Genesis 50: 15-21 (Briarwood, March 2012, ‘Joseph Story II’)
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8: 28-30
Genesis is bookended by the word good. It’s a word that frames the whole thing. The whole story. The whole group of stories. It’s at the beginning in chapter 1. And it’s at the end in chapter 50.
But we have an image, a record, a voice in the ethos of our times that says God is about the bad.
Usually in conversations outside the church, ministers like me, try to keep our vocation secret. And that’s because as soon as you mention your profession as a minister people either get out of there as soon as possible or ask you a series of unanswerable questions as if you know it all and have a direct line to the Almighty. In fact, one minister Martin Marty became quite good at hiding his profession as a minister. He simply began to fib. On one plane trip in particular, hoping to avoid the usual awkwardness when the man sitting next to him asked him the inevitable, “so what do you do?”, Rev. Marty came right out with a big one, hoping to dissuade conversation, “Neurosurgeon”. He was of course horrified when the man replied, “So am I”.
But I can’t tell you the number of times that people, having discovered I am a minister, have said something like, O, everyone, the minister is here, we better behave now. As if I’ve never heard someone swear in the hockey dressing room. And as if Christianity is all about not being bad. And as if God is a God whose chief purpose is to punish us for the bad things in our lives. As if God is all about the bad.
Some people say this idea in our society has deep roots. Some people trace it to Augustine. Who saw in a newborn baby, and wasn’t afraid to say it, total depravity, “a fallen human being needed to be rescued from sin and death” (Buchanan). This idea was picked up by other important people along the way. That God was all about the bad.
But this morning I want us to put that image aside for a moment. OK, longer than a moment. I hope to convince you of something different. I want us to look, as we have since September, at the book of Genesis. Because it is a book not about history as we know history, but it is a book about God. And how God works. And what God is about. And if there’s one thing that God is about in the book of Genesis, and we’re given a hint a the beginning and at the end, if there’s one thing that God is about it is the good.
Walter Brueggemann writes in his book on Genesis the following,
“‘Very good’ is how the creation is envisioned by the creator. And that purpose to give such “good” to his creatures has been at work through all the narratives in Genesis….From the beginning (1:31) until the death of Joseph (50:20), the God of creation [and of Israel] has been about only one thing. And God has used even the ways of Joseph’s brothers to bring his creation to its rich fulfillment. That is God’s overriding purpose.” Brueggemann, 377.
God’s good purpose. Just set aside for a minute those other ideas about God that we get all the time around us. And hear this news from the Bible, from the book of Genesis: God is good. God’s purposes are good. God promise is for good.
For Joseph, that meant something special. We see Joseph as someone who trusts in God’s goodness. And it really changes his life.
Joseph has the opportunity to punish, to get revenge, to focus on the bad, to never forgive, his brothers. His dreams finally comes true. God uses him to save his family. His brothers are now in Egypt with him, bowing down before him for food, Joseph in charge of Egypt’s supply, and now of their own lives. And his brothers wonder out loud – what if Joseph (the now powerful Joseph) bears a grudge?
Maybe you’ve met someone who bears a grudge. Maybe you’ve heard how, eventually, it’s all they talk about. How bad some one else is. How much they hurt them. How much they harden their hearts to never forgive, whatever the cost. And that’s what a grudge is. Something we hold fast in our hearts about the bad.
But Joseph, even though in this case he has a pretty good reason to if there ever is one, Joseph doesn’t bear a grudge. His heart is not hard. Not set on the bad done to him. Unforgiving.
And friends, why is that? Why is that Joseph’s life hasn’t been consumed by the bad??
We find out in his answer to his brothers,
Do not be afraid…Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…
The reason, quite simply, that Joseph doesn’t hold onto the bad, is that he trusts in someone greater than the bad: he trusts in a God whose purposes and wishes for the world are good.
Someone once said to me, after a whole bunch of conversation around life, their experience, and the challenges they faced; they said, you know Greg, it’s like,
God is always against me.
Friends, I pray, hear this, if you don’t hear anything else that I ever say: in Jesus Christ, God is always for you. God is always on your side. God hasn’t created us to hurt us. But to love us. For his good purposes to work in us, through us.
The famous German Old Testament scholar and Lutheran pastor, who taught at the University of Heidelberg spanning 4 decades, a huge figure in Biblical studies between and after the world wars, writes this about Joseph, the good, and God’s purposes.
“This rule of God… (for the salvation of men) continuously permeates all realms of life and includes even man’s evil by making the plans of the human heart serve divine purposes, without hindering them or excusing them. The human heart is therefore the principal realm for God’s providential and guiding activity. This again is the favourite theme of the wise man, “A man’s steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can man understand his way? (Prov. 20:24)” von Rad, 433.
How God works God’s good purposes isn’t a mystery. And the witness here in this story isn’t about a God who is a puppet master, pulling the strings from heaven. That isn’t anywhere in the Bible, really, in fact. And the witness isn’t what we see in the movies. But how God’s good and providential purpose is at work through the human heart. Where plans are made and nurtured. Where dreams live and die. Where hopes rise and fall. Where grudges are held or let go. God’s ways and plans, they shape our hearts. And so then our intentions. And so then our actions. And so then, how Joseph interacts with others, with his brothers, and how we live out the time we have left right here with those around us. And the goodness we see, is transformed, redeemed, renewed relationships and lives.
You have to wonder, what will really matter to us when we are dying. When we look back on our lives. What will rise to the surface as most important. Our houses? Our cars? Our educations? Our jobs? Our fears? Part of the gospel today, is that what matters most is relationship. Joseph’s to his brothers. Us to those around us, to our planet. To God. Relationships are what really matter and really last. And it’s in the human heart and how we relate that we see God’s transforming power.
On Thursday night about 120 people gathered at Fulford Hall, in downtown Montreal, to honour and celebrate God’s gifts in the work of John Vissers as the outgoing principal of the Presbyterian College. Special speakers were skyped in from out of province. Video messages sent. Live speakers. Lots of laughter and emotion. It was a good night to give God thanks for a good 13 years of ministry. At the end we sang a hymn all about God’s providential care in all of life, and our trust in our hearts in this God in Jesus Christ:
Thou are the King of mercy and of grace,
reigning omnipotent in every place;
so come, O King, and our whole being sway;
shine on us with the light of thy pure day.
Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness;
no harshness hast thou and no bitterness:
oh grant to us the grace we find in thee,
that we may dwell in perfect unity.
Our hope is in no other save in thee;
our faith is built upon thy promise free.
Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure,
that in thy strength we evermore endure.
The stories that we’ve heard these last three months from Genesis, they’re our stories. God invites us into them. And not just into them, but into God’s own heart. Invites us into life with God as the creator. Invites us into life with God as the renewer and the saver. God invites us into life with God as the one alive in messy and complicated relationships. Invites us into life with God as a life of forgiveness. Invites us into life with God as God who is good. But in all of it, invites us into another story. Invites us into God’s story of salvation in Jesus. Yes, we all have our own experiences, unique things that make us us, and shape our lives. But greater still, friends, is the story we share in God’s plan for wholeness, salvation and for good in Jesus. Those things that mark us, for bad, not as big as God’s story for good. Those grudges that try to take over our lives, not as big as God’s story. Those family struggles and complications that make us wonder sometimes…not as big as God’s story. Death? Not as big as God’s story. Because if Genesis tells us anything it tells us that God’s story is huge. All encompassing. All permeating. It’s part of the reason we have paintings in Christian monasteries in Serbia behind me on the screens, and we’re here in Canada 1000 years later looking at them. God’s story is huge. Draws in humanity.
Today is the end of the church year. Let today mark the end of our focus on what is bad. Let it mark the beginning of our focus on what is good. And on God who is good and who loves us deeply.