Today's reading: ch. 37-we will read the whole chapter rather than the selection the lectionary gave us.
The story of Joseph...the coat of many colors...the dreams of power...the treachery of his brothers. Most of us heard these stories in Sunday school. And the lessons can be fairly obvious; the dangers of pride, jealousy, favoritism, greed, self-righteousness. Everybody in the story is guilty of something. The brothers were angry at Joseph and determined that the way for them to escape their troubles was to throw Joseph down a well, a cistern that was dry. Now I'm not going to look at those specific lessons I just listed, but I wondered if we could look at some ways we try to solve our problems by throwing them down the well; or better yet, drawing things out of our personal well that look good but don't save us.
When life gets tough, what do we do? Most of us have lived quite a few years and you probably have some personal resources that work best for you. The brothers went to the well of violence to get rid of their problem, at first planning to kill Joseph but finally selling him as a slave. Most of us have solutions that are much more righteous looking.
A very human resource we might keep available in our well of resources is to work for approval from others. It is great to receive accolades, to be recognized for achievements. But that is not what we are to live for. And this world cannot fulfill all our needs. What is the great commandment? Love God and love your neighbor. Paul addressed this in his letter to the Philippians, “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ,... Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” Our encouragement comes from Jesus and our activities are to serve others, not to receive praises from others.
But receiving approval from others is a very strong force. I know I often ask whether what I’m doing is for my own glory or truly for the good of others. And the answer isn't always pleasing. Look at what happened to the people Jesus taught and loved. John wrote, “Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.” We miss out when we worry about what the world thinks rather than what God teaches.
In today's world, it seems especially critical to know that our self-worth can't come from what the world says about us. Cyber-bullying is a way people attack others. And it works because of the great desire we have for the approval of others. Tony Nolan pastors to teenagers. He told a group of young girls dealing with eating disorders, facing usually bad self-esteem issues, he said, “What is true about you is what God says about you.” Simple. What is true is what God says about you. Not what our mirrors say, not what facebook says, not what even our friends say. It is about God, and God loves you. We need to know this truth so well that we understand that God is always with us, always loving us. Even when we may not love ourselves very much. That's why we have to constantly make this truth a part of our lives. It seems I keep coming back to Paul's assuring words in Romans where he lists all the things that could separate us but concludes, “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Another resource from our well of help could be using religion as the answer to our problems. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? But there is a difference between religion and walking with Christ. Religion is the external; the rituals, appearances, checklists—what we do to win God's approval. Religion has a form of godliness to it, but it lacks the power of the living God. Religion is about performance. And Jesus didn't come to make us act better, he came to transform us and to bring us into relationship. Religion is external; relationship with Jesus is internal, touching the heart and soul, changing us from the inside out.
As you read the scriptures, it becomes obvious that the people Jesus was most critical of were the religious teachers of his day who were all about the outward obedience. Their religion exalted their own goodness while denying the Messiah in their midst. Self-righteousness is the result of religion without relationship. Remember this, Jesus is not a religion, Jesus did not come to start a new religion, Jesus came to reveal God's love so we can live in relationship with the creator. Too often our forms of religion get in the way of that relationship.
Sure, there are critical things we do as Christians; read God's word, pray, serve others, obey God's commands...but even as we do these things, we are not pulling off the relationship with God. No, it is all God; God initiates, God grows us in faith, God sustains us in troubles, walks with us in the valleys, leads us to still waters. God saves us. Religion suggests far too often that we are capable of saving ourselves by saying the right words, belonging to the right church, checking off the correct boxes. It's feels safe and easy to go to the well of religion when troubles come. Go to church; there is peace there, there is laughter and joy, and we can kind of side-step our troubles. Church can be the exact place to be, but not if you go there to avoid facing your troubles. Often what we really need is a face to face with God. That can happen in church, it can happen in your living room. Jesus came in part so we don't need a priest to be an intermediary between us and God. We can enter into the throne room of God anytime, anyplace. And that's not religion; that's relationship.
We can know all the doctrines of the church, we can participate in the activities of the church, we can hide our fears and doubts and failures in our attendance at church... but religion doesn't equal being right with God. Guard against turning to the well of religion rather than the well that brings you springs of living water.
The final quality I want to look at in detail that we like to rely on as our source of strength is control. We tend to like to think we can control our lives. And I do seem to be a better Christian when I feel I’m in control. I pray more, I’m offering thanks, I’m more helpful and hopeful. When I'm feeling in control, then I run my life and touch base with God from time to time for support and approval.
I'm sure Joseph felt he was in control of his life. Favored by his father, dreaming of future glory; his life looked pretty good. But God and his brothers had other plans. We will discover in a couple of weeks that Joseph comes to realize that God was in control the whole time. But when all this went down, he, like us when things are going well, felt that his source of strength came from being in control.
When we are drawing from the well of control, we only turn to God as a last resort. God should be first, last and everything in between. But, man, I sure like feeling like I’m in control of life. Somewhere in the last couple of weeks the old saying or title, “God is my copilot” came up in discussion. Julie pointed out that God isn't supposed to be our copilot. If God is our copilot, we need to let go of the controls and turn the plane over to him. Oh, but that is hard. It means that we don't get to draw from the well of being in control. It means understanding that there are things in this life we don't have control over. There are many promises of God's care and yet we feel better holding on to the control panel in our lives. Jesus was never meant to be the copilot; he's the plane. He's not the one we turn to when the plane is crashing; he's the one we turn to for the flight plan, the power to take off, the instruments that tell us when we are off course, the wind beneath our wings... to carry this metaphor even further. But I hope you get the point; Jesus is not our backup plan, Jesus is the plan.
Religion, approval, control; this is a partial list of resources we tend to use from our well instead of turning to the true source of living water. I did not mention a few more that seem rather obvious from our reading. There is the resource of revenge. The brothers didn't like Joseph's favored position, his dreams, his betrayal of confidences, giving bad reports to their father. They turned to revenge. Money is another resource. It wasn't primary here, but their payoff of twenty pieces of silver from the Ishmaelites seemed to take the sting out of their guilt over betraying their father's trust. Peer pressure was at work here, too. We know the brothers weren't unanimous in their desire to kill Joseph. But there was too much pressure to go along with the others for anyone to stand up for the right, though Reuben wouldn't let them kill him.
So how deep is your well? Every resource I've listed today I have personally drawn from my well of resources at one time or another. People pleasing, the stability of riches, revenge and anger, leaning on my own talents before seeking God's resources, certainly religious performance.... Are there resources you draw forth before turning to God? The idea of our well has a double meaning; we draw forth our resources from our well; but we also have the illustration in scripture of Jesus being the living water. In John's gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” And again from John, in Revelation 7: 17, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” One time Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well, and in their discussion revealed his true identity. The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” That's the well we want to draw from. And it is ours when we accept God's grace. Grace is God's favor, forgiveness, kindness shown without regard to our worth or merit; and in spite of what we, in our sin, deserve. If there is anything stored in your well that is keeping you from having life-giving water flowing from it, Christ offers that grace to you today. Our message today from Joseph and his brothers tells us to guard against relying on our own well of resources. What is there that you seek before turning to Jesus? Remember that Jesus is the source of the living water that leads to eternal life. Remember that Jesus is with you and in you. Turn to Jesus first, last and always. The the pure water of life may flow freely in you, and through you to others. Amen.
Hymn: Glorious things of Thee Are Spoken 446 PH