Friday, 29 August 2008

God the Over-Ruler and Judge (Genesis 50:15-21)

Here's an evangelistic sermon I'm preaching at the weekend. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

We’re looking this morning at a part of Joseph’s story, which the young people have been looking at this week. One of the reasons why the Joseph narrative is so popular is because it’s a brilliant ‘good news, bad news’ story. The story opens with daddy’s favourite Joseph arrogantly telling his brothers that he dreamt they were bowing down to him – not exactly the sort of thing that anyone ever wants to hear their younger brother tell them! And so the brothers get jealous of Joseph, fake his death, sell him into slavery in Egypt and let their father hold a funeral – bad news. Joseph ends up chief slave in one of the most important houses in Egypt – good news. But his master’s wife frames Joseph because she wouldn’t sleep with him: he’s sent to rot in prison on a false charge of rape – bad news. There he meets Pharoah’s cupbearer, who mentions Joseph to Pharoah. He ends up Prime Minister of Egypt – good news. Meanwhile, there’s famine in Canaan, where Joseph’s family live – bad news. And so Joseph’s brothers go cap in hand down to Egypt – and who should they find there but Joseph! At first, we’re not sure whether this is good or bad news, given the way they’ve treated Joseph. Eventually, the brothers reappear, bringing Jacob, Joseph’s father, who he’s not seen for 22 years. And it’s good news. Joseph welcomes his father and brothers and provides for them in Egypt.

Our account opens today towards the end of the story, shortly after the death of Joseph’s dad, Jacob. Had this been an episode of EastEnders, the thuds at the end of the episode would have come as Jacob breathes his last. Joseph’s brothers are looking anxiously at each other knowing everything might have just changed. Yes – they had been welcomed by their brother into Egypt, but that had been whilst their father was alive. Siblings often treat each other in one way when they are being watched by mum or dad, but in a very different way once the parental gaze has averted. Now Jacob is dead. Verse 15 summarises the brothers’ predicament: ‘When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?"’

Perhaps we can empathise with Joseph’s brothers. We all know what it’s like to think we’ve been forgiven by someone for something we’ve done wrong, only for them to bring that issue up months or even years later. That’s the situation facing Joseph’s brothers. Sure, he seems to have forgiven them, but the brothers ask: is Joseph’s forgiveness genuine? Yes, Joseph calls himself a worshipper of the LORD, the one true God, but is his godliness real? And so the brothers hatch a plan.

Look down at verses 16-17: ‘[The brothers] sent word to Joseph, saying, "Your father left these instructions before he died: 'This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father."’

Here’s the brothers’ plan: "Let's tell Joseph that dad said he should treat us kindly and forgive us for all we did to him." Their aim is to emotionally manipulate Joseph into forgiving them through fabricating a death wish that their father apparently made. There’s something quite powerful about offending the dying wish of a loved one. And the brothers plan to use this to effect, attempting to manoeuvre forgiveness from Joseph. You can imagine them relating this to Joseph! “Did you hear dad say that he should forgive us?” “Oh yes, loud and clear, didn’t you?”

Joseph’s reaction comes at the end of verse 17: ‘When their message came to him, Joseph wept.’ But these aren’t tears at being forced into forgiving those you don’t really want to forgive. No. Joseph knew exactly what his father had said on his death bed. Chapter 49 tells us that Joseph was there. Having been unnecessarily separated from him for 22 years, you can imagine that he wasn’t about to give up any more time with the dad he loved. Instead, Joseph’s tears are because he knows that his brothers still don’t trust him. They snub his pardon and keep refusing to trust him, ‘just in case’.

Joseph sees right through his brothers’ plot. And their response is given in verse 18: ‘His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. "We are your slaves," they said.’ Joseph’s brothers know that he’s seen right through their plan, and so their only chance is to beg for mercy.

Picture the scene. Those who’ve caused Joseph such pain, so many wasted years; are now down on the floor, at his feet, begging for mercy. How would you respond if your enemy came and threw themselves at your feet like this? There are several possible alternatives. One is vengeance. Another might be to act upon your position of superiority: to them to get used to staying down there by your feet. The third option is to forgive.

It’s that third option that Joseph takes. And I want us to look in more detail at the words Joseph says to his brothers here, and in particular his convictions about God. These words help us to see why Joseph chose to treat his brothers as he did, but they’ll also show us what the God of the Bible, the one true God, is really like.

The first thing that Joseph says is in verse 19: “Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” Joseph picks up his brothers from the floor by the scruffs of their necks. Joseph’s line of thought is clear. It is not up to me, he says, to take into my own hands the issue of making things right. Evening the score doesn’t settle anything. Instead, what beautiful words Joseph has for his brothers when they come begging for their lives: "Am I in the place of God?"

But with these words, Joseph also reminding his brothers of something else: that his own judgement isn’t the most important thing. Joseph probably knows that he’s unfit to judge his brothers anyway. He’s only human. As humans, whenever we make a judgement, we’re liable to get it wrong. We can’t see things as they really are. We jump to hopelessly wrong conclusions: we see two plus two and make five. Or our judgement gets swayed and put out of perspective. We’re cut up on the motorway and we start thinking that only the death penalty would make things right! Or somebody treads on our toes by accident and we seethe with anger. But God is perfectly placed to judge. He knows everything. He won’t jump to the wrong conclusion. He judges with pinpoint accuracy. And he judges fairly. He won’t let evil have the last say in his Universe.

As a worshipper of the God of the Bible, Joseph knows all this. Joseph knows that, one day, God will judge. But the actions of his brothers show they’re far from understanding this: first of all they try to manipulate Joseph’s judgement, then they try to earn it. To the brothers, the most important forgiveness they can receive is that of Joseph; theit forgiveness and reputation from Joseph paramount. But Joseph’s question reminds his brothers that a far more important forgiveness to receive is that of their God and Judge. He knows that his brothers wouldn’t be acting the way they have if they’d factored in God.

Joseph’s words to his brothers speak to us too. Yes: being right with other humans is important. But being right with the God who will judge is of supreme importance. Jesus himself taught this truth to his disciples, in Luke 12: "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

“Am I in the place of God?”, then, is the question that Joseph asks. “God will judge you – worship him,” says Joseph. In doing so, Joseph compels his brothers to walk faithfully with God.

The second part of Joseph’s answer comes in verse 20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

The Bible says much about suffering and pain than it does here, far more than I can possibly mention now. What Joseph says here isn’t the complete answer when it comes to suffering and pain. But notice Joseph’s headline: God transforms evil to good.

And it’s not as if, in saying this, Joseph didn’t know what it was like to suffer. He was betrayed by his brothers and left for dead, had his death faked, sold into slavery in Egypt, falsely convicted of rape, left in prison for many years, not able to attend his mother’s funeral or burial, and missed decades of a loving relationship with his father. Joseph suffered greatly. Perhaps there are people here that resonate with bits of Joseph’s experience; you’re in a painful season of your life. Each day you wake up and it feels like the water is already up to your chest. Well Joseph knew exactly how that feels.

Yet Joseph looks back over the horrors that he has experienced throughout his life and realises that, through these experiences, God has been working things out for good.

He tells it as it is, firstly saying to his brothers: “You intended to harm me.” Now Christianity is very realistic: you can call evil things ‘evil’. Most folk today say that people are good at heart and occasionally slip up. But that paralyses us when genuinely evil things happen. We haven’t got a category for those things. The Bible’s diagnosis is that we are, at heart, bad and diseased into a pattern of rebelling against God. And so, as Christians, we reserve the right to be angry at evil and to be horrified by it, because God is. And that’s what Joseph does. “You meant to destroy my life, you ruined much of it,” says Joseph. “What you did was bad.”

But he continues: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” Because people are essentially bad, to rely on people to improve things will never bring long term happiness. But the Christian’s hope is in God – and that’s to whom Joseph directs his brothers’ attention. God can work things out for good; even out of ugliness, even out of evil. It’s not that bad things come from God; rather, he’s big enough to use even evil for his purposes of good. And I guess there are plenty of Christians this morning who can point to exactly this experience in their lives.

On holiday in Turkey, Linda and I were taken to a Turkish carpet factory. There were amazingly ornate carpets. It took years or even decades to make them. Now from the bottom of a loom, all we could see was a mess, a load of knots. But from the top, the carpets were beautiful, real works of art. And what Joseph is saying is that life is a tapestry that God is weaving together. From the bottom of the loom, all we see is knots. But from the top, God is weaving together a wonderful tapestry. Life is not all knots, it is tapestry. Although things seem out of control, both in the history of nations and in the lives of individuals, the Bible teaches that God works out things, even evil things, for his good plan. All of history is in God’s hands.

That’s why Joseph can forgive his brothers. For Joseph, God is not only ruler, but he is over-ruler. Joseph’s brothers intended him harm but, later in his life, Joseph can look at the tapestry of his life and see that God has over-ruled their wicked intentions to bring about his good purposes: for Joseph to be Prime Minister of Egypt so that he can save many lives from famine. Things appear far from under the control of God, but he over-rules to the contrary.

So we’ve seen Joseph testifying to two truths about God: that God is the Judge, who judges with perfect knowledge and justice; and that God is the Over-Ruler, who is big enough to use even the worst of human evil to work out his good purposes.

These two truths about God take us right to the heart of the Christian message. God hasn’t changed since the time of Joseph. His goodness means that evil must be judged. Each of us rightly deserves God’s judgement for failing to live his way. Left just as we were, we’d ruin heaven. We need to be forgiven and we need to be transformed.

Amazingly, the way in which God achieves this is through the grossest act of human evil: through the condemnation of the perfect, innocent Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus never rebelled against God. He always put the will of his Heavenly Father and the needs of other humans before himself. One of the people knew Jesus best, Peter, wrote, "Jesus committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." Yet the litmus test of human evil was seen in the rejection of Jesus. Despite having lived a beautiful life that never looked to itself, Jesus was condemned to death – even death on a cross.

Yet the conviction of the earliest Christians was that, just like in the story of Joseph, God used this evil to work out his own good purpose. In the first ever church sermon, Peter said to the very ones that oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Do you see the pattern? God’s plan – “This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge” – in the midst of human sin – “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

So what was God doing? In the most awful act of human violence and injustice, God’s design was that, in his love and in human form, he would take the punishment that we deserved. Jesus died our death. Jesus died in the place of all of those who would trust him. At the cross, he took the full force of the Father’s anger for our rebellion against him, so that we can approach God the Judge acquitted. He took our condemnation and God-forsakenness so that we might be forgiven. The most horrific act of violence is transformed by God for good. At first, at Jesus’ crucifixion, it looks like things are a bunch of knots. Yet Jesus himself claimed that this very act that is the centrepiece of the most beautiful tapestry we could imagine. And the tapestry points to the wonder and goodness of its designer, the God of the Universe.

There may be some here that had always thought that Jesus’ death was a horrific accident, one who died too young. Perhaps you’d never caught sight of God’s love in this way before. Well, keep coming. Here at Christ Church, there are Christians who would love you to help you to find answers for your questions and to help you to discover the relationship with God through Jesus that Joseph and others here this morning know. Even better, why not come back to God today, grasping for yourself what God has done through Jesus’ sacrifice to bring you into relationship with him. It would be an amazing thing to have come here today, out of a relationship with God, and go home reconciled to him.


Dave K said...

I think it's good sermon.

I realise I'm probably too late to affect the sermon itself... but that is probably a good thing. I hope it went well.... I don't know why I 'hope', God's word will have achieved it's purpose.

But I appreciate your thoughts on my posts so I will put in my 2p worth.

I may have been a little less suspicious of the sons. They do seem to recognise their sin, repent, and claim they are servants of God. And following on from that I may have emphasised more that he did forgive them, weep in compassion for them, and not just defer judgment to God.

It is quite important to the author's intentions that the brother's were forgiven and were included in God's people. They did all receive 'blessings' from Jacob (although some stranger than others). And I think it is quite important that all the tribes are blessed by Jacob and forgiven by Joseph at the very end of this book.

I may have also made the relationship between Joseph and Jesus a little less analogical and more typological. So the forgiveness of Joseph towards those who hated him is fulfilled in Jesus' forgiveness of us. We crucified Jesus just as the sons sold Joseph into slavery, but God's grace is bigger than our sin.

peterdray said...

Hi Dave

Thanks for that.

The more I looked into this passage, the more I realised there was to say; but because the service was evangelistic I wanted to keep it quite short. I certainly did emphasise Joseph's forgiveness of them in the final presentation (although didn't go into the broader ramifications of this for the people of Israel).

Thanks for your thoughts!