Sermon delivered on Trinity 9A, Sunday, August 17, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 133.1-5; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.10-28.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In all of our lessons this morning, we are confronted with the strange but ultimately trustworthy ways of God and his providence over the affairs of his creation and creatures. What might we learn from these stories to help us better understand God’s ways revealed to us so that our faith and hope in God might be bolstered and we can live without being afraid? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
In our OT lesson we see the strange outworking of God’s will in the life of Joseph. Bishop Stephen touched on some of the highlights last week but it will be helpful for us to review Joseph’s story so that we can better understand how God works in the lives of his people. You recall that Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, who then lied to their father Jacob about Joseph’s fate. Sadly, we get this because we’ve all had to deal with jealousy, competition, pride, anger, and dishonesty on a regular basis. Sometimes we are the ones who act this way.
Joseph was eventually sold to Potiphar, an officer of Egypt’s Pharaoh, and we wonder how that could have possibly happened. He quickly found favor with Potiphar and was put in charge of Potiphar’s household because as the narrator tells us, the Lord blessed Joseph—even as a slave. But Joseph’s good fortune didn’t last long because Potiphar’s wife came on to him and when Joseph refused her sexual advances, she lied to her husband about the whole sordid thing and Joseph found himself prison, lucky (or was it luck?) that he hadn’t been killed.
Joseph’s fortunes didn’t seem to get any better while in prison. Despite helping one of Pharaoh’s chief servants who had managed to get himself imprisoned along with Joseph, the servant forgot to plead for Joseph’s release when the servant gained his freedom and Joseph languished in prison another two years. Finally the servant remembered Joseph and he was summoned to interpret a troubling dream of Pharaoh. Before we go any further, let’s stop and put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes. We’ve been sold into slavery by our brothers. The wife of our master falsely accuses us of sexual advances when we are totally innocent and we are thrown in prison to languish there. While imprisoned, we help a fellow prisoner out and he promptly forgets us when he is released, despite our plea to him to intercede on our behalf to the country’s leader. Are you feeling the love and providence of God? Me neither. But that is part of the point.
Now we come to our story today. Joseph has become Pharaoh’s right-hand man and has been reunited with his brothers. We don’t know how much time has passed but it is not unreasonable to think that it has been several years because the brothers do not recognize Joseph. And this is where the story gets really interesting. We might expect Joseph to be bitter toward both God (how could you let this happen to me, God?) and his brothers (you sold me as a slave, you @#$&*!) and want to exact a full measure of revenge on them. But this is not Joseph’s demeanor at all. To the contrary, he tells them he is not angry at them because these events were all God’s doing to preserve life (cf. Genesis 50.15ff)! What is going on here?
Or consider the story of Esther and Mordecai, a Jewish girl and her cousin who were living in post-Babylonian exile in the Persian Empire. By a series of remarkable coincidences Esther is made queen and Mordecai also finds favor in King Xerxes’ sight. But almost immediately both are confronted by the wicked Haman who hates their people and tricks Xerxes into issuing a decree to effectively exterminate God’s people. Again, by a series of remarkable events and coincidences Haman’s wickedness comes back on his own head and God’s people are not only saved but prosper (Xerxes, e.g., can’t sleep one night and this triggers a chain of events that leads to Haman’s downfall and Mordecai’s vindication). You will search the book of Esther in vain for God’s name. It is not there. But the writer surely wants us to see God’s presence and guidance in the “coincidences” and events as they unfold in the story to protect God’s people.
And here is the main point of these stories. Despite human wickedness and rebellion, despite how things seem to us from our limited perspective, God is firmly in control of things and uses even human evil and rebelliousness to advance his plan to heal and rescue his world and its creatures created good but badly corrupted by human sin and rebellion. The story of Joseph is ultimately about the story of God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham to use Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, to heal and bless his sin-sick world and its creatures. God made that covenant with Abraham and the rest of the story of the Bible is about how God has worked out his covenant promises despite human rebellion and unfaithfulness!
Not only is God faithful to his covenant promises to heal and redeem us, God has the power and the will to overcome any and every opposition to it. As Joseph would tell his brothers later, “You intended evil for me but God intended it for good ” (Genesis 50.20). God knew a great famine was coming, a famine that had the potential to wipe out his people Israel before God could use them to fulfill his covenant promises to Abraham, and so he sent Joseph ahead to prepare for that famine, which Joseph did. Likewise with the story of Esther. Had Haman prevailed in his wickedness, God’s people Israel would have been destroyed and God’s covenant promises would have gone unfulfilled. But God simply would not allow that to happen because God is a God who is utterly trustworthy and faithful to his promises, and who is intimately involved in our lives. Notice carefully the dynamic in these stories: God working in and through humans, willing or otherwise. From our perspective, we can only see humans at work. Understand?
Not only that, God called his people Israel to come to Egypt so that he could ultimately demonstrate a mighty act of deliverance on their behalf. The Exodus is still the defining event for Jews to this day. We’ll hear that story beginning next week. But for right now, the story of Joseph is all about God’s faithfulness to his promises and his called-out people, you and me, and God will not allow anything to prevent his plan to heal and redeem the world through his people from succeeding. As we have seen, this is not always obvious to us. Perhaps it rarely is. That is why we must keep reading stories like these to keep reminding ourselves of the truth they teach about God’s love, faithfulness, and providence in our lives and history.
We see a similar dynamic in our epistle lesson this morning where Paul is finishing up his dense musings about the fate of God’s people Israel. We have seen that Paul genuinely feared that those Jews who did not believe Jesus to be their Lord and Messiah would be cut off from God’s promises. But this created an obvious dilemma for Paul. How could the very people God called to extend his blessings to the nations of the world be cut off from God? This would make God a liar and show God to ultimately be unfaithful to his covenant promises. What’s the answer? “God’s gifts and promises are irrevocable,” says Paul (do you believe that?). So God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that God might show mercy to all. Say what?
To understand this we have to summarize Paul’s previous arguments. Paul has argued elsewhere in Romans 9.1-11.36 that God used Israel’s disobedience in rejecting Jesus as their Messiah as the vehicle to rescue the Gentile nations. The Gentiles, whose disobedience God used in his mercy to call Israel into existence to make them his own in the first place (Genesis 12.1-3; Romans 9.4-5), were now offered mercy through their faith in Jesus so that they could be grafted into the olive branch that was the true remnant of Israel, defined by Paul as those Jews and Gentiles who believed that Jesus was their true Messiah (reread the second pericope in our gospel lesson today, Matthew 15.21-28, about Jesus and the Canaanite woman through this lens and see what happens). And God would use the believing Gentiles to offer mercy to his people Israel by making them jealous so they would return to him by believing in Jesus. So it was through everyone’s respective disobedience that God was able to offer mercy to all those who would accept it, both Jew and Gentile.
To us who are on the ground, this logic might seem convoluted and even tortuous. We ask why God would work like that. We might even add that from all appearances it doesn’t look as if God’s plan is working all that well. But here again, we are confronted with the consistent biblical witness that God is in charge and we are to relax about these matters. At the end of the day, we are not God. So who are we to challenge God’s plan and his manner of fulfilling his covenant promises ultimately through Jesus the Messiah? To be certain we do not always understand God’s ways. In fact, we only understand that which God chooses to reveal to us. But this begs the question. Do we believe God is good to his word to heal and redeem us through the death and resurrection of Jesus and God’s sending the Spirit to live with us in the midst of our often chaotic lives or not?
This leads us to our gospel lesson where we see Jesus hinting at the strange and often puzzling ways that God works. He has just sparred with the Pharisees about ritual purity. The issue for Jesus is about heart health. What makes us holy and therefore fit to stand before the perfect and holy God? The Pharisees argued that it was ritual and works based on the law of Moses. Not so, says Jesus. It is not what you put into your body that makes you clean or unclean. It’s what comes out of your mouth because that is indicative of what is in your heart (the essential you). Jesus does not offer a remedy for the condition he has diagnosed. But here again if we follow the story to the end we will have our answer and discover perhaps the most astonishing and strange outworking of God’s love and grace because we see that Jesus himself is the ultimate remedy to our sin-sickness. We are washed clean by his blood shed for us and healed by his body broken for us, and we continue to partake in God’s gracious act of healing and redemption when we come to the Lord’s Table every week to partake in the eucharist.
Moreover, we are given the Holy Spirit to dwell within us to help us learn holy lifestyles so that what comes out of our mouth will sooner or later become more edifying than not. For many of us this takes a lifetime to achieve and no one ever gets it entirely right. But that is not the point. The point is we are healed and reconciled in and through Jesus’ death on the cross. This in itself is far from obvious and this is the foolishness of God about which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 1.18-31. Those who are hostile to God’s kingdom and hold an opposing worldview mock us and ask how God could have healed and redeemed and forgiven us through the suffering of Jesus. How could God have defeated evil on the cross? Jesus was executed. The bad guys won! God didn’t rescue his people in the way an all-powerful God should act to destroy his enemies and so rid the world of evil in the manner they demand. So it is foolishness to them.
But no. Now we are back to Joseph’s story. What the dark powers and their minions intended for evil, God intended for good. To be sure, the cross would have been an everlasting symbol of shame and defeat had it not been for the resurrection of Jesus with its foretaste of the culmination of God’s covenant promise to heal and redeem his world through Israel embodied in the one faithful Israelite, Jesus. I’m talking of course about the New Creation and that is why we as Christians must always be resurrection people. The extent we can appropriate the resurrection and make it our living reality is the extent we can live as people who do not fear and who have real hope, even in times of great suffering, because we believe that God uses even our suffering to draw us closer to him so that he can use us to heal and bless his world, a world redeemed ultimately by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Let the church say, “Amen!”
Notice this same dynamic was at work in Joseph’s story. God’s plan was not obvious to Joseph’s brothers and they were constantly afraid. God’s plan was made clear to Joseph and he was not afraid and never lost his faith in God, despite the substantial suffering he endured during his life. In fact, Joseph’s sufferings apparently helped bolster his faith because in his suffering Joseph was able to discern the will and purpose of God, strange and wonderful as the out-working of God’s purposes were and are.
These lessons about God’s sovereignty and covenant faithfulness can help us as we are confronted by all kinds of evil in our life, from the terrible news around the world to the trials and tribulations we are currently enduring. All these things can make us fearful or angry or doubtful (or all of the above). But the consistent message of Scripture is that we are not to be afraid because we worship a God who is bigger and more powerful than the sin and evil that bedevil us and his world. We are not promised immunity from suffering, but we are promised power and redemption and healing because God has not abandoned us and is always true to his word.
What is it that you are struggling with right now? Whatever it is, keep these stories in mind as you bring your hurts and fears to the Lord Jesus in prayer. Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting any of this will be easy or straightforward. But keep wrestling. Don’t give up. Ever. Remember that you might not see your prayers answered for some time. Joseph’s surely weren’t. Perhaps your prayers will never be answered as you desire. But it is precisely at this point that you must remember that you are one of God’s people in Jesus and God will not let you ultimately be destroyed or separated from him because his steadfast love endures forever as does his faithfulness to his people. You are greatly loved by God and you have the cross, the resurrection with its promise of New Creation, and the power of the Spirit as living witnesses to this truth. So embrace the promise, despite all the mysterious and apparently ambiguous ways of God, and fear not. God is firmly in charge and you are always within his healing love and embrace, even when it is not self-evident to you. And if you know this, you will know you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.