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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/14/2011

In the past month or so I attended both the ordination and the installation of Dave Johnson the new pastor out at Faith.  Such services are always nice, celebratory events for everyone there and part of what happens  when you attend as a pastor is that you can’t help but reflect back on when it was you being ordained or installed as you hear the charge made to preach and teach, to lead worship, to care for your people, to be a faithful witness and so forth. 

One of the words that gets used a lot at these services is “gospel.”  The newly installed or ordained is called a co-worker in the Gospel, is called to proclaim the Gospel and of course it’s not just at these services that the word is used, but it makes me think.  Gospel is one of those church words that we use all the time, I guess with the assumption that we all know and agree on what it means.  But I wonder, do we?  Do we know and agree on what the gospel is?

You know that there are four books of the Bible that are called Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and you know that they all tell the story of Jesus, so Jesus must have something to do with it, but then again in Christian circles, whatever you’re talking about, Jesus probably has something to do with it.  At some point you also probably learned that gospel means “good news.”  That may be helpful, but it still brings you back to the question, “What’s the good news?” 

In some churches the pastor would now say, “Turn to your neighbor and tell them your answer to ‘What’s the good news?’”  I would fear the onslaught of daggers you would shoot at me with your eyes as you shrunk down in your seats if I did that though, so we’ll keep moving here.  “What’s the good news?” is a question that doesn’t really have just one right answer although from a Christian perspective we might think that it does.  We might think the right answer is that the gospel, the good news is the message of salvation or forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  We might not be able to say exactly how that works, but we believe that somehow, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have forgiveness, forgiveness that brings us to eternal life. 

I know that knowledge of forgiveness is important for me; it’s an important part of the gospel that we proclaim.  But I also see the revelation of forgiveness we find in Jesus in a sense being the final chapter of an overarching good news story that runs through the entire Bible.  That overarching story, like the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is a story of God’s ability to bring new life and new possibilities out of even the most broken of situations.  It’s a story of God acting so that life rather than death is the last word.  It’s a story of second chances.  In a lot of ways the Bible represents a telling and a retelling of this core story over and over again so maybe the easiest way to understand what we mean by “gospel” is to tell those stories.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is a classic example.  Even with the semi-continuous Old Testament readings though, we don’t get a whole lot of this story; last week we had part of the beginning of it as the brothers sold the annoying, spoiled, dreaming Joseph into slavery and today we got part of the end with the reunion of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt.  If you have been following the daily lectionary you’ve gotten more but whatever the case, chances are you are at least loosely familiar with the story of Joseph’s rise to power in Pharaoh’s Egypt after his brothers had sold him off. 

The Lord was with him so all that Joseph did prospered, first as a servant of Potiphar, until Potiphar’s wife framed him and caused him to be thrown in prison.  But even then the Lord was with Joseph and because of his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and to foresee a coming famine he was made to be Pharaoh’s right hand man, appointed to make plans and administer a program that would enable Egypt to survive the famine.  And survive they did, to the point where people from other lands came to Egypt looking for food.  Those people included people from the land of Canaan where Joseph came from.  So his brothers traveled to Egypt, looking for grain so they could make bread but not knowing who it was they were going to be dealing with.

You can understand the reaction of the brothers though, when they heard the announcement, “I am Joseph.”  “His brothers could not answer him so dismayed were they at his presence,” as the text says.  They were afraid that Joseph would act based on the past, a past which warranted revenge, revenge that Joseph was now fully capable of executing however he wanted to.  But this is a gospel story.  The gospel isn’t dependent on the past; quite the contrary in fact.  The gospel is about a break from the past, a break that opens a new future.

Joseph had moved beyond the past.  His brothers hadn’t as even five chapters after this, when father Jacob died they were still afraid thinking, “Uh oh, now he’s going to get us.”  Part of it was probably that they knew that Joseph’s wrath was what they deserved.  But just as the gospel isn’t about the past, it also isn’t about what we deserve.  The gospel is about gift, undeserved gift not based on anything we have done.  That’s what Joseph was offering his brothers, but still, they weren’t so sure…and maybe they were right to be unsure, because at first, Joseph didn’t seem so sure either.

Joseph didn’t reach this gospel moment right away.  While they didn’t recognize him, Joseph recognized his brothers as soon as they appeared before him.  But at first he kind of toyed with them; he played mind games with them.  He accused them of being spies, he demanded that they return to Canaan and come back with Benjamin, their youngest brother, he put them in prison for awhile, then he demanded that one of them remain more or less as a hostage.  He twice had money and other goods planted in their carry on luggage so that they could be accused of stealing.

It was only after he had them in a panic that Joseph revealed himself and revealed his understanding that the will of God had been involved in all that had happened when prior to that there hadn’t been a hint that he saw things that way.  Up until that point, it appeared that Joseph was operating out of the past, a past which called for revenge and giving his brothers what they deserved.  It appeared that he wasn’t ready to break with the past and move toward something new.  He wasn’t ready for the gospel either.

What Joseph recognized before it was too late though was that “Don’t get mad, get even” just perpetuates past realities, preventing new possibilities.  Maybe he had to play those mind games with his brothers in order to see himself more clearly, in order to move the story in a different direction.  The crucial point of this entire Joseph narrative winds up being that God was at work in transforming the deathly action of Joseph’s brothers into a means of providing life, but a sub-text in getting there was that God was also at work transforming the deathly, vengeful acts of Joseph towards his brothers into a moment of gospel revelation for all of them.

Gospel moments are about reconciliation and restoration of relationships, relationships with God and with each other which is what the Joseph story is about.  Oddly though, as is true in this story, for us too it can be the worst in us that brings us to those gospel moments, that enables us to hear the good news because that can be when God is working hardest to get through to us, trying to make us see the newness that is possible when we break from the deathly cycles of the broken past.  Like Joseph though, we have to realize that we are part of the broken past before we can break from it and move beyond it into new life.

Even then, we’re not sure we can believe it; we resist.  We have our gospel moments but then individually and collectively we lapse back into the familiar cycles of vindictiveness and revenge that might make us feel better for the moment, but which don’t really change anything.  If you read history the same cycles of revenge and getting even repeat themselves over and over again.  If you observe current events you know it’s still going on; we don’t learn very quickly.  Like Joseph’s brothers, we’re not sure we can believe it. 

But trusting in the gospel, reading and hearing the gospel stories that the Bible tells, we can be confident that God is familiar with these cycles of brokenness and is still at work in our weakness and in our sinfulness.  His story is a resurrection story of new life and in us and through us he keeps telling that story and one of the ways he does it is through the sacrament of Holy Baptism which we celebrate here momentarily.  The story of resurrection and new life is told through Zander tonight as from the waters of baptism he is reborn to new life in Christ.  It is good news; good news that breaks us from the past, redefines the present and moves all of us into a future of newness and hope.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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