St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga


Genesis 37:3-8, 26-34; 50:15-21
Let’s face it, the story of Joseph is one that presents us with a couple of problems. Blatant parental favouritism, God sending visions to a man with an arrogant disregard for the feelings of his brothers or parents; brothers selling their brother into slavery, as a more profitable option than simple patricide. Really, when you look at the family of Israel – two wives, children by both of them and by two maidservants as well – what you see is a dysfunctional mess: not exactly the material out of which you might expect God to found his nation, a people through whom the whole world would be blessed.

And then, of course, there’s the role the story of Joseph plays in the bigger picture, the story of the people of God through the Old Testament. Through this story, the people leave Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham and Isaac, and end up in slavery in Egypt; and when they are finally set free in the Exodus, in order to retake the ‘promised land’ from those who now occupy it they will have to fight a series of bloody wars.

Honestly, it’s all a bit of a mess. Despite Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best efforts (which, let’s be honest, are probably a better known telling of the story than the account actually found in the book of Genesis – and there is, I’m afraid, no contemporary evidence that Pharaoh did Elvis impressions (or vice versa, for that matter)), it’s really not a story about the power of dream or any such hippie value. “Any dream will do”? No, really, no.

The power of the story of Joseph isn’t in his dreams, or in his God given gift of interpretation. It isn’t in his character – though that’s a miracle we will return to. It’s not even in his remarkable rise to power in Egypt.

The power of the story of Joseph lies in his theological response to his brothers when they discover who he is: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”

Which, I have to admit, on first glance, is the very last line in the whole story that I’d choose to preach on. For it reads with that sort of fatalistic version of the sovereignty of God which we hear echoed in those awful words of false comfort offered to the grieving “God has his reasons… God making something great out of this suffering, just wait and see… God intended it for good.”

Quite aside from basic pastoral flaw in such words – that any comfort that can found in the idea that God works good out of suffering is only meaningful if it is found by the one who is suffering, not when it is offered to them as well meaning comfort by an outsider – there is a deeper problem, which is this:

It’s not what it says.

Now I do not often get involved in discussions of the original languages of the Bible, partly because I have memories of some very dull sermons in my childhood and teenage years filled with references to parts of speech and Greek idiom, but mostly because I’m not actually very good at Greek, and even less so at Hebrew.

But this story turns on Joseph’s words: “you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”. So we need to dig just a little below the surface.

So bear with me for a very brief excursus into Hebrew grammar.

If there is one thing that is worth learning about the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written, it is this: Hebrew doesn’t have tenses. There is no past, present or future in the Hebrew language.

What there is, is the aspect of a verb, perfect or imperfect, whether it is a completed action or an ongoing action. And this, along with the context, gives strong hints as to the tense implied. But the problem is that whenever the Hebrew authors wrote of God, they always used the perfect aspect, the form of the verb that implies a completed act. Even words of prophecy of future actions by God are written as completed; every action of God is ‘complete’, even if it hasn’t happened yet. It’s theology expressed in grammar: if God is going to do something, it is as good as done. It is complete, before it even happens.

Which makes it, often, hard to tell whether a description of God’s action refers to the past, the present, or the future. So though the brothers “intended harm” – clearly a reference to the past, the same word used to say “God intended it for good” can just as easily mean “God intends it for good”, or even “God will intend it for good”.

And if you’ll bear with me one step further, one bit of Hebrew vocab – the word ‘intended’ here, chashab, means more like “to purposely make”: literally, it means “to weave”. To create something deliberate, something intentional, out of the threads on the loom.

When translated into Greek, a particular theological interpretation was chosen, one which reflected the absolute emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the control of God over all of history: “you intended it for evil, but God intended it for good”.

But a perfectly natural reading of the words could sound more like this:

“You wove evil, but God is weaving it into something good.”

How different does the story of Joseph sound if that is the punchline? You wove evil, but God has taken what you made and rewoven it into the preservation of this family through time of famine. You wove evil for me, but God has rewoven it into my elevation to the position of power I saw in my dreams so many years ago.

And, perhaps most important of all, we can look again at Joseph’s life in the same way. At the start of the story he’s arrogant and self important, encouraged by his father to think that he is better than his brothers, and encouraged by his visions to think that he is inevitably bound for better still. How ugly when someone riding privilege comes to believe that they have a right to all this and more.

But by the end of the tale, Joseph, now with genuine power, has become a truly admirable man. Because he has learned, it seems to me, three crucial lessons, as God has rewoven the crass youth. He has learned that the blessings that he has, the ones that were born to him and the ones that were promised to him and have now come to be, are all from God. In refusing to judge his brothers he asks, rhetorically, “am I in the place of God?” – he has come to see himself as the recipient of God’s blessings, God’s grace, not a self-made man, not deserving or earning his position, his status, his wealth, his power.

In that one shift of mindset, he has become a different man.

But a second lesson has followed on the first; that the blessing that God has given to him are not really for him, but are for the welfare, the benefit, of others. God has done these things to preserve numerous people – both the people of Egypt and the people of Israel. He has been blessed, as perhaps he might recall his father Abraham was blessed, to be a blessing to others.

And in learning these things, he has finally also learned to forgive, even those brothers who thought to kill him and sold him into slavery. Perhaps he has had time to reflect on who he was, and realised that if God has forgiven him, if God has taken the messy weaving he had made of his life and rewoven it into something new, then he can forgive others, too.

I wonder what the lesson we each need to hear from this story is?

Perhaps we need the reassurance that God has woven, is weaving, will weave, something good, even when we or others have begun in evil?

Or perhaps we need to learn that what we have, the blessings of our life, are not earned, not deserved, but given by God’s grace.

Or maybe to be reminded that we have been blessed, not for our own sake alone, but so that we can be a blessing to others.

Or perhaps simply that as forgiven people, it is possible for us to forgive.


Faded Promise

Genesis 15:1-6
After all of these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.

The nature of reading the great stories of the scriptures, especially the big, epic tales of the Old Testament, in public worship is that we inevitably telescope them; we omit big chunks, and focus in on some of the vignettes.

But these famous words, in Genesis 15, come at the end of a long story.

Abram has been called by God – at the start of Genesis 12

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

A call, to follow, to go, not knowing where it would lead, and two promised – one, that he would be the father of a great nation, and two, that through him all of the families of the earth would be blessed.

So he has set out; he’s accumulated great wealth, many servants, many animals. He’s fled from famine into Egypt, where he tricked the Pharaoh and became even more wealthy; he’s been victorious in a great battle to reclaim his nephew Lot from his captors.

He has been, in every imaginable respect, a spectacular success; a dominate figure of his age, wealthy, respected, victorious.

And after all of these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.

As far as we can tell, this was just the third time in his life that Abram had heard God speak. A call, long ago, that he had obeyed and followed; a promise, when he first looked out over the land of Canaan that his descendants would possess the land, and now, near the end of his life, one more conversation.

Which, if I might digress just for a moment, is one of the dangers of the way that we just read selected snippets of the story. A question that is often asked – I often get it from the kids in scripture class, and I’m sure all of us have asked it at some point – is how come God seemed to speak to people so much in the past, but we, mostly, don’t have the same experience?

But the truth is that God being represented as clearly speaking to an individual is very much the exception in the Old testament scripture. A few individuals; Moses, Abraham, and the Prophets; and even for them, far from all the time. And while the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was that we, the community of faith, will hear the guidance of God, still the gift of prophecy, of speaking the words of God, is singled out as the exception. Most people’s experience of hearing God is far more nuanced, far more ambiguous than that.

Even a great saint (and I can use the word in its Catholic sense now as well) like Mother Theresa, described her experience of God’s call in terms of a single command to go and serve, followed by forty years of silence.

We are consistently encouraged in the scriptures to pray and to seek God’s guidance and wisdom; but nowhere are we encouraged to wait for or expect a vision or voice from heaven. They happen, there is no doubt; but they are the exception in contrast to the life lived in faithfulness to what we have seen and heard.

But to come back to Abram: he hears God here in a vision, saying something really very odd:

“Don’t be afraid, Abram… your reward will be very great”

“Don’t be afraid….” That’s an odd way to start, because Abram has just won a great victory, and is praised by all around him; really not a man in a situation to be afraid. And as for a great reward, why, Abram already has everything that the world can offer him, wealth far beyond his needs.

He has everything except for the one thing that is now impossible; a child to leave it all to. And so his reply to God is bitter.

“What can you give me? You have failed to give me a child; a slave, the son of my wife’s maidservant, will be my heir.” Abram and Sarai are too old to have children; they know it; the one thing they really want is now beyond them. A career of success, wealth, victory, is meaningless; in Abram’s eyes his whole life is a tragedy, not a triumph.

I’m guessing that most of us recognise that emotion, that sense of existential crisis, that nagging feeling that for all we have, all the material, all the relationships, all the influence, there is some deep question about what it all means and whether it is all worth anything in the end. And I’m sure that sometimes all of us have found in that angst a bitterness towards God, as if we want to cry out – or perhaps do cry out – “all this is all very well, but it’s not the point”

I believe that it is for all of us who have ever felt that way, that God replies to Abram, to say “No. You see only what you see, you know only what you know. You look at all you have gained in your life and see nothing, no meaning, no future: but I remember my promise to you. I see, I know, more.”

Notice that there is no anger in God’s reply, no criticism of Abram’s bitterness, Abram’s sadness; God does not berate him for lack of faith, for all that Abram says, and all that Abram sees, is true. No, God does not blame Abram for having lost his sense of the promise that God had made so long ago – after all, Abram has actually gone out of his way to make it possible for the letter of God’s promise to be kept, through Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Abraham has made sense of God’s promise, the only possible sense he could make, even though it is a sense that brings him no joy.

God does not blame Abram – God repeats the promise. “Count the stars, if you can. So will your descendants be.”

And in an act of faith as great as that of leaving Ur so many years before, Abram believes God. And it was reckoned to him as righteousness. The choice of belief – the decision to trust in the promise of God, a promise given in the midst of angst, was counted as an act of righteousness.

God’s first call and promise had been given many years before; perhaps it had faded, perhaps Abram had come to wonder what it all meant. He’d been through a lot in his life, good and bad, but wondered, in the end, what it meant, what his memory of God’s promise really added up to. So like us.

But in his moment of questioning, his existential crisis, he makes a choice. He will believe the God he remembers, the God who he feels draw close to him in a vision, the God who made promises that seem impossible.

He makes the choice to believe. And not only is that reckoned as faith, counted as righteousness, but he will also be fortunate enough to see it become truth.
We are here because of that act of faith. Let’s learn from it.


The Promise of Creation

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8
Today we begin a new series of readings, a series that will take us up to the end of the Church year and the beginning of Advent. The way the Narrative Lectionary works, our Spring sees the focus on a sort of narrative arc through the Old Testament; and for this year, that arc is tied together through the theme, the idea, of promise.

And we begin here in the story of creation and fall; the story of God’s great promise in creation and the way that promise was broken by human distrust and disobedience.

each of you should have received, as you came in, a small laminated card, with two symbols on it, one on each side. Two symbols that are closely associated with this story. On one side, you have a snake, a serpent, the figure representing temptation personified, the enemy, the one who would break God’s good creation.

And on the other side, an apple. Now I wonder what meaning you give to the apple in the context of the story of the fall? I’m guessing that most of us, if you say “Apple” and “Garden of Eden”, the immediate connection we make is the forbidden fruit, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But I’d like you to look again at the picture of that apple, and focus instead on God’s words: “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. Look at that apple and remind yourself of all the other trees, all the good things that God had provided.

Because it seems to me that in going straight from “fruit” to “forbidden” what we are doing is accepting the great lie that is as the heart of the serpent’s temptation, the lie found in the serpent’s opening question: “did God say ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’”?

The image of God that is immediately created; the image many outside the Church have of God, and that on some level many of us carry around inside us: that the fundamental description of God’s nature is the word “no”. That God’s relationship with us is defined by “thou shalt not”, by forbidding.

But when we read back in the story, to the command God gave, it is given in the affirmative – a gift, a promise of good things, the gift of permission, of freedom: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. God’s command is not “do exactly what I say, when I say it, the way I say it” – it is “here’s a whole garden of option, good choices. Take your pick”. Obedience to God is not finding the one right option out of many, many wrong ones; it is enjoying a wide range of good choices.

The lie, then, with which the serpent starts is to suggest that God’s commands are far more restrictive than they really are. To paint God as the great big “no”. And though Eve, in the story, doesn’t fall for it, the question, and her response draws attention away from all the other trees, all the other good things, and onto the one thing that has been forbidden. From this point on in the story the question has been crucially changed – from “which of the many different good fruits shall we eat?” to “shall we eat this one?”.

No longer is Eve considering all the good options available to her; now the question is whether or not this, forbidden, thing, is desirable. And this reflects a second lie: that the forbidden thing is somehow uniquely more desirable than the many which are permitted.

The lie which we accept, which tells us that God’s will for us is very specific, very restrictive, a single path that we must follow, morphs into this second lie; that the things God would deny us are much more interesting, desirable, and exciting, than the things God freely gives for our enjoyment.

I think I’ve mentioned before an article I read by a Catholic Priest, asked what it was like to hear people‘s confessions. And he said that, while it was a powerful and profound experience to have people open up and share the hidden parts of their lives, it was also much less exciting than most people seemed to think. Almost all sin, he said, is boring.

Boring because, as G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, sin is not a thing in itself; it is just a broke and distorted version of virtue. The life well lived is the real thing. Loving relationships are the real thing. Art and music, poetry and science, truth in all its forms; friendship, compassion; those are the real thing; all the other trees in the garden, all the good fruit that is the promise of creation.

But the serpent manages to make the one forbidden thing, the one restriction that God placed upon humanity, seem like it was the thing most to be desired.
And what was it? The fruit of the forbidden tree?

The knowledge of good and evil. By which I think the author intends us to understand, the ability to decide for ourselves what is good, and what is evil, the power to form our own ethical systems, divorced from the wisdom and revelation of God.

But isn’t that desirable; to be able to make your own mind up, figure out for yourself what is right and wrong, good and evil? Isn’t that what we put so much emphasis on in our education – teaching kids how to make good decisions for themselves, not just to go along with the crowd or the loudest voice? Isn’t that growing up?

And of course, the answer is yes. Because, once again, the question has been changed. The question is not “should we grow up, learn how to make good decisions, learn how to tell right from wrong ourselves?”. That’s a simple yes. The question is, when we are doing that growing up, that learning, who will we trust to guide our growth? What authority will we accept reliable? What voice will we listen to as we struggle to work out what a life well lived really looks like.

Will we hear the voice of our culture, telling us that those things we know, those things we recognise, are good and right, and those things that are different, alien, unknown, are dangerous, wrong?

Or will we hear the voice of the advertisers, telling us that the good life can be bought; that the iPhone 7 will bring us closer to one another; that the right diet, the right clothes, the right gadgets make the right life?

For the reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly explore every conceivable option first hand. Working it all out for ourselves, trying all the alternatives, taking no-one’s word for it, isn’t possible, logical, mature, or even sane. We choose authorities, we choose the voices that we listen to.

And it seems to me that the ultimate root of the sin in the fall is not so much disobedience, but Adam and Eve’s decision not to trust God’s word, God’s wisdom, but to insist that they, and they alone, will be the masters of their fate, the captains of their soul. That they will not trust the promise of God that was manifest in all the good things that surrounded them.

And when they eat the fruit, their eyes are opened, and they hide themselves from God. They seem to know instinctively that having chosen not to trust in the promises of God, they have broken something deep within creation, damaged the relationship between God and humanity which lay at the heart of the goodness of the garden. I think it’s striking that before God declares judgement upon Adam and Eve, they have declared judgement on themselves; they have removed themselves from God’s presence. The promise of creation has been broken, and they know it.

And so we come back to the card – the apple and the serpent, the two sides of the story that we read in Genesis. On the one side, the promise of God, the goodness of creation, the fruit of all the trees; and on the other, the challenge of the serpent: “take no-one’s word for it, trust no-one but yourself”

Trust the promise and generosity of God, or trust nothing but your own wisdom, insight, power.

The fundamental decision for all humanity.


(Un)conditional forgiveness

Isaiah 1:15-18 | Luke 11:2-4
When I was a teenager, in the early days of my Christian faith, I remember hearing the final few words of the Isaiah reading repeated over and again; I’d certainly memorised them, highlighted them in my Bible, written them out on bookmarks – all the things you do to remind yourself of a great theological truth:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”

I remember hanging onto those words through the struggles of adolescence and young adulthood; in all those times when I was all too aware of my personal failings I would remind myself: though my sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.

They got me through a lot, those words. But with hindsight, I wonder if I might have done better if I’d read them a little bit more in context. Because I heard in them the profound theological truth of God’s forgiveness, but perhaps missed the equally profound call to justice that precedes them:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Which raises a pretty deep question within our faith:

Is God’s forgiveness conditional?

Or perhaps this is one of those cases where the Old Testament prophets had only a partial vision of the ways of God, a vision left to be completed in the person of Jesus?

But the problem there is that we find some very similar words in the teaching of Jesus – not least, here in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”.

Or, as Jesus puts it elsewhere: “As we forgive, so we are forgiven”.

Actually, when you look at the words of Jesus, or at the teachings of the Old Testament law and prophets, the answer to our question seems pretty clear.
Is God’s forgiveness of us conditional?

Yes, it is.

And it turns out that that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it turns out to be a very good thing.

I think our problem with recognising the conditionality of forgiveness is that we’ve mixed up the idea of forgiveness with the idea salvation. And that arises out of the way that we often talk about sin and forgiveness, heaven and salvation. The sort of language, logic, that starts “you need to be forgiven by God in order to get into heaven (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God)” and then goes “and that forgiveness is the free gift of God in the death of Jesus.”

Then forgiveness (unconditionally offered by grace through faith) is the key to salvation, to our eternal destiny. And if forgiveness is conditional; well then, where is our assurance? Where is our confidence in the sure and certain home of resurrection to eternal life?

But that link between forgiveness and salvation is far from obvious in the scriptures. Yes “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – but the verse does not continue “and are forgiven freely by his grace” – it continues “and are justified freely by his grace”. The apostle does not write “it is by grace you have been forgiven, through faith”, but “it is by grace you have been saved through faith”. Jesus did not tell Nicodemus “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believe in him might be forgiven”, but “whoever believes in him might be saved”.

Now I’m not arguing that you can completely separate the idea of forgiveness and salvation; of course not. But they are not the same thing. And to suggest that forgiveness (at least, forgiveness here and now in the day to day reality of our lives) might be conditional does not require us to doubt for a moment the absolute certainty of the salvation that is our by God’s grace, received through faith.

And that sets us free to think much more healthily about forgiveness.

Because then the idea that the standard by which we will be forgiven is the standard by which we forgive ceases to be a sword of Damocles hanging over our head, threatening us with eternal damnation should we fail to immediately forgive those who have hurt us. No longer do we have to entertain the notion that the abused child who cannot yet forgive their abuser is somehow denied the saving grace of God (“if you don’t forgive him, you cannot be forgiven – Jesus said so”), or that the battered wife must over and again return to their violent husband (“seventy seven times, Jesus said”).

The truth is, automatic, universal, unconditional forgiveness is not healthy. To see that, we need look no further than our relationship with our children. To forgive immediately and unconditionally sends the message that the wrong done doesn’t matter. And when that wrong has hurt others, it sends the even more damaging message that pain inflicted on another person can be lightly set aside and forgotten.

We do not forgive unconditionally. We hold out the offer of forgiveness, yes, but we ask something in return. An apology, perhaps. Restitution, maybe. At very least, a recognition of the wrong done.

Forgiveness, when offered in love, is (often, at least) conditional.

But again, let’s be sure we aren’t blurring two ideas that need to be held apart. Because what we do hold for that child, and God holds for us, unconditionally and automatically, is love.

Love without preconditions, without demands, without requirements – yes to that.

And forgiveness which is always available – yes to that.

But forgiveness which doesn’t ask for repentance, for recognition of wrongdoing and at least the hope or desire to change? Not so much.

Instead we have the deep wisdom of conditional forgiveness. That says “yes, I love you; I am prepared to see a way forwards into forgiveness, but there is a road that you need to walk to get there. Not for my good (though perhaps for my protection) but for your good.”

For once we have separated forgiveness from salvation, it can take on a new role; forgiveness is not a simple destination, it is a journey that we take together – open to new life and new possibilities, seeing the possibility of restored relationship and healthy futures, but not rushed, not simply declared or demanded.
And yes, our ability to forgive is part of our healing, and our ability to receive forgiveness; but again, once we recognise that forgiveness is not the same as salvation, we can be kinder to ourselves; we can live with the fact that we have not yet reached a place where we can forgive those who have hurt us; recognising that it would be a good and healthy place to be, a place to travel towards, but not demanding of ourselves or others a rushed forgiveness and artificial restoration of relationship.

Held in the absolute and unconditional love of God, maybe it’s ok if we are only forgiven according to the standards by which we are able to forgive.
Seeing the promise of the prophet “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow” for what it is: not an immediate reality, but a promise of a future that we are called to walk towards.