A sermon by Revd Peter Coley 17 August 2014
AIM: to see that it is grace that can mark us out as servants of God
One of the most famous personal adverts that ever appeared in a newspaper reads: ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return, doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.’
It was placed there by one Ernest Shackleton just prior to the First World War. I quote: ‘I had a dream when I was 22 that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth.’
And so began his Trans Antarctic expedition to be the first team to traverse that vast continent. He managed to recruit a team of 27 men from that advert. And in September 1914 they set sail in their boat ‘The Endurance’ – a very apt name as it turned out. The rest as they say is history. After the boat was crushed by ice and started to sink they endured on floating ice for more than a year, before using the lifeboats through hazardous seas to reach Elephant Island, which was uninhabited. From here he and several others left to get to the only outpost in South Georgia some 800 miles away. There with boat almost sunk they land and had to trek across the mountainous island before reaching the whaling outpost. In this amazing story of bravery and endurance, after continuing disasters, not a single man was lost. The most incredible thing was that through his leadership the more difficulties they faced, the stronger the morale of the team became.
‘Difficulties are just things to be overcome after all’ was one of his sayings.
One of his men said: ‘Shackleton’s first thought was for the men under him. He didn’t care if he went without a shirt on his back so long as the men he was leading had sufficient clothing.’
Shackleton’s leadership seems to have been based on three pillars: first his calling to a great task, second his incredible resilience, thirdly and most importantly his service to his men.
In today’s reading from the Old Testament we are given an insight into the life of a similarly remarkable hero – in the life of Joseph – you know the one who was given the technicolour dream coat.
He seems to come from a dysfunctional family as so many families were in the Old Testament! His dad was Jacob who you remember stole his father’s blessing by deceit, helped by his mum! His dad had a number of sons and he made no secret of the fact that Joseph was his favourite – hence the coat of many colours. Despite Jacob’s deceitful nature he was someone who had a deep spiritual component to his life, and this he seemed to have imparted to Joseph. He was given a dream about his calling as a leader of God’s people. Now Joseph was not slow in coming forward about this calling and his brothers resented this as you might expect, and him being daddy’s favourite and all. Well to cut a long story short his brothers sell him to some travellers, take his coat and cover it in animal’s blood and pretend to their father that he was eaten by a wild animal as you do! For years they keep up this deceit, like father like son. Shame they knew nothing about DNA in those days. Eventually Joseph is sold again (human trafficking has always been there) and eventually ends up in the Pharoah’s household from where despite serving the Pharoah well he finds himself in prison (through his failure to pleasure the Pharoah’s wife!) Life has been incredibly unfair to this young man, yet through all these immense set backs he never loses his sense of calling and never loses his faith in his God. Through his God-given gift of interpreting dreams he earns the respect of the new Pharoah and rescues the nation from a coming period of famine by storing up grain. Eventually he is promoted to the highest office of chancellor. Just take stock: a foreigner who grew up as a nomad in the desert knowing everything about sheep and precious little about anything else, is now a great leader of a rich and powerful and sophisticated people not his own. You would have to say that this is a most remarkable story. Or as Mark our curate would say UNBELIEVABLE!
According to all the statistics, according to all modern psychology, according to all the principles of genetic inheritance this spoilt son, hated, virtually murdered by his own brothers should have ended up bitter and twisted on the scrapheap of life. And yet, and yet there he was at the pinnacle of power, respected and loved by a whole nation, and seen as their saviour, which indeed he was.
Is this a triumph of the human spirit against all adversity? Many would say so. Was this an example of being in the right place at the right time, with the right answer? Some would say so.
Yet the bible is written, primarily to show us the workings of God through history, and here in this life of Joseph probably more than any other figure in the bible, we are to see the saving hand of a gracious and loving God.
For though Joseph knew little except the keeping of sheep, he knew one other thing that was to make all the difference – he knew his God, just as his father Jacob, old deceiver that he was, knew God, just as his father Isaac had done and Abraham before that.
And to know God and to know God’s calling upon your life is what can turn the tide in a life. It can turn the seemingly hopeless into the hopeful. It did in my own life.
When Joseph had his dreams, he knew in a deep and powerful way the hand of God upon his life. He never lost that calling and never allowed the circumstances of life to cause him to doubt that call. In consequence he was a man above almost all in the biblical account who kept his integrity, who persevered and actually grew in character as his circumstances deteriorated. Just like Shackleton.
Subsequently in Genesis 45 as we come to that moment in his life story, the climax in many ways, when he is re-united with his brothers in Egypt, we see the contrast between the character of Joseph and that of his brothers.
At his moment of self disclosure – as he tells them that he is their brother- he is filled with tears of joy and they are filled with dread. And that fear was not going to go away easily.
Here is something amazing. Ever since they went their different ways Joseph to Egypt and all that would entail, and the brothers back to their father we are contrasting two ways of living.
The brothers were to live in the dark, their hatred of Joseph and the guilt that followed their treatment of him and their deceit of their father would live on. This becomes symbolised in the story by their powerlessness and the famine they experience that would eventually bring them to Egypt in humility.
Joseph on the other hand was in the light, he moved on with God. He didn’t allow the sin of his brothers towards him to build up. He knew God’s call on his life, he trusted God despite the many points at which he could have given up had he been any less of a character. This is symbolised by the plenty and wealth and power he experiences in Egypt.
So now at the meeting with his brothers he can only see the hand of God in all that has happened. He can say to his brothers ‘do not be distressed, don’t be angry with yourselves, for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me on ahead of you.’ ‘So then it was not you who sent me here but God.’
Joseph is an immense figure who seems to prefigure Christ. Like Christ he knew his calling, like Christ he was humbled, like Christ he was exalted, like Christ he forgave, like Christ he became the Saviour of his people. But supremely like Christ he was a man of enduring grace.
As we look around the world today from Gaza to Iraq to Sudan to the Ukraine isn’t enduring grace more than anything what the world needs? Men and women, boys and girls who have a higher calling, who are able by God’s grace to face the injustices and inhumanity of the world and keep their integrity? People who have a resilience and a heart for service that can smash the cycles of violence, who can break the histories, of pain and destruction. People who even as the situation gets worse can grow in love and humanity and become like Joseph and Ernest Shackleton, saviours of their people.
May we in our own little way know the grace of God and reveal it in our lives to others. Amen.