they knew at home.
The response to population growth in some parts of the world has been like Pharaoh’s – limit the number of children that are produced. Starting in 1979, China said that most couples could only have one child, and in addition to a lower birth rate, it’s produced a terrible warping of the gender balance. There will soon be millions of young Chinese men who have no chance of finding a female partner. Something similar is happening in India, where far more boy babies are born than girls. Pharaoh tried to eliminate the boy babies, but modern societies are often eliminating the girls.
Others fear the increasing burden the vast human population is placing on this planet – the garden is overpopulated, at least if its members expect the kind of lifestyle that the first world enjoys. If you haven’t seen it yet, National Geographic is running a yearlong series on population issues. There was a fascinating article on the anthropocene age a couple of months ago – with the thesis that we have entered a geologic age characterized most clearly by human impact. Our heavy human footprint on this planet is impacting the ability of other species to survive, and extinction rates are skyrocketing. The human manipulation of our day may not be as conscious as Pharaoh’s, but it has the very same potential for death.
What are we supposed to do with the fear and death all around us? We’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and we’re still at war in two places that most Americans knew nothing about ten years ago. Our national politics are a disgraceful game of gotcha or flat-out refusal to play. We have lost a sense that together, we have the potential to build a society far more life-giving than what we see around us. It’s surprising to many that the Islamic nations of the Middle East and North Africa are showing such hopeful responses right now, as their people rise up against tyrannical and exploitative governments that haven’t served the good of the whole population.
The story of Moses and his sister Miriam and the Pharaoh’s daughter is a reminder that supposed enemies, people of different faiths, varied tribes, and both genders, are all necessary to healing God’s world. In Pharaoh’s plan, Moses was supposed to be food for the Nile crocodiles, but his mother and sister figured out a creative way to get him fostered by the royal family. The compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter eventually brought down her own father’s tyranny, and set the Israelites free. She was able to look beyond the divisions between immigrant (Israelite) laborers and the ruling Egyptian population, and act in the same way that the Israelite midwives did – rejecting the death-dealing of Pharaoh. No, she said, this child shall live! There were many saviors of Israel – including the midwives, the mother and sister of Moses, and Pharaoh’s daughter.
That child Moses did live and eventually became the route to greater life for his people. He was also a savior of his people. There is more than a passing resemblance between his name in Hebrew, Moshe, and what Peter calls Jesus, Mashiah, Messiah, son of the living God. Who is our God but the source of life, and life abundant? – and sender of Messiah, anointed and appointed to bring greater life for all God’s people.
When Jesus asks his friends who people think he is, they identify several prophets, of whom Moses is the first in biblical history. Prophets speak or act on behalf of God – they tell it like it is, or show what God’s country ought to look like – and it is always about abundant life. You know the images – lion lying down with a lamb, an end to hunger and war, former enemies sitting down to a banquet together, no one dying young. Peter gets it, for once. He sees in Jesus a sign of God’s presence, one who will lead us all to that kind of abundant life.
We all know that the journey toward abundant life is not easy. It got Jesus executed, and it got Peter executed, and it has gotten many other prophets executed. Yet the promise of abundant life still stands before us all. It’s bigger than debates over deficits, and who is to blame for the economic mess we’re in. It’s bigger than narrow ethnic identities or me-first attitudes. That vision of abundant life is the road Jesus showed us, the same one Paul reminds us of in his letter to the Romans: present yourselves as a living sacrifice, don’t just go along with the ways of this world, but transform those ways into godly ones that lead to more abundant life. And remember that the gifts of every person are necessary and honorable – we need each other. All the members of God’s creation have something to contribute to abundant life, and all will enjoy it when the whole body becomes a holy, life-giving body.
What might it mean to present our bodies as a living sacrifice? We often think of that word sacrifice as a limitation, or a giving up. It’s more accurate to think of it as a making holy, a setting apart for a special purpose. For what special purpose have you been set apart? What gifts do you bring to this journey toward abundant life? Abundant life doesn’t just mean more lives – it means the ability of all to live in peace, with adequate resources and an end to strife. How will put your gifts to work, and join God’s creative work of abundant life?
Maybe you’re working on demographic data that will remind us that population pressure is real, and something that at least some of us can do something about. Maybe, like Pharaoh’s daughter, you’ll have compassion on a lost child – and teach her to read or be a big brother or sister to boy who has none. Or maybe you’ll help refugees or immigrants find a place in this society so that they, too, may find their life-giving vocation in this body. Maybe your contribution to abundant life is about gardens and rain barrels and bike lanes and solar panels – to live more lightly on this earth so that all may simply live. Or perhaps you are working to build schools for girls in developing nations so there won’t be so many child brides – and those girls can make their own choices about when and how many children they’ll bear – and be better able to provide for them. Each is a way of offering more abundant life – not just more lives lived in misery.
Somehow, I believe those are the keys to the kingdom that Jesus was talking about. When we bind people together into a body that builds up others, we are helping to build abundant life in Jesus’ name. When we loose people from old sins, when we forgive them, we are doing the same thing. Abundant life is not something that simply appears – it is a creative work of the body of Christ. It is a living sacrifice, and it needs the partnership of all of us, and the whole world, so that the whole world may finally know the abundant life for which God created every one of us and every part of creation.
How will you become a living sacrifice, so that more of the world may know the abundant life for which God created us?