A sermon by Margaret Hall
It’s a challenge sometimes to keep on believing that God is continually at work to fulfill his good purposes – that he’s not just watching the world from a distance. As when a plane full of men and women, boys and girls, gets blown out of the sky, and for days the remains of their bodies are left to rot, because where they landed is a battle zone – one more battle zone in one more struggle for power, in the long, long history of struggles for power.
That very memorable disaster was just one instance of man’s inhumanity to man, that it seems we’re powerless to prevent – just as many of us live day by day with problems we’re powerless to solve.
But the record of God intervening which we have in the Bible reminds us again and again how very powerful he is – so powerful he can take whatever disturbs our peace, and absorb it into the working out of his good purpose for us.
In the biblical story of Joseph, we’re reminded of God’s power to absorb even human follies and failings into his plan to rescue his world from destruction.
Of course that’s not to say the things we do wrong are thereby excused. God himself will call us to account for them. They have consequences, which we – and very often others as well – have to bear. But it is to say that God isn’t fazed by what fazes us. We have this innate longing for perfection – the perfect upbringing, the perfect family, the job that’s perfect for us, the perfect spouse, even the perfect home – when all the while, from the cradle to the grave, human failings get in the way. And yet God doesn’t give up on us. For him, even wrong turnings are grist to the mill, as he pursues his goal of saving everyone who wants to be saved. Since it’s God’s goal, it can’t be thwarted.
Three things that are not God’s will show up at the beginning of Joseph’s story. Joseph himself, as a lad of seventeen, indulged himself in foolish boasting. Then there was his half-brothers’ hatred of him, which they gave into, to the point of deciding to kill him. And thirdly, an undoubted factor in how all that came about was their father’s very open favouritism of Joseph.
First, the human failing that stirred the pot of the siblings’ rivalry – Jacob’s favouritism. The narrator of the story tells it like this:
Now Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him.
We can safely assume another reason Jacob loved Joseph more was that Joseph was the elder of the two sons eventually born to Rachel, the wife Jacob had loved first and loved most. Leah, the wife he was tricked into marrying, had borne him six sons, and his wives’ two maidservants between them had borne him four more. To consistently treat four women and their children equally was surely an impossible task. Certainly Jacob failed.
Favouritism is a blight on human relationships. Whether it’s real or merely perceived, the effects can be the same – the position the favoured one occupies stirring up resentment in the less favoured ones, resentment hardening into bitterness, bitterness igniting hatred, and hatred bringing on alienation.
That’s how it’s always been – a mother favouring a son, a father favouring a daughter, a grandparent favouring one grandchild. Employers, teachers, coaches – all can be tempted into it. But whoever it is, it’s destructive to everyone – to the favoured, as well as the less favoured.
And yet, God, in his sovereign power, absorbed even Jacob’s favouritism into his plan to bless the world through Abraham’s descendants.
The evil of favouritism was something of a pattern in the family God chose to work through, in order to bless the world. Going back to great-grandfather Abraham, the elder of his two sons was alienated, when his mother was forced to flee with him into the desert. He would have died there, if God hadn’t intervened. The other son, Isaac, favoured his son Esau. Isaac’s wife favoured her other son, Jacob. And Jacob in his turn favoured his son Joseph.
To show favouritism is a common temptation, especially for parents and teachers and other kinds of leaders. All of us are naturally more drawn to some people than to others. Some are easier to love than others. Even if we don’t wield the influence of positions of leadership, we all have our little spheres of influence – people who are depending on us not to ignore them, in favour of others.
But favouritism is to be resisted, because in God’s sight everyone is equally precious. That’s a foundational biblical truth – that every one of us is stamped with the image of God. We might say that in some people the image is more thoroughly blurred than in others. With some, the remnants of the image come in a more attractive frame. But all that’s incidental to the truth that in God’s sight every human life, however flawed, is equally precious.
Another human failing we find in Joseph’s story is the hatred his half-brothers felt towards him. As the narrator puts it: When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and couldn’t speak a kind word to him.
Hatred, like other passions, has a way of feeding on itself, and growing like a weed. Obviously hatred is very disturbing to the person it’s directed against. It may cause them irreparable damage. But hatred can also cripple those who allow it to fester inside them.
The story’s told of Leonardo Da Vinci, that just before he began work on his painting “The Last Supper” he had a violent argument with a fellow painter. He decided to take his revenge by painting his enemy’s face as the face of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. It was the first face he finished, and it was easily recognized as the face of the painter he’d quarreled with.
But when he came to paint the face of Jesus, he couldn’t do it. Something seemed to be holding him back, frustrating his best efforts. Finally he realized what that was. He painted out the face of Judas, and was then able to finish the face of Jesus, with the success that’s still there for all to see.
There’s a little couplet about what hatred does, both to the person who’s hated and the person who hates. It compares the effects of hatred to the effects of acid.
Hatred does damage to that on which it’s poured.
It also does damage to that in which it’s stored.
In the story of Joseph, the human failings God absorbed into his plan to heal his ailing world included the favouritism Joseph’s father showed him, and the hatred of his half-brothers. On top of that was the foolish boasting Joseph himself indulged in as a young man. That wasn’t a good idea, especially given his fraught relationship with his brothers.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough that he was his father’s favourite, he got into reporting back to his father the errors of his brothers’ ways. Generally-speaking, telling tales is not a good idea – nobody warms to a dobber. No wonder Joseph was the butt of his brothers’ taunts – and probably bore the brunt of their fists as well.
Then when he was seventeen, a temptation came to him to tell his brothers about a dream he’d had. In the culture of the day, it was commonly believed that dreams carried messages from the deity, so could be relied on to come true. Joseph’s dreams had been about his brothers bowing down to him, so if God was showing him that one day he’d be more important than they were, Joseph really wanted them to know that.
So he said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: we were binding sheaves of grain out in the field, when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
We’re not surprised to read that, after that, life became even more uncomfortable for him. They already hated him, and now they hated him more. If Joseph had entertained some youthful notion that telling his brothers what he’d dreamed might make them treat him better, he would have been disappointed.
Then Joseph had a second dream, in which eleven stars bowed down to him, and this time not just eleven stars, but the sun and moon as well. Once again, it was too good not to share. Not content with stirring up more hatred in his brothers, he foolishly decided to boast to his father as well. After all, his father had a right to know, because he was in the dream. And he would appreciate it – being the one person Joseph could depend on to back him up, now that Rachel had died.
But a father bowing to his son was a step too far for the head of a Middle Eastern household, and Jacob rebuked Joseph. Yet he also filed away in his mind the import of the dream, because Jacob would have believed, as Joseph did, that what God revealed through dreams would come true. As indeed it did.
Jacob and his sons were just some of the very flawed people God chose to work through, incorporating even their shortcomings into his plan to form a people who delight to live his way – the way of selfless love. Such people are, in fact, poor, foolish sinners, like everyone else. But by God’s grace they’ve embraced what he’s provided through Jesus – full forgiveness and the gift of his Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out.
The story of Joseph sets the scene for a journey Abraham’s descendants would one day make, from Egypt to a place where they’d be free to live God’s way. That journey was to become a picture of the journey God calls each one of us to make – the journey back to himself, made possible through Christ. It begins when we turn to him for forgiveness. It continues as God’s commandments are written on our hearts, so that obeying him comes from the heart. It’s a journey on which we’re not alone, united as we are by the Holy Spirit – God’s presence in each one of us; a journey on which God supplies what we need to sustain us, and on which he fights with us against the enemy of our souls. It ends when he takes us safely across the divide between where we are now and the home he’s prepared for us.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for never giving up on us, and for everything you’ve done through Jesus to free us from the burden of our failures to live your way. Amen