“My Ways Are Not Your Ways” 13 August ’17 Madingley
Gen. 37:1-4, 12-28 Rom. 10:5-15 Matt. 14:22-33
Ask people who do not come to church regularly, how they would sum up the Christian faith, and they would probably say something along the lines of, “It gives you the rules for how to live.” But the readings we heard this morning say something surprisingly different concerning what the Bible is all about. [Not, I hasten to add, that they suggest that we should behave badly!]
Our OT lesson was a familiar story about Joseph. By the way, did you notice that it did not refer to his coat of many colours? That interesting detail has crept into our versions because it’s not clear how to translate the original Hebrew – but “long coat with sleeves”, if disappointing, is more likely to be accurate!
The story of Joseph provides the explanation for how the wandering people who eventually became the 12 tribes of Israel, ended up in Egypt, enslaved to the Pharaoh. Joseph was the son of Jacob and his favourite wife Rachel, so Joseph was the grandson of Isaac, and great-grandson of Abraham. In 3 short generations, the promise made by God to Abraham about his descendants being as plentiful as the sand of the seashore, was well on the way to being fulfilled. But as in all family histories, things were never straight-forward.
Joseph does sound like someone who in times past we might have said, could do with a good spanking. Our sympathy probably lies more with the brothers, as he recounts his dream which suggests that they are all going to have to bow down to him in the future. Even though he is the central character in the story, he is not attractive, seeming arrogant, and insensitive. So when his brothers see an opportunity to be rid of him, that thought may not horrify us too much. However, murdering him is a step too far, and Reuben, the eldest brother with responsibility for keeping his younger siblings on the straight and narrow, suggests placing him in one of the cisterns built for collecting rain water, and the account says that he planned to go back and rescue his little brother later.
However another brother, Judah, unaware of Reuben’s private thoughts, puts forward the idea that it would be wrong, and indeed bring them no benefit, if Joseph were to die, which he would do if they left him in the cistern. However they could make a profit out of the situation by selling him into slavery with any travelling group who might pass by. The brothers agreed to this, and the people who bought Joseph from the brothers in their turn sold him to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. So that’s how Joseph came to be living in Egypt.
Several chapters later in the book of Genesis, the tables are turned. To cut a long story short, Judah has in the meantime committed a serious error of judgement from which he has to learn a hard lesson about himself and his integrity. He redeems himself when the brothers are sent down by their father to Egypt, because they are suffering from a severe famine, and it has been said that there is plenty of food in Egypt. Of course, they don’t know that it was Joseph who was behind the plan to store the excess crops in the years of abundance in readiness for a time of famine.
Joseph demands that the youngest brother of all is left with him as surety to prove that they are not spies, but Judah reveals his true colours as he offers himself as the hostage, for as Judah says, to lose him as well as Joseph would be the death of their father Jacob. As a result of Judah’s moving declaration of his willingness to sacrifice himself, [which some commentators have called the best speech in the OT], Joseph reveals who he really is, and he invites the whole family, to move down to Egypt. At that point, you might expect to hear the words, and they all lived happily ever after. But I did say that things are never straight forward, didn’t I?
As the years of famine came to Egypt too, all the people had to buy grain from Joseph. When the people’s money ran out for buying grain from him, he took their herds and flocks in lieu. When they ran out, then he took the service of the people, in other words enslaving them — and this included his own extended family. Which is how these descendants of Abraham came to be slaves in Egypt, effectively enslaved by their own brother, and which led eventually to the Exodus.
So clearly Joseph played an important part in ensuring the continuing existence of Abraham’s descendants, but he was a less than attractive character, who seemed not to change from the insensitive attitudes he had had in his earliest years. As the years went by, and the 12 brothers became the titular heads of vast families, giving us the names of the 12 tribes of Israel, it was not Joseph’s line that flourished, but Judah’s. Judah, who was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his family, holds the key to the future, and represents God’s way of doing things. He is preferred by God for his integrity, and for his willingness to learn from experience and become a better man as a result. It is his family which eventually produces the child who will be King David, and it is through this human line of descent that the NT traces a connection for Jesus all the way back to Adam.
That connection of Jesus to the events of the OT is seen too in the story of Jesus walking on the water. In the OT God is shown as the one who has power over the waters, which were seen as being the place of chaos and a source of fear for human beings. God’s rescue of his people through the Red Sea at the beginning of the Exodus was a major sign to them of his power.
So for the terrified disciples, out in the middle of the lake, the sight of Jesus walking on the water must have raised all sorts of questions in their minds about what and who they were seeing. As soon as Jesus reassures them, it is Peter, his enthusiasm running away with him, who asks Jesus to help him to walk on the water too. Jesus does not rebuke him for being presumptuous; where Peter does make a mistake is when he takes his eyes off his Lord, and notices the wind and the waves. It is then that he starts to sink and is in fear of drowning. He allows the external factors to take precedence over his belief, and so his faith fails him.
Peter, with his very human failings, is someone we feel sympathy for, but even so we may well feel surprised that this is the disciple whom Jesus says will play the major role in the establishment of the church. Surely out of the 12, there were other, maybe quieter disciples, less prone to bursts of over-exuberance and then abject failure? But this is the one whom God chose, and as in the case of Judah in the OT, that choice turns out to be, if unexpected from our point of view, one which has a huge impact on the history of mankind.
Over and over again, God appears to make puzzling decisions about who to use as leaders of his people, frequently raising those who are clearly fallible, yet whose willingness to learn from their mistakes, make them acceptable to him. The Bible has a unique logic, so bewildering to our human perceptions. [Pilgrim God p.19.] We judge people so much on outward appearances, whereas God knows what is in the heart. Where we expect the Bible to lay out the rules of good behaviour, we find that it tells us that God rather than using those who appear to lead law-abiding lives, but in fact are full of their own self-importance, looks for people who develop a strong relationship with him, admitting their dependance on him, revealing the depth and sincerity of their hearts. That is encouragement for us, who know our needs and our deficiencies; what may God be calling us to?!