Children of God's Providence

Foundations of God's People  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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So, with this sermon we come to the end of our "Foundations of the People of God" series. Next week we will move into the next series, which I have titled "God Redeems a People for Himself." And so, today, we will find ourselves at a cross-roads, as we trace out how God has set a foundation to draw humanity to him, and then we also have the scene set before us to see how God goes from there to working out redemption; first through a particular people - the Jews - and then sets that redemption in motion so that it gradually draws in people from all the nations of the world.
So we are now really doing that biblical theology I mentioned in my first sermon on Feb. 5!
But perhaps you are asking: What do we do with today's Scripture? Why did Eric decide on exploring this passage?
It reads like a tabloid! We've got family drama... favoritism... lies... a plotted murder, turned into human trafficking... What are we to do with this, and how exactly does it tie into our themes of God weaving us into his story for us and the world, and our call to be missionaries and evangelists.
Well, I would argue that this Scripture we have just read, is exactly about the themes we have set out to explore together this year, but in surprising and unexpected ways.
See, perhaps - if you are like me - you have a vision of the way you would like things to go. Perhaps it is a nice clean vision, with no real hiccups along the way. Everything goes smoothly... you have a plan and envision it unfolding perfectly before you! But then, everything goes awry! Maybe that isn't you... but if you are like me, then you know how surprising it is when things don't go according to plan! And you know how it feels to suddenly turn to God and be like: "DUDE! What was that! I had this all planned out!" Or maybe it is more like: "I thought you promised that you had everything all worked out for my good... so why did this tragedy happen?"
Well, that is exactly what we see happen here.
We see God's providence and mercy work out in strange and unexpected ways. But ultimately they work out for a good that was much better than Jacob or Joseph had expected, or the much smaller vision that Jacob had come to embrace.
So as we turn to considering our text today, I would point out that I see four movements within it, in which God's hand is at work.
1) First, we have a problem: contained in Jacob's myopic vision, and favoritism, which is laid out in vv. 1-4.
2) Second, we have God's offering of prophetic dreams, in vv. 5-11
3) Third, we have the uprising of Joseph's brothers, in vv. 12-35
4) And, fourth, we see, in one verse - v. 36 - that God's grand plan cannot be thwarted.
So let's explore that now.
(1) The Problem vv. 1-4.
So first, we have a problem presented to us! And the problem is Jacob - who is Abraham's grandchild - has developed a vision of God's promise which is too small! And this develops almost naturally. As we see in v. 1 "Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan;" that is, as John Sailhamer writes: he
is back in the Promised Land but is still a sojourner like his father Isaac. God’s promises have not yet been completely fulfilled" and so "Jacob is still waiting.
And waiting can be really hard. So, in some sense, it is not surprising that Jacob develops a misguided focus on what he is to pursue.
But that is precisely the problem, he looses focus. Whereas, God had made grand promises to Abraham, revealing that his family would be great, and in their greatness, they would be a blessing to all the world, Jacob looses sight of that vision. And as he looses sight of it, he focuses his love and attention on just one of his children... Joseph. In doing this, Jacob also fails to keep his heart set on the fact that God's call to him - as an heir to the promises made in Abraham - should set his vision not just on his family (much less, on just one child), but to be a blessing to the world.
We seen, then that all of this has deep repercussions in what follows. So, we read: "Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons... when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him" (vv. 3, 4). And that hatred boils over in today's passage!
(2) God's Offering of Prophesy vv. 5-11
But before we get there, we see God step in with a series of strange visions , granted to Jospeh, in vv, 6-9.
He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of corn out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered round mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
Now these dreams reveal a number of things to us.
First, God is showing to Jacob and his family, that he has not abandoned them or his promises. God is still present and at work, even if his timeline does not match the expectations we humans have. And to show this, he confirms his presence through the act of granting prophesy to Joseph.
Secondly, they show that Jacob's excessive doting over Joseph has clearly caused Joseph to really be a bit of a brat! Whether he was supposed to share these prophetic dreams with his brothers or not (our Scripture says nothing about that), the manner in which he goes about sharing them is problematic. We know that his brothers hated him and that he knew this, as we see in v. 4. So he really seems to use these dreams not to elevate God, but to elevate himself! Even his father realizes the problem here and, as we see in v. 10, "his father rebuked him." So, again, the broken structure of this family, again spins a bit more out of control and leads to deepened relational strain.
But the dreams also reveal another important point... that even in the midst of Jacob's imperfect and short-sighted vision, where he has favored one of his sons, and in doing so caused strife within the family. And even when Joseph himself chooses to one-up his brothers, yes, even there, God is at work establishing his plans. But, we will explore that theme more in just a bit.
But in the midst of all of that we discover a sad fact. While God reveals to Jacob's family that he is still very much their God and acting among them, they ultimately reject this. And in rejecting the prophesies, they are not simply rejecting Joseph, but ultimately are rejecting God and his plans. The biblical commentator, Gordon Wenham helps us understand what is happening here when he points out that:
duplicate dreams were thought to indicate [that their prophetic content] would certainly and promptly be fulfilled. Joseph’s brothers, however, determined to prove the dreams wrong. They decided to kill him, [thus negating God's plans] and only the chance to make a quick profit made them change their minds.
And so we see the great tragedy of sin at its very heart - the rejection of God and the path he has set before us for our good. But this almost always happens through the acceptance of apparently only "minor" sins - in this case the jealousy of Joseph's brothers - which then compile and lead to greater sins - again, in this case Joseph's brothers plotting murder, so as to get rid of Joseph and overthrow God's plan.
Reflecting on the danger of such slow trickles of sin in our lives, the great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon once noted:
Come... leave sin altogether. There is no safety if we venture an inch over the boundary line; indeed, little allowances are often more dangerous than greater compliances, since conscience does not receive a wound, and yet the man is undone, and falls little and little."
And what a great undoing this is! Not only do we see a growing hatred of Joseph here, but even more, the rejection of God's own revealed plan! What greater sin is there than to reject what God has revealed. And we see how this sin leads to the unraveling of Jacob's family in what follows!
(3) Joseph's Brothers Uprising and Sin vv. 12-35
So we now turn our attention to the uprising of Joseph's brothers. It is really quite tragic, isn't it. It starts in v. 12-13 "Now his brothers had gone to graze their father's flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Jospeh, "As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them."
And so Joseph goes. But as he approaches, we see that his brothers "saw him at a distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him" (v. 18). Consider that! Almost every one of his brothers were united in such hatred that without blinking they premeditated the sin of murdering their own brother! Here we need to take a moment to consider how vicious Joseph's brothers have become! It really doesn't come out in our English translations, but, if we look at the Hebrew we see that they do not speak merely of putting their brother to death, but they use the word "kill" that can be translated "murder"... let us "murder" our brother! Imagine how hard their hearts are at this moment! They are not even shy about announcing their intentions amongst one another.
But why!? Because as we saw earlier, they have rejected God's plan - expressed through Joseph's dreams! We see this here, in v. 19 when they say: "Here comes that dreamer!" Now English Bible translations certainly get across for us the scorn of Joseph's brothers. But, I would point out that it is not just scorn for Joseph that they are expressing here, but scorn for God who has given these dreams. How do we know this? Well, in the Hebrew, the word translated for us as "dreamer" is actually two words... and a better translation would be "Here comes that MASTER (or) OWNER OF DREAMS."
Notice what they are saying there! This is a complete rejection of God as the master and giver of prophetic dreams! And they plan to subvert God's plan clearly expressed in the prophetic dreams granted to Joseph by killing Joseph, thus making the dream impossible to fulfill. And the Bible makes that point as clear as day, for they follow their plot to murder their brother by boldly proclaiming: "Then we'll see what comes of his dreams" (v. 19).
In the midst of all of this, only one of Joseph's brothers - Reuben - speaks out against the plot!
So here we begin to see a glimmer of hope - as well as how God's providence goes to work! God's grace soften's Reubens heart, for as we see in v. 22, Reuben convinces his brothers to not kill Joseph, but instead throw him in a well. And we are told: "Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father."
But the tension doesn't end there! Reuben apparently steps away - we don't know why, or where to - but while he is gone, the rest of the brothers sit down for a meal and then see "a caravan of Ishmaelites" (v. 25). And then Judah comes up with an alternative plan!
In short he suggests, and this is my own paraphrase of the situation: Hey! Why should we simply kill our brother and make no profit! Instead, let us sell him to these Ishmaelites so as to both get rid of him and walk away with some money! It sounds like a brilliant plan to them! They don't need to kill Joseph - even though they've now step right into the sin of human trafficking! - and they still get the benefit of subverting God's plan!
Notice how terribly subtle the Devil's whisperings are! Judah's proposal sounds so much better... they aren't going to commit murder, they'll just sell Joseph! But they are still sinning! This is one way in which the Devil tries to trick us. He will show us all sorts of ugly sins, and then he will suggest something that looks innocent in comparison to those heinous crimes. But yet, what he is suggesting is still sin - even if it looks "less deadly." This is why the Bible draws out for us that sin - no matter how great or small - is still a terrible thing. So we find in John's 1st Letter, ch. 3 v. 4, that: "sin is lawlessness." There is no acceptable sinning... every sin is an affront to the glory and goodness of God.
(4) God's Plans Established in the Midst of Sin v. 36
But even here, in the midst of Joseph's brother's spiral into sin and rebellion against God we see that God is at work! NO... he does not stop them from sinning ...God allows his creatures freedom... but in the midst of that God actually continues to act sovereignly! Reflecting on this mystery, the great Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck, wrote:
however much sin entered the world by the will of the creature, it was nevertheless included in God’s counsel from eternity and to him was not... unforeseen.
And how do we see that here? Turn with me to v. 36. What do we find there?
"Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard."
We should pay attention to that first word: "meanwhile." It is a word we may pass over so easily, right!? But it points us to a great mystery!
Meanwhile... that is: in the midst of Joseph's brother's sins, lies, and plotting... in the midst of their dipping his many-colored robe in blood, and convincing their father that he had been killed by a wild animal... in the midst of Jacob's unconsolable grief... and in the midst of this now even further broken family...
In the midst of all of that this event happens: Joseph is sold "in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard." And in this event we see the greatness of God's providence and mercy!
Why? Because, even though it is sin that brought all of this to happen, God actually is at work, making sure that his plan will happen. In the midst of what Joseph's brothers have done, God has set it up that his people will come to Egypt, and there they will flourish and be a blessing not only to Egypt but to the world!
So we read in the chapters that follow our passage today, that everywhere Joseph goes, and every person he is connected to prospers and is blessed. So - as we see in Gen. 41 -when Pharaoh eventually discovers that God is at work in Joseph's life, he puts him in charge of the whole land of Egypt! And in doing so, God ensures that, when a famine strikes the land, because of Joseph, "all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph" (Gen. 41:57).
This is how God works - sin cannot block his way! What he wills happens! And eventually, Joseph's brothers learn this lesson! They thought they could subvert God's plan... but they discover that in the midst of their seeking to do so, they were actually incapable of even coming close undercutting God and his plans. In fact, it all worked towards what God had in mind!
Now that is a great mystery isn't it! I doubt any of us can really fully grasp just how deep God's providential care runs. But the Heidelberg Catechism offers us these helpful words (in Questions and Answers 27 & 28):
Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty - ALL THING, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.
But the Catechism follows this with an important question:
How does the knowledge of God's... providence help us? It makes all of this personal! This is not just about some heady doctrine. No, the Catechism asks, how does this doctrine of God's providence help us when we come up against the great tragedies of life.
...note how it answers this question:
We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have GOOD CONFIDENCE in our FAITHFUL GOD and FATHER that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.
In today's passage, we are seeing that very mystery at work! And we see in God's providence that his mercy is also expressed. For it is in this event that God leads his people into Egypt, and from there to the promised land! And in all of that, God is establishing his plan to not only bless the family Abraham, but all the peoples of the world... including ultimately each of us sitting in this room!
Finally, we should take note of that fact that in today's passage, as we consider God's providence at work in the midst of such terrible circumstances, the Scriptures are also pointing to the deepest source of Christian hope and consolation.
What do I mean? Well, we have seen just how ugly sin is, and the way the Devil can manipulate us in choosing sin, even convincing leading us to convince ourselves that it can't be that bad! And we have seen how sin breaks relationships. Indeed, not just in today's Scripture, but throughout the whole of the Bible we see that sin leads to misery, destruction, and ultimately death.
But just as God's providence was at work in Joseph's life, so also God's providence continues to be at work to this day!
YES TO THIS DAY, God's providence is at work! Let us lean into that hope my brothers and sisters! Even as we see a world around us falling prey to stories that tell us that seek to tell us that we are self-sufficient and that sin isn't real... even as we see terrible events, such as wars displacing people, earthquakes killing tens of thousands of people, or political regimes around the world suppressing the spread of the Gospel... even in the midst of all of that God is at work.
This can be a hard truth to grasp. But Scripture is clear - and it offers us deep hope - that even in the midst of the most tragic events of the world - in all that happens in our lives - God is at work.
NO, God does not will evil to happen. Scripture points out though that God does have a response to the problem of suffering and evil in this world (as we see, for instance in Ps. 91 - "You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destorys at midday. I will rescue... I will protect... I will be with them in trouble."). We see in Scripture that God has also willed to overcome all of that in his Son, who bore the weight of it all on the Cross (Is. 53:4; 1 Pet. 2:24) and by his death is making all things new (Is. 11:1-9; Rom. 8:20-22; 2 Cor. 5:17); and furthermore, that the Holy Spirit is at work, as God’s promise, in the renewal of all things until the cosmos is brought to perfection in the fullness of time (Rom. 8:11-27 ; Rev. 22:17).
And so we see that God is indeed at work in the conquering of evil and the renewal of creation.
That hope also invites us to go out into the world to share it with everyone we encounter. And what a message we have to offer! We get to tell them that even in the midst of the deepest and most dismal darkness.... God has given the most profound answer (showing his love and grace) That, in the words of Scripture: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life."
That is the great message of hope that we hear in today's Scripture passage. The promises that God has made to Abraham, his children, and to us, cannot be thwarted by anything in this world - even the ugliest moments of human history. When God makes promises, he keeps them. And so, even while Joseph's brothers thought they could stop what God was at work in doing, they - in their rebellion - ended up still fulfilling God's promises.
And ultimately, we see his promises fulfilled in the greatest work of God's mercy. For when Jesus Christ, went to the cross, in that moment God took the all evil in this world, entered right into the midst of sins ugly horror, and redirected it upon himself, thus overcoming all the powers of Hell and sin. Yes, it is on the Cross where all the powers of Hell and sin - and all the brokenness of the world - collapse and ironically become the means by which God fulfills his plan!
That my friends is the great message of hope that we have to offer to a world wallowing in tragedy, suffering, sin, and brokenness. We live in a world that often doesn't realize that there is a God who offers us a way out of all of that. And often the culture around us says we simply must accept that as fate.
But in Scripture God offers a better hope, telling us that we need not accept the world as it is. We know from his promises in Scripture that God is with is and for us, even in the midst of tragedy, and that in his providence he is caring for us - his children - with a love that is beyond measure. And God's love and mercy is not anonymous! NO, it has a face, the face of our Lord Jesus Christ! He is the one in whom we see God's providence and mercy shine forth most gloriously! And it is in our Lord Jesus Christ that we are made children of God! So let us go forth into this world with that hope - and share it with everyone we meet!
Let us Pray
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