Sunday, 20 March 2011

Turning Evil to Good - The Story of Jacob's Sons and Jesus

It must be sent for a purpose.

Some find great comfort in that thought as they grapple with awful circumstances they find themselves in, or as they struggle with yet another natural disaster.

I don’t find that way of looking at things so helpful. Indeed, I find it positively unhelpful.

Some things happen that seem to me to cut across all that is good and all that is of God. I cannot bring myself to believe that they were ‘sent for a purpose’.

I’m not sure I find that phrase in the Bible. Neither do I find that thought in the bible.

In the Bible I sense there is a reality of evil that cuts across the goodness of God. And that evil is not wiled by God for some greater purpose. Neither is it sent by God to achieve some greater purpose.

I find myself drawn to two different ways of looking at things.

No matter what may befall, God will always be with us. At times he may feel far away, but the reality is however God-forsaken circumstances may appear God is still there.

I am drawn to those last verses of Habakkuk.

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.*

This is a faith to hold on to in the face of the awfulness of circumstances that are so filled with wrong as to be outside of the purposes of God. But God in the reality of that world is there with us.

This is so in the sheer awfulness of personal circumstances. It is so in the face of the sheer awfulness of all that has happened in Japan. I share this evening what I shared this morning. Shusaku Endo has become one of my favourite novelists. It came as a surprise to me to find that one of the leading 20th Century novelists in Japan should be a Christian. Not only that but through his novels he sought to express his Christianity in a way that would speak to Japan and its culture.

I have not often re-read novels I have read in the past. But this week I found myself drawn to pick up his novel ‘Volcano’. What caught my eye was a paragraph written by Richard A Schuchert, the translator in the introduction.

For Endo … the quintessence of Christianity lies in God’s loving compassion for his wretched children, His willingness to share with us in our suffering …Endo is attracted to Jesus the suffering companion of all men and women, more than to Jesus the wonder-worker; he is obsessed with Jesus the human reject eventually crucified, rather than with Jesus the glorious pantocrator.

In Jesus God comes alongside us, remains with us, and enables us not to stare awful circumstances in the face and echo the words of St Paul …

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 337No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is interesting that Shusaku Endo chooses to communicate the power of his message in helping people to hold to faith in the face of awful circumstances through the medium of the novel. It is in the telling of a story that the most profound truths can be explored.

We in the West need to be reminded of that.

Kenneth E Bailey spent a life-time teaching the Bible in the Middle East. In a recent book entitled Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, he reflects on the contrast between the way we think in the West.

“In the Western tradition serious theology has almost always been constructed from ideas held together by logic. In such a world the more intelligent the theologian, the more abstract he or she usually becomes, and the more difficult it is for the average person to understand what is being said…

He goes on to observe that Jesus tells stories. We misunderstand what Jesus is doing in telling those stories if we imagine him siply to be a ‘village rustic creating folktales for fishermen and farmers.” Kenneth Bailey suggests that when we examine the stories Jesus told with care we discover that ‘his parables are serious theology.’ Indeed it is through his story telling that he emerges as an astute theologian.

Stories are of the very essence of the Old Testament. From Genesis 36 through to Genesis 50 is a story that is brilliantly told.

It is the story of Jacob and his sons as Genesis 36:2 reminds us. Think of it that way and it is the story of enmity that develops between the twelve brothers and Joseph, an enmity that is destructive and murderous in intent. It is telling that this is the story of Abraham’s descendants.

In this evening’s service we read the opening of that story from Genesis 36 and the ending of that story in Genesis 50. We then went on to read part of the story of Jesus in John 8 where he speaks of his disciples as those who hear his word, and find the truth, the truth that will set them free. There then follows a lengthy debate about what it takes to be descendants of Abraham.

John’s Gospel has sometimes been accused of having the seeds of anti-semitism. That is to misunderstand what is going on in that Gospel. It does not pit ‘Jew’ against ‘Christian’. Instead it describes the tragedy when Jew is at enmity with Jew.

And this is precisely the story that is told of Abraham’s descendants in this lengthy and prolonged ‘story of Jacob’s sons’. The story of Jesus echoes that story as the descendants of Abraham are at enmity with each other.

Part of the wonder of the story of Jacob and his sons is that at the end of Chapter 50 the twelve express the fear that Joseph will wreak his revenge now that their father has died. But in reality Joseph forgives and they are reconciled.

The wonder of the Gospel story is that it reaches its climax in the forgiveness Jesus holds out to those responsible for his death in the words ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.

The story of Jacob and his sons reaches a climax with a very powerful message that is a message of forgiveness which finds its echo in the story of Jesus.

More than that the story of Jacob and his sons comes to a climax with an insight that provides us with a very real alternative to the view that God sends something ‘for a purpose’

Just as the story has a start so too it has a finish. It is a beautifully crafted story. So beautifully crafted that you can think of as the story of Joseph and his brothers.

That story is so well told you could almost turn it into a musical, a best selling musical that would run for years and years.

The fist time I saw Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was at its very first outing into the West End. It was the second half of a double bill. The first half of the evening was a one act play by Galton and Simpson, the creators of Steptoe and Son. It was called Jacob and Sons. And it was as you can imagine a bit near the mark.

The second half was a hit. And it was quickly expanded … and it’s been in production and on tour ever since!!!

The great thing about Joseph the musical is that it keeps so closely to the biblical story. And the story is so well told. And the awful thing about the Musical is that it misses the point.

As it comes to a great climax, the brothers and Joseph are reconciled and reunited with their Dad. And then Jospeh bursts once more into song. I have heard it so many times, I could sing it to you … but I won’t.

I closed my eyes, drew back the curtain to see for certain what I thought I knew,
And in the east the dawn was breaking, the world was waking.

So far, so good. That’s a wonderful image. And in a way it captures the climax to the biblical story.

The Joseph story marks the end of the book of Genesis and the tales of the great founding figures of the people Israel. We have moved beyond the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob and Sarah and we have reached the story of Joseph and the twelve brothers. It is not without significance that Jacob has been given the name ‘Israel’ and the twelve brothers become the ‘founding figures of the twelve tribes of Israel.

In the east the dawn was breaking of the story that was to become the story of the People of God. The dawn was breaking, the world was waking.

But then comes that phrase that makes me want to leap out of my seat and shout out no. The problem is the tune is so catchy I find myself carried along with singing … any dream will do.

No, ANY dream will NOT do!!!!

That misses the point all together.

What’s interesting is that the biblical story comes to a climax with a scene that has a wonderful statement in it. That serves as the key to the whole story. The summing up of the whole point of the story.

It is very thought provoking.

In each of the commentaries I looked at in readiness for this evening, Genesis 50 verse 20 was identified as the key to the whole story of Joseph and his brothers. I love the way the Good News Bible puts it …

Joseph has been reunited with his brothers. They are fearful of what he will do to them. But Joseph forgives and then says these words …

You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good.

I like the way the Revised English Bible puts it …

You meant to do me harm, but God meant to bring good out of it.

That captures something very special for me.

The debate Jesus has over what it takes to be descendants of Abraham leads into the story of the healing of the man born blind in John 9. That man born blind lives in a dark world – but into that man’s life Jesus brings healing and so the harm is turned to good, God brings good out of the awfulness of the circumstances that man finds himself in.

No matter what the harm, no matter the plotting, no matter the evil humanity can devise God will bring good out of it, God will turn it into good.

The whole story of Jesus in his passion that once again we will tell as Easter approaches, not least in a Palm Sunday evening service the choir are putting together that will enable us to celebrate once again the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version, the whole story of Jesus and his passion is the story of people who are out to bring harm and to do evil. And at the climax Jesus utters the words, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. It is as if God in Christ brings good out of the evil that has been done, he turns it all to good.

God sent it for a purpose? No, I cannot take that.

God in Christ is alongside us in the suffering of this world and he will not desert us. There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This is the vision of Habakkuk and of Romans 8. It is the vision shared by Shusaku Endo of the Jesus who is our suffering companion. And it is the vision to hold on to.

God in Christ is alongside us in the suffering of this world. No matter how great that suffering, God will bring something good out of it. He will turn it to good.

This is the vision the story Joseph and his brothers has to share with us.

This, too, is the vision for us to hold on to!

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