This is a transcript from the July 7, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
Verse from Exodus 1:15-22, The Message version. I must say once you hear it, it's going to sound like a very weird piece of scripture to use, but we'll learn why we're using it in the sermon in a little bit, but it is one of the more darker pieces of scripture. The king of Egypt had a talk with the two Hebrew midwives; one was named Shiphrah and the other Puah. He said, "When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the sex of the baby. If it's a boy, kill him; if it's a girl, let her live."
For the midwives had far too much respect for God and didn't do what the king of Egypt ordered, they let the boy babies live. The king of Egypt called in the midwives. "Why didn't you obey my orders? You've let those babies live." The midwives answered Pharaoh, "The Hebrew women aren't like the Egyptian women; they're vigorous. Before the midwife can get there, they've already had the baby." God was pleased with the midwives. The people continued to increase in number, a very strong people, and because the midwives honored God, God gave them families of their own. So Pharaoh issued a general order to all his people: "Every boy that is born, drown him in the Nile, but let the girls live."
What a way to start a sermon. We've been having a theme this summer about story and thinking about our own stories and how God has been a part of that. Well, last week, you heard stories of teenagers on our youth mission trip, the week before that, Russ talked about what is your backstory. Today, I want to talk a little bit more about our stories, but particularly about the adversaries, about the conflict within our stories, mainly with antagonists.
A little bit about antagonists in our story. A protagonist, say like this Lego figure, whose job is to be the hero and goes through some type of change throughout a story. Then there's the antagonist, which in this picture is the shoe, is the opposing force in the story which causes the conflict for the protagonist. Since I love movies, and we're talking about stories all summer, let's use some movies as examples of this, all right?
In any movie you've seen there's at least versions of a protagonist and an antagonist. Maybe not every story has one, but in our popular culture minds, we think of Star Wars. The antagonist is Darth Vader, he is the villain; Luke Skywalker is the hero.
Or we think about Batman and the Joker. Most recently, you think of the Avengers and Thanos.
Or James Bond and any number one of his antagonists he has throughout his career. We have these iconic ideas of who are the heroes, who are the villains. Most of the time, we think of our villains to be these evil perpetrators, these people that are chaos and monsters who just want to destroy and who want to hurt. Sometimes antagonists don't have to be that way. Sometimes antagonists are certain things in your life that keep pushing up against you, things that you keep dealing with time and time again. Whether it be a chronic illness, whether it's a neighbor that doesn't follow the HOA rules, whether it's your car that continues to have to be fixed time and time again. We all have different type of antagonists in our lives.
We don't necessarily want to label them as villains, but I want to go through four types of antagonists. You can figure out and start thinking, "What are the antagonists in my story? What are the ones in my life right now that I'm dealing with?"
The first one we'll talk about is the evil antagonist.
In any story, sometimes, mostly blockbusters or big fantasy stories, there is an evil antagonist that all they want to do is create chaos and destroy and hurt. There's really no reasoning for it, but they are just pure evil. They're a personification of evil. As an example, you think of the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The everyday antagonist.
Not all antagonists are bent upon evil for the sake of evil. Some are simply acting upon what they think is right and good, but it's coming up against the hero of the story, the protagonist. This is a picture from The Notebook.
I needed to get some kind of romantic comedy or romantic movie in there for those of you that don't like the action Marvel movies. In The Notebook, it's Allie's mom who is the antagonist of the film. She doesn't think she should be with-- I forget the name of the guy, but Ryan Gosling. The good looking guy of the story, she doesn't want her to be with her. This antagonist can create conflict in a number of ways. Maybe having the same goal as the hero, maybe discouraging the main character from pursuing a goal, and so creating emotional or physical roadblocks for them. This is one that shows up in our lives a lot, the everyday antagonist.
There's the immoral antagonist.
This one, more often than not, wants to suppress or harm the protagonist, the hero of the story, that it is an overwhelming oppressive force. This plays out in ways like this picture is from the Hunger Games, the Capitol. In a lot of science fiction places, this becomes any type of government or oppressive regime over the people. This is the immoral antagonist.
Then we have the internal struggle.
On occasion, a story has an internal struggle within their hero, a force doesn't happen to be human, but maybe an element of their own will, of their own ego, of their own mind. This often comes in our own lives, that there's going to be these internal struggles that we have that come up against us time and time again. This picture is from a movie that came out last summer called First Reformed. This pastor in the film has an internal struggle throughout the movie with how we treat others and how we treat the planet, and so that's why I want to use that one as an example.
As we learn about the antagonist in stories, who is yours? When you think about your own story, your life, what has happened so far, who are the antagonists of the story? It doesn't always have to be a person. It could be illness, it could be an oppressing force above you. Maybe it's supernatural, maybe it's a mental illness. What do you see yourself fighting time and time again? What's the thing that keeps hitting you upside the head that you just wish would leave? What has driven you to stand up for what you believe to be true and right? Sometimes the antagonist make us to do that.
In our scripture for today, the antagonist is obviously Pharaoh. Pharaoh is the one that's creating the conflict. He's seeing the Hebrew people as a problem to be dealt with, an issue to be dealt with. Slavery isn't totally working to eradicate them, they keep having children. Now he has to go to that source to get rid of them. Even when he tries to do that, the midwives stand up.
Sometimes antagonists help us stand up for what we believe to be right and true. The midwives knew that this was not right. They stood up to him in a kind of a subversive way. They gave this excuse of like, "All those Hebrew women, they're so good at giving birth, they give birth before we can even get there, so we don't even have a chance."
They understood what the king stood for. Therefore, they understood what they stood for in opposition of it. Their antagonist brought out the best in them. Pharaoh's actions invited the midwives to step into a redemptive role in Israel.
The Hebrew people, they started to become part of a larger story they did not know was unfolding yet. It caused them to be part of the kingdom of God and renewing all things to flourish life, where life is not flourishing.
As we move to a time of prayer, I want you to dwell on what God has done in our lives, in your life. Think about who are the ones in our lives that are the antagonists, the ones that keep pushing us to fight for the things that we believe in. While also thinking those antagonists, those adversaries, those villains that are put in our path, what do they have to teach you? What do they have to teach you about yourself, the world, about being a part of God's family, about the kingdom of God? What are they trying to teach you in your place in this world?
We're going to have a moment of silent reflection, move into some music and then a prayer together. We can certainly point out the antagonists in our own lives. For some of us, it's really easy. We know just the right person or just the right thing to put our blame on. Our antagonists really affect us in some ways that it affects how we react to things. It affects how we treat others, because especially if you have an antagonist that makes you very unhealthy, you're going to thrash out in ways that are not necessarily a good witness or may hurt others or may hurt the loved ones around you, when you let them, the antagonist, control how you feel, how you react, how you live.
Maybe you had an antagonist in a chapter of your life and that's over. Maybe now you've entered a place where you feel at peace, that things are going well. I want to flip this on its head for a second. The story of Pharaoh and the midwives. Let's say we just take the perspective of Pharaoh. Let's sit in his chair, sit in his shoes, and look at this from his perspective because now he is the protagonist and the midwives are the antagonist. All he's doing is trying to keep his country, his empire, his city safe from any threats that may be in it. That the Hebrew people were growing very fast and that if they kept coming in, if they kept being more and more of a culture, that it was going to destroy Egypt.
The Hebrews were certainly less than and not as worthy as the Egyptians, but then the midwives stood up against him and his plan to fix this problem to protect Egypt. Now the midwives are the antagonists, and Pharaoh is the hero. Have you ever discovered yourself in maybe this situation where you have felt like you were the hero of the story, you were the protagonist? Only to discover, after you see it from a larger view, a larger story, or the things that happen afterwards, that you were the antagonist in you own story. Not necessarily directly in Pharaoh's shoes, maybe you weren't like that, but in a place where you understand that you yourself had been a part of a system, part of something that has hurt others around you and you were oblivious to it before.
Since I'm going with my movie theme, that was Pharaoh and the 10 commandments. I want to talk about Captain Marvel a second. If you haven't seen it and you really don't like spoilers, you can just plug your ears a little bit, but if you don't care and you're never going to see it, then I'll just tell you a little bit about it. The storyline of Captain Marvel is the fact that Captain Marvel is working for a race, an empire called the Kree. They are run by what's called the Supreme Ruler. They are in a war with the Skrulls, are you with me? The Skrulls are right there, the green guy up there. In this, the Kree Empire says the Skrulls are infiltrating all kinds of planets trying to take over because they're shapeshifters, so they can do that very stealthily.
Her mission with the Kree is to find these secret agents that are on these different planets and stop this war forever. As the story goes on, we find that Captain Marvel has been betrayed the whole time, that she's been used. She was in an accident and has no memory left, so she just thinks she is part of the Kree Empire. She finally meets Talos, which is that Skrull up there. This is a big twist in the movie, so if you don't want to hear it, close your ears. He turns out to actually only be wanting to find a home and find his family. The Skrulls have been displaced across the galaxy. There are some on earth, and that's what he's looking for.
What happened was, the Kree Empire has created a narrative that the Skrulls are the bad guys, when all they have been trying to do is find a home, and the Kree Empire is the one trying to eradicate other races, other worlds have complete rule over all of them. Now, as Captain Marvel thought she was the hero in the story, she has found out she, in some ways, has been the villain or the antagonist because she has participated in this war or this so-called war. Sometimes we can be the antagonists thinking we're doing good when we're completely oblivious to the things around us and how we're affecting other people.
Captain Marvel follows a similar storyline from our scripture today of Moses. There's a race, the Hebrews that the Pharaoh wants to get rid of. He creates a false narrative to kill or weaken the people so he could keep them enslaved forever. Whether it's the Supreme Leader or the Kree in Captain Marvel, or Pharaoh and the Egyptians in our scriptures, the good news is that these antagonists actually call forth heroes within our own world, because ego, narcissism, and hate are short-sighted, they have tunnel vision. Evil has tunnel vision, it's short-sighted. They only can see what is the next day, but rather as we are called forth by God in these moments with our antagonists, we can have a prophetic voice that speaks to a larger story that moves beyond us and beyond our time.
When Pharaoh was busy figuring out how he can get rid of the Hebrews by declaring a decree to drown all the boys in the Nile, a courageous mother took her son and put him in a basket and put him in the Nile, hoping that God will save him, will take care of him. This baby was only to be discovered by who? Pharaoh's daughter. Now, this Hebrew baby is growing up in Pharaoh's household and his family. Moses becomes the one to free the Hebrews from their enslavement of Pharaoh.
Antagonists often dare you to stand up, dare you to take a stand against them. The good news is that this dare, this threat, is also your opportunity to practice your prophetic voice that God has given you, because sometimes the most holy thing we can do as God's people is to say no, say, "Not on my watch. This isn't happening while I'm here. I will speak up against this." Puah and Shiphrah did that as the midwives, stood up to Pharaoh, not directly but subversively, and made it possible that Hebrews could keep having their babies.
For you to stand up for justice, mercy, compassion, love in our world, sometimes, in the moment, it may not feel like it does very much, but sometimes, if you look at the bigger story after that, do you think the midwives felt like it did very much? They didn't know yet that because of their actions, this baby Moses would come out of this story, because of their actions, to save all the Hebrew people.
When you stand up for things that are not right, maybe it won't change in that time, but maybe you're setting the path for those who come after you. Maybe what you have said inspired a child so that when they grow up, they become a great leader in their community, because of the work you did beforehand, or maybe you just simply give somebody hope in that moment. When it felt like darkness was surrounding them the whole time, you gave the most valuable thing in the world and that is hope, that they may continue to move on and march forward.
Whatever you may be dealing with as your antagonist, the ways in which you respond and live with the ones who oppose you and challenge you is important in your own life. It's also important for those around you. For how you act, how you stand up for things, that sets the example for your children, your grandchildren, the rest of your family, your friends, your mother and father because courage can be contagious. Once one person stands up and says, "No." More will feel comfortable to do so also.
The more we see people standing up for justice for those who cannot speak for themselves, practicing mercy to those who may not deserve it, having compassion for those that we deem the other and love radically loving those who the world deems unlovable, that is the good news of the antagonist. The antagonist forces us to step up into those beliefs that we have and actually stand for it rather than say, "We stand for it."
Where is your voice in the kingdom of God? Where is God calling you to stand up and use your voice today, in a prophetic way? The biblical narrative, time and time again, tells us that we continue to oppress and sometimes the oppress become the oppressors, that this is the nature and cycle of humanity. How are we doing that in our world today? How are you doing that in your own lives? How can you see the antagonist and how it's forcing you to become the person God created you to be? To stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.