God always makes the dreams God gives God’s adopted sons and daughters come true. Sometimes, however, it takes so long for that to happen that it seems that the dream, if not the dreamers, dies.
As Genesis 45 opens, God has partially fulfilled Joseph’s dreams by putting him in charge of both Egypt and his family. Our text, however, brings Joseph’s dream to its basic conclusion.
It also finally reveals what has seemed largely hidden in Joseph’s life. In that way our text reminds some of us of the end of Frederick Buechner’s wonderful book, The Alphabet of Grace. In it he compares human life to the Hebrew language. Written modern Hebrew words, after all, contain consonants but no vowels.
So words are spelled just BRK, GDL and BNJMN in ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. Those who read Hebrew, however, know just what vowels to slide in between those consonants to make sense of those words. So, for example, they read BRK as Barak, GDL as gadol and BNJMN as Benjamin.
Beuchner says that in a similar way hard truths get wedged together in our lives. So life doesn’t always make sense, even to the godliest of people. Yet the Holy Spirit graciously inserts “vowels” into our lives’ at just the right points. It helps make at least some sense of the hard things that God’s people experience. In a literal sense, life doesn’t always sound right. God, however, Beuchner suggests, often supplies what’s missing.
The life of Jacob’s family has been, since Joseph’s disappearance into the Palestinian dust, much like a Hebrew word without vowels. It has seemed hard and often pointless. Jacob’s family needs God to supply the gracious vowels that make its life at least a bit easier to understand.
As our text’s Joseph stands in front of his brothers and his servants, he can no longer hold either his tongue or emotions. Yet when he chases his servants out of the room, we can only imagine how wild those brothers’ imaginations must run. What will this unpredictable tyrant do now that he’s finally alone with them?
However, Joseph so shocks his brothers that they could never even have begun to imagine it. After all, when he’s finally alone with them, he reveals his true identity. “I am Joseph,” the Egyptian prince wails. “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt.”
Joseph?!?! That spoiled little brat with the outrageous robe and even more outrageous dreams? The teenager whom his brothers had once hated enough to sell him to some traveling salesmen? The one about whom they felt so guilty that they assumed God was punishing them for their earlier treachery toward him?
Thousands of years later Jesus’ disciples will betray and abandon him in a way that leads to his death. So the risen Jesus’ subsequent appearance to them terrifies them. Is it any wonder, then, that Joseph’s revelation also terrifies his brothers? After all, while they’d betrayed and abandoned him, they’d assumed they’d never have to deal with him again.
That’s part of the reason why Joseph’s revelation seems to freeze and mute his brothers. They’re probably terrified that their powerful brother will take revenge for the brutal way they’ve treated him. We imagine they’re petrified that any life he now builds will rest on the fault line that is their past mistreatment of him.
Joseph’s response to his frightened brothers, however, doesn’t rest on the cracked foundation of brokenness. Joseph, of course, says nothing explicit about forgiveness or reconciliation. He does, however, verbally plant himself squarely back in his family that tried so hard to rip him out.
After all, when Joseph announces himself to his brothers, he doesn’t use his Egyptian name. Instead, probably for the first time in many years, he uses his Hebrew name, “Joseph,” which means, “the one added by God.” After all, God has added Joseph again to his family.
All along Genesis has never even implied that Joseph realized that all the bad things people did to him were part of some divine plan. In its chapter 45, however, God supplies the vowels that make some sense of the string of consonants that Joseph’s life has been. Joseph now recognizes God’s gracious hand in his misery.
Yet Joseph’s moving speech also redefines everyone else’s plight. He does what he can to remove his brothers’ guilty fear. Joseph turns his father’s mourning into dancing. He also becomes far tenderer with his brothers whom he has emotionally and physically battered.
After all, Joseph finally recognizes that God has been vigorously at work in and with a lot of human treachery. So while we can’t declare people like Joseph’s brothers or Potiphar’s wife innocent, we can recognize the tenacity of God’s plan for Israel. Human treachery hasn’t been able to thwart God’s longing for life for Jacob’s family.
Joseph once dreamed that he would be his family’s “ruler.” Now he is “father,” “ruler” and “lord,” not just of his family, but also of a whole empire. Yet Joseph realizes that no one but God could have planned or receive credit for it. Three times, after all, he insists that God, not his malicious brothers, sent him on ahead to Egypt to save lives. What’s more, Joseph also insists that God, not Pharaoh, made him ruler of all Egypt.
We preach and teach in a culture that claims people are responsible and should receive credit for all that happens. We’re part of a society has constructed a kind of closed universe in which everything has a material cause. God’s work in Joseph’s life, however, reminds God’s people that we always have to also somehow take our unseen God into account. God, after all, always fulfills God’s plans through but also often in spite of and against human plans.
Yet while God always graciously does God’s work, Joseph’s story reminds us that God often does it precisely in the context of human choice. Jacob’s sons choose their respective plans and do their respective work. Potiphar, Pharaoh and even Joseph also choose, plan and work. Yet in the end God works in, through and sometimes despite their work to bring life.
God’s purposes and plans, after all, remain finally sovereign. So while God’s children may question them, we can’t finally change them. While human actions may seem to delay it, God’s plan still somehow works in and through them. God even uses the dark side of human action and planning to carry out God’s will.
However, Genesis 45 also reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that darkness sometimes seems to almost obscure God’s plans for life. So much threatens the lives of first Joseph, then the rest of his family. In fact, God’s purposes are so hidden that virtually no member of Jacob’s family even seems to have a clue about them until near the very end. Yet now Joseph and his brothers realize that the Lord has been faithfully and tenaciously at work all along.
After all, at the heart of both this and Joseph’s whole story is God’s remarkable providence. We can hardly see God’s ways as we read much of this incredible saga. God, after all, doesn’t generally reveal God’s work in Joseph’s life through decisive verbs or dramatic interventions. Yet God’s ways remain completely pivotal.
In Isaiah 14:24-27, God asserts, “Surely, as I have planned, so it will be. And as I have purposed, so it will stand.” In other words, not even human treachery can frustrate God’s purpose. After all, God also almost defiantly insists, “the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?”
God had a plan to give life to Joseph, Jacob and their family. Yet while many people conspired to thwart that plan, God providentially used even their treacherous conspiracies to fulfill God’s plans and purposes.
Neither Joseph who describes it, nor his brothers who hear about nor even God’s people who profess it can claim to understand such divine providence. It is, as Walter Brueggemann, to whom I’m indebted for many ideas for this sermon commentary, notes, not for full comprehension, but for praise and profession. After all, God’s ways remain decidedly higher than our ways and God’s thoughts remain higher than our thoughts.
Yet God’s sovereignty doesn’t permit either Joseph or us to be lazy or resigned. God’s plans nearly always involve human action. So the Egyptian prince who now knows God sent him to Egypt to give life vigorously responds to promote life. He issues commands that “hurry back” and “quickly” characterize. After all, while starvation has shoved Joseph’s family to the brink of annihilation, now it has access to Egypt’s prosperity.
And when elderly and still grieving Jacob learns about all of this, the news initially seems to him to be too incredibly good to be true. At first he can’t believe that the reality of death has become the possibility of life. Yet while our text’s original language suggests that the news gives him a heart attack, God revives Jacob as he grasps the news.
Jacob once believed that Joseph would carry forward God’s promise of life. We suspect that when he thought Joseph had died, he wondered how God would ever carry that out. Now, however, Jacob speaks as one to whom God has kept his promise. He knows that his family has a future. “I’m convinced!” Jacob almost seems to joyfully shout at the end of our text.
Genesis 45 invites its preachers, teachers and those who listen to us to share the complete joy of this patriarch for whom the future is now open again. We join Jacob in a doxology of praise to God, because the Lord always raises all those who fall and lifts up those who are bowed down.
God’s hidden, determined work doesn’t just assure that the Pharaoh will give Jacob’s family food. It also brings joy and life to a once hopeless father, as well as to those who read this story in faith. For God has graciously provided the vowels that finally make sense of not just Jacob, but also his whole family’s life.
In her book, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor, who whose life and writings were very familiar with misery, says, “We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 20, 2017
Genesis 45:1-15 Commentary