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Actively Looking for God, August 13, 2017

Actively Looking for God

(Sing) “Way way back, many centuries ago; not long after the Bible began.

“Jacob lived in the land of Canaan, a fine example of a family man.

“Jacob, Jacob and Sons, depended on farming to earn their keep.

“Jacob, Jacob and Sons, spent all the day in fields with sheep.”

That’s how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opens. Surprisingly, except for the coat, they get the story mostly right. That multi–coloured coat is actually the result of a mistranslation in the King James Bible—and that’s what most people remember about this story.

It’s the story about Joseph, Jacob’s second youngest son. The last 14 chapters of Genesis is a short story. It hardly ever mentions God—and yet God is there all along in the background. Part of what this story is all about is actively looking for God’s presence in life.

I think we do the same kind of thing in our own lives. We know God is there, even though we hardly ever mention it. If we want to see God, we have to look pretty actively. And usually, we see God after the fact, with hindsight.

Let me give you an example.

When I went through my depression some 17 years ago, I didn’t see God’s hand in what was happening to me. I was so focused on how bad life was. I didn’t care anymore. Life had lost all meaning, and I thought that the world would just be better off without me.

But I didn’t stay in that dark place. With the support of family and some good friends, and with the help of a couple of outstanding psych nurses, I came through it. I learned to love myself again—and I learned to love life again.

In the years since then, I have reflected on my life—on how I got to that dark place, on what I learned from it. That’s what we do—we look back over our lives to try and make sense of what happened.

So here I am 17 years later, and now I can see where God was present. Most particularly, God was there in my daughter Yvonne and one psych nurse, Chloe. I call them my redeemers, my saviours. They delivered me from that darkness. God was also present in some of the things I learned about being gentle with myself and with others.

I think that’s the kind of thing that’s going on in these stories in the Bible. God’s people are looking back on their history. As they tell their stories, the see God in hindsight, working in their stories and their lives. Most often, God’s presence isn’t found in miraculous things. Usually, they see God in ordinary events and ordinary people—like Yvonne and Chloe.

The other thing to be aware of is that as we choose to see God at work in our lives, we are making a choice. I choose to interpret my life this way. I choose to see God present in Yvonne’s love for me; I choose to see God’s healing presence in Chloe’s particular skill set which helped me and others through such painful times. I could have chosen other ways to interpret my life—but this is the choice I have made, and I am content with it. It makes sense of my life to me to review it this way.

So even though God is hardly ever mentioned in the story of Joseph and his wonderful long coat, Israel tells these stories long after the fact as a way of pointing to God’s presence and providence.

I’ll have much more to say about that next week … so y’all be sure to come back. Today is part 1. Today is mostly story–telling.

We left Jacob last week after his night–long wrestling match and his reunion with his brother Esau. Folks are calling him Israel now, and a lot of things have happened—but I’m not going to talk about that. If you want to find out, you’ll have to read Genesis 32—36 for yourself.

You remember Jacob—the con man, liar, thief, and cheat. His whole goal in life was to get ahead, no matter who he had to step on to do so.

Jacob has settled in Bethel with his wives and their maids, his children and servants, his herds and flocks. He’s a rich man, and even more amazingly, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel has finally given birth to a son. Joseph was the apple of his daddy’s eye. Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other kids—a lousy parenting choice if ever I heard one.

Joseph ends up being a 17–year–old brat and a tattle–tale. He knows he’s Daddy’s favourite. He struts around in the fine new coat Dad gave him—and his brothers hated him. It’s the same word used when Cain hated his brother Abel. The story is that the brothers “could not speak peaceably with him” … which is to say they could not even wish him “shalom”. The word stuck in their throats. When it was time to pass the peace in church, they … just … could … not. They hated him.

To top it all off, Joseph had some dreams.

“Hey guys, listen to this,” he told his brothers. “I had a dream that we were out in the fields gathering up the wheat. Suddenly, my sheaf stood up straight, and your sheaves bowed down to mine.”

“Hey guess what, guys? I had another dream. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were all bowing down to me.”

That one was even too much for dear old Dad, who warned Joseph to keep his mouth shut.

One day, since they were sheep herders, the brothers took the herds out to pasture. Dad decided to send Joseph with some provisions. When he arrived, the brothers saw their chance. “Let’s kill the little so–and–so! We’ll tell Dad a wild animal got him. Come on, guys, let’s get rid of him!”

Reuben, the eldest, wouldn’t go along with it. So instead, they threw Joseph into a pit. When some slave traders happened by, they sold him and made a little extra money for themselves. They ripped the fine coat up, dipped it in blood, and went home to tell Dad the sorry tale. “Dear old Joey. Killed by a wild animal! Poor guy!” (sob sob sniff sniff).

Joseph ends up in Egypt, and he is sold to a court official named Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife ends up lusting after Joseph; he refuses, and ends up in prison.

What will happen to Joseph now? Will he rot in jail? Will he die there? Tune in next week to find out how the story ends …

So far, there’s not much of God in this story. It’s a classic tale of a dysfunctional family. We’ve seen some themes from other stories in Genesis—

  • Hatred between brothers is a theme in Genesis. It starts with Cain hating his brother Abel; it continues with Esau’s anger against Jacob many years ago; now Joseph’s brothers hated him;
  • Another very important Biblical theme is that the story doesn’t revolve around the eldest. In almost every other story from the ancient Near East, eldest sons inherit the estate and get the glory. In the Bible, however, it’s more often the youngest, the least significant, the weakest who becomes prominent—Jacob instead of Esau; David the youngest son chosen to be king; Joseph, the second youngest son.
  • This theme of the youngest, least significant and so on is such a significant theme throughout the whole Bible; it marks Biblical stories as being radically different from other stories of the world in which it grew up;
  • Thirdly, dreams are often ways of showing that God is present. In this story, we will need to pay attention to Joseph’s dreams and ask whether they were true, and whether they will come to pass.

Let me say it again: a central question in this story is about discerning how God is present. In the midst of this dysfunctional family, is God actually at work? So far, it’s looking pretty bleak. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of God so far.

And like the story of our own lives, we may not be able to see God while we’re going through some of the tough stuff in our lives. As we look back, however, as we reflect, as we actively seek to find signs of God’s presence, we will discover that God was there all along.

The promise of Jesus is that those who seek … will find.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

August 13, 2017 (10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19)

Genesis 37: 1–4, 12–28

Romans 10: 5–15

Matthew 14: 22–33