22 November 2020, St Joseph’s
How to live in God’s unfinished story
Good morning. It’s great to be a virtual visitor with you at St Joseph’s today. And let me begin by asking: how well do you handle unfinished stories? The people who write the soaps and Netflix serials certainly know we don’t like unfinished stories – which is why their cliff-hangers get us back next time.
But we also have to handle our own unfinished stories. So, for example, friends of mine have just got engaged – and now face the wait for married life. Other friends renovating their house had the old kitchen ripped out just the week before lockdown one, and had to wait for lockdown to end before the new one went in.
And Christians have to handle being part of God’s unfinished story. Because being a Christian is like being engaged to Jesus – in relationship, but not yet living with him, face to face. And it’s like being renovated – having the old you gradually replaced by the new.
And one thing the Old Testament does, because the story was even more unfinished back then, is to help us handle being part of God’s unfinished story. So, as we’ll see today, the end of the Joseph story is all about how to live in God’s unfinished story. So, let’s pray before we get into it:
Father, thank you for those who’ve gone before us, like Jacob and Joseph. Please teach us, through them, to live in your unfinished story, and to set our hearts on the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen
So, last week we saw the ‘big reveal’ of the Joseph story – when we’re finally told what God was doing through everything he let happen – through Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, carted off to Egypt, wrongfully imprisoned, but finally made Pharaoh’s number 2, to manage the famine crisis which God had helped him predict. And the ‘big reveal’ came when Joseph’s brothers returned a second time from famine-stricken Canaan. And Joseph finally told them, chapter 45 and verse 4:
4 “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (45.4-5)
Or, like he puts it in chapter 50, verse 20:
20 “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
And so, we’ve seen that the Joseph story is a ‘case-study’ in the sovereignty of God – in other words, in how God is in control of everything – including evil –and working it for good.
But the end of Genesis reminds us that God is working out a promise – the promise to Abraham back in Genesis 12, verse 1, which says:
1 Now the LORD had said to Abram [ie, Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (12.1-3)
So, God promised:
1) To make Abraham into a people,
2) To give them a place to live – the land of Canaan, and
3) To bless them – and through them to bless people all over the earth
And we now know that last bit was on about the blessing of being back in relationship with God through Jesus – which is now open to everyone, everywhere, including you whoever you are.
And the rest of the Bible is just the story of God working out that promise in Genesis 12. Which, by the end of Joseph’s life, was still very unfinished business. And the end of Genesis has two lessons for us. And lesson 1 is:
1. Remember you belong to God’s unfinished story, not to the world
So, by chapter 45, Joseph has revealed himself to his brothers. And he’s told them to go and bring his father Jacob and the rest of his family down from Canaan to Egypt. So, listen to Genesis 46, verse 1:
1 So Israel [which was Jacob’s other name] took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba [which is at the very south of Canaan near the border with Egypt], and [he] offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. 2 And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here am I.” 3 Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…”
Which is really significant. Because it’s the only time in the whole story of Joseph that God actually speaks to anyone directly.
And by the way, sometimes we think, ‘I wish I’d lived in Bible times, when God did that kind of thing.’ But it didn’t happen every day, or to everyone. And almost all believers back then, almost all the time, had to live by faith in what God had already spoken – just like we do, as we live by faith in his written word, the Bible.
So, it’s really significant that God knew Jacob needed directly reassuring, verse 3:
“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…”
And he wasn’t afraid for his physical safety – after all, his son was now Prime Minister of Egypt, so that was fairly good security. I think he was afraid for his spiritual safety. Because he knew the promise to Abraham – that God had said Canaan was where they belonged and where he’d one day make them secure. So, I think he feared going to Egypt and ‘losing the plot’ spiritually – by being seduced by the security it seemed to offer; by getting comfortable there, and just settling down.
And that’s a good fear, and one we’d be wise to have when the world seems to offer us security – maybe by promoting us at work or growing our savings – or when we find ourselves getting more comfortable. For example, the settling down of getting our own house or getting married can suddenly make us more materialistic than we were before. But if we’re settling into chasing the goals and values of the world, that’s not a good thing at all.
So as Jacob looked at Egypt, he had a godly fear for his spiritual wellbeing. And as we look at our lives – at our exam-chasing, our careers, our ambitions, our possessions, our achievements – I wonder what godly fear we should have for ourselves? What could cause you to ‘lose the plot’ spiritually?
So, the LORD says, chapter 46 verse 3:
3 “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. 4 I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes.”
So, in chapter 46, Jacob arrives in Egypt and is re-united with Joseph. And in chapter 47 Joseph presents Jacob to Pharaoh. Listen to Genesis 47, verse 7:
7 Then Joseph brought in Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and [just get this:] Jacob blessed Pharaoh.
So, you need to realise: this is like meeting the Queen– plus, plus, plus. Because Pharaoh’s the most powerful king in the world – actually treated as a god. And Jacob – little old Mr No-body – shuffles in and says, ‘May the LORD bless you.’ Because in the face of all Pharaoh’s power and wealth and luxury, he keeps his perspective. Because he knows the real God – whom he says, in chapter 48, verse 15, is:
“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil…” (48-15-16)
And so, Jacob looks at Pharaoh, and he doesn’t say to himself, ‘I wish I had what you have.’ He says to Pharaoh, ‘I wish you had what I have in knowing God. May the LORD bless you, too.’ Which begs the question: is that what we’re saying about the people around us – however successful, even enviable, they seem?
I went to a university reunion once, and everyone was asking, ‘So what are you doing now?’ And one was running a bank. One was in the Treasury (she’s now running John Lewis). One was already the youngest ever professor of something. ‘And what are you doing, Ian?’ ‘Minister of a church? Uh… interesting.’ And that’s when you need to remember you belong to God’s unfinished story, not to the world and what it thinks is important.
Chapter 47, verse 8:
8 And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”
You need to know: the Egyptians were obsessed with death and how to beat it (does that sound like our culture?). And Pharaoh was impressed by Jacob’s age – and maybe thought he’d give some tips on long life. Verse 9:
9 And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil [they] have been…”
In other words, ‘Don’t be impressed by my age. And this life isn’t the ultimate thing, anyway. We’re just ‘sojourners’ – in other words, just passing through on our way to eternity.’ So, Jacob would have liked that spiritual which goes:
This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
It’s a good sign when believers can say that last line – ‘I can't feel at home in this world anymore.’
Well, onto chapter 47, verse 29:
29 And when the time drew near that Israel [ie, Jacob] must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If now I have found favour in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt, 30 but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.”
So, again, Jacob was remembering the promise to Abraham – that the future for God’s people lay in Canaan not Egypt. So that’s what his heart was set on. And for us, Canaan is a picture of heaven – which is what our hearts need to be set on. And my experience is that we learn that best from talking to the senior believers in our church family. Because, like Jacob, especially through hardship and sadness, they’ve learned to look forward to the end of the story.
And that’s lesson 2 here:
2. Look forward to the end of the story and God’s perfect kingdom
And we get a glimpse of the end of the story in chapter 49, where Jacob prophesies about the future tribes his sons will become. So, Genesis 49, verse 1:
1 Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.”
And the most significant thing is what’s said about Judah. Look at verse 8:
8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father's sons shall bow down before you.
So, Judah is going to become the most significant tribe in God’s plan. Then verse 9:
9 Judah is a lion's cub…
So, Disney has taught us that the lion is ‘king of the beasts’. And back then they used lion pictures to symbolise kings. So, this is saying: Judah will be the tribe that kings come from. So, onto verse 10:
10 The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
[so, it sounds like there’s going to be a long line of kings]
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
And so, in the end, there’s going to be a kingdom that includes peoples from all nations, as they come and offer their lives to the King in obedience. Does that sound like anything you’ve read in the New Testament? No wonder Revelation calls Jesus:
“the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5.5)
Because Jacob was prophesying about the line of king David, which would come from the tribe of Judah, and into which Jesus would be born – to signify that he is our rightful, divine King, and that he’d come to bring us back into obedience to him. And in Genesis 49, Jacob was saying: that’s the end of the story we can look forward to – a place of perfect obedience to God.
You sometimes hear preaching on heaven that goes like this: ‘Think of your favourite hobby or meal or activity. Well, the great thing is that heaven will be even better.’ And true as that is, it’s completely us-centred – you know, ‘Heaven is going to be my best thing – plus, plus, plus.’ And even saying, ‘The great thing will be seeing believing loved ones again’ (true as that is) misses the God-centredness of heaven. Because what will really make heaven heaven is that everyone will be completely taken up with God, and finally made perfectly obedient to him – so that there’s no more sin and evil to spoil it.
And for any of us to be there, we need to be forgiven back into relationship with God now, and changed into people who obey him. And that’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection were for. He died to pay for our forgiveness. And now he’s risen, he can come into our lives by his Spirit, and make us obedient to him.
Now people just looking into Christianity often say to me, ‘I’d love the blessings of being a Christian – like being forgiven – but I don’t want the cost of obedience.’ But the Bible would say: obedience is one of the blessings. Because there is nothing better for us now than respecting God’s wisdom on how we should live. And there will be nothing better than being part of that place where everyone’s finally doing that perfectly. And that’s why having Jesus as King is painted here as the ultimate blessing. Look on to verse 11:
11 Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey's colt to the choice vine,
he has washed his garments in wine
and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
What’s that all about? Well, back then, the ultimate blessing was a bumper harvest. So, having Jesus as King is painted as the bumper-est grape harvest ever. So, no-one in their right mind would tie their donkey to their vine – because how many grapes are going to be left after it’s finished munching? You’d only do that if you were blessed with such a bumper harvest, it didn’t matter what the donkey ate. In which case, you could even do your washing in wine – assuming you didn’t mind everything turning out a bit pink.
So, verse 11 is a picture of bumper blessing. And that’s why Jesus’ first miracle in John’s Gospel was turning water into wine – as if to say: ’I’ve come to bring the bumper blessing that the Old Testament was pointing to. Because I’ve come to bring forgiveness and the ability to change, so that you can join the side of obedience and blessing.’
So, to wrap Genesis up: at the end of chapter 49, Jacob dies. And in chapter 50 Joseph, as promised, takes his body and buries it in Canaan. And Genesis ends like this – chapter 50, verse 24:
24 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” 26 So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.
So just like Jacob, he says, ‘Don’t leave my body here, because this isn’t our final destination.’ Which shows: he was remembering he belonged to God’s unfinished story, not to the world; and he was looking forward to the end.
And the lesson is: we should be doing the same. Let’s pray:
Father, as we pass through this world, help us to remember we belong to you, to find our security in you, and to learn our goals and values from you. And on the strength of your Son Jesus’ resurrection, keep us believing that the end of our stories lies beyond this life in our own resurrections, and in your finishing off of the work you’ve begun in us. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen,