Where’s God?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 9A, Sunday, August 13, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. What a perfectly good day to listen to a brilliant sermon!

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 37.1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14:22-33.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our world seems to be coming apart at the seams, doesn’t it? In this country alone people are angrier than ever at each other, and more intolerant of behavior and thoughts they do not share or support. Charlottesville, VA is the most recent example of this sad reality. We seem to revel in dissing each other on social media and elsewhere, and the bedrock values we once shared as a nation, most notably the Judeo-Christian tradition, seem to be crumbling away before our very eyes. Worldwide, the threat of terrorism isn’t going away and who can not be concerned about the bombast that we hear coming out of the governments of N. Korea and the United States? Nuclear war anyone? Some of us here struggle with debilitating health issues or pressing financial worries or alienated relationships with family members and/or folks we once considered trusted friends. Things are not all bad, of course, but they are bad enough, and for those of us who profess to be Christians, the steady streams of bad news that continue to bombard us inevitably start to beat us down and wear us out. We wonder where God is in it all. If God is all powerful and all present, why are things so chaotic? This is what I want us to look at this morning because frankly we as Christians have allowed a massive lie to be foisted on us and we must develop clear-headed and biblical thinking about this issue to combat the lie.

That lie, of course, is that God is not active or present in God’s world, leaving us to solve our own problems. It goes by many names: Epicureanism, Deism, et al., but they all posit the same lie. God is absent and essentially uncaring. Where’s God in the world? Well, he’s checked out and we’re on our own, baby. Given the human condition, that ought to scare us to death because if true, it means we are in a hopeless situation with no way out. Human self-help is a lie and a delusion and those who espouse it are whistling through the graveyard.

And while we might be tempted to think that this belief system of an absentee God is a relatively modern one, it is not as our OT lesson attests. Today’s story begins the final saga of the book of Genesis with its story of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have seen how God promised to bring his blessing and healing to God’s sin-sick world through Abraham and his descendants, and we have also seen that all the patriarchs were not always shining examples of blessed and virtuous behavior. Old Jacob, whose name means deceiver, is deceived one more time in this story—itself a story of human wickedness and folly—this time by his own sons. We are introduced to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son by virtue of having been birthed by his beloved wife Rachel, who was now dead. Jacob just couldn’t help himself and showed egregious favoritism to young Joseph, something that caused resentment leading to hatred in his older brothers. Not only that, but the writer tells us Joseph had ratted out his brothers for behaving badly, surely not a good recipe for fostering brotherly love and affection. To add insult to injury, Joseph had also told his brothers of a dream he had where his brothers and father would one day bow down in homage him, an integral part of today’s story that the lectionary inexplicably leaves out. We are not told if this dream came from God, although given the OT treatment of dreams in general it probably did. We are simply told that this dream was perceived by both Joseph’s brothers and Jacob to be an indication of Joseph’s arrogance. We can understand his brothers’ anger and jealousy, even if we cannot excuse their murderous desires. Keep in mind this is the family through whom God promised to bring God’s blessing to the world.

Now in today’s story Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers who are off tending sheep. When Joseph finally finds his brothers, they realize that they are presented with a golden opportunity to kill their hated little brother. Reuben, the eldest brother, pleads against killing Joseph but the brothers nevertheless strip Joseph of his robe—the hated symbol and ongoing poke in their eye of their father’s favoritism—and throw him into an empty cistern to die. Shockingly, the brothers display a callous disregard of their own wickedness by sitting down to eat, apparently oblivious to the evil of their plot! Again, remember this is the family who will bring God’s blessing to God’s sin-sick world. Are you scratching your head in bewilderment yet or do you get what’s really going on here?

And then more opportunity presents itself. A band of traveling Midianite traders “just happen” to be passing by (yeah, right—ain’t no such thing as coincidence in God’s world) and Judah forms a plan to spare Joseph’s life. Let’s sell him into slavery, he says! Oh Judah. How kind and considerate of you. And so Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and devise a plan to lie to their father about his fate. They dip Joseph’s robe in animal blood and tell Jacob that his beloved son has met a deadly fate at the paws of wild beasts. Hear again Jacob’s reaction:

Then Jacob tore his clothes and dressed himself in burlap. He mourned deeply for his son for a long time. His family all tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “I will go to my grave mourning for my son,” he would say, and then he would weep. Meanwhile, the Midianite traders arrived in Egypt, where they sold Joseph to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Potiphar was captain of the palace guard. (Genesis 37.34-36, NLT).

We can all relate to Jacob’s great grief over his son. But do you see the evil involved here?

Jacob’s sons, the heirs to God’s promised blessing of the world, were perfectly content to kill their brother and ultimately sell him into slavery. They were perfectly content to deceive their own father to cover their tracks, all because of their hatred and jealousy of Joseph. It’s not a pretty picture, folks. It not only describes their life but ours. We may not have sold anyone into slavery or plotted murder, but we all have our fair share of evildoing toward our enemies, not to mention our friends, neighbors, and especially God. That’s the human condition the Bible addresses. And the obvious question in all this mess is where is God in it all? Why did (and does) God let this kind of evil continue? It’s an invitation to believe in an absentee and uncaring God, right?

Well no it isn’t. For the ancient Hebrews who heard and read this story, even in exile, the answer to that question is that God is actively at work, both in Joseph’s dreams and in the “chance happening” of the Midianite traders passing by. God’s redemption is being achieved, even when it is not apparent to us, by those we reject, the weak and powerless, Joseph in this case, and ultimately in and through Jesus Christ. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, God chose the weak and foolish in the world to shame the strong and the wise, and to bring about our redemption (cf. Isaiah 53.3-6; Romans 5.1-11). God used the evil intentions and behaviors of Joseph’s brothers, as well as our own, to accomplish God’s purposes. As Joseph would eventually tell his brothers after he became second in command in Egypt and was reunited with them there, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50.20). God would deliver his people Israel from their slavery in Egypt at the Passover and ultimately rescue his people—those who put their hope and trust in his Son, Jesus Christ—from our slavery to Sin and Death.

And here is the challenge for God’s people then and now. Do we believe that God really is active, even in the midst of the chaos that appears to be ruling God’s world? Can we, despite the apparent evidence that confronts our senses and our sense of order, really put our hope and trust in this sovereign God of ours? The biblical answer, not to mention the answer of God’s people over time and culture, is an emphatic yes. But as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, it takes faith, not superhuman effort on our part. We don’t need to go up to heaven to find God. God has descended to us in the person of Jesus the Messiah! We don’t need to go down to the abyss to find Christ. He has already been raised from the dead to conquer on our behalf Sin and Death forever, and we who are his people need to fear Death and Hell no longer.

My point is this. When we talk about faith, we are not talking about ascribing to a set of rules or doctrines. We are talking about establishing a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. Only when we know this God made known to us in Jesus, only when we put our ultimate hope and trust in this God do we need to no longer fear as Jesus commands us. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Just ask St. Peter in our gospel lesson this morning. Initially he had faith in our Lord because he got out of the boat and started to walk toward Jesus. But then he shifted his attention from Jesus to the waves and voila! St. Peter began to sink. Surprise, surprise. One of the things St. Matthew wants us to learn from this story is that when we keep our eyes on Christ, the eternal Son of the Father who broke the power of Sin and Death for us in his death and resurrection, we don’t need to be afraid of the waves of life that threaten to overwhelm us. But we in our pride and stupidity want to be in charge and we look to ourselves and our own clever devices to rescue ourselves from the stormy seas of life. Until… Until… Until we are told we have terminal cancer or our best friend or beloved family member dies or our finances collapse suddenly or we are struck with a debilitating illness. Only when we are confronted by evil and hatred and wickedness, both within ourselves and outside beyond our control, do we realize how utterly foolish and futile this thinking is, and in the interim we continue to try to live our lives based on the lie that we actually are in control of things. But there is no one who has the power of life other than Jesus. No one. And those who stubbornly refuse to see this have little reason to hope for a bright future of any kind, both in this life and hereafter. It is a sorrowful spectacle of human folly indeed that is well documented in Scripture.

So Scripture encourages us to know this sovereign God, the God who shows himself to us in Jesus Christ, who rules the waves and brings good out of evil as our gospel and OT lessons attest. And what kind of God is this that we are encouraged to get to know? God is not an absentee landlord who doesn’t care about us or our situations. God is not an angry or vindictive God who waits eagerly to whack us up side the head the first time we misbehave. No, this is the God who humbled himself and became human for our sake. This is the God who sent his own dear Son to die for us while we were still God’s enemies (have you really considered how breathtaking that claim of St. Paul’s is??) so that we might become aware of our desperate lot and future without God and put our trust in this God of the cross and thus be rescued from the ultimate evil of Sin and Death. This is the God we are invited to get to know and love. Most of us don’t have a clue as to the seriousness of our Sin and rebellion against this sovereign God of ours who loves us and gave himself for us. So we have apostles like St. Paul who vigorously write to tell us about this God and invite us to know and love God the Father through God the Son.

We get to know our sovereign and triune God by remembering. We read stories like the ones in our lessons today and remember what God has done for us. We remember the times God has acted in our lives in great and small ways, through God’s people and through the chances and changes of life. We remember that nothing has changed, that the world has been chaotic since our first ancestors rebelled against God in the garden of paradise. We read these stories to remember that God has the power to overcome the chaos of our lives and world, but often in ways that are not readily apparent to us so that we learn to have the humility of a creature, not the Creator (cf. Isaiah 55.6-11). We dare read the story of Christ’s death in astonished hope, that the God in which we are invited to have faith is the God who died for us while we were still God’s enemies to rescue us from our ultimate exile which is death and eternal separation from our Creator who wants us to live, not die. That’s why we must read Scripture—to learn God’s character and to learn how to flourish as God’s creatures by following God’s ways and commands as demonstrated supremely in Jesus our Lord. That is why we come together to worship God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to receive our Lord’s body and blood each week. That is why we are called to pray continually to this God who loves us, who is active in our lives, and who has the power to overcome all the chaos around and within us.

To be sure, this promise to overcome will not be fully consummated until our Lord’s return. But it is a true and valid promise nevertheless and it is being partially fulfilled right now in the context of our lives. Jesus is the only way, the only truth, the only life we have. Will you listen to this God? Will you do the things you need to do, do the required remembering, to trust this God’s sovereignty and love for you and respond accordingly? The challenges are great, just like the waves St. Peter encountered. That’s why we must remember to be reminded that our Lord’s love for us and power over the dark forces are greater than their power. God has conquered them in the most unexpected way—on the cross of a naked, bloodied, pierced, and utterly humiliated man who also happened to be the very Son of God. This is how our God works much of the time—through weakness. And God calls us to trust in God’s goodness, ways, and power, a power made manifest supremely in weakness. We aren’t called to believe this in our own strength. That would be impossible. We are called to believe this in the power of the Spirit, who mediates our Lord and Savior’s presence to us and who helps transform us into his people. This is where God is, my beloved, in the power of the Spirit and in God’s cruciform people. Stake your life on it. Please. Don’t settle for other, lesser gods that cannot give you life. Stake your life on the One who has given you the Good News of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, now and for all eternity. You won’t be disappointed. You have God’s very word on it. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.