We’ve seen that the great theme that runs through Joseph’s life is the providence of God. We’ve considered how the doctrine of providence is a comfort in suffering, as Joseph learned as his brothers sold him into slavery and he suffered through unjust imprisonment. We’ve considered how the doctrine of providence can allow us to keep our composure when everything in us screams payback, as Joseph was able to do when his brothers unknowingly presented themselves at his mercy, and he had the motive, power and opportunity to destroy them. And today we are going to consider one more benefit to the reality of God’s providential rule of the universe - the doctrine of providence can provide for us fertile soil in which forgiveness and reconciliation can bloom.
We have in our reading today the children of Israel’s second trip to Egypt to purchase grain from the second-in-command to Pharaoh, who is actually their long-lost brother Joseph. Last week we explored the first interaction between the brothers from the perspective of Joseph, who, over the past 20 years in Egypt had come to a mature understanding of God’s providence. This mature understanding of God and his ways enabled Joseph to keep his composure when he had to be wanting payback against his brothers who had sold him into slavery decades ago. Joseph did not take immediate retribution for his brothers’ many sins against him, but allowed God time to work in their lives. Yet he did not immediately entrust himself back to his brothers who had hurt him, but tested them to see if they truly had changed.
And that’s the question that lingers over these chapters, have the brothers changed? More broadly, do people change? How do people change? What does it take before people actually change? I have a five year old, meaning, we watch Frozen. A lot. And they sing a song, the wise rock dwarf people, the fixer-upper song, and there’s a line in it that drives my wife crazy, We’re not saying you can change him/’Cause people don’t really change. But that’s not true, is it? People do change. People change all the time, and while sometimes people may change for mysterious reasons, sometimes we can see patterns in the whys and the hows of personal transformation. It is good news, that people change. Its good for us, because we know we need it. It’s good for us, because we are impacted by the people around us, and their growth is often good, good for us, good for them, good for our relationships.
The life of Joseph is to teach us a great deal of the doctrine of divine providence. The moral of the story is repeated at the end of the book - what man intended for evil, God meant for good. Last week, the big idea was that the more clear our perception of God, the better equipped we are to interpret life events, and this is true in this case of understanding God’s providence. A few weeks ago, we explored together how the doctrine of God’s meticulous providence is a comfort in our trials and suffering. This week, as we look at this first interaction between Joseph and his brothers as they come before him in Egypt, I want to explore how an understanding and trust in God’s providence can restrain us from taking vengeance into our own hands, can protect us from being taken advantage of by wicked people, and can allow God room to work in the lives of ourselves and others.
When we left Joseph at the end of chapter 40, he was alone, forsaken, forgotten in the depths of the prison. Remember how he got there. He was the favoured son, a young man in-home his father delighted, and upon whom God’s favour rested. His visions of supremacy over his brothers, supposedly given him from God, enraged them to the point at which they despised and rejected him. Although they initially planned to kill him themselves, Judah sold him for the price of a slave, delivering him over to a group of Gentiles. Although God was with him and no guilt was found in him, he was falsely accused of sin, and unjustly sentenced to prison where he was forsaken and forgotten.
When we pick up the story in Genesis 41, we find that Joseph has been languishing in prison for over two years. Thus, in the third year of his imprisonment, the circumstances of chapter 41 can be fairly described as a miraculous resurrection. More than that - a miraculous resurrection and ascension, orchestrated by God for the deliverance of the world.
We’re starting this morning with perhaps not only a big question, but perhaps the biggest question - for many people, the only question that matters. Where is God in the face of evil and human suffering. Or as our upcoming Dig and Delve apologetics conference theme puts it this year: Life Hurts. God?
The problem is set in both emotional terms and philosophical terms. Emotional terms are what people faced this weekend. When you lose house or health or loved ones, you are not thinking in philosophical terms, you just want to know God, What’s up? Where are you? Why are you dong this? Just leave me alone! I hate you! That’s the emotional terms. To be honest, there is no good answer to the emotional terms. Time and healing are a start.
Then these are the philosophical terms: In the face of human suffering God cannot be present, good, and loving and all-powerful. If he is all-powerful, he cannot be loving or good, for he is not intervening to stop the hurt. If he loves us, then he must not be powerful enough to stop the hurt, or is not truly good. If he is good and powerful, than either he does not care enough to stop the hurt, or he is simply not there. To be honest, most modern Evangelical Christian answers do not address this question adequately, and we often give an answer that limits God’s power. Now we would never say that God is not all-powerful, for that would be explicitly against the faith that we have received. But we might say things like, God’s greatest desire is to love and be loved by his creatures, and so he submits or limits the working of his power and his divine will to preserve the freedom of our wills. This means that he will not, in fact cannot, override all the evil that occurs in the world. In other words, God is let off the hook in regards to the evil and suffering in the world because he desires human freedom over all things. This is the most common answer given in the Western church today - perhaps this is not surprising as our Western culture exalts radical individualism and human freedom over all things. Yet I do not believe that answer is particularly Biblical or helpful. I do not believe it to be Biblical, which I intend to demonstrate through this story of Joseph today. And I do not believe it to be particularly helpful. Imagine if that i the answer you have to cling to when your world falls apart and a tornado runs through your neighbourhood, or you are sexually assaulted, or you are accused of a crime you did not do. Does it help you to be told that since God desires to be loved by humans freely he lets us suffer as he does? God respects your autonomy enough to let your life be destroyed and the tears flow from your bed?
I believe that there is another answer to the problem of pain, and the answer is not that God is helpless in the face of human suffering, but that God actually providentially transforms our suffering to bring about our ultimate deliverance, to his own Glory and the magnification of his goodness, power, love and presence.
Professional speakers and trainers have long asserted that people make up their minds about people they meet for the first time within two minutes. Others assert that these first impressions about people take only thirty seconds to make.
As it turns out, both may be underestimates. According to Malcolm Gladwell, in "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," the decisions may occur much faster—think instantaneously or in two seconds. - https://www.thebalancecareers.com/why-blink-matters-the-power-of-first-impressions-1919374
However, as Gladwell points out in his book, we can be and are often wrong. We can be thrown off, we can misjudge people and situations. We’ve all probably at time been embarrassed at best, or have offended someone at worst when we made a judgement call about someone, only to later come to realize that we had it all wrong.
I tell you this as we come to the story of Jacob’s sons, in particular the two sons were focused in on this morning Joseph and Judah. It’s weird isn’t it? Moses starts telling us the story of Joseph, a story that will take the better part of the rest of the book of Genesis to tell, and right as he begins getting into the story, he takes a time out and tells this horrifically scandalous tale of Judah and his sons, an Tamar’s shaming of him. It’s weird right - maybe you heard the story of Joseph from Sunday School or saw the stage production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and say down with your Bible to read the story of Joseph, and then you turn the page and suddenly - whoa! where did this come from? They didn’t talk about this in Sunday School!
I think God knows something about how we judge individuals based on first impressions, and that God has something to show us about ourselves and about himself that we need to come to grips with if we are every going to truly understand and embrace the gospel of grace.
We come to the last two chapters of telling the story of Jacob this morning, and, apart from the first few verses, these chapters seem pretty easy to skip over as they seem to simply record a few random stories, some deaths, and then a long genealogy. Yet these chapters, in bringing the focus on Jacob to a close, act as a summary of some of the key themes of his life. A theme that can be summarized very easily: God is Faithful. God is Faithful. If there ever was an appropriate summary to Jacob’s life, it is that God is faithful.
This is one of these chapters that God is not present. Of course, He is present in that he is an omnipotent God, and we are dealing with his covenant people. However, he is not directly referenced. There is no mention of him, no prayer, no intervention. And it is no coincidence that this chapter contains one of the ugliest and depraved incidents in the Bible. This chapter was written to the children of Israel who were facing hostility from their neighbours in Canaan, yet attracted to their ways of life, yet it also causes us to consider our response to the evil in the world around us, particularly as if comes to harm our own household. And its here in this interaction that we see two basic responses to evil, that to this day we go to when we are confronted with evil. One is silent passivity (moral compromise); the other is immediate vengeful retribution. Think about our day and how we a a church and how we as a society confront evil in our day, be it evil such as what has been revealed in the Catholic Church hierarchy over the past few weeks, or evil such as the #metoo movement is calling out, or evil as in the tragedy of abortion - that more lives have been ended through abortion in the past 40 years in the US and Canada than the population of Canada itself, or any of the other sins or manifestations of evil that we face daily in our lives and in our news. Either we ignore evil, or the outrage mobs take out their vengeance without due process.
Our passage today is very appropriate as after the service we will be baptizing three young ladies who grew up in the church, and are being baptized today as a big public step that the faith of their parents is their own. It’s an appropriate passage, because I really believe that this is the moment in Jacob’s life in which God truly becomes his own.
Now we know on the one hand that Jacob was marked for God, elect, from before he was born, as God set him apart for his promise before he had done any good or evil. Yet God’s election took some time to work itself out in Jacob’s life, in fact for a lot of Jacob’s life, he seems like one of the more unlikely people to be a follower of God. And when God does reveal himself to him, at a low point when he was fleeing from his brother, God’s words to him make it clear that Jacob does not yet know God for himself.
And so we being our message today with Jacob on the run again fleeing from a family member, but this time he is fleeing not so much from the consequences of his own sin, but from this worldly exploitation back to God, back to God’s call, back to God’s land, back to God’s promise. So how would I describe Jacob’s spiritual life at this point? I’d say he’s a follower of God, who has some understanding of how God has blessed and protected him over the years, but who has sadly spent most of his life as a follower of God more captivated to the world’s values and conflicts than the life God offers and provides. Maybe many of you can identify with Jacob in that way. And so this is a message on how to break free.
This is what I’m most interested in this story of Jacob and Laban, for there are principles and a paradigm here that extends beyond a simple blow-by-blow account of these two men. God is doing something spiritually in Jacob’s life through these years, and God may similarly be doing something in your life, that you my find encouragement and hope and courage this morning. Courage to break free from the bondage to sin and to conflict that has robbed you these years.