This sermon based on Genesis 37-47 was written and preached by Rev. KJ Norris on Saturday, March 21 during the Coronavirus Outbreak.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
We pastors sometimes joke about preaching sermons that we need to hear ourselves. Yes, our primary call as preachers is to listen to God through Scripture and to prayerfully consider the needs of our congregations and then trust in the Holy Spirit to give us something to say on Sunday morning. But sometimes we preachers need to hear a word from the Lord for ourselves.
As I’ve been reading the daily lectionary these past few weeks and days, the Lord has put a sermon on my heart that I need to hear. It is one that is difficult to preach because it is based on 10 or so chapters of Scripture. I can’t read all of those verses to you today. We would be here for an hour if I would. But I did read the kids version from the Storybook Bible on our website. Look for it there and you will get a taste of this Biblical novella.
Or better yet, spend an hour reading through it yourself. You can start in Genesis chapter 37, consider skipping chapter 38 but then read all the way to 47. It is well worth your time. Our Scripture tells the story of Joseph.
Joseph is from a really messed up family and has a dad who plays favorites. If we don’t mind our manners, we would probably call Joseph himself a pompous little twit or a pipsqueak with an over-inflated ego. He brags to his brothers and they become so angry that they actually plot to kill him.
In the end, he is sold off into slavery by his own family. There he eventually ends up in the bedroom of a prominent military officer’s wife and is thrown into jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You really can’t make this stuff up! It is the very best of telenovelas and romance novels. If you have time on your hands right now, read the Bible. It’s the best book ever written in a million different ways.
The point is this:
Joseph goes through some of the most horrible things a person can ever go through: He is betrayed by his family. Forcibly trafficked to a foreign nation. And if that isn’t bad enough he goes to prison for something he didn’t do. As you read chapter by chapter your heart just breaks because you think: oh no. Not another thing. Can’t this guy get a break! He isn’t perfect but no one deserves this.
Perhaps some of us feel like Jacob right now. Many of us were already living paycheck to paycheck. We were making it. But it wasn’t easy.
But now things are so much harder. Many of us are being laid off from work. Some are sick and worried about healthcare. We are especially worried about those who we love who are in high-risk categorizes. The kids are home and we are all starting to feel like caged birds. Things are going from bad to worse. And fast.
Isn’t there any good news?
Reading through this story chapter by chapter you might start to think not. It takes a long time before things start to turn around. You start to wonder where God is in the story. You start to wonder if Joseph has been abandoned not just by his family. Not just by a system that was suppose to protect him. But by God as well.
Reading Joseph’s story little by little, you can start to lose hope. Start to despair.
But then as you read, you start to see little glimmers of hope. God gives Joseph strength to keep moving even in the suffering. God puts some good people in his life who reach out in a critical moment. God gives Jacob the gift of a strong mind which can interpret dreams. God grows qualities within him which make him a leader even when he is in chains.
God has been preaching to my heart this week, reminding me that God is with us in the storms. God is with us in the trials. God is with us even when it feels like the world is crashing around us. I’m reminded that “though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, God is our refuge and our strength” (Psalm 46, see also Home Church March 15). I’m reminded that though it may appear Jesus doesn’t care and is sound asleep, we do not need to fear (Mark 4:35-41, see also God is at Work in Difficult Times).
Sometimes it is not obvious how God is at work. Sometimes we will only we able to see things in hindsight. But Friends, God has not abandoned us. God is good and loving. And we can trust God and look for signs of hope all around us.
As you continue reading through Genesis you find that the region first goes through a time of abundance. Seven years of plenty, our Scripture tells us. That may not be an exact 7 years; the number 7 is often used to signify completion. So a complete cycle of strength one might say. A time when a nation was wealthy and strong. When unemployment was low. When the stock-market saw major gains. The kind of period we as a nation have been living in.
And then, our Scripture shows us that a time of famine comes. A time when people are out of work. When stores close. When there is no toilet paper on the shelves. When the stock-market tumbles.
This is not the first time in history something like this has happened. We are not alone. There are cycles of abundance and cycles of want. Paul said it this way in Philippians: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12, NIV). We are not alone. This is not the first time people of faith have faced a crisis.
The question we continuously need to ask ourselves both in times of abundance and in times of want is this: What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be? How is God at work?
Prayerfully, I think that Joseph’s call is our call. Joseph can be a model for us of how we can live our lives in this new day. Notice three things about the way Joseph chooses to live his life in this time of crisis. Three things that make him a model for us to how we can live our lives as well. A model for me as a preach to myself in this time.
1) He continues to pray and seek wisdom from God.
In Genesis 41:16, Joseph is brought before Pharaoh who is seeking wisdom and looking to Joseph for the answers. But Joseph, the one who we know as having an ego the size of barn, is now filled with humility. He knows he doesn’t have all the answers. He says to Pharaoh, “It is not I but God who will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:16, NRSV with Pastor emphasis).
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know how to lead in a time like this. How do I lead when I can’t even see you on a Sunday morning? How do I preach when my style is so conversational and there is no one to ask my crazy Sunday morning questions to? How do we connect when we can’t shake hands or have communion?
I don’t know how to do this. But God does.
You may be feeling the same. You may be wondering how you can live on unemployment or where you are going to get work in this time. You may be feeling like you have no idea how to homeschool your kids or even how to talk with them about all this. We all are in uncharted waters. But you know what: God knows.
God who is the giver of all wisdom and strength. God who created you and loves you and has a plan and purpose for you life. God knows. Our call is not to have all the answers but to have enough humility to ask God. To pour out our hearts to God. To allow the Holy Spirit to fill us up. To allow the Word of God to speak to us. Our call is to seek God.
2) Joseph shares abundantly.
Joseph shares abundantly. I know this is counter-intuitive in this time. I do. Many of us are looking for ways to save. Perhaps even to horde. There is a meme going around right now which showcases a guy with an entire grocery cart full of thousand island dressing. I have no idea why. All I can say is that guy must really like Rubens.
It is easy to start to put up walls. To keep the other out. To only look out for ourselves.
But we will never thrive that way.
If you have ever watched an episode of hoarders or if you know someone who struggles with this mental illness, you know that hoarders are the loneliest people on the planet. And they end up poor, unable to buy the things they really need because they have collected so many things they will never use and can’t let go of.
Our call, especially in times of want, is to be givers. To look out for our neighbors. To seek out ways we can love and serve and support and give.
When I was in 5th grade I did a special project for school where I interviewed my great-grandmother. Vienna DeRoss, Vi as most people called her.
I spoke with her about living through the Great Depression. I asked how she made it through. She said that her house became a kind of soup kitchen. People all knew that they could come to her house and get soup and bread when it was possible. Lots of people were out of work and they needed help.
I asked Vi how she could do that. They were down and out, too, how could she feed her whole neighborhood week day after day, week after week. Oh, honey, she said. People all knew our house was the place to come. So, they would show up. They would bring what they could. A carrot or celery or spices. They knew we would put it all together and somehow what little we gave God would multiply.
My Great-grandmother Vi saw first hand how 5 loaves and 2 fish could feed 5,000 people (see Mark 6:30-44). It only happens when all of us live into our call to be givers. This is the time to give.
And as you consider ways you can give remember that material giving is important, but so is giving of your time. Can you watch kids for a while so parents have a break? Can you show a neighbor how to use technology so they won’t feel so isolated? Can you write a card or sing a song or say a prayer or make a phone call? We need one another more than ever. How can you live into your calling to be a giver?
How can we as a church give more? How can I as your Pastor give more?
3) Joseph rebuilds relationships.
It’s funny. We are being called to social isolation and within this time of social isolation, I feel God calling us to build relationships. No, we cannot spend time in groups. No, we cannot go to the church and hold hands in prayer. It is the loving thing to do to stay apart. You are being brave and loving by staying in isolation. It’s hard to do. But it is a sign of strength and faith to stay in isolation.
But while we are in isolation, we are called to build relationships. Joseph forgives those who have wronged him and supports them through the hardship.
Yes, I get that all of us are tempted to just Netfix and chill right now. I get it. And yes: take some time for you. Watch a program. Get some exercise. Pick up a new hobby. Read a book. Make a painting. Construct a puzzle. Find things you love to do alone.
But also look for ways to connect. Commit to making two phone calls a day to check on friends and loved ones, even the ones you are estranged from. Write cards. Send facebook messages. Check on your neighbors. I don’t know what is going to be your way, but we are called to safely build relationships.
Let us love more deeply and broadly in this time. Let us connect while we isolate. Let us truly be good neighbors.
Humbly listen to God. Be a giver. Build relationships.
This is the sermon I need to hear. And I hope it gives you strength in this time as well.