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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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…and they took him and threw him into a pit. […] Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. (Gen 37, excerpt. Full reading at end of post.)

“…they threw him in a pit…”

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Preamble: There are so many ways in which today’s scripture reading parallels yesterday’s events in Charlottesville VA, it’s a bit scary.  Both are stories of murderous hatred between brothers.

In the context of yesterday’s news this sermon may be difficult to talk about and to hear. But as the apostle Paul says, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the evils of this world. It is a spiritual battle.  No human being, no group, no political party, ever perfectly represents God’s will.  Only God can do that. And so today, even in the midst – especially in the midst – of our fear and our anger, we turn to God’s word for comfort and for direction.

As our sermon opens, we’ll be listening in on one of Jacob’s sons expressing his hatred for his brother.

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“What a brat! Can you imagine living with a kid brother like Joseph?  Oh, he’s Daddy’s favorite, he is.

“His mama was Daddy’s favorite wife too, Rachel. Of course she’s dead now so we can’t speak ill of her. But we older boys in the family have always had to pick up the slack from little Joseph and his bratty little brother Benjamin.

“Those two never pull their weight around here.  All of us – the sons of Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah – we do all the work.  Put up the tents! Take down the tents! Feed the animals! Take the animals out to pasture! Defend the family from creeps like those Shechemites who raped our sister! But nobody helps us!

“Meanwhile Joseph sits around the tent in the pretty robe Dad made him, doing absolutely nothing.  Oh, yeah, he’ll come out and help the younger brothers with the animals sometimes. But then he runs home to Dad and tattles on us.  I mean, so what if Dan and Asher drink and rough-house a little? So what if people in the town don’t like it? They’re young, they’ve got wild oats to sow. What’s that to Joseph?

“But noooo… he has to run home and tell Daddy.  And of course Dad believes every word he says. He could tell Dad the moon was purple and Dad would believe him.

“I can’t stand that brat.

“Oh! And here’s the best part.  Lately he’s been having dreams.  He dreams he has a big tall sheaf of wheat and all of our sheaves gather around it and bow down to it.  I mean, who does he think he is?!?  He’s the second-youngest son of twelve sons.  Reuben is the oldest – if anybody’s in charge he is, and he would never lord it over us. But this little runt thinks he’s going to be king?

“Oh, and then he had another dream.  He said he saw the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. Even Dad objected to that one – he said, “son, you think me and your mothers and brothers are going to bow to you?” But you know what, even while he was saying it I could tell Dad half-believed him.

“One thing’s for certain though – Dad will never punish Joseph for going on about those dreams. Oh, no… not the golden boy. Who needs him? Stick to the tents you little runt… go home and be with Daddy.  Sometimes I wish he would just drop off the face of the earth.

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That’s what I imagine Jacob’s boys would tell us if we could transport ourselves back in time 4000 years.  Many of us here today have brothers and sisters and have had our share of sibling rivalries, but for most of us it was nothing compared to this.

But I think it’s easy to sympathize with Jacob’s boys.  Even in average families, the oldest kids always complain they do all the work, and the youngest are getting away with murder. In Jacob’s family the youngest  sons were favored, because their mother was the favorite wife – which wasn’t fair to the rest of the boys.

And in our story when some of the boys actually do try to take matters into their own hands, it’s the oldest – Reuben – who is responsible and talks them out of it. When the younger sons throw Joseph into a pit, Reuben figures he’ll leave Joseph there for a while to think things over and then come back later and pull him out and send him home safely.

But when Reuben isn’t looking, the other brothers see some traders on their way to Egypt and decide to make some money instead of committing murder.

Picture the scene: Joseph, all of 17 years old, stripped of his robe, crying out for mercy, while his brothers haggle over what his life is worth.  How angry were they to ignore their brother on his knees, weeping and begging for his life?

Unknown to all of them, in this horrific moment the wheels of history are turning. What the brothers are doing is reprehensible, and the pain their father will feel is unthinkable.

Yet on a larger scale, this one action will set into motion a series of events that will save millions of lives and define the nation of Israel from which the Messiah Jesus will come.

Years later Joseph will say to his brothers, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.”  And that’s very true. But in today’s story that’s still many years away.

For today we need to spend some time with the tragedy of this deeply dysfunctional family – because we see in this story a microcosm of the deeply dysfunctional human family in which all of us live.

So two things I’d like to focus on today: (1) what scripture tells us about Jacob’s family; and (2) what Joseph’s story says to us as Christians in the 21st century.

  • What Genesis tells us.

Genesis tells us Jacob was living in an town called Hebron, south of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea. Jacob’s sons were feeding the flocks in Shechem, a city about 50 miles away, north of Jerusalem in what Jesus would have called Samaria.  The distance between Jacob and his sons is about the same as the distance between here and Morgantown WV.

Shepherds back in those days needed to move around to find good pastures, but it’s doubtful they needed to go that far to find green grass.  The whole issue with Joseph caused such hard feelings that the boys were putting physical distance between themselves and their father.

On top of that, Shechem is also where, a few years before, Jacob’s daughter (their sister) Dinah had been raped and the brothers took revenge by killing a bunch of Shechemites. So they had worn out their welcome in this part of the country.  When Joseph arrived in Shechem he found his brothers had already moved on, even further north, to a city named Dothan, which is about as far from Shechem as we are from Monroeville, so Joseph had about another day to walk to get to them.

The name ‘Dothan’ translated from the Hebrew means “Law” – and we could say that the sons of Jacob, having run away from their father Israel and his God, are now trying to live by the Law (so to speak) and not by the grace of the word of God. We’ll come back to that in a moment. Physically, the brothers are moving northwest, headed in the direction of the Plain of Megiddo, or as we call it today, Armageddon.

I don’t think that’s coincidence. To make a long story short, they’re headed in the wrong direction. They’re moving away from their father, away from their families, away from those who care about them, away from righteous living, away from God, and into major trouble. And they’re so angry with Joseph, scripture says they couldn’t even greet him with the traditional greeting: they couldn’t even say shalom to him.

On some level their father Jacob must have known they were in trouble, which is why he sent Joseph to them. But the brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance and made plans to take his life. When Joseph got to Dothan, they stripped off his robe, tossed him in a pit… and then sat down to have lunch!

Can you imagine doing that? And yet even today people kill and steal and lie and cheat and abuse their spouses or their children – or light torches and surround churches in the night – and then go sit down and eat a meal like it’s nothing.

In our passage, Joseph’s brothers then spotted the caravan of Ishmaelites.  We met Ishmael earlier this summer: he’s the half-brother of Isaac, son of Abraham.  So the men in the caravan were their grandfather’s brother’s grandchildren. We don’t know if they actually knew each other, but Jacob’s sons were able to identify them as “Ishmaelites” on sight.

So the brothers decide to sell Joseph to their second cousins. And now they can go home and honestly say they didn’t kill Joseph, and they don’t where he is – they have total deniability – and they will come away with little extra money in their pockets.

And Joseph – the one who was sent by their father to help them – is bound and carried away to Egypt.

At first glance this story doesn’t seem to have anything to recommend it at all.  There’s nothing here we want to model our lives on. There are no good examples to follow (except for maybe Joseph, and Joseph comes across as innocent but very naïve).

  • So what does this all mean to us as Christians in the 21st century?

One of the common themes in Christian theology is that Joseph is a ‘type’ of Jesus.  That is, there are similarities between Joseph’s story and Jesus’ story – so much so that Joseph’s life can – in some ways – be interpreted as a prophecy of the Messiah. Looking at Joseph helps us understand Jesus.

For example: Genesis 37:3 tells us “Jacob loved Joseph more than any other of his children.” In Matthew, God says about Jesus: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Not that Jacob didn’t love his other children, and not that God doesn’t love all God’s children.  But Jesus is set apart, just as Joseph was set apart. Joseph was clothed by his father in a special robe; Jesus was clothed by his Father in the Holy Spirit and in power.

Here’s another. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers hate him out of envy. In the gospels, the religious authorities – the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees – hate Jesus out of envy.  Mark 15:10 says, “the chief priests delivered Jesus up out of envy.” And Jesus in his parable of the vineyard says, “the tenants saw the son coming and said ‘here is the heir – let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours.’”

Here’s another. In both stories there is a prophecy that the Son will one day rule as king.  Joseph dreams of his brothers bowing down to him – which ended up actually happening. Joseph knew his dreams had to do with the future. He never intended them to lord over his brothers – he was trying to tell them the future that was coming!  And in Matthew, Jesus says, “you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64)  And the apostle Paul says one day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is not Jesus ‘lording’ himself over us. He’s telling us what’s coming.

Joseph and Jesus both are sent to look out for the welfare of their brothers (and sisters). Both willingly go and search diligently until the people they’re seeking are found.  But as it says in the gospel of John, “he came to his own, and his own received him not.”  And this true of both Jesus and Joseph. The people who have gone to Dothan – that is, to the law – have rejected salvation as the gift of God, and both Joseph and Jesus plead with them to hear the voice of the Father and change direction – because the law cannot save; only God the Father can.

Joseph and Jesus both are condemned to die by those they came to help.  Both are stripped of their robes. Both are thrown into a pit (in Jesus’ time, prisons looked more like pits than jail cells).  Both are denied justice, or even a fair hearing. Both are sold for silver placed in the hand.

And as Joseph begins his new life in Egypt, the parallels between his life and the life of Jesus will continue. We’ll look at that next week.

For today, we leave ten brothers in a field, with hatred and violence and guilt in their hearts, far from where they should be, far from God, and far from home.  In a few days Jacob’s heart will break when they show him Joseph’s robe, covered in blood.

For today we leave Joseph on the road to Egypt… and Jesus on the road to Calvary. And just like back then, people are sitting down and eating and going about life like nothing has happened.

Next week we will see how the stories end. Until then, think about the people in these stories. Think about the choices they made. Think about their fear and hatred and anger, and where it leads.

Then think about God the Father, who like Jacob, suffers when his children suffer. Think about Jesus, who like Joseph, willingly searched for us and found us no matter what it cost him. Think about Joseph’s dreams of someday ruling, and the prophecies that Jesus will one day rule.  Are we, his brothers and sisters, ready for his coming kingdom? Are we ready to lay down our anger and our fears and make peace with God?

Think on these things… and we’ll pick up here next week. AMEN.

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Genesis 37:1-28  Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.  2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.  3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.  4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.  6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.  7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”  8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.  9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”  11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.  13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.”  14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem,  15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”  16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”  17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.'” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.  18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.  20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”  22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”– that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.  23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;  24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.  26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.  28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/13/17

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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.

 

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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.

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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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Genesis 29:15-28  Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”  Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.  Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”  Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”  So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”  So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast.  But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.  (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)  When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”  Laban said, “This is not done in our country– giving the younger before the firstborn.  Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”  Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. – Genesis 29:15-28

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The Little Chapel, Gurnsey, UK, is made up of broken pieces of porcelain cups, saucers, and dishes.

This morning we continue in our summer series on the Old Testament, looking at the foundations of our Christian faith as it’s found in the early history of the people of Israel.  But the events in today’s reading are dark, and they seem a looooong way from the Christian faith.

So to lead off, a quick summary of the message in today’s lesson:

Mortal nature is to mess things up, but God’s nature is to set things right. Ultimately, God will set all things right through Jesus the Messiah. Today’s story helps us get to know the family into which the Messiah will be born.  Like them, we can’t do God’s will apart from God’s help.  But also like them, if we trust God, God uses the raw and imperfect material of our lives to create blessings for the world.

LittleChapel2

Detail of one of the walls of the Little Chapel, where the pieces of porcelain can be clearly seen.

That’s the summary. Here’s how we get there.

The story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, which we read today, takes place in a culture that’s very foreign to us, and therefore is open to misunderstanding.  As I thought about that this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had a number of years ago with an English friend.  She’d been living in the States for a few years and was still learning about our country. In the course of a conversation I said to her “the coffee shop is catty-corner from the bank”.  And she said “what?” And I repeated myself, and she said “spell that please”.  I said, “Catty-corner? I’m not sure. Some people say ‘kitty-corner’ – I don’t know which is right.” She said, “I thought you were giving me directions, why are we talking about cats?”

And it dawned on me that we were tripping over one of the differences between American and British English… so I thought about it… and I said to her “the coffee shop is diagonally opposite the bank”. She said, “Why didn’t you say so?!?” And we laughed and talked for about 15 minutes about words and the proper spelling of ‘catty-corner’ and the fact that no American would ever say ‘diagonally opposite’.

So if this level of confusion can happen between two women of the same age, with similar backgrounds, with similar education, speaking the same language (theoretically) – how difficult is it for us to grasp the mindset of people living 4000 years ago, halfway around the world, who spoke a language that is about as different from English as a person can get and still be on the same planet?

On the other hand, today’s story is shocking to any audience, anywhere – though maybe not for the same reasons.  For example, when Jacob barters for his bride this may strike us as a form of human trafficking; but the tradition of a ‘bride-price’ was not about selling women; it had to do with compensating a family for the hardship of removing one of the family members.

I remember talking to a classmate from Africa about this once. He told me he gave 14 cows for the right to marry his wife.  And I looked at him and asked, “you mean 14 actual cows? Or the money that would buy 14 cows?” He laughed and said, “14 actual cows.”  And he explained, these cows would help to replace some of the food and some of the labor that his wife’s removal from the family would take away. It makes sense in a country where people live off the land and work with their hands.

So turning to our story for today: Laban – Jacob’s uncle – comes to Jacob one day. Jacob has been visiting for about a month and has been helping out around the farm, and Laban says, “you are my kinsman: why are you working for me for free? Tell me what you’d like for your wages.”

Laban is opening a negotiation here. He’s getting ready to bargain.  But he’s doing more than that.  He’s exploring Jacob’s motives.  Laban knows Jacob’s family is rich. A generation earlier, when Abraham sent a servant to Laban’s father to look for a wife for Isaac, Laban was witness to the negotiations.  He remembers the rich treasures the servant gave his family.  He saw how Abraham’s servant was led by God to Laban’s family and to his sister Rebekah, who married Isaac and became the mother of Jacob.

But unlike Abraham’s servant, who came with piles of jewels, Jacob arrived empty-handed.  So Laban knows something’s not quite right at home. How much he knows we don’t know.  Whether Jacob told him about his feud with Esau, or that his brother was trying to kill him, the Bible doesn’t say.

But Laban has also had a month to watch Jacob work. And he has observed a young man who is hard-working and gifted with animals.  And while Jacob has been with Laban, God has increased Laban’s flocks and his wealth, and Laban is liking that.

So Laban is not just opening a negotiation. He is asking a leading question in a very polite way. He knows Jacob is in love with his daughter Rachel, and he’s giving Jacob the opportunity to ask for her hand.

And Jacob pounces on the opportunity.  He says: “I will work for you for seven years in exchange for your daughter Rachel.”

It’s interesting that Laban didn’t haggle over how many years. He accepted Jacob’s first offer, so it must have been a good one. And the writer of Genesis tells us the seven years “seemed to Jacob but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

In that culture, in that time, as soon as Laban and Jacob made the agreement, Rachel was considered legally married – even though they didn’t actually get married right away. A similar thing happens in the Christmas story, where we’re told Mary and Joseph were ‘betrothed’ but had not come together yet.  In that culture marriages were considered legal when they were agreed on, not when the ceremony happened. In the in-between time both the man and the woman would be getting a home ready: furnishing it, gathering or making goods they would need as a family… and when everything was ready, then there would be a marriage feast, followed by the couple moving in together.

So what we’re seeing here in this story is the traditional course of events: Jacob and Rachel have seven years to get their household ready.  And finally when the seven years are up, Jacob comes to Laban and says, “My seven years are up: Rachel and I would like to start a family.” So Laban puts on a feast and gathers all the family and neighbors together and they have a huge party.  And at the end of the evening, when Jacob goes to bed, probably a bit tipsy, Laban comes to Jacob’s tent, bringing a bride who’s wearing a veil, and leaves the two of them together.

And in the morning Jacob wakes up and discovers Leah!

This is where the story gets shocking. Even in the old days this kind of thing was not done.  This is a deception of epic proportions. How could a man do this to his nephew? How could a father do this to his daughters? And did Rachel and Leah go along with this? Or were they given no choice? Why?

Scripture never answers these questions. When Jacob confronts Laban the next morning saying “What have you done? Where is my wife?” Laban answers, “It is not done in our country that the younger daughter should be married before the firstborn.”  And that’s a bogus reason, because Laban has had seven years in which to find a husband for Leah. He didn’t do it.

The only thing we do know – from our perspective in the distant future – is that somehow God’s will and God’s plan is moving forward anyway. Not that God approves of lying or cheating or deceiving or two sisters marrying one man, far from it. But in spite of all this: in spite of Laban’s deception, in spite of the pain Leah feels at being rejected by her husband, in spite of the pain Rachel will feel seeing her sister having baby after baby while she is without children, in spite of the pain Jacob will feel because there’s no peace in his home… it will take years, but eventually the blessing God promised Jacob will come.

Before Jacob went to Laban’s house, God promised Jacob to bless him and to bless the world through his family. And slowly God’s plan moves forward. In time Jacob becomes wealthy and moves home to Bethel with all his children and his wives and his livestock. On their way home, God gives Jacob a new name: Israel – which means ‘he wrestles with God’. And Jacob’s twelve sons will become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel – the founders of a nation.

Two things I would like to point out from this story today:

  1. Even though we believers believe in love, sometimes love is not enough
  2. God can create beauty and blessing in spite of our human brokenness

To the first point: The story of Jacob and his family is essentially a Jewish story, so I turned to some Jewish theologians to hear what they had to say.  One of the things that comes through clearly in Jewish writing is love.  Writers point out that nowhere in scripture does it say that Jacob hated Leah – in fact he probably liked her and may have loved her. He just wasn’t in love with her. He didn’t want her the way he wanted Rachel.

One Jewish theologian says: sometimes love alone is not enough. Sometimes justice is needed. In this story, both Rachel and Leah are loved – but not equally, and so there is no justice. Not for Leah, not for Rachel, not even for Jacob.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says the following about this passage: “If you want to live well, love. If you seek to be close to G‑d, love. […] But love is not enough. […] Justice without love is harsh. Love without justice is unfair, or so it will seem to the less-loved. […] At the heart of the moral life is a conflict with no simple resolution. There is no general rule to tell us when love is the right reaction and when justice is [the right reaction]. Let us love, but let us never forget those who feel unloved.”

In a perfect world, love and justice would never conflict with each other. And in God’s kingdom, love and justice are two sides of the same coin.  But in our broken world, if and when love and justice come into conflict, we have prayer and we have God’s Holy Spirit to guide our decisions and our actions.

To the second point, that God’s plan continues, and that God will bless even through our brokenness: God’s design throughout Genesis is to create a nation, a people, for Himself.  God is creating a group of people who, as God’s people, will bless all the nations of the earth.

In spite of everything Jacob has done to his brother Esau, in spite of everything Laban has done to Jacob, God’s plan is moving forward.  The sons who will be born to Jacob and his wives will be the fathers of the nation from which the Messiah will be born.

So as it says in Romans 8:28 – “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” and in Romans 8:31 – “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

In life there are lots of things that happen that we don’t understand.  I don’t know why my one friend is unemployed; I don’t know why another friend just can’t seem to get free of the drugs.  So many things in life we don’t understand. But we can trust that in God’s hands all these broken pieces will somehow come together to create beauty and to be a blessing. Because if God is for us, who can be against us?

So today we see in the story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah three broken people who, like many of us, were thrown into a life they didn’t exactly choose.  God takes those broken pieces and builds a people, and builds a future, and blesses the world through them.  Through their faith, and by God’s grace, someday in God’s kingdom all of Jacob’s family will be wearing crowns and standing around God’s throne… and if we remain faithful, someday each one of us will be wearing crowns too.

To God be the glory, AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/30/17

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“The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.  12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.  16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”  19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.  20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 21:8-21   

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Today’s sermon is the second installment in our summer series on the Old Testament. And our scripture reading for today, from Genesis, tells the story of a party.

The party takes place about 4000 years ago and is given by a man named Abraham to celebrate his baby boy starting to eating solid food – which was something to celebrate back in those days because many babies didn’t survive past infancy.

But there is so much drama going on in his household, the story sounds more like a soap opera than a party.  There are cat-fights and betrayals and outrageous if not downright illegal behavior. So I’d like to subtitle this sermon The Not So Young and the Restless.

And as with any soap opera, before we can make sense of what’s happening we need to know the characters and their back-stories.

So the main character is Abraham, the patriarch of the family.  Abraham walks with God.  He has conversations with God and he has received promises from God.  In fact God changed his name from Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) to Abraham (which means ‘father of a multitude’). In Genesis Chapter 12 God says to Abraham:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

This is the promise that has guided and defined Abraham’s life.

The second character in our soap opera is Sarah, Abraham’s wife.  Sarah was known for her beauty in her younger days, and now that she’s older she is still a handsome woman, and a formidable woman as well. She is in charge of Abraham’s household, but to her great sorrow she’s never been able to have children.

The third character in our soap opera is Hagar, Sarah’s slave-girl. She’s from Egypt and doesn’t have the same religious or cultural background as Abraham and Sarah.  But Sarah, after waiting for years and years for God’s promise of a child to arrive, gets discouraged and gives Hagar to Abraham to have children for her – which was not an unusual thing to do back in those days.

But when Hagar becomes pregnant she starts to get cocky and lords it over her mistress, and a baby-begetting rivalry begins.  Finally Sarah has enough of Hagar’s attitude and abuses her to the point where Hagar runs away. In Genesis 16 we read, “The angel of the Lord found [Hagar] by a spring of water in the wilderness… and he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarah, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Of course the angel already knows the answers to these questions.  But in the Hebrew culture questions like these are not looking for information. They are a respectful way of scolding someone… and also an opportunity for the other person to explain their actions.)

Hagar answers, “I am running away from my mistress Sarah.” – which is more of a pout than a defense.  And the angel says to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”  In other words, ‘grow up’.

But the angel also says, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted… […] You have conceived and will bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael (which means “God hears”), for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.”  So while Hagar has a rough road ahead, she will be comforted by a son – whose name will always remind her (and everyone else around her) that God is watching over her and listening to her voice.

The angel also says Ishmael will be “a wild donkey of a man” who will “live at odds with all his kin.”  And in these words we meet the fourth character in our soap opera, Ishmael, Hagar’s son. The Bible doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Ishmael’s childhood but it does say he was circumcised along with all the other men in Abraham’s family. So Ishmael is in every way a member of Abraham’s covenant family under God.

A few years before today’s drama takes place, when Abraham is about 90 years old, God visits him and repeats his promise about Abraham’s offspring.  But Abraham, in discouragement, says, “You have given me no offspring, and a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  But God answers, “This man shall not be your heir…” And he took him outside and said, “…count the stars… so shall your descendants be.”

And Abraham believed God, and “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  This is the first time in scripture where righteousness is defined as believing God; where faith is defined as the key to a right relationship with God.  We can watch for that theme to repeat itself as we progress through the Bible.

Then last Sunday, on Fathers’ Day, we read about Abraham finally becoming a father.  By the time God’s promise finally came true, and the baby boy was born, Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah was in her 90s.  And since by that time both Abraham and Sarah had laughed when God told them a child would be born to them, the baby is named “Isaac” which means “he laughs”.

And this brings us to the beginning of our soap opera for today.

The scene opens on Isaac’s weaning party, celebrating the fact that Isaac has made it through infancy and his life ahead looks good.

But for Ishmael, if he ever had dreams about being Abraham’s heir, this day pretty much puts an end to that.  And scripture says, “Sarah saw [him] playing with her son Isaac.”

This is not as innocent as it sounds.  A better translation might be ‘mocking’ or ‘picking on’ Isaac. And Ishmael, being around 14 years old at this point, should have known better.

For Sarah it’s the last straw. She says to Abraham: “[Get rid of] this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Notice Sarah doesn’t even say their names… it’s just “this slave woman” and “her son”.

Abraham is not happy about this.  He doesn’t want to get involved in a cat-fight, but he also knows this time things are not going to blow over. So God has a word with Abraham and says:

“Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring will be named for you.”  God also adds, “I will make Ishmael fruitful as well, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes will he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” (Gen 17)

So both boys will be blessed, and so Abraham’s mind is put at rest.  The next morning Abraham gives Hagar bread and a skin of water and sends her off with Ishmael.

Not knowing where to go and what to do, Hagar and Ishmael wander around in the wilderness of Beer-sheba for a while, until the bread and the water are gone. (The name Beer-sheba means ‘seven wells’ but for some reason they’re not coming across these wells in their travels.)  And as thirst grows, Ishmael becomes weak. Hagar, devastated, throws him under a bush and then goes off at a distance to wait for the inevitable. She says, “do not let me look on the death of the child” – and she breaks down and weeps.

And Genesis says, “God heard the voice of the boy (interesting it doesn’t say ‘heard the voice of his mother’ – at this point the boy’s voice would have been the weaker of the two, but God still hears it.)  And God calls to Hagar and says, “[I have] heard the voice of the boy where he is… lift him up, hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.” And then God opened her eyes to see a well, and she went and got water for them both.

Hagar responds to God with faith – the same kind of faith that Abraham showed when God spoke about Isaac.  Whoever she’s been in the past and whatever she’s done, Hagar now trusts God and walks with God.

And that’s where our story today ends. But there’s a lot more to the story. Over the next few weeks we will be hearing more about Isaac’s story, and his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they become the people of Israel.

But we won’t hear about Ishmael again in our series.  So here’s the rest of his story.  Hagar found Ishmael a wife, and the family settled in the wilderness of Paran, which is sort of a desert area. Later in life Isaac and Ishmael together will bury their father Abraham in the family cave – so the two boys don’t lose touch with each other completely.  And Ishmael will go on to have twelve sons, just as God told Abraham. And these twelve sons will lead twelve tribes, paralleling Jacob’s sons and their twelve tribes. Jacob and his sons will end up in Egypt eventually, and then to the Promised Land; Ishmael and his sons will settle in what is known today as west-central Saudi Arabia.

And that’s where Ishmael’s story in the Bible ends. But there’s one more postscript in history: Ishmael will spend his last years living in a city called Mecca, and he will become the ancestor of a man named Mohammed. And the family rift between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael will grow wider and wider over the centuries, always at each other – just as the angel predicted.

And this continues even to our own time. And when we think about how this rivalry between brothers plays out in today’s world, the story doesn’t look like a soap opera any more.  It’s painful and it’s violent. And we begin to understand the depth of the conflict that was going on inside Abraham’s family.

So what do we do with this ancient story today?

First, we need to try to set politics aside. Our world is SO politically charged – but this story is God’s word, and it’s God’s message we want to listen for.

Second, we see in these events a God who forgives sin. God gave Abraham and Sarah a promise, of a son. And they believed that promise, for the most part.  But did their faith slip a little? – or did they think they needed to help God out? – when they gave Hagar to Abraham? God never said anything about Abraham needing a second wife!  One commentator notes: “The bright ideas that God’s people get with good intentions to hurry the Lord’s plans along, often create more frustration and heartbreak…” than anything else. (http://www.hvcog.org/e-mails/2016e/october_20_2016.htm )

But God forgave the parents, and blessed both boys as children of Abraham. God may not remove the consequences but God redeems the circumstances.  If any of us should find ourselves in a place where we have made a doozy of a mistake: God will forgive if we turn to him. God’s plans for good in our lives are not changed or prevented by our mistakes. So be encouraged.

Third, God is as committed to blessing Ishmael as he is to blessing Isaac.  Both boys were predicted by God. Both boys were received into the covenant and were circumcised.  Only one of them can become the forefather of Jesus – and that will be Isaac – but this does not mean Ishmael is loved any less by God.

This passage shows that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam find a physical connection in Abraham. And in all three faiths God is understood as one God (as opposed to many gods, like in Hinduism) and God is a personal God (as opposed to a ‘force’ or ‘life energy’ of some kind).

But salvation is and always has been by faith in God’s promise – which ultimately is Jesus – no matter who we are or where we find ourselves.  The apostle Paul tells us there will come a time when the Jewish people will understand that Jesus is the Messiah and will believe (for more details see Romans chapters 9-11).

And for Muslims, the good news of salvation by faith alone is probably the most attractive aspect of Christianity today.  I mention this as friends and colleagues return from mission work among the refugees in Europe, where Muslims are coming to Christ by the thousands. I think for us it might be helpful to draw a parallel between the Muslims of today and the Samaritans of Jesus’ day.  Remember Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John – the woman began by saying to him:

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:20-24

So in Jesus we see all three streams coming together, because Jesus is the completion of all three streams, received by faith and worshipped ‘in spirit and in truth’. This gives hope for those of us who reach out across religious lines to share our faith in Jesus.

Fourth and last, in this story we see a God who hears.  God hears both Sarah’s laughter and her anger. God hears Abraham’s discouragement.  God hears the pain of a pregnant slave-girl who has been abused. God hears the cries of a young man near death. And God not only hears, but God responds.

God does not remove the difficult situations; but neither is God’s blessing lost just because people have messed up.  God’s good plans to bless Abraham’s family and to bless the whole world through Abraham’s family, are still going forward, and God’s people will not just survive but thrive.

So if we find ourselves going through difficulties, we can be assured that our mistakes and our shortcomings won’t put a stop to God’s blessings. Our imperfections don’t stop God’s good plans for us and for our children.  We are not rejected just because we mess up.  God has made a road through the wilderness and through the pain and into glory.

God’s kingdom is never lost to us, and God’s love is never lost to us, so long as we stay with God. So take heart – and follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, trusting God and following God as they did: imperfectly, but faithfully.

AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/25/17

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