The Twenty-fourth Sunday After Trinity
We were rolling north in a black BMW manufactured during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm. I was riding shotgun and hanging onto the handle to keep the door from flying open. Off to the right, the land was rising slowly up to a crest in the Atlas Mountains. Just a brief camel trek beyond those jagged peaks, the Sahara shimmered.
Even now, in September, the temperature nosed over 100. Our driver was a missionary named Jack, who by that time had lived in Casablanca for a decade. He was taking my friend Bill, who was sprawled in the back seat, and me on a tour of Morocco.
We had made our way down the Atlantic Coast and then turned inland, through the fertile western reaches of the country. The farther east we drove the hotter it got – and no, I don’t think air conditioning had been invented when that old car rolled out of the factory.
By this time we saw nothing but brown tones stretching out to the bright blue sky. The land was mostly empty, but after a while Jack pointed out a village coming up on our right. The Berbers, who have inhabited these bleak spaces since Mohammad sent his raiders to invite them into Islam, still manage, somehow, to exist.
The village was a few adobe huts and we didn’t see a soul stirring under the midday broiler. But then came the interesting part. After we had driven on another half-mile or so, Jack nodded over to the right again. There stood the village’s well.
For fear of contaminating the well, we supposed, the people lived down the road a ways, so that every time they needed water they were required to trudge up to the well in that stifling heat and then back home, burdened by their brimming buckets.
Jack explained that the government subsidized the price of bread to ensure a sufficient supply. In a land where many go without meat except on the rarest of occasions, bread affords the only source of protein.
No Wal-Mart in sight. I gained a new appreciation that day for bread and water.
“Then it came to pass, at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh had a dream; and behold, he stood by the river. Suddenly there came up out of the river seven cows, fine looking and fat; and they fed in the meadow. Then behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the river, ugly and gaunt, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the river. And the ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven fine looking and fat cows. So Pharaoh awoke. He slept and dreamed a second time; and suddenly seven heads of grain came up on one stalk, plump and good. Then behold, seven thin heads, blighted by the east wind, sprang up after them. And the seven thin heads devoured the seven plump and full heads. So Pharaoh awoke, and indeed, it was a dream.”
The river, of course, is the Nile. Cows wade into it and remain, almost submerged, for relief from the heat and the flies. The east wind is the hot, dry blast off the desert, heavy with dust – it’s called the sirocco in Palestine and the khamsin in Egypt – that can devour the grain fields in Egypt’s fertile strip like so much napalm.
Pharaoh is divine . . . and Pharaoh is bemused. Pharaoh knows his dreams are pregnant with meaning, but he cannot unravel them. He has received revelation, but revelation requires interpretation.
Pharaoh summons his magicians and wise men, who are versed in the considerable literature of dream interpretation, but they’re of no use. Then the chief butler brightens. When he angered Pharaoh and landed in prison with the chief baker, each of them had a dream and a young Hebrew who was in the pokey with them told each the meaning of his dream. It didn’t go well for the chief baker – but the young man’s interpretation of the dreams was spot-on.
Naturally, Pharaoh calls for this fellow, Joseph by name, and Joseph reads his dreams as easily as the sports page. The land will enjoy seven years of abundance followed by seven years of scarcity. Joseph doesn’t stop there. He lays out a plan: Build a system to store grain during the good years and use the excess to provide for the people when the famine descends.
He insists it is not he who has delivered this interpretation but God. This is not judgment, as in so many biblical narratives of trial and affliction, but straightforward prophecy. A “discerning and wise” man will devise the system and enact the plan to avert disaster – if such a man can be found.
Pharaoh looks around and his gaze settles on this foreigner whom God has already used so decisively. Is he not the obvious choice?
Already, before he entered the presence of the king, Joseph has gotten a shave, the beginning of his transformation from stinking Hebrew inmate to renowned citizen of the world. Now Pharaoh bestows upon him his signet, the symbol of royal authority; linen garments befitting a courtier of the king, and a gold necklace, another token of the sovereign’s favor.
Next comes a chariot and, finally, an Egyptian wife and an Egyptian name. Joseph, all the while, insists that it is not he but God who is raining down blessings on these gentiles. The God of the Hebrews is heaping favor on a people not His own.
And why not? Has He not appointed His covenant people for a light to lighten the gentiles? Did He not dispatch Abraham to Egypt to scatter God’s wisdom across the land? But Joseph’s great-grandfather failed in his mission to Pharaoh.
Rather than blessing him he deceived him, foisting off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister to save his own skin, and in the bargain bringing the Egyptian ruler perilously near to the terrible wrath of God.
Now we find Joseph clambering up and out of a dungeon after 13 black years to ascend to the pinnacle of power and influence among these gentiles. Pharaoh tells him:
“’You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you . . . See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt’ . . .
“And he had him ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ So he set him over all the land of Egypt. Pharaoh also said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no man may lift his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.’”
In Joseph, the splendor of God is erupting among the nations.
“Now in the seven plentiful years the ground brought forth abundantly. So (Joseph) gathered up all the food of the seven years which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities; he laid up in every city the food of the fields which surrounded them. Joseph gathered very much grain, as the sand of the sea, until he stopped counting, for it was immeasurable.”
The just and wise rule of God’s anointed makes the land to flourish. But, just as Joseph had foretold, famine follows.
“Then the seven years of plenty which were in the land of Egypt ended, and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. The famine was in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. So when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread.
“Then Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, do.’ The famine was over all the face of the earth, and Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians. And the famine became severe in the land of Egypt. So all countries came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine was severe in all lands.”
Abraham had failed. He had been willing to surrender his wife, through whom the covenant Seed must pass. But a gracious God rescues Sarah and uses that seed, in the person of Joseph, to continue the line that will culminate in Jesus Christ, the promised Seed of the woman. A sovereign God will not see His plan derailed by the dereliction of His creatures.
Joseph remains steadfast. Tempted to sexual sin by the wife of his master, Potiphar, he stays true to the ethical requirements of his God, even at the cost of 13 years in prison. And now the covenant people, in the person of Joseph, are finally fulfilling their mission to reveal God to the nations and bring His blessings to them.
For illumination of the Joseph story, we may look backward to Abraham but we may look forward as well. Do you not hear an echo of Joseph in the life of Jesus?
A younger son, powerless and abused, must endure great humiliation. But in the end he experiences great exaltation. Pharaoh’s commandment to his subjects to obey Joseph anticipates Mary’s instruction to the servants at the wedding at Cana:
“Whatever He (Jesus) says to you, do it” (John 2:5).
And will not all the gentiles prostrate themselves before Jesus as the Egyptians before Joseph? St. Paul writes to the Philippians:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11).
Joseph transcends his Jewishness to become a blessing to the nations. He rises to a position of prestige and power second only to that of the monarch on high. He becomes a gentile to make the gentiles one with the covenant people, under the authority of and for the glory of God.
Jesus, too, enters the creation as a Jew but embarks on a mission higher and greater than one tiny nation can encompass. He is the Light that at long last lightens the gentiles. Paul admonishes those gentiles:
“And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:17-18).
They have entered the kingdom of God because God has used His covenant Seed, in the person of Jesus, to bestow His blessings on them.
And in both stories revelation and interpretation descend from heaven to earth. Pharaoh the Egyptian receives his dreams from God, and then receives God’s man Joseph to explain them. The Romans of the first century receive Jesus Christ, the impeccable revelation of God in His creation, and then the interpretation through the inspired authors anointed to render Him intelligible to mortals.
But now the morning is far spent and you’ll be wanting your lunch. We come at last to the punch line.
Advent looms before us, beloved; the bread of life is nigh on to entering into the world. Joseph provided bread – bread which sustains life – not to one nation only but to all the nations. They bowed down before him to beg for food to save them.
And Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
But He said more: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (6:47-51).
The prescient Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote a book titled, “For the Life of the World.”
Schmemann discerned that man’s hunger defines his life. He wrote, “Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.”
We try to separate spiritual from physical, God from His creation, when in fact all is of a piece. To desire the world is to desire the One who made it – and at last the One who has redeemed it. Joseph satisfied the people’s craving for food, but like those who will eat the manna they would hunger again and they would die.
Jesus said one more thing in His Bread of Life sermon in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. He has by this time scaled the pinnacle of popularity. Swelling crowds of adoring disciples traipse around the Galilean countryside in His wake. Then He says:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me” (vv. 53-57).
The masses of admirers do not suppose He is promoting some strange ritual. They understood very well that He is formulating an utter dependence on Him, the life of the world. They grasp that He is framing a decision for them: Feed on Me, or die.
That’s the hard part, admitting their inability to nourish and sustain themselves, their impotence to support either this life or the life to come. Next comes the harder part: to concede that dependence on Him means unswerving commitment to Him.
The crowds melt away. The price of discipleship is too high. They will follow a rock-star rabbi who preaches a good sermon and pulls in plenty of folks to hobnob with. That’s one thing. But giving up their life to the One who gives them life is another thing entirely.
It’s no different for us. Governments would have us look to them for our provision. Some of us prefer to feed ourselves. And we may gather our manna . . . today and tomorrow and again the next day. We celebrate our self-sufficiency. Until we confess that our true desire is for the One who provides the manna. Our hunger is for God.
Beloved, as we approach the table let us remember that Advent is looming. The landscape is empty. No Wal-Mart in sight. There’s only us. But God is coming, the living water and the bread of life. Amen.Posted on: November 6, 2016Ed Fowler