Making a Bad Thing Work for the Good

And you thought your family was dysfunctional! Today we look at the family of Jacob.

This story today makes me think of these keynote words from God in Genesis: “Through you and your descendants, all the families of the world will be blessed.” These were the words that God spoke to Abraham when he promised him that he, God, would bring forth from Abraham’s descendants a great nation whose ranks would rival the number of stars in the sky. Later, God made the same promise to Jacob, grandson of Abraham and the patriarch of the family in our story today. And this promise is more than a promise of a future for Abraham’s people – it’s a mission statement for the world! And God is carrying out this mission even through families like Jacob’s.

Through you will all the families of the earth be blessed. This is God’s intention, God’s aim in the world. Joseph was a good student of how God thinks. He told his brothers, “although you intended evil with me, God intended good through your actions, to preserve a numerous people.” By the way, not our people. The Egyptians.

This is a helpful reminder of what God is up to with us. Often in this world, and certainly in our nation of late, we are led to believe that Christians are God’s favored tribe and that we are pitted over/against other tribes, religions, races. We are not. It is God’s intent that through us, all tribes and religions are blessed. Makes a difference, doesn’t it, in how we might view our Muslim neighbors, or darker skinned brothers and sisters who often get kicked to the curb in our “Christian” nation.

But to fully understand God’s intention in the world, we must consider more deeply the story of Joseph and his jealous brothers. We find in this story a microcosm of how God works in the world: taking the tragedies of our own collective dysfunctions and making them work for God’s purposes.

It’s hard to appreciate just how dysfunctional this family of Jacob’s really was. Here you have Jacob, father of twelve sons from two different wives. And the last son, Joseph, is half-brother to all but one of the twelve, and happens to be Jacob’s favorite son. But Jacob doesn’t even try to hide it. He makes Joseph a special gift, a robe with long sleeves. No, we don’t know if this was the coat of many colors or not. But a gift like this, given to Joseph and not the others, was really significant. It’s not like you could just go and pick something out at a department store. Everything made at this time in history was a one-off, made with someone in particular in mind. Well, you know this will not end well with the older brothers.

And Joseph didn’t help. In the verse right before our lesson begins, it says that while Joseph and his brothers were shepherds together, seventeen-year-old Joseph brought a “bad report” to his father about his brothers. Bad report? Was Joseph a tattle tale? Or was he justified? We don’t know. But it potentially adds to the animosity. All his brothers at this point were grown men.

Then things got really interesting. Joseph had a dream, and there’s nothing wrong with having a dream. In fact, it was a prophetic dream about a future of prosperity for him and his brothers. Except, Joseph, as he was telling his brothers about his dream, added this one part about his brothers all bowing down to him. Maybe Joseph could left out the part about them bowing down to him.

But Joseph doesn’t seem to realize the problem that Jacob has already caused by openly having a favorite son. By sharing the dream, Joseph simply pours gasoline on the fire of their jealousy. Was this arrogance or naivete on Joseph’s part? What do you think?

At any rate, the jealousy and hatred the brothers experience move them to hatch a terrible revenge on Joseph. “Here comes the dreamer,” they say, “let us kill him and see what becomes of his dreams now,” they say.

By the way, this verse was put on a plaque at the hotel in Memphis where MLK was shot, commemorating MLK. It’s now a museum. If you kill someone, can you kill his/her dreams as well? In this case not. Now, Joseph’s dream was in God’s hands. Hopefully, MLK’s dream will not die either.

Well, after initially planning to kill Joseph, Rueben persuades his brothers to leave him in a pit. Meanwhile, with a bit of Jacob-like deception, they convince their father that the blood on Joseph’s robe is evidence that a wild animal had dragged him off. Jacob accepts this as the truth and begins mourning. It can be said at this point that Jacob was reaping what he sowed. Always a trickster himself, Jacob now gave his sons both the motive for their plan and the model in his own life how to get away with it.

Well, we know how the story goes. A caravan of Ishmaelites, descendants of Abraham and Hagar, find Joseph, take him as prisoner and sell him as a slave to the Egyptians. There, Joseph’s abilities become evident and he rises in prominence and power to become the head administrator of all the grain in the land of Egypt during a drought. A drought that eventually brings his brothers to visit Egypt because they, too, are desperate for food. They encounter Joseph as a powerful leader, and they end up fearfully pledging their allegiance as slaves to Joseph, hoping their penitence spares them Joseph’s wrath. But instead of Joseph lording all this over them in spiteful revenge, Joseph does what?

He said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Did you catch that? Yes, his brothers had evil intent when they abandoned Joseph in a pit, but God had nothing to do with that! Once it happened, however, God was at work redeeming this tragic bit of mischief. God’s intention from that event was to “preserve numerous people.” To give life. How do you get that from a poor kid brother left to die by his brothers? But that’s exactly what happened. Egyptian lives were spared because of Joseph’s wisdom. His own treacherous brothers and their families were provided for as well.

And so, there is grace here, to be sure. Forgiveness abounds. But never consider forgiveness to be primarily about “looking the other way,” a free pass. What Joseph was channeling in this encounter was the intention of God, a purposeful and reconciling grace that moves on to bigger things, like seeing to it that everyone is fed, or that everyone can rebuild their lives no matter where they’ve been or what they’ve done. Joseph assumed in his forgiveness that his brothers were not evil to the core, not irredeemable. More likely the case, Joseph felt like Jesus, years later on the cross, when he said: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Perhaps Joseph over the years acquired enough wisdom to know that his father Jacob was reckless in his favoritism towards Joseph, and Joseph himself was tone deaf and presumptuous with his brothers. None of which excuses them for what they did, but it means that flawed human beings like his brothers can do terrible things under certain circumstances that they regret terribly later.

And so, God’s way is to work with a broken creation and broken human beings and to redeem. Redeem and restore. Not just a free pass. Forgiveness in order to create a new beginning, a new world. Where guilty lives are set free, where the hungry are fed, where the oppressed have advocates.

Faith in God and God’s mercy is never a private matter. God always intends for that mercy that is given to you to work for good in the world.

One of the things I have observed about Mt Carmel – especially this year – is a growing energy to take our faith into our world and make a difference. This is one reason I created “Faith & World” on Wednesday nights, to have a weekly forum to consider how we can witness our faith out in the world, even in the public arena. It was partly a response to about 35 of you who have responded by showing up this year: to distribute food to those who drove up to our church on Fridays from April through June; or to distribute food on Thursdays in North Minneapolis on Broadway Ave or at Gethsemane Church; or the 13 of you who read “The New Jim Crow” about systemic racism in America as we gathered weekly outside to discuss this.

And recently in conversations and interviews, it is clear there is a growing hunger to connect with our more immediate neighbors, too. The ones who will make up the future Mt Carmel community. How can we get to know these folks? This question is more urgent than ever and many of you want to be led and equipped to connect with these folks.

These were among the reasons it was a hard decision for me to take another call. The hunger among you for our faith to make a difference out there in the world. God, you see, redeems our broken lives and intends for our redeemed and forgiven lives to work for the good in this world. Because of this, Mt Carmel has so much promise for the future.

So, I close by asking each of you to consider how God is at work in your life to bring faith, hope and love not only into your life, but into your neighbor’s life through you. Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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