Many of you have commented on how wonderfully the latter chapters of Genesis have spoken into our congregational life in our current time of struggle. This is just one evidence among many of the tender care of our heavenly father whose nearness has been almost palpable, for which we give deep and grateful thanks. So as we face having to leave our building, in which we have invested so much both spiritually and financially, and as we look to a future which will be very different for us, I want to encourage us to embrace what we have learned from God's servant Joseph.
The 'Joseph story' is really all about the Great Story of God: how his promise unfolds, serenely, according to plan. Yet at the same time it is also the story of how the Lord deals with this one man, Joseph, a real human being, flesh and blood just like us. So we must never forget that although God does care – intimately – for his covenant plan, he also cares infinitely for his covenant people. He is wonderfully faithful to his covenant, and therefore wonderfully faithful to his children. God is at work with Joseph's life to achieve wonderful things through him, but he is also working to achieve wonderful things for him and in him.
Of course, 'we are not Joseph'; you have heard that many times! But Joseph's story is our story; like him, we too are part of the Great Story – the story of the coming King who reigns forever. And Joseph's God, now made known in all his radiant glory in the Lord Jesus, is our God. His Spirit abides in us who love Christ. He has promised we also will share the glorious salvation which Joseph's life served, and if at times we recognise the same pattern, the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ, being played out in our own lives (as it was so remarkably foreshadowed in Joseph's) it must surely encourage us. For no matter how dark and mysterious the days may be that we have to face, we too shall prove his promises true. We are 'fellow-heirs with Christ, provided,' says Paul, 'we suffer with him [as Joseph did] in order that we also might be glorified with him' (Rom 8:17). To use Joseph's own words, 'the thing is fixed by God, he will shortly bring it about.'
'... for God's beloved children there can be, by his grace, even now, great reward.'
We will see all his promises fulfilled ultimately and forever when the Lord Jesus returns to reign, and on that day there shall be a great reward for us. But until that day there will be many struggles, many battles, many disappointments, just as there were for Joseph. And yet what his story shows us so clearly is that for God's beloved children there can be, by his grace, even now, great reward. And that reward is what is being forged in us in the crucible of God's sometimes painful and perplexing providence. My father comments in his notes on Genesis (available here):
'We might speak of the recognition Pharaoh gave Joseph as God's reward to him, but it would be truer to say that the greater reward lay in what God had made him.'
We all know the end of the story, and Joseph's gracious reconciliation with his brothers who had so wronged him. But much earlier, two apparently insignificant verses are very revealing of Joseph's inner heart and soul, and so instructive about the kind of man he had become through all the trials God had led him to endure. Two sons were born to Joseph during his 20 years of separation in Egypt, and Genesis 41:51-52 tells us that he called the name of the firstborn Manasseh, 'for God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house,' and he named the second Ephraim, 'for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.'
'He named his two sons Forgetful and Fruitful because, despite all the pain and heartache, that is what God had enabled him to be.'
He named his two sons Forgetful and Fruitful because, despite all the pain and heartache, that is what God had enabled him to be.
He was forgetful with the right kind of forgetfulness. He hadn't really forgotten his family and his father's house and his faith; of course not – his confession of God makes that clear. But he is forgetful of all the affliction, of all that could and would have made him bitter and hardened as a person had he allowed these things to fester in him. God had released him from all of that, and had done so most wonderfully.
It's not enough just to overcome great trials and make it good in life eventually. Sometimes people do endure great hardship and personal hurt, or loss, or injustice, but they overcome and emerge in the end prosperous, and with a bright future. They find success in life, in their career or their family or even in Christian ministry. But nevertheless they can carry a chip on their shoulder all the way to the grave: bitterness and resentment, determination to prove a point, ambition to prove themselves to others or to themselves, or even to God. But that attitude of bitterness can consume you; it will eat you up inside and poison others as well into the bargain.
It is easy to become bitter as Christians because of what life flings at us, and what we may feel God has flung at us. That's why the Bible warns us so clearly not to allow that to happen in the church: 'Don't let a root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble, defiling others with the poison!' (Hebrews 12:15). If ever a man could have allow bitterness to poison his life, and be in a position of power to damage others constantly through that bitterness, it was Joseph. But no, God granted him forgetfulness: liberty from chasing after the esteem of man, and remembrance instead of all the goodness that he had found at God's hand.
Forgetfulness ... and fruitfulness – 'God has made me [and will make me] fruitful in the land of my affliction.'
'Why, of course! Affliction and fruitfulness are always united in the economy of God. It is the law of the spiritual harvest that except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone but if it die it brings forth much fruit. "Out of the presses of pain cometh the soul's best wine."' (James Philip, notes on Genesis)
When we are perplexed at the struggles and afflictions that do sometimes surround us in life, it is so easy to feel engulfed and to sink into despair. It can feel as if these things must surely leave marks upon our lives that we will never get over, that we will never, ever, leave behind. At times we may wonder if, because of things that have happened to us, or perhaps because of things that have not happened for us, we shall never really be able to be useful in life agin. When things seem to have gone terribly wrong we can feel that about our Christian life and service: 'I just can't see myself ever being able to be really useful to the Lord again!'
But, friends, that is not so. Because what God did for Joseph, he can do and he will do also for you, and for me, if we will let him. God can grant forgetfulness, freedom from all the bitterness of the past, and fruitfulness, even in the land of our affliction. That, I think, is perhaps the sweetest evidence of God's grace at work in this wonderful story in Genesis: not the great exaltation of Joseph to be ruler of Egypt, but the fragrant fruit of the Spirit of God in Joseph, God's dearly beloved child. The fruitfulness of forgetfulness in him.
'... may God grant us to forget all that would embitter us (and through us, others); may he also make us fruitful for him ...'
Wouldn't that be sufficient reward for us, for you and for me, indeed for our whole fellowship, in these difficult days of hardship and perplexity and painful loss?
We have a hope that is steadfast and certain: we know that one day we too shall reign in glory with Christ, and that there is laid up a crown of righteousness for all who have longed for his appearing. But meantime, until that day, we are called to endure suffering, and to fight the good fight in order to keep the faith. It is through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God. And through it all, and in the midst of it all, 'godliness with contentment' is great gain.
And so, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, may God grant us to forget all that would embitter us (and through us, others); may he also make us fruitful for him in, and even through, all our present afflictions. And may the fragrant fruit of his Holy Spirit be among us, and as evident to all, as in the life of Joseph.
Your brother and friend
William J U Philip