A Look to the Future

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In January 2000 Albert Einstein, the great physicist, was honoured as Man of the Century - the 20th century - by Time magazine. But Einstein had his limitations. On one occasion he was travelling from Princeton (in the USA) on a train when the ticket inspector came down the aisle checking tickets.

When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached into his jacket pocket but couldn't find his ticket. So he tried the other pocket. Nor was it there. So he looked in his briefcase but it wasn't there either. Then the inspector said, "Dr Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I'm sure you bought a ticket. Don't worry about it." Einstein nodded his thanks. And the inspector continued down the carriage punching tickets. As he was about to move into the next carriage, the inspector turned round and saw the great man on his hands and knees looking under his seat. So he rushed back to him and said, "Dr Einstein, don't worry. I know who you are. There is no problem. You don't need a ticket. I'm sure you bought one." Einstein then looked at him and said: "Young man, I too know who I am. What I don't know is where I am going?"

Tonight we come to the last chapters of Genesis - chapters 48-50. And these chapters put this fundamental question: "Do you know where you are going - in life and, more importantly, in death?" After some words of introduction, my headings tonight will be first, THE FAITH OF JACOB, then, secondly, THE FAITH OF JOSEPH. Then I'll say something by way of conclusion.

The last time we looked at Genesis we saw that the Old Testament (and the Bible as a whole) is nothing if it is not a philosophy of history. And it tells you that history is linear, not cyclical. The Bible tells you there was a beginning and there will be an end. So it is basic to know where you are going in life and where you are going after death and where you will be after death. This is what "faith" is all about. Hebrews chapter 11 - one of the great chapters in the Bible on faith - and verse 1 says this:

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

It is being sure of the future and where you are going and being sure about the unseen world - that is, about the reality of God the Father who no one has seen, and about heaven (and hell). Now, Christian faith (biblical faith), of course, is not believing without evidence. It is not some leap of faith into the dark. No! It is believing on good evidence. And that good evidence is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. So it's not a leap into the dark. Rather it is a rational faith. But ... it is particularly concerned with the future - "what we hope for" and with the unseen - "what we do not see." And the two characters we are to think about tonight - Jacob and Joseph - had a faith that certainly was concerned with the future. They knew where they were going - as we shall see.


So first, THE FAITH OF JACOB

As we have gone through Genesis, we have seen how the first man and woman rejected God's way and went their own way. And the consequences were dire. Then we saw how God planned to right all that had gone wrong by creating a new people or nation. In time they were to bring spiritual change to a spiritually decaying world. But even these people often rejected God. In the end, as the New Testament shows, there was only one who didn't. He was the one that God, the Father, had sent into the world - Jesus Christ, God the Son, the second person of the divine Trinity. He needed to come to die for the sin of the world - bearing the world's guilt that men and women could be forgiven and free.

But there were remarkable godly men and women in this new nation, who, for all their faults, sought to be faithful and to live by faith. There was Abraham, for a start. He was followed by his son Isaac. And then there was Jacob - who had twelve sons, including Joseph. We have been thinking about Jacob and Joseph over the last few weeks. And Genesis chapters 48-50, our passage for tonight, are all about Jacob and Joseph and their faith and how they looked to the future. So what does that chapter 11 of Hebrews say about this faith of Jacob and Joseph? First, what does it say about the faith of Jacob? Hebrews 11 verse 21 says:

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

You say, isn't this rather odd - to commend as the high-point in Jacob's life of faith this blessing, as he was on his death bed, of each of Joseph's sons (the staff, by the way, probably relates his bed)? What had this to do with faith? Well, actually quite a lot. Let me try to explain.

First, this incident shows that Jacob had at last learnt the lessons God wanted to teach him. He hadn't had an easy life. But he had learnt from the difficult times. Quite often God allows you - like he allowed Jacob - to go through hard times to learn the lessons you need to learn. Do you remember how, as a young man, Jacob went to his own father Isaac to secure a blessing from him? But he did it by deceit. He pretended to be Esau his elder brother; and he stole the blessing - but he suffered for it. Here, however, in Genesis 48 things are so different. Now Jacob is concerned with God's word and God's plan rather than his own plans and schemes. Look at verse 3 of chapter 48:

Jacob said to Joseph, 'God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, "I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you." Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine.

He is now concerned with seeing the fulfilment of God's word and trusting and obeying God's promises. So he is concerned to give a foundation to that "community of peoples" mentioned in verse 4. That is what all these blessings in chapters 48 and 49 are about. Acting prophetically, he knew there would be a need for one extra tribe to take the place of the tribe of Levi. That is why he wanted to adopt Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own - so that the Joseph tribe could form two tribes. And this happened in history. You needn't bother with the details.

The point is this. Jacob had learnt that the life of faith was fundamentally not following his own ideas (as happened when he was younger) but God's and living by God's word and his predictions and promises. That is why for us today we need the Bible and to live by it. For that is "God's Word written" as Article XX of the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles puts it. And how we need divine guidance in so many areas of life today. Take one issue in the news this week and in today's news - abortion. Both the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Archbishop of Canterbury have said this should be an issue for the General Election. But yesterday I heard on the Radio a poor woman being interviewed who had had a very late abortion trying to justify her decision. She clearly had, however, no objective standards or principles to guide her; there seemed to be only her own instincts, which when under stress can be very unreliable. I think she said she still thought about her decision every day since having had the abortion. How sad, as well (I believe), as wrong.

You see, we all need to be like Jacob in his old age, who had learnt the wisdom of living and acting according to God's word and God's promises. And people today, with all today's issues, need God's promises about forgiveness through Christ. There are so many people who are messed up and know they are messed. They need to hear the good news that their is forgiveness for every sin through the Cross of Calvary. So first, Jacob's faith was faith in God's word.

Secondly, Jacob was, as our sermon title for tonight puts it, "looking to the future". This followed from his faith in God's word. Look again at verse 4 that relates to the Jewish future in Canaan. God is speaking and saying:"I am going to make you fruitful and will increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you."You see, in blessing these two grandsons in chapter 48 and his own sons in chapter 49, Jacob is establishing a leadership not for the present but the future of the people of Israel in the promised land. He knows there is a danger of his sons and grandsons being seduced by the good life of Egypt and losing sight of the promised land. He wants them to look to the future as he is looking. Jacob knows that God has good things in store in Canaan. So they need to keep God's promise and plan in their consciousness. And the New Testament shows us that Canaan, the Jewish promised land, is a picture and a symbol of God's ultimate promised land - heaven.

So Jacob, surely, forces some questions for today - namely: are you looking forward to that heavenly future? And do you know where you are going? Or are you totally seduced by the modern equivalent of Egypt - this secular, materialistic, humanistic world? Who needs to make sure they are ready for heaven tonight by resetting their priorities in the light of heaven and eternity. And you start by trusting Christ for forgiveness and new life. Jacob knew he had to ensure his sons and grandsons did not let Egypt and all its seductions choke out God's word and God's plan for their destiny.

Jesus spoke, in his Parable of the Sower, about some people for whom "the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires of other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful" (Mark 4.19). Who tonight is allowing God's word to be choked like that in their life? Jacob seems to have seen this possibility so clearly. That is why he was wanting his sons and grandsons to remember their identity as the embryonic people of God. So Jacob had a particular concern for the next generation.

That poses another question: if you are older, do you have that concern for the spiritual health of the next generation? Or are you only concerned for your own spiritual health and comfort and what you think will benefit you? Jacob was concerned for the next generation. So, secondly, Jacob's faith meant he was looking ahead to God's future.

Thirdly, Jacob was more concerned with God's will than pleasing Joseph. Look at verse 17:

When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim's head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father's hand to move it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's head. Joseph said to him, 'No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.' But his father refused and said, 'I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.

Just think of it. Joseph had saved, literally, his father's life. Unless he had supplied him with grain and then shipped him down to Egypt he would died during the famine. But Jacob knew that God had to come before deference to his family. Jacob knew he had to bless Ephraim before Manasseh, whatever Joseph wanted. Can I say to older people here tonight, it is hard sometimes having to upset your children over matters of principle. It is much more easy to give in. I was at a conference not so long ago. On the platform with me was an older senior Churchman who said words to this effect (in the context of Christian sexual morality): "Well, we all change our minds (don't we?) when we find our own children having different lifestyles - for example, not marrying but cohabiting." No! We don't. Of course, you still have to love your children. But who is more important - God or your children? acob, however, got that one right - he put God before Joseph.

Fourthly, Hebrews tells us that, as he was dying, Jacob's faith was seen from the fact that he "worshipped" as well as "blessed" these son's of Joseph and Joseph himself. Look at verses 15 and 16 of chapter 48:

Then he blessed Joseph and said, 'May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm - may he bless these boys.

Do you see what Jacob is doing? He is praising God for keeping him all through his life to the present and delivering him from harm. He could have said, "Why have you been so hard to me, Lord? Why did you allow, (verse 7 of chapter 48) 'to my sorrow Rachel [to die] in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried here there beside the road to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).' You know I loved her so much and I have been so lonely all these years." And he could have gone on like that over many of his experiences. But what does he say? He says this: "God ... has been my shepherd all my life to this day" and "the Angel ... has delivered me from all harm."

As people get older they can get more and more negative or more and more positive. They can grumble and complain or they can thank God for all his goodness in spite of the difficulties and problems. Jacob's faith was seen in his praising and worshipping God for his goodness in his old age. But, of course, Jacob could still tell the hard truth when it was necessary.

Look on to chapter 49 and verse 3 at what he had to say, by way of prophecy, to his son Reuben:

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honour, excelling in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it.

You read about that sordid sexual event in chapter 35 verse 22. But for all that, he still blessed Reuben and each one of his sons, even though he had to say some hard things to some of them - chapter 49 verse 28:

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.

If you love people, you have to tell them hard truths from time to time. Of course, what he said to Judah was the opposite of a "hard truth". It was that great prophecy about the Lion of the tribe of Judah. That is taken up in the New Testament book of Revelation chapter 5 verse 5 and clearly refers to Jesus Christ. Look at chapter 49 verses 9-10:

Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness - who dares to rouse him? The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

So much for Jacob's faith.


Secondly, JOSEPH'S FAITH

Hebrews 11 verse 22 says this about Joseph:

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

That refers to what you read in Genesis chapter 50 verses 24 and 25:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, 'God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.

This is amazing. Just think of it! The Epistle to the Hebrews tells you that what puts Joseph among the heroes of faith is his "instructions about his bones". Hebrews says nothing about how Joseph trusted God in Potiphar's house and avoided the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife, or his time in prison, or what he achieved as Prime Minister of Egypt - things we have been thinking about over these past weeks. Rather we are told that these "instructions about his bones" were all important. You see, what God thinks important can be so different to what we think important.

Like Jacob, Joseph wanted to keep alive in his brothers consciousness what God had planned for the future. His brothers who survived him, Joseph is saying, must not think that Egypt is where God wants them to be permanently. This is just a temporary arrangement. They must, therefore, keep their spiritual eyes on the promised land. And because this is so important to remember, Joseph not only reminded them verbally, he used symbolism or a ritual. Never underestimate the power of symbols or rituals. Joseph ordered that his body should not be buried until the people of Israel set foot in the promised land. Those "bones" acted as a visible reminder of the need to keep permanently in mind God's promise and God's future. You can read how it worked out in Exodus 13 verse 19:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.

And Joshua 24:32:

And Joseph's bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.

But as, or more, important than symbolism or ritual is what you believe. And Joseph had a firm belief that God was in control of history. He believed in the "unseen" alright. Joseph believed that the ups and downs of private and public life were not the result of blind chance or simply the result of the sum total of the decisions of individual men and women. No! God was in control. He had purposes and these were being worked out whatever other people were doing. After Jacob died his brothers were worried that Joseph would turn against them. You read about that in chapter 50. But look at verses 19-20:

Joseph said to them, 'Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

He knew that God could turn even the evil intentions of men and women to fulfil his good purposes. Are you on the receiving end of some things that are unpleasant at this moment? Well, remember God can turn them to good. What others intend for harm, he can intend for good. That was proved in Joseph's experience. God used the cruelty of his brothers, the wickedness of Potiphar's wife and his term in prison for good so he could, literally, save the people of Israel from starvation. God overruled these evil things for his good purposes. When you realize, like Joseph, that what people intend for harm, God can intend for good, you can have great confidence for the future. Certainly Joseph did.

I must conclude.

In these final chapters of Genesis both Jacob and Joseph are saying, in effect: "keep God's good purposes and the promises for his good future always in mind." So the simple question I put to you tonight is this: are you doing that or are you so taken up with time that you forget eternity?

If you are forgetting eternity, seek God's forgiveness and pray for a new awareness that God's ultimate future in heaven is better than anything you can imagine. And trust in Jesus Christ, who as we sang is the same yesterday, today and for ever. As you trust him as Saviour and Lord, you can be assured of that ultimate future.

So I close with those words of Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 2 verse 9:

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him
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