“What a family!”
Sunday 24 February 2019
The Joseph saga in the Book of Genesis is a remarkable story. So interesting is the story that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber managed to turn it into a successful stage musical – “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. One of the reasons why it made a successful transition to a theatre piece is because of the outrageously dysfunctional family that is at the centre of the story.
I recall a wonderful sermon delivered by Canon Rosalind Brown in Durham Cathedral some years ago in which she gave a catalogue of the many failings and mishaps of the generations of the Abraham/Isaac/Jacob family. And yet, throughout the Old Testament, God is identified as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. I wonder if the Almighty felt any embarrassment at being associated with such a motley clan?
Even if we just limit ourselves to the “Jacob and his sons” generation who are the heroes in today’s reading, there is plenty of evidence that the Child Safety Department should have been involved from very early on.
The problems probably began with the fact that Jacob never really hid the fact that it was only his wife Rachel that he had any warm feelings for. This no doubt gave rise to great jealousy and anger on the part of his other wife Leah, and his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. And no doubt that rubbed off onto their respective sons. The fact that Jacob then made no secret of the fact that Joseph, his son with Rachel, was by far his favourite, not the least by his gifting him with a special coat (the Bible does not say that it was technicolor) would only have added fuel to the fire in his aggrieved brothers’ chests.
So that the fact that they first plot to kill him, and then moderate their plan by selling him as a slave to a wandering band of Ishmaelites, does not actually completely take us by surprise. These are not a happy bunch of siblings.
Of course, they were not to know that after a few setbacks, Joseph was going to end up smelling of roses and become quite the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh. When the brothers turn up in Egypt the first time looking to buy food to see them and their families through the famine, Joseph puts them through the mill somewhat. He is pleased to see that they have learnt the error of their ways and that they now carry a strong sense of concern for their father Jacob and are extremely solicitous of their brother Benjamin who, like Joseph, is Jacob’ s son with Rachel.
And so, on their second visit to obtain food supplies, when he sees further example of them being changed men, we have the scene which unfolded in today’s reading.
And in a scene anticipating Jesus’ exhortation in the gospel today to love our enemies and do good to those who hate you, Joseph makes up with his murderous brothers. Not only does he forgive them, but he advises them that it was good that they did what they did. In fact, they were doing God’s will.
The irony was that even though they experienced this extraordinary act of forgiveness and mercy from Joseph, a little later on when their father Jacob died, they fear that Joseph might not feel any obligation toward them now and they said: “What if Joseph stills bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” And Joseph reassures them in the same vein as before that they were unwittingly doing God’s work.
What a mess of a family!
How could God possibly use such a family to promote his ultimate plans for the salvation of the world that would finally bear fruit in Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of one of these brothers, Judah?
Well actually, if we study various parts of the Old Testament, and even the New Testament, there are other examples of where God seems to use something evil, or something weak, to achieve God’s ends. There is the witness of many of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel that God uses foreign nations to bring Israel and Judah to heel. These prophets make it clear that the powerful leaders of these nations are only able to conquer God’s people as they did because they were working as agents of God. And Paul reminds us in his Second Letter to the Corinthians that the treasure of the Gospel that he, and we, have to share with others, we have in “clay jars”.
In other words, we and all the bearers of the good news are frail and weak and fragile. And yet God is able and willing to use us as vehicles of evangelisation. Just as he used the weak and dysfunctional patriarchal family of Abraham and his descendants to begin his plan for the salvation of the world.
Our own sense of not being up to the task is almost a good sign that we are exactly the sort of people that God engages in his work. Nothing is impossible for God. God can use the weak and the vulnerable for his mission, precisely because we are weak and vulnerable. God does not need perfect agents to achieve his plans.
Perhaps we would benefit from listening with open hearts to the prayer of St Paul in the letter to the Ephesians which recognises the great power of God that is available to us to carry out his calling in our very weakness:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen