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Sunday, September 3, 2017
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9 & Genesis 50:15-21
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
The End…and a Beginning
Today marks the end of our Living History series through Genesis. If you haven’t already figured this out, I think dwelling in and on the Old Testament is absolutely vital to living full lives as followers of Jesus. Yes, whenever you read the Bible, you will have questions; you will find portions of it boring you to death; you will find parts of it offensive or backwards; but I am convinced that struggling with Scripture is one of the best ways for us to come to know God and to know ourselves.
I haven’t been explicit about this, but the way we’ve been approaching Genesis really offers a different way for how you can read the Old Testament. There are some who read it chiefly as a pointer to the coming of Jesus Christ. They find some value in the moral instructions like the Ten Commandments or Proverbs. They learn the stories that are compelling, but the rest of the Old Testament – the laws, the sacrifices, the prophecies – they just don’t spend much time on.
There is a second set of readers who see the stories of the Old Testament as morally deficient or backwards. After all, just last week I shared a story of polygamy, forced marriage, theft, and so on, all things we are not teaching as good ideas anywhere in the church! It can be so hard to deal with these issues that these readers decide to skip them altogether. The New Testament seems so much more palatable.
But, as I see, if you approach the Old Testament from either of those reductionist viewpoints, you miss a great opportunity to wrestle with and come to know God. In the words of Ellen Davis, an Old Testament professor at Duke, “I am convinced that the Old Testament is necessary for Christians. …I am looking for what the Old Testament tells us about intimate life with God. Ever since the second century the church has maintained that the New Testament does not by itself tell us everything we need to know about that. The reason Christians need to find the Good News in the Old Testament is that the New Testament writers always presuppose the Old Testament – and not only in the places where they specifically cite it for support. Much more often, they assume that their audience is already familiar with and benefitting from its instruction. Where the Old Testament treats an aspect of the spiritual life to their satisfaction, then the New Testament writers rely upon that older and still-authoritative treatment, as did Jesus himself.”
We read the Bible – the whole Bible – because in it we find everything we need to know about intimate life with God. In our world where the Bible remains a bestseller year after year, it is an unconscionable mistake to let these words of life gather dust on a bookshelf or on your nightstand. These are words of life; they are challenging, yes, but where life is found, that’s where we should want to be!
Rob Bell’s name is well-known in western Michigan. In 1999 he helped found a new kind of church in Grand Rapids called Mars Hill. The church grew at an amazing rate, starting with around 1,000 attending and growing to over 10,000 passing through its doors for their gatherings. I’ve always been fascinated that Bell spent his first year’s worth of sermons preaching through Leviticus – talk about a strange church-growth strategy.
Leviticus is a book of laws and rules. It’s filled with descriptions of the proper way to make your sacrifices. There is next to no plot. I bet if I were to take a poll of you all right now about the hardest biblical books to read, Leviticus would be among the top five on your list. Yet Bell took a year – year! – in this book. And his church grew.
I always wondered how he could take that much time in Leviticus, but now that we’ve dipped our toes into the richness of Genesis for ten weeks, I can completely get how he did it and why it was worthwhile. We have skipped so many amazing stories. We have glossed over material that is helpful in understanding the rest of the Bible. The final fourteen chapters of Genesis tell about Jacob’s son, Joseph, the favored child whose brothers sold into slavery and ends up in Egypt. We have not even started to talk about Joseph! I’ll end today with a touch of him, but I think we need to get back to him some time down the road.
The point is that I now get how Bell could dwell in Leviticus. The more we get engrossed in the Scripture, the more its depth, beauty, and challenge open to us. The intimate life with God is written on every page of the Old Testament, so as I wrap up this Living History series, I hope you’ve found yourself wanting to dig deeper into the Word.
There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible. By chapter 3, everything falls apart – that’s one-quarter of one percent of the way through the Bible. Things don’t actually come back together fully until the final two chapters of the Bible, which means that the remaining 1,185 chapters or 95.5% of the Bible happens in this in-between time, where life just keeps happening with all of its highs and lows. The Bible is actually about life and living, all of it, not just the spiritual parts. As often as there is a story about devotion to God, there is a story about war. As often as there is a text of joy, there is a text of despair. It’s all in there, and it’s all worthy of our attention.
So, in the 99.5% of the Bible that deals with life as we know it, we see God at work in the best of times and in the worst of circumstances. As I wrap up our time in Genesis, I want to give us the 30,000 foot view of what’s been going on in the first book of the Bible. I can sum it all up in two words – “for good.” All of this material – from creation to Abraham’s calling, from Jacob’s schemes to Joseph’s hard life – has been for good. That is, God is achieving God’s forever good purposes in and through the creation. Let’s start there.
Genesis starts with these words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” At the end of each day of creation, this God, who creates everything out of nothing, pauses, examines the handiwork, and declares it all “good.” The very matter of creation is good from the beginning. God created it all for good. The world we inhabit today is still God’s good creation. God created it for our good re-creation and for God’s eternal purposes.
But it only took humans two chapters to foul things up. Adam and Eve didn’t trust that God made this for their good, so they disobeyed God. For our good God gave us free will – the ability to choose to love God or not, the ability to go our own way or to walk in the way of the Lord. This creative design was for our good, although we twisted it into something it was not meant to be. The seed of disobedience germinated and grew into bitter hatred in the first couples’ son’s heart. Within one generation this good creation experienced murder when Cain murdered Abel. The consequences of that action fill the pages of human history. And yet, God created all of this and all of us for good. God was not surprised by this, and from the beginning God was making a way for things to be restored – for our good and forever.
Then came everyone’s favorite sermon on the Nephilim, those fallen angels that roamed the earth before the flood. (I know it’s your favorite on them because it’s the only one you’ve ever heard!) This incredibly weird text reminds us of how mysterious life can be. There are inexplicable things that happen around us every day. Yet in the mystery God is there. Millennia later the Apostle Paul will use the word “mystery” to describe God’s work in Jesus Christ. He uses the term not because it’s unknowable. No, the word “mystery” for Paul means it’s something so amazing only God could have dreamed it up. And God does so for good.
Into this world of flesh and blood, dirt and sky, mountains and seas, God begins calling people, setting them apart for God’s good purposes. God does this to Noah, saving a remnant of humanity so that there would be a human future. God does this with Abraham, calling him to be a great nation and to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. These callings are for the good of the whole world, not just for the people God calls. These callings continue today for all who would follow Jesus into the world – and that’s you, friends.
This carries on throughout Genesis through unexpected people. God cares for Hagar and Ishmael, even when Abraham and Sarah cast them away, providing for their good and future. God is with Esau, even when Jacob steals his blessing, giving him a good, quiet life – far from the trouble Jacob stirs up. God speaks to Laban and works through his family to fulfill God’s promise of turning Abraham’s descendants into a nation. God is there in the wrestling and struggle. God is there in the laughter of Sarah and Abraham when they learn Isaac is on his way. God is there is the striving of Jacob. God is there for good and forever.
Genesis concludes with the story of Joseph, who is Jacob and Rachel’s son. Some day we’ll go into detail on his story, but for now let me be brief. Joseph received favor from his father, so his brothers were jealous. They plotted against him, considered killing him, and ultimately sold him to a caravan of traders to be rid of him. These boys broke Jacob’s heart, and he believed Joseph to be dead. Joseph ends up in Egypt, where he grows in stature until a false accusation puts him in jail. Later he is released, and God gives him the ability to see the future and prepare for it. He rises to second in command in Egypt. Meanwhile there is a famine throughout the world, and only Egypt has prepared for it. Jacob sends his sons to buy food for their survival where the encounter Joseph. Ultimately, Joseph has a glad reunion with his family at the end of Genesis, and it is at the end of the book where Joseph utters these words, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20a).
And there we have it, friends, the summary of the entire 50 chapters of Genesis. What humans have made a mess of, God turns into good. God’s plan for us is greater than our ability to destroy it or ourselves. God’s love for the world is greater than our ability to run from that love.
“You intended to harm me,” Joseph told his brothers.
This verb – intended – traces its meaning to the Hebrew word for “weave.” “You wove evil,” Joseph says, “but God re-wove it together for good.”
Max Lucado puts it beautifully, “God, the Master Weaver. He stretches the yarn and intertwines the colors, the ragged twine with the velvet strings, the pains with the pleasures. Nothing escapes His reach. Every king, despot, weather pattern, and molecule are at His command. He passes the shuttle back and forth across the generations, and as He does, a design emerges.”
As we set down the book of Genesis for now, know that God is reweaving your life and this entire world. God is doing this when you see it. God is doing it when you are completely unaware. God is doing it when you’re in distress over the news or over personal struggles. God is reweaving your life for good – not just for your benefit now, but forever. No matter where you are in life, God’s grace is available and present for you now and forever. I pray you see it, receive it, and live in the joy of God’s good work in you and in the world now and forever.
 Davis, Ellen. Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. pp. 1-2.