God in Empty Places


A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

August 10, 2014

Genesis 37:1-11

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalms 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Matt. 14:22-33; Romans 10:5-15

It would not be unusual for anyone to ask, “Why are we spending the summer exploring these ancient stories? What could these old geezers possibly teach us?” Truth be told, we need the old stories and we need the lessons the elders of the past offer us.

This week Tom Watson narrowly missed the cut at the PGA by just two strokes after two rounds of golf, amazing for someone of his age. But on Friday, he smiled his way past an insult to his age and his fame when a young security guard blocked him from entering the player’s locker room. Imagine that, one of the game’s greatest champions with 8 majors in his career not being recognized, an old geezer who still has game over the majority of the flat-bellies who couldn’t keep up with him. In Tom’s good humor, he shrugged off the slight and simply smiled at the young man’s faux pas and said humbly, “I’m a player,” and stepped confidently past the young man and into the locker room.

If the story of the Patriarchs (and the Matriarchs) was turned into a series for cable TV, today would mark the beginning of the fourth season. And what would make these stories so relative as a series? Every human passion is told here: love and hate, ambition and jealousy, anguish and reconciliation, inspiration and despair.

Read Genesis 37:1-11

The writer of Hebrews connects the dots from the past by making the connection between these stories of the Ancients to the followers of Christ[1]:

“By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God's call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations - the City designed and built by God. By faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would do what he said. That's how it happened that from one man's dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions. Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised … but still believing.

How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that - heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them. By faith, Abraham, at the time of testing, offered Isaac back to God. Acting in faith, he was as ready to return the promised son, his only son, as he had been to receive him - and this after he had already been told, "Your descendants shall come from Isaac."

 

These 3500-year old stories in Genesis reverberate with meaning because they, just like those early Christians, (and just like us too), lived by faith. The challenge of faith is the same for us as it was for them.

What makes these stories so fascinating is the fact that they’re family stories. In the family dynasty stories found in Genesis, we have the family secrets that are both awful and familiar. They’re awful because they tell it like it is. The biblical writer did not spin the story to make it better than it was but was all-too-willing to tell it with all the rough spots still there. We modern readers are left to make our own judgments about them but no matter what you do with them, they stand on their own power of truth. They’re familiar because although the stories are blunt and raw, they have the ring of truth about them. That is, they read as if those stories could be our stories.

The stories speak of the family tensions that exist in all families: The preference of one sibling over the others, the resulting jealousy that leads to betrayal and family violence and the resulting retaliation that causes untold suffering in the silence of the family. Most families have stories like these. A great number of families live with them as secrets out of a deep sense of shame.

Today we meet Joseph, a young man who was a dreamer. But before his dreams could come true, Joseph took a journey off the beaten path through the wilderness. His life changed in a heartbeat from being the favored son of his father to that of a slave sent off to indentured service in a foreign country.

It seems obvious he brothers hadn’t planned this out in advance. Once they acted, they didn’t seem to know what to do next. The original passion was to kill him. But something inside held them back and they knew they couldn’t do it. They thought of leaving him in the well as a form of “passive murder.”

But as fate would have it, they spotted a group of wandering traders headed towards Egypt. After they flagged them down, the brothers cut a deal for twenty pieces of silver and sold Joseph off for the slave markets in Egypt. It wasn’t the death penalty but it was still a sort of vigilante justice for all the little acts of favoritism they resented ever since Rachel had birthed this little late-life favorite.

When Joseph was hauled out of the pit his life was spared. And in that slight turn of the story, everything changed. All of us are brought into the story knowing a delicious irony that the lives of Jacob and the eleven brothers had been spared as well. I’ve already used the phrase, “as fate would have it,” as a way of observing that sometimes we twist and turn on the events that occur in our lives and recognize that sometimes those are good events and sometimes they’re tragic ones.

Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson calls these “the slender threads” that make up our lives. They are the hand of unseen forces that playfully but powerfully affect our existence – lives that are “somehow inspired, guided and even managed by unseen forces outside our control. Whether called fate, destiny, or the hand of God, slender threads are at work bringing coherence and continuity to our lives. Over time they weave a remarkable tapestry.”[2]

 

Isn’t that how life turns for us as well? Sometimes we make the smallest turn and our lives are spared. Sometimes our lives are put in the deepest of despair. A job is offered or a job is taken away. We get a phone call and with it our lives are changed. A turn here ... a turn there ... and our lives are not the same.

Some seemingly insignificant decisions fly under the radar and we don’t see them shaping and forming the future. In college I asked a girl out after she flirted with me by tickling me with her sock feet. I happened to be on a date with one of her girlfriends while we watched a movie as a group. There was not a second date with this friend; instead, I called the sock-footed girl the next week and we had our first date. Nearly four decades later, she’s still cute in her socked feet.

The paths not taken can be another way to view life. Some psychologists have focused attention on this kind of reflection as a rich way of reflecting upon what we might call the unlived life. One can, however, be consumed with thoughts of “what if” as a form of regret. For some, they’re experienced in the form of a grief over a life that could have been lived but was not.

Joseph was as far from his dream as a young man can get. Perhaps the sermon from this passage comes from this point. Our lives on the surface may appear to be more a strange combination of happenstances that appear to be more whimsy than Divine plan. When those times of uncertainty come, we are left with a truly religious opportunity. It is our task to make meaning out of the confusion. Where is God in the middle of these events that we have no control over? Where is God in the strange turn of events that may on one hand bless us and on the other curse us?

Maybe that’s the definition of faith. When we attempt to make meaning of the events of our lives, we are called upon to be people of faith. When the writer of Hebrews calls out the list of Old Testament heroes of faith, he begins with this family heritage and there we find that these ancient believers were men and women of faith because in the events of their lives, they tried to discover where God was. Those are really faith questions all of us must answer.

Like Joseph, we too have dreams … dreams for our future story that’s yet to be lived, dreams of who we shall be and what we shall do. And like Joseph, we must deal with the reality that follows. It’s the challenge of faith to move past conflicting dreams and realities and to dig deeper to the issues of faith. Our task as people of faith is to look under the rocks and to seek God in the middle of all the events of our lives. Where in the world is God when everything around you looks like the land of unfaith?

St. Hilary, one of the fourth century Christian leaders wisely observed, “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” That’s a profound realization that when we are immersed in the emptiness of some loss, we discover we are not alone. There, in the emptiness of that desert experience, we discover we are embraced and greeted by the God of emptiness. We discover God has been waiting for us to arrive and there are lessons to be learned there.

This story helps us understand that God was there all along as the silent partner in Joseph’s life. He had to confront the reality of the circumstances that had fallen his way and to determine that he was still in the hands of a God who controlled the larger stage on which his life was being lived out. God may not have been micromanaging the story, but the Eternal God was in the wings setting the stage for future events.

Where was God in all the turns of Joseph’s life? Right alongside him, listening to his cries in the night, and encouraging him not to give up. God was there all along whispering to him (and to us all): “People of faith, don’t give up! I will take the broken pieces and will use them in your life to make dreams you cannot imagine come true.”



[1] Hebrew 11:8-18, Originally published by NavPress in English as THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene Peterson, 2002

[2] Robert A. Johnson with Jerry M. Ruhl, Balancing Heaven and Earth, A Memoir, New York:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, vii

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