When the Story Ended, What Had God Intended?
Good things can happen through people and events we may label as “bad.”
Call to Worship One: Call to mind the deeds of the Lord; remember God’s wonders of old.
All: What god is so great as our God?
One: It is our God who works wonders; who has displayed might among the peoples.
All: With a strong arm God has redeemed the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. – Based on Psalm 77
*Hymn of Praise # 43 “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
Invocation (the Lord’s Prayer) O God of all creation, God of community, how good it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity. Knit us together as your people gathered in this place. As we come together in worship, may the words we say bear witness to your good news for all people. Enliven our worship with an abundance of your Spirit.
Our Offering to God In faith, let us approach our God, with the gifts which lie in our hands and our lives.
Prayer of Dedication Loving God, we are astounded at your greatness and goodness, yet we sometimes worship the things of this world rather than you. You have called on us to live in hope; help us to give with hope. May these gifts make a difference to those who have not yet known your healing and your help. May those who benefit from our giving see beyond the material blessings to know you as the source of all good. Amen.
Scripture Reading Matthew 15:21–28 When a Canaanite woman – an outsider – whose daughter is ill confronts him, Jesus acts with a compassionate heart.
*Hymn of Prayer # 366 My Faith Looks Up to Thee
Pastoral Prayer God, in these moments of worship, help us understand what is going on in our lives. Help us perceive your design and plan behind the events that seem to be chance and coincidence. May we be able to see where you have been at work - and be a bit more sure of what you want to do for us and through us. We are grateful for what you have done in the past, and we anticipate what wonders you will yet perform. Give us grace to be patient and to wait for your kingdom. Strengthen our gratitude for all the ways you have already made our lives better.
Prayer of Confession
Gracious and merciful God, forgive us when we give up on you or give in to the difficulties we are experiencing. Forgive us when we forget that you can use any means to fulfill your purpose and that quite often your will is done in unexpected ways. We have taken for granted your creating power that made all things good, your redeeming power that shows how all things can be made new, and your sustaining power that leads us to believe all things will work out well in the end. Give us courage and confidence to work against all things that oppose your rule. Help us remember that because of you, all good things become possible. May you always have the last word. Amen.
*Hymn of Praise # 340 “I Need Thee Every Hour”
We may not know the name of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel lesson, yet her story is such that we feel we know her. She has a daughter in serious need, and so determined is she that Jesus can and should meet that need that he grants her what she asks. “Woman,” he said, with words that surely humbled his disciples, “great is your faith!”
In Annie Hawks’ hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour,” set to the music of Robert Lowry, we can hear the voice of this Canaanite woman. Her simple, direct plea to Jesus was so filled with faith: “I need thee, O I need thee; every hour I need thee; O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee.”
Scripture Reading Genesis 45:1–15 Joseph sees God’s hand at work in his life as he is reunited with his brothers. He sees his suffering as redemptive; God was at work through the events of this family’s dysfunction.
Message When the Story Ended, What Had God Intended? Have you ever thought about what you might want on your tombstone? What epitaph would best summarize your life? There have been some interesting epitaphs throughout history. I understand Thomas Jefferson designed his own tombstone and wrote the inscription for it. He had served as governor of Virginia, a U.S. Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and President. He had also achieved distinction as an architect, naturalist, and linguist. But he instructed that his epitaph say only, “Author of the Declaration of American Independence and of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia,” and “not a word more.” Which of your accomplishments would best summarize how you want to be remembered? /////
Things do not always deliver as promised! There is no guarantee that life is going to work out as we hope and plan. It will be sad if we end up standing before our Maker and Judge and have to confess that we just never got around to doing what we knew God wanted us to do. How wonderful to be able to echo the words Jesus prayed in the final hours of his life, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (Jn 17:4). The artist Rembrandt said that a picture was finished only when it truly and fully expressed the artist’s intention. In the same way, we are to fully express the intentional design of our Creator. We are to live so that at the end we can say, as Jesus did, “I finished the work that you gave me to do.” Singer John Denver was once asked by an interviewer, “What would you like people to say about you when you are gone?” Denver answered, “I think I would like for them to say ‘He became himself.’” Who is it you are to become? Are you coming to be that person more and more? Few of us probably think of our lives in terms of its purpose or how God gives us work to do – what Frederich Buechner calls the “plot” of our lives. Churches spend time asking, “Are we doing what God is calling us to be and to do?” But how often do we ask ourselves, “Am I completing the work God gave me to do?” We don’t always do a good job of seeing God’s plan, design, purpose, or plot behind the everyday events of our lives or how they fit together. In a similar way, we sometimes fail to see the “big picture” when we read the stories within the Bible. The passage from Genesis we read today brings us to the end of the ancestral story of Genesis, a story that began with a blessing and a promise. Every generation of God’s people from the time of Abraham depended upon that promise. Abraham’s descendents felt God was preparing them for their particular destiny and role in history. Memory made hope possible. They remained confident that they would be brought to a time of well-being and a place of abundance and peace. Even though some would conspire against God’s plans, they believed God would ultimately defeat those evil plans, countering them always with good. God’s purposes are never defeated. Sometimes even the evil plans of sinful people can become tools by which God’s plan is furthered. So when Joseph addressed his brothers in Egypt, he could see beyond the evil intent of his brothers to all the ways the purposes of God were being worked out. He could say, finally, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen 50:20). Though the brothers had plotted to eliminate Joseph, in the midst of their scheme was another plan being fulfilled that they did not see nor understand.
A violent conflict had separated Joseph and his brothers. The story of Joseph begins with his brothers conspiring to kill him, and then throwing him into a pit and selling him into slavery (37:12-28). After this breakup, Joseph is taken down to Egypt, where he becomes a successful manager in the house of an Egyptian officer. Unfortunately, the officer’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, and her unsatisfied lust results in a jail term for Joseph (39:1-23).
But the Bible tells us that “the LORD was with Joseph” (39:21), so he becomes the favorite of the chief jailer, and later rises to the position of second-in-command to Pharaoh himself, gaining control over all the land as governor (41:37-45). It is in this position of power that Joseph encounters his brothers again, and their painful breakup results in a divine reunion.
Canaan has been hit by a severe famine, and so the brothers of Joseph travel to Egypt to buy grain. They meet with the governor, not recognizing that he is Joseph, and they ask for his assistance. He toys with them, and even throws them into prison for a while, but ends up giving them the grain they need.
Then Joseph reveals himself, saying, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” Their jaws hit the floor. “And now do not be distressed,” he continues, “or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:4-5). Joseph sees that God used their ugly breakup for a beautiful purpose — to put Joseph in a position where he could help his family survive a deadly famine. The brothers might have intended evil for Joseph when they sold him into slavery, but God intended it for good. “So it was not you who sent me here, but God,” explains Joseph; God made him ruler over all the land of Egypt so that he could preserve a remnant of his family on earth.
The original breakup may have been painful, but it wasn’t all bad. In fact, it was really quite divine.
It’s a story that reminds us that when we’ve experienced awful separation it’s possible to move to awesome reconciliation. Evil is turned into good, and loss transformed into gain. Events like this can help us gain a fresh understanding after an experience of failure, and a new sense of purpose after a time of pain.
It’s a story of estrangement and reconciliation, and it’s an account that unfortunately reflects some of the pain we all experience from time to time.
Are there some hints in this text that will help us overcome estrangement?
Extend an invitation. Notice that Joseph says to his brothers, “Come closer to me” (45:4). It is so hard to make the first move. But we need to remember that the goal of reconciliation is to restore harmony and trust between those who have been offended. If we want to reunite, it may need to begin with an invitation from us to the offender to “come closer.”
This is not an invitation to overlook, or dismiss what happened. It’s simply a mechanism to close the gap, to begin to see each other as human beings sometimes tortured by emotions and forces beyond our control. ///
Personal space is a cultural issue. Most Americans are uncomfortable when the three-foot bubble is invaded. We don’t like people “in our face.” We often ask people to get “out of our face,” meaning that they should leave us alone.
The Middle Eastern culture has no such qualms about the three-foot bubble. Visit their marketplaces and you’ll see people haggling over price face to face, nose to nose.
“Come closer” is an invitation to begin a process. Instead of saying, “Get out of my face,” we’re saying, “Get in my face.” Get in my space. We can’t begin the journey to reconciliation when we are so far apart, with you sitting on one side of the room, and me on the other side. Come closer. Let’s talk.
Forgive. Joseph says, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here” (45:5). Let go of the offender’s involvement in your life. Let God deal with those who have caused the estrangement.
When Jesus says that we must forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22), he is not suggesting that we keep count. He is implying that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. What makes this such a hard saying is the notion that forgiveness is something we must do 77 times. If I must forgive someone 77 times, it’s a sure indication that the offender doesn’t get it. The offender is obviously not mending his ways. But that’s the point! Forgiveness is not about keeping score! It’s not something we do for the other guy; it’s something we do for ourselves. Forgiveness is not an action; it is an attitude.
When we understand that forgiveness is not about heroic deeds, but about a heroic attitude, what Jesus says makes perfect sense. You can count actions, but you can’t count attitudes. Jesus doesn’t keep a forgiveness score.
It would have been easy for Joseph to keep his brothers at arm’s length, instead of inviting them to get in his face. It would have been easy for him not to forgive. Instead, Joseph says, “Don’t be angry with yourselves.”
Look for God’s fingerprints. “for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 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” (45:5-8).
This is not to say when evil or distress comes into our life, that God is the author of this mess. It is to suggest that in all of our circumstances, if we look, we can see God at work!
Be a part of the solution. “I will provide for you there — since there are five more years of famine to come — so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty” (45:11). Joseph was not about to “forgive,” and then simply write them off, or blow them off. He enters fully into their circumstances, and he takes action to help them “come closer,” to help them find wholeness again.
Leslie Weatherhead’s little book, The Will of God, tells us that while there is an intentional purpose of God for every person’s life, our free will can create circumstances to thwart God’s plans. Our free will can disturb God’s intention for us. There is a will “within the will of God,” what he calls the circumstantial will of God. Joseph did so well “under the circumstances” that the end of his story has provided us with a line that we can quote and mentally note: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). Perhaps Paul committed that verse to memory, too, and that is why he could say later that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). In other words, God works for good in all things. Life’s detours often reveal to us that God is a God of fresh alternatives. God works after the fact of tragedy and trouble to reveal new avenues of growth, hope, and opportunity.
Joseph’s life was a testimony to how God can revise the game plan and defeat the most fervent efforts to thwart those plans. After Joseph was sold into slavery and was taken to Egypt, he made the most of the situation and ascended to a position of power. From foreign prisoner, he became Secretary of Agriculture for the entire kingdom of Egypt. During that time he had two sons. He named one of them Ephraim, which means “fruitful,” because he believed “God has made me fruitful Later, when his brothers came asking for food in order to survive a famine, Joseph said to them, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen 45:4–5). Joseph was aware of God’s hand – leading, guiding, guarding, sending, and making all things work for good. Through all the twists and turns of his life, God was at work to bring something good and fruitful out of misfortune. Joseph paid attention to God and could affirm how God was involved in his life. In the end, the only thing that really mattered to him was what God had intended./////
In the Royal Palace of Teheran, Iran, the grand entrance is resplendent in glittering, sparkling glass. It appears as if the domed ceiling, the sidewalls, and the columns are all covered with diamonds. But they are not diamonds, nor cut crystal, but small pieces of mirrors. The edges of the little mirrors reflect the light, throwing out the colors of the rainbow. When the Royal Palace was planned, the architects sent an order to Paris for mirrors to cover the entrance walls. When the crates arrived and were opened, nothing but crushed pieces spilled out. They had all been smashed in transit. They were about to be junked when one creative man said, “No, maybe it will be more beautiful because they are broken.” Then he took all the little pieces and fitted them together like an abstract mosaic. The result is striking.///// In the same way, God can refit the broken pieces of our hope and dreams and make them into something even more beautiful than we had imagined.
– William M. Schwein
*Hymn of Response # 421 “God Will Take Care of You”
*Sending forth Go in peace. Go to invite the people into the loving presence of the Christ.
Thought for the Day The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.