This sermon is all about God’s grace, although that may not seem obvious from today’s scripture. We often think of grace, after all, as God’s being “nice” to us. In this sermon, by contrast, I challenge us to imagine that sometimes grace brings pain and suffering. As I say in this sermon, God knows that “clobbering us” into a transformed life is more effective than “comforting us” into one.
Sermon Text: Genesis 37:2-13; 23-34
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
On this Father’s Day, let’s recognize a man who, over the past couple of weeks, has been hailed by many across social media and around the world as “father of the year”: a man named Allan Geiger Jr., who lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
A couple of weeks ago, he posted an ad on Craigslist, selling a 1998 Ford Explorer. For cheap. Not unusual. What caught the attention of everyone who read the ad was what Mr. Geiger wrote in the description:
I have my son’s truck up for sale that I bought for him as his first car. He thinks it’s cool to drive around with his friends smokin’ dope and acting all thug, and especially not showing me and my wife the respect that we deserve… This was a vehicle to finish school in, get a decent job and get a head start on life. But he chose to throw it all away because his friends would rather have an influence on him more than me! Now he can put those Jordans to use [and] walk his [butt] off on these hot summer days!
He went on to say he’d take $250 off the price if the buyer is from the westside of Jacksonville, where he and his family live. Why? “So [that my son] sees it every now and then [and will be reminded] of how good he had it!”
Tough love, huh? The good news, according to an article in Esquire magazine, is that this action has actually brought father and son closer together. So maybe Geiger does deserve father of the year!
In today’s scripture, there’s a father who, unfortunately, doesn’t deserve “father of the year” honors. And that father is… Jacob, also called Israel. Which just goes to show—like all of us Christians—you can have a new name and new identity in God’s eyes but still be the same old sinner. Because we see Jacob making the same mistakes that his own father, Isaac, made with him and his brother: he’s playing favorites with his kids. Jacob clearly favors Joseph, one of only two of his twelve sons who was born to his favorite wife, Rachel.
But he favors Joseph. So much so that he gives him a robe, often called a “coat,” of many colors. But this kind of favoritism comes at a terrible cost!
Not that Joseph himself isn’t also to blame! Look at the first thing that we’re told about Joseph: “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers… And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.” Brough a bad report of them. Do you know what that means? That’s right! He’s a tattletale. He’s a snitch!
Show of hands: How many of you grew up in a family in which your parents favored a child other than you? My hand is up. Was that favored child also a tattler?
Because in my family, I had a sister was the favorite child, and she was like Joseph—the worst tattletale. I would have friends over at the house—and, who knows? Maybe a colorful expletive might come out of our mouths. Or worse, maybe we might even use some of these colorful words to describe my sister—and she would run off and tell on us! Or, even worse, threaten to tell. Blackmail us with the threat of telling. And then we’d have to negotiate with her: “What do you want in exchange for not telling Mom?” Never negotiate with terrorists! That’s what it felt like! Because it just encouraged her to do it more and more!
So I sympathize, to some extent, with Joseph’s brothers. Not just about tattling on them… But look at Joseph’s willingness to share his dreams with his brothers! What was that about? Was Joseph that dumb? Was he that naive? Of course he wasn’t! He knew how sharing these dreams with them would make them feel. He enjoyed it.
So why did he do it? Out of sinful pride. He loved the power that came from being Jacob’s favorite son; he loved flaunting his robe of many colors; he loved the idea that God was telling him in dreams that he would be the head of the family. His problem was pride. Ego—a deadly sin.
But of course, none of Jacob’s sins and none of Joseph’s sins begin to let Joseph’s brothers off the hook for their sins! The most chilling detail in this story is in verse 25: After throwing their brother into the pit, intending to kill him or let him die there, scripture says, “They sat down to eat”—as if murdering their brother were business as usual. Scary!
They were so jealous and so covetous of Joseph that they had to get rid of him.
There’s so much sin here! Jacob’s sin, Joseph’s sin, Joseph’s brothers’ sin. What’s God going to do about these sinners with whom he is in a covenant relationship? For that matter, what’s God going to do about us sinners—who are Christians—who are also in a covenant relationship with God?
If you were here last week, you’ll recall that I preached on Jacob’s wrestling match with God. I won’t recap the whole story, but remember that Jacob has been called by God to pack up his family and return home to the Promised Land. And what does Jacob do? To his credit, he answers the call! He obeys God. While he hasn’t exactly been a hero of faith up to that point, he does something that most of us will never do: He risks his life in order to be faithful to God. Because remember… He still believes that his brother, Esau, intends to kill him when he goes home—unless God intervenes to save his life, or unless Jacob successfully appeases his brother’s wrath by lavishing him with expensive gifts.
So Jacob risks his life to be faithful to God and then he prays to God. Jacob is clearly repenting; he’s clearly changing; he’s clearly becoming a better person, the person God wants him to be!
And how does God respond to this repentance? Pastor Tim Keller puts it like this:
In all the teaching you’ve ever gotten… about how God operates, how do you expect God to respond to a man who has… put his life on the line to obey [God’s] Word and follow his will—and is seeking him in prayer, and who’s filled with fear and at the end of his rope?… What does God do to a man like that?
He clobbers him. He knocks him down, literally! He assaults him. He puts a hammer lock on him. And he maims him for the rest of his life!
My point is, we don’t expect God to treat his children this way, do we? We don’t expect God to treat Joseph this way—and the rest of his family. This surprises us.
So the question is: Why would God sometimes want us to experience pain? Why would God sometimes want us to suffer? Why would God make us go through trials and adversity? Why would God make us face tough and challenging circumstances?
Because God knows that it’s often more effective to clobber us into a transformed life than it is to comfort us into a transformed life. If God could “comfort” us into changing our lives, I’m sure he would. But God knows that usually doesn’t work.
Imagine that today’s scripture were an episode of Touched by an Angel. Imagine, before Joseph’s brothers were able to hatch their evil plan, throw Joseph into a pit, and sell him into slavery in Egypt, imagine that Roma Downey or one of her angel friends appeared out of nowhere—backlit halo appearing behind their heads as they spoke—and said to Joseph’s brothers, “Now, boys… you know this murderous jealousy is wrong. And Joseph, your sinful pride has created this rift between you and your brothers. And Jacob, you need to stop playing favorites with your beloved children. Each one is equally precious in God’s sight.” And then Joseph, his eleven brothers, and his father would all hug it out and live happily ever after.
But the Bible is the real world, not a TV show. God knows that even if an angel appeared and said these things, it wouldn’t work; these people wouldn’t change. God knows we often learn best through painful, bitter experience—not by being told something or being shown something—but experiencing something ourselves.
Right? Isn’t that your experience?
My point is, if clobbering us is what it takes to transform us into the people that God wants us to be, God will do it! Because he loves us that much! Because he’s that gracious to us! Even when God “injures” us, he does so out of grace.
Yes… I said grace! Often, when we experience pain, we do so because of God’s grace.
I know this goes against much of what you’ve learned in church, not least of which United Methodist church, over the years. I apologize if you haven’t been told the truth. Our problem is we often think of grace as God being “nice” to us. But listen to the way pastor and author Craig Barnes describes grace:
While most days [grace] is God’s gentle refreshment to our souls, sometimes the river comes as a terrifying reminder that our lives are out of control. On stormy days, we may wonder if it was such a good idea to live so close to the stream. We may even wish that God would just leave us alone. But if the storm sweeps away everything that is not spiritually rooted, then even that is grace. The point of God’s grace is not to be nice to us but to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It carries us home to God, sometimes on a gentle stream, sometimes on a raging torrent, but always back to God.
If the storm sweeps away everything that is not spiritually rooted, then even that is grace. I love that! All of us have things in our lives that are not spiritually rooted.
Now you may be hearing me say this, and you’re thinking, “Hold on, Brent! You’re talking about God clobbering us sometimes—about how God’s hand is at work in all the trouble, in all the pain, in all the suffering to which the events in today’s scripture give rise. But God isn’t even mentioned in this chapter! In fact, God is hardly mentioned at all in all of these chapters dealing with Joseph. God is nowhere to be found.”
I agree that it may seem that way. But consider this: after years of more suffering and trials and setbacks and remarkable coincidences, Joseph eventually wins the trust of the Pharaoh himself, who makes Joseph his prime minister. And through Joseph’s wise leadership, Joseph saves Egypt—and much of the rest of the known world—from the devastating effects of a famine. And of course, in the process, Joseph also saves his father Jacob and his brothers, and the rest of his family.
After all this, what does Joseph say about where God is in Joseph’s story? Genesis 45:5 and following: After he reunites with his deeply penitent brothers 22 years after they sold him into slavery, Joseph says, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life… And God 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.”
It was not you who sent me here, but God.
Oh brothers and sisters… Can we learn, can we learn, can we learn that the way God deals with Joseph, and his brothers, and his father in today’s scripture is the way God deals with all of us all the time! When we suffer, when we watch someone we love suffer, can we find the faith to believe that there’s always a why—or more like a thousand whys, or a million whys? We may not know what a single one those whys is—W-H-Y-S—at least when we’re in the middle of a terrible trial—but we can be confident that there’s Someone who does! And he’s looking out for us!
I was at a funeral on Friday for a pastor friend’s wife who died at 47 from cancer. Her name was Heather. And she was so young! But the pastor who presided at the funeral explained that Heather believed that she knew at least one of her whys—why God allowed her to have this terminal illness. It was in order that she could bear witness to Christ’s love in the midst of her suffering and death. That’s what she said herself. And seeing how she did bear witness to Christ’s love so beautifully, it’s hard to disagree with her.
Listen: If we spend the rest of our lives learning to die with her kind of courage, with her kind of confidence, with her kind of faith, we will have spent our lives well!
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche,who I will not often quote in a sermon, got it exactly right when he said, “If you have a why to live for, you can endure almost any how.”
We Christians always have a why. A capital-W why, and his his name is Jesus Christ.
Speaking of whom, where do we see Jesus in today’s scripture? All over… As Joseph’s brothers “conspired to kill [Joseph],” so Jesus’ brothers, the chief priests and the elders, “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” As Joseph’s brothers sold him for twenty pieces of silver, so Jesus’ disciple Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. As Joseph’s brothers handed him over to the Gentiles, so Jesus’ brothers handed him over to the Gentiles. As Joseph humbled himself and became a slave, so Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” As Joseph, through his great suffering, ascended to the highest office and ruled over his people, so Jesus, through his great suffering, his death, and his resurrection ascended to the right hand of the Father and rules over us. And as God transformed the evil deeds of Joseph’s brothers to save his people—and much of the known world—so God transformed the evil deeds of Jesus’ brothers to save his people—which includes you and me and the rest of the world—when we, like Joseph’s brothers, repent of our sins and receive the gifts that our Savior offers.
Of course, the salvation that Jesus offers, unlike the salvation that Joseph offered, isn’t merely temporary. Because of what God accomplished through Joseph, the Egyptians and the Israelites filled their stomachs for the seven years of famine in the land, and survived. But each one of them died at some later point—without the hope for eternal life and resurrection. Unlike the salvation that Jesus offers us. Which is for eternity.
Not only that… Just as Joseph’s father clothed his son Joseph with a garment that said, “You belong to me; you are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased; I love you in a special way; nothing will separate you from my great love,” so our heavenly Father clothes us in Christ, in his righteousness, and in his love, and says, “You belong to me. You are my beloved child. Nothing will separate you from my great love.”
I found out only after last Sunday’s services, as did some of you, what happened in Orlando in the early morning hours of last Sunday. It’s shocking that 49 people—young people, mostly in their 20s—were cut down in the prime of their lives. So much life ahead of them. So much left to live for!
In times like this, it helps to remind ourselves, as the apostle Paul says, as the Old Testament says, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, and I will repay.” When Christ comes in final victory, all evil will be judged and avenged; the scales of justice will be balanced; swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And he will wipe away every tear and death will be no more. We look forward to that day.
In the meantime, friends, please hear this warning: Even if—even if—these young men had lived to be 70, 80, 90, 100… it would have been less than a blip in light of eternity. God has appointed all of us to die at some point—sooner or later. We don’t know when. We know for sure we only have this time, right now, to make sure that we’ll be ready for eternity when that time comes.
Are you ready?
1. From Tim Keller’s sermon “The Fight of Your Life,” which he preached at Redeemer Presbyterian on November 18, 2001.
2. This illustration also comes from Keller, from his sermon “The Hiddenness of God,” preached June 1, 2003. gospelinlife.com
3. M. Craig Barnes, An Extravagant Mercy: Reflections on Ordinary Things (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 2003), 10.
4. Genesis 45:5, 7-8 ESV
5. Much of what follows comes directly from Sidney Griedanus, Preaching Christ from Genesis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 344.
6. Matthew 26:4
7. Matthew 26:15
8. Matthew 27:1-2
9. Romans 13:14