December 4th, 2017

Be sure your sin will find you out – that’s a word of hope.

Genesis 42; Titus 2:11-14


Your sin will find you out

This morning’s sermon is about hope, but it won’t seem like it at first.

I want to start with the New York Times article in which one reporter referred to “the sexual harassment firestorm engulfing this country.” The name that emerged this week was Matt Lauer of NBC News. I’m certainly aware that some of the accused insist that the accusers are lying for political or personal reasons, but women are no longer staying silent about the abuse, even if it happened long ago. 

Every new revelation makes me glad that I decided at the beginning of my ministry to do my best to place boundaries not only around my behavior but my reputation. With Linda’s support I determined that I would do my best not to meet alone with a female at the church or in other settings that could be misconstrued by me, the woman, or anyone else who observed.

The online New York Times article also includes a video collage of statements made by some of the highest profile men on this subject. What I listened for and didn’t hear in any of them, at least to my satisfaction, is a statement something along this line:  “It is always wrong for a man in a position of power to treat a woman like an object created for his pleasure. Whether or not any of these accusations about me is true, I want to be completely clear: this is not a gray area for anyone of any age in any situation. Sexual harassment by words, innuendo, or acts is morally repugnant. There’s no excuse or defense for it by anyone.”

There’s something else though, more related to today’s Scripture. Preachers, myself included, are inclined to complain about Bible verses quoted out of context. One of the verses that is powerful and true, in context or out of context, is Numbers 32:23, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” 

Most of these high profile men committed their misdeeds in private many years ago. I would imagine that they have lived their inner lives in abject terror that they would be exposed. Most of them lived a public façade of success and happiness. Some were probably faithful church-goers. For many people, maybe some in this room, going to church is just part of the cover up for hidden sin. 

People in that situation agonize over the possibility of their sin finding them out. My pastoral perspective is that it’s the best thing that can happen to someone.

This brings us back to our continuing study in Genesis. Joseph’s brothers are in the same situation as Matt Lauer and so many others. They have secrets that have been buried for more than two decades, abuse they thought was successfully covered by their deceit. Be sure your sin will find you out.

Everything is against me

We’re continuing the story of the patriarch Jacob, arguably the most pivotal figure in the Old Testament. Yes, I think he’s more important to the story than Abraham or Moses or David. Every one of his descendants is part of the covenant God makes with Israel, and in that he is unique.

Jacob was a twin, the younger brother chosen by God for his unique role in the biblical drama. Early in his life he was also a liar, manipulating his brother and father to the point that at age 40 he had to run away from his family, alone. During his 20-year exile he married twice and fathered 12 sons and a daughter. His favorite wife, Rachel, died giving birth to a boy named Benjamin. Jacob had personal and powerful encounters with God on his way from and back to Canaan – the rather well-known stories of the stairway to heaven and wrestling with God.

When Jacob was in his early 60s, he appointed his favorite son, Joseph, to oversee his half-brothers in the family business of shepherding. This created deep resentment among the other brothers, because Joseph was the eleventh of twelve boys in the birth order, and only 17 years old. On one occasion when Joseph traveled alone fifty miles to check on his brothers at their father’s command, his half-brothers decided to do away with him. They treated him as a spy. Some wanted to kill him outright, but the oldest brother, Reuben, convinced the others to throw Joseph into a dry cistern where he would starve to death. When Reuben wasn’t around, they then sold Joseph to a traveling caravan headed toward Egypt. When we last encountered Jacob, he was inconsolable in his grief because he thought his favorite son was dead.

We meet Jacob again as we come to chapter 42. He’s endured 22 years of emotional torment. He doesn’t know that during those years Joseph has risen to the position of vizier (prime minister) in Egypt. We now know that story about Joseph was a digression from the main character – his father Jacob.

Jacob doesn’t know that his other sons are bearing a burden of their own. They thought Jacob would just move on from his grief. He still mourns Joseph every day, and keeps Joseph’s only full brother, now 20-something, close by as if he were a toddler. He is determined that nothing will happen to Benjamin.

Jacob has another problem: famine. As patriarch of a family that has grown to about 75 people he feels ultimately responsible for providing for the whole clan. One bad crop year is threatening enough, but a second year of drought means no grain for people or livestock to eat. Humans and animals are beginning to starve, literally. Jacob hears that Egypt has grain to spare, grain to sell.

He says to his ten oldest sons, “Why are you just looking at each other? Do something. Go to Egypt and buy grain or we will all starve. Don’t do nothing while you hope rain will fall and crops will grow,” Jacob says. Rich Carney, a new member of Corinth who retired from an Army career in 2006, and again from a civilian career earlier this year, said a common military saying is, “Hope is not a course of action.”

Ten brothers set out on the 500-mile trip. Benjamin, of course, doesn’t go because Jacob won’t let him out of his sight. The others are in their 50s and 60s. When the country bumpkins arrive in the capital city, inquiring about grain, they are ushered directly into the vizier’s hall. Joseph immediately knows who they are, but they don’t know him. They last saw Joseph when he was 17. He’s now 40, and he speaks like an Egyptian and acts like a ruler. They bow low as he had dreamed 22 years ago.

Without revealing his identity, Joseph demands, “Where have you come from?”

“From Canaan,” they answer nervously. “We need to buy grain.”

He’s gruff and harsh. “You are spies, aren’t you? We’re vulnerable in this famine and you came to take advantage of us.”

“No, my lord,” the terrified men answer. “We are your servants. We are all sons of one man who has sent us to buy food. We are honest men.” One wonders what Joseph thought of that statement.

“No,” Joseph says, repeating his charge. “You’re looking for our weak spots.”

Trying to establish credibility, they tell more of their story. “There were twelve of us. Our baby brother is with our father, and one of us is no more.”

“You’re lying,” Joseph thunders. “Here’s how you can prove you are telling the truth. One of you can go back to Canaan and retrieve your ‘baby brother.’ If the two of them return, I’ll believe your story. Otherwise, you’re spies.”

It’s not just that Joseph wants to see his baby brother, who was probably just a baby or toddler the last time he saw him. He wants to know if they killed or mistreated Benjamin the way they did Joseph. He also wants them to know what it was like to be him. He was doing what their father commanded when he went to “spy” on them in Shechem and Dothan. They falsely accused and hated him. So he put them in a pit for three days, making them wonder what would happen to them. I suspect he ordered that they not be given food or water. 

It was a vindictive, revengeful response from Joseph. This was an unexpected encounter for him, 22 years later. He didn’t respond well. He used his power to fill them with same kind of dread and uncertainty he had faced.

Three days later, Joseph has had time to calm down, to think, maybe to pray. This time his words and tone are a little softer, but he still doesn’t reveal his identity. Still using his interpreter, he offers them a Plan B. He says his reason is, “I fear God.” The Egyptian vizier bringing God into the conversation must have shocked them a bit, but bringing the God-factor into any situation alters our perspective, doesn’t it? He tells them that only one of them must remain in Egypt. The other nine may return to Canaan with their grain, but if and when they come back, they had better bring the youngest.

The brothers speak to each other in Hebrew, not knowing Joseph can understand them. “Surely we’re being punished for what we did to Joseph. He pleaded for his life and we didn’t listen.” Reuben, the oldest, scolds the others. “I told you so.”

Joseph slips out of the room and breaks down, sobbing. He composes himself and returns, then has Simeon bound and taken away. He sends them all on their way with a little surprise they discover on the way home. They had paid for their grain, but their money is still in their sack. They realize that when they return to Egypt to buy more, they will be charged with stealing the grain and not paying for it.

It’s the same reaction their father has when they return home. They tell their story about how “the lord of Egypt” was so ruthless and severe. They tell him they cannot return to Egypt for more food unless Benjamin accompanies them.

Jacob bitterly accuses them. “You have taken my children – first Joseph, now Simeon, and Benjamin is next!” He despairingly, “Everything is against me!”

Reuben, the most responsible one as oldest brother, tries to console Jacob. “If I take Benjamin there and he doesn’t return, you can kill my two sons so I’ll know what it feels like.” I hope his sons weren’t around to hear that.

“No!” Jacob insists. “Benjamin is never going there. He is the only son I have left.” (How did the nine sons in front of him feel about that?) “If anything happens to Benjamin I will die of grief.”

The story is to be continued. But be sure your sin will find you out.

Common hope and blessed hope

Since this is the first Sunday of Advent, we chose to read a New Testament text on the subject of hope. Titus 2 is written by a descendant of Jacob, almost 2000 years later, after Jesus has come to earth, died, risen again, and ascended with the promise that he will come back to earth.

The Apostle Paul says we as believers “wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” That is our ultimate hope, isn’t it, that when Jesus returns he will execute justice in the world and fulfill our longings? Life may be difficult, but we trust. The world may be scary, but we yearn. Sin needs to be judged, but we wait. Hope is a blend of trusting, yearning, and waiting.

I see in Genesis 42 three varieties of common hope.

Jacob’s hope is forgetful hope. Wouldn’t you love to throw your arms around the old guy and remind him there is a bigger picture? Why is he so quick to forget the God who has appeared to him personally multiple times? I said in a sermon a few weeks ago that having the Bible is better than having personal encounters with God. Jacob is evidence. Even the most dramatic vision or experience doesn’t necessarily endure in its impact. Jacob has forgotten the personally delivered promises of God. Forgetful hope asks, “What has God done for me lately?”

The older brothers have fearful hope. This kind of hope is the hope of not being exposed. It is the hope that lives in constant dread that the real story will emerge. It is the hope that the sin will remain buried and the cover-up will remain secure. As a pastor I ache for those who live their lives with fearful hope. If only they knew how much freedom there is when your sin finds you out. It looks like life is over, but it’s an opportunity to start over. It can be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Joseph has false hope. Although he acknowledges God in this story, he’s slow to do so – and in my view still shallow. His hope at this point in the story is in situations and people, not in God. His first reaction to his brothers is that revenge will soothe his soul. He believes that if they experience what they did to him, leveling the scoreboard will be satisfying. After three days he calms down, but he still thinks what his soul needs is a reunion with his baby brother. Hope in situations or people is false hope.

Contrast those varieties of common hope with what Paul calls “the blessed hope.” Notice two truths about gospel hope in Titus 2:11-14. 

First, blessed hope expects glory. I use the word “expects” intentionally. There are two ways to use the word “hope.” One way is mostly (though not always) a noun, and the other is usually a verb. The verb generally expresses a wish, as in, “I hope North Korea will be contained.” The noun is an expectation, a confidence, an assurance. Notice the difference in saying, “I have a hope that North Korea will change.” That means you know something that the rest of us don’t. Paul uses the word “hope” as a noun. The “glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” is “the blessed hope” for the believer. It’s a guarantee as sure as the promises and character of God.

Second, the blessed hope inspires action. Paul says this hope “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age.” Why? Because Jesus “gave himself to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” When I first heard Rich Carney say, “Hope is not a course of action,” I didn’t like it. But it turns out he’s absolutely right. Hope in the biblical sense, hope that God will do what only God can do to make the world right, is not passive. It inspires action.

The words and themes of Christmas have been diluted, and we have ourselves to blame, at least partly. We have embraced the world’s view that this season is all about good feelings and holiday celebrations and romantic notions of happily ever after. We use words like hope to mean basically what the world means – a sentimental wish that somehow buried pain, even if we caused it, will evaporate on its own.

Paul has a very different view. He says we have a “blessed hope,” but that hope changes us. It motivates repentance and obedience. The blessed hope of Jesus returning in judgment and righteousness means that we will face a Judge before whom we will be accountable. If not before, then at that time, be sure your sin will find you out. This kind of hope is nothing like a sentimental wish. It changes everything about our behavior and priorities from now until Jesus comes. Amen.

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