Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 24, 2019
Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Commentary
The theme for this Sixth Sunday of Epiphany is the same in all four Lections—reversal of fortune. Psalm 37 and Luke 6:27-38 talk about loving enemies, thus reversing the usual response to those who abuse us. I Corinthian’s 15:35-50 expounds the great doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which reverses the apparent victory of our last enemy, turning the indignity of death into the glory of the resurrection body. And Genesis 45 gives us a dramatic narrative of reversal, as the brother sold into slavery by hatefully envious siblings not only confronts them in his new role as Prime Minister of Egypt, but even saves them from their mortal plight.
Of the four readings, this one from Genesis will preach the best, in my humble opinion, because it puts the wisdom of Psalm 37, the teaching of Luke 6 and the doctrine of I Corinthians 15 in a narrative form. Everyone loves a story, especially one as filled with ragged tension and blessed resolution as this one.
This is a wonderful Epiphany text because of the phrase in verse 1, which the Lectionary inexplicably omits. “So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers.” There is plenty of darkness in the story— the darkness of his brothers’ sin, the darkness of Joseph being sold into slavery and then confined to prison on a false rape charge, the darkness of Jacob’s family situation as a world-wide famine moved him to send his sons outside the Promised Land in search of food, the darkness of Joseph’s Machiavellian manipulation of his brothers just prior to this Epiphany. Now here in the darkness of sin and slavery and famine and terror, Joseph makes himself known to his brothers.
In this Egyptian Epiphany, Joseph not only makes himself known as the long lost and presumably dead brother, but, more importantly for us, he makes known God’s intention in the whole sordid story of Joseph’s enslavement and ultimate enthronement. Three times he says, God sent me here. You sold me, but God sent me. You intended to eliminate your annoyingly proud brother, but God plans to “preserve for you a remnant on earth.” You wanted to enslave me, but God wanted to “save your lives by a great deliverance.” So, he concludes in verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Out of your great sin God will give you great abundance as you settle in the land of Goshen near me. And in the final reversal, the brothers who sold him into far off Egypt come near to Joseph in near worship and overwhelming gratitude.
What mattered was not their intention, but God’s. What mattered was not the darkness of sin and slavery and famine and terror, but God’s intention to use all of that to accomplish God’s good purpose. What an epiphany for them, and for us.
But I wonder if people will be able to believe that message today. The brothers were filled with confusion, and incredulity, and panic, and terror as they stumbled around in the darkness of their situation. That’s how we feel when terrible things happen to us personally, or when the world sinks into famine, or goes up in flames, or drowns in hurricane-caused flooding, or cowers in terror before border control agents after a long journey through hell. Can we believe that God intends to do something good, something great, something unimaginably salvific through these disasters that devastate our lives and our world?
I love stories with happy endings, but there are so few around these days. It seems as though every novel I’ve read recently ends with conflict unresolved, things still a mess, not a ray of hope anywhere in the cloudy sky. I don’t like that, probably in part because I’m a closet romantic, but more because I’m a Christian and I believe the Gospel, the ultimate story with a happy ending. That’s why I love this story of Joseph. Though it’s as full of the nasty stuff of life as any post-modern novel, it ends well with more than a hint of the Gospel. That’s why I would entitle my sermon on this text, “The Road to Heaven is Paved with God’s Intention.”
That, of course, is a take-off on the old proverb often attributed to Samuel Johnson, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The proverb is a warning to all those who mean well, but fail to deliver: the alcoholic who resolves to stop drinking, but resists going to AA and dies of liver disease, the over-weight 40 year old who begins a diet every month, but keeps eating all the way to a heart attack, the sinner who intends to stop her habitual sins, but doesn’t engage in the spiritual disciplines necessary to change her life, the well intentioned national leaders who develop policies to defeat terrorism or to fix the health care crisis, but instead create a mess for the next generation to clean up. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s a pessimistic proverb that is very true to real life.
You really have to read the rest of Joseph’s story to see the Good News that the road to heaven is paved with God’s intention. Our text ends with Joseph joyfully reunited with his now penitent brothers and tearfully embracing his youngest brother, Benjamin, but the story gets better and better. News of this reunion reached Pharaoh, who generously offered Joseph’s family not only food for their journey back home, but also a new home in the choicest land in all of Egypt.
The brothers went back to the land of Canaan and told their father the good news that his long lost and presumed-dead son was still alive and was, in fact, the ruler of all Egypt. Jacob was understandably incredulous, but when they told him all of Joseph’s words and when he saw the carts provided by Pharaoh to carry the whole family back to Egypt, he was convinced. “My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”
But when Jacob and his family reached the far southern reaches of the Promised Land, he hesitated. How could he leave the land God had promised to him and his ancestors? How could he leave heaven on earth and go off to pagan Egypt? He would not take one step further down this road, until he knew that it was paved with God’s intention. So God came to him in a dream that very night in Genesis 46:3 and 4, and said, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
With those promises under their feet, Jacob and his family, all 70 of them, went down the road to Egypt. They were royally welcomed by Pharaoh, who kept his promise and gave them property in Goshen which was filled with lush pasture for all their flocks. More important, it was in the northeastern corner of Egypt, as close to Canaan as they could get and still be in Egypt.
Genesis 47 says that the famine continued for the next 5 years making life so miserable for the people of Egypt that they all sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh in exchange for food. But Jacob’s family prospered there in Goshen, growing in numbers and in wealth.
Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 more years and at the age of 147 gathered his sons to give them his mixed blessings, which you can read in Genesis 49. Then he gave them strict instructions to bury him not in Egypt, but back in the Promised Land in the same grave where his grandparents and parents and wives and were buried. He wanted to return to that little slice of heaven on earth where he belonged. Genesis 49:33 says, “When Jacob had finished giving these instructions to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.”
Would his children honor his command? Would Pharaoh give them permission to leave and come back? Of course! The road to heaven on earth was paved with God’s intention. So when Joseph asked Pharaoh for permission to make the long journey back to Canaan, Pharaoh not only agreed but also sent his entire royal court with them accompanied by an immense armed escort. So Jacob’s sons did exactly what their father asked, providing a splendid funeral for him in the Promised Land.
When they returned to Goshen, however, the brothers were filled with fear that with daddy gone, Joseph would at last exact vengeance for their cruel treatment. But Joseph calms their fears with those wonderful words that are the theme of the entire story, the verse in Genesis 50:20 that reveals God’s heavenly intentions in their hellish actions. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.”
Joseph stayed on in Egypt for the rest of his life, for over 50 more years, until he was 110 years old. When he was about to die, he gathered his brothers around them and made them promise to take his body back to the Promised Land. His last recorded words to them in Genesis 50:25 are a divinely inspired insight into God’s intention for them. “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.” And then he died.
He had come to the end of the road that led from Canaan to Egypt, a road littered with sin and sorrow and suffering, a road that often seemed like a dead end. But he knew that even after death it would all finally turn out for good, because of God’s good intentions. So he lay down his head in peace—peace with his brothers, peace for his grieving father, peace for his posterity, peace for himself, peace with the God who had been with him at every turn in the road that would finally take him back to the Land of Promise, to heaven on earth. Sleep in peace, Joseph. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Here’s how I would end my sermon on this text in Genesis 45. Can you believe that story? Its ending is almost too good to be true. A more relevant question is, Can you believe that it is the story of your life? Do believe that you are on the road to heaven? Do you believe that all of the hellish things along the road will be transformed into something heavenly? Do you believe that the road of your life is paved with God’s intentions? I want to help you believe that by focusing in one more time on that phrase in the theme verse of Joseph’s life—“but God intended it for good….”
Joseph knew that God’s intentions are not like ours, mere wishes or resolutions, the kind of fragile plans that can be so easily broken, the kind of intentions with which the road to hell is paved. We intend all kinds of good things, but then the weakness of the flesh or the wavering of the will or the forces of nature or the powers of history destroy our intentions. And we land in a hell we never intended.
God’s intention is not a wish or resolution, but a firm promise that he will faithfully keep because he is the God of the covenant. Indeed, God’s intentions for Joseph were rooted in his covenant promises to Abraham years before that would be fulfilled in Jesus years after. The intentions of God are solid rock because they are set in his covenant love that promised to save the world through Abraham’s seed. If you are a believer in Christ, your road to heaven is certain because it is paved with the granite of those ancient promises.
I cannot tell you exactly how God’s good intention interacted with the evil intention of Joseph’s brothers, or how that works in our lives. This is a great mystery. God clearly did not over-rule all of their intentions; a great deal of evil happened to Joseph. God used their evil intentions; as a result of them a great deal of good happened to a lot of people. Did God move them to evil? No. Did he allow their evil? Yes. Did he use their evil? Absolutely. In a way that both allowed their freedom of choice and fulfilled God’s granite promises, God was actively involved in every step along the road that led Joseph to sleep in heavenly peace. God did not just manipulate the events of Joseph’s story from on high like some Machiavellian puppeteer. Rather, God went with Joseph, even into the depths of hell created by his brothers’ evil. And that finally resulted in the good that God intended.
As we make our way along the road, sometimes feeling as though God is not with us, we often say, what possible good can this do? Last spring two of our grandchildren suffered one illness after another. One would get well as the other got sick. Sometime they were both sick. It went on and on, and we said, what good can come of this? The thousands of people who have lost homes in the fires and floods of 2018 ask that same question, as do family members who have lost a loved one to suicide or accident or disease. This story answers that question with one word—salvation. “God intended it for good, to accomplish what is being done, the saving of many lives.”
The problem is that we often think too narrowly about salvation. We think it means only forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven, and that seems too spiritual and remote in those moments when we feel like we’re in hell. So it helps to see that salvation for Joseph meant not only that his family was saved from famine, but also that they were saved for prosperity. It meant that they received a place on this earth where they could be at peace—peace with each other, peace with themselves, peace with God, even peace with the forces of nature that had ravaged the earth. That’s what God intends to give to those who trust him—peace, perfect peace, the Shalom of paradise, the peace that comes when God is with us.
So many stories have unhappy endings these days, because people don’t believe what Joseph believed. If you want to enjoy God’s perfect peace, you have to believe that the road you’re on will lead to the Promised Land because it is paved with God’s good intentions. Of course, the only way you can believe that is to focus on Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate Egyptian Epiphany, because through his journey into hell, he reversed everything.
An old song summarizes the complex story of Joseph:
God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright design and works his sovereign will.
You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
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