Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Journey with Joseph # 7 - "Blessing"

Anyone who knows me knows that I love all things Scottish and Irish. I’m a big fan of Irish blessings, which are well-wishes for friends and family. One says, “May God grant you always a sunbeam to warm you, a moonbeam to charm you, a sheltering angel so nothing can harm you, laughter to cheer you, faithful friends near you, and whenever you pray, heaven to year you.” Another famous one says, “May the road rise to meet you; may the wind be at your back; may the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.” One of my favorites says, “May those who love us, love us. And those who don’t love us, may God change their hearts. And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.”

It may seem that these blessings are merely entertaining phrases, but historically and biblically they are supposed to be impartations of divine power and favor. In the book of Genesis, the first blessing was spoken over the animals by God Himself.[i] Then God blessed Adam and Eve and gave them authority over creation.[ii] God blessed Abraham and those who were good to Abraham, affirming that the patriarch would be the father of many nations.[iii] Melchizedek blessed Abraham and shared Communion with him.[iv] When Rebekah left her family to become Isaac’s wife, they blessed her.[v] The fact that a blessing is a real, tangible, valuable thing is evidenced in Genesis 27. When Isaac was old, Jacob (Israel) stole the blessing from his brother Esau. Fearing that the blessing was a limited commodity, Esau begged:

“Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” But Isaac replied to Esau, “Behold, I have made him your master, and all his relatives I have given to him as servants; and with grain and new wine I have sustained him. Now as for you then, what can I do, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” So Esau lifted his voice and wept.[vi]

Throughout the Bible, blessings are seen not as mere sentiment, but as the actual impartation of divine protection, providence, and grace. Toward the end of Joseph’s story we read of Israel’s blessings for Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. It is the first time the old man sees his grandsons, and he grants them equal standing among his other sons. Ever notice that in the twelve tribes of Israel, there is no tribe of Joseph? In this blessing, Joseph’s sons each inherit as if they are sons and not grandsons, effectively giving Joseph a double portion. But more than simply granting an inheritance, Isaac prophetically pronounces that the older will be inferior to the younger (a repeat of the theme of Jacob and Esau). Yet both will be blessed, and will be called great.

But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head, crossing his hands, although Manasseh was the firstborn. He blessed Joseph, and said,

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
The angel who has redeemed me from all evil,
Bless the lads;
And may my name live on in them,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;
And may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth (Genesis 48:14-16 NASB).”

Chapter 49 also records Israel’s blessing for each of his sons. As one who inherited the blessing of his father Isaac, Israel understands the power of positive words spoken to children. They become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some time ago, I read the following story:

At age 16 Andor Foldes was already a skilled pianist, but he was experiencing a troubled year. In the midst of the young Hungarian's personal struggles, one of the most renowned pianists of the day came to Budapest. Emil von Sauer was famous not only for his abilities; he was also the last surviving pupil of the great Franz Liszt. Von Sauer requested that Foldes play for him. Foldes obliged with some of the most difficult works of Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann.
When he finished, von Sauer walked over to him and kissed him on the forehead. "My son," he said, "when I was your age I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, 'Take good care of this kiss--it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play.' I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it."[vii]

Israel had waited for years to pass on this heritage, this blessing from his father Isaac and from his father Abraham. He was someone who knew how to look to the past for inspiration and remember the blessings of those who had gone before him. Yet he also kept an eye on the future, placing his hope in generations to come. He knew that in order to foster good things in the next generation he had to speak blessings and not curses. He had to declare his belief in good things for them and from them. All too often we look with disdain at the generations that follow us. “Kids today!” we say, and lament how things don’t look good for the time when they come to power. Perhaps if we spoke more blessings and affirmation, rather than curses and woe, we’d see them take the mantle of responsibility that God has for them. I pray you’ll be able to see blessing and speak blessing to those who follow you, that you’ll have hope for the future and declare God’s favor for generations to come. In Deuteronomy 30:19 (NIV), God gives an injunction to the people of Israel. God gives us the same choice today: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

[i] Genesis 1:22
[ii] Genesis 1:28
[iii] Genesis 12:1-3; 22:16-18
[iv] Genesis 14:18
[v] Genesis 24:60.
[vi] Genesis 27:36b-38 (NASB)
[vii] Original Source Unknown. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/b/blessing.htm.  May 18, 2016.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Journey with Joseph # 6 - Famine and Family

Over the past several weeks we’ve been journeying together through the life of Joseph. We’ve seen the favorite son mistreated by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. We’ve watched as he gains the rank of Pharaoh’s second-in-command and charged with averting the disastrous effects of a coming famine. Chapters 42-45 in the book of Genesis are all about how famine can either bring about or shine a spotlight on already existing family drama. In the biblical story, a physical famine sweeps over the land, no doubt brought on by a combination of weather patterns and political conditions. This causes Joseph’s brothers to go to Egypt in search of food. Little do they know that the governmental official they encounter is Joseph himself. Bedecked in Egyptian clothing, speaking the Egyptian language, and no doubt bearing a new Egyptian name, they never recognize the imposing figure enthroned before them.

With his brothers groveling at his feet, Joseph finds himself in an interesting position. He knows that their very lives are in his hands. He can either grant or withhold mercy—the choice is up to him. He has suffered at the hands of his brothers, and now must decide how to repay their treachery now that he is in the power position. What will he do?

Joseph decides to use the opportunity to make them sweat. Instead of showing complete mercy, he uses his authority to scare them and make them grovel even more. They have mentioned that they have a younger brother, Benjamin, back at home. Joseph decides to hold an older brother, Simeon, in prison while the others brothers go back home in order to bring back Benjamin to prove that they’re telling the truth. Then, as he is filling their sacks of grain, he frames them to make it look like they have stolen money from Pharaoh. That way they will be afraid to return. In fact, they wait until all the grain they have brought home is eaten down and they have no choice but return, before they do go back to see Joseph and release Simeon.

When they return, they beg for mercy and return the missing money. Joseph is pleased because they have passed the honesty-test. Joseph then decides to play with them as a cat plays with a mouse. He refills their sacks of grain, but this time he frames Benjamin by placing Joseph’s own special goblet into his younger brother’s sack. When the missing cup is discovered, Joseph commands that Benjamin be made his slave. But Judah steps in as his younger brother’s replacement, unwittingly passing Joseph’s loyalty test. Then, filled with emotion, Joseph can control himself no longer. Genesis 45:4-10 (NASB) says:
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me.” And they came closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. 8 Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, “God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.10 You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children and your flocks and your herds and all that you have.

Last seek we saw how Joseph the hero wasn’t always heroic. He used his position of power to not only save a nation, but to enslave a nation. This week we see how he used his position, along with the famine, to add more drama to the already existing family drama between Israel’s children. Every family has drama—no family is exempt. It’s not whether we experience crisis but how we handle it that determines the kind of people that we are.

Times of famine often heighten crisis and drama that families experience. Israel’s family had plenty of drama before the famine happened, but starvation simply made it worse. Famine can take many different forms. In Israel’s case it was scarcity of food. Maybe in your case it’s a lack of money, or wisdom, or patience, or love. Amos 8:11 says that there can be a scarcity that is “not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the Lord.” So maybe it’s a spiritual famine that you’re going through. Perhaps your family is in a time of scarcity right now. There might be a shortage of physical touch, or an inability to spend time with loved ones. Maybe you yearn for words of affirmation from someone who won’t express them. Maybe you just need help from someone who’s unwilling to provide it. Or it could be that people are going behind your back and saying and doing things to undermine you. As with Joseph’s brothers, your family is going to experience drama. But it’s not whether we experience crisis but how we handle it that determines the kind of people that we are.

What can we learn from Israel’s family? Joseph’s behavior indicates that he believed that “the end justifies the means.” But author Nick Harkway says, “Don’t tell me the end justifies the means because it doesn’t. We never reach the end. All we ever get is means. That’s what we live with.” Harkway is right. That’s what we live with—a never ending drama, if that’s what we choose. Joseph’s story may end with reconciliation and restoration, but the fact is that none of our stories have endings. They just keep going. And it’s HOW we live that makes the difference. Romans 12:18 (NIV) says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This is the Christian’s calling. It isn’t always possible, and it doesn’t always depend on you. But as long as it does, live at peace. Make peace. Don’t use crisis as an opportunity for more drama, but instead give physical and spiritual sustenance to help your family in famine.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Journey with Joseph # 5 - In the King's Court

In our journey through the life of the Old Testament Joseph, we have seen our main character honored by his father and hated by his brothers, sold into slavery and thrown into prison. We watched the dreamer interpret the dreams of others, using his spiritual gifts to help those in need. It is this same gift that Joseph uses to gain Pharaoh’s favor and save a nation. Our Sunday school classes regale Joseph as a hero, but perhaps if we put on a different pair of glasses we will see one politician’s rise to power, and how power corrupted him to the point of not saving but enslaving a nation.

In Genesis 41, after two full years of Joseph’s imprisonment, Pharaoh has two terrifying dreams that he cannot understand. The royal cupbearer, who had been in prison, remembers and recommends his fellow inmate to the king, who promptly sends for Joseph and tells him his dreams. Seven fat cows are eaten by seven skinny cows, and seven fat ears of corn are eaten by seven skinny ears of corn. Joseph interprets the dream and gives his suggestion for the best course of action:
“God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. 29 Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; 30 and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt, and the famine will ravage the land... 33 Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance. 35 Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh’s authority, and let them guard it. 36 Let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not perish during the famine (Gen 41:28b-30, 33-37 NASB[i]).”

Then it’s “hail to the hero!” Joseph is brought into the king’s court and made second-in-command after Pharaoh himself. He is dressed in fine robes and treated like royalty. That’s generally where the Sunday school lesson ends, and we all say, “Isn’t that nice? Pharaoh puts Joseph’s plan into practice and the nation is saved.” But few of us read the rest of the story, found in Genesis 47:13-25. Joseph taxed the people one-fifth of all their produce during the productive years. Then, during the famine when there was no food in the land, the people were forced to go back to Pharaoh to buy back the grain that they had contributed through taxes. This was no government free-food program. The people had to buy the food back. When they had no money left, they sold their livestock, their land, and eventually themselves and their children into slavery, just so they could survive. Joseph’s was no benevolent regime, but one that oppressed and enslaved its own people, leaving all people, property and possessions in the hand of a Communist government.

John Dalberg-Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is certainly true in the life of Joseph. The one that we hail as a hero turns out to be a despot. (This ought to give us pause as we consider this election season.) But what else does it tell you, besides that we need to be careful how we vote? It tells us something that impacts not just the next four or eight years—but something that affects generations to come.

The universe works on a system of reciprocity that is recognized by every culture. Hindus call it karma, while others call it recompense or reckoning. Folk wisdom from our mothers and grandmothers says, “garbage in, garbage out.” Children know it as the “I’m-rubber-you’re-glue-principle.” In Galatians 6:7-10a, Paul writes:
7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. 10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…

Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return (Luke 6:38).” This means that what you give, you will receive back, multiplied many times over. When you give good things, you get good things. James 3:18 (NIV) says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” But this is also true of negative things. Proverbs 20:17 says, “Bread obtained by falsehood is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be filled with gravel.” This universal law says that you get what you give.

Now we have to keep this in perspective. Not every sickness or injury or injustice is because you have done something wrong to deserve it. This universal law doesn’t work that way. But, in general, love breeds more love. Hatred breeds more hatred. Bigotry breeds more bigotry. Slavery breeds more slavery. And what did Joseph do? He enslaved the Egyptian nation. What happened when there arose a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph? He enslaved Joseph’s people. The iniquity of the father was visited on the children, for many generations to come.

As believers, we must be aware that our behavior affects other people, for good or for ill. Our good deeds and our wrongdoing both come back on us and on our children. This is why we need to adopt the same job description that Jesus gave himself in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).” As we follow Jesus, this becomes the job description of every Christian. Jesus-followers are brought into the King’s court, not so we can be political leaders but so we can serve the King of heaven in a world that needs redemption. With life so full of politics and lies and slavery and greed and violence and corruption, isn’t it time that God’s people work for the benefit of the poor, the captives, the injured, and the oppressed? Instead of seeking power that so easily corrupts, let’s be like Jesus and become servants of all.

[i] Unless specified, scriptures taken from the NASB.

Journey with Joseph # 4 - "I Have a Dream"

In Life in His Body, Gary Inrig writes:
Several years ago, two students graduated from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. The highest ranking student in the class was a blind man named Overton and, when he received his honor, he insisted that half the credit should go to his friend, Kaspryzak. They had met one another in school when the armless Mr. Kaspryzak had guided the blind Mr. Overton down a flight of stairs. This acquaintance ripened into friendship and a beautiful example of interdependence. The blind man carried the books which the armless man read aloud in their common study, and thus the individual deficiency of each was compensated for by the other. After their graduation, they planned to practice law together.[i]

I have a dream that the church would function just this way. The truth is that we are all parts of the body of Christ. No one of us is complete. This is why God puts us together in a family of faith. Romans 12:5-8 (NASB) says:

We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith;7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Paul continues to explain that every part is useful, and that the body can’t do without any of its appendages. Like Overton and Kaspryzak, we all have individual weaknesses. But when we function together we can overcome and thrive.

I have a friend who is going through a difficult transition in her life. On a day when she needed encouragement, God brought several people along, who all gave her the encouragement she needed. But they also gave her some warnings about potential dangers that lay ahead. One of them, in fact, felt so strongly that he was hearing from God that he boldly phrased it in just that way. He told her that the Lord was giving the warning, and what God wanted her to do in response. I admire this friend of mine who realized she needed help in seeking God’s will for her life. I also admire the boldness of these people who were willing to be God’s mouthpiece by speaking both encouragement and waring to her.

In Genesis 40, we read about Joseph in prison. Fellow inmates, the king’s cupbearer and the king’s baker, tell Joseph that they suffered from disturbing dreams the same night. Using his gift of interpretation, Joseph reveals the secrets of their dreams. The cupbearer will be pardoned and restored in three days, and in the same amount of time the baker will be hanged. Certainly the cupbearer is greatly comforted by this interpretation, but of course the baker is not. Indeed, it works out just as Joseph predicts. Regardless of the outcome, the message of scripture is clear that God reveals God’s will though many ways—in this case, through dreams. And not just in this case, but in many cases, people need assistance in discerning God’s voice.

When I have difficult decisions to make, when I am stressed, when I need direction, I pray for God to speak to me. And I believe that God still does speak today. Sometimes the Lord whispers in a still, small voice that can’t be heard with the ears but with the heart. Other times, God operates through circumstance to make His will known. Things just “happen the right way.” God speaks through His written word, the Bible. God speaks through nature, through visions, and through dreams. God speaks through the voices of other people. If you’re in need of guidance, I hope that you’ll look for God to speak and show you what you need to know. But then I hope that like Joseph’s fellow inmates, you’ll have other people to reflect with, to help you interpret what you think you’ve heard. I have a pastor who cares for my soul. I have friends who listen and help me understand what God is saying to me. God gives us counselors and caretakers in all shapes and sizes. I hope you open yourself to hearing God’s voice, and to sharing it with those who can help you interpret God’s will.

I have a dream that the church would function so beautifully, that all God’s people would offer their gifts for the benefit of the body of Christ. Like Overton and Kaspryzak, each of us is part of the body of Christ, but none of us has everything we need. Only when we help each other can the body truly function. Maybe God has given you the gift of interpreting dreams—I know someone who has that gift and uses it whenever people need to understand their nighttime visions. Or maybe you have another spiritual gift, like wisdom or knowledge or discernment. You might be the baker or cupbearer in this story, needing to hear from God and seeking someone’s help interpreting. Or you might be Joseph in this story, specially gifted at helping other people. The only thing you need to do is say “yes” to the opportunities to help that the Lord places before you. 1 Peter 4:10 (ESV) says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” This is what Joseph did when those in need came to him for help. I pray you’ll do the same.