"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Call to Exile, to Sojourn in the Land

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Exiles and Sojourners 9 June 2013, SJE Gen 45:1-11, Matt 10:17-33

Pray. We’re continuing in our series focusing on the calling of God’s people to be both exiles and sojourners, today focusing on the life of Joseph – of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. We’re engaging in this short study as we prepare for the arrival of the Tai Thul family from Burma, a country under military rule since 1962. In Burma, Christians and Muslims are very much in the minority (6 and 4 percent, 2007 figures), and are sometimes violently discriminated against in this predominantly Buddhist nation. Now, part of the goal of this series is to teach about our calling as exiles and sojourners – so we can realize in welcoming these brothers and sisters in Christ to Canada, we are not welcoming ‘the other’, but welcoming home people just like us.

It is a challenging thought that we, as followers of Christ, might have a calling to the state of exile and sojourner, and yet that is the place to which God often brings us. Sometimes it is just exile, and sometimes it is a key part of a larger scheme of which we are only dimly aware. What we do know for certain is that the same God that used the death of his son to bring salvation to all people who call on his name will turn even the great darkness we may find ourselves in from time to time, through God’s great grace, into something redeemed or healed.

Before I move onto Joseph, a word about what exile and sojourner means for us in this same, abundant first world country. By virtue of our faith, we are called to live in a state of exile. Exile does not mean the state before you get a flat-screen TV the same size as your neighbour’s new set. Sojourning does not mean having to camp in a 25 foot fifth wheel, instead of the 37 foot rig you know you deserve.

First, our faith calls us into the state of exile – by our belief we stand apart from the greater culture. We may get along well with our atheist neighbours, and can work with pagan co-workers, but that does not change the reality of our calling as Christians to be a people apart. The Gospel reading today sets this out explicitly, and tells us that when people mock and hate us, and sometimes kill us for our faith, we are in the place that Jesus called us. Being a Christian means always feeling uneasy in the seat of first world culture, always looking for a different path, one that brings justice and love to the forefront over profit and expediency, even if so doing marks you as ‘different’. This is a particularly difficult call for a Canadian with our love of the middle way, but our faith calls us to live apart from the world, to be that light on a hillside, which is not always a path to being popular. While we do not have a military dictatorship oppressing us, yet, we share with all Christians this sense of exile – the call to be something different.

In addition to this default exile of our faith, we also move into more deliberate forms of exile and sojourning as we journey through our lives. A serious or terminal health diagnosis brings us into a place of exile, and makes us a sojourner within the health system. A classmate of mine died from Lou Gehrig’s disease last week – and while he was surrounded by his family and those who loved him, he was living in a form of exile within that illness, a sojourner in a land of his own. This is one of the reasons that we often feel uncomfortable when we visit those experiencing a serious illness – because the intimate encounter with someone in that particular type of exile reminds us of our own exile, and our own coming exile. When we are in our normal life, we can hide behind our success, our health, the abundance we share, and pretend that such things do not enter into our reality, but they will, and we all know that. The point I want to emphasize is to not fall into the trap of thinking that this ‘exile’ is someone distant from you – we are all exiles, which is one of the reasons we gather here in community.

Now, God has, throughout the history of his people used the exile as a way of purgation, of teaching and shaping them. In the classic understanding of spiritual growth there are three stages: the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive. Exile, and what that brings, is a time of great purging, of the removal of the things that aren’t essential, and a time of great shaping by the Lord. As CS Lewis says, when your hands are already full of things of this world, it is difficult for God to find room to give you what He wishes to share. Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? I certainly find it terrifying, but also exhilarating and comforting, because I know by God’s grace whatever small offering of myself I can make will yield 100 fold in God’s economy.

OK, onto Joseph. A refresher to bring you through the entire Joseph cycle to the point we read today. We have to start back with his father, Jacob, who you may recall wins the inheritance from his father by dressing up as his brother Esau. Jacob steals the inheritance from his brother Esau, and in turn Jacob’s sons steal his favorite son, Joseph, from him. A strange foundation on which to build God’s people Israel, but this is the way of Lord, a way that discards the world’s right-handed measure of success, and instead embraces what you might call a left-handed approach to power (Robert Capon).

Joseph is a dreamer, a prophet, and a thorn in his brother’s sides. We hear the start of the narrative about Joseph and right from the first sentence you get the sense that things are not going that well amongst the sons of Jacob. His brothers we are told, hate Joseph: Joseph was particularly loved by their father, and Jacob had made an elaborate tunic for Joseph– that coat of many colours. We hear accounts of two dreams that Joseph somewhat naively tells to his brothers – the sheaves of wheat bowing down before him, and the sun, moon and stars bowing before him. These are prophetic dreams that foretell the future status of Joseph…but right now all his brothers can see is yet another thing Joseph is lording over them.

When they get a chance, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery, and return the wonderful coat with long sleeves to his father, now soaked in goat blood. Joseph is taken into Egypt by a band of Ishmaelites, works as a slave, prospers, gets thrown in prison falsely accused of rape, prospers again and after years in prison ends up as prime minister of Egypt as the country comes into seven years of plenty, and seven years of famine. Joseph, acting for God, interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, and as a result is placed in charge of storing up great heaps of grain to feed Egypt during the famine. Eventually, the tables turn, and Joseph’s brothers end up in Egypt looking to buy grain to save the Jacob’s family and the twelve brothers who will father the twelve tribes from starvation.

Can you imagine his brother’s fright when they met Joseph in Egypt? The tables have turned and Joseph commands great authority in Egypt and literally has the power of life and death over them – they are completely at his mercy. And what does Joseph do? Is this not the time to punish his brothers, to gain retribution for the wrong they dealt him? Instead, Joseph says to them, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves…for God has sent me before you…” and so totally absolves them of their guilt and wrongdoing. “So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” acting through you. Even more astounding to us, he tells them to go back and bring their entire extended family back to dwell in Egypt under his protection and care. Joseph has been through this cycle repeatedly – the filling and emptying of hands, followed by a greater gifting from God, and still he is left ready to give.

It is almost impossible for us to see what is happening to ourselves and our families under God’s hand – like sailing across the Atlantic. At any given instant away from land you can look out at the water all around you, you can tell that you’re moving through the water, and that other ships are passing by, but you’ve really no specific idea where you are at any instant, or even what direction you might be sailing. If you take a look at the navigator’s charts, however, you will see your course line plotted out by position fixes along the way so you can see where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. When you return to the side of the ship and look out at the water – it’s nearly impossible to relate the two images together. This is like the difference between our view of our lives and the world we live in, versus God’s view of all of creation. Our view is very much tied to time, and particularly our time, while God sees the creation in its entire scope in space and time.

It is difficult for us to conceive of things on that grand scale, in effect to see the plotted course of our lives, to see the dangers we’ve left behind, and the ones we have yet to encounter. This is why it is important that we always take the long view as to what might be happening in our lives, before concluding we’re being punished by God for something we did in the past. Look at the big sweep of the Joseph cycle:

Joseph as beloved son of Jacob
Joseph sold into slavery
Joseph prospers
Joseph falsely accused and thrown into prison
Joseph prospers in exile
Joseph’s new power is used to deliver his extended family
His extended family settle in Egypt and prosper.

Now, if you were Joseph, and making regular reports about how happy you were with your lot in life, the answer might really depend on when the question was asked. Sometimes would be great, some not so good, and some downright awful. And the story has a happy ending, doesn’t it? Joseph and his family reunited, the nasty brothers forgiven, and everyone has lots of boiled grain to eat, forever and ever, amen. Except…

If you read on a few chapters in Genesis, you realize that this deliverance of God’s people Israel into the land of bounty in Egypt, was also their delivery into the hands of their oppressors. In not too long, a few hundred years, we’re into the book Exodus, and these saved Israelites are now slaves for Pharaoh, making bricks without straw. Until Moses is directed to be the agent of God to deliver God’s people. And once they leave Egypt, Israel settles down and is happy… except…The deliverance from slavery leads to a generation of wandering in the desert.

So as we look at this grand sweep of history consider what it means from this God’s eye perspective, and what it would mean if you were a human dropped into the story at any one point. The ‘death’ of Joseph sold into slavery. The famine. The deliverance into Egypt. The enslavement of your people. The freeing of your people…to wander in the desert. The entrance into the Promised Land. The Assyrian captivity of 722, the return to the promised land, the Babylonian captivity of 586, the return to the promised land, the final destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The cycle of turning away from God (disaster and emptying) and turning back to God (salvation and filling) that goes on to this day, for all of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ.

Do you see the pattern being set out in this history of God’s people Israel? Now, the importance of taking the long view in our lives is highlighted by this lesson from Joseph’s life. The lesson, is that it is very difficult to determine what is exactly going on in God’s great plan as that plan is worked out over multiple generations, while our horizon is limited to a few decades. God calls us to take the long view – and to realize that wherever we might be at any given moment, God calls his people, all of his people, to live in a state of exile. Sometimes that will be because you’ve been falsely imprisoned, and sometimes it will be living as an exile in the midst of a highly successful and equally highly secular country like Canada.

One of the fundamental truths of our lives as God’s people, grafted on to the stem of Israel, is that God will turn everything in our lives to the good, in God’s own time. That includes even the times of great horror in our lives, the times when God seems completely absent, and the experiences that we consider, in our limited human insight to be irredeemable and horrific. God turns all things to good in God’s own time – but not in our good time. Although you cannot see what is coming or how God will work to bring joy from the sometimes literal ashes of your existence today or yesterday, you can trust that what God has done for Israel, he will do for each of us. Amen


Written by sameo416

June 8, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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