Unexpected faces in unexpected places

Midweek Lent 6 – Genesis 45:1-20

Joseph’s brothers tell everyone that Joseph is dead, but they don’t really know that for sure. Likely over 20 years of telling the lie of what happened to Joseph, they have just started to believe it to be so, but in reality, they have no idea. And so, if you had hooked Joseph’s brothers up to a lie detector, and asked them where they thought Joseph was today, over 20 years since they last saw him as he was carried away into slavery by the Ishmaelite’s, you would have gotten one of three answers: Dead; slavery; or a free man, but living in absolute poverty.

They may actually think he is dead, but not because a wild animal killed him, but rather because slavery doesn’t exactly increase your life expectancy. Slaves were often purchased, worked into the ground, and then left to die. And besides, after how annoying Joseph was at home, how much more annoying would someone else find him in theirs, and what got Joseph into trouble in the first place, would be his death sentence now.

Still in slavery is also a valid option. Perhaps Joseph got in good with someone and they gave him an easy job. Joseph hardly broke a sweat at home, so he would not be of much use doing field work or building projects, but maybe if someone needed a house cleaner or a babysitter, Joseph could do that.

The last option is probably the least likely, although still possible. Joseph could have been set free in any number of ways, but since he had been an unpaid slave for so long, what could he do but sit on the streets and beg? If Joseph is a free man, he is probably a miserable man, who just wants to die.

Notice none of these options are close to what actually happened, but they are what one could reasonably deduce happened based on the circumstances. There is no other story of someone being sold as a slave who is then elevated to power and prestige in all of Egypt, so why should it happen now?

True to form, even after Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they still don’t believe him, because the circumstances are just too far beyond the realms of human belief. There is no scenario where this could have happened.

Joseph is clearly the last person they expect to see selling them grain in Egypt.

On the flip side however, you could likewise say that Joseph probably never expected to see his brothers again either. He remembers the dreams he had as a boy where his brothers bowed down to him, but did he ever really expect it to happen? Over 20 years, did he decide that their paying homage to him would never happen?

How unexpected are the faces of the brothers when they bow before him and ask for grain? How unexpected is it that the brothers actually brought Benjamin back, and that they really do care for him and do not want what happened to Joseph to happen to him, if for no other reason than for the sake of their father?

There are many unexpected faces today, in this most unexpected place. Did Abraham ever envision his descendants leaving the land that God had promised him to go to Egypt, where his own great-grandson would sit at the right hand of Pharaoh?

And yet they will, and he is; the Lord has paved a way for the salvation of His people, and the means through which that salvation will be brought about is Joseph going to Egypt ahead of everyone else, and preparing a place for his family.

You don’t expect this to be the case, and yet, this is how God has decided to work, in order that in the future, there might be an even more unexpected face in an even more unexpected place.

For who is it that stands before the Pharisees? Who is it that stands on trial before Herod and Pilate? Who is it that is dressed in a purple robe, and forced to wear a crown of thorns? Who is it that is rejected in favor of Barabbas? Who is it that is forced to carry His own cross? Who is it that hangs on the cross and suffers and dies? Who is it that will be laid into a tomb?

It’s Jesus. Jesus the very Son of God. Jesus who sits at the right hand of His Father in heaven in power and glory. Jesus who was present from the very foundations of the world.   Jesus who is without sin. Jesus who kept the law perfectly. Jesus who is in no way deserving of the punishment that He must now endure. Jesus, the one to whom all in heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow the knee.

You just don’t expect to see the holy Son of God suffering and dying, especially not for a worm like you. Jesus is in your place. You are the one who deserves the beatings and the mocking and the nails and the spear and the suffering and the agony. And yet, Jesus takes your place, for this is the means by which God has determined to bring about your salvation.

And with Jesus in your place, there is a new even more unexpected face in an even more unexpected place. Without Jesus, you deserve nothing but death and hell; but now that Jesus has born your punishment in your place, you now find yourselves in the glories and the splendors of Paradise forever.

By His death and resurrection and ascension, Jesus has gone ahead to prepare a place for you, and that place is the glories of eternity in heaven.

And this will not just be for you, nor for those who pass the mustard of your own test of who is worthy of salvation.

For no doubt on the Last Day, there will be some unexpected faces in unexpected places. Some will look around at the gathering of the faithful that Christ has drawn to Himself and be amazed at who they see, but will likewise be amazed at who they do not see.

For the wonders of this famine in Egypt is that Joseph, with the blessing of Pharaoh, is selling not just to those in Egypt, but to all who come from all over seeking grain, even the brothers who make their way from Canaan, and are reunited with Joseph. For Christ does not just make this salvation available to those who fall into certain categories, rather salvation is available to all people. That is the true wonder of the work of Christ on the cross; is that it is for all those who you would never expect.

And like the brothers who leave the hell of Canaan to live in the prosperity of Egypt because of Joseph, now you, because of Jesus will not have to endure the sufferings of this world, but can bask in the eternal glories and the splendors of your heavenly Father in glory forever.

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Setting the Stage 6

A preview of our midweek Lenten service.

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Requiem for a toy store

After a week of rumors, the news is now apparently official: Toys R Us will close all of its US stores, likely before the start of summer.  There is a sliver of hope that maybe some stores will be spared, but they will be few and far between, and who knows how long they will remain anyway.

Toys R Us was an essential part of my childhood, as it was for any child.  If a good report card was received, that meant a trip to Toys R Us for a new toy as a reward.  Birthdays and Christmas likewise warranted a trip to Toys R Us.  And then there was just the random in the area trips, where we would stop in and look around, and of course, pick out a new toy, whether it be a Matchbox Car, or a baseball action figure, or maybe a new Lego set.

And who could forget in early December, when the new Toys R Us toy catalog came out!  It was a Christmas dream book!  So many toys, so many dreams to dance in our heads.

To my brother and I, the store was literally amazing: a store devoted entirely to toys.  And that made perfect sense: Pathmark and Walbaums sold food; JC Penny and Macy’s sold clothes, and Toys R Us sold toys.  Sure there were variety stores that sold a little bit of everything like K-Mart and Caldors, but that was it: a little bit of everything, only Toys R Us had every toy there ever was, at least so it seemed.

In recent years, the trips to Toys R Us have been less frequent, but no less memorable and no less lost causes.  Trips to larger towns, and vacations, always led to the toy store, not for a specific purpose, but more to wander the aisles, and reminisce, see what the kids are playing with these days.  And who knew, a few items found their way into the cart and came home, because when you have a store so large, with so many toys, a few are bound to appeal, even to the slightly aging adult: there is the 1960’s model Batmobile, as well as the R2-D2 piggy bank, and the Yoda piggy bank; and of course, more Legos.

But no more.  By the time vacation rolls around this year, there will be no Toys R Us waiting for us to stop and stretch our legs and wander its aisles.  There will be no eye opening moment for my children that a single store could possibly be devoted solely to toys, solely to children and their wishes and dreams.

I imagine when there are only a few marbles still rolling around in my head and I recall the days when there was this magical place called Toys R Us, a store devoted entirely to toys, my children and grandchildren will look at me much the same way I look at those who speak of outhouses and party lines and trading milk and eggs for flour and sugar, the memories of a long by-gone era.

They will only know of Walmart and Target and Amazon and whatever else comes next.  They will only know of a world where large empty box stores sit on the side of major highways, where Toys R Us and Barnes & Noble and other stores once stood.

I long suspect I was born in the wrong time in history, if for no other reason than I hate shopping online and would much rather wander the aisles of a store like Toys R Us or go to the mall and spend the day eating at the food court and walking from one end to the other seeing a whole variety of stores each selling a specific line of products, whether it be books or toys or kitchen supplies or clothes or who knows what else.

But this is the era I now live, and I will survive without Toys R Us, and eventually without a host of other stores that will likewise disappear for any number of reasons; and I suspect one day I will join the rest of civilization in online shopping.

But for today, I grieve, because I’m a Toys R Us kid, and my children will never be able to say that.

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What has God done to us?

Midweek Lent 5 – Genesis 42:1-38

Before I left New York, I was called in for jury duty, and the case I was assigned to was an attempted armed robbery.

The crime had occurred in December; jury selection was at the end of May.

And as I sat there before I was disqualified, I was dumbfounded that this trial was so delayed in time from the actual crime, and I wondered aloud later what the point even was at this point and time.

I in that jury pool, and we as a society, tend to assume that time heals all wounds; and not only does time heal all wounds, but that time fixes all problems; or at the very least it should all reach a point where it just doesn’t matter anymore.

A safe estimate today is that it has been 22 years since Joseph was sold into slavery.  A lot has happened in that time, people grow and change; lives are altered forever; and there is the reality that everyone manages without the other around.

Things have gone pretty well during this time for Joseph anyway.  After a bumpy start, he now sits enthroned as second in command of all Egypt.  How is that for a guy who the last time he saw his brothers was at the bottom of a pit begging for mercy before being carted off into slavery?

Likewise for the brothers, things are not what they once were.  Joseph is gone, and while Benjamin has taken the place of favored child, it is safe to assume that things are not quite as tense as they were when Joseph was around; and while Jacob still grieves as any parent would, he is still able to assert his position as the head of the family business.

And so in some respects, when the brothers stand before Joseph, there is a piece of us that says that they should just let bygones be bygones; that they should embrace as though nothing had ever happened; that there should be peace; although that peace never truly existed before.

And we rationalize this by telling ourselves that everything turned out ok in the end, so why even bother with this any longer?

So Joseph should just skip the interrogation and just sell the brothers some grain; and either make nice with them, or just ignore them and send them on their way.

At least, that is what we would like to happen when faced with a similar situation in our own lives.

Most of us never move past the childhood mentality where if you are not punished in the moment for something, then you may as well not bother with punishment at all.

If God wanted to punish the brothers for what they did to Joseph, then He should have had the pit spit Joseph out and swallow up the brothers.  Likewise, if God wants to punish you, then He should do it now and get it over with, instead of dragging things out for years on end.

And yet there is an important aspect of this text that draws our attention this evening away from the things of the flesh and to the things of God.

The brothers have not repented.


And they are not bothered by it at all until they come to Egypt and assume that they are now finally encountering misfortune because of their previous actions.

What has largely been forgotten over 20 years is now all brought to the forefront: the brothers were mean to Joseph, even before they sold him into slavery; and then they brought grief and agony to their father telling him that Joseph was dead; and now they are finally getting their just due.

And so if he is not going to forget the whole thing ever happened, then Joseph now has every right to hang his brothers; he has every right to torture them; he has every right to punish his brothers for all that they have done to him.

And yet, Joseph does not.  Instead he leads them to repentance.

This is the true wonder of wonders: Joseph does not get angry, in fact he doesn’t even try to get even.  Instead, he leads them to acknowledge what they have done, and then fear God’s wrath and punishment for their actions; and later, not tonight, but later, Joseph will even forgive his brothers.

Which is oddly enough what the whole famine is all about.  God brings the earth to its very knees, so that His beloved children might repent of their sins and receive the absolution.

Why?  Because there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, then over the 99 righteous who need no repentance.

We hate to say this about anyone, but prior to their trip to Egypt and confession, the brothers’ very salvation was in jeopardy; for God’s wrath against sin has no statute of limitations.  God does not forget about sins just because enough time has passed.  God demands that His people repent.

And perhaps that is why this text is so strange to our ears.  It is downright bizarre to hear Joseph interrogate his brothers about such matters.  Our gut reaction is that Joseph should either forget everything that happened and reunite, or just sell them the grain and ignore them.  The idea of leading others, let alone ourselves to repentance is completely foreign to our ears.

And yet what does God demand of us?  Not just during the time of Lent, but throughout the year?  That we repent of our sins, confess them, and receive the absolution.

God desires that all people be saved, and in order for anyone to be saved, you must first admit that you have something you need to be saved from.  Christ is not on the cross as a mere symbol of salvation, nor is He on the cross just to overcome one sin or another; He suffers and dies so that all sins might be forgiven.

For tonight we hear that there is no time limit on confessing our sins, neither is there a time limit on receiving forgiveness for those sins.  Christ Jesus came into the world to suffer and die so that all might have forgiveness, no matter what sin you find yourself weighed down by; and the Lord who created the heavens and the earth will move heaven and earth to bring about that repentance, even if it means sending a massive famine to drive you to Egypt to reunite with those you have long considered dead.

The Lord is calling on you to repent; the servants of the Lord are calling on you to repent; repent, and hear the absolution, so that you might have forgiveness, life and salvation; a promise now available to the brothers and to you, for their brother, your brother leads you where you would not go on your own.

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Setting the Stage 5

Preview of our Midweek Lenten service

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The scandal of the Cross

Lent 4 – St. John 3:14-21

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My, how things change

Midweek Lent 4 – Genesis 41:37-57

Ben Carson, former surgeon and current Housing and Urban Development secretary, has an amazing life story.  He grew up poor; and statistics and circumstances virtually assured that he would never amount to much more than a blight on society; and yet, through hard work, he overcame the odds, and went to medical school, became a world renowned surgeon, and is now a respected leader in the country.

When someone refers to a rags to riches story: that is what we often think of.  Someone who was down in the dumps, with seemingly no hope of advancement; but through hard work over a lot of years, eventually became a smashing success: Ben Carson, Steve Jobs, and so many others are prime examples of this.

And then there is Joseph.

Joseph wakes up in the morning a prisoner, but by the time the sun goes down on the day, he finds himself second in command in all of Egypt.

There is no greater rags to riches story than that.  And it did not take long years of sweat and toil; nor did it take saving every penny from every dirty and disgusting job; it did not even take years of eating stale bologna sandwiches.

All it took, was for Joseph to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh.

Now Joseph is 2nd in command in all Egypt.  The entire famine preparation plan and execution is under the control of Joseph.  When people go to Pharaoh and demand bread, he simply points them to Joseph.

And why wouldn’t Pharaoh point people to Joseph?  Joseph is going to make him a multi-billionaire!  No one else on earth has any grain, so people are coming from far and wide, willing to pay any price for a few handfuls of grain, just so that they might survive another day.

Could there be a more dramatic turn of events than what happens here?

One can only imagine that Joseph must stand back some days while watching first the grain collection and then the distribution in each of the cities, and pinch himself, wondering how he went from being the son of a wandering nomad, to being sold into slavery, to being falsely accused of rape and sitting in prison for years, to now being second in command in Egypt, with only the Pharaoh ranking higher than he.

It is a dream come true; and it is a dream that you now wish would happen to you.

Perhaps you do not dream of overseeing the collection and distribution of grain during a severe famine, but you do dream of being rich and powerful.  You dream of the day when the world will consult you on matters great and small; you dream of a day when people will come to you and beg for mercy, beg for whatever it is you have, and you will gladly give it to them, for a price that most certainly favors you.

You know the rags part, you have seen what it is to be at the mercy of others; you have seen what it is to be desperate; you have seen what it is to want; you have seen what it is to work hard, pinching every penny, and living as a pauper; and now, you are ready for your dream to come true; you are ready for the riches part; you are ready to awake one day, and see all your problems go away, for you have finally received your reward.

If God can do it for Joseph, then surely He can do it for you as well.

But is that where happiness is found?  Indeed, is that where salvation is found?

Is salvation found in how many riches you can accumulate?  It is interesting that Joseph, for all his success, does in fact remain faithful to the Lord, the God of his fathers.  Not only does Joseph repeatedly credit his ability to interpret dreams, and the success he has in gathering up the grain for the famine to God, but his children are given names that reflect the faith he has in the one true God of heaven and earth.

Joseph knows that what is happening is not his own doing, it is in fact the work of the Lord.

For salvation is not found in the rags to riches story of Joseph, or of anyone else.  Rather salvation is found in the riches to rags story of another.

Certainly no one ever dreams of falling from grace and glory; and no one initiates it on their own either.  In our get as much as you can world, the idea of going backward is completely foreign to us; we have the mindset that the only way to go is up; everyone should always do better than the previous generation.

And yet, when it comes to your eternal salvation, the story is really quite the opposite of what we always imagine.

Christ Jesus Himself leaves the throne of heaven, and all the glories that were afforded to Him there as the Son of God, and comes to earth to be born and to live in the humble dwelling of Mary and Joseph.  And when He is grown, He will have no place to call His own where He might lay His head, rather He will rely entirely on the generosity of others.

And He will know the ultimate rags, when He is stripped of His garments, beaten with rods, to be crucified as a common criminal.  For it is not with gold or silver that you are purchased with, but the holy and precious blood of Christ that is poured out for your sake on the cross of Calvary.

That is where salvation is found; not in the throne room of Pharaoh, or in the halls of earthly power.  Salvation is found in the beaten and bloodied and dead body of Christ alone.

And now it is you who enjoys the ultimate rags to riches story.

For today, no matter your wealth or titles or positions, you sit in sack cloth and ashes; you now find yourself in the prison house of sin and death; you are condemned for all eternity; but by Christ’s innocent suffering and death, He wins you back from sin, death and the devil, and announces to you, that by your faith, you are now entitled to all the riches and glories of heaven.

Your rags to riches story now exceeds even that of Joseph today, for all his titles and power, there still came a day, when he died and was buried; but by your faith in Christ, you will live forever, with riches far greater then Joseph or Pharaoh or anyone else ever knew, for you will live forever with Christ in Paradise.

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