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Sermon: The Best, at Last. January 16, 2022

This is the sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 16, 2022, at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL. You can watch the service here and check out the bulletin, too. The image is The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese (1562-1563, public domain.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Just when we think we have enough, the world has a way of trying to convince us otherwise. This holiday weekend, with little on the calendar and an extra day to work with, we decided to go through our enoughness. Beyond the simple joy of decluttering was the thought that it would be good to give things away when they were needed. Our winter hats, gloves, and scarves seemed to have multiplied in the basement when we weren’t looking. Goodness knows during these cold Chicago days, these items or which we had plenty could be put to good use by others. But as we planned to help others stay warm, our warmth ran out. Some of it, at least. On Friday, our upstairs furnace said farewell to this world. At 23 years it was a good run. Just like that, it was over. My mind swung from a feeling of fullness to emptiness. Unexpected expenses have a way of doing that. Don’t get me wrong; I know how blessed we are to be able to replace a furnace, but it’s not the most fun way to spend a tidy sum. A day that started with plenty ended with less. Or at least that’s what the anxious, doubting voices in my mind wanted me to believe. Would we have enough to move forward?
  2. I imagine that’s just the question on the mind of the steward at the wedding. It was his job to make sure there was enough. Enough food and wine to match the mood of a wedding, that wonderful moment when the future seems limitless, and everything seems possible. This is no time for empty glasses, yet here we are. Mary, there with her Son and his new friends, turns to Jesus and points out the problem. Jesus, however, seems disinterested. Calling her, “mother,” which isn’t disrespectful but hardly brims with filial affection, he claims that this particular emptiness is of no concern to him. His hour has not yet come. Mary, like most mothers throughout human history, believes her child can do anything. Unlike most mothers throughout human history, Mary is right. She takes it upon herself to speak to the servants, setting in motion the inaugural miracle of Jesus’ ministry. Upwards of 180 gallons of water turned into wine. An impressive trick to be sure. Emptiness into fullness. The steward is so relieved he doesn’t even ask questions. He just goes back to pouring wine as the celebration winds its way into the night.
  3. If that were all, it would be enough. The day is saved. That, however, is not all. You’ll note that our storyteller, John, is not interested in simply narrating deeds of power, however impressive. John eschews the word miracle, preferring to call such things signs. John wants us to know at the outset of his gospel that the actions undertaken by Jesus tell us more than that Jesus can do such things. The signs point to who he is, why he has come. This sign, at the beginning of his time in ministry connects to his final hour. The text is replete with christological clues, inviting to see Jesus as one with a tendency to do things on third days. Where once rituals of purification were required to wash one clean, now Jesus purifies us. Where once the stones stood empty, Jesus is now the One who purifies us by leaving the rocky tomb empty, filling this world with his presence. Where once there was simple water, now there is, at the last, the finest wine, and plenty of it. Take and drink, we hear echoing from Jesus’ future, of a new wine that is the blood of the covenant, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Far from being a miracle of frivolity, a party trick to keep a tired party going, this sign shows the eschatological scope of Jesus’ work. Behind the scenes of this wedding, the Savior of the world sets the table for the feast of the world’s redemption.
  4. Jesus does not come to us today to admonish us to be grateful for what we have, although that’s never bad advice. Nor does he tell us that our earthly hopes for enough will always be fulfilled. He does not even say that he has come to eradicate earthly emptiness in the here and now. That has always been our job, my friends, and God has called us to steward the resources of this world to make sure everyone has enough. As Martine Luther King, Jr., said in 1957, “Life’s most persistent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” That we continue to fail is hardly the fault of God. The answer to our emptiness is found in the Kingdom unleashed by Christ, freeing us to fill the lives and meet the needs of those around us. “When water is changes into wine at the wedding at Cana,” Pastor Amandus Derr writes, “Jesus proclaims the radical abundance of God. The results are copious. The quality is not just adequate but ‘the best.’ With this sign, Jesus inaugurates the new creation. In that new creation, the abundant best is the least we can expect.” Fed by Christ the host, we are sent to steward his gifts for the sake of this world. Gifted by the Spirit, we, together, overflow with a variety of gifts that are meant for the sake of the world, not hoarded for ourselves against scarcity, real or imagined. They are gifts received; gifts meant to be given again.
  5. Friends, Jesus has come into our emptiness and filled us beyond what would come dream or imagine. Seeing the abundance of our sin, he washes us clean. Hearing the anxiety in our voices, he meets our needs. Aware of our dying, he dies for us. His body, the human vessel in which the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, is poured out. For you. That in his dying you would have life. That when we run out death would not be the end. Reminders of life’s limitations have come too frequently at Grace of late. This week our dear Evie was taken from us, and we cannot help but weep and mourn at her absence. But the emptiness of this death is met by the enoughness Christ, this One with a penchant for filling empty third days with the fecund fullness of God.
  6. What better place to see a sign of the Kingdom than at a wedding? Where better to discover the unending that God intends for us? I’ve often said that I have the best vantage point at a wedding ceremony, particularly at the beginning, standing here in the chancel next to the bridegroom. Everyone stands and turns when the doors open, but I keep my eye on the groom. There is nothing quite like seeing the joy on the groom’s face, in his eyes, when he sees his beloved coming toward him, their futures stretched out before them with joys yet unimagined. Today, we move from the wedding at Cana to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Today, at this table, Jesus stands and watches as his beloved comes to him. He stands, face radiant with joy, eyes aglint with hope, as we are drawn irresistibly by the mercy and grace that flow freely from him. Come, church, for you are the bride of Christ. Come, though you are empty of strength or hope or health. Come, though you are full of little but sin and sorrow. Come, and discover again, just when things seem to have run out, that Jesus has saved the best for last. That, at the last, he will fill all in all. That here, on the third day, you have been given everything you could ever possibly need. Just when we’re convinced that we don’t have enough, we are given the abundance of new life in Christ. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: A Song Sung Upside Down. December 19, 2021

Here’s my sermon for December 19, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, preached at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The image is Visitation, by Fra Angelico public domain, between 1433 and 1434).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. My car radio has been dialed to 93.9 for weeks now. Each trip I take is accompanied by wall-to-wall Christmas music. I enjoy traditional hymns the most, even though they’ll sound better next week in this room than they ever do on the radio (and goodness, am I looking forward to being together with y’all at Grace for Christmas this year). I like a lot of the secular tunes, too. I have nothing against songs about Santa, who isn’t as secular as they might think, and I’m fairly certain I’m on his nice list. But my favorite subgenre of Christmas music is British pop. My childhood was pocked with such offerings, from McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” And when Bowie sings with Bing? Pure magic. Preceding these hits, however, was John and Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” It’s a simple enough song, a lovely balled in 6/8 time that, if it went a second past three and a half minutes would probably become unbearable. As it is, I quite like it. So, I was shocked to run across a diatribe against Lennon’s song on the internet the other week. The author, whose heart is probably two sizes too small, thought the song treacly, its music simplistic and its message more so. But what the columnist really disliked was Lennon’s choice of verb tense. War is over? What were John and Yoko playing at? Of course, war wasn’t over, certainly not in Viet Nam, where war continued to rage when this song was released in 1971. Couldn’t they see the broken, violent world for what it is? Did they really think a Christmas song could make things better?
  2. If this denizen of the web disliked Lennon and Ono’s “Happy Xmas,” they would have really hated Mary’s Magnificat. What in the world does Mary think she’s singing about? Having travelled sixty or so miles to see her older relative Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, Mary bursts into song. And by the way, we often talk about the journey Mary made with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed and give birth, but pregnant Mary made this first trip on her own. Lutherans don’t need to venerate Mary to acknowledge that she was one impressive, and impressively faithful, teenager. Anyway, Elizabeth sees that Mary has changed. Her young cousin is now also somehow the mother of the Lord. John leaps in the womb in the presence of Messiah. And in response, Mary sings. Oddly, she does not sing about what’s going to happen, or even about what’s happening now. She sings about what has taken place. What God has done. Listen: God looked, did, showed, scattered, brought down, lifted up, filled, sent, and helped. Our translation, like many in contemporary English, renders these verbs in the perfect tense, which conveys past actions continuing into the present: “has shown,” “has scattered,” and so on. But in the Greek, Mary’s sung verbs are all aorist. Past tense. Completed. Done deals. Mary, pregnant with the Savior of the world, sings about what God has already done, all evidence seemingly to the contrary.
  3. This, no doubt, would have driven Jerusalem’s music critics mad. God fed the hungry and sent off the rich? God threw down tyrants and lifted up the lowly? Does Mary not have access to the local news? Is she unaware of the suffering all around her, ignorant of Rome’s continued tyranny? Certainly, what Mary sings about has not yet taken place. Her song, however, is not simply prophetic; it is proleptic. Her song casts a vision of a better future, then draws that future into the past so that we can live in the present presence of the God who will do, and therefore has done, these things. As one preacher put it, this “paradox of the Magnificat is the paradox of our faith. This is the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of biblical eschatology. Already the reign of God has arrived, but when we look around at the world we plead that God’s reign might yet come.”
  4. What will this reign look like when Mary’s child is crowned our King? Listen to the mother’s song, which is less lullaby and more protest anthem: the proud, powerful, and rich are scattered and sent off; the lowly and hungry are lifted and filled. Empires are overturned for the sake of the oppressed, the hungry poor who will be fully fed in the Kingdom of God. Mary sings of a full reversal, an upside-downing that will happen when the already begun reign of God finally begins. All who suffer yearn for this future and so find hope in the song; as Mary sings, this future is so certain that it is already accomplished.
  5. But how? In this world where tornados whirl and wars rage, where dementia and cancer prey upon our loved ones, how is Christ already at work? After all, Christmas will come and go in a week and not much will change. Happy Christmas, sure, but our war with sin and suffering will not be over. Our reading from Hebrews proclaims that Christ did not simply come into this world, but that he did so to offer his life for our sanctification. The coming of Christmas is only the beginning of God’s action in Christ. The child in Mary’s womb will also be our Savior in the tomb. This Jesus will go to Calvary’s cross. This Jesus will so identify with this world and its suffering that he will let it overwhelm him in order to save us. Christmas, joyous as it is, never saved anyone. But the Incarnation of the eternal Word begins this world’s redemption. Bethlehem is tied to Calvary, the simple wood of the manger that bore baby Jesus is not so different from the rough wood that would bear his broken body.
  6. Stacey Nalean-Carlson, a Lutheran pastor in Decorah, Iowa, tells of a time when she staged a short play as part of a Christmas Eve service. Rather than doubling down on the familiar elements of the Christmas story, the play moved back and forth in time between Mary overcome with joy at the birth of Jesus and Mary weeping at the foot of the cross. Standing in the handshake line after worship, Pr. Nalean-Carlson was confronted by a woman who told her that she had ruined her Christmas. Apparently contemplating the cross at Christmas was just too much. But as our children proclaim each Christmas Eve at Grace, Christmas is It is the beginning of the story that drives us to the cross and carries us all the way through death to the new life in which tyranny and hunger are overthrown and pride and power are cast down.
  7. Mary sings to us a song of hope. It is a song sure and certain, calling us to trust in the promises. Trusting, we can also join the song now, helping bring the new world to birth today. Yesterday, about twenty members of Grace gathered in downtown Oak Park to sing Christmas carols. We sounded pretty good, of course; we are members of Grace, after all. But we hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t perfect. But God doesn’t need us to sing the new song perfectly; God simply desires us to sing. Mary’s words in the hill country still echo today, calling us to work for justice, to resist oppression, to feed the hungry, to comfort those brought low by this life. We do this work, sing this song, knowing that it is not for us to complete. Indeed, in the mystery of God’s grace, it is all already accomplished. Merry Christmas, friends. Sin is over. Suffering is over. Death is over. The life that grew within Mary has, like her song, burst forth upon this world. Living in the reign of Christ, we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Sing, You Vipers! December 12, 2021

Here’s my sermon for December 12, the Third Sunday of Advent, from Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The photo is of Anders and his bandmates, in concert last week.

You can also watch Grace’s Advent Christmas concert, Holy Light, performed in the afternoon on the 12th: Holy Light.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Every year when the Advent wreath goes up, the question arises: Why four blue candles? Why not three purple and one pink? That, after all, is the tradition in which most of us grew up. For a long time, Advent was primarily a season of penitence, a time to focus on our deep need for the coming Savior. Purple, used for this purpose during Lent, made sense for Advent, too. Over the last several decades, however, many churches have come to see Advent more as a time of expectation and longing. As the earth is covered by a deep blue sky in the hours before dawn, so does Advent place us in the dark but hopeful watches of the night. It is dark, but morning draws near.Insofar as personal preference matters, I like the shift to blue. The only downside? We miss out on the candle, the Sunday, that isn’t purple, but rose. We miss seeing that today is supposed to be different. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. Even when penitence was the theme, the coming joy of Christmas wouldn’t allow for a full month of dour moods. So, on Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, a rose candle would be lit. Rose reminds us that the fast is drawing to its close and the feast is almost upon us. Today is a day for joy to break forth. Our readings point us in this direction. Zephaniah and Isaiah, prophets of old, urge us to shout and sing for joy. Paul tells us to rejoice and, in case we missed it, he tells us again. Today is a day for joy, a day to exult with songs of praise.
  2. It seems, however, that John didn’t get the memo. He’s not blue or rose; he’s purple in the face, veins popping as he preaches repentance. “You brood of vipers,” he begins, taking up Isaiah’s message of valleys lifted and mountains lowered. Perhaps, John wants us to know, we are the mountains that need to be bulldozed; we are the valleys that need to be filled in. Perhaps it is not so much the roads we walk on that are crooked. John opens his sermon by declaring that we are the crooked ones; writhing vipers twisted in upon ourselves. There’s not much joy here, and it’s not how most young preachers would begin their careers in the pulpit, but there is truth in his words, however uncomfortable they make us. You, John tells us, are the brood are vipers. Not them; you. Truth be told, if there’s a cause for concern in today’s church, it’s not attendance or budgets or minor ecclesiastical squabbles. It’s that we have gotten really good at pointing out the sins of others while ignoring our own. We are quick – too quick, maybe – to name the injustice and oppression we see in others. And yes, it’s there. But perhaps this has become a defense mechanism, a means of deflection. If we point out the sin out there quickly enough, perhaps no one will see how twisted and complicit we are. This is more than saying we’re less than perfect or acknowledging a theological point. No, we are actual sinners, participants in and perpetrators of the broken systems and structures of this world. Today, John points the finger at us. At you. And, yes, at me, too. We are the vipers, children of the serpent’s lies; we are the hollowed-out trees who long ago stopped bearing fruit. We are the ones with axes ready at our roots. Just what you were hoping to hear at church when you woke up this morning! Rejoice? And again, I say, rejoice?

  3. Interestingly, in his telling of these events, Luke says that what John is doing is preaching good news. If this sounds surprising, it’s only because snakes don’t hear very well. While this may not be the news we want to hear, it is exactly the news we need, and that’s what makes it good. We are turned inward, twisted, coiled upon ourselves. We have not borne good fruit. We have gone so far astray that we’ve failed at the simple things John commends to us: keeping our neighbors warm in the cold, refraining from theft, declining to extort or accuse. We are sinners. This is good news precisely because John diagnosis the disease to prescribe the cure: Another is coming, he tells us: Messiah, who will baptize with fire and Spirit. He will clear the threshing floor and burn the chaff. As Kathryn Schifferdecker of Luther Seminary notes, “Deep down, we all know that there are things in us in in our world that need to be scrubbed away, burned away.” She points us to Bonhoeffer, who in an Advent sermon from 1928, proclaimed: “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.” The coming of Christ is not a bland or benign blessing; it is good news precisely because by speaking judgment, space is created for grace. New growth emerges from the once-barren stump. And again, I say, rejoice! The discordant notes sounded by John begin to resolve as the melody of joy emerges.
  4. Earlier this week, I attended Anders’s first band concert. Our burgeoning saxophonist was well prepared, having dutifully practiced “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He and his fellow beginners performed wonderfully before ceding the gymnasium floor to the older students. The more advanced band, comprised of fifth through eighth graders, worked their way through “Carol of the Bells” and a Christmas medley; they sounded good, but you’ll forgive me for thinking they were hardly the CSO. Then I looked at Anders, sitting next to me in the bleachers with his sax on his lap. He was entranced. When they were done, he looked at me and asked, “When can I be in that band?”
  5. Today, on this Sunday of joy, we hear the far-off strains of joyful praise that are drawing ever closer. Indeed, in addition to the songs we are enjoined to sing, we hear another voice for the first time. The prophet Zephaniah, who has thus far only spoken doom and destruction, changes his tune. He points to a time of return, of homecoming. He speaks of a God who is in our midst, a warrior king who wins victory through peace. And what will this God do? This God will exult over you with loud singing, as on a feast day. For all the singing in the Bible, from Miriam to Mary to creation itself, this is the only time in scripture that we hear God singing. God, creator of heaven and earth, will be so glad when the victory is won that God will sing! We, hearing this new song, marvel at the music. And we are invited to join the song, to be in that

  6. We are sinners, yes, but we are no longer bound by sin. As will happen this morning for Ava and Jeremy, we have been baptized into Christ, our once tuneless lives now woven into God’s song of triumph over sin and death. Where once we were fruitless stumps, now we are saplings of grace, growing in the joy of our Savior. In Christ, we bear fruit. And while we could never fulfill the law in its fulness, we don’t have to. We can now, by the Spirit’s power, fulfill the law one note at a time. We give coats. We don’t steal. We bake casseroles for those who grieve. We give the benefit of the doubt. We practice our simple notes, trusting that in God they will ring true. We rejoice. Untwisted, we sing. Chaff burned away, we sing. Sins forgiven, we sing. The song of the Creator, a song of unbridled joy and unequivocal victory, breaks over the horizon. Deep blue gives way to the first faint flecks of dawn. The Savior comes. Neither John nor we are worthy to untie his sandals, but no matter. In his fire you are refined. In his Spirt you are alive. To him, the Christ who come to you, you vipers, sing! Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Surprised by What We Don’t Deserve: An Advent Devotion

Grace Lutheran Church and School asked a number of people to write devotions for use throughout the Advent season. One of mine is for today. Click through to check it out:

Surprised by What We Don’t Deserve

Blessed Advent!

Sermon: Intended for Good. December 1, 2021

This is the sermon I preached for our midweek Advent service, December 1, at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL). You can view the service and check out the bulletin. This image is Erika and me, last Christmas.

Sisters and brothers, all friends in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Advent is upon us. ‘Tis the season for watching Christmas movies! Elf and It’s a Wonderful Life will soon be seen. Already in our house we’ve watched Noelle, The Grinch, The Christmas Chronicles (1 & 2), and my personal favorite, Christmas Vacation (which seems to hit closer to home every year). As disparate as these films are, they share a common theme: things go horribly wrong; then, miraculously, just in time, they go incredibly right. Sure, your tree burns down, you’re attacked by a rabid squirrel, and your leisure-suit clad cousin-in-law kidnaps your boss, but in the end, you discover what Christmas means to you. Roll credits, merry Christmas! But what if the movie kept going, and the little bow that seemed to have everything wrapped up so nicely came undone once again?
  2. Insofar as we are still familiar with the Old Testament, today’s passage is well known to us. At the close of the Joseph cycle, as full of madcap twists and turns as any holiday production, we get our happily ever after. Yes, Joseph was bullied by his ten older brothers, sold into slavery, imprisoned on false charges, and locked away. But through God’s providence and his own pluck, Joseph works his way to the top. Better yet, he winds up with his obnoxious older siblings in his debt. They crawl down to Egypt, which he has saved from famine, and are not only spared from death but rewarded with rich lands. Now, here at story’s climax, the crisis comes to a head. Jacob, father to them all, is dead and gone. Has Joseph only been kind to them out of love for the father they share? Does he still bear a grudge after all this time? Everything, they fear, is about to go horribly wrong. And then, it goes incredibly right. They are fully at the mercy of Joseph. Amazingly, that’s what they find: mercy. Joseph, it seems, forgives them. After all, is he in the place of God? Not only does he not have the right to judge them; he is not even the primary actor in the story. Someone else has been working out a greater purpose. In one of the more quotable lines from the Old Testament, Joseph declares, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” What you meant for evil, God worked for a blessing. All’s well that ends well! Except, of course, for the existence of the sequel, Exodus, and the fact that we tend to leave entire sections of Genesis on the cutting room floor of our memory.
  3. Today, we hear in this ancient story of God’s chosen people an Advent invitation. This is not, of course, a season in which we pretend that Jesus hasn’t yet been born so that we can act surprised come Christmas Eve. It is, however, a time to remember that we are as yet a people in the middle – in the middle of the story; in the middle of life; in the middle that is muddled and maddening and beyond our control. This, I think, is why we pay a bit more attention to the Old Testament during this season. Yes, the prophecies of Messiah that find their fulfillment in the Christ child are profoundly meaningful, but we also look to the Old Testament, to the story of God with God’s people, to recall what it is like to be people on the way. As we live between Christ’s birth and his promised return, so did they live between God’s calling and God’s promised birth. We live bracketed between beginning and end, not in a post-credits scene where everything has been resolved.
  4. So, what happens on either side of today’s scene? Let’s remember how we got here. Joseph is not simply a victim. First, while the narrative of Genesis is kind to Joseph, it does not iron out his technicolor personality problems. Without justifying their actions, it’s hard to blame the brothers for wanting to be well shut of him and his dreams. Who’d want to hear about how they would one day bow down to Joseph? This doesn’t justify the brothers’ behavior, of course. We don’t have a lot of rules in our house, but “Don’t sell your little brother to Ishmaelite slave traders no matter how snotty he’s being” is pretty much non-negotiable, so Joseph gets a break here. But not later; not if we’re paying attention.
  5. Most of us remember that Joseph ascended to power as Pharaoh’s right-hand man due to the dreams that helped Egypt weather the approaching famine. After seven bumper years will come seven lean; Joseph wisely gathers food into government storehouses, grain “in such abundance – like the sand of the sea – that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure” (Genesis 41:49). Smart dude. While surrounding nations starved; while his own family was pushed to the brink in Canaan; Joseph saved Egypt. Or did he? What you may have forgotten arrives with the famine: “Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians” (41:56). That’s right. Joseph forcibly gathered crops from the people and then, when they were hungry, made them pay to get back what was taken from them. Of course, in the midst of a seven-year famine, cash was hard to come by. So, after Joseph bleeds the Egyptians’ money into Pharaoh’s coffers, he asks for their livestock in exchange for food. When the livestock is gone, the people give all that they have left in exchange for food. They offer, and Joseph accepts, their bodies and their family farms. To eat, they become Pharaoh’s slaves. To eat, they give up their land. By the end of Genesis, at the end of what my mentor, Dr. Julie Galambush, rightly calls systematic latifundialization[1] (or land accumulation; it’s okay, I had to look it up, too), Pharaoh and his priests are the only landholders left in Egypt. Joseph has leveraged a climate disaster and its attendant social upheaval to transfer wealth from the many to the few, to create a permanent underclass that perpetuates suffering, and to instill slavery as a core component of the Egyptian economy. All of which might be okay, at least from Joseph’s point of view, if not for what happens in the sequel, Exodus. We hear in the opening scroll: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). While Joseph is to be commended for his shrewdness and his survival, and for saving his own family, it is also true that he masterminded the very system that would subject his family’s descendants to hundreds of years of slavery. What he intended for good – at least for his own good – is turned to evil purposes by others. If Joseph is a victim, he is not quite the hero. If God is faithful to Joseph, Joseph does not quite return the favor.
  6. All of which does not undo the power of this story but magnify it. What others intended for harm, God intends for good. Joseph says more than he knows, speaking to God’s drive for justice and righteousness in spite of human sin and suffering. God’s goodness will overwhelm the sin of the brothers; it will overwhelm the sin of Pharaoh; it will even overwhelm the sin of Joseph, this one used by God to preserve God’s people from one disaster, so that God could save them from the disaster of slavery, so that God could one day come among the people and save them from death itself. Nothing we do, nothing we intend, can long override the will of the Lord. As the scholar Walter Brueggemann notes, “The deepest of human intentions are set in the context of God’s unyielding intent.”[2] God will write the ending, but it will not come with six-inch ribbon curls. It’s an end that begins in the middle, a Savior born into the midst of injustice and oppression; into the heart of empire itself; under the heel of Pharaoh and Caesar and all their bureaucrats, however well intentioned. It’s an end that ends in the middle, not with seasonal self-realization but on the cross of Calvary, with Jacob’s descendant, born to another Joseph, nailed to a cross. It’s an end that casts itself into the future, inaugurating a new age that is less happy ending and more eternal beginning; a world in which Pharaohs are undone and land is restored; in which justice abounds and famines are forgotten; in which harm is forgiven and the goodness of God in Christ is all in all.
  7. Perhaps you noticed that Joseph never actually says, “I forgive you.” He’s willing to move on. But to forgive is something else entirely. It is, in the end, only something God can fully do, for only God stands outside of the brokenness we bring upon this world. But this same God comes into this broken world in the person of Jesus, and in him – in his self-giving, from birth to death to beyond – forgiveness comes. Debts are not compounded; they are released. Regimes do not enslave; they are toppled. Death is not the end but is now the gate to eternal life. Despite our worst evils, despite our best intentions, we will be caught up in God’s insistence upon bringing good out of evil, life out of death. Joseph could hope no more than that his bones would be brought to the land of his ancestors. We, however, cry out in the hope of the resurrection and in the promise of a new Promised Land. We yearn for the end of all endings. We dream a dream that even the dreamer Joseph understood only in part. In the words of the psalmist, we pray, “Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry?” (Psalm 90:13). In the voice of the church, we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

[1] Julie Galambush, Reading Genesis: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2018), 158.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, ed. James Luther Mays, et al. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 374.