Monday, May 23, 2016

May 22, 2016 The Abundant Life: Faith

Today I begin a three-message series called The Abundant Life.  Taken from John 10:10, where Jesus says I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (NASV).  It will form around what I refer to as the foundational values of the Christian faith – faith, hope, and love.  I wear a bracelet on my wrist that has a Celtic Trinity symbol.  It is important to me for three reasons – because I like to have a physical representation of faith, because of the symbol of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirt – but also because it reminds me of the three values of which I will speak in this series, faith, hope, and love.  Following that series I’ll offer one called Faith for Life, where we’ll look at faith in the different stages of life.

Part of the reason for presenting this series is to counter what is often called the prosperity gospel.  The prosperity gospel offers the idea that the purpose of God is to bless his followers, primarily with wealth and prosperity.  You can find a lot of examples of this type of theology on TV, and probably the best-known representative is Joel Osteen.  I don’t mention him to be critical because in many ways I like Joel, but I think he misunderstands that he’s inserting a Calvinistic Protestant Work Ethic into Jesus’ words about the abundant life.  I do not believe that wealth and prosperity are what Jesus referred to when he said he came that we might have an abundant life.  To me, when Jesus speaks of the abundant life he is talking more about the intangibles of being one of his followers than he is offering a path to riches, and many of his faithful, committed followers living in very difficult conditions would question why they haven’t become prosperous or wealthy.  The values of faith, hope, and love, I believe, are the primary ingredients of an abundant life, and those values will form the topics of the three messages in this series.

Our Scripture text for our first message contains a story with a fascinating declaration.  A father brought his son to the disciples, seeking healing from a spirit that had taken possession of the young man.  The disciples, unable to  provide healing, found themselves surrounded by a large crowd, and in that crowd were some teachers of the law, who instigated an argument.  It was a chaotic scene, and it was into the midst of that chaos that Jesus entered.  Showing a measure of frustration, Jesus declares O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!  Before Jesus heals the young man his father makes his fascinating declaration – I do believe; help my unbelief.

Follow along as I read Matthew 9:14-24 –

14 When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them.
15 Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him.
16 And He asked them, “What are you discussing with them?” 17 And one of the crowd answered Him, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute;
18 and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.”
19 And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!”
20 They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.
21 And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood.
22 It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”
23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.”
24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

1.  Doubt is neither the enemy of faith nor is it incompatible with faith.
After the passing of Mother Teresa, a book was published of some of her correspondance, some of which revealed her sense of an absence of God’s presence in her life.  Christopher Hitchens, the atheist writer who passed away in 2011, seized on this as an excuse to be critical of her and went so far as to declare her a fraud and an atheist because she exhibited doubt.  Hitchens totally misunderstood her statements about doubt, giving unfortunate credence to the mischaracterization that faith must always be absolute and unwavering.  That is not true, and in this passage the father of the boy that Jesus heals proves it.

I do believe; help my unbelief.  What an amazing declaration the father makes.  Does that sound like a contradiction to you?  How can one declare their belief while simutaneously asking for help to overcome their disbelief?  Can doubt and faith coexist in one person?


There are plenty of people who would make the claim that faith must be absolute, that is, there can be no measure of doubt involved, but I think that is erroneous.  Faith and doubt live in all of us, to some measure, and rather than demonstrating any weakness I believe it is actually a sign of a strong and mature faith.  It is not wrong to live with questions about God and our faith.  It is in our questions that we wrestle with some of the great questions of life, and it is the struggle to grapple with those questions that brings an extra measure of strength to our faith.  Asking questions and struggling with our faith actually creates a stronger and more durable faith, I believe.

I have questions and at times have faced doubt.  Sometimes I feel faith very emotionally and with an unwavering confidence.  Sometimes I don’t feel it so I tell myself don’t worry about not feeling it.  Faith is a feeling, sometimes, but faith is more accurately defined by a commitment one makes to the truth that God is the Creator of all and we are called to live for him, regardless of how we feel at any particular moment. 

2.  If you ever doubt, if you ever question your faith, or if you ever waver in your faith, know that you are in good company.
You are not weird or wrong if you have doubt.  You are not losing your faith if you have dout.  You are, in fact, in very good company.  There are great examples in the Scriptures of characters who struggled with doubt.  

Do you remember the story when Jesus invited Peter out of the boat to walking to him on the water?  (Matthew 14:22-3322 Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. 23 After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. 24 But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”  28 Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” 29 And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. 33 And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!”). 

Do you remember the story of the prophet Elijah, feeling abandoned?  (I Kings 19:4-14 – 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.  9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”)

Do you remember the story of Jacob wrestling through the night with God (Genesis 32:22-32 – 22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”  “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”  29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”  But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” 31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

It is a fascinating and mysterious story, and part of the point, I think, is the struggle that Jacob has with his faith and with God.  After Jacob struggles through the night with God, God touches the hip of Jacob, knocking it out of joint and causing him to limp.  Jacob is forever marked, and changed, by his struggle with God.

And then there is Jesus on the cross asking God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46).  It’s rather unnerving to read that verse, isn’t it?

The form of our struggle with God, and with our faith, is different from those characters, but most everyone, at some point in time, has some type of struggle with their faith.  When you face a time of doubt and struggle, do not despair.  Out of that time will come a deeper and more mature faith.

3.  Faith carries us through the chaos of life.
I am so grateful to live in such peaceful, easy, calm times, when people love one another, when the public discourse is so polite, and the world is completely wonderful (please not that this is said with a sense of sarcasm!).

Life is chaotic and often feels like the situation in this morning’s text – angry crowds, questions, fears, worries about our families, and so many other difficult matters.  All that chaos makes us feel as though we’re in a rickety boat, with waves crashing over and water filling the boat, threatening to sink or swamp it.

In the midst of the chaos Jesus speaks to the father, and as he speaks you can sense a great measure of calm, which the father certainly needed.  After all, is there anything more unnerving than seeing your child suffer?  Jesus begins to talk to the father – how long has this been happening to him?  And the father, in his response, says, if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us! 

And then Jesus said to him, somewhat incredulously, I think, “if You can?”  All things are possible to him who believes.  And the crowd, I imagine, begins to become quiet and to be still, and it’s because Jesus has shown up. In the midst of the chaos, Jesus is the one who brings a sense of peace.

I’ll confess that I don’t know what it means that Jesus says all things are possible to him who believes, because we have all felt as though our believe has fallen short.  Who among us has not prayed mightily for someone to be healed, but healing did not come?  Who among us did not enlist others to pray, but healing still did not come?  Who among us felt as though we had the faith and belief, but it was still not enough?  I don’t know why some are healed and others are not.  I don’t know why some prayers seem to receive the desired answer, while others do not.  But I will say this – I’m content just knowing Jesus shows up.  I don’t expect, or even ask for, an answer to every question or a solution to every problem.  I just want to know he is there.  At this point in my life I don’t expect that everything I ask of God will be granted, and I’m not bothered if it is not.  I would like for life to be easy and perfect, but I realize it will never be, and that’s okay.  I’m content to know that Jesus shows up, and that he will walk with me through the chaos of life.

And that’s faith, and it’s enough.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

May 15, 2016 Voices of Faith: In the Political Arena

As we conclude our series of message, Voices of Faith, this morning we come to Voices of Faith:  In the Political Arena.

I am so weary of the present campaign season, as you probably are as well, so let’s talk politics.  And religion.  Who doesn’t want to talk about these things, especially in church!

I know.  This might be a bad idea.  Each topic, in and of itself can be very contentious, and the intermingling of religion and politics is an especially volatile area, but it is also a topic that needs some level of discussion.  I imagine that all of us feel not only uneasy, but sometimes quite ill at ease with some of the political goings on in our country. Regardless of your political persuasion – whether you are a conservative, liberal, or moderate –there is enough going on at our juncture in history to unsettle us all.

So I thought I would jump in with revealing my position on one of the most contentious issues for people in my generation.  It is a question that has not only caused conflict in many offices and workplaces, but has divided families and ended friendships.  I do not hesitate to jump into that contentious question this morning, and here is my opinion – I prefer the Sammy Hagar version of Van Halen over the David Lee Roth version (this is my small attempt to bring a bit of levity into a difficult conversation).  I want to assure you that is as partisan as I will get this morning, and I want you to know that I enter into this topic with a measure of trepidation and that I take great care in what I have to say.  If I were sitting amongst a congregation, if I had worked hard at my job all week, if I got up early, if I had driven to church and taken me seat, the last topic I’d want to hear from a minister is how they believe I should vote or what my political opinions ought to be.

I am not here to tell you how to vote or what your politics should be.  If you read my column in the Sentinel-News you know that I am often very specific about my politics opinions, in that space, but far less so in my preaching, which is very much my intention.  You are free to read or ignore what I write in the paper, but worship is different.  It is not my purpose to pedal my personal political agenda in a worship service, because I don’t want to offer the impression that I am speaking for the congregation on such matters and because I don’t want to create a partisan atmosphere in our worship services.

If you would like to ask me about my political beliefs and opinions I will answer those questions – outside of the worship services – but in the worship service I am not going to tell you what I think you should believe.  You don’t need me telling you what to believe, but I am more than willing to sit down with you and help you, in any way you might desire, as you formulate your own opinions.

The topic of this message covers such a huge swath of matters to consider, and I will only be able to give very cursory coverage, so understand that I have to leave out many points and may leave a lot of questions unanswered.  I know that what I have to say may generate more questions than answers, but I do offer these thoughts in the spirit of helping you to come to your own conclusions regarding the way in which you think about and act upon both your faith and your personal politics.

There are many Scripture texts from which to choose on this topic.  Paul writes about our relationship with government in Romans 13:1-7, and Jesus spoke on a couple of occasions to the question of paying taxes (Matthew 17:24-27 and Matthew 22:15-22).  Throughout the book of Acts we find the apostles were often in conflict with the governing authorities, and often imprisoned because of that conflict.  But I chose the passage in Matthew 4:1-11, that tells of the temptation of Jesus while he was in the wilderness, after his baptism.  The second temptation presented to Jesus is one that touches on politics and earthly power, which Jesus very explicitly rejected.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.
“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:  “‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.
“All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

This morning, I will offer a summation of a few things I believe to be important when we consider the topic of faith in the political arena, and I will begin with a few comments about an oft-misunderstood concept, and that is the idea of –

1.  The separation of church and state.
You are probably aware that this phrase does not appear in any of our founding documents, but was first mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in a letter, dated January 1, 1802, to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Virginia.

The separation of church and state in no way prohibits religion from having a presence in the public square.  In our present age, we sometimes hear people express their belief that religion is to remain solely in the private domain and is constitutionally forbidden from any expression in the public square.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and I am amazed how often I hear that belief expressed, especially by people who should know better.  It makes me wonder if people still read history books, or if they have read the Constitution.  If they were taught in school that faith has no place in the public square or in the political sphere, perhaps they should ask for their money back on their education! 

What our Constitution prohibits is the establishment of state churches, any interference of government in religious affairs or in the workings of congregations, or the use of government to further sectarian religion.  In short, the state is not to dictate on matters of religion, and neither is religion to dictate their faith through the power and reach of government.

When Jesus faced his second temptation, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (verses 8-9).  Setting aside the fact that, for the devil, those kingdoms were not his to offer, Jesus still had to settle the question of whether or not he would be a political messiah, using political means to establish his kingdom, or to stay true to his calling of ushering in the kingdom of God rather than seeking after an earthly throne.  This is what we call a Faustian bargain, that is, a deal with the devil.  It is so tempting to use the powers of government to further a religious and spiritual agenda, but that is a path fraught with a great many dangers, and one that Jesus was not willing to take.  Jesus rebuffed at every turn the temptation to use politics to advance the agenda of God’s kingdom and he led his disciples to see that the kingdom of God is far beyond the narrow boundaries of earthly politics.

But in our culture the lines can sometimes get blurry.  During the course of my ministry, I have been asked many times to pray at public events, some of which are political in nature.  I still pray, when asked, at public events, but I have decided to no longer pray at events sponsored by elected officials, political candidates, or for government gatherings.  I made that decision after arriving at the sense that, on more than one occasion, I had been used for political purposes and I don’t want to be in that position ever again.  I do not want to do anything that gives even the impression that the Christian faith is aligned with a particular political party, political candidate, or political ideology.  There are many people of deep and abiding faith who are members of all political parties and followers of all manner of candidates, and I am grieved when I hear people say you can’t be a… (Republican, Democrat, Independent – you can fill in the blank) and be a Christian.

2.  I believe that all people are created equal by God and endowed with the same rights, the same worth, and the same inherent dignity.
That is a statement of faith.  If we live in a random universe it is impossible to make the claim of anything inherent in who we are as people.  As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we recognize that all people are given the same standing, worth, and value as any other person.

I hope that I am open and accepting of people, and if I am it’s probably a trait that I inherited from my mom.  My friends were always accepted at our house – no matter who they were – as long as they followed a few of my mom’s basic rules, and one was to treat others with respect and kindness.  If you could not follow that rule, she would send you home, and I witnessed several of my friends over the years sent packing by my mom.

We are not all born equal.  Some people are born into life with great advantages of wealth and privilege and some with great disadvantages, in the midst of poverty and with much of life stacked against them, but we are all created equal by God, and one of the reasons why politics are very important is because political attitudes and decisions greatly affect the lives of people.  There are too many examples of ways in which our government has not always treated people equally, in spite of the fact that every person is deserving and worthy of equal treatment.

My writing, my thinking, and my preaching are all based in my belief that God has created all people equal.  In Matthew 5:45 Jesus reminds us that (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If God has created us equal we ought to treat everyone equally, and sometimes, unfortunately, our government does not do so, and when this happens we ought to advocate on behalf of those who are mistreated.  And, not to be a broken record, as I have noted this before, but this is the area in which Jesus was most often criticized, because he had no hesitation in his embrace of people, whoever they were.

3.  My allegiance, and yours, is, ultimately, to God, not man.
I find it very interesting that, while Paul writes that we are to be submissive to those in authority (Romans 13:1-7, Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor) there were many times when he did not follow his own instructions.  Paul was often in conflict with the governing authorities, he was sometimes jailed because of that conflict, and he eventually lost his life because of that conflict.  The apostles also found themselves in conflict with the governing authorities.  They were told on one occasion to stop preaching but, immediately upon release, went right back to their preaching (Acts 4:18-20, 18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”).

I am grateful to be an American, but my allegiance is not limited to political or national boundaries or the interests of our government.  I find my ultimate allegiance in being a follower of Jesus, and sometimes that allows me to affirm what our nation and our government does and sometimes it puts me in conflict with our government and our nation.

But ultimately, I answer to God, not to anyone in an elected office.  And for that reason I don’t fully identify with any political party or ideology, because God doesn’t see Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or any other party.  God doesn’t see American, British, Chinese, French, Mexican, or any other nationality.  God doesn’t see national borders or language barriers.  I believe that God sees only his children, and if that is what God sees, that is what I am called to see as well.  And that is where I will stand, always.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

May 8, 2016 Voices of Faith: In the Family

As we continue our series of messages Voices of Faith, this morning we come to the topic Voices of Faith:  In the Family.  In previous weeks we have discussed Voices of Faith: Under Persecution and Voices of Faith:  In the Marketplace.  Next week we will conclude with Voices of Faith:  In the Political Arena, which I promise will not contain any endorsements!

If you search the Bible for a passage of that tells of a good, normal, healthy family, you will have a long, unsuccessful search.  Though the Bible contains many stories about families we do not find any that are models of healthy functionality.  Abraham and Sarah’s family had their share of issues, as did the family of David and many others.  Maybe it’s intentional that we find broken, dysfunctional families in the pages of Scripture.  I take comfort in the fact that Scripture reminds us that even the greatest heroes of faith exhibited the full range of the human condition, including our dysfunctions.

Our Scripture text for the day comes from the book of Genesis and contains part of the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Genesis 45:1-15 –

1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers.
And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!
And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping.
But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.
Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay.
10 You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have.
11 I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’
12 “You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that it is really I who am speaking to you.
13 Tell my father about all the honor accorded me in Egypt and about everything you have seen. And bring my father down here quickly.”
14 Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping.
15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.

One of the most famous stories in all of Scripture, the tale of Joseph and his brothers tells of a family with some great struggles (the story begins in chapter 37 and is well worth the little bit of time it would take you to read).  The brothers of Joseph, jealous of the favor given to him by their father, at first plan to kill Joseph.  Reconsidering their decision, they decide instead to sell him into slavery.  Joseph’s brother Judah actually goes so far as to say, what will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?  Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood (37:26).  It almost seems as though Judah exhibits a measure of compassion, asking his brothers to reconsider their decision to kill Joseph, but compassion is not a part of Judah’s calculation.  Judah sees an opportunity to make a profit from selling their own brother into slavery.  To kill him would provide no profit, so Joseph’s life is spared only because of the mercenary spirit of his brothers. It’s mind-boggling to realize how much enmity can exist in families, but the tragic actions of Joseph’s brothers underscore the reality that some families suffer terrible dysfunctions.

Under most circumstances, the story of one sold into slavery would end under the weight of the terrible circumstances.  For Joseph, however, his story continues, with many an intriguing twist and turn along the way.  By the end of the story, Joseph has risen to such power and prominence in Egypt that he is second only to the Pharaoh.  Proving to possess great talents and gifts – as well as being very shrewd politically – Joseph finds himself in a position to exact vengeance upon his brothers.  A terrible famine has come to the land, and when the brothers of Joseph come to Egypt to purchase food they find themselves standing before the brother whom they had sold into slavery many years before.  They do not, however, recognize Joseph, but he certainly recognizes them.

From this part of the story, I would ask this question –

What is your inheritance?
We generally think of an inheritance as money, land, or possessions; something tangible that is passed from one generation to another.  This morning I am wearing a pair of cufflinks that belonged to my father.  He wore them when he put on his tux to sing with the choir that was comprised of coworkers from the steel mill where he was employed.  I put them on today because it’s Mother’s Day, and thought my mom would appreciate that I am wearing them.  They are an inheritance from my father, and one day will be part of the inheritance that my sons receive.

But the truth is, many things get passed on in families from one generation to another that are intangible.  Those intangibles are elements such as character, faith, and values.  Those intangibles can also be dysfunction, and that is what we see in the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Who was Joseph’s father, does anyone remember?  Jacob was Joseph’s father, and what did Jacob do to his brother Esau?  He cheated him out of his birthright, which was his inheritance.  Jacob’s name meant one who takes by the heel and supplants; basically, a dishonest person who is willing to cheat to get what they want. As Jacob cheated his own brother, so his sons modeled the behavior of their father.  Is it any wonder that the brothers of Joseph could treat him in such a way?  Their behavior, while in some ways much more cold-hearted than the action of their father, was, nevertheless, an inheritance.  The inheritance Jacob passed on to his sons was deception, bitterness, and division, all of when he sowed with his own brother Esau.

Here is an important truth – when we talk about families and what passes from one generation to another we must remember that talk is important.  We must verbally teach some lessons, but it is very critical that we remember there are lessons that are passed on to our children and grandchildren in which no words are involved, only actions, and we may not realize the power in those lessons that come through observation.  Talk is important, but actions are even more important.  Parents, do you ever wonder what lessons your children learn simply by observation?

Though Joseph had taken on great power, he needed to do something.  He needed to –

Lay down his hurt and his burden.
Joseph carried his hurt and the burden of that hurt for a long time.  Though he had risen to such power and prominence, the actions of his brothers certainly continued to weigh heavily upon him.

It’s worth noting that Joseph could easily have tracked his brothers down.  He had all the resources of Egypt at his disposal.  He knew where they lived.  But interestingly, Joseph never made that move.  The physical distance between Joseph and his brothers was not that great.  The ancient near east was not a tremendously large territory and even though travel was not as easy as it is now, Joseph could have made that trip relatively quickly. 

Perhaps he didn’t because he couldn’t face his brothers.  Perhaps the thought, on many occasions, that he would travel to his family home and confront his brothers.  Obviously, Joseph carried a huge hurt and burden and he needed to lay them down, and allow love and healing into his heart.

The distance between Joseph and his brothers is symbolic, I think, of the distance that often comes between family members.  It might not be a great physical distance, but it seems as though a million miles exists between them.  It might be that they are under the same roof, but a wide chasm exists.

Joseph showed signs that his heart was mending when he said to his brothers, But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt (verses 7 – 8).

Joseph was given an opportunity by God to do what he could not bring himself to do – face his brothers.  Joseph did not travel to his families home, so God brought his family to him.  God literally brought Joseph’s brothers to him.  And at that moment, when Joseph faced his brothers, he decided to lay down his hurt and its burden, which teaches us this lesson –  

Be a person of grace.
Ah, if there is one characteristic that is in short supply in our world, it is grace.  Yes, Joseph toys with his brothers a bit first, but he was in a position where he could have exacted revenge in a terrible manner, but he did not.  It is easy to imagine that the idea of revenge passed through Joseph’s mind.  To have his brothers in a position where they must plead for his mercy would have been sweet indeed, if Joseph were looking for revenge.  But, to his great credit, he was not.  Instead, Joseph felt overwhelming emotion, which he could not contain, and it poured out as he revealed himself to his brothers.

Understandably, the brothers of Joseph were not only shocked, they were quite afraid.  Had the time of reckoning for their crime come to them at last?  In place of wrath and revenge, however, came tears and joy, as Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.  Wouldn’t you like to know what they talked about?  It must have been some conversation!  Hey Joseph, remember that crazy prank we pulled on you?  It was really just a prank; got a little out of hand, which we didn’t intend to happen!

There are few experiences as beautiful as reconciliation.  What an amazing scene when Joseph reunites with is brothers!  There is so much emotion and so much that melts away in that moment.  All the years of anger, worry, bitterness, and wondering pass away.

At some point, the cycle of hurt must stop.  It serves no one’s interest to continue the cycle of hurt.  What does one really gain?  Does revenge really bring any satisfaction?  Does continuing the cycle of hurt really bring about any sense of joy? 

Of course not.

I was not, as I’ve told you before, a very good farmer.  Our family had a small farm and at an early age I discovered I would starve to death pretty quickly as a farmer.  I remember learning to plow a field with our tractor, and my early attempts were not very promising.  The rows were crooked and meandering, until I learned the secret of how to plow a straight line.  My problem was that I would look behind me as I plowed.  Looking backward is not the way to plow a straight line; one must look forward.  Plowing a straight line means to concentrate on a point in the distance, such as a tree or a fence post.  Lining up with a point in front of you will provide a good, straight, first row, and then it is easy to keep them all the rows straight.

Choose grace as a point in front of you upon which to focus.  Don’t look behind, concentrating on the hurt and the burdens.  Look forward at what can be – at what will be – with God’s help.
May we all, then, do as did Joseph and offer grace, always.