"REDEMPTIVE" - Selections from Genesis

    The book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, is a fascinating and fantastic story. Genesis begins, you recall, when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis presents the truth that all creation comes from God. God was before. God is Creator. God reigns over all.

            But the 49 chapters that follow the creation stories are full of much more intrigue and insight. Having made human beings in his image, God sees the first man and first woman disobey the first command. Then, the first human child commits the first murder. Within a short space of time, it says, sadly, that “the world was filled with violence.”

We continue to live with this harsh reality, with fresh reminders this week – gun violence at a ball field in Alexandria, and violent deaths continuing in Richmond. As early as Genesis 6:6, it says, “God regretted that he made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”

            But thankfully, the Genesis story continues. God does not just create and then depart. God calls people to covenant life and to a certain way of living – with God and for God. In Genesis 12, God called Abraham and Sarah. God would bless them and make them great. Despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah are revered by 2.4 billion Christians, and 1.6 billion Muslims, and 13 million Jews across the world, they ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles, and delivered no prophecies. Abraham and Sarah had one mission – to live blessed by God and to live as a blessing to the world.

            What if that really could be our goal too – and the goal of everyone related to Abrahamic faith traditions – be a blessing to the world. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing.

            One of the most fascinating and fantastic stories in Genesis is the story of Joseph. If you remember the family tree from Genesis from Sunday School, it goes like this: Abraham and Sarah – called to be a blessing - had an interesting journey with God, but they also, in their late age, had a son named Isaac, who is also called to be a blessing. Isaac and Rebekah carry on the covenant of God and had a son name Jacob. Jacob and Rachel had a son named Joseph. This is where we get to our Scripture for today, Genesis 37:  

2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel (another name for Jacob) loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he (Jacob) had made him (Joseph) a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

5Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. 


(Some time later) 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            What is it that God’s people are called to be – a blessing! Clearly, as in other stories in Genesis, we keep struggling with that.

            This Joseph story in Chapter 37 is not a story of blessing, but of tension. There are several reasons for this significant tension. First, it says Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his children. Joseph was Jacob’s son by his beloved Rachel. The sons of Jacob’s other wives, Bilhah and Zilpah and Leah, keep their distance from the sons of Rachel. Second, Joseph likes to stir up this tension. He tells tales about his brothers to their father, and he has this coat of many colors, which sets him apart and increases jealousy among his brothers. All this acts as a constant provocation to his brothers. And third, Joseph dreams dreams. These are not just any dreams. His brothers’ sheaves will bow down to his, then the sun, moon, and stars will bow down to him. Worse, he tells his brothers about these dreams.

            So this is Joseph: his father loves him; his brothers hate him. We are told this repeatedly with cumulative force. They hated him and could not speak to him (37:4). In the Bible, and in life, when words fail, violence often follows. Then the brothers learn of the dreams; it says, “they hated him all the more,” and “the brothers were jealous of him.” The hostility is palpable and about to explode. (See J. Sacks, Not In God’s Name, p. 147)

            But this is also why the book of Genesis is so fantastic. It depicts the complexity of the human condition. To create a universe, it seems, is easy – it takes up basically one chapter – chapter 1. To create human relationships, to shape people in the way of being a blessing in the world, . . . that is difficult. It takes up the rest of the book of Genesis AND the ongoing story of humanity. God is still working on that . . . and we have a long way to go.

            Why is it that the call is so clear – be a blessing – but the reality, the way we struggle with life and life together, leaves us alienated and even antagonistic toward one another?

Antagonism and alienation are what happened to Joseph and his brothers. Things had gotten so stirred up among them that they “saw him at a distance,” coming toward them, and before he reached them “they plotted to kill him.” As one commentator says, “they were able to contemplate fratricide because they saw him at a distance.” They refused to allow him to come close. He was a threat rather than a person. He was their enemy, rather than their brother. They could see his cloak and its many colors, but they could not see his face. This is what happens.

            The guy with the gun at the ball field in Alexandria asked who was playing ball. He was not interested in them as people, but what ideology they represented. Then he was able to shoot them. We have this desire and inclination – not to see each other as brothers and sisters – but as distant people, people different than us, people less than us, and it can bring out the worst in us. This is what happens.

            We are so called to be a blessing – and we allow alienations to grow, and animosity to prosper, and divisions emerge, and death takes over.

            But you know what? God is never finished. And God prevails.

            This very evil act by Joseph’s brothers – of plotting to kill him, them deciding to throw him in the pit, and then to sell him into slavery -begins a thrilling sequence that reverses everything and runs through to the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph is sold and taken to Egypt by the travelling Midianite traders. He has some interesting experiences in Egypt that find him – dreamer that he was – interpreting dreams for Pharaoh. This earns him a most favorable position in Egypt, which leads to an encounter again with his brothers. While Joseph has been finding new life in Egypt, his brothers were facing challenges and even famine in the land of Canaan. They are so famished that they come to Egypt for relief. And who do they encounter but Joseph.

            Listen to Genesis 50:15-21:

15Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.”19But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?20Even 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. 21So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

            There is a powerful message here. We cannot ever see ourselves as victims. We are always called to see ourselves as working for the REDEMPTIVE purposes of God. This is what the story of Joseph teaches us so well. Adam and Eve sin in the early chapters of Genesis, and when God approaches them, both deny responsibility. Adam says, “The woman you put here with me – SHE gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12). The woman says, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” (3:13) It is so easy to play the victim and pass the blame. This keeps happening in the story of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and the brothers of Joseph - reminding us that this is very much our tendency: play the victim, “someone else did this to me,” something else caused this for me.

BUT. . . .  by the end of Genesis, Joseph, who really was a victim – thrown into the pit, forgotten for dead, challenged in Egypt - refuses to define himself as such. He says to his brothers, “You may have intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, saving many people’s lives. So do not be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.”

            Instead of asking, “who did this to me?” Joseph asks from his life and his suffering, “What REDEMPTIVE deed has this put me in a position to perform?” He does not look back, but forward. Instead of blaming others, he seeks to exercise responsibility. He seeks to be a blessing in the world.  Imagine!! And this is what God calls us to be about too. (see J. Sacks, Not In God’s Name, p. 170) (See this morning’s RTD cover and story)

What REDEMPTIVE deed can I now do to be a blessing in the world? That should always be our question.

So where does this question intersect with your life? Is it a family matter? A work issue? A personal challenge? A recent loss? A perplexing world?

 What REDEMPTIVE deed can I now perform to be a blessing in the world? That is always the question we ask.

            Just recently we had our 14th Post Critical Incident Seminar for police officers in our state. This is an event set up to offer help and healing for police who have been in traumatic events in the line of duty. We had 45 officers attend this three-day retreat at Massanetta Springs – most are from VA but also some from nearby states.

            One of the officers who attended was a young, attractive female officer who had a stopped a car for a violation, was standing beside the driver side of the car, and who was then hit by a passing vehicle travelling at 40 mph. Her whole right side was destroyed. She has had 7 surgeries already and awaiting several more. It turns out that the driver of the vehicle was high on heroin and also texting as he hit her.

Because of her complex injuries, and continuing surgeries, this officer, though in her late 20’s, has had to take medical retirement. She continues to deal with many issues. In some of the small group conversations at the seminar, someone asked this officer if she was mad – mad at the man who hit her, mad at how terrible this has made her life. She said “no;” she is not mad. She said because of her accident, the man who hit her has had to face his addiction, and has become clean, and has found a new path for his life.

            This officer seems to have that question rooted in her heart, that question that we learn from Joseph: What REDEMPTIVE deed has this put me in a position to perform? How can what has happened to me become a blessing for God in the world?

And this is our calling too.

            The Apostle Paul puts it directly: “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, . . . rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

            It is often our inclination to be about alienation and antagonism. It is often tempting to sow seeds of division and animosity. I think we might even agree that our culture promotes those ends. It is often so easy to fall into thinking of ourselves as victims, and forgetting our call to be a blessing. Yet God calls us, and keeps trying to nurture us by the power of the Spirit. Life is with God and for God. Let love be genuine. Be a blessing. We see it and hear it from Joseph – “you may have intended it for harm; but God intended it for good.”

            What REDEMPTIVE deed can I now perform?

            That is always the question – for we are called to be a blessing for God in the world – for peace and light, love and hope everywhere. May it be so for you, for me, for all of us. Alleluia. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Pour out your love and grace upon us and upon the world, O Lord. And keep shaping us for your redemptive work following Jesus Christ. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on June 18, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

Alex EvansAlex Evans