Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Is it me or does it seem like half of every new film or television series is based on a superhero? Just this summer we saw Wonder Woman brought to the silver screen, yet another take on Spider-man, and now the team of super-power heroes the Defenders on Netflix. As a long time comic book fan, I appreciate this trend. I have always loved superheroes. As soon as I was old enough to grab things in my little infant hands, I was reaching for my older brother’s action figures.

It seems I am not alone in my enthusiasm. We never seem to get tired of telling stories about extraordinary heroes. Superheroes are just one, uniquely modern, expression of our obsession. In America we had the frontier hero or the outlaw hero of the Wild West. Across the pond they had King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Ancient history is also full of mythical heroes and adventurers.

This morning’s Old Testament reading from Exodus is the beginning of the epic tale of one of the Bible’s greatest heroes, Moses. The Hebrew Scriptures declare Moses to be the greatest of all the prophets saying, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face (Deut 34:10).”
 Perhaps no other figure in all of Holy Scripture—with the exception of our Lord himself—looms as large. From the very beginning Moses’ story is extraordinary.

There are certain definite patterns across time and culture that the story of a great hero tends to follow. This idea was made popular by a best selling book and PBS special by Joseph Campbell called, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell wasn’t the first to notice such patterns. He was very much influenced by the work of a psychologist, Otto Rank, who wrote a book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero in which he outlined some of the parallels in the birth narratives of great heroes.

He noted that the hero tends to be the son of distinguished parents. His origin is preceded by great danger, difficulties, or obstacles. There is often a prophecy, dream, or oracle cautioning against his birth and warning danger. Typically, he is surrendered to the water or other elements to escape danger, taken in by strangers or even suckled by an animal, Finally, he discovers his true identity when he comes of age and defeats the enemy.  

Consider a couple modern examples. Harry Potter is the magical son of two wizards. Around the time of his birth there is a prophecy that he will be the one to defeat the evil wizard Voldemort. The evil wizard, threatened by the child, attempts to kill him as an infant. Harry’s parents sacrifice their lives to save him, he is raised by his non-magical aunt and uncle with no idea of his magical heritage until he receives an invitation to Hogwarts school of wizardry, and begins the journey that will result in his final confrontation, and defeat of Voldemort.

Jor-El is a scientist living on the planet Krypton. He discovers the imminent demise of his home world, but nobody believes him until it is too late. He constructs a spaceship to save his infant son Kal-El and blast him off into space just before Krypton’s destruction. The spacecraft lands in Smallville, Kansas where the baby is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent who raise him as their own and name him Clark. The alien rays of Earth’s son give young Clark Kent exceptional powers. No one knows the truth of his origin or his remarkable power until he comes of age to defend truth, justice, and the American way as Super-Man.

Can you see a similar pattern is Moses’ story? Moses was born during a time of great peril for his people. The tide of opinion in Egypt had turned against the Jewish people and they were oppressed and enslaved.  

Moses was the third child of his parents. Their oldest was Miriam who was destined to become a great prophetess, their second was Aaron who would be a great priest, but their third was Moses who was destined to be the savior and leader of his people.

Before Moses’ birth, Pharaoh had commanded the death of all the newborn sons of Israel. The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on scripture, suggests that the reason for his horrible decree was because his soothsayers warned him that a great champion and liberator was about to be born to the Jews. It also says that at Moses’ birth the room was full of holy light.

Fearing for his life, his mother put him in a basket and hid him in the reeds of the Nile. Baby Moses was taken in by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her own. He was raised as a prince in Egypt. His real mother was secretly his nurse maid. Thus begins the epic tale of the man who would grow up to be the deliverer of Israel, the giver of the law, and the greatest of all the prophets. 

These stories captivate us because they tap into the hidden longings of our heart. They are a rumor of transcendence that cause us to be discontent with the ordinary and mundane and instead aspire to a life of heroism.  We have a sense that this world is not our true home, but that we have a father in heaven, and a great destiny. We sense that there are forces of evil that are always trying to destroy us and keep us from achieving that greatness. Finally we have the hope that we will at last triumph, that God is with us and will not allow us to fail if we trust in him.
But for all that we admire and emulate the hero, there is also part of us that knows that if we are ever to achieve such greatness, we ourselves need a hero, we need a deliverer, and champion. All of our stories speak to this longing, but I would also suggest that they direct us to the true fulfillment of all our longings, our savior Jesus Christ.

Moses knew that he wasn’t the one. He knew that he was only the opening act; the one who would prepare the way for one greater than himself.  He told his people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…[The Lord said to me]
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”

Jesus is the one that Moses foretold. He is the hero with a thousand faces, the myth become fact, and the Word made flesh.  He is the child of the woman clothed with the sun, as Revelation describes him. The dragon wanted to eat her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son of whom it was said, “He will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was taken up to God and to his throne.

As Matthew’s gospel tells us, his birth was heralded by magi who read its portents in the stars. The wicked king Herod, threatened by the prophecy, had every new born son in Bethlehem slaughtered, but the family, warned in a dream, escaped to Egypt. As a man Jesus would deliver his people from bondage to sin, conquer death, and become the savior of the world.

We live in dangerous and frightening times, as indeed all Christians have before. We see injustice all around us, and want to see a deliverer like Moses come and set the people free. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We want a defender to keep us safe. We want to be heroic ourselves and stand against what is wrong and for what is right. Jesus Christ is the hero that our hearts long for. The law was given by Moses, grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.