September 15, 2002
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35


"Filling in for God"
Genesis 50:15-21

It is true or it is not true.

If it is true it makes all the difference in the world - especially when it comes to the toughest times in our lives.

If it isn't true, then we are on our own when tough times come and it is up to us to secure a good outcome for ourselves.

Here's the statement that, if true,  is a powerful source of hope for our lives:

There is a God and God is in charge! 

There may be times when it doesn't seem as though God is in charge. At least not a God who cares for us and loves us.

The world is full of such brokenness and sorrow that you wonder sometimes why God doesn't intervene and change things.

Most of us have dealt with circumstances that cause worry and stress and our minds work overtime trying to come up with something that will make things better. You find it difficult to sleep, or sleep comes only in bits and pieces and the feeling of waking up fully rested is a wistful memory.

How wonderful it would be to know for certain:

There is a God and God is in charge! 

***

One of the wonderfully amazing things about the bible is just how relevant even its most ancient stories can be to our lives. Right at the very end of the "book of beginnings" - Genesis - is a story about a group of brothers who know exactly what it is like to worry yourself sick. Admittedly, a guilty conscience contributes much to this story.  This episode is also a chronicle of how it is that God is in charge even when all outward appearances say otherwise.

Perhaps you are familiar with the background to this story. Jacob, whose name God had changed to Israel, had twelve sons who were destined to become the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph was the second youngest of the twelve sons and the apple of his father's eye. Joseph is the son we learn about as children in Sunday School as the boy who received a "coat of many colors" from his father.  Joseph may have been the light of his father's life, but he was not so bright when it came to common sense.  He had two specific dreams that suggested he would become the leader of the nation of Israel. This flew in the face of what was supposed to be. The eldest son is supposed to become the family patriarch - not the second son, no the third and certainly not the eleventh!

When Joseph received the coat of many colors from his father, the brothers were indignant - and when Joseph told them his dreams, they were infuriated. It was not long before the brothers got together, plotted Joseph's demise and instead of killing him opted to toss him into a pit where he would certainly have died. They took the coat from Joseph, ripped it to shreds and threw the blood of a lamb on it. Then they took the coat home to show Jacob. They allowed Jacob to conclude that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast.

Actually, Joseph was taken from the pit by one group of wandering tradesmen, sold to another group and wound up in Egypt as a slave. In the ancient middle east, this would typically be the end of the story.

But this story is different.

There is a God and God is in charge! 

The work of God is sometimes difficult to understand and there are times when we may wonder where God is. Nevertheless, the providential hand of God is always weaving threads of meaning and purpose in the tapestry of our lives, even in the tough circumstances. As with the tapestry, it is the darker threads that provide the background and contrast for the beauty of the brighter ones.

When our Genesis reading picks up the story, Joseph had risen through the ranks of slavery and has become Pharaoh's right arm. Meanwhile a famine back in Joseph's homeland brings his brothers to Egypt for food and guess who they have to see to get the food they need?  They do not recognize Joseph however. The teen age kid they threw into a pit has matured in Egypt, looks like an Egyptian, dresses like an Egyptian and is in charge of the Egyptian warehouses.

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and there is this wonderful family reunion with lots of tears. Joseph cries because he is reunited with his family. The brothers cry - well they are sort of glad to see Joseph, but likely they are crying tears of panic. The tables have been severely turned, Joseph is in a position to enjoy the mother of all "even the score" opportunities. There they are - literally eating out of Joseph's hand.

Think about it for a minute - what would you do if you were in charge?

But then, this is a different story...  remember?

There is a God and God is in charge! 

***

The central lessons that emerge from the rest of the story revolve around three important lines:

The brothers:  "What if..."
Joseph:  "Am I in the place of God?"
Joseph:  "God intended it for good..."

"What if..."

Honest now - have you ever said these words in times of worry?  Do you say them... maybe a little too often?  Many people I know are what I call, Whatifers."  "What if I don't do well...  What if people don't like what I do...  What if my sister (brother, mother, father, uncle etc. etc.) doesn't approve..."

A "whatifer" is someone whose life is frequently on hold because they are afraid to act. In the worst case, they are paralyzed by life's difficult circumstances.

Another approach is the approach of Joseph's brothers. When their father dies, they are petrified that Joseph will now take revenge on them and they take matters into their own hands.  "Let's tell him dad said he should treat us kindly and forgive us for trying to erase him from the family."

What they missed out on was the opportunity to clear the whole issue from the painful family past by coming to Joseph for forgiveness. If they are people of faith who trust a God who forgives, then this would be the most direct, clearest path to a clean slate. Besides - why take the chance of lying to a guy who gets information from God through dreams!

"Am I in the place of God?"

Fortunately, Joseph is in touch with God and his faith rather than having been diminished by trial has grown strong. He knows that there is a God and that God is in charge. In spite of the evildoing of his brothers and even the wife of Pharaoh, God has placed him in a position to care for all of Israel.

What beautiful words he has for them when they come begging for their lives and offering to become his slaves. . "Am I in the place of God?"

Wouldn't it be great if more people could bring themselves to say and practice these words?  It is not up to you or me to take revenge, get even, even the score or otherwise take into our own hands the issue of making things right.  Revenge does not make for righteousness. Getting even does not get it right. Evening the score does not settle anything.

History should tell us that might and mightier do not make for right and righteousness. If you build a bomb, I will build a bigger bomb. And if you build a bigger bomb still, I will build a rocket to knock down your bombs and deliver humongous bombs and on it goes until planet earth is simply rushing through space as one big container of hazardous materials. We are literally, "in this thing..." (or maybe more appropriately - "on this thing") together."

No - none of us are in the place of God. If we are genuinely people of faith, then we will give to God the business of making all things right and attend ourselves to the business of forgiveness for wrongs done against us. Knowing that we are in need of God's forgiveness, we will have a forgiving attitude toward others.

Joseph is not going to buy into the dangerous position of filling in for God.  That's exactly what people do who determine to take things into their own hands when it comes to making things absolutely right.

Think about it. It is not difficult to come up with names of people who are perpetually "filling in for God."  They are unforgiving in spirit, self-righteous in temperament and judgmental in attitude.

The bottom line for persons of faith is Joseph's affirmation of God's good providence...

"God intended it for good..."

You see - for Joseph, God is not only ruler, God is also over-ruler. The brothers intend harm for Joseph, but God over ruled their wicked intentions and brought about the salvation of the nation in spite of outward appearances to the contrary. Paul said it this way, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." [Romans 8:28]

Joseph's words to his brothers finally brought peace to their lives and put the "whatifs" to rest. Though the words are ancient, they are words of comfort from God to every person of faith who has ever been faced with difficulties and circumstances they could not cope with or understand:

"Have no fear, I myself will provide for you and your little ones. In this way God reassures us even today - speaking kindly to us."

Amen.


The story of Joseph became an international hit with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's enduringly popular musical favorite "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" It was presented by PBS in a production starring Donny Osmond. Beginning its life in 1967 as a 20-minute "pop cantata" for a school Easter concert, "Joseph" was revived and expanded in the mid-'70s and eventually made its way to Broadway in 1982. This lively interpretation of the biblical story of Joseph of Canaan has gone on to charm audiences around the world with its excitement, energy, and eclectic musical variety. There is a PBS web page you can visit for Joseph and the Amazing...   


Connections in the Texts

Two threads are woven through our texts.   One has to do with sin and its consequences.  The other has to do with behavior in light of the divine reality.  These threads are actually woven together as each text has a slightly different focus.  Matthew deals with one member of the community who sins against another and how the community deals with this sin in light of its divine responsibilities.  In Genesis the narrative tells the story of Joseph's brothers and their sin against him. When he is in a position to extract revenge - Joseph forgives and notes that it is God's prerogative to punish.   Paul's focus in Romans is directed at the responsibility of Christian folk to live their lives in light of the fact that "...salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed."   The Psalm is an affirmation of the connection between the word of the Lord, our lifestyle and the life God alone can give.

One of the important ideas in these lessons is that our actions have consequences that impact others.  We are not "Lone Ranger" Christians.  The texts might be used to strengthen the issue of community in an individualistic culture.

Matthew 18:15-20

What do you do when you are wronged by someone in the church?  Matthew outlines  the process and this is the focus of our full text sermon.  The passage touches a couple of substantive issues in addition to this.

1. The term "church - ekklesia" ("called out)" is used only twice in the gospels.  Here and at 16:18.  It is significant that Matthew does not use the word "synagogue."   ("to come or gather together")  When is intended here is the beginning of a new community which was the parallel revelation to Peter's revelation in 16:16.

2. Jesus notes that the church will have a special role in the lives of those who make up its number.  An individual who sins is accountable to the community.

This brings about an interesting discussion of the loosing and binding, here and in chapter 16.  In chapter 16, Peter is told that he will receive the keys of the kingdom and that what he binds on earth will be bound in heaven.  Here in chapter 18, it is the community (ekklesia) that does the loosing and binding.  It becomes clear that it is the whole of the community in which Christ dwells that the locus of divine action takes place.

No matter which direction you take with the message for today, Matthew presents a great opportunity to lift up a high view of the church.

Romans 13:8-14

In his discussion of the Christians lifestyle, Paul encourages the church from two angles.  1.  We are to love one another and this will of necessity mean that we keep the commandments.  2.   We need to stay aware that the consummation of our salvation is closer with each passing day.

Verses 8-10 underscore the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:36-37 about the "Great Commandment."  In 1Peter 4:8 it is, "Love one another deeply because love covers over a multitude of sins." [NIV]  This is "Love never fails".  In the Upper Room discourse (John 13-16) Jesus covers this ground extensively.  There is no genuinely Christian lifestyle without mutual love.  There is no need to look up a list of "do's" and "don'ts" when it comes to what is acceptable behavior in our relationships in the Body of Christ.  That is, "love is the fulfilling of the law." (v.10)

Stay alert!  Paul's injunction to live with an eye on the consummation of the kingdom is not an alarmist, "Jesus is coming in 1999!" type warning -- but rather an encouragement to live in light of our redemption.  Awaken out of sleep can translate to "keep your priorities in order" for us today.  We are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ"  -- ("The Great Put-On!")   -- that is we are to mature in our relationship with Christ.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  

Leader:  O Lord of all, we long to know your presence here today.
People: We desire the understanding only you can give.
Leader:  The guidance that comes from your word.
People: The joy that comes from knowing you.
Leader:  O, shape our hearts as a dwelling place for Christ.
People: And this church as a place of divine joy!

Confession of Sin

Merciful God, in Christ you make all things new. We confess our sins before you and are truly sorry for all our shortcomings and offences. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Dear friends in Christ, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ free us from all our sins and may we be made new persons in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Almighty and gracious God, we come before you today with hearts full
of gratitude and praise. Our minds are full of wonder when we consider the
One who gave himself for us. How can it be, O Lord, that One so full of grace
and truth should bear our sin and shame?  Who could ever imagine that we
would receive his wholeness and he would receive our brokenness?  O grant us
merciful Lord, the joy of staying very close to the Shepherd and Guardian of our
souls.  Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

Bless us today God!  Bless the gifts we bring!  Fill us with new hope
for the building of you kingdom in our hearts.  Make us courageous to
bring the life of Christ to the world around us.  Bless us Lord!  And bless
this church to your honor and glory.  Amen.