Toorak Uniting Church

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God’s dysfunctional human family

Genesis 37: 3 – 11, 17b – 24     Psalm 133     John 21: 9 – 17
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
22 April 2007

"How lovely is it when brothers and sisters live together in harmony!"

Peace and harmony, people sharing together and getting on with each other. If there is one image in the Bible that comes back as an ideal again and again, it is this image of concord and shared happiness within the human family where all war and strife is forgotten, nobody goes hungry and everybody can be who they truly are without anybody else impinging on them.

It is a picture that is in stark contrast with the story of Joseph and his brothers that we just read. Partiality, jealousy, arrogance end in blood and tears as Jacob grieves with the torn and bloodied coat of his son in his hands and wishes to die, surrounded by a family unable to comfort him.

The story of Joseph is a distinctive narrative in the book of Genesis. It is far more detached in style than the previous chapters of Genesis, with a God that is far more remote than the God we meet in the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It has a very high view of God and seems to regard human action as almost irrelevant to the undertow of providence and inscrutability working underneath the surface of the ebb and flow of life.

A dream, come from God, determines the story line from start to finish. A dream bound to come true, no matter how far human action seems to stray from it.

It is the dream of Joseph, a dream of dominance and power, of his brothers and even his father and mother bowing down before him, paying him homage, moved into position by mysterious and cosmic powers that turn the accepted order upside down. In the dream Joseph, the youngest, the least and the last, receives reverence to an extent even his father would probably not dream about receiving from his family.

This is unthinkable Joseph! Pull your head in!

Even his father agrees, although it says he keeps the matter in mind. Would that be because he himself used to be a dreamer of unusual and disturbing dreams when he was young?

His brothers hate him for it. They are hard working men, in their lives there is no room for dreaming and certainly not for dreams that turn the normal order of things upside down and rob them of their much yearned for and only sparingly given dignity. In their world little brothers are there to know their place, they want his respect and admiration, and they need to be confident and secure that he won’t make off with their part of the pie some time in the future.
This stupid dream business makes something that wasn’t going all too well anyway, worse. Unbearable even.

Is Jacob the one to blame? Silly old man doting on the son of his favorite wife, neglecting 10 other healthy and able bodied sons yearning for his love and approval. If only he would have had more sense and would have been slightly less demonstrative in his partiality things might have worked out differently!
Yes, definitely, Jacob could have made a difference if he had been another man. But he wasn’t and the story suggests there was very little he could do about that. Jacob is Jacob and no blame is laid upon him.
Or on his sons for that matter.
The ten big guys could have had some compassion for the little guy, surely. They could have shrugged their shoulders over their father’s doting in his old age on this spoiled brat of a brother of theirs. But no, they choose the path of jealousy, they let it get under their skin, let their hate be fanned by Joseph’s outrageous dreams and costly presents from their father. Come on guys, tend your sheep, lighten up, forget about the brat!
But they can’t.
And what about Joseph? Couldn’t he have been a bit more considerate of their feelings? A bit more sensitive? Thought a little before he went bleating about them bowing for him in his dreams? Sure, if you are the smallest and the youngest of the family it is only natural to dream about a miraculous reversal of roles, of being big and powerful like them. No need to go telling them about those secret desires Joseph!
But Joseph can’t help himself and Jacob can’t help himself and the brothers can’t help themselves and the whole sad story ends in tears.

We, humans, unfortunately are not always the rational, sensible, warm hearted and generous individuals we would like to be or need to be to make that vision of psalm 133 happen: of brothers and sisters living together in perfect harmony.
Too often we end up like Jacob and his family: torn apart by jealousy, strife, misunderstanding and resentment, fuelled by our own feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.
Had Jacob’s sons felt loved and appreciated I am sure they would have dealt with Joseph a lot better. But they didn’t and life spins out of control because of it.

I don’t know if you have ever been there, at the point where you have felt murderous towards somebody. Overwhelmed by anger and resentment, ready to kill….. or nearly.
Was that what that killer in Virginia felt before he went on that terrible rampage? Surely somebody must have failed him to bring him to such atrocities?
And is this not the stuff that starts wars? Brother against brother, emotion spinning out of control, sensibility and understanding out of the window?
It is more complicated than that, as was the situation between Joseph and his brothers, but what the story testifies to is this: Brothers don’t always live together in harmony and for all sorts of reasons they find themselves fighting and hurling each other down the pits, unable to draw back from the edge. It happens, the world is full of it, our lives are full of it, and even where we understand how these things come about, quite often we find it exceedingly difficult to step back and change the course events are taking, even if we want to.

Rueben and Judah try, but they are not able to stem the flow of hatred against their little brother once it is unleashed. It is to their credit that they manage to avert murder, but they are cowards nevertheless. Unable to stand up for their younger brother and protect him. They try to keep the peace, and they both fail miserably, ending up with a father that would rather be in the grave then with them because of what they have done.

A depressing story!

True, and not true. Because in the middle of this very sad example of human relationships gone wrong there is still the dream. There is still God, even though he is not even mentioned in the story, underneath it all, inscrutably and mysteriously doing his own thing, no matter what is going on at below belt level. Jacob’s weakness, Joseph’s arrogance and pride, the envy of the brothers, it does not keep God from carrying out his plan. Joseph will, in good time, find power, power that will save Egypt as well as Israel in a time of crisis and will serve the good of many more than the 20 or so involved in this family struggle.

Looking at the papers this week (or any other week for that matter) we could lose courage and feel that with everything that is going on in the world it is hard to imagine there is any plan. Or a positive outcome from a lot that is going on. Anzac day celebration confronts us with the reality of war: All the sacrifices that have been brought in the past have not been able to prevent the need for sacrifices in the present. Peace keeping in Iraq, anyone, in favour of that particular involvement of our troops or not, will wonder at times if there is any peace to keep there or if it is a hopeless situation only going from bad to worse. There are too many places where the harmony of brothers and sisters living together is a distant dream rather than an attainable reality.

The picture John paints of the breakfast Jesus and his disciples enjoy after his resurrection on the shores of the lake of Galilee is in strong contrast with that. The picture painted there comes in fact very close to the image painted in psalm 133: Men at peace, old friends around a fire, filling their tummies with plenty of freshly baked bread and an overabundant yield of fish to add to the atmosphere of celebration and joy. They have gone through hell and high water in the weeks before, but now, suddenly and unexpectedly, they can bask in the glow of Jesus’ presence and care for them. Past hurts are forgotten, sins forgiven…..
Who would have thought that God could work such a miracle? Their friend is still with them, love has proven stronger than death and in their fellowship around that fire they experience a glimpse of heaven: people eating together in harmony……

God was at work, even when they thought all was lost and they abandoned and left to despair. God held on, even when they were in the pits, grieving and not expecting anything positive for the future.

They were like Jacob, at the end of our story today, empty handed and empty hearted, lost in grief. But their mourning has turned into joy and they have been given joy for their sorrow.

The same thing will happen to Jacob, in a while. God’s dream takes time to come to fruition, he often moves slow and paced in his inscrutable and mysterious ways.
Jacob will see his son again, and rejoice when he discovers he is still alive, astounded at how what seemed the silly dream of a youngster with delusions of grandeur, has turned out to be the reality of God working its way to the surface in this world to bring about the harmony psalm 133 speaks about at a deeper and much more profound level than just the happy family life of 13 shepherd brothers tending their flock without discord.

Couldn’t God have put Joseph in the place he needs to be in later in a different way? Without all the strife, sadness and trouble? The story doesn’t say, it only tells us that even where we might see strife, trouble and a dysfunctional family wreaking havoc, something other may be at work at the same time, outside our vision, outside our understanding, moving towards the future of God’s dream.

Couldn’t have God shown his love without Jesus going through hell and high water? Perhaps. But again: the story does not say. The Easter story tells us that even where injustice, violence and hatred endeavor to kill, God’s love is still holding on. That the dream of love that he has planted in Jesus Christ, will come to fruition and move the future towards a different world.

We, like the disciples, like the brothers and the father of Joseph, live in the between time. We get dreams to dream, like Joseph, every now and again we might catch a glimpse of what is to come, and feel reassured God is still working with us, in us and through us for a better future. There will also be times however when we feel like we are in the pits, like Joseph was and surrounds us.
Scripture tells us however, in Genesis as well as the gospel, that even then, even when we can’t see it, feel it or understand it, God is at work, bringing the dreams he has given us to fulfillment, inexorably.Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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