August 17, 2014 Genesis 44: 1-15 Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-36
Rev. Catherine Purves
They say that hindsight is 20 x 20. At least we can probably all agree that hindsight is a lot more reliable than foresight. Who can predict what will happen tomorrow? Even trying to see why things are happening while they are happening can be a daunting task. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The causes of that horrific war could be listed, but would that really enable us to see the purpose of that tremendous loss of life any more clearly? It was certainly not foreseen, and even now, 100 years later, our view of that world-changing event is cloudy. For those who were falling in the trenches, the point of the war was even more elusive. As Christians, we believe that God’s purpose is being worked out in and through history. But even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to see how that war to end all wars, a war that didn’t end all wars, could have been part of God’s purpose.
Have you had the uncomfortable experience of being accosted by an aggressive skeptic because of your faith in God? Agnostics often seem to delight in tossing insoluble puzzles at Christians and demanding that we explain them or justify God’s allowing things to happen. World War I! How could that horror of death and destruction be part of God’s plan? The Ebola virus! Why would God allow (already) more than 1,000 people to die including medical personnel and missionaries? Isis! What justification could there be for a terrorist organization that is even intolerable to other terrorists? Gun violence in our cities! How can God stand by as children and people of color are shot in the streets by police who are out of control? Where is God’s purpose in all of that?
This is not a modern problem for people of faith. What is modern is the firm belief that we should be able to make sense of all that, and that there is an answer to those questions that will satisfy those who are disinclined to believe in God anyway. What is perhaps most disturbing, even for people of faith, is the fact that from our short-sighted perspective it often looks like God is uninvolved in history, because we can’t see how the purposes of a loving and merciful God are being worked out in this messed up world. And we might even entertain the lingering fear that God could change his mind and finally get so fed up with our sin, our careless destruction of the planet, and our basic inhumanity to one another that God will not be true to the old biblical promises of hope and salvation. Could we even blame God for that?
We sometimes feel that way now, but even as far back as the time of the patriarchs in the Old Testament, in the book of Genesis, no less(!), the people of God had trouble seeing God’s purposes and trusting in God’s promises. Consider the story of Joseph and his brothers which we read this morning. Joseph was a dreamer. Foresight was his specialty. Getting along with his brothers was more of a challenge for him, and one thing that he didn’t foresee was that they would decide to sell him into slavery. His father, Jacob, was heartbroken when the brothers covered their act of betrayal by reporting that Joseph had been killed in the fields by a wild animal. How could God allow that to happen? Meanwhile, Joseph had been sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. Joseph rose to some prominence in that household, but then landed in prison after being betrayed again, by the captain’s wife. He remained in prison for a long time, apparently forgotten by everyone. Jospeh’s ability to interpret dreams was finally brought to the attention of Pharaoh himself, and he was able to predict a terrible famine that was about to afflict the whole land. Trusting Joseph’s foresight, Pharaoh put him in charge of all the stores of Egypt, and Joseph began to prepare for the lean years to come.
Through all of this, God’s purpose for his people ran like an imperceptible thread, as Joseph was sold by his brothers, abused, imprisoned, and ultimately rose to power in Egypt. Then the famine hit. No one had enough food. In Israel, Jacob and his sons and their families were starving. It looked as though God’s promises to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob would not be fulfilled, because no one could survive the famine. Then, of course, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to find food, and they found instead their lost brother, Joseph. Joseph the dreamer looked back at his years of struggle and suffering and his rise to power and saw God’s hand in all of it. Suddenly, with 20 x 20 hindsight, Joseph declared, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Oh, the twists and turns of history! Who could have envisioned such a resolution to what looked like the certain destruction of Jacob’s family? And that would have meant that God was not going to be faithful to the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. But, in hindsight, Joseph saw that God was faithful. As Paul would write so many thousands of years later, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew…for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Irrevocable! That is an amazing statement, especially when we consider the monumental challenge that Paul was undertaking. He was trying to see by hindsight that imperceptible thread of God’s purpose as it had now been worked out through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And he was trying to figure out how that related to God’s promises to Israel.
Hindsight is not always 20 x 20. Neither is foresight. And neither is our present view and understanding of the world around us. The current complicated relationship between Israel and the church is just as difficult to understand as it was for Paul. In hindsight we can see that this inability to resolve God’s promises to Israel and God’s promise in Jesus Christ has led to mistrust, prejudice, persecution, and ultimately the holocaust. Paul could see better than most, or perhaps his trust in God’s purpose being worked out through history was just more resolute. He insisted that God’s promise in Jesus Christ did not revoke God’s promise to Israel; it fulfilled it. God has not rejected his people, but God’s plan and purpose were always bigger. God intended to be merciful to all, Jews and Gentiles. Through the Jewish Messiah, both Gentiles and Jews were shown the mercy of God and the fulfillment of the promises of God.
That’s what Paul saw, as clearly as he saw anything. The thought of it took his breath away. But the thread of God’s purpose was so hard to see, even in hindsight. Catching a glimpse of it, Paul is overwhelmed, and his careful theology virtually erupts in song: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Unsearchable and inscrutable, and yet, God is true to his purpose and faithful to his promises.
Can we prove that? Not to suit the skeptics and the agnostics, no. They are not really interested in hindsight or foresight, and most are not seeing what’s happening now any too clearly. They are certainly not seeing the God who is at work behind history and in and through history in deeply hidden ways. To them, the words unsearchable and inscrutable only mean unbelievable. But it is not so for us. And, like Paul, at the end of the day, perhaps the best we can do is sing about those mysteries that we cannot fully understand, and praise the God whose promises, we know(!), are reliable and true. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”