You can’t beat the Bible when it comes to telling dramatic stories in a spellbinding way. Our text for today is a perfect case in point. I’m going to use Eugene Lowry to explain that. In his classic preaching book, The Homiletical Plot, Lowry outlined the 5 movements of classic narrative using 5 interjections: Oops, Ugh, Aha, Whee, and Yeah!
A good story begins by throwing the reader off balance with an unexpected Oops. Then it pulls the reader into the action with an ever deepening set of complications that seem unsolvable, the Ugh. At the point of greatest difficulty, the story suddenly reverses itself with an Aha moment. Then the resolution plays itself out as things get better and the reader is taken on a thrill ride, the Whee. Finally, the previously ugly situation is completely resolved and everyone settles into the Yeah, the peace that concludes the conflict.
The Oops of our story, of course, began 20 years ago when Jacob’ favorite son was sold by his brothers into slavery. Things got worse and worse for Joseph, but then there was a temporary resolution, a kind of premature Aha, when he rose to the second highest post in the land of Egypt. But for the last several chapters of Genesis, the plot thickened as Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt looking for food in the midst of a global famine. Joseph seemed to play a cruel game of cat and mouse with them, ratcheting up the tension with hidden identity, two trips, hidden silver, hostages, cruel demands, paternal angst, and fraternal dismay. The latter finally erupts into Judah’s impassioned speech at the end of Genesis 44.
That speech is what finally breaks the tension and leads to the great Aha of the story and, with a little sanctified imagination, to the great Aha of the Gospel. “Then,” says verse 1, “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have everyone leave my presence!’” The Empire leaves, so that Joseph can tend to Family business. “So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers.” With weeping so loud his attendants could hear it through closed doors, he said, “I am Joseph.”
But that isn’t the great Aha, because that revelation doesn’t reverse the action. Instead, it leaves his brothers so terrified that they can’t even speak. Their horror is deepened when Joseph beckoned them closer, so they could more clearly see his face. He didn’t relieve their terror when he identified himself as “your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt.” Their brother is not only alive and in charge of all Egypt, but he remembers exactly what these miserable brothers had done to him. They are in deep trouble.
Then comes the Aha. It begins with the words that so often accompany a theophany in the Bible. “Do not be afraid, do not be distressed.” Joseph adds a further calming word, when he says, “and don’t be angry with yourselves,” meaning “with each other or with yourself for your own role in my plight.” Then comes the totally unexpected reason they shouldn’t be afraid or angry; “because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”
Wait! What? “God sent me!” God? Yes! Four times Joseph says that God not only sent Joseph to Egypt, but also “made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler of all Egypt.” But these brothers had sent Joseph to Egypt. We watched it happen earlier in the story. God was nowhere in sight. We never heard God’s voice, only the cries of Joseph begging for mercy. We never saw God do a thing, only his brothers and those traders doing their nefarious deeds. All we saw was human sin and misery. And now Joseph tells his brothers that God was at work in all that. God did it so that he could “save lives, preserve a remnant,” and accomplish his covenant plan for his chosen people and his dying world.
This stupendous claim has troubled many, because it raises the whole issue of the relationship between human responsibility (and sin) and divine sovereignty (and salvation). I will address that theological conundrum in a moment, but first let’s follow the movement of the story from Aha to Whee to Yeah.
Immediately after revealing God’s saving intervention in this sinful drama, Joseph cuts through the brothers’ shock and confusion with a royal command. “Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what you son Joseph says….’” Saving grace is extended to the entire family. It results in the restoration of Jacob’s joy in life, the movement of the entire family to the best region of Egypt, and the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream of becoming ruler. Our particular story ends with a satisfied Yeah, as the brothers are embraced by Joseph and he forgives them all and there is warm family conversation. All is well.
Well, not completely, as we see in Genesis 50 where the brothers are still terrified when their father dies. What will Joseph do to us now that dear old dad isn’t here to buffer his rage? But there, again, grace cancels all sin and all is genuinely well (until another Pharaoh rises to power, but that’s another story entirely). For now, God’s grace has triumphed over sin and brought salvation to his people.
In your sermon on this rich story, you might not want to complicate matters by considering the theological issues raised by Jacob’s blunt claim, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Do Joseph’s words mean that God actually moved the brothers to commit sin against Joseph? Or do they mean that God only allowed their sin and then used their sin to accomplish his purposes? How are we to parse out the relationship between the misery caused by human sin and the salvation worked out by God through that sin and misery?
Multiple attempts have been made to cut through this theological Gordian knot. Rather than get into it too deeply, it is probably best to live within the story which shows both the reality of sin and the reality of God’s sovereignty. We don’t have to be able to solve the theological mystery in order to celebrate the victory of God’s gracious plan of salvation. In the end, God wins! As the New Interpreters Bible puts it, “the brothers’ sinful objectives have been thwarted by being drawn into the larger orbit of God’s purposes and used by God in such a way as to bring life rather than death… God has ‘taken over’ what they have done and used it to bring about this end.”
Or as Paul put it in the doxological conclusion of his masterful exposition of the Gospel in Romans 11:33 and 36: “O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Cf. Isaiah 14:24-27 and 55:8-9 for similar words about God’s sovereign plan.)
Speaking of God’s sovereign plan, this story of Joseph gives us ample opportunity to preach Christ. Even as God worked through human sin and the suffering of his chosen one, Joseph, so God would work ultimately through the sin of the Jewish and Roman leaders and the suffering of Jesus to bring salvation. The prayer of the early church in Acts 4 applies the theology of Genesis 45:5-8 to Christ: “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
In God’s gracious plan, what seemed like death was in fact the way of life. God used sin and death to bring the life that is life indeed, the ultimate Whee and Yeah. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “The sovereign character of God’s purpose can create a real newness, a Genesis, an un-extrapolated freshness which negates the past, redefines the present, and opens futures.” This story reaches its climax when by the victorious grace of God, Joseph can stand before his sinful brothers and exclaim, “I am Joseph!” Just so, the crucified and risen Christ stands before a sinful world and exclaim, “I am Jesus” whom God sent to save you all.
Today, we often hear about people who effect radical changes in the course of human events. They are popularly called, “disrupters.” Time magazine recently devoted an entire issue to identifying the disrupters who are changing society for the better. God is the Ultimate Disrupter, the only one who can totally and permanently break through the chain of cause and effect that appears to determine the course of human events. Only he can “negate the past, redefine the present, and open futures.”
In my research on this text, I found one scholars who wrestled with the mystery of human responsibility/divine sovereignty using an interesting set of words to explain it: “in, with, under, and through.” God works in, with, under and through the choices and actions of humans. That reminded me of the Lutheran explanation of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist. Christ’s physical body is “in, with, under, and through” the molecules and atoms of the bread and wine in a way too mysterious to be comprehended. They call it “consubstantiation.” Maybe that’s a sacramental way to think about the mystery of this story and of our story.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1-15 Commentary