Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon for Pentecost 14: Genesis 37-50

Some Things God Wants You To Know When You’re Suffering

Let me start by telling you a story about a man who suffered. We started reading his story in our Old Testament readings last week, and we read a bit from the end of the story this morning. The whole tale is well worth reading; you’ll find it in Genesis chapters 37-50. But for this morning, let me give you the Coles notes version of it.

In the book of Genesis we read that the patriarch Jacob had two wives and two concubines. With these four women he had a total of twelve sons and a daughter. Most of them were the children of his wife Leah, but she was not his favourite. The wife he loved the most was Leah’s sister Rachel, and Rachel had waited a long time for her children. Joseph was her firstborn, and she died in childbirth with her second son, Jacob’s baby, Benjamin.

Jacob apparently never learned any psychology, because not only did he have a favourite wife, but he also had a favourite son, Rachel’s son Joseph, and he let the rest of the family know it in no uncertain terms. Not surprisingly, the knowledge that he was his father’s favourite turned young Joseph’s head a bit and he enjoyed playing on his favourite status with his brothers. He was apparently quite a dreamer, and enjoyed recounting his dreams. Once, for instance, he dreamt that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, and all the other eleven sheaves stood up and bowed to his sheaf. Another time he dreamt that he was a star in the sky, and the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed down to his star.

Jacob was troubled by his son’s attitude but didn’t seem to realise that he was contributing to it himself. For instance, he spent a lot of time working on a coat for Joseph to wear. We call it ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’ although the original Hebrew word simply means ‘a long sleeved coat’. But the point is that he was the only one who got such a coat from his father. Not surprisingly, the other brothers became more and more jealous of him, and their jealousy simmered, waiting for an appropriate moment to boil over.

The moment came when ten of the brothers were away keeping their father’s sheep. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, and they seized their chance. Their first plan was to kill him, but Judah, brother number four, talked them out of that one. Instead they sold him as a slave to some slave traders. They took his coat from him, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and took it back and showed it to their father. Not surprisingly, Jacob believed his son had been killed, and he was stricken with grief.

But Joseph was not dead. The slave traders took him down to Egypt where he was sold into the household of an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar, a captain in Pharaoh’s guard. The author of Genesis tells us that ‘The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man’ (Genesis 39:2). Apparently he was a hard worker and something of a charmer, and before too long he was a sort of butler, in charge of the running of Potiphar’s house. And eventually he came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife who had something of a roving eye. She tried to seduce him, but he refused; he pointed out his master’s trust in him and said, “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”(Genesis 39:9).

The lady in question tried several times to get Joseph to go to bed with her, and he always refused. Eventually she got so annoyed that she accused him to her husband of trying to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph out of his household and had him imprisoned. C.S. Lewis points out that this was a rather feeble punishment for those days, when executions were so common, and he speculates that Potiphar might have been a little skeptical: “I don’t suppose for a moment that Joseph did it, but I can see I’ll have no peace until I get him out of the house!”

Anyway, Joseph was now in prison, and the cycle repeated itself. Once again, his natural charm and ability asserted itself, and before too long he was the jailer’s right hand man. ‘The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper’ (Genesis 39:23).

After some time the King of Egypt threw two of his officials into prison. One night they both had dreams, and the next morning they were troubled by them. In those days everyone accepted that dreams were significant and needed to be interpreted, and the two officials wanted someone to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph noticed their distress and said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (40:8). So Joseph interpreted their dreams and his interpretation turned out to be correct; one of the officials was pardoned and restored to his job, and the other was hanged.

After a couple of years the King of Egypt himself had two dreams one night. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows coming up out of the river. They were followed by seven scrawny cows who proceeded to eat up the fat ones. In the second dream the King saw seven good ears of wheat on a stalk, which were immediately swallowed up by seven thin ears. The king was disturbed by this dream, and when he told the official who had been in prison with Joseph, the official remembered Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream and recommended him to the King.

So the King sent for Joseph. Joseph told him that God was informing him of the future: Egypt was about to go through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. So it would be prudent, Joseph said, to make some preparations now for the famine. The King agreed, and proceeded to appoint Joseph to his government and put him in charge of making the preparations!

Sure enough, the land went through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but because Joseph had been storing up food, Egypt was okay. Canaan, however, was not, and Canaan was where the rest of Joseph’s family was still living. Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob sent the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to buy food. They saw Joseph there but didn’t recognise him – we can speculate that he was much older and also shaved and dressed as an Egyptian.

Joseph, however, recognised his brothers and proceeded to put them through a series of tests to find out if they had changed at all. He accused them of being spies, and when they denied it and told him about their family, he arrested one of them, Simeon, and told the others to go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had stayed with their father in Canaan. Then he would know that they were telling the truth. They did this; on their next trip they brought Benjamin. Joseph contrived to frame Benjamin for stealing something from him, and when he arrested him, the other brothers all protested that their father would die if he lost Benjamin too. Judah even offered to take Benjamin’s place and live as Joseph’s slave.

At that point Joseph couldn’t keep it up any more. He made himself known to his brothers and there was an emotional reconciliation. He told them to go back, get the rest of the family and bring them down to Egypt where there was plenty of food for them all. So they went and got Jacob and the rest of the family, and all of them came down to Egypt. The king gave them land in Goshen, the best part of Egypt, and so Jacob and his family were saved from starvation.

The story of Joseph is an illustration of how God’s plans are brought slowly to their fruition; as Joseph says to his brothers at the end of the story, “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good”(50:20).

But it would be fair to say that this was not obvious to Joseph while he was going through the suffering. Looking back later, yes – he could see the hand of God at work, but I doubt if it was as clear to him when he was thrown into prison for his refusal to commit adultery with his master’s wife. No doubt he asked himself at that point why he bothered trying to be a godly person – as we all do in those kinds of circumstances.

What is the story telling us about suffering and how we deal with it?

The first thing is that our suffering is not a punishment. Now we might say that Joseph’s conduct at the beginning of the story, when he was lording it over his brothers and enjoying his favoured status, was simply asking for trouble. Nonetheless, later on, when he was thrown into jail in Egypt, it was because of his refusal to sin, rather than because of any wickedness on his part. God was not punishing Joseph, and this is very important for us to remember.

Indeed, for us Christians it’s even clearer than it was for Joseph, because Jesus has died for our sins. Over and over again, when Christian people go through suffering, they come to their pastors and cry out “Why is God doing this to me? I’ve tried to be a good person - why is he punishing me?” The answer is - he isn’t. Whatever else our suffering might be, it’s not a punishment for our sins. How do we know that? Because Romans 8:1 says ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. No condemnation! So whatever else our suffering may be, it is not a punishment from God.

The second thing God wants us to know when we suffer is this: our suffering cannot frustrate God’s purpose for us. We are a part of God’s plan for the human race, and he is going to bring that plan to its successful conclusion.

When human beings chose to disobey God at the beginning of our history, part of God’s response was to choose a people to be his special messengers to the world. By their life together they were to model for the whole world what God’s ways were like. At the climax of their history, God himself came and lived among them in Jesus, and he started the next phase of God’s plan - the choosing of a new people, both inside and outside the borders of Israel, to be his messengers to the world.

The Church of Jesus Christ is God’s new Israel, called to model for the whole world what God’s kingdom looks like, and called to spread the Good News of Jesus to all people. So you and I aren’t just isolated individuals living our lives in the middle of the accidents of history. We’re a part of God’s great plan, and God is not going to allow evil to derail that plan. Sometimes when we suffer we forget that; we think that God’s plan is going to be somehow hindered by what’s happening to us. But the Bible gives us lots of examples of how God can even bring good out of the evil things that happen to us.

This story of Joseph is one of those examples. Joseph’s experience agrees with what Paul says in Romans 8:28: ‘And we know that God makes all things work together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose’ (NRSV margin). Suffering is a great mystery, very difficult for us to understand, but somehow God is still able to bring about his purposes for us even when we suffer. To quote Joseph’s words to his brothers again: “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good”(50:20)

In Romans 8:38-39 Paul says ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. You know, it sounds terrible when I say it, but these verses are not strictly true. Before you kick me out of the pulpit for contradicting the Bible, let me explain what I mean. Paul is right; by themselves these things can’t separate us from God’s love in Christ - unless we let them! Unfortunately, so often when we go through suffering we do allow these things to drive us away from God; we get so wrapped up in the suffering and we allow it to make us bitter and full of hate and self-pity.

The thing that impresses me most about the story of Joseph is that he didn’t do that. Surely if anyone had an excuse to indulge in despair and to rail angrily against God, Joseph did! But that was not his response. In every negative circumstance he found himself in, he simply accepted it without question and began to do his best to be faithful to God wherever he was – even in the deepest dungeon. And God honoured that.

Joseph’s story is assuring us that our suffering is not a punishment sent by God. It is reminding us that our suffering cannot frustrate God’s plans for us. And it is inviting us to turn to God in our suffering, to be faithful to him whether we feel like it or not, and to ask for his help moment by moment. As we learn to do that, we gradually discover that Paul is right after all, and there is absolutely nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord..

1 comment:

Provident 360 said...

Consider it pure joy when you suffer, with the full knowledge that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Blessed are those who endure suffering, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life (James 1:2 & 12).