December 10th, 2017

A Dream of Peace

Rather than God using me to change this, he wants to use this to change me.

Ephesians 2:14-18; Genesis 45:1-15


An impossible dream

Today’s Advent theme is peace. How that’s whole peace thing working out for you? The Bible tells us to “pray for peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). It’s not been a good week for peace in Jerusalem, on the heels of President Trump’s Wednesday announcement to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

For you, maybe it’s not about peace in a foreign nation or region. One person wrote an email to me this week saying, in part, “Thanksgiving and Christmas have become so very painful for me. I am literally completely estranged from my family. This has happened despite multiple pleas for reconciliation.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some version of that story is common to at least half of you in the room.

The night Jesus was born, a great company of angels sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth” (Luke 2:14).

At times their song seems like a dream of peace, an impossible dream, a wish. When there is no evidence of peace, is it spiritually healthy or unhealthy to speak about peace as if it already exists? That is the question before us today.

Fitting together

Peace is one of the most consistent biblical themes. It occurs in most Old Testament books and all but one of the books of the New Testament. The Hebrew word shalom is well-known. It’s a common Jewish farewell, kind of like “goodbye” in English. You may not know that “goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with ye” (God bwye). We normally don’t use “goodbye” as a blessing, but that’s its etymology. In the same way, shalom means much more than “see ya later.” It’s a blessing for wholeness, completeness, wellness. Shalom can be used of a finished wall or building.

The Greek word for peace, eirene, is similar. The root word means something like “fit” or “join.” Over Thanksgiving our family put together a puzzle. Only when the last piece was plugged in place did we have eirene, or “peace” – everything connected.

In Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus “himself is our peace.” He’s why peace is a key theme in the season of Advent, leading up to Christmas. In Paul’s day, the key human divide among believers was Jew versus Gentile. It was much deeper and more difficult to tackle than the split between Democrats and Republicans, Duke and Carolina, rebels and Yankees, black and white, or any other division we experience.

Yet Paul says this Jesus “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier.” It’s not that at the moment Paul wrote those words every Jew who believed in Jesus and every Gentile who came to faith were in complete harmony. He’s rather declaring the reality Jesus has made possible. “Through the cross… he put to death their hostility,” he says in verse 16. The enmity is dead. It has no power.

You can give power to something that is impotent. For example, you can be just as terrified of a dead snake as a live snake, even though it has no power to hurt you. To change the metaphor, the hostility between Jew and Gentile has been declawed.

Jesus “came and preached peace to you were far away (Gentiles) and peace to those who were near (Jews). For through him we both have access to the Father through the Spirit” (17-18). So yes, it’s healthy spiritually to declare peace whether or not you experience or feel it in the moment. Professing truth changes you.

Peace, then, is being able to “come near” to God even though you deserve to be alienated from him, and being able to “come near” to former enemies.

This is New Testament theology. Death was necessary to bring life. Alienation and pain were critical to eternal life. One innocent man had to die to give life to the world. No one was able to do that except God himself, in the flesh. So he came into our world to bring this peace. That’s the Gospel we preach and celebrate at Christmas.

Hints of that Gospel are splattered across the Old Testament. There are places where we have only subtle connections between what’s happening among the Jewish people and their kings and places. There are other points of connection to the Gospel so strong that it’s almost impossible to miss them. Genesis 45 is one of them.

Close again

We’ve been studying Genesis since August, and the story of Joseph for three weeks now. There is no more riveting, powerful, emotional, or vital part of Joseph’s story than what we read in Genesis 45.

When we left the story last week in chapter 42, Joseph’s brothers had returned from Egypt to their father in Canaan. Loaded with grain to feed their starving families, nine brothers had to report to Jacob that their journey had exacted a great cost. The “lord of Egypt,” a powerful stranger in charge of the granaries, had detained one of them (Simeon) in custody. He had accused Jacob’s sons of spying on Egypt’s vulnerabilities during their economic crisis. Attempting to convince him of their integrity, the ten had spilled out their story. There were originally twelve brothers, but one was no more and the youngest had remained at home with their aging father. The Egyptian vizier had said when they ran out of grain they would have to bring their youngest brother with them to validate their story. Even more puzzling and terrifying, the money they had taken to Egypt to pay for their grain had been found in their sacks. They would surely be accused of theft on their return.

We know that this “lord of Egypt” is their long-lost half-brother, Joseph. We know they had decided to kill him because of their envy at his favored status with Jacob. We know that they had sold Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites heading to Egypt. We know he’s had his ups and downs in Egypt, but over the course of 22 years has risen to a place of power, married well, and fathered two sons.

We know this, but Jacob’s father knows none of it and Jacob’s brothers only know the part where they would have killed him if Judah had not intervened to sell him. That was the last time Joseph had seen Judah, but in our Bibles, we have a puzzling story about Judah that is set between the story of Joseph being sold by his brothers and his downs and ups in Egypt. An entire chapter (38) is given to bizarre tales about Judah and his family that seem irrelevant. All they do is make Judah look bad – he is dishonest, immoral, and even abusive. That’s actually the point. Remember that Moses has set you up to think nothing good about Judah.

Now, 22 years after Joseph’s sale, Jacob, aka Israel, still insists Benjamin will never go to Egypt. Jacob will die first. He values this only remaining son of his favorite but late wife Rachel by declaring, “His brother is dead and he’s the only one left.”

Chapters 43 and 44 record what happens next. As if he didn’t remember or wanted to forget, Jacob instructs the nine older sons with him (remember, Simeon was detained in Egypt) to return for more grain. This time it’s Judah (yes, that scoundrel) who takes the lead. He reminds his father that Benjamin must accompany them or they will come back empty-handed if at all. Judah guarantees Benjamin’s safety. “You can hold me personally responsible for him.”

Jacob reluctantly consents, giving his sons unique gifts from Canaan – honey, balm, spices, nuts – agricultural commodities probably unaffected by drought but also prized in Egypt. He permits Benjamin to go with a prayer that “God Almighty” will grant his sons mercy. He speaks with a sigh of resignation:  “If I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” He’s aware if they don’t take Benjamin, not only Benjamin but the entire clan will die.

We fast forward past the month-long journey and find that on their arrival in Egypt the ten sons of Jacob (including Benjamin but not Simeon) are ushered to Joseph’s personal residence. That in itself is terrifying. Now they’re even more sure they will be accused of stealing the money from their first trip. Will they all become slaves?

Joseph’s steward reassures them, “It’s all right. Your God gave you your money back.” He gives water to wash their feet and food for their pack animals. They head to Joseph’s house to do lunch. He greets them, but remember, they still have no clue who he is. He asks about their father, Jacob, then sees his only full brother, Benjamin. He has wondered if they might have killed or sold him too out of jealousy. Seeing him alive and healthy creates a flood of emotion in Joseph’s heart. He excuses himself to weep.

Controlling himself, he returns to his brothers and eats with them. They are startled that he has them seated in birth order. How would he know? Benjamin is also served five times as much food as the others. Joseph then sends them on their way with their sacks of grain. Once again, he has their money placed in their sacks along with the food, but this time he adds a twist. He has his steward place his silver cup in Benjamin’s grain sack. Soon after the Canaanites turn for home, they are brought back and accused of stealing. Without thinking through the possibilities, they respond, “Whoever stole from you should be put to death, and the rest of us will be your slaves!”

When it turns out that Joseph’s cup is in Benjamin’s sack, he says the rest of them may go home, but the “thief” must stay in Egypt. Joseph is testing them to see if his brothers will repeat with Rachel’s other son what they did with him. If their hearts are still so full of envy, they will be happy to see another of their father’s “favorites” left in Egypt. If they care more for their status and power, they will let Benjamin go.

Then follows the longest speech in the book of Genesis. Judah, the brother who had initiated the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites, who had been the primary subject of a sordid tale of sex and deception, but had guaranteed Benjamin’s safety to Jacob, now pleads with Joseph for Benjamin to be released. His eloquent, passionate speech retells the brothers’ trips to Egypt and declares that their father’s life is tied to Benjamin’s fate. He calls him “the boy,” using a Hebrew word that means “child” or “adolescent” or even “servant.” He’s probably in his mid- to late-20s, but they still think of him like we used to call my younger brother “the kid” even into adulthood. “Please let me stay here as your slave in place of the boy,” Judah pleads. “How can I go back to my father if the kid is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.”

That’s what Joseph wanted to hear. This was a different Judah than he had known before. He not only hears in Judah’s words but sees in his brothers’ eyes that their animosity and bitterness has waned. They see their father differently. They see Jacob’s favoritism differently. They see themselves differently.

This brings us to chapter 45, that moving, powerful, rich climax of the story. Joseph’s brothers have changed in the last twenty-two years. Has Joseph? How will he respond to Judah’s plea? He has every one of those men completely in his power. He can do with them whatever he wants. All of Egypt’s military and civilian resources are at his command. He can kill them, imprison them, enslave them. Jacob will never know what happened to his sons if they don’t return home.

What has happened to Joseph’s faith? What does he remember of the promises of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What does he think of his dreams a quarter century ago where not once but twice his family bowed down to him? Now that it’s happened, how will he address their ridicule of him when he told them about the dreams? How will he right the wrong they committed against him? How will he repay the years they forced him to spend as a slave and then as a prisoner?

Joseph ejects every Egyptian out of the room, speaking for the last time in the story in Egyptian:  “Everyone out!” He not only weeps but wails – loud, heaving sobs. Rulers in general, but especially Egyptian rulers, prided themselves on their dignity and composure. They stood erect. They shaved their heads and faces. Their eyeliner and eyeshadow – yes, even for men and especially for rulers – was carefully applied. Joseph’s tears stream down his face as his bawling pervades his home.

He turns to his brothers and says, “I am Joseph. Is it really true? Is my father still alive? Tell me! Is he OK?”

His brothers are speechless, terrified. Only now do they realize what’s been happening. Joseph knew all along. He knew them on their first visit. He remembered what they did to him, what they said to him. Now they’re in his country, in his power.

Joseph continues, “I am Joseph your brother, the one you sold into Egypt!”

“Come close to me,” he says. “I now see the guilt you have borne for twenty years for what you did to me. Don’t be sorry! Don’t be angry! God sent me here, not you. He did it to preserve life. He did it to save the remnant of our family. It’s been two years since anyone could grow grain, but it will be five more. You would have all died, but God sent me here as a Savior for you. I had to “die” so you could live!”

“I’m your brother! Hurry home to my father. Tell him what you saw. Tell him who I am. Tell him to come here, to bring the whole family. You’ll all come back. You’ll live here in Egypt – you, your children, your grandchildren. You’ll have the best land here in the Nile delta, where there is still water. Do you see me? It’s really me. Look at how much I favor Benjamin. Come on! Group hug, guys!” He kissed them all, and they all wept and wept and talked and talked. What a day! What a story!

Have I not told you Joseph’s story is not about Joseph? It’s about Jacob, to whom God made the promises. Without Joseph, Jacob’s family doesn’t survive, so there’s no Israel. Joseph sees his place in the story, but it’s been twenty years coming. So much time, so much pain, in those intervening years, but none of it without purpose. Death gave way to life.

Who’s in charge

Do you see what I see in this story? Do you see peace? Maybe what you think I’m going to say is that this story is a model for reconciliation, that I have three principles for peace: “Take initiative. Wait patiently. Forgive.” Or something like that.

After all, this is a “happy ending” kind of story, isn’t it? Talk about your Hallmark moment! Genesis 45 doesn’t include a romantic kiss, but the kisses and hugs with Joseph and his brothers is every bit as powerful. So this is really a story about what you need to do to make peace, right? Joseph shows the way.

To be sure, there are lessons here about overcoming bitterness and opening the door to reconciliation. But if you read it that way or I preach it that way, we miss what our story teller is wanting to make more prominent than the tree in your living room.

The thread throughout the Jacob narrative asks, “Who’s in charge?” From his childhood, Jacob’s mother Rebekah took charge to get her favorite son the status of the firstborn. Jacob deceived and manipulated his father and father-in-law to take charge. He put Joseph in charge of his older brothers in the pasture. They got rid of him so they could be in charge again. Joseph climbed from non-status to being in charge in Potiphar’s house, in prison, and in all of Egypt.

But at this moment in the story, he finally understands and articulates the truth. There’s only One who’s in charge. Peace comes to Joseph and to his brothers, and it will later come to Jacob, because just as Joseph’s story is not Joseph’s story but Jacob’s, so Jacob’s story is not Jacob’s story but God’s. God’s in charge.

What the Apostle Paul calls in Philippians 4 the “peace that passes all understanding” comes not in creating a checklist of what I need to do or not do to bring peace. It comes in releasing my ability to change things or people. We need sermons on being a peacemaker, but they’re for a different Sunday and a different story.

This sermon’s about seeing that even the un-peace in my life, the parts of my story that I can’t fix, are being used by God for his purpose. All that pain, all that waiting with no visible results, all the times I tried and failed to fix it, God has been using and will continue to use that to do his work. I may think he wants to use me to fix this – whatever un-peace I’m facing. In reality, he wants to use this to change me.

That’s what happened with Joseph and his brothers. The years of adversity and enmity changed them – all of them. That’s my dream of peace for you and for me this Advent season – that we would trust God with making peace out the mess in his time and way, and in the meantime we would find peace in the One who is our peace – Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God and one another. Amen.

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