Genesis 37 - 45 (sel.) God’s faithfulness is hidden in the mystery of providence
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers … 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.[a] 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.
[a Traditional rendering (compare Gk): a coat of many colors; Meaning of Heb uncertain]
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. …. 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 sleevesb 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.
Many years later, Jospeh has found favor in the court of the Pharaoh of Egypt and is governor of the land. In a time of famine his brothers (not knowing it is Joseph) have gone to Egypt seeking help. After much drama they are reunited …
4 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. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 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. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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.
Romans 8:18-28 God’s faithfulness is ever-present hope in the midst of suffering
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirits intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
One of the things I learned as a musician is that one begins by imitating the masters. The following sermon has evolved over the years as such an example. The late Fred Craddock was one of the most acclaimed American preachers of the 20th century. This sermon takes its form and inspiration from one of his sermons.
We don’t study the bible only to look into the witness of the past for truth; we study the bible to look through it into our present with new vision. I hope that is what you hear me trying to do each week. It is not easy. The ways of God are not obvious.
I confess, as well, that I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, especially bad things. I wouldn't begin to suggest that this pandemic is the work of God. I don’t believe that Bible says that either; but the Bible does suggest God has more of a hand in encouraging our lives than we know. Some of you are better readers of your bible and your lives than I. I have heard stories, moving stories of coincidences that you connect to God’s unseen hand: random happenings that led you to this church or to that fateful first date. Just a coincidence? Of course.
It was just a coincidence that a caravan of merchants passed by at the moment Joseph’s brothers were working out how to kill him. Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob. Dad had given him a fancy coat with long sleeves, unsuitable for real work. The coat of many colors is an older translation — sometimes ancient Hebrew itself is ambiguous; the point is that this isn’t a coat for field work. Jacob was that annoying favorite son who passed along every bad thing his brothers did on to dad. He was the informant in the family. After some debate his brothers decided to be done with it and tossed him in a pit; but, at just that moment, a caravan of traders passed by on their way to Egypt. “Let’s at least get some money out of this.” A coincidence? Sure it was.
In the moment, the text doesn’t mention God at all. This is interesting. To this point the Bible has not been embarrassed about God talk. In the beginning God said and it was so. The command to Adam and Eve was unambiguous, “Don’t eat that!” To Abraham and Sarah, “Go!” and they went. The Joseph story is different. It is realistic. We don’t hear God talking to us like that today. If we do it is a whispered hope, easily mistaken for something else. The story of Joseph is one long sustained piece of writing, filled with coincidences, where the word God is rarely spoken. Yet the entire future of ancient promises hang by a thread at every turn.
There are other coincidences in the bible. I heard Fred Craddock preach on this once. He gave the example of Rufus and Alexander’s father, Simon of Cyrene. Simon of Cyrene just happened to be in Jerusalem on a certain Passover. He was crossing along the side of the road at the very moment a Galilean on the way to be executed fell beneath the weight of the cross he was carrying. A solider looked to the side, saw Simon, and pulled him out of the crowd to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. A coincidence? Of course it was.
Stranger things have happened without calling them an act of God. They happen all the time. When I was in seminary, a couple of times a year I would drive from Austin Texas to Kansas City to visit my family. It was a long day’s drive: up the middle of Oklahoma; hang a right at Oklahoma City; over to the lower corner of Missouri; then up to I-70. (On the map the shortest way from Texas to Missouri looks to be through Arkansas — take my word for it, there is no short-cut through Arkansas). At the six hour mark or so, I pulled into McDonalds — a famous McDonalds as far as Oklahomans are concerned — Double arches over the interstate. The largest McDonalds in the world they brag.
As I unbuckled and opened the door, another car pulled to the left beside me. I thought the car looked familiar. The man getting out of the car looked even more familiar. He looked at me in the same odd way I was looking at him. It was my brother! We had pulled into the same McDonalds, at precisely the same moment, into the exact same spot in a gigantic parking lot in the middle of Oklahoma. He was returning from a business trip. Was that a coincidence? Of course it was!
On his next trip my brother stopped there again and bought two souvenir shot glasses and gave one to me for Christmas. Neither of us have played the lottery since. We figure that we spent all our luck on that moment. It was only an unlikely occurrence to me until a far more significant moment several years later. It was an extremely difficult time, filled with feelings of personal failure and regret. I was packing. On the back of a forgotten shelf I discovered one dusty souvenir glass from the largest McDonalds in the world. You see, in that moment, that glass and that event became a symbol of something else: family, an unexpected blessing, the hidden grace of God made visible as surely as I write this today. A coincidence? Sure.
If you are patient with me, for just a moment, I will try to say it differently. It was a coincidence that God intended for the good. Joseph will say something similar after the long sequence of events in Genesis plays out. I paraphrase: “Even though you intended me harm, God intended it for the good in order to preserve a numerous people.” Whoever wrote the final version of the Joseph tale was wiser about life than I am. Some scholars think that the text belongs to a generation of enlightened faithful for whom the God talk of their ancestors was embarrassing. The author answers with a story that is modest in God talk, but pregnant with hope.
Joseph spoke more than he knew. The twelve of them and their wives, will multiply into the people we call Israel, and from their lineage will come Joseph and Mary, and the one we call Jesus, whose cross Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to carry along the way. From that old heavy cross and Christ’s broken life, forgiveness and love will flow into our history and set in motion a cascade of random occurrences that extend to this very day to you reading or hearing these words.
If you spend a little time at it, I am sure that you can point to some random circumstance in your life that might also be seen as grace, the faithfulness of God. It’s about looking at your life differently. Yes, our lives do evolve out of cascades of random events, but these occurrences might also be the work of whatever it is that we gesture at with the word God. I’m not above saying both are true, well let me just say it. Both are true. To the old debate about free will or predestination. I say yes. Serendipities are happy, random coincidences, but they may also be the work of God when they shape our lives toward the good.
I was on vacation, back in my 20’s and my roommates picked out a new apartment without me. I was angry; I wasn’t happy about it, but we moved. At the time I was a fine Presbyterian, but the big Methodist church across the street had good music and it was close. Dr. David Wilson was choir director at that church. He invited me to sing in a community chorus he conducted in Long Beach. Every Tuesday, for years, long before I thought of being a preacher, let alone a Methodist, I rehearsed in the Los Altos lounge. A room we will shortly rededicate as Heritage Hall. Serendipity.
I bet you have a story too. You found Los Altos on the Internet and decided to give us a try. You were going through a difficult season in life and friend invited you. You moved into town and had the wrong time for the first church you tried, and found the next service at Los Altos. One for mother's day: a friend invited you to a dance one night and along the way you met someone with whom you would spend your life with. Now, was that really just a coincidence?
-- Pastor Mark Sturgess