“Technicolour Visions of Life, Love & Forgiveness”
Genesis 45: 3-11 & 15 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Feb 24, 2019
This morning we have a real scripture treat. For some, the Joseph text brought back memories of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”. For others, you will recall learning this story as a child in Sunday School. This story of Joseph is a rich, powerful and deeply developed narrative. The particular text Emma read from forms the story’s dramatic conclusion. In comparison to most brief biblical narratives which are told through several verses, the story of Joseph is told in depth over 9 chapters. Beginning all the way back in chapter 37, biblical scholars call us to deal with this text more as a novella or short story than a typical scripture lesson. And through this amazing story, we see a technicolour character development going back to youthful immaturity and then seeing them at the other side.
As we begin, it is useful to be reminded with a bit of background as time did not permit Emma reading all 9 chapters of Joseph’s story. And, frankly, it is important to remind ourselves of who Joseph had grown to become. As much as we might be drawn in to see Joseph as a wonderful man…a pillar of virtue, Joseph was not very likeable as a youth. The Joseph in chapter 45 is not the Joseph we first meet in the beginning at chapter 37. He was a righteous, arrogant, and conceited young man. His sense of self-importance annoyed his brother…it angered his brothers…it resulted in them choosing to sell him into slavery, and finally be done with this youthful thorn in their family’s side. At the beginning of the story, we don’t hold much admiration or virtue out to this family. It is akin to a reality tv show of a ‘trainwreck family’ that we are drawn to watch. Yet, the beginning is critical, for it was from the beginning which growth would soon occur. As the story unfolds, Joseph is sold into the pit of his despair, only to later rise with wisdom, power and grace. In the story, Joseph realizes the special gift from God that he possesses ~ the gift of interpreting dreams…he rises from being just a common slave; he is soon taken into Pharaoh’s court and becomes the second in command ~ Pharaoh’s vizier. He survives threats to his life, guides Egypt through difficult times, and when a famine had ravaged throughout the lands… Egypt all the way to Palestine, he finds his brothers…the ones who had sold him into slavery …hungry and searching for food. In this morning’s text, we meet a very different group of people. The brothers…once powerful and overbearing selling their brother into slavery, now hungry and afraid for their lives. And we also meet a new Joseph…once arrogant and annoying, now powerful and able to receive his due revenge. Yet, what we discover is that Joseph’s growth had gone beyond mere power and a desire for vengeance; he had grown in wisdom, grace and compassion.
If we were just to leave the conversation here, we would have just received a powerful teaching about forgiveness and love amidst the challenging dimensions of life’s unfolding. And that would be good; however, the deeply challenging part of this text is found in verse 5 of the reading. Revealing himself to his brothers, because they will never recognize him in the way he will proceed to treat them, 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 if we missed the point of this long story, the author will again remind the reader three more times: Firstly, in verse 7 “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth”, again in verse 8 “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; making me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” and again in verse 9 “God has made me Lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay”. The theological ground that we navigate is more than just the mature development of forgiveness and love, but it is also an understanding of the providential nature of God.
We may not name it as such, yet a theology of providence is something that we all ponder. It is the sense of how, when, and why God intervenes in the unfolding dramas of the universe…the unfolding dramas of our lives. And to fully embrace a theology of providence… or to fully deny it presents a deep challenge to our faith. So, does God act in our lives? Does God intervene in the ups and downs of life? A deep faith question indeed…On the one hand, if we view God, if you will, as a fairy godmother or a divine bellhop whom we acknowledge only when the good things in life happen…a parking spot becomes available, our sports team is victorious, our marriage is successful…and so on, it becomes problematic because those experiencing times of suffering, pain and disappointment will be denied. They ultimately stand knocking…outside God’s door wanting…wondering ‘where is God for me?’ And on the other hand, if we view God as an “Absentee Landlord” who leaves us alone, leaving humanity to fend fully for themselves, then we lock ourselves away from any opportunity of meeting an active God found in Jesus’ living Word. So, what is the nature of God’s providential care? What does this curious text about God sending Joseph into the slavery time of Egypt teach us in the ways we live, love and forgive?
Sometimes, it may be a matter of perspective. In this season of the church year, we find ourselves focusing on ‘Epiphany’ and the ways God’s light makes manifest God’s grace and truth. Going back to the 14th Century, many will have heard of the English Christian mystic named Julian of Norwich. Historically, this was the time of ‘black death’, the largest pandemic in human history as the plague took 75 million lives. Julian, a Benedictine nun, recorded some of her visionary experiences during her illness. She wrote: “and so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.” What Julian’s tremendous vision taught the proceeding generations was that God’s love can be found in all circumstances, even in the midst of personal and human tragedy. God’s love, grace and forgiveness is found in the technicolour dimensions of life.
Theologian John Sanford in his timeless book, “The Man Who Wrestled with God” built on Norwich’s writings as he devoted an entire book on the story of Joseph. Just as Joseph matures through the course of his life, we too are invited to theologically mature in this text ~ to be nurtured and moved by it. He writes: “when the pattern of our lives becomes clear to us, even the darkness and pain can be seen to have its proper place”. When we think of the story of Joseph, the evil the brothers enacted against him was ultimately used by God for the purification of Joseph’s soul, the destruction of his egocentricity, and for a way to bring him to Egypt where he would perform a great work. Sanford continues: “evil remains evil until [our] consciousness grows because of it. Then, God can use, even evil, for good”.
In many ways, this text allows us to have an epiphany of perspective and patience as we consider some of the challenging things that seem to be hurled our way. For us to simply name God’s ways as being our ways ultimately leads to a human arrogance…that we have somehow channeled God and God’s purposes and God’s presence is fully in us. But on the other hand, to not name the presence of God in our human affairs will lead to an emaciated faith that will slowly whither up and die. What the Joseph text grants us is an Epiphany into the way that the hand of God has woven together things that will ultimately, one day, be good. This becomes the basis for how we might find the depths for forgiveness, for loving in difficult times, for reconciliation after the hurt.
It would not be a surprise to read how 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote on this text, viewing Joseph as an early Christ figure. Noting how Joseph was betrayed, mistreated, handed over to death, unexpectedly revealing himself as alive, and offering forgiveness and a new beginning to all. This is the kind of life that we Christ followers are promised as we live into his Way. Not a life that will be free of pain and suffering, but rather a life that will find God revealed amidst the pain and the suffering. A life that calls for, and offers grace, love and forgiveness. A life that is the Way of the one who created and is creating. Who we find in the joys and, yes, even in the sorrows.