God and Human Will

Sermon for Sunday, August 14, 2011 ||  Proper 15 Year A || Genesis 45: 1-15
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.”

Dismayed?  Ashen and panic-stricken is probably more like it. The most powerful man in all of Egypt next to Pharaoh himself—the man before whom they had to bow down begging for food in the midst of famine—has just told them he is their brother, Joseph! The brother they had sold into slavery out of hatred and jealousy years before…the brother they had tricked their father into believing was dead, ravished by wild animals…the brother who had been their father’s favorite and for whom he had made that extraordinary coat with the long sleeves…their handsome little brother, Joseph—the dreamer of grand dreams.

And now the dream for which they had hated him was being fulfilled:  Joseph, reigning over them–their very lives in his hands. Dismayed at his presence?  This is surely an understatement of biblical proportions!  Yet before they can even begin to collect themselves, Joseph lets his brothers off the hook:  “Come closer to me,” he says to them, and then:

“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt…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 five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvestGod sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”

“God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant…it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Joseph is not just being magnanimous here—or being forgiving beyond what seems humanly possible—though he is certainly it is true that he is being both of these things. But what Joseph is doing here is bigger than that, much bigger: Joseph is seeing and stating the reality of the situation—accurately assessing the entire sweep of personal and historical events—by situating God and God’s will at the very center of them all.  It’s brilliant and it’s profound—the dramatic and theological apex of the entire Joseph story.

Remember that Joseph’s life has not been an easy one:  At 17 his brothers threw him into a pit to die, then changed their minds and sold him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver.  The wife of his Egyptian master accused him of rape when he refused to sleep with her, and as a result Joseph spent at least two years in an Egyptian prison.  This dreamer of grand dreams finally won his freedom by accurately assessing a dream of Pharaoh’s—a dream that foretold seven years of harvest followed by seven years of famine throughout the land.  Always a stranger in a foreign land, Joseph was nearly 40 by the time his brothers came to Egypt begging for food, bowing down before him on behalf of their father and their families—having no idea who Joseph really was.

Of course, Joseph’s life has had its blessings too: The writer of Genesis tells us that, “The Lord was with Joseph,” so that even in his captivity, Joseph became a successful man.  “His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands,” we are told. “So Joseph found favor in his sight and…he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had…the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.” Blessed it, at least, until that little incident between Joseph and his Egyptian master’s scorned wife.

Yet even in prison, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love…He gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer,” who “committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison…and paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”

Then there was the gig with Pharoah: a blessing under the circumstances under the circumstances! Joseph was given not just power over all the land, but a beautiful wife who bore him two children. Not bad for a little Jewish kid from Canaan! But always Joseph had grieved for his father, his brother Benjamin, and the land of his youth.

So overall, Joseph’s life was a rich one, filled with deep pain and sorrow, joy and new beginnings, success and power, abandonment and loss. And now, with his terrified brothers huddled before him as if they’d seen a ghost—what Joseph sees as if for the first time is the reality that God has been at work in this all along—working through, with, and sometimes in spite of, the various choices that he has made in his life, or that others have made for him.  Scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:

“God does his own work, and at the same time fully honors the work of his creatures.   So it is with Joseph and his brothers.  They did their free work.  But in the end it was God at work in their work who brought life…Neither the freedom of the creature nor the gracious sovereignty of God is canceled…God’s will makes use of all human action, but is domesticated or limited by no human choice.”

You see, God’s will will be done.  What that will is may get lost or seem hidden in the day to day drama of our lives, but we have his Word in scripture and in Christ that his will is for all of humankind to be free: free from whatever binds us— be it economic, political, physical, emotional or spiritual. God’s will will be done, and God’s will is for all of God’s creatures to be free…free to live into his dream for us, his dream for all of his people, to flourish in mutual love and life-giving creativity in his image.  Joseph himself is living into that dream now.  He is free to forgive his brothers, free to let go of the past, free to create a new, life-giving future for himself and for his family.

You know, the story of Joseph’s life takes up thirteen seriously gripping, page-turning chapters in the Book of Genesis.  Scholars have no idea whether any of it is based on actual history.    What they do know is that it is a literary gem that probably written somewhere in the 10th century BC in response to a cultural and theological crisis.

And what is so fascinating about Joseph’s story is that the cultural and theological crisis’ the people of Israel were then facing bears such a curiously strong resemblance to the ones we face today.

Listen to Brueggemann again, writing 30 years ago…

“[The 10th century] was a remarkable time in Israel’s life, a time of flexing muscles and being secure in one’s own strength… the old idiom of faith had become unconvincing…the reality of God was not doubted, but treated as irrelevant. The Joseph narrative…is an amazing story, to address a time when to see, and know, and control, were all-important.

“A time when to see, and know and control were all important”  Into this context and our own comes the story of Joseph, to assure us when we need it most that God’s gracious will will be done, and in fact is being done—whether we are aware of it or not.

Into this context and our own comes the story of Joseph, to remind us of the good news that God does not cause, but will certainly use, even the hardest and most painful aspects of our lives to accomplish his gracious will.  Into this context and our own comes the story of Joseph, to witness to the paradoxical truth that God’s will will be done—by working through, with, and even in spite of our free will—but never in violation of it.

It took him years, but Joseph finally saw the reality of his situation:  He finally made and accurate assessment of the entire sweep of all the personal and historical events of his life—by situating God and God’s will at the very center of them all.  Doing so set Joseph free… free to forgive, free to live God’s dream, free to share that dream with others, free to flourish in the kind of mutual love and life-giving creativity that God so grandly dreams for all of us. It was the dramatic and theological apex of Joseph’s entire life story, and it can be the dramatic and theological apex of our stories too.

Try making an accurate assessment of all the personal and historical events of your life by situating God and God’s will at the very center of them all. See if it doesn’t give your life new purpose and new meaning.  See if it doesn’t set you free.  Because surely that would be God’s dream come true. Amen.


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