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Paul writes: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:4-14

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Last weekend I had the joy of officiating at my first-ever wedding ceremony as an ordained minister. The couple who were getting married were one of those couples who you just know belong together. During our planning meetings I asked the couple to find a scripture reading that expressed their love for each other, something we could use during the ceremony.  They chose an unusual passage from the Song of Solomon:

“Hang my locket around your neck,
wear my ring on your finger.
Love is invincible facing danger and death.
Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.
The fire of love stops at nothing—
it sweeps everything before it.
Flood waters can’t drown love,
torrents of rain can’t put it out.
Love can’t be bought, love can’t be sold—
it’s not to be found in the marketplace.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love
It would be utterly scorned.” – Song of Solomon 8:7-8 (edited)

What a passionate passage!

In our reading from Philippians today, the apostle Paul shows the same passionate love for Jesus.  He says: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul was willing to risk everything, and lose everything life has to offer, in order to know Jesus and become more like him.

Love like this is the greatest thing life has to offer!

The world tries to offer us all kinds of cheap imitations – celebrity-worship, wealth, fame, politics, popularity, success – but like Solomon said, love is not to be found in the marketplace. In fact the kind of love Paul is talking about is very costly.

As an example: I remember back when I was in middle school, former Beatle George Harrison came out with a song called “Give Me Love”.  Some of you might remember it:

“Give me love, give me love,
Give me peace on earth,
Give me light, give me life,
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope, help me cope
With this heavy load
Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul…”

The song is a prayer (if you have any doubts about that, take a close look at the liner notes sometime).  Back in those days, Harrison was a devout Hindu, and he took a LOT of flak for going public with his religion.  The media – especially the rock ‘n’ roll press – had nothing good to say about him, and his live concerts were shredded in the reviews (in spite of the fact the concerts were very good).

As a teenager watching all this, what I saw was a man who loved his god passionately and was willing to take all the fame and fortune of a Beatle and put it on the line for the god he loved.  As a Christian, I was wishing it was Jesus he was in love with… but even so, I was touched by the depth of commitment and passion Harrison sang about in his songs. And when I looked around at the church back then, with rare exceptions, very few people I knew were willing to put their reputations on the line for God like that.

I also learned this kind of passionate love for God is attractive (at least for some)… or scary (for others)… either way it is noticed and it holds people’s attention. When hearts are on fire with love for God, people notice.

So it became my prayer back then: to learn how to love Jesus that much. And I can’t say I’ve quite gotten there yet – I’m still working on it.  I also prayed that God would lead me to other people who love Jesus that much, who could show me how it’s done, and God has answered that prayer and still is answering it.

Paul is one of those people who loves Jesus that much and can show us how it’s done.  So let’s listen to what he has to say:

Paul starts out today’s passage talking about ‘having confidence in the flesh’.  To get his meaning we need to back up a few verses, where Paul says “beware of those who work evil, who mutilate the flesh, for it is we who are the circumcision.” (Phil. 3:2-3 paraphrased)

What Paul is referring to is false teachers who are trying to tell the Gentile believers they have to be circumcised in order to be saved.  Paul is saying there is nothing we can do, in or to the body, that can make us holy – because true circumcision is circumcision of the heart. We who worship, worship in spirit and in truth, and we boast in Christ, not in the flesh.

Paul goes on to say “if anyone were to have reason to be confident in the flesh, I would be above them all.”  Paul was circumcised at eight days old, he was born an Israelite in the tribe of Benjamin; he was a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church, he was absolutely blameless under the Law of Moses. Going by Old Testament righteousness, Paul was about as holy as a person could get.

But Paul says “whatever profit I had, I consider it loss because of Christ”.  Another way to translate this phrase might be “whatever gains I made, I consider them damage.”  Not just losing the profit, but actual damage.

Paul goes on to say, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” (the Greek translation could also be ‘offscourings’… that gross stuff that gets stuck to the bottom of the frying pan when food gets burned, that you have to scrape off) – “I consider everything as offscourings in order than I may gain Christ.”

Paul gave up his family life, hometown, native country, career, reputation, his standing in the community – he went from being a promising up-and-comer in the temple to being in jail. He gave up freedom, he gave up possessions, he lost his physical health, basically he lost everything – and he says “I regard it all as offscourings in order to know Jesus, and gain Christ, and to be found in Him, not standing in my own righteousness but in the righteousness from God…”

Not every Christian is called by God to give up all the things Paul gave up, though we may be called on to give up some of them. The point is, Jesus means so much to Paul, that he doesn’t even miss these things just so long as he can know Jesus.

And then Paul says “becoming like him in his death”. Paul is not suggesting trying to get crucified, and he is not suggesting his own death has any redeeming power.  The Greek expression here is more like “to come together with Jesus and be changed into his likeness”. Not Paul changing himself – Paul being changed by a power outside himself.

“Not that I have already received it” Paul says, “but I pursue to overtake and apprehend it, because I have been overtaken and apprehended by Jesus”. (Read that again…)

Isn’t that just like love? It’s like the old saying “he chased her until she caught him”. Paul is pursuing Jesus until Jesus catches him… and then Paul begins to change and become like Jesus.

So Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind and stretching out for what is ahead, I pursue the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This kind of love is profoundly different from anything the world has to offer. In our culture I think people are hungering for authenticity, joy, purpose, direction — and this is where it’s to be found.  This kind of love is noticed, and it’s what attracts people to Jesus. The kind of love Paul has for Jesus is the most compelling witness there is.

Paul says “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering…” – and I’d like to focus on each one of those ideas just for a moment:

“I want to know Christ…” Paul is talking about…

  • Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth as a helpless baby.
  • Who grew up in a family, just like us.
  • Jesus, who welcomed children and said “Let the little children come to me… for… to such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19:14)
  • Jesus, who looked in the temple and saw it full of moneychangers and dealers, and was so angry that people were being prevented coming to God that he turned over their tables and threw them out saying “it is written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you have made it a den of thieves.”
  • Jesus, who looked at the woman caught in adultery and then looked at her accusers, and said, “whoever is without sin… cast the first stone”… and then said to her, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
  • Jesus, who said, “come to me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
  • Jesus, who said, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22?16)

Who could look at Jesus and not love him? Who could hear his words, and not want to be with him?  And then Paul continues: “…[I want to know] the power of Jesus’ resurrection…”

  • The power of Jesus’ resurrection begins with Jesus himself. The grave could not hold him.  The love of God is more powerful than death
  • Jesus said: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:18)
  • Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
  • The apostle John said: “to all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12)
  • And Paul writes in I Corinthians: “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  […] then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:51-57)

Paul wants to know Jesus, and the power of his resurrection. AND Paul wants to share in his sufferings.  In other words, if Jesus is going to suffer, he’s not going to suffer alone.  Paul is going to stand with Jesus no matter what, and in the words of the late Tom Petty, he “won’t back down”.

Unlike Jesus’ suffering, our suffering can’t save anyone.  But we can stand with Jesus as his friends, and when we do we will share in his sufferings. Think about some of the things Jesus suffered in his lifetime:

  • Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt when he was a child
  • Jesus suffered temptation and hunger
  • Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
  • Jesus was rejected by the people in his own hometown.
  • Jesus was harassed by the religious leaders – the very people who should have known who he was and been on his side.
  • Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, was brutally murdered for his loyalty to Jesus.
  • Jesus was accused of serving the devil and/or being the devil. He said to his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!  So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matt 10:25-26)

As Jesus’ followers, we may suffer some of these things, and when we do, Jesus says “Rejoice! For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”

When we think about all that Jesus suffered for us, before we even knew him, how can anyone not love him?  Which brings us back to the beginning of Paul’s thought: “I want to know Jesus”.

There’s a church in the south of England where, when a preacher walks into the pulpit, they see a plaque that reads, “we would see Jesus” – a reminder to the preacher to stick to what’s important. I hope we’ve caught a glimpse of Jesus this morning.

The challenge for us, now, is to look at our lives and remember those times when we have seen Jesus working in our own lives… when Jesus’ words have touched us, when our lives have become different because we know Jesus. These things become part of our story – that we can share with others, so they can know Jesus too.

But just for today, we join with Paul in saying “not that we have already attained it, but we press on to make it our own” so that we can know Jesus, and stand with him in his sufferings, and know the power of Jesus’ resurrection both now and in the age to come. AMEN

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 10/8/17

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.  Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  – Philippians 1:21-30

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Welcome to week two of our series in Philippians.  Last week we kicked off the series by setting the scene for this letter, and this week we begin to dig into the meat of Paul’s message.  Before I do, just a quick review of the cast of characters in this correspondence. Last week we met:

The apostle Paul – the author of the letter, who also wrote probably about half the New Testament.  Paul was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, and moved to Jerusalem as a young man to study with the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his address to the council saves Peter’s life after he was arrested.) Eventually Paul became a Pharisee himself, and when Christianity came along, Paul persecuted the church because he believed they were teaching heresy… until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and at the time Philippians is being written, Paul is in jail awaiting trial, most likely in Rome. We also met…

Timothy – Paul’s disciple and pastor-in-training.  Timothy traveled with Paul on many of his missionary journeys. While Timothy was not arrested, he was with Paul to provide for Paul’s needs while Paul is in jail. Back in those days jails didn’t supply much so it was necessary to have a friend ‘on the outside’ who could bring in what was needed, and that’s what Timothy was doing. We also met…

“The saints in Philippi” – Philippi was the first European city where the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached – and when Paul preached there, one of the first believers was a woman named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth.  She was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.  We also heard about…

The Imperial Guard – who were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to protect the Emperor and his household, and who were also guarding Paul.  So because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Imperial Guard and members of the royal household were hearing the good news of Jesus, and some were becoming believers… and Paul is thrilled with this.  It’s interesting to note the emperor at the time was the infamous character Nero… and it’s entirely possible that Nero heard about Jesus because of Paul.

Paul opens his letter by giving thanks to God for the Philippians – for their faith, and for their faithfulness in friendship, and for supporting him while he’s in jail.  Paul says he’s been praying for them that their love will continue to grow, infused with knowledge and wisdom.

And then he begins to give the Philippians an update on what’s happening in his life, because Paul knows the Philippians are concerned. They know he’s in prison, and they know prison is not a healthy place to be (dirty and disease-ridden compared to our modern prisons, and even today they’re no walk in the park). So Paul fills them in on how he’s doing, and that’s where we pick up today.

Paul is sharing that in spite of the fact he’s in jail, and trying to recover from physical injuries he suffered from shipwreck and flogging, he says he is overjoyed that his sufferings are leading to glory for Jesus and to new life for the people around him. He says he doesn’t mind being in jail when it means others will come to know Jesus. And he’s excited to see his experiences making other believers bold in sharing God’s message.

Paul then declares, “for me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – and this is such a striking statement I had to make it our focus for today.

“For me, living is Christ” – can we relate to that? When we think about our daily lives, is Jesus so close that every moment is touched by his truth and his love? The answer to that question of course is “yes” whether we’re aware of it or not – because as scripture says, “in him we live and move and have our being”. So Jesus is always close.

But I don’t know if it’s actually possible to be consciously aware of Jesus’ presence every minute of the waking day. When we get really involved in what we’re doing – like driving or cooking or fixing the vacuum cleaner, we tend to block out everything else… and it’s probably a good thing that we’re not distracted when we do these things. But if we stop and reflect for a moment, do we find ourselves thankful for the good meal we just had, or for the skill and knowledge it takes to drive a car or to repair a vacuum? Do we sense God’s goodness with us?  Do we see God working through us, even in small ways, to make our corner of the world just a little bit better? For a Christian, living really is Christ, and many times it is the little moments that make the difference.

But then Paul goes on to say “and dying is gain” or to translate it another way, “dying is profit”. This is tougher to take in, because it seems from our point of view like death means not gain but loss. Death takes away everything we own, everyone we know, our country, our town, our home, our education, our career, even our own bodies. So how can this be gain?

On the other hand, there are times when eternal life with Jesus looks pretty good… especially during painful times.  When we’ve lost someone close to us, or when we’re suffering through a serious illness; or when we’re facing major surgery; or when we get older and realize we’ve got more years behind us than in front of us, and more friends and family already in the Kingdom than here on earth. Those of us who are trusting Jesus, who believe Jesus meant what he said when he said “today you will be with me in Paradise” – we know the truth of Paul’s words. None of us looks forward to the actual process of dying, but when we look past death we see something glorious and far better than anything this world can offer.

That’s what Paul has in his sights.  Paul has been through beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment, and now he lives with chronic pain. He’s very aware of his mortality: he’s in prison accused of capital crimes, and he may not get out.

But Paul tells the Philippians he believes he’s going to be released, because God has more for him to do, and because the Philippians have been praying for him. Paul says If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  By the way, this is not Paul being egotistical – he’s not saying “I have to stay here on earth because you need me”.  It’s more like a loving parent who wants to stay alive as long as possible – even if it’s painful – to see their children grow and become the people they are becoming.

Besides that, the Philippians have been praying for Paul, and Paul says ‘I look forward to sharing in your boasting in Christ Jesus’ when Jesus answers their prayer. Paul is saying ‘When I come to visit, there will lots of answered prayers to talk about. You’ll tell me what Jesus has been doing in your life, and I’ll tell you what Jesus has been doing in my life, and we can brag on the Lord.’  It’s kind of like being in the Steelers locker room after a win.  You can hear the guys saying “Man, did you see that play? Did you see Antonio make that catch? Man he pulled that right out of the stratosphere!”

There are times when boasting is appropriate – and when Jesus has given us victory is one of those times! Granted, we need to boast appropriately. There’s a saying in the Old Testament, in the book of I Kings, that says, “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.”  But when we get the chance to sit down after the spiritual battles and take off the armor for a little while, and share stories of what God has done, it is entirely appropriate to boast. And Paul tells the Philippians he is looking forward to “sharing abundantly” in that boasting.

In the meantime, Paul says, ‘until I can join you, live your lives in a way that brings honor to the gospel of Christ and to the name of Christ. Be one in spirit; strive side by side with one mind for the faith; and don’t be afraid of those who oppose you.’

I wish our churches today – all the denominations – would take these words to heart!  Because all the churches are struggling against divisions right now.  The mission of the church – given by God, to all believers – is to share the gospel message Jesus gave us, and that message is: “the kingdom of heaven is near: change course and believe the good news. Jesus has died and has risen and has broken the chains of sin and death. Trust in him and receive salvation.”

That’s it!  The church’s job is to be God’s ambassadors to a dying world, to save lives. So how can we allow ourselves to be pulled off course by controversies?

Paul says, “stand firm in one spirit… with one mind.”  Does this mean we all have to agree on everything? No!  What it means is we know why we’re here and we agree on the gospel message and we work together in unity to share it.

Paul says: the enemies of the gospel, hearing God’s words through us, understand the words to be the evidence of their own end. And Paul is not being snarky here, he’s telling it like it is.  For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we tend to forget what the gospel sounds like to people who oppose it or who don’t believe it. The words sound sweet to us, but they’re convicting to people who aren’t there yet.  And Paul says, “this is God’s doing” and he leaves it at that.

So coming back to Paul’s original thought – that for him, life is Christ and death is gain, or profit… I wanted to think about the profit angle for a moment.  People who have money learn to invest, and people who have lots of money learn to make the highest possible profit from their investments.

I knew a guy in college whose goal it was to a make a million dollars by the time he was 30 (he was about 18 when he said this). I don’t know if he ever succeeded but I imagine he might have. Because to reach a goal – any goal – takes focus and energy and an unwillingness to be distracted from that goal… and he had those qualities.  I also imagine if he made that first million he probably looked around and said, “OK…what next?” Because human beings have a need for life to be about something.  When we reach a goal, we need another one.

So what if we looked at the things we do every day, and the words we speak, as investments in God’s kingdom? What if, as Jesus suggested, we spent the majority of our time building up treasure in heaven, where rust and moth cannot consume, and thieves cannot break in and steal?  The question then becomes – what can we do that invests in God’s kingdom and what might we do sometimes that might take away from that investment?

The answers to those questions are not easy as one might think. I mean, there are some things we can be sure of: when we obey the Ten Commandments we are investing in God’s kingdom. When we tell others about Jesus we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do the things God has asked us to do, like showing mercy, or welcoming the stranger, or providing for the poor, or feeding the hungry, we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do what Paul is talking about in this letter: living a life worthy of Christ without fearm living in a way that brings honor to God, we are investing in God’s kingdom.

But there are times in scripture when God is doing a new thing and God’s will doesn’t seem to be quite that clear. And in the Christian life, past experience is not always the best guide for future action. God may want to do something totally unexpected. That’s why Paul prays in verse 9 that the love of the Philippians will “overflow with knowledge and full insight”.

Paul knows, as Jesus taught, that love is the fulfillment of God’s law.  But Paul also knows human love can go off course – unless it’s guided by knowledge and has wisdom to infuse it with beauty.

So if our words and actions are rooted in love, that is guided by knowledge or truth and infused with wisdom, we can be confident what we do and what we say is an investment in God’s kingdom.

Paul ends this passage by saying if we do these things there will be times when we suffer for it. So not only is investing in the Kingdom challenging, but when we finally start to get it right, people aren’t going to be thrilled about it!  But Paul sees suffering for Jesus’ sake as a privilege. And Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matt 5:11-12)

This doesn’t mean Paul wants to be persecuted or tries to do things that will bring on suffering. There have been times in the church’s history when people have gone overboard with this idea and tried to get themselves persecuted, or even martyred, so they could get God’s blessing.  This is not sound thinking. But if we are doing God’s will, suffering will come, and Paul is honest about that. But Paul says when it comes, we share in the suffering together and we bear each other’s burdens, and God will bless us.

So the bottom line is, whether in suffering or in joy, whether in life or in death, Jesus Christ will be exalted. And no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with us. So to live is Christ; and to die is gain.  Let’s pray. 

 Lord, we are challenged by Paul’s words, and yet we are encouraged to hear about his joy and his boldness in the face of adversity.  Show us how we can invest in your Kingdom in our own time, by what we do and by what we say. Help us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Help us to be one in spirit and in mind as we share the faith and fulfill your commission. Help us to be faithful, as the Philippian church was faithful, bringing honor and glory to your name. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/24/17

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[Scripture reading for the day is at the end of this post.] Welcome to the first installment in our our sermon series in Philippians!  This past summer we were in the Old Testament, and now we move into the New Testament, which is a bit closer to our own period in history, and a bit more familiar, thank goodness.

But we’re still looking at history. So for those of you like me who struggled through history class in school: for whatever it’s worth I think history is supposed to be about people, not memorizing places and events and dates. And people are always interesting, no matter what time period they lived in. So as we begin Philippians, I want to start by introducing the people.  If you have a Bible near you in the pews and would like to follow along feel free to do so.

So diving into Philippians. First, the book of Philippians is a letter. It was written by the apostle Paul, when he was in jail, probably around the year 55AD give or take a decade. Paul was writing to the congregation at Philippi. Back in those days when people wrote letters, they would start by identifying the writer first, and then say who the letter is to. The opening of this letter says “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, along with the bishops and deacons.” So Paul is writing the letter, with Timothy by his side in the jail. Timothy himself is not under arrest; he is there as Paul’s helper – to run errands, to get things, to send letters.

So the letter begins with Paul, who is a familiar person in the New Testament.  In fact probably about half the New Testament was written by Paul.  Paul’s birth-name was Saul, and he was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, in a devout middle-class Jewish family, and he was trained in the family trade of tent-making.  But he also had a gift for theology, so at some point his family sent him to Jerusalem for religious training. Saul developed a reputation as an up-and-coming young man, and he became the student of the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (BTW Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his words save the life of Peter who had been arrested.)

So Saul was educated as a Pharisee, and he was trained not only in religion but also in in Greek philosophy, and eventually Saul became a Pharisee himself.  As a Pharisee, Saul believed in resurrection (which Sadducees did not. The Pharisees and Sadducees were always fighting over this issue.) And as a Pharisee Saul believed in keeping the law of Moses as perfectly as possible. So when Christianity came along, Saul persecuted the early church, not because the church believed in resurrection, but because Saul felt they didn’t observe Jewish law correctly. In fact they allowed Gentiles in the church.  And on top of that Saul wasn’t convinced that the Messiah was supposed to be crucified, so he wasn’t at all certain Jesus could be the Messiah…

…until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and you might say he saw the light. Meeting Jesus turned his whole world upside-down. Jesus called Saul to be the apostle to the Gentiles (of all things), and Saul’s name was changed to Paul, not because of the conversion, but because Saul is a Jewish name; and Paul is a Greek name – more user-friendly for someone ministering to Gentiles.

Timothy, who was with Paul, was one of Paul’s disciples… sort of a minister-in-training. Timothy’s dad was Greek but his mom and grandmother were devoutly Jewish, and all three of them became believers in Jesus through Paul’s preaching.  Paul invited Timothy to travel with him on his missionary journeys, and Timothy stayed by Paul’s side through thick and thin.  So our letter opens, Paul is writing from his prison cell, with Timothy by his side.

In the first line of the letter, Paul and Timothy describe themselves as “servants of Christ Jesus”.  The Greek word here is actually translates slaves. What they’re trying to tell us is that they are committed to living lives of unquestioning obedience to Jesus Christ. Paul and Timothy understood that to say “no, Lord” is a contradiction in terms.  For Paul and Timothy this is a matter of both duty and pride.  Just as – for example – our military personnel are expected to obey orders, but they also take pride in wearing the uniform, Paul and Timothy obey Jesus’ orders, and they take pride in serving the Son of the Living God.

Paul addresses his letter to the “saints in Philippi”.  Philippi was a city in north-eastern Greece, probably best known in the ancient world as the city where Marc Antony (you remember Marc Antony from the story of Antony & Cleopatra) tracked down the assassins of Julius Caesar and put them to death.  Because of this, Philippi was granted special status in the Roman Empire. Citizens of the city enjoyed tax breaks, and rights other conquered cities didn’t have, and Philippi attracted a lot of people from Rome. So the culture of the city was a mix of Greek and Roman and Jewish, and the religious scene was even more mixed. People in Philippi could worship Roman gods, Greek gods, Egyptian gods, the Jewish God, or any number of gods.

So early on in Paul’s ministry, Acts chapter 16 tells us Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia (the area surrounding Philippi) saying “come and help us”.  And Paul obeyed the vision, and as a result Philippi became the first place the gospel of Jesus Christ was ever preached in Europe.  Paul came to Philippi, and found some Jewish believers meeting on the banks of the river, and when he shared the gospel with them the first person to believe was a woman named Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth, and she was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.

So Paul addresses his letter to “all the saints… in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”.  In Greek the words here are episkopoi and diaconoi (episkopoi is the word we get “Episcopal” from… ‘episcopal’ is just a fancy word meaning “we have bishops”) and diaconoi we get the word ‘deacon’ from. In those days bishops were more like the business managers of the church, sort of like the president of Council would be today. And the deacons were like our care teams: they helped to take care of the sick and the hungry and the poor. So the church hasn’t changed all that much since then: we may have different titles but we’re doing pretty much the same work.

The other thing we need to know about this letter is: why is Paul writing? What moves him to put pen to paper?  Because people back in those days didn’t just whip off letters at the drop of a hat. Back then you had to make your own paper, and make your own ink. So what moved Paul to go to the trouble?

There are a number of reasons, and we’ll be talking about those reasons over the next few weeks.  But our reading for today sets the character of the letter, and the overall feeling is one of great love and great joy, that Paul wanted to share.  The Philippians were Paul’s first Gentile converts to the faith: that alone made them special in his heart.  But beyond that they stayed faithful, through persecutions, through hard times, giving generously to people in need – and Paul was like a proud papa, he loved these people. And that love shines through the whole letter, even from the first line.

In ancient Greece a letter would usually open with a flowery greeting like “most gracious and humble salutations”. But Paul changes the traditional greeting into a blessing. He writes, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul does not consider his own greetings to be worthy of mentioning. Instead he gives them God’s greetings, with a prayer for grace and peace.

Paul goes on to say, “I thank God every time I remember you”. Can we relate to that? Do we have people in our lives, who whenever we think of them we say “God, thank you for this person”?  I believe many of us do. And some of us are that person for someone else. Having people around us who love Jesus and encourage us in the faith is one of the great blessings of being a member of the family of God.

Paul then goes on to say why he feels this way. He says: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now”.  This letter was probably written around ten years after the church at Philippi was started, and since that time Paul has suffered beatings, stonings, shipwreck, and imprisonments for the sake of the gospel. But when he looks at the faith of the Philippian church he says “it’s all been worth it”.

More than that, the Philippians have given Paul fellowship in the gospel – that is, they have been sharing the good news by his side from the very start. And so Paul is “confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus”. What’s more, the Philippians have not forgotten Paul while he’s in jail (for people in jail, it’s not unusual to feel ‘forgotten’ by the outside world), the Philippians have kept in touch, they’ve sent visitors, they’ve stood by him. So Paul is not only encouraged, but he longs to see them again – and he will, if and when he is set free.

Paul then tells them, “this is my prayer for you: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.”  This prayer is the heart and soul of the Christian life.  As followers of Jesus we are called to love everyone we can, as best we can. We believe in a God whose very nature is love. The Bible says “God is love” – not in the sense that love is God (which is a common misunderstanding) but God is love in the sense that rain is wet.  If rain ever stopped being wet it wouldn’t be rain; if God ever stopped loving, God wouldn’t be God.

But the word love can mean so many things, so Paul qualifies his prayer by saying “love with all knowledge and insight.”  Human love can be (and often is) misused, deceived, or led astray. How many love songs have we heard that talk about broken hearts because ‘somebody done somebody wrong’?  In order to love we need to trust and sometimes people just aren’t trustworthy. So love needs discernment and wisdom. Love and truth are two sides of the same coin: you can’t have one without the other. So Paul prays for love infused with knowledge. The Greek word here is epignosis. We know the word a-gnostic – which means to not know – epi-gnostic means to know all. Kind of like epic knowledge.  So love infused with great knowledge.  And then Paul adds “and insight” – and the Greek word here is eisthesis, which is the word we get aesthetics from. In other words, the study of beauty.  Which makes sense, because truth alone tends to be a two-edged sword: it can get judgemental, it can be harsh.  But if we combine truth with Godly beauty we get a richness of wisdom that informs and inspires Godly love.

So Paul prays for the Philippians that their love will infused with knowledge and a principled insight into beauty, so that the Philippians may approve what is excellent, and in the day of Christ be found pure and blameless, having produced a harvest of righteousness in their lives. How beautiful is that? This is a prayer that we can pray for others, and I’d like to encourage us to do so this week.

So having prayed this prayer for the Philippians, Paul then gives the Philippians an update on how he himself is doing.  He writes, “beloved friends, I want you to know that what has happened to me” – that is, being thrown in jail – “has actually helped spread the gospel.  It’s become known through the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is for Christ…”.

Aha! So we have an addition to the cast of characters: the ‘imperial guard’.  These were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to be Caesar’s household guards. Most likely Paul’s letter was written when Nero was emperor, which means it’s entirely possible that Emperor Nero heard the gospel on account of Paul being in jail. At the very least we know that many in Nero’s household heard the good news and became believers.

When this happened, Paul’s courage rubbed off on the Christians around him.  Paul says, “most of the brothers and sisters here, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with great boldness and without fear.” And they bring joy to Paul’s heart. Paul sums up by saying “between your prayers and the Spirit of Jesus I expect to be set free from prison… but whether or not I am, whether I live or die, Jesus is being exalted.”

When I read words like these it’s tempting to picture Paul like an evangelistic Arnold Schwarzenegger – as if Paul is this big tough swash-buckling dude who dares to brave prison and laughs in the face of death. Not so. People who knew Paul say that he was actually a small-ish guy, and had some physical difficulties the details of which we don’t know, but at any rate he was no action hero.  The beatings and shipwrecks and imprisonments were not easy for him to bear.

But in spite of all this Paul rejoices to be in jail in this time and in this place because his imprisonment means that people are hearing about Jesus and coming to faith and are finding new life in Christ.  And I wonder: Would you and I be able to say the same? Would we be willing to go to jail if our being there meant people’s lives would be saved?

It’s a tough question to answer. And we really don’t know for sure, unless we find ourselves in the situation.  But I will say this: Christians are called by Jesus to visit those in prison, and if you ever have the chance, I encourage you to do so.  I’ve only had a small taste of prison ministry myself but Paul is right: the opportunites are endless and the joy is amazing.  It’s like taking water to people in the desert.

But there’s a question beyond that, and the question is: What would we be willing to risk if it meant people’s lives being saved? What would we be willing to do so that someone else could know Jesus? Would we risk our jobs? Would we risk our possessions?  Would we risk inviting a foreigner or a refugee into our homes?

I’m not asking these questions to make us feel guilty, but rather to challenge us (myself included) to love Jesus more than anything else we have in life.  To be like the believers who looked at Paul in jail and were made bold, speaking out for the Lord with confidence, and love, and without fear.  We don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to say boldly:

“Jesus is King, and the kingdom is coming. Change course, and believe the good news”.

And yes I sometimes do feel shy about sharing the faith, even as a pastor, and sometimes I feel tongue-tied. But I’ve learned we don’t have to worry about results, because God is responsible for the results. It’s enough for us to show up and speak the truth. God takes care of the rest.

Paul loved Jesus so much, and loved people so much, he was willing to be in jail in order to share the gospel with others. And I know there are people here today who also love Jesus that much.  If there’s anyone here today who has not met Jesus yet, and who’s thinking what I’m saying is a bit radical – you’re right. It is radical. And I invite you to join us.

Let’s pray about this… Lord thank you for Paul and thank you for his loving care for the church at Philippi. Thank you that Paul loved your people enough to stay in jail and risk his life if it meant us finding you and getting to know you.  Thank you for Paul’s friends who shared your good news even in the household of Caesar. Thank you most of all Lord that you came to earth to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to God through your death on the cross and your resurrection from the grave.

This morning Lord we rededicate ourselves to you and to sharing your message. And if any are hearing this message for the first time – Lord, we want to know you and love you and be your people.  Forgive our sins and accept us into your kingdom. Help us to experience the joy Paul knew praying for others and sharing the good news. We place our lives in your hands. Use us where and when you will, so that in all things Christ will be exalted. AMEN.

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“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 I thank my God every time I remember you,  4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,  5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.  12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel,  13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ;  14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.  15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.  16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel;  17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.  18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,  19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.  20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.” – Philippians 1:1-20

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/17/17

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“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.  You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.  This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the LORD.  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.  The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.  This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” – Exodus 12:1-14

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Next week our Partnership will be starting a new sermon series in Philippians, so we’ll be spending a good bit of time with the apostle Paul over the next month or so.  But before we go there, there’s one last lesson in the Old Testament that I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss.

This summer we’ve been studying the book of Genesis, and Genesis provides a firm foundation for both the Old and New Testaments.  But there’s one last story in the Old Testament that is central to both the Jewish and the Christian faiths, and is also key to understanding Paul’s teachings – and that’s the story of Moses and the Passover.

When we left off a couple weeks ago in Genesis, the people of Israel – that is, Joseph’s family – had moved to Egypt to escape a famine, and they settled in Egypt. As time went on, and Joseph and his brothers passed away, their descendants became part of Egyptian society – and they were there for about 350 years or so.

But as time passed, and as Pharaohs came and went, the leadership of Egypt began to forget Joseph and all the good things he did for Egypt, how he saved them from the famine… and they began to make slaves out of the Israelites.

Our scripture reading today talks about the last night of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, and the beginning of their liberation.  This story is the turning point in the Old Testament – the defining moment.  It’s the moment when God begins to fulfill the promises he made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, to give them a land of their own.  This moment is the touchstone of the Jewish faith – and it’s the event God’s people look back to and remember whenever we talk about God saving us and setting us free.

And for us Christians it also looks forward to the Last Supper, which was a celebration of the Passover night.

As we dig into the reading. I’d like to focus on three things: first the human aspect of the story – what it might have been like to be living in Egypt back then as a Jewish person.  Then we’ll take a look at what God told the people of Israel to do – how to prepare for their freedom. And finally we’ll bring all of this together into the teachings of Jesus, to see how it applies to us today.

So imagine yourself living in ancient Egypt.  You are living in one of the most advanced and wealthy civilizations of the ancient world.  The culture is sophisticated, very well educated, and there are plenty of goods and services to be had.  There are perfumers, jewelry-makers, and traders in cloth and in spices – every luxury you can imagine.

But you and I don’t see much of that because we’re descendants of Israel – and we’re slaves.  We are looked down on, prejudiced against, subject to injustice… and our people have been down for so long we sometimes wonder if God even notices any more.

The memory of Joseph – who saved Egypt from famine – is kept alive by our people. But most of the rest of the Egyptians have forgotten Joseph. They’re more worried about the growing tension and violence in their nation. There have been rebellions, assassinations, a few coup attempts, and the current Pharaoh seems to enjoy leading by intimidation rather than by negotiation.  He rules in a spirit of fear.

Just to give an example of how he rules with fear:  In the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh says to his people:

“Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we [are].  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. (Exodus 1:9-11)

What Pharaoh says about the people of Israel being more numerous and more powerful isn’t true – at least not yet.  At this point in time they’re the least powerful in Egypt. The more they’re oppressed the more they will become numerous and powerful.

As a side-note, this is an irony that repeats throughout history whenever leaders try to rule in a spirit of fear.  Where leaders rule with fear, government policies fail, people suffer, and the result is usually the opposite of what was intended. As an example we see this in the Russian Revolution of the early 1900s – which promised a ‘workers paradise’ but resulted in the deaths of millions.  Or in the Nazi movement, which promised a ‘master race’ but resulted in the deaths of millions and in the near-destruction of the German nation.  The spirit of fear is the opposite of the spirit of faith to which we are called by God.

So God, through Moses and Aaron, confronts Pharaoh. He says ‘let my people go so they may worship me’.  God is letting Pharaoh know that Pharaoh is not the biggest man on campus.  And God sends plagues to prove his point; and time after time Pharaoh says “OK, OK, you’re right, you win – take away the plagues and I’ll let your people go” but as soon as the plagues are gone, Pharaoh changes his mind and says “sorry, no, the people can’t go.”

As we look at this series of plagues from a 21st century point of view, all these plagues don’t seem quite fair to the everyday Egyptians, that they have to suffer for Pharaoh’s bad judgement. But it’s true to life.  Ungodly leadership – whether in government, or in business, or wherever leadership happens – always leads to suffering for average everyday people.  God has promised to set that right someday.  God’s kingdom will come and God’s perfect will, will be done one day.

But for today, what God is concerned about – God’s whole point in this passage from Exodus – is found at the end of the reading where God says: “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.”  (Exodus 12:12)

With God, the main issue is always ‘who or what is being worshiped’?  Are people worshipping Pharaoh? Are they worshipping power or wealth? Are they worshipping idols? Are they worshipping their taskmasters? Or are they worshipping the one true and living God?

The people of Israel know – as we know – God is the one true God.  There is no other. And Pharaoh has been confronted, again and again, with this truth, but he still refuses to bow the knee.  He still insists on ruling in fear, as a tyrant.

So at this point God stops speaking to Pharaoh (who isn’t listening anyway) and God starts talking to Israel.  And God’s message is “get ready! It’s time to go. It’s time to move. Here’s what I need you to do.”

The first thing God commands is that this night – this night of liberation, this Passover night – is to be set apart in Israel’s history as a memorial, forever.  We as Americans have days like Memorial Day, and Martin Luther King Day, and Thanksgiving Day, as memorials to important events in our history.  This Passover night will be Israel’s defining moment – the Night of nights.  So much so, God is making this night the beginning of months – in other words God is making this their new year’s eve (even though it’s actually in the spring).

Then God tells each family to take one lamb per family and set it aside on the 10th day of the month.  If the household is not big enough to eat a whole lamb, people are to go in together with their neighbors and share a lamb – the result being, no one will eat this meal alone.  And no one will miss out on eating it because they can’t afford a lamb.  Every Israelite is to be included, and nobody is to eat alone.

The lamb is to be without blemish – a year-old male, strong and healthy.  The lamb is to be kept until the 14th day of the month, when it will be slaughtered at twilight.

And then the family is to take some of the blood, and dip in a bunch of hyssop, and paint the blood on the doorposts and above the door of the house where they are eating. Once the blood is on the door they are not to go outside for the rest of the night.

The lamb is to be eaten with unleavened bread – baked quickly, no time to let it rise –  because the call to leave could come at any moment.  The lamb is also eaten with bitter herbs as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery.  The lamb is to be eaten completely, including the organs, and anything left over is to be burned.

The people are to eat fully dressed, with their sandals on… because sometime during the night the call will come, that Pharaoh wants all the Israelites out of the land. The Lord will pass through Egypt, and the firstborn of all Egyptians will die.  But any house with lamb’s blood over the door will be passed over – and from this comes the name of the holiday of Passover.

God says again: this will be a night of remembrance for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to the Lord forever.  And to this day Jewish people celebrate Passover every spring, remembering this night.

For us as Christians this holiday has a second meaning: it is also the holiday on which the Last Supper was eaten and Jesus was crucified.  Jesus has been called “the Lamb of God” because he is for us our spotless Passover Lamb.  Jesus was sacrificed for us, so we could be free from slavery to sin.  And whenever we take communion we share a meal in celebration and remembrance of what God has done for us. We remember Jesus’ body broken for us and his blood shed for us, and we celebrate the power of his resurrection when he walked out of the grave alive three days later.

It is the blood of Jesus, spread over the doorposts of our hearts, that causes death to pass over us.  Moses said the blood is to be placed there using hyssop.  King David wrote in Psalm 51:  “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:6-7)

In ancient Israel, hyssop was often used to clean things. And at the crucifixion, it was also attached to a sponge to offer Jesus a drink. All these things are brought together in the book of Hebrews, where the writer says:

“…when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.”  […] Indeed… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:19-22 edited)

Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes our Passover, our holiness… not anything we could ever deserve, but given freely, according to God’s plan. And that plan began back in ancient Egypt when God commanded hyssop to place the blood over the doors at the first Passover.

God commanded Israel: “you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord, throughout your generations” – and that command applies to us today.  We honor God’s command whenever we have communion and remember what God has done for us.  So keep on remembering… and keep on encouraging others to remember.

I am encouraged whenever I see members of this congregation reaching out to people, who for whatever reason have not been able to be with us on Sundays.  There are people here who call and say, “we missed you”  —  “we hope you’ll be back soon” — “can I offer you a ride?”  And I want to encourage you to keep on doing this, because it is God’s wish that all of us eat this meal together, and celebrate this memorial together, as family, and that no one be left out.  Moses said ‘no one eats alone’ and that still goes today.

And if some folks have gotten a little hard to persuade – maybe try sharing today’s scripture with them. Tell them how God is concerned that no one eat alone, and that no one be left behind, and ask if they’d like to come back to the family meal.

In the meantime, as the larger picture of history continues to unfold, keep in mind: just as God’s concern and thoughts were with the people of Israel back in the days of Pharaoh, God is still concerned with everyday people today:  the people who don’t call the shots, the people who don’t have the power, the people who suffer when there’s ungodly leadership in the world. Be assured, no matter what happens, God has a plan, and the plan is unfolding. Just like Israel in Egypt, God sees our troubles, and God is on the move. We just keep our eyes on him, keep our ears open… and keep our sandals on our feet.  AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/10/17

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[Scripture reading for the day is at the end of this post.] Well, our summertime series on Genesis is officially done… but the story we began hasn’t ended yet, so let’s keep going with the Old Testament for a few more weeks!

Today’s sermon is called “The End of the Beginning” because we are at the end of the book of Genesis, and the word ‘genesis’ means ‘beginning’ – and also because we are at the beginning of the end of Israel’s time in Egypt.

For a quick recap – so far we have seen the faith of Abraham, who believed God’s promise that he would be the father of a nation. The apostle Paul says in Romans, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) So Abraham sets an example for us as we trust God’s word to be the foundation of our lives.

We saw the same faith in Isaac. We’ve seen Isaac’s children – Esau and Jacob – fighting with each other, and cheating each other, and behaving as if they didn’t really believe God’s promises. In spite of this Jacob is blessed with two wives and 12 children and many herds and flocks. But when his beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth, Jacob sets his heart on the two sons she gave him: Joseph and Benjamin.

And we’ve seen Joseph’s story: how his jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, how he rose to power in the service of Pharaoh, and how he saved thousands of lives during the great famine – including the lives of his own family, who came to Egypt looking for food.

One thing I want to point out about Joseph before we move on to Exodus. Just like Abraham sets us an example of faith, Joseph’s life can be understood as a prophecy of the Messiah. There are parallels between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus that gave ancient Israel – and give us – a picture of what the Messiah will look like.

Here are just a few of the parallels:

  • In Egypt, Joseph was thrown into jail when he was falsely accused by someone in his own household (Potiphar’s wife) and then turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison. Jesus was thrown into jail when he was falsely accused by one of his own (Judas) and turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison.
  • The formal accusation against Joseph was the very thing he did NOT do (sleeping with his master’s wife). The formal accusation against Jesus was also the very thing he did NOT do (trying to take over the throne of the Jewish nation. The charge nailed over his head on the cross read: “King of the Jews” – but Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world”. They weren’t listening.)
  • Joseph descended into jail and ministered to people while he was there; Jesus, in between his death and resurrection, descended into hell and ministered to the people there. Both Joseph and Jesus work to set the captives free.
  • Joseph is raised from jail and made king over all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Jesus is raised from the dead and is “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
  • Those who sinned against Joseph – his brothers – came to him in their need and were reconciled; those who sin against God – we who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters – come to Jesus in our need and are reconciled.

So we see the Gospel message in the life of Joseph, embedded right here in the Old Testament.

With this in mind, today’s reading begins with some very significant words. It says: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph”.

It goes without saying this Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph personally. Between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus 350 years have passed, so nobody is still alive who knew Joseph personally. But Joseph was an important figure in Egypt’s history: Joseph saved Egypt from a seven-year famine. And in the process Joseph made Pharaoh – and by extension, Egypt – exceedingly rich.

During the famine years, people spent all their money buying food, and that money went to Pharaoh. When they ran out of money, the people sold their land – and the land went to Pharaoh. When they ran out of land, the people sold – essentially themselves, that is, their labor – and the benefits of that labor went to Pharaoh. Some people became temporary servants, others became slaves – but all of them belonged to Pharaoh. So Pharaoh benefited richly from Joseph’s work.

But now 350 years have passed. In the in-between time, Egypt has seen internal unrest, assassinations, a rebellion here and there, a few Pharaohs who didn’t live more than a year or two after they took the throne. And in the process of all this, many of the people who had sold themselves into slavery under Joseph took advantage of the confusion and fled the country.

Meanwhile what had started as a temporary economic necessity under Joseph – that is, a work-for-food program during the famine – had become an institution of slavery that Egyptians felt entitled to: slavery, which was accompanied by unspeakable cruelty and prejudice (as we have seen in our own nation’s history).

350 years have passed since Joseph. To put that into perspective for us: 350 years ago, the city of Brooklyn, New York was chartered. The first human blood transfusion was performed. Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall to the ground and discovered gravity. And Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, was born.

When you put it that way, 350 years doesn’t sound all that long. Our reading says this new Pharaoh “didn’t know Joseph”. Today, if you said “this person doesn’t know Sir Isaac Newton” or “this person doesn’t know the Wesleys” you wouldn’t be saying “they never met” – you’d be saying either “this person is not very well educated” or you’d be saying “This person doesn’t care what Newton says” or “doesn’t care what the Wesleys think”.

So if this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph – was it a lack of education? No. Egypt was, and still is, one of the most highly-educated nations in human history. So if this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph, it’s because he chooses not to know.

And people who ignore history do not lead nations well. And that’s exactly what happened here. Exodus tells us:

[Pharaoh said to his people], “Look, the Israelites are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (Exodus 1:9-10)

Pharaoh is choosing to lead his people by setting them against each other. First he divides them by national heritage. But after 350 years all the people who came to Egypt during the famine now think of themselves as Egyptians! (Our own country hasn’t even existed for 350 years yet, and all of us think of ourselves as Americans, no matter what country our families came from.)

But Pharaoh divides the people by heritage. And then speaking to the native-born Egyptians, he instills fear of the ‘other’ – that is, anyone with foreign roots. He makes the people afraid by saying ““they” are more numerous and more powerful than we are”. Is this true? No! – not yet anyway. But he says it and they believe it.

And then Pharaoh institutes a policy of legalized discrimination “or else “they” will increase”. And he rationalizes it by talking about national security: he says, “otherwise they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land”. (We can almost hear Pharaoh saying “we’re taking back Egypt for the Egyptians!”)

Nowhere is there any indication that the Hebrews were causing any problems or trying to leave Egypt. They were happy enough there, at least until this Pharaoh came to power. But – as we have seen in the lives of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – God is behind the scenes, advancing God’s kingdom. And in a move of great irony, God uses Pharaoh’s own plans to ‘keep the Israelites down’ to inspire the people of Israel to rise up and leave Egypt.

But we’re not there yet. For now, Pharaoh sets up taskmasters over the Israelites and puts them to hard labor, making bricks, and cutting stone, and building cities. But God is with the people in their oppression, and their numbers increase even more. Now the native-born Egyptians really are afraid, because the tactics are backfiring. Oppression only makes the people of Israel stronger.

And then we come to the birth of Moses, who will be the deliverer of Israel Background note: Moses will be 80 years old when he leads Israel out of Egypt. So the hardships described in today’s reading continued for 80 years. This downhill spiral lasted for three generations. So by the time of the Exodus, slavery will be all the younger generations have ever known. And that’s significant, because (1) they will have a hard time trusting a savior. They will have a hard time believing anybody can set them free… and (2) once set free, they won’t know quite what to do with their freedom (which helps explain things like the golden calf).

There’s a parallel to this in our own time. Human beings, all of us, are slaves to sin. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34) and none of us is perfect yet. So all of us have been slaves all our lives, and so has every generation before us. So when the Savior Jesus comes along, we have a hard time trusting, just like the Israelites did. We have a hard time believing that freedom can actually be ours. And so often we find ourselves saying, as it says in scripture, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief”.

And like ancient Israel, when we are set free, we don’t always know quite what to do with our freedom. Most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament deal with this problem. When we are set free by faith in the Lord Jesus, the law is fulfilled, and all things become permissible. But Paul says in I Corinthians:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. […] The body is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (I Corinthians 6:12-13 edited)

So whatever we do in our bodies becomes united to Christ. We are free; but we must use that freedom in harmony with the Lord who saved us. This is a hard lesson for us, and it will be a hard lesson for the children of Israel.

But we’re not to the Exodus yet… so back to our story.

So the Israelites are multiplying in Egypt and growing strong under their oppression, which makes sense, because those who survive oppression by definition will be the strong ones. So Pharaoh tells the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male babies. But the midwives feared God, and disobeyed the king’s command.

When Pharaoh questions them about their disobedience, the midwives say “the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women: they are vigorous and they deliver before we can get there!” (Which fits neatly into the Egyptian stereotype that “the Hebrews are stronger than we are”!)

So Pharaoh changes the law: he says every boy baby must be thrown into the Nile.

I imagine at this point the decent people among the Egyptians must have known Pharaoh was wrong. When they saw those babies floating in the river their hearts must have gone out to the Hebrew people. I imagine Moses was probably not the only child pulled out of the river by Egyptians.

But there was one particular baby who caught the eye of Pharaoh’s daughter. She sees him floating in the Nile and decides to adopt him as her own son. I imagine Pharaoh was none too thrilled about being presented with a Hebrew grandbaby, but his daughter loved this child. And, guided by God, the baby’s quick-thinking sister sets it up with Pharaoh’s daughter so that his mother is paid to nurse her own child!

And Pharaoh’s daughter named the baby “Moses” because, she said, “I drew him out of the water.” The word ‘Moses’ in Hebrew means ‘to draw out’ – which is where she got the name. But in a twist of irony – and in a twist of prophecy – the form of the Hebrew word she used actually means he who draws out (not he who is drawn out). This baby will draw out his people from Egypt and out of slavery.

God’s plan continues. God is in charge of history, and that never changes.

This we can trust: God has a plan for creation. God had a plan back then and still does now. History has a goal. The human race has a destination. The destination is not “progress” as the world thinks of it. The destination of history is not a thing or a set of morals but a person – the person of Jesus Christ. God is guiding all of history to the focal point of our Lord Jesus.

No matter what the Israelites see around them – and no matter what we see around us – God doesn’t change. So as we go out into the world this week, and in the weeks ahead, fear not! – our times are in God’s hands. Our job is to be alert and aware, and to do whatever good we can, guided by the Spirit. Take Moses’ sister as an example: she watched over her brother, and when Pharaoh’s daughter found him, offered to find a nurse for her brother. Likewise we also need to be watching for opportunities… because in these difficult times, God has something for us to do.

Let’s pray… Lord, the news we see and hear is not good and seems to be getting worse by the day. Calm our fears; help us to trust and hope in you; and help us to know what you would have us do, to give help to your people and to sustain life in a world obsessed with death. Thank you Lord Jesus for being our Joseph, and our Moses. AMEN.

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Scripture Reading:
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Fair Oaks Retirement Community, 8/27/17
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Joseph1

Joseph and his brothers meet again

[Scripture reading of the day can be found at the end.]

If we had been following the Old Testament lectionary readings for the past few weeks, last week our sermon would have ended with the words “To Be Continued…” – because at the end of last week’s reading, Jacob’s son Joseph had just been sold into slavery by his brothers, and Jacob was grieving for his son.

Today’s reading in Genesis picks up the story more than twenty years later. By now all of the brothers (including Joseph) have grown up, and gotten married, and had kids. And Joseph – who is now almost 40 years old – has become the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.

That’s a huge leap forward! So I want to go back and pick up the story where it left off last week, and then bring us into today’s reading.

At the end of last week’s reading, Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph to a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt. Picturing the scene, I imagine the caravan slowly moving south along the highway, while Joseph is still looking to the north, weeping and praying his brothers will change their minds and come and get him. But after a while, Joseph realizes they’re not coming; and life as he has known it is gone forever.

For those of us who have lived through the grief of profound loss – whether it be the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a career, or a serious injury or illness (the loss of health) – part of the grieving process is realizing the world as we knew it is gone. People and places may be familiar, but the ‘feel’ of reality has changed. We keep on living in the face of sorrow because we must; but things will never be the same again.

Joseph began that grieving process on the road to Egypt. He began to come to terms with his new reality. By the time the caravan arrived in Egypt – days, maybe weeks later – Joseph was ready to step into his future. Not that his pain was gone, far from it; and not that his tears were done; but with God’s help he had reached a point where he was able to deal with day-to-day life.

We know this because Joseph did well in his new life in spite of his pain. Joseph became the property of a man named Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. In Potiphar’s service, Joseph served with skill and excellence. And God blessed his efforts – so much so that Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his whole estate. Genesis tells us:

“The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all he had, in house and field” (Genesis 39:5)

So with Joseph in charge, Potiphar becomes rich, and Joseph enjoys as good a relationship as is possible between a slave and an owner: Potiphar had become more like an employer than a task-master.

There was just one problem. Someone else noticed Joseph: noticed his youth, noticed his build, noticed his good looks. Potiphar’s wife has set her eyes on Joseph. And every time he turned around she was trying to seduce him.

I wonder how many slaves over the course of history have been caught in this catch-22? Say ‘no’ to the lady and the slave is disobedient; say ‘yes’ and the slave is disloyal to the master. There’s no way this is going to end well.

Joseph gives Potiphar’s wife the very best answer he can. He says to her, “my master has put me over everything he has – the only thing he has withheld from me is you, his wife… how could I do this wickedness?” (Genesis 39:8-9, paraphrased)

But she doesn’t listen. And one day when she’s teasing him, she grabs him, and Joseph pulls away, and his coat comes off in her hands, and she uses the coat to frame him for rape. Joseph is thrown in jail. No trial. No appeal. No rights.

God tells us in scripture that slavery and prejudice and mistreatment of foreigners are evil – and Joseph’s story illustrates why. Joseph did good to all, but he suffered cruelty and injustice in return.

While he was in jail, Joseph earned the same respect from the wardens as he had from Potiphar. God continued to be with him, and the jailer put Joseph in charge of the prison. Genesis says “whatever was done there, Joseph was the one who did it.” (Genesis 39:22)

And then one day Pharaoh threw two of his servants in jail and they ended up in Joseph’s care. This is a long story, but to make it short: they both have dreams. And God has given Joseph the gift of interpreting dreams. So Joseph does, and his interpretations come true. And Joseph says to the one: “when you are restored to your job working for Pharaoh, remember me. I’ve done nothing to deserve being in this jail.” (Genesis 40:14 paraphrased)

But the servant forgets Joseph.

And two more years go by.

And then Pharaoh has a dream. And the servant remembers there was this guy in jail who knew how to interpret dreams. So Joseph is brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh says, “I hear you can interpret dreams.” And Joseph says, “not I; but God will give Pharaoh an answer.” (Genesis 41:15-16, edited)

And after hearing Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph tells Pharaoh: God has revealed to you the future. There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. “…therefore (Joseph says) let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh… take one-fifth of the produce of the land… during the seven good years…” (Genesis 41: 33-34, edited) and store it up for what is to come.

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people… only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” (Genesis 41:39-41 edited)

In one day Joseph goes from being a convict in jail to being the ruler of all Egypt. Only God could invent a career path like that! Meanwhile 13 years have passed from the day Joseph was sold into slavery until the day he was appointed by Pharaoh. Joseph is now 30 years old.

On that day, Pharaoh gave Joseph a wife, and she gave him two sons. The first son Joseph named Manasseh, which means ‘to forget’. He said, “for God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house”. (Genesis 41:51) And the second son he named Ephraim, which means ‘fruitful’, “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” (Genesis 41:52

If the story ended there, it would be enough. It would satisfy our desire to see justice done, and to see wrongs set right. It would give Joseph’s story a happy ending. By the same token it would have been enough if Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand, and the story ended there. But in both cases God is just getting started…

And so back in Egypt, there are seven years of peace and plenty, which fly by. Joseph builds up stockpiles of food and enjoys his family life.

And then the famine comes. And it doesn’t just strike Egypt; the whole region around the Mediterranean Sea is suffering a severe famine. Joseph opens the stockpiles and sells food, first to the Egyptians and then to foreigners.

And then one day ten men come from Canaan looking for food.

These men left their youngest brother at home with their father, who is still grieving the loss of his son Joseph. The ten brothers have known years of bitterness – being unforgiven, and unable to forgive themselves.

When he sees them, Joseph recognizes them immediately. But in the past twenty years, Joseph has changed. He’s no longer a teenager, he dresses like a wealthy Egyptian, and he talks like a native. The brothers have no idea Joseph can understand what they’re saying when they talk to each other.

Realizing he hasn’t been recognized, Joseph orchestrates a series of tests for his brothers to see if they’re sorry for what they did to him, and if they would do things differently now, given the chance. As the final test, Joseph tells the brothers they must go home and bring back Benjamin – something their father Jacob would never allow. But eventually Jacob and his sons are so hungry they have no choice.

Which where today’s passage picks up.

Joseph and his brothers have just eaten a banquet in Joseph’s house, which is connected to the royal palace. Then Joseph springs the test: he puts Benjamin’s well-being in jeopardy. He wants to know: if Benjamin’s life is threatened, will his brothers defend him, or will they abandon him? As it turns out, Judah – the same brother who came up with the idea of selling Joseph in the first place – offers his life in exchange for Benjamin, and in doing so proves that the brothers’ hearts have changed. At this point Joseph can no longer control himself, and all the emotions of the years flood to the surface. Joseph orders the servants out and then weeps so loudly Pharaoh can hear it in the other end of the palace.

And he says to his brothers:

“I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3)

His brothers feel like they’re seeing a ghost. It’s bad enough they’ve been carrying around all this guilt, all these years – but then to look into the face of a stranger and see the brother they sold into slavery…!

Joseph draws them closer, and he says, “I am your brother, who you sold into slavery in Egypt.” Joseph confronts the sin, and then he forgives. He says:

“Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves… for God sent me ahead of you to preserve life… it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:4-5 edited)

Say what?? It was them who sent him here! It was them who laughed at his tears and sold him for 20 pieces of silver! How can he say ‘it was not you who sent me here…’?

It’s the difference between seeing things without faith and seeing things through the eyes of faith. Without faith we only see what’s right in front of us, and we pass judgement on a human level. With the eyes of faith we see the hand of God moving behind all things, and we are free to choose mercy.

After greeting his brothers with tears, Joseph gives them a command: Go, tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and bring my father and all your families here. There are five more years of famine to come. I will provide for you and for all of them.

Now our story has more than just a happy ending. Now we see grace; we see forgiveness; we see reconciliation, and the restoring of relationships. We see shalom – the peace and well-being that passes understanding. Genesis 37:4 tells us that back in the day, the brothers couldn’t even say ‘shalom’ to Joseph; but now they have found peace.

This joy of reconciliation goes beyond justice and makes a retribution a thing to be scorned. For Joseph, his joy is not complete until his family is reconciled, to him and to each other; until what was broken has been restored. The same is true in the story of Jesus: his joy is not complete until the human family is reconciled to God and to each other; until what was broken in creation has been restored.

So to draw this ancient story into the 21st century – three quick points:

1) God is and always has been in control of history.
When Jacob was told “Joseph is dead”, it must have seemed to him like the whole world had gone mad. Jacob must have wondered: where were God’s promises? God said “your offspring will be as numerous as the stars” but his offspring are at each other’s throats. Where was this great nation God promised? How could God’s word ever come true?

Meanwhile Joseph was keeping the faith – and when all was said and done he was able say to his brothers “you meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” Joseph trusted God, and God used the tragedies in his life to put him in a position to save people from many nations.

God has a master plan for creation. God had a master plan back then and still does now. History has a goal. The human race has a destination. Our destination is not “progress” as the world thinks of it. The destination of history is not a thing or even a set of morals but a person – the person of Jesus Christ. God is guiding all of history to the focal point of our Lord Jesus.

(2) There are parallels between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus. Theologians would say Joseph is a “type” of Christ because many of the events in his life are like a prophecy of the Messiah. Some of the parallels to be found in Joseph’s story include:

  • God blessed Joseph and made him successful in his work; God blessed Jesus and made him successful in his ministry.
  • Joseph was falsely accused by someone in his own household (Potiphar’s wife) and then turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison. Jesus was falsely accused by one of his own (Judas) and turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison.
  • The formal accusation against Joseph is the very thing he did NOT do (sleeping with his master’s wife). Jesus is also accused of the very thing he did NOT do (trying to take over the kingship of the Jewish nation.) The charge they nailed over Jesus’ head on the cross read: “King of the Jews” – but Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world”. They weren’t listening.
  • Joseph descended into jail and ministered to people while he was there; in between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell and ministered to people there. Both Joseph and Jesus work to set the captives free.
  • Joseph is raised from jail and made king over all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Jesus is raised from the dead and “is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
  • Those who sinned against Joseph came to him in their need and were reconciled; those who sin against God come to Jesus in our need and are reconciled.
  • Pharaoh gives Joseph a wife; God gives Jesus the Church, that is, the family of believers. In both cases their joy is so great it makes them forget their hardships. Joseph says: “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” The prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah: “he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”

(3) One last parallel, but one that deserves its own bullet point: The great joy for both Joseph and Jesus is the restoration of relationships and of love. What this means for us is our stories also – as we remain faithful to God – become stories of restoration of relationships and love.

Of course this will never happen perfectly until Jesus comes into His Kingdom. Until then we struggle, as imperfect people, to follow a perfect Lord. But because we know Jesus is our destination, we can say “fear not!” Troubles will last only a little while; the kingdom of God is forever.

While we wait for that kingdom to come, our calling is to follow the earthly examples of Joseph and of Jesus. Minister to those in prison. Feed the hungry. Comfort the grieving. Listen to the lonely. Encourage the despairing. Welcome the stranger. Be a friend to the friendless and a servant to the weak. Bring the good news of the kingdom of our Lord to everyone – because like Joseph, “God has sent us ahead to preserve lives.” Let’s be about it. AMEN.

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“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. – Genesis 45:1-15

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh – 8/20/17

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[Scriptures for the day are quoted at the end of the post]
“I will not let you go.”  These words jump out at us from our passage in Genesis today. How many times in our lives have we said that to someone? Or thought it about someone?

When a parent takes their child to the big city for the first time, walking down the street, it’s “I’ve got you… don’t let go!”  Or when a child is learning how to swim: “Go ahead, try it… I won’t let you go.”

Lovers say it to each other, and love songs are full of the feeling. “Hold On” “I’ll Never Let You Go” “Stand By Me”  “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”

Sometimes love songs go a little too far, for example Sting:

“Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you.”

(…which Sting calls his “Stalker Song”. Sting says he gets a bit worried when fans play this song at their weddings!)

This passionate sentiment of ‘not letting go’ is expressed in our readings from both Genesis and Romans today. In Genesis 32 a man says it to God, and in Romans 8 God says it to us.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel – Arthur Sussman
“Kick at the Darkness Until It Bleeds Daylight”

Let’s look at Genesis first.  In this passage we see the patriarch Jacob alone in the wilderness, wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be… sort of a human manifestation of God.  How Jacob came to be in this particular place on this particular night is a long story. So to make a long story short:

Jacob has been struggling and wrestling with God all his life. Even before Jacob was born, God told his mother Rebekah that her younger son (Jacob) would be blessed by God and would rule over her older son Esau.  As time went on, this started to become true, but for some reason Jacob and Rebekah felt a need to help God out a bit.  So first Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, and then he cheats him out of his father’s blessing.

At this point Esau is so angry he starts plotting to murder his brother Jacob.  So Rebekah sends Jacob about 500 miles away to stay with her brother Laban for safe-keeping.  On the way to Laban’s place, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder, on which he sees angels going up and down into heaven, and hears God say:

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15, edited)

Jacob is so amazed and moved by this meeting, he sets up a stone and calls the place Bethel which means “house of God.” Jacob has now heard, with his own ears, the same promise his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham heard God speak.  And yet when he gets to Laban’s place, Jacob still takes matters into his own hands.

And now, twenty years later, he finds himself with two wives (only one of which he asked for), eleven sons and a daughter, and huge flocks of sheep and goats – most of which he has more-or-less cheated his father-in-law out of. So Jacob’s family is now quite rich, but Jacob himself is tired and discouraged, and has worn out his welcome with just about everybody, and is caught between an angry father-in-law and an estranged brother.

So now Jacob is on the way home. Afraid of what he might meet, Jacob sends his wives and kids and animals on ahead while he spends a night alone.  But suddenly he finds himself wrestling with a mysterious man.

All.Night.Long.

As the night wears on, the wrestler puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go.  Finally the sun begins to rise, and the wrestler says “let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

…as if Jacob would be able to prevent God’s departure!  You have to admire Jacob’s chutzpah. You also have to admire the rich grace of a God who is willing to spend a whole night wrestling with a mere mortal – just to teach him how to say “I will not let you go.”

So the wrestler, now revealed as God, blesses Jacob with the words:

“You shall no longer be called Jacob (which means ‘supplanter’ or ‘deceiver’) but [you shall be called] Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”

In the ancient world, names meant something, much more than they do in our culture. And the meaning of the name ‘Israel’ has been much debated.  I’ve often seen it translated as ‘he struggles with God’ or ‘he wrestles with God’.  But the Hebrew word, Isra-El, describes God, not Jacob. So a more accurate translation might be “God struggles” or “God wrestles”.

Of course it takes two to tango.  God has been wrestling with Jacob… and Jacob has been wrestling with God… all his life.  Now, finally, Jacob is at the point where he’s ready to put things in God’s hands.

For us, where we are today, if we find ourselves at the end of our ropes or at the end of our strength, if we’re hurting and ready to quit, if we feel like strangers in a strange land, will we look to God (as Jacob did) and say “I will not let you go unless you bless me”?  Will we hold on to God with all the passion of a romantic lover?

It’s a choice. Holding on to God is not so much rooted in feeling, as it is a decision.  It’s a persistence.

[As an aside – I think the ‘holding on’ and ‘not letting go’ that popular love songs sing about often has more in common with addiction than it does with faith. One of the things I discovered in my younger days is that it’s impossible to get ‘hooked on’ God.  A person can get addicted to religion or to church (or to church music) or to one kind of theology or another. But somehow God in His mercy has made it impossible to get hooked on Him.  For those of us with addictive streaks in our personalities, it would be easier to be a Christian if we could just get hooked on God because then we wouldn’t have to worry about letting go. We’d have to have God. There would be no choice in the matter.  But God has made human beings in such a way that our faithfulness and our tenacity has to be a choice, moment by moment, day by day.]

The fly in the ointment of course is that none of us is perfect, so none of us can hold on to God perfectly. And none of us is infinitely strong, so none of us can hold on forever. And that’s where our reading from Romans comes in. Romans assures us that when we come to the end of our strength, the end our abilities, God will not let go.  Jesus, who loved us even to death, is holding on to us and will not let go.

The apostle Paul says this is true in spite of any persecution or trouble we may face. It’s true no matter what. And then Paul lists a whole bunch of things that cannot separate us from God.  They include:

  • Death. Life. (That covers most of it, doesn’t it?)
  • Angels (fallen or otherwise)
  • At this point the Greek gets a little open to variation – most translations say ‘principalities’ (which is true enough – principalities can’t make God let go of us). But the word looks more like ‘the first things’ followed by ‘the present’ and then ‘the things that are to come’. In other words, past, present and future. Nothing in our past can make God let go of us. Nothing in our present can get in God’s way. And the future is nothing to fear when we’re in God’s hands.
  • Heights or depths (this can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The highest high you’ve ever known can’t surpass God, and the deepest depression you’ve ever felt can’t overwhelm God.)
  • Nor anything else in all creation (Paul says) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God will never let us go.  Is this not good news?

And so as we move into this week and into our daily lives, think about how Jacob wrestled with God, and refused to let go.  Try approaching God in prayer with that kind of mindset and tenacity.

But also remember God is holding on to us, and God won’t let go, so we are secure no matter what happens, no matter what comes our way. We go out into the world in the confidence of God’s love that cannot be shaken.

God loves you – and will never let you go.  AMEN.

 

~

Preached at Fair Oaks Retirement Home and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 8/6/17

Artwork: “Jacob Wrestles the Angel” by Arthur Sussman

“Kick at the Darkness” article by Victoria Emily Jones. Pull-quote:

“In the painting God’s various sets of hands are breaking Jacob down and holding him up. Some of his faces speak gentleness, some fierceness. Whatever mixture of approaches God may use on us, his goal is this: to bring us through our brokenness to a place of blessing and glory.”

With thanks to Fr. Paul Johnston for bringing these works into our worship today.

~

Scriptures

Genesis 32:22-31

“The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”

 

Romans 8:35-39

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  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.

 

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