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Sunday, January 9, 2011

God Meant it for Good (Genesis 50.15-26, Exodus 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 9, 2011
Some Music Used 
Cong. Song: "Let God Arise" (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves)
Anthem: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" (Runyan, Arr. Martin)
Cong. Hymn: "Come Thou Fount - We'll Feat" (Arr. Austell)

God Meant it for Good
Texts: Genesis 50:15-26; Exodus 1

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are starting a series that will take us all the way to Easter. In addition to looking at the specific text in Exodus 1, I also want to give you a sense of the story arc of Exodus 1-12, the big picture of Israel’s need and God’s deliverance.

This larger story isn’t just a major chapter of history in the Bible. It IS that, but it’s much more. Some have called Exodus the “5th Gospel” – because so much in that story parallels the human story of sin, need, divine response, and salvation. In addition to the circumstances being so parallel, so is God’s method. Moses is born a baby, helpless except for God’s protection and intervention. He goes out into the wilderness and returns as an adult, carrying the message of God’s salvation and deliverance for all who will listen. I will try to connect the dots where I can, but I hope you will hear all the points of comparison between Moses/Exodus and Jesus/Gospel.

I chose to begin the scripture reading this morning at Genesis 50 because it both explains why the Israelites are in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus and it has a powerful declaration of God’s sovereignty that will overarch all the events and history of Exodus. So, we’ll start there, then look at the opening of the drama in Exodus 1, and end with a few applications as we look forward to the full story that we will follow in coming weeks. 

Joseph’s Story: God’s Providence and Purpose

The verses from Genesis 50 are the end of Joseph’s story. He’s the one whose brothers tried to kill him and then sold him to traders because they were jealous of his coat of many colors and their father’s love and favoritism. (He also seemed to egg this on by sharing his dreams that one day they would bow down to him.) In Genesis 50, he is in Egypt, where he ended up as the #2 ruler under Pharaoh. He has already forgiven his brothers once, and provided for them. In this chapter, their father Jacob dies and they again come to Joseph in fear for their livelihood. But Joseph has truly forgiven them and continues providing for them in this foreign land. In these verses, Joseph says two notable things that I want to highlight.

The first comes in verse 20, when the brothers again come asking forgiveness. Joseph says, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result….” If you know or read the Joseph story, you see how at each turn God provided for Joseph. His brothers conspired against him; Potiphar’s wife tried to frame him; he was jailed; each time, God used his circumstances to accomplish His purpose until finally he interpreted a dream for Pharaoh and was able to prepare the Egyptians for an extended famine. He then was able to take care of his extended family when the famine struck. It’s an amazing story and it is amazing to see God at work, despite human betrayals and weakness. I highlight that and start the Exodus story there because what God did in one person’s life (Joseph), He did on a large scale with the people of Israel in Exodus. Now we must be careful not to say that God CAUSED evil to accomplish His good. Rather, notice that the grossest disobedience, evil, and harmful human behavior – even the full power of the Pharaoh of Egypt (one of the greatest powers in the world) – will not be able to thwart God from His plan and promise to Abraham. God does not cause evil, disobedience, or sin, but REDEEMS it for His own purpose and glory. That is the great overarching theme of Exodus, even as it was in Genesis (remember the Garden?) and will be through all of redemption history as Jesus comes to redeem the world.

I said there were two notable things at the end of Genesis. The first is God’s redemptive power and character. The second is less important, but is a key part of the narrative or story arc. The broad story arc is that God promised Abraham land, children, and blessing, so that his people might be a blessing to the world. With Joseph becoming established in Egypt, his father Jacob dying, and his brothers and their families moving to Egypt, it would seem that God’s promise is getting sidetracked. Note what Joseph asks of his brothers as he nears death. He asks them – more than that, he makes them swear an oath to take his bones to the land of promise. Though Joseph has been taken far from home, he still has his sights and faith on God’s covenant promise. We will see, however, that the family does not follow through on the vow and it will be 400 years before his bones are carried to the Promised Land.

Let’s move on to Exodus 1, then and we’ll begin this next chapter of the story of God and His people. 

400 Years: Disobedience or Oppression?

Exodus starts off with a bunch of names (my apologies to the lay readers!). Notice verse 5 – how many Israelites were there at the beginning? There were 70 (plus women and children), not including Joseph, who now has died. Remember the big theme about redemption? Though being in Egypt resulted in slavery and almost 400 years of horrible oppression, one way God redeemed that time was by accomplishing the first of the great covenant promises to Abraham. Verse 7 tells us that they were “fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.” By the time Moses led the people out, the Israelites were almost two million in number.

In chapter one, we also get the basic setup to the Exodus story. The Israelites have become enslaved, and have multiplied so much that they have become a threat (or perceived threat) to the Egyptians. The more harshly the Egyptians treat them, the more they seem to multiply and spread out (v. 12). Finally, the Pharaoh decides to act against them and instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male children at birth. This fails as well – I’ll say more about that in a moment. And then Pharaoh expanded the law so that any male child would be killed. This is the first of many parallels between Moses and Jesus. Somehow Moses had to be born into this world and survive the earthly power set against him. You may recall that Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus had to flee their country shortly after Jesus was born because King Herod passed a similar order in an effort to kill the prophesied king.

What I want to lift up at this point is the question of why the Israelites were in Egypt – why they were suffering and “off the path” towards the covenant promises. Remember, that is the big premise going on here – that God is not thwarted by human disobedience, sin, or evil; but God can redeem even the situations those things cause for His purpose and glory. So what exactly had happened here?

On one hand, it seems like the people of Israel made some poor and even disobedient choices. Certainly the original family of brothers had done evil to Joseph. On top of that, their best chance to leave Egypt was probably at Joseph’s death. After all, he made them vow to take his bones to the Promised Land. But the very last verse of Genesis tells us that they gave him an Egyptian burial, embalmed and put in a coffin. Neither the location nor the method was the Hebrew way. So the decisions of those fathers seemed to have been passed down to the children. Rather than Egypt being a temporary respite during the famine, they made their homes there and never left.

On top of that initial disobedience was added human oppression and evil. A new Pharaoh came to power, one who didn’t know of Joseph (v. 8). And as the children of Israel grew and multiplied, this Pharaoh saw a threat and began doing evil against the Hebrew people.

As we get further into the Exodus story (generations later), we will also get a sense of the faith or lack of faith of those of Moses’ day. But for now, our explanation of how the slavery came about seems to be that human evil and oppression were mounted on top of disobedience and the early deceit of Joseph’s brothers. 

Faithfulness Against Faithlessness

I want to end with a detail in this story worth highlighting. The Hebrew people were not all deaf and disobedient to the Lord. A shining witness in the midst of the horror of ordering the death of Hebrew infants was the courage and faithfulness of the Hebrew midwives. Initially Pharaoh told them to kill the male children in childbirth, but they would not do it. They “feared God” (v. 17), and put their own lives at risk for disobeying the Pharaoh. In a time when very few women were named, we are given the names of two of these courageous midwives: Shiphrah and Puah. Their prominence is testimony to their faithfulness; the evil Pharaoh is not named, but these women’s names are remembered thousands of years later!

In addition to their faithfulness and courage, which speaks for itself, I also would point out that faith and faithfulness can survive and even thrive in oppression or under persecution. The growth of Christianity in China is modern testimony to that!

So, I see at least two major takeaways for today. Even when times are dark, when we are struggling, or even when we have made our own bad decisions, this story reminds of of two things: 1) those situations do not surprise, shut down, or keep God from accomplishing His purposes and His glory; 2) it is possible for us to choose faithfulness even in the midst of faithlessness, suffering, or evil surroundings.

We will continue to see those truths demonstrated as the story unfolds in the coming weeks. That is good news truth for all of us when we struggle or feel like we have wandered from the way. Amen.

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