Harrowing Of Hell
September 17, 2023

God’s Faithfulness

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Last Sunday, somebody mentioned from this pulpit that church can be a little bit weird. It was an awkward moment as heads bobbed up and down. Maybe church can be a little weird: after all, anyone can belong; no barriers to entry; impractical business model; and our hero died on a cross; and was resurrected. Should I keep going?  

I’ll do one more. Maybe the church is a little bit weird because we claim the Bible tells us something about God, even though it is full of crazy stuff, with people doing crazy things that seem to push back against best practices for living: like polygamy, incest, slavery, murder…There is one guy, supposedly a good guy, a foundational guy who tries to pawn his wife off to a warlord as his sister. Years later his son tries the same thing. Weird would be an understatement.

And there are oddball rituals like a pot of fire dancing between dead animals cut in two (except for the birds) as a conversation started with God, that seems to work. And this is just some of this stuff; which is why we might be suspicious of the Bible as a source of spiritual inspiration and insight into the nature of God.

And if you are suspicious (even a little bit) then I know two things about you:
                  1) that you know something about the Bible,
                  2) and you’re little less weird than I thought.
All that being said, I still maintain that within the pages of The Bible there are places where our life overlaps with the oddball stories we encounter. And it is in this overlap that we find insight into the nature of God.

Let’s take a look. We’ll start with Genesis chapter 50 to see how this might work. If you’ve been following along with reading the Bible in a Year you will know that when you arrive at chapter 50… you will have read chapter 49 which is the story of the patriarch, Jacob, gathering his twelve sons together to bless each one of them before he dies.     

When I get to a scene like this my imagination fills in the gaps. I imagine Jacob sitting in a great tent on cushions attended by those who love him; his wives and daughters and friends; eating dates, drinking wine, wearing a beret. And the scene sparks thoughts of: What will my last days be like? Who will I invite? Who will come? What words of blessing will I impart? Bible stories can prod us towards self-reflection.

Jacob calls his twelve sons, and he blessed each one of them with very specific words. In the Bible blessings are sticky and heavy and permanent. They are not accidental or spontaneous, rather predicative and directional, well thought-out and prophetic. Blessings have power and impact.

Jacob blessed his sons and then, the text tells us, he “drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.”  His family buried him with his grandfather and grandmother, Abraham and Sarah in Hebron.

Which brings us to chapter 50 today. Now that Jacob is dead, ten of his sons start to worry. They gather and say to one another: “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and pays us back for the wrong we did him?”  

You may recall (or will read soon) that these brothers sold Joseph into slavery because they were jealous of his relationship with their father, as signified by the coat of many colors Jacob gave Joseph… It was a technicolored dream coat, so saith Donny Osmond.

So, the brothers approach Joseph, and say to him: “Our father gave us instructions before he died to say to (you) Joseph, ‘I beg you forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrongs they have done to you.’” These are hard words to hear, because we, like Joseph, know they are a lie. Joseph was there when his father died. These words are blatant and insulting in their self-serving fraudulence.

Yet still, Joseph responds: “Even though you intended harm, God intended it for good.” Good came to Joseph as he found himself the number two ruler in Egypt. Good came to the people of Egypt who were saved from a famine. Good came to the brothers of Joseph who were cared for in the land of Egypt. What they did with malice, God turned to good.

In the face of human failure, God remains faithful. That, incidentally, is one of the overarching themes of the Bible: human failure, God’s faithfulness; human betrayal, God’s unshakable presence. And so, if this is one of the themes, then there must be dysfunction to make the point that God loves us more than our very worst moments.

That is a point worth repeating: God loves us more than our very worst moments. The question is not God’s faithfulness, rather our response to our own failures, or betrayals we have endured. The Bible offers options for response through the stories it tells. Some are better than others, irrespective God’s presence remains steadfast. Joseph’s brothers chose one option, Joseph chooses another.

For the brothers it seems their role model was their father, Jacob, who it turns out was a prodigious liar. His name, in fact, Jacob means the deceiver. You may recall how he stole his older brother, Esau’s, birthright and blessing. (You’ll read about Uncle Esau tomorrow, September 18th). Jacob’s lies enrage Esau who swears to kill him. So, Jacob flees to his mother’s brother’s people in the north where he works for Uncle Laban, who, it turns out, is also a habitual liar. I guess it runs in the family. Sometimes things do.

For 14 years Jacob lives under the thumb of Laban, suspicious, at all times, of his intentions, and rightly so. It is a bog of deceit. For example, Jacob wants to marry Rachel, Laban’s daughter, and instead gets tricked into marrying her sister, Leah. Weird. Who would do that? Uncle Laban, it turns out.

Life with Uncle Laban was a hotbed of obfuscation with liars lying to liars all over the place. Can you imagine? Maybe you can. Maybe you’ve been lied to? Maybe you’ve had somebody promise something that they didn’t deliver on? Maybe you’ve been in the presence of a colleague or a family member or a neighbor for whom you had reason to be suspicious? I hope you have never had to experience a bog of deceit, but they exist.

So, Jacob ran away, and Laban ran after him, intent on getting back what he believed Jacob stole from him. Then God got in the way. God has a way of doing that. Sometimes it’s in the form of a flat tire or a missed bus that causes you to miss an encounter that may have had a negative impact on your life. Sometimes it’s in the form of good counsel from a friend. Sometimes it’s through a timely coincidence, or an unanticipated gift. For Laban it was a dream. God came to him and told him to let Jacob go. So, when he caught up with Jacob he made a pact with him to live in peace.

And so, with Uncle Laban in the rearview mirror, Jacob turns to find himself in the sight lines of Esau who is approaching fast. With memories of Esau’s vow to kill him, Jacob goes tactical, dividing up his people and processions into four units, hoping that at least the pod with his sons in it can sneak through the net he believes Esau has cast. What Jacob also knows is that he must confront Esau himself…there’s no getting around this day of reckoning for the lies he once told.

It’s funny how things sometimes come back to haunt us. How deceit has a long tail. Maybe that has been the case for some of you? Maybe some of you have tried going tactical? Maybe some of you have a story of God giving you a better plan?

Jacob sees Esau on the road, no mistaking him a huge man with a bold red beard. And he notices that Esau is accelerating toward him, outpacing his posse. Jacob braces himself, standing in the midst of his children whom he had hoped would be clear of this confrontation.

As Esau drew closer, Jacob was surprised to see his blurry, tear-filled eyes… and then he was upon Jacob embracing him laying his head upon Jacob’s shoulder and weeping. God’s faithfulness had landed. What Jacob had done toward Esau in malice, God had turned toward good.

This is what young Joseph saw as a child standing on that dusty road. Uncle Esau, a man due retribution with the ability to inflict it, instead, through tear filled eyes leaned into the faithfulness of God.

How many times do you forgive? Seven? Seven times seventy? Anything less may leave us with the torture of dry-eyed suspicion, insidious, persistent and exhausting. Blurry eyes, filled with tears, is the better option. It may seem weird advice, but the Bible’s an odd book.

On the day his brothers lied to him Joseph remembered what he saw on that dusty road as a child many years earlier: Uncle Esau, a role model, whose beautiful tears blurred his vision enough to see what God was doing, despite the malice of others. Esau trusted in God’s faithfulness. Joseph trusted in God’s faithfulness.

And so, I leave us with that, the theme of God’s faithfulness, for our consideration as we wonder about how the odd stories in the Bible overlap with our lives.