Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Figure of Joseph

A Sermon preached at St Simon the Fisherman in Mauritius on Genesis 37, Psalm 105, Rom 10.

It's maybe the most moving story in the OT, the story of Joseph.  The final act has him finally reveal his identity to the brothers who sold him into slavery after a dramatic process of testing by Joseph--on their first trip down to Egypt from Canaan they are accused of spying, Simeon is imprisoned until they return with their younger brother Benjamin.  Benjamin comes down to Egypt only to be framed by Joseph and accused of stealing; the brothers are pushed to their limits until Judah, the very brother who sold Joseph, falls down before him and cries, "what can we say?  How can we prove our innocence?  God has uncovered your servants' guilt.  We are now my lord's slaves--we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup."  In the brothers' minds there is a dawning recognition that what they are going through is a punishment in some way for what they had done to Joseph.  Perhaps they had been suffering for years under a guilty conscience--every day as they had matured into adults the regret got worse.  And now when they are in front of the angry face of Pharaoh's servant, they say to themselves: "Surely we are being punished because of our brother.  We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us." 

Our story from Genesis today is a very clear example of what theologians like to call typology.  Typology is basically foreshadowing, a foreshadowing of three things: Jesus, ourselves, and the last days.  Joseph we know was a prophet, because he had dreams.  His dreams foreshadowed what would happen in the near future--that somehow his whole family would bow down to him, which indeed came to pass--a famine afflicts the whole world and his brothers are forced to go down to Egypt to buy grain.  It would seem at first that these dreams came from pride, but we know that Joseph told them to his family quite innocently.  He was not an arrogant person.  Prophets are simply supposed to relate what they hear and see from God.  Did Joseph know yet that his dream was prophetic?  I don't know.  I do know, however, that a prophet foreshadows the future not only in his words, but in his deeds. 

So what are the deeds of Joseph, and what are they foreshadowing?  I think that we will find that they very clearly are telling us many things about the future Messiah.  First pay attention to the fact that Joseph was treated like his Father's only son and that he received a glorious robe from him.  This aroused jealously in his brothers who he came to visit, and who stripped him of this robe, threw him into a pit, and then sold him as a slave into Egypt for twenty shekels of silver. 

It is really worth paying attention to each of these details.  In Scripture clothing is often associated with different states of repentance and glorification.  So Adam and Eve find themselves naked, and yet God provides them with sackcloth, and sackcloth is what people put on when they are mourning or repenting--just like John the Baptist.  On the other hand fine clothing is usually associated with the priests in the temple--and Exodus goes on and on about all the details of their clothing.  Also, Jesus talks about needing to wear a wedding garment to get in to the kingdom of heaven, a garment given by the Master of ceremonies himself.  This is why we put on white robes after we're baptized.  And yet by nature Jesus had this glory from all eternity and he freely chose to take off his glorious robes--indeed, the soldiers at the Cross cast lots for them--and to become flesh like one of us in order to repent in our place.  By becoming flesh, it was like Jesus was taking off his glorious robe and putting on sackcloth. 

Then there is the detail of Joseph's brothers' jealousy.  Jesus himself implies this about his relationship to the Jews in the parable of the tenants (Matt 21:33-39).  A certain landowner rents his property to his farmers and at harvest time he sends his servants to collect the fruit, but when they see the servants the tenants seize them and beat them.  So the landowner tries to send his son, but the farmers say to themselves, "This is the heir.  Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance."  Jesus applies this to the Pharisees, but John says it in other words when he states that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him."  Jesus comes to his brothers, but he is rejected. 

Next let's consider the word "pit" and begin with the Psalms, where getting thrown into a pit is a very common theme.  I found five Psalms (7, 9, 35, 57, 119:85) that talk about evil doers digging a pit for the innocent and yet falling into it themselves, two about God bringing the wicked down into the pit (55, 94), six about the Psalmist calling for God to take him out of the pit, arguing that no one can praise him from the pit, or comparing God's salvation to rescue from a pit (28, 30, 40, 69, 102, 143), and two where the Psalmist states that God has put him in the pit (88, 140).  Then of course we have the example of both Jeremiah and Daniel getting thrown into the pit as punishment, but getting rescued.  Finally, in the NT hell is portrayed as a pit or an abyss, and yet we know that the gates of hell could not prevail against Jesus who went into the grave and came out alive.  Joseph's descent into the cistern and into slavery in Egypt foreshadows Christ's own descent into the depths for our sake. 

Another common image in the Bible is getting sold into slavery.  Joseph himself foreshadows the people of Israel going down into Egypt as slaves, and yet it says that God "redeemed" them.  Both going into slavery and coming out of it involve a sale, and so it is very common for the book of Joshua to describe God's punishment on Israel as God "selling them into the hands of their enemies" (Deut 32:30, Josh 2:14, 3:8, 4:2, 10:7, 1 Sam 12:19, etc.) or St Paul to say that "you were bought at a price" (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23), the price of Christ's blood (1 Pet 1).  And yet as I said, if we were slaves to sin, Jesus became enslaved to us so that we could be free.  The prophet Zechariah predicts this when he says that the Shepherds of Israel--it's leaders--would betray Jesus for thirty shekels of silver, and this indeed comes to pass when Judas, the namesake of Judah, sells Jesus to the chief priests for thirty shekels of silver, the price of a slave in the book of Exodus.  Judah sells Joseph for twenty shekels--even less. 

And so we return now to Judah, whose conscience had been eating at him for years and who weeps "God has uncovered your servants' guilt.  We are now my lord's slaves--we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup."  Judah knows that he has sold himself into slavery as a result of his sin; he knows in fact that God has sold him into slavery to Pharaoh's mighty servant staring him in the face at that moment.  He even goes so far as to offer himself in place of his accused brother Benjamin, "please let your servant stay here as my Lord's slave in place of the boy…" 

Now Joseph can no longer hold it in.  Previously he had hid himself in his private room to cry after he had seen his brother Benjamin, but he had put on the act once again.  At this point he tells his servants to leave and he bursts into tears in front of his brothers.  If Judah is sure that God had uncovered his sins, how much more now when the very brother he had sold into slavery uncovers his identity!  How much more terrifying and hopeless is Judah's situation now that the slave, Joseph, has become the master, and the master, Judah, the slave!  How much worse will his punishment be since it is no longer God who is punishing, but a vengeful brother!  Zechariah (12:10) the prophet had spoken of this same situation when he talked about the Christ who was sold by his people then being revealed: "They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.  On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great…" 

This is not only a prophecy about the conversion of the Jews in the last days, it is our story.  We might point our finger at Judah, we might point our finger at "the Jews" and think that their situation is not our own.  But consider this well: we are Judah.  All of our talk about God's forgiveness can get quite theoretical; we think it's obvious that God is forgiving by definition.  But if we have not experienced the uncovering of God's face as the face of the One we have enslaved, then it is still only theory.  Do you know that it was your sins that sold Jesus into slavery?  When Jesus uncovers our sins, we know one thing: that only he can forgive us.  On that day we will hear him say just like Joseph, "Come close to me…. I am your brother Jesus, the one you sold into Egypt!  And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…. God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance."

The face of Jesus is uncovered before us this morning.  Hear him speak these words to you.  Amen. 


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