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Sermon: Intended for Good. December 1, 2021

December 7, 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.

  1. Gail Davison permalink

    A wonderful, meaning sermon again! Thank you!

  2. Scott Schwar permalink

    Thank you for this intriguing Old Testament lesson and another spirited way to look into Advent.

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