Faint traces of God (Jennifer Davis Sensenig)

Title: Faint Traces of God
Text: Genesis 37
Date: November 7, 2010
Place: Community Mennonite Church (Harrisonburg, VA)
Author: Rev. Jennifer Davis Sensenig

(for audio, follow this link: Faint Traces)

The Family of Jacob

Last Sunday, we heard the story of reconciliation between Jacob and Esau.  These twin boys had shared close quarters in the womb, but as adults they had disrespected and mistreated one another.  Later in life, God moved Jacob toward reconciliation, even though, as Pastor Shirley said, Jacob and Esau reconcile with separation rather than with proximity.

Family peace did not last long for Jacob.  While they were living near Shechem, Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped by the most honored man in the ruling family of Shechem.  What follows in chapter 34 of Genesis is a devastating cycle of revenge by Dinah’s brothers, the sons of Jacob.  To avenge their sister, they plundered a city—killing every man.  The Bible says of Shechem: “All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey. And so God intervenes and moves the family. Chapter 35 is the travelogue.  This was a time of great loss for Jacob’s family and three deaths are reported.  Deborah, who was kind of like an aunt to Jacob, his beloved wife Rachel died as baby Benjamin was born, and Jacob’s father Isaac died as well.

These are the family chapters that none of us wants to revisit.  And then, like a family update, we hear a chapter of Esau’s family life.  Genesis chapter 36.  And guess what:  Esau’s descendants become kings!  The Bible seems to say that the chosen line—Jacob and his family—are spiraling out of control and dying off while Esau’s descendants are working their way up the ancient ladder of success to become the kings of Edom.

Now, as we turn to chapter 37, I want us to think about this question: Is there hope for this family?

Hopeless Tribe, Absent God

God chose this family of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, so that they would become a blessing to all nations.  They were to walk before God blamelessly.  Is there hope for the tribe God chose?

Notice how Joseph’s story personalizes Israel’s national story.  How does a people chosen by God wind up slaves in Egypt?  Why does a people chosen by God, wind up exiled in Babylon?  Well, the Biblical story doesn’t blame Egypt or Babylon, though these empires are quite opposite the kingdom of God. The Biblical story looks deeply at the chosen people and is honest about their sin and their need for salvation.  Like Joseph, Israel was chosen by God.  Joseph had a special coat.  Israel had a special covenant.  Joseph became a slave in Egypt.  Israel became slaves in Egypt.

Hearing this part of the Genesis story I am simultaneously disappointed in God and God’s Tribe.  Why did Jacob have to give that extra fancy coat to Joseph?  It drove a wedge between the brothers, so that this generation repeats the hatred and the threats of the previous generation.  Why did Joseph have to share his pretentious dreams with his older brothers?  Why did those brothers resort to selling Joseph and lying to their father?  And, may I add, why doesn’t God do something?

In this part of Genesis and in our lives, God at times seems remote, hidden, silent, unmotivated, or uninvolved.  We don’t always have the energy to read between the lines of our own experience and discover God’s leading.  And we might not have much patience with God’s story in chapters like this, when God doesn’t even show up.  Of course, there was a time when God did show up in Galilee and as he looked at the city built by the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he wept.

Jesus sees the peace of God

Remember what Jesus said, choking on tears: “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  The days will come when your enemies will surround you on every side.  They will crush you to the ground because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44).

How was it that Jesus could see his way through to God’s dream and live for peace in violent times?  Jesus’ life had that rare combination of intimacy with God and engagement with ordinary people.  If we are not in touch with God’s loving embrace of the world, we will soon see only the hopeless mess of sin that catches hold of the best of families, even those chosen by God.   So we need to seek God, to be found by God.  We need an intimate relationship with God or we become just another tribe of troubled souls.   Like Jesus, we need an intimate relationship with God.

We also need to be engaged, truly involved, with ordinary people—the way Jesus was.  Shortly before he wept over Jerusalem, Jesus had encountered a man whose vision literally was changed—the beggar outside Jericho became a citizen of God’s reign.  Jesus had just visited with a filthy rich tax-collector, who re-allocated all his investments and lived on less.  Jesus had just talked with a small group of twelve who had foolishly left their secure life for the sake of a kingdom they were only beginning to imagine.

So today, hearing Genesis 37, we weep with Jesus longing for this tribe to see their way to peace.  But let’s not become hopeless because there are signs that God has not abandoned this family.

Faint Traces that God was There

There are faint traces that God was there. First, Joseph is dreaming and interpreting his dreams. You might remember that Daddy Jacob, as also had a dream from God—a stairway to heaven. And Joseph’s special gift of interpreting dreams one day frees him from prison. So the dreams are signs that God has not abandoned this family. Second, Joseph is initially sent to his brothers on a mission of peace. Daddy Jacob tells Joseph to inquire about the well-being or Shalom of his brothers. Sadly, Joseph has little practice in peacemaking. In fact, earlier in the chapter it says that Joseph usually brought a “bad report” about the brothers. Likewise, the brothers could not speak peaceably about Joseph. It doesn’t seem to be working, but the vocabulary of peace has not dropped out of the language yet. The peace initiative, even when it doesn’t work, is a sign that God was there. A third sign that God has not abandoned this family is that despite his brothers’ murderous plan, throwing him in a pit, and selling him to traders, Joseph survives. Joseph is rescued by Reuben, who foils the plan to kill him. Joseph is rescued by the traders who see his life as a bargain and make a quick sale in Egypt. Sometimes just surviving abuse is sign that God was there.

Faint Traces that God is Here

I consider these “faint traces” of God’s presence with this family.  God has not given up, but the tribe is struggling.  This week, as your pastor, I heard several reports from people in our community who are struggling in difficult circumstances.  Any of us could ask:  has God abandoned this situation?  But Christian people reported:  a hopeful sign in a troubled marriage, a resolve to be honest when a lie could have been much easier, a first step in repaying a family debt and rebuilding trust, intentionally reaching out to someone estranged from the church community.  These are traces of God.

At our leadership retreat this weekend Pastoral Team and Council met together.  On Friday, Pastoral Team began by praying through our past day—noticing the traces of God.  We prayed in solitude.  Then shared in pairs.  Then talked as our group of six.  Next we prayed through our most recent Pastoral Team meeting.  We began in solitude, looking for traces of God as well as our struggles or resistance to God.  Finally, Friday evening, we prayed through our year as Community Mennonite Church.  We noticed God with us.  We’ll share more about this at the congregational meeting in two weeks.

Joseph’s Story and our National Story

I mentioned that Joseph’s story personalizes Israel’s national story.  Looking at Genesis in 2010, I realize that Jospeh’s ill-treatment by his brothers also speaks to the news in America and our national story.  The revelations about American and British failure to investigate abuse of detainees, torture, rape and execution leave me cold.  The American military leadership has denied that they were keeping record of the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths.  But now—with the Wikileaks news—we know that they were.  Through taxes or investments that feed the war machine we are complicit in these crimes.  Our preoccupied silence and political support has sustained so brutal a war since 2003.  We are complicit in these crimes.  We are like the brothers in Genesis 37.  The intervening Ishmaelites and Midianites might deserve some credit or blame, but we are the brothers who concealed our crime and fear to confess.

I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I hope that in our story there will be traces that God was here, moving the church to live toward peace in an age of violence, calling our tribe into the way of Jesus.  This week, as people who have faced into a brutal story from the Bible and parts of our own story, let us take up a mission of peace in our relationship with God and in our community.

Peace with God, calls for our confession and repentance, a conversion to Jesus as Lord and Lamb.  I believe God is sending us on a mission of peace.  We don’t have to go far.  In fact, this week we can just do the ordinary things that we do.  Go and see about the shalom of your people.  Notice the well-being and the peace.  Bring back a good report.  We’ll be sure to have time during worship next week to hear from one another.  Let’s hear how it is in the wider community.  Let’s report to one another the traces that indicate God was there and God is here.

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