How to Live in God’s Unfinished Story

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I wonder how you handle unfinished stories?

We did our usual Ireland holiday this summer – where I always become a book widower (because it’s the only time Tess gets for reading novels, and she can’t put them down till she’s finished).

But we also have to handle being part of unfinished stories ourselves. For example, some friends have just got engaged, and now they face the wait for the wedding and life beyond. Other friends renovating their house had the old kitchen ripped out the week before lockdown, and, as you can imagine, they couldn’t wait for lockdown to ease, for the new one to go in.

And Christians have to learn to handle being part of God’s unfinished story.
Because it’s like being engaged to Jesus; in relationship with him, but not yet living with him face to face.And it’s like being renovated; having the old you gradually and imperfectly 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. That’s certainly true of the end of the story of Joseph, that we’re wrapping up today. We’ll see that it’s all about How to live in God’s unfinished story. So let me lead us in prayer before we get into it:

Father,
Thank you for those who’ve gone before us spiritually, 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 Joseph’s 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 right hand man, to manage the famine crisis God had enabled him to predict. And the ‘big reveal’ came when Joseph’s brothers returned a second time from famine-stricken Canaan. And Joseph finally told them he was their long-lost brother. And he said (Genesis 45.4-7):

“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.”

Or, like he says in Genesis 50.20:

“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 Joseph’s story is a ‘case-study’ in the sovereignty of God. In other words, in how God is in control of everything (including evil) and is working it for good. But the end of Genesis reminds us that God is actually working out a promise – the promise to Abraham back in Genesis 12.1-3, which goes like this:

Now the LORD had said to Abram [aka Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 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. 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.”

So God promised to make Abraham into a people. He promised them a place to live (the land of Canaan). And he promised to bless them (and through them to bless people from all over the earth). And we now know that was talking about the blessing of coming back into relationship with God through Jesus – which is now open to everyone, everywhere. And the rest of the Bible from Genesis 12 is just the story of God working out that promise. Which, by the end of Joseph’s life, was still a very unfinished story. And I want us to see two lessons from the end of Genesis. And lesson 1 is:

1. Remember you belong to God’s unfinished story, not to the world

So by Genesis 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 look down to Genesis 46.1-3:

So Israel [which was Jacob’s other name] took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba [at the very south of Canaan near the border with Egypt], and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…”

Which is very significant, because it’s the only time in the whole story of Joseph that God speaks to anyone directly. And by the way, sometimes we think, ‘I wish I’d lived in Bible times, when that happened.’ But it didn’t happen everyday or to everyone. And almost all believers back then, like us, had to live by faith in what God had already spoken. So it’s very significant that God knew Jacob needed directly reassuring, verse Genesis 46.3:

“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…”

And I don’t think he was afraid for his physical safety – after all, his son was now Pharaoh’s right hand man. 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 down to Egypt and losing the plot spiritually – by being seduced by the security it seemed to offer; and by getting comfortable there, and settling down. And it’s a good fear, and one we’d be wise to have, too. Whenever the world seems to be offering us more security – perhaps by promoting us at work or growing our investments – or whenever we find ourselves becoming more comfortable in the world – in the lifestyle, car, house, and so on that we can afford – and settling down in it. But if we’re settling down into chasing the goals and expectations of the world, that’s not a good thing for us at all.

So as Jacob looked at Egypt, I think he had a godly fear for his spiritual wellbeing. And as we look at our lives (at our careers, our ambitions, our possessions, our achievements) I wonder what godly fear we should have for ourselves? So the LORD says, Genesis 46.3-4:

“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation [in other words, I'll use your descendents’ time there to work out that part of my promise to Abraham].
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 Genesis 46, Jacob arrives in Egypt and is re-united with Joseph. And in Genesis 47 Joseph presents Jacob to Pharaoh. Look on to Genesis 47.7:

Then Joseph brought in Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and [just get this:] Jacob blessed Pharaoh.

So this is meeting the Queen– plus, plus, plus. Because Pharaoh’s not just king, he’s the most powerful king in the world – and he’s actually treated as a god and the source of all their blessings. And Jacob (little old Mr No-one) shuffles in and says, ‘May the LORD bless you.’ Completely unphased. Not over-awed. Not robbed of true perspective, because he knows the real God – who he says, in Genesis 48.15-16, 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,
the angel who has redeemed me from all evil…

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.’ Is that what we’re saying (at least inwardly) of 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 merchant bank. One was a secretary to the Treasury. One had a PhD, a post-doc and a post-post-doc and was set to be the youngest ever professor of something. ‘And what are you doing, Ian?’ 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. Genesis 47.8:

And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”

The Egyptians were obsessed with death and the desire to beat it. And it seems Pharaoh was impressed by Jacob’s age – maybe he’d give some tips on longevity. Genesis 47.9:

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 at how long I’ve lived. And this life isn’t the ultimate thing, anyway. I’m just a sojourner.’ He’d have liked the words of that spiritual:

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.

Well, the rest of chapter 47 tells how Joseph managed the famine. Then Genesis 47.29-31 says:

And when the time drew near that Israel [aka 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, but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.” [That is, back in Canaan] He answered, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me”; and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.

So, again, he was remembering the promise to Abraham – that the future for God’s people lay in Canaan not Egypt. And so that’s what his heart was set on. And God meant the promised land of Canaan to be an albeit imperfect picture of heaven – which is what our hearts need to be set on. And my experience is that we learn that best from the seasoned, senior believers we know – who like Jacob have learned to look forward to the end of the story. And that’s the other lesson here, from the last chapters of Genesis:

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 Genesis 49, because Jacob calls together his twelve sons to bless them and prophesy about the future tribes they’re going to become. So look at Genesis 49.1:

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 Genesis 49.8:

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 Genesis 49.9:

Judah is a lion's cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?

So the lion is ‘king of the beasts’ (as Disney has taught us), and back then they used lions to symbolise kings. So this is saying: Judah will be the tribe that kings come from. Then Genesis 49.10:

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.

“the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David”

Because Jacob was prophesying about the line of king David, which would come from the tribe of Judah, and into which Jesus was born, to signify that he is our rightful King; and that he’d come to bring us back into a relationship of obedience to him. And in Genesis 49, Jacob was saying: that’s the end of the story we should be looking forward to – a place of finally perfect obedience to God.

And so in the end, there’s a kingdom that includes people 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 5.5. calls Jesus:

“the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David”

Because Jacob was prophesying about the line of king David, which would come from the tribe of Judah, and into which Jesus was born, to signify that he is our rightful King; and that he’d come to bring us back into a relationship of obedience to him. And in Genesis 49, Jacob was saying: that’s the end of the story we should be looking forward to – a place of finally perfect obedience to God.

You sometimes hear preaching on heaven that goes like this: ‘Think of your favourite hobby or meal or activity, or what you enjoy most – and the great thing is that heaven will be even better’, and true as that is, it’s a very us-centred way of thinking – you know, ‘Heaven is going to be my ideal day – 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 God will be at the centre, and everyone will be utterly taken up with him, 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 because we want to. And that’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection were all about. Because he died to pay for our forgiveness. And he rose again so he can now come into our lives by his Spirit, and make us obedient to him.

And people just looking into Christianity often say (words to this effect),
‘You know, I’d love the blessings of being a Christian – like being forgiven – but I don’t want the cost of obedience.’ To which the Bible would say:
‘But obedience is one of the blessings. Because there is nothing better for us than bowing to God’s wisdom on how to live our lives. And there will be nothing better than being part of that place where everyone’s finally able to do that perfectly’. And that’s why Jacob paints having Jesus as King as the ultimate blessing. Look on to Genesis 49.11-12:

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.
His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth whiter than milk.

So back then, the ultimate blessing was a bumper harvest. So Jacob paints having Jesus as King as like the bumper-est harvest ever. So no-one would tie their donkey to their grapevine, because how many grapes are going to be left after it’s finished? You’d only do that if you were blessed with such a bumper harvest, it didn’t matter what it ate. And in that case, you could even do your washing in wine, assuming you didn’t mind everything going a bit pink. It’s 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 that bumper blessing 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, which are two sides of the same coin.’

So to wrap Genesis up at the end of Genesis 49, Jacob dies. And in Genesis 50 Joseph takes his body and buries it, as promised, in Canaan. And later, here’s how the book ends – chapter 50. 24-26:

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.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

So just like Jacob before him, 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 that we should be doing the same.

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