Sermons, Uncategorized

Sent to Preserve a Remnant for Life

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“Having become the favorite the Pharaoh, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to request food supplies for their country suffering from famine. He makes himself known to them and pardons them (Genesis XLV, 1-8)” by Marc Chagall

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So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

A band of brothers have been keeping a shameful secret. Now, as the saying goes, “the chickens are coming home to roost.”

These brothers, the sons of Jacob, haven’t seen their younger brother, Joseph, in over twenty years. He was barely old enough to shave when they, fueled by jealousy and hatred, had sold him to slave-traders, then covered up their crime by faking his death. For all they know, Joseph is nothing but dust in the Egyptian wind by now, driven to an early death by the rigors of servitude.

But dead or alive, Joseph is a daily living reality in the consciences of his brothers. More than two decades after they’d tossed him into a pit, his cries for mercy are still echoing in the depths of their souls. More than two decades after they’d sat around that pit and ate a meal together, they can still taste the bitter memory of their heartless deed. More than two decades after their despicable deed, they still remember handing their father Joseph’s bloody robe and letting the old man think his favorite son had met his demise at the hand of some feral beast. Now, their shared secret stalks them night and day.

So pervasive is its influence upon them that when they experience trouble, they trace its ultimate source to the betrayal of their brother. When they kneel before the second-in-command of all Egypt and he accuses them of being spies and demands they bring their youngest brother down to Egypt as proof of their honesty, they lament to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21). In their minds, that dirty little secret from over two decades earlier is coming back to haunt them.

Once again, out of necessity because of the continuing famine, the ten plus their baby brother Benjamin find themselves kneeling in the presence of this powerful man, and he is making life difficult for them. Judah, evidently learning something from his past sins, refuses to leave Benjamin behind, because he knows that returning without him would likely be the last nail in his old father’s coffin. Instead, he begs to take Benjamin’s place himself.

The tender scene that is about to unfold in that room is much too private to be shared with outsiders. The man therefore dismisses everybody but the brothers. Then he breaks down and weeps aloud. The strangeness, sternness, and sharpness are gone from his voice now, as he speaks to the brothers in Hebrew, no longer through an interpreter. “I am Joseph!” he says. “Is my father alive?”

Imagine the shock and terror, when they hear him say, “I am Joseph!” Sin is the great destroyer, the great tension maker. Until the brothers have been assured that the barrier between them and him is gone, they will have no peace of mind.

“Come near to me, please,” Joseph urges. We can easily imagine how the brothers have kept their distance. Joseph now shows them not only with words but with actions that he feels no bitterness toward them, that he has only feelings of love toward them. There is no sadness, no anger in his heart; there should be none in theirs, now that God has given them back to one another.

Through the eyes of faith, Joseph has been able to recognize what God has been working to achieve. Using such unlikely building materials as the hateful and misguided actions of the brothers two decades earlier, God has constructed a plan to save many lives, including the lives of the important family still living in famine-plagued Canaan. “God sent me to preserve life,” Joseph tells them. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth.” Here is the key to the entire narrative. The brothers had sold Joseph to Egypt out of hatred and spite. God overruled their evil intent, using their action to preserve a remnant, a precious handful of His people, through a crisis that now threatened them with annihilation.

There is no time to waste. For five more years, the famine in Canaan is only going to grow more severe. Joseph’s main concern is for his aged father, who has already mourned the loss of his son for twenty years, and who, no doubt, is waiting anxiously for the brothers’ return. “Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children.’”

The words keep pouring from Joseph’s lips, because he can see his brothers are having difficulty believing their long-lost brother is not only still alive but is their friend. He is not a powerful man who will take revenge long overdue, but a loving brother who wants only to reconcile. Joseph speaks directly to them in their own language, they hear him with their own ears and see him with their own eyes.

Then Joseph lets his arms do the talking. He embraces each of his brothers warmly, until finally the brothers find their voices and speak to him. Tears flow freely, and built-up tensions flow out of them. Up until this time, the brothers have remained silent. Most likely fear and shock have taken their tongue. Or perhaps, they were wondering who is going to tell Dad, and how they might spin it so it did not lay blame at their feet. Finally, the brothers begin to speak to him.

Perhaps you know how those brothers felt. Tucked away in the deep recesses of your being is that dirty little secret that you’ve been carrying around for years. At times you forget it’s there. Then a certain person’s name will come up, or you’ll see something that triggers the memory. Then you’ll feel your secret reach out with two long-nailed fingers and pinch your soul, just to remind you it’s still there.

On other days, your secret seems to have bonded with the beat of your heart, so that like Poe’s villain in the Tell-Tale Heart, the raging pulse of your secret seems obvious to everyone around you. Moreover, it can form a film around your eyes, so that everything is filtered and interpreted through it. When something bad happens, you assume it’s due to your secret. You tell others it’s bad karma or bad luck, but you suspect it’s not. It’s the ghost of your secret, coming back to haunt you, to demand resolution and restitution.

Here’s something for you to ponder. In fact, I suspect you already know this, but let me say it out loud to confirm it: the secret about secrets is that they don’t exist. There is no such thing in all the world as a secret. You see, a secret is no longer a secret when two people know it. And even if you have been so careful as to hide it from the public, from your closest friends, even from your spouse, there is One who knows. He searches the hearts and minds of humanity. He brings out of the darkness what we have hidden: He places our secret sins in the light of His presence (Psalm 90:8). God knows your secret, and because you know that He knows, you ought to just go ahead and admit the fact that you have no secrets.

What you do have is something that humanity has always struggled with ever since the fall: a guilty conscience.

Maybe you can relate more readily with Joseph. You’ve felt firsthand the betrayal of someone close to you. Maybe you’ve even asked the question, “Why did this terrible thing happen to me?” Theologians calls this the problem of evil. How can a good, loving, all-powerful God let horrible things happen?

I’m going to be honest and say right now that there is no truly satisfactory answer to that question this side of heaven. We go on as Christians, not because we fully understand God and His ways, but because we see His true heart in Jesus our Savior. In spite of evil, we know God is good—because we see Jesus. We know He loves us—because Jesus died and rose for us. We continue to walk, even through darkness, because of Jesus. There is no other answer.

But there is another question, a perhaps more pertinent question, and that question might be phrased this way: “What can God do with this evil? What new, good thing can God create using this terrible thing?”

By faith, Joseph came to the conclusion God is able to bring good out of evil. Yes, he had suffered. He’d been falsely accused and thrown into prison. Because long ago, Joseph’s brothers had sold him as a slave into Egypt, he was now in a position to offer help others in a big way. That doesn’t make what Joseph’s brothers did to him any less evil. Kidnapping is kidnapping; selling your brother as a slave will never be on the list of good, moral examples to imitate. But God used that great evil to bring about salvation for many people.

A guilty conscience, the brokenness of abuse and the bitterness of betrayal. Both can lead to fractured relationships and trust issues. Both can lead you away from God. Fortunately, the remedy for both maladies is found in the same place—the cross and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is for those plagued with guilty consciences and those who have suffered abuse at the hands of others.

The Gospel in this story is the clear example it provides of the providence of God. Our God oversees all things—even evil things contrary to His will—to ensure that they serve His will and saving purposes. Three times in this text Joseph makes this point: “God sent me before you to preserve life” (v 5); “God sent me before you to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (v 7); and “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (v 8).

The theology is obvious: God is in control—so much so, that He can even use evil to accomplish His purposes. And what is God’s purpose in this case? “To preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” In using terms like remnant and survivors, Joseph is employing words that elsewhere in the Old Testament are freighted with theological significance. It may well be that in the deliverance of his brothers and his father, Joseph perceives that far more is at stake than the physical survival of twelve human beings and their children. What survives is God’s plan of redemption through a remnant of His chosen people.

The remnant motif begins early in Genesis with Noah and his family and carries through all of Scripture. Despite the threats of their enemies, the failings of their own sinful flesh, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob preserves a remnant of His people to complete His promise of the Messiah. Joseph is called upon to play an integral role in the preservation of this remnant, which includes his brothers and their children. From these few people eventually comes the whole nation of Israel—and from Israel, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Joseph is a type of Christ, one who foreshadows the person and work of our Savior in his own person and work. There are a number of parallels between the two. Both are sent to Egypt against their will: Joseph’s brothers being responsible for his exile there, Herod being responsible for Jesus’ flight there. Joseph is sold into slavery and Christ is delivered to the executioners, Joseph for twenty pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28) and Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15), yet in both cases good comes out of evil: the deliverance of Joseph’s family in the first instance, the salvation of the world in the second.

As Joseph forgives his brothers, so Christ cries out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And both Joseph and Christ, though rejected by their brothers, become the head of the corner of their respective spheres, but still are not ashamed to call their brothers brethren (Hebrews 2:11).

Joseph’s brothers deserved death, but what they received was forgiveness and life—and the life of others. Though their motives and actions were indeed evil, God used it for good. For the saving of the lives of many people, but even more important, the salvation of the world unto eternal life.

God can bring good out of our own evils as well. We may not see how He can do this right now; we may never see it in this world. And that’s hard. But in the end, it’s okay—because we know God’s true heart toward us as we see it in the life, death, and resurrection of our dear Lord Jesus. There on the cross, we see the greatest injustice, the greatest evil done toward the only one whom is truly good, and God turns it into the greatest good ever—the salvation of the world.

Your inheritance as a child of Adam is sin and death, but in Christ you are made alive through His resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:21–22). As you have died with Him in Holy Baptism, so are you raised with Him to newness of life. Instead of serving your desires and harming your neighbors, you live as “sons of the Most High.” You are “merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36). You deal with others as you would have them deal with you (Luke 6:37–38).

As Christ loved you when you were at enmity with Him, as He blessed and prayed for those who abused Him, and as He did good to those who hated Him and hurt Him, so also you “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27–29, 35). For God sent His Son to bear the cross and suffer death, not to condemn the guilty, but “to preserve life.” So does He provide a place for you within His Church, where He is near and deals kindly with “you and your children and your children’s children” (Gen. 45:5–10), giving you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

How Good Is Good Enough?

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

And as [Jesus] was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:17-18).

This interaction between Jesus and the man reminds me of a line from The Princess Bride. Throughout the movie, the evil Vizzini constantly states that things are “Inconceivable!” Eventually, an exasperated Inigo Montoya looks at him and says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There are several words the man in our Gospel seems to misunderstand. The first is “good.” “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” In essence, “You keep using that word, ‘good.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.” The man has a faulty understanding of what it means to be good.

It is this misunderstanding Jesus seeks to correct first. “Why do you call Me good?” He asks. “No one is good except God alone.” Jesus is not denying His divinity but wants the man to examine his own speech and motives. If this is empty flattery, it is worthless. If the man wishes to call Jesus truly good, then he will be speaking of His divinity. And that would have implications for a far different conversation if the man realizes and believes he is talking with the Son of God.

The man’s faulty understanding of good is closely related to his own understanding of himself. In Matthew’s account, he not only addresses Jesus as “good,” but asks what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. He is thinking too highly of himself and what he can do and not nearly highly enough about God and what He has done, is doing, and will do on behalf of man and His creation.

Jesus changes the focus from the man’s works to who God is. The challenge for the man is to stop counting his own good works and to see the enormous demands a perfect God can and does make. Then his hope will go from Law to Gospel, from His deeds to the saving action of God in Christ.

The second word the man misunderstands is “inherit.” “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks, using the correct theological terminology that connects salvation to an inheritance in God’s kingdom. But the word does not mean what he thinks it means. And so, it is a flawed question. After all, what do you do to inherit anything? It is something that is done to you. Someone out of the love and graciousness of his heart, makes you an heir and bequests what is his to you upon his death. An inheritance is not given based upon merit. There is nothing that can be done to earn birth (or adoption) into a family which provides the inheritance.

His question tells us that this man assumes he can work his way into heaven by the things he does. What he is asking Jesus is this: “How much more of God’s Law do I have to keep in order to earn my way to eternal life? What good deeds do I have to do? Am I good enough?”

Although the man is sincere, he is far from faith. He doesn’t want to Jesus to save him from sin, but to approve of who he is and the good he has done.

Since the man asks a question about keeping the commandments, Jesus gives him an answer about keeping the commandments meant emphasize what it really means to be good. The commandments are a natural complement to the perfect goodness of God. God’s perfection is reflected in His commandments. Jesus says to the man who would be “good”: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother’” (Mark 10:19).

But this preaching of the Law only leaves the smug man in his sin: “Teacher (notice how he is no longer calling Jesus good), “all these I have kept from my youth.” The verb “kept,” phulasso, occurs only here in Mark. It is the careful watching of a shepherd over his sheep (Luke 2:8), the guarding of a strong man over his goods (Luke 11:21), and the fierce preserving of His own by Jesus (John 17:12). The man has not merely observed the commandments but claims that he has zealously protected them. He says he has kept the commandments since his youth. I do not think “kept” means what he thinks it means.

Ironically, while he has, in his own estimation, such a perfect record, yet he is driven to find greater security by asking what else he has to do to earn his salvation. Salvation by works drives one either to empty vanity or desperate searching. The man in our text embodies both at once. If you seek to be saved by being good, you never really know if you’re being good enough.

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Only Mark tells us Jesus “loved him.” Jesus does not speak harshly or out of anger, but compassionately, winsomely. He seeks to strip away the man’s self-deception about having kept the Law while He also opens the door to a true relationship with Himself and eternal life. Though Jesus knows the man’s coming rejection, He truly loves him and invites him to follow Him.

Instead of showing the many occasions when the man has broken the commandments, Jesus offers him a new path. Just as a new path has been prepared for Jesus, so Jesus offers this man a new way through one step. Charity doesn’t earn eternal life, but Jesus is talking this man’s language, speaking to his heart. Will he “keep” the commandments or his fortune? Giving away all he has will be a true test of faith, faith which alone saves.

“Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). Certainly, this is one of the most ironic verses in the Bible. The man has riches and, in his opinion, a faultless moral life. And yet, since he cannot part with his wealth or admit his failings, he leaves sorrowful. The word “disheartened,” stugnadzo, occurs only here and Matthew 16:3 where it describes the stormy sky. The man’s hopeful beginning darkens severely. How unnecessary is this man’s sorrow! For the love of him and the whole world, the Son of God is about to give up all things, even His life, and bear the sorrow that now crosses this man’s face.

The rich man walks away. And Jesus lets him go. He loves the man, but in love He will not force the man to be repentant.

Jesus will, however, go to the cross and die for the sins of the rich man. If, later on, the man repents of his sin, the benefits of the cross will be there for him. Just as it is for every man, woman, and child who turns from his or her own self-righteousness, works, or merits, and instead trusts in Jesus’ blood and righteousness for forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Those who hear God’s Law and see their sin, who hear the Gospel and see their Savior.

So…what about you? What did you hear today in this text? Did you use this story as a spiritual mirror to examine yourself? To look in your heart for your idols? If so, did those words leave you disheartened? Will you go away sorrowful? Or will you repent of your sins and self-righteousness and depart in peace?

Unfortunately, many people feel this Bible story does not apply to them. But if you don’t think the Law applies to you, you’re misunderstanding Jesus’ words. We all have our idols. We all have things we fear, love, and trust in instead of our Savior—even if it looks to the outside world like we’ve got it all together. We all have a tendency toward self-righteousness.

The man’s outward life was most likely impressive. Yours may be also. But Jesus is not interested in how the man presents his own self-righteousness. Jesus exposes this man’s true inner self by asking him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor. This is more than the rich man can bear. “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful…”

It’s too bad that this is the way the story ended. This is how the rich man should have begun—sorrowful. Sorrowful for his sins. Kneeling in repentance, rather than as a matter of protocol. Following Jesus, trusting in Jesus’ mercy and love for eternal life, rather smug in his self-righteousness, or burdened with the guilt of unforgiven sin that still remains in his otherwise very respectable life.

The next time you kneel down in prayer, think of the rich man who knelt before Jesus. Remember that Jesus sees you both on the outside and on the inside. Instead of saying of God’s Commandments like the rich man, “All these I have kept from my youth,” pray something like this instead: “Heavenly Father, empty me of anything that would stand between You and me, including my self-centered goals and my self-centered religion. Empty me of all sinful attempts to establish relationships with others that benefit primarily myself and my goals. By Your spiritual medicine—the Word of your Law and Gospel—heal me from the deadly disease of self-righteousness. Through Your gift of repentance, take away my self-righteousness and replace these filthy self-righteous rags with Your true and perfect righteousness…”

Or you may kneel before your pastor for private confession and absolution. Say something like this: “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will… I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those who I have hurt, and those who I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.”

If you wish to confess specific sins, continue by saying: “What troubles me particularly is that…” and then confess whatever you have done against the commandments of God, according to your own place in life. Then conclude by saying: “I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace. I want to do better.”

Or as you just did a few minutes ago, kneel or stand with your fellow sinners and say: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable, sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

As you hear Christ’s absolution of forgiveness from your pastor’s mouth—whether privately or corporately—you can be certain that his forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness. Your sins are forgiven by Christ Himself.

Then properly prepared, come forward to the rail and silently kneel to receive the love of your Savior in His Holy Supper. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t excuse yourself. Don’t say anything but “Amen.” Just open your mouth and receive Christ’s very body and blood given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Receive His blessing and depart in peace, even as the rich man would have, had he not gone away sorrowful that day.

Jesus has laid up an eternal inheritance kept in heaven for you. Go in the peace and joy of the Lord. You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.