August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133

“God Turned it Around for Good”

How very good and pleasant it is when families live together in unity!

This morning’s readings got me thinking about families… about families like the Drovers, bringing their youngest child for baptism this morning, about my own family, about traditional families, and blended families, and broken families, and reconciled families, and people seemingly without families, and our church families. How very good and pleasant it is when families live together in unity!

One of the things that is great about the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is that it doesn’t tell stories about perfect families, and challenge us to live up to their examples. Instead, the Bible is full of stories about real people and real families with all their conflicts, struggles, blessings, and possibilities.

On the plane, on my way to Ontario this summer, I watched the recent movie version of the story of Noah and his family. Whoever wrote the screenplay got a bit creative with the story that we know so well from the Bible and filled in some blanks where we don’t have any details. But what struck me about it most was how human the characters were.

Even though Noah’s family was supposed to be the only good one left on the earth, the family God would use to begin again after the flood, the movie showed that they were no angels. They were regular people, struggling to live together in unity in the midst of the significant challenges of their lives.

Jacob’s family was no different. Well, it was a bit different in that Jacob had two wives, two maids of his wives who carried children for him, and twelve sons whose descendants would form the twelve tribes of Israel. What was normal about Jacob’s family was that sometimes they got along well and cared for one another, and sometimes they struggled with favouritism, jealousy, anger, and betrayal.

This morning’s passage from the Book of Genesis is the long-awaited reconciliation of a family after years of separation. The brothers of Joseph, who sold him to some passing Egyptians, and told their father that he was dead, finally see that Joseph is alive, and well, and a powerful leader in the land of Egypt, and he is helping them to survive the famine by giving them supplies of grain to take home to their father and his whole family.

After Joseph’s brothers have betrayed him, and abandoned him, and probably forgotten about him altogether… And after Joseph has hidden his true identity from them, and made them bow down to him, and tricked them into bringing their brother Benjamin to him… Joseph cannot keep up the charade any longer. He cannot control his emotions anymore, and he reveals himself to them.

How good and pleasant it is when families are reconciled to one another!

But what is most interesting is how Joseph interprets the things that have happened to him. Just think about it… Joseph’s brothers were so jealous that Joseph was his father’s favourite that they almost killed him, they sold him to some passing Egyptians, pretended that he was dead, and thought no more about him for years. But Joseph does not require sorrow or regret from his brothers. Rather, he confesses that God has been at work in all these events to preserve life. Joseph sees that in all the terrible things that have happened to him, God has acted so that life, rather than death, now abounds.

His brothers’ awful choice to sell him to Egyptians gets him to Egypt where he does quite well for himself working for his master. A terrible false accusation against him gets him thrown in jail where he begins to use his God-given gift of interpreting dreams. When the Pharaoh has a strange dream about thin cows and fat cows and various ears of corn, someone tells him about Joseph’s special ability to interpret dreams. Pharaoh releases Joseph from prison, and learns from his interpretation that there are going to be seven good years of abundance followed by seven years of famine.

Joseph is put in charge of preparing for the famine, and he helps Egypt to store up enough grain to feed them and others during the lean years that are to come. And so, when Joseph’s own brothers come looking for food for their family, Joseph is able to help. Joseph says, fundamentally, that in spite of their past history, all will be well because what has happened corresponds to God’s purposes. He views the past from the perspective of the present: Everybody is alive. And so their particular past can be interpreted as having a fundamentally positive dimension.

God has “taken over” what they have done and used it to bring about this end. God has acted so that life, rather than death, now abounds. The activity of the brothers, however reprehensible in itself, has been used by God as a vehicle for sustaining the life of this family. This is the way that Joseph interprets what has happened to him and to his family. In chapter 50, verse 20, the story includes Joseph identifying both human and divine agency in the events of his life. He says to his brothers, “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.”

Sometimes in the biblical stories, what God is doing in people’s lives is really clear. God tells Abram to go and find the land that God has prepared for him. God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush, parts the waters of the sea, and declares commandments for the people to live by. But in Joseph’s story, God’s activity is a lot less obvious. Nonetheless, Joseph believes that God is an actor in human affairs and in his particular life. He looks back at the things that have happened to him, and he sees God’s hand in them. As one commentator puts it, “Such an understanding of God’s involvement in the life of the cosmos seems especially pertinent in our own world, wherein the tracks of God seem so often ambiguous at best. We might confess that God’s activity counts as a factor to be reckoned with in all events, but these same events could be interpreted without reference to God at all.”

Interpreting our lives in terms of God’s activity is something that we Christians try to do all the time. We thank God for food and shelter, for healthy children, faithful spouses, good friends, and stable employment. We interpret goodness and justice prevailing as God’s activity, and we struggle when bad things happen either to us, to our loved ones, or to others in the world that we watch being oppressed or killed.

One way that some Christians deal with the ambiguity of life is to try interpreting everything that happens as God’s will. A terrible storm that knocks down homes, and kills and injures people is described as an act of God. When a young person gets sick and dies, we hear people say, “God must have needed him in heaven.” And when a marriage breaks down, or someone loses a job, or has a terrible accident, we’ve all heard people suggest that God must be trying to teach them something through this. If you’re like me, those interpretations just do not ring true for you. They don’t fit with the God of love, and grace, and mercy that we have met in Jesus Christ.

It makes me wonder about how Joseph interpreted the events of his life before his brothers showed up looking to buy food in Egypt. Did he wonder why God made his brothers hate him so much, why God got him sold into slavery, why God got him thrown into jail? My guess is that he didn’t blame God for these negative things, but recognized that sinful human beings were their cause. And later, when things started to work out for Joseph, he didn’t exactly say that God did all these things to him so that something good would happen in the end. But God took the bad things that happened and used them for good.

Think, perhaps, of a conflict that you’ve had with someone you love… a big fight with your spouse, an estrangement from your sister, or brother, or parent, or child… And if that conflict has been reconciled, if you have learned from it, or grown closer, or loved each other more deeply and faithfully because of it… Would you say that God caused the conflict in the first place? I wouldn’t.

I might say that God managed to use that terrible thing for good. I might say, like Joseph, that even though someone else meant to do harm to me through their actions or words or neglect or betrayal, that God intends to use those same events, to turn them around so that something good will come from them.

The heart of our faith testifies to the fact that God works like that, doesn’t it? When sinful human beings rejected God’s son, when we denied him, betrayed him, abandoned him, and killed him… God took that terrible, awful, horrific thing that happened, and God turned it around for good. God raised Christ from the dead, and let him appear to witnesses, and through Christ God drew all people to himself.

In the midst of tragedy or loss, Christians don’t help anyone out when we start claiming that God must have made this terrible thing happen for a yet unseen good purpose. But I do think we are called to look around us for God’s activity in the lives of our families, communities, churches, and world. Wherever there are bad things happening because of human failure, because of bad weather, because of random chance, we should be looking for what God is doing (often through people like you and me) to bring consolation, help, and hope.

How good and pleasant it is when families, communities, churches, and the whole human family live together in unity! Let us work with God to bring healing and reconciliation wherever it is needed. Amen.