Genesis 37:1-4:12-28, Matthew 14:22-33
August 14, 2005
There is a story of a family. The parents had three lovely children. They were members of a strong Church family. They gave their children a good home, sent them to the best schools, they gave them good discipline, good values, and a lot of love.
All was well for many years until one day the mother was in the room of the youngest child. His name was Sam. He was about 15 at the time. This mother was straightening up Sam’s desk, and when she went to put some things in a drawer, she found drugs. She was horrified, as any mother would be. She discussed it with her husband, and they decided to speak to Sam.
It wasn’t an easy conversation as you can imagine. Through a lot of evasiveness, Sam told them he was having some problems. He told them how, since he was smaller than the other boys at school, they picked on him. And that was hard. At the same time, he was just starting to “discover girls.” and since he wasn’t as good looking as everyone else, it seemed the girls ignored him. And on top of all that, his own brother and sister thought that he received “special treatment” in the family because he was the youngest, so they too treated him badly.
So, with all the quiet heartache that a 15 year old boy can have, he turned to some other “not-so-nice” boys as friends, some of whom were going through similar troubles. Together they had been “hanging out.” And before long, some of them had introduced Sam to some “questionable” things.
Sadly, the boys were involved in more than drugs. Some had been in trouble with the police. And sadly, all those things didn’t stop with that conversation that day. So this nice boy from a “good family” went through a very troubled teenage and young adult life, with a lot of heartache and a lot of self-inflicted pain. Needless to say, his parents also had a lot of heartache. Because, you know if you’re a parent, you hurt for hurting kids!
The point of that story is that this was not a dysfunctional family. This was not a family with a lot of stress and abuse. This was a good family. But even in the best of families, bad things can happen. And as James Dobson once pointed out, we can give our kids the best upbringing and the best chance for happiness and success in life that we can possibly give. But there are still other influences out there that we can’t control, And sometimes those influences win out, and our children have troubles. Even in the best of families!
I wanted us to think about that today because we read a story from the Old Testament that tells us the same thing. Even in the best of families things happen. This is the beginning of the story of Joseph. And it is one of the most fascinating stories in the Old Testament. This is the precursor, the prologue, the “prequel” in our modern terminology, to the larger story which is the focal point of the Old Testament. That focal point is, of course, the story of the Exodus. But the set up story is the story of Joseph. This is like “The Hobbit” for larger story of “The Lord of the Rings.”
Here we have the brothers of Joseph who don’t like his special treatment. They ambush him, and they sell him into slavery. And of course they only sell him into slavery because they thought it would be a “bad thing” to kill him! What great guys they were, huh? Yet these were they guys for whom the whole family and nation of Israel was named! These were the leaders of the Twelve Tribes! What an auspicious beginning for ones that figured so prominently in the history of the Hebrew people! It seems quite a contrast doesn’t it?
Well, these guys were not alone in their “infamy!” They were the sons of (who?) Israel. You remember him. He used to be called (what?) Jacob. Perhaps you recall his story! Jacob is the one who cheated is own brother Esau out of the family inheritance! With the help of his mother, he tricked his father into giving him the blessing that ordinarily went to the eldest son. And while he would eventually be reconciled to his brother, it was a scandalous beginning. In fact, when we read this story, this whole family seems to be a bunch of scoundrels!
Nevertheless, this is a family, a people, indeed a nation, which God chose. This is a people with whom God would continue to struggle down through the years. And if you really think about it, we, in our times of rebellion don’t seem all that far apart from this family. All of us have our “stuff.” All of us have our own infamy, our own scandals, our own rebellion, don’t we? That’s the heart of the doctrine of sin and salvation to which we all hold. All of that is the reason for God’s “final solution,” in which he sent his own son to bring about the reconciliation for all his children.
I, for one am glad for that reconciliation! And I am glad for these stories in which God interacts with people and in which he takes the circumstances of their lives and works for good. And I, for one, am glad for examples like this, of his unbelievable grace – grace by which he does not require perfection from us before he touches our lives! I am so glad for that! Are you with me? (Amen?)
That’s a funny thing if you think about it. We were at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium last summer. That’s a great event! And one of the speakers talked about this family. He was talking about Jacob. He was talking about the scoundrel he was in cheating his brother. And he said that one of the voices noticeably absent from that story was the voice of God. “Why didn’t he straighten all that out,” he asked? “Why didn’t he say, ‘No Jacob! Esau gets the blessing!’?” “Why didn’t he stop these brothers from ambushing Joseph?”
He doesn’t. He doesn’t force our hand. He doesn’t move us around in our lives like inanimate chess pieces. No. He works with us. He guides us. He molds us. He lets us make our own mistakes, just like a good parent will do with a child, so that child can grow and mature. God treats us like a good father. He uses us – in all our imperfections – to do his perfect will! That’s amazing, isn’t it?! And if you think I understand the depth of all that you’d be wrong! I am amazed, and sometimes even dumbfounded, at the unbelievably gracious ways God continues to work in my life despite my imperfections and my failings! And I hope in this story of Joseph you will feel that same amazement as you consider your own lives. God is so unbelievably good!
Joseph had real troubles – with his own brothers! How heart wrenching would that be? This wasn’t the doing of the band of Ishmaelites to whom Joseph was sold. I’m sure they were glad to profit from what happened. But ultimately this was the deed of Joseph’s own brothers. It is a near tragic tale of sibling rivalry “gone haywire.” And I say “near tragic” because this is not the end of the story!
God used this tale of infamy. God used the misfortune of Joseph. There was a terrible famine in those days. They had seven years of crop failure. And in that culture, with no storage and preservation like we have today, that was disastrous! And in this whole “famine thing,” it turned out to be the brother’s own scandalous actions which became their salvation. For as it would turn out at the end of this story, when they came to Egypt to beg for food, who was it they had to appear before? It was this very Joseph whom they had sold, who was now in charge of the food stores for that entire region of the world!
This is a great story. And for me it says several things. First, and most thankfully, it tells us how God does work with us even in our imperfection. As I said before, we don’t have to be perfect first for God to use us. Instead it’s a process, a journey. It’s a lifelong relationship in which we struggle, we grow, we fail, and we are redeemed. That’s good, because life is not always smooth. We have difficulties with other people. And the sad fact is that we tend to hurt the people we are closest to in this life – like Joseph and his brothers. But God wants to be with us through all of that! And for that I am so glad! Are you with me!?!?
The second thing this tells me is that, in God’s plan, we might not see the whole picture from whatever happens to be our current point of view. We may not know what the future holds, as the old saying goes, “but we can know the one who holds the future!” We can trust God! We can rely on his grace. We can develop this ongoing every day relationship with a God who wants to struggle with us, to guide us, and to love us like only a parent can.
The third thing this tells me is that none of this happens “automatically.” We need to be intentional about seeking God’s grace. We need to be choosing to strive to be closer to God. We need to be consciously relying on God’s guidance and protection, even when it seems as though God is not near us at any given time.
This is where so many people miss the point! They almost use their imperfections as an excuse. “God can’t/doesn’t use me because I’m not good enough.” If you say that, let me assure you, to God, you are good enough! Others will say, “God can’t/doesn’t use me because I don’t know enough.” Sorry, that’s not a requirement of God! He’s not so interested that we know a lot. Only that we know him! And some will say, “I don’t have to bother about all that “godly” stuff, because I’m not a “godly person.” I’ve got news for those who say that. You need to be! But not the way you think. For to be “godly” is more a matter of “being with” God, than it is “acting like” God.
That is part of the story of Joseph we won’t be reading. But it’s a big one. I’ll give you the assignment to read it yourselves this week! That is the part of the story of Joseph where he is trusting God, and being God’s servant, even in slavery, even in prison, even when people treated him despicably. In all that, he continued to stay in connection with God and to use his godly wisdom and insight all along, not just when he felt like it! And it led him to the throne of the Pharaoh himself, who then made him the second most powerful man in that part of the world – actually the first, if you consider that he was in charge of all the food!
Maybe, like Joseph, and like Queen Esther later on, you will come to see yourself as being in just the right place in “God’s right time,” so that you might do God’s will. Maybe you didn’t like how you got to where you are. Maybe there have been hardships along the way. Maybe you’ve felt like Sam for a long time. But thankfully, our God is the God of the Sams, just as much as he is the God of the Jacobs, the Josephs and the Isaacs and the Esaus. In fact, maybe should assume that God wants to use us – each of us – right where we are, no matter how we got here! And maybe we should have that mindset, and look for opportunities to be God’s people whoever we are, and where ever we are.
I’ll close today with the words Ernie Moritz used to use a lot. He was the senior Pastor at the Neshaminy Church where I served right after seminary. And Ernie would often say this. “Be God’s people where ever he calls you.” Let us do that! (“I’ll borrow your though, Ernie.”) Where ever we are, however we got there, let us be of that mind and always be on the lookout for just such opportunities of service and joy in God’s kingdom!
Eternal God, you know us better than we know ourselves. Even before words are on our lips you know our hearts. Help us to see our lives as a constant relationship with you as the father who loves us so deeply. Help us to know we are your people here in this place, rejoicing in that knowledge. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.