In the service this morning, the message was about Joseph. As often happens, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The depth and nuance and intricate tapestry that is Scripture often works that way.
I will get to the point, but first, I need to build the backstory. Most readers know of Joseph, so I will be brief. Joseph was the youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the famous son of Abraham. Abraham was the man of faith to whom God gave the following promise:
“Go from your country [land] 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 dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)
I added the emphasis and will come back to it. In the meantime, we need to recall that Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, who were jealous of him. They plotted to kill him and left him for dead in the bottom of a well. He was “rescued” by a passing caravan that sold him into slavery in Egypt.
We could say much about the story of Joseph, but I want to fast forward. Joseph’s life teetered on the edge of utter desperation. He experienced a series of very high highs and very low lows. God ultimately blessed Joseph and elevated him to the second most powerful position in Egypt because of Joseph’s faithful use of the gifts and wisdom God gave him.
Many years after his brothers left him for dead, Joseph superintended a massive grain storage plan for Egypt that positioned his “adoptive” country to weather a long, severe famine and provide food for all its people and other nations besides. That same famine prompted his brothers to travel to Egypt when they were on the verge starvation and desperation.
When they arrived and got inline to buy grain, they had no idea they were appearing before their brother, Joseph. Joseph asked them to go back to Canaan and bring his father, Jacob, back down to Egypt with them.
Joseph’s brothers, his father and the whole tribe returned to Egypt. When they returned and finally realized the powerful man who sent them for their father was Joseph, they were ashamed, and they feared retribution against them for their betrayal, but Joseph was gracious, and he gave them favorable living conditions until Jacob died.
This is the point of the story that was addressed in the service today. Joseph’s brothers were fearful that he still held a grudge after Jacob died and would pay them back for their betrayal. (Gen. 50: 15) They didn’t immediately go to Joseph. Instead, they sent a message to Joseph containing instructions to them from their father to say to Joseph: “’I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’” (Gen. 50: 17)
Much could be said about the fact that they sent their father’s instructions to them, rather than their own, heartfelt message to their brother, Joseph, but this story isn’t about them. It’s about Joseph.
Joseph wept upon receiving the message. When his brothers finally come to him in person and offered themselves as slaves, Joseph said this (which is the launching point for the real import of what I have to say today);
“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” (Gen. 50:19-21 ESV) (Emphasis added)
We could talk about the way Joseph did not let power go to his head. We could talk about his strong faith in God through all he had been through, and his recognition that God was the one who elevated him to his present position. We could talk about his gracious willingness to forgive. These things are beside the point of this blog piece, however.
Note the emphasis above: Joseph recognized that God intended the harm his brothers meant for him for good. Joseph perceived that God worked through it “to accomplish what is now being done – the storing of grain for food during the present famine that resulted in “the saving of many lives”.
Note the way Joseph said these things. He did not say that God did these things to save his brothers, or even to save his father or his extended family (tribe). Joseph used terminology that was much broader and more general than that.
The dream that Pharaoh had, which Joseph interpreted, prompted the Pharaoh and Joseph to make plans for storing and preserving grain during plentiful years, well in advance of the great famine. That grain storage saved the people of Egypt. It saved the people of the surrounding nations, and it saved Joseph’s own family in the process.
Joseph did not perceive that God did those things simply for his kin, though they also benefitted. Joseph perceived that God was doing something much larger and more universal. Joseph by faith had larger perspective.
Now, let’s go back to God’s promise to Abraham, the “father of faith, quoted above. That promise conveyed a larger perspective: the promise was to bless Abraham, to bless those who bless him, and to bless “all the families of the earth” through him.
Thus, we see in Joseph’s words the same larger perspective that is contained in the promise to Abraham. The thread does not end with Joseph, either.
Many centuries later, after Abraham’s and Joseph’s descendants eventually return to the promised land of Canaan and inhabited it for generation after generation, those descendants teetered on the verge of desperate circumstances again. This time, their betrayal of God brought them to the brink, as God’s prophets warned them to turn from their ways and return to God.
The people did not heed the warnings, and disaster befell them. First the northern kingdom of Israel, then the southern kingdom of Judah, were overrun by the Babylonians and driven to exile in Babylon. At the beginning of the 70 years of exile of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah spoke these words:
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’” (Jer. 29:4-7)
If you follow the life of Abraham closely, you will notice that he was a peacemaker everywhere he went. He was a blessing to the people around him. Joseph was a blessing to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt and the nations around Egypt. Daniel was a blessing to his Babylonian captives (as God through Jeremiah instructed).
This is a theme in Scripture: that God’s people – wherever they are, in whatever circumstances they endure – are blessings to those around them in their humble faithfulness to God. Through people of faith, God is faithful to his promises to them and to “all the families of the earth”, and God is working out his eternal plans as we are faithful to Him (and when we aren’t).
This thread continues expressly through Jesus. The Great Commission given to us from Jesus is an extension of these promises. It is part of the overarching plan of God: to go into all the world preaching the Gospel, making disciples of all the nations. (Matt. 28)
As Paul noted, Jesus broke down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. (Eph. 2:14) This is because God’s plan is for all the nations. I believe that the church in the United States needs to be more mindful of God’s overarching plan.
We stumble when our perspective shrinks, and we rebel against God’s eternal plan when we shrink back from those universal promises that date back to Abraham, the father of our faith. God’s plans are bigger than our plans.
By faith, John perceived the eternal plan of God when he saw the vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. (Rev. 7:9) (My emphasis)
From the first promise to Abraham to Revelations, and from before the foundation of the heavens and the earth, this is, was, and ever will be God’s plan. His intentions are to bless all the families of the earth, the saving of many lives and to prosper the cities where is people are exiled. (Remember: the people of God are presently aliens and strangers in this world.)
In this present time, in these United States, we teeter on rebellion against God’s great plan. This is a biblical them also. Joseph’s brothers betrayed him. The nations of Israel and Judah betrayed God Himself in their idolatry and failure/refusal to do justice (the two themes of the prophets). God’s own people betrayed Him when He came to them in the form of Jesus.
We teeter on a similar betrayal of Jesus and his instruction to us in the Great Commission. I believe we do this when we fail to perceive God’s larger, eternal plans in how we deal with the issue of immigration – when we forget that Jesus told us to love our neighbors by welcoming strangers.
I believe we fail to appreciate God’s promises to all nations when we emphasize our stance against Critical Race Theory more than loving our neighbors who have experienced the weight of hundreds of years of slavery, racial disparities and prejudice. – when we forget to love our neighbors who don’t look like us.
But, we can take solace in the fact that God works out His plans despite the failures of His own people at times. He even works through those failures.
When Joseph was betrayed by his own brothers, God worked through that betrayal – and worked despite it – for the good and the saving of many lives – not just the lives of Joseph’s jealous kin. When God allowed the Babylonians to overwhelm and exile his idolatrous and unjust people, God was working out His plans through the Babylonians and even through the failures of His people.
When God came to His own people, and His own people did not recognize Him, when God was crucified at the insistence of His people who He nurtured and promised to bless through Abraham, God was working out His great plans. Those plans include blessing to Abraham, those who bless Abraham and all the families of the earth.
Throughout God’s involvement in human history, some people have perceived God’s great plan, but most people (even God’s own people) often do not perceive and embrace it. God works His plans anyway, but I submit that we would be in a much better place if we perceived and grasped the larger perspective of the promises of God.
Much of what I write these days has this focus. I sometimes feel like a lonely voice, but I am hopeful. I hear many other people voicing similar things, and I have faith that God is working out His plans in the world today, just as He has throughout history, regardless of whether His people as a whole perceive them – and even when we teeter in our rebellious ways.