Scripture Readings: Genesis 45:1–15 | Psalm 133 | Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32 | Matthew 15:10–28
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (Genesis 45:7).
This summer, it’s been hard not to have disasters on the mind, especially if we’ve been paying any attention to the news. This week, for instance: the whole city of Yellowknife has had to be evacuated due to forest fires… and the B.C. interior is also facing the same fate. Last week, it was the island of Maui. And now, a fierce storm is approaching Mexico, and the Southwest Coast of the USA. Last month, Nova Scotia faced both fire and flood, and it seems like every day another serious crisis is looming, threatening some beautiful corner of our world, and those who dwell there.
Along with this change in our whole planet’s climate, we’re being given many frightening reminders of the frailty and fragility of life… and how much of what we so often take for granted can be taken from us in an instant.
Generally speaking, a lot of us in this part of the world aren’t used to this sense of instability… and vulnerability… but even though the climate crisis has certainly ramped up in recent years, this fragile state of our existence is nothing new. In fact, it’s the norm.
After all, most people, for most of human history have existed on the brink of disaster… one step away from everything falling apart… especially those living in poverty, who are still usually the hardest hit, and the first to suffer in any crisis. The dangers may vary: war, famine, disease, natural disaster… but the constant truth is: life is always a precious but precarious… and fragile gift.
But how can we keep moving forward… how can we keep from being overwhelmed by fear and anxiety… both of which can tend to make us self-focused and paralyzed… when we’re suddenly face to face with life’s instability?
In times like that, we can turn to God… and find that the Good News of Jesus Christ has the power to set us free from our fear. Trusting in the Living God, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, is the source of the courage and strength that we need, and which God longs for us to share with our world.
But what do we mean by that? What does trusting God with our lives look like, especially when it’s hard? And just as importantly: what are we supposed to be trusting God to do?
Our Scripture readings today from the book of Genesis, and from the Gospel of Matthew share two stories of people like us who trusted God when faced with their own disasters. Though very different, these stories invite us to see God’s plan is not merely to help us always feel safe and secure… but for us to trust in His mercy and love, even in the midst of disaster, and take part in His blessed work to bring redemption, healing, and hope… to bring New Life.
In our first reading, we heard the dramatic turning point of the book of Genesis, where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers who had betrayed and abandoned him. Genesis as a whole tells the story of how the Living God chose Abraham, and promised to give him descendants, so that through Abraham’s family “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3). But as the story progresses, we see that both Abraham and his family are a mess! Their stories are full of betrayal, selfishness, and deceit… often driven by fear… and yet God remains true to His word, and works with these broken people to bring His blessings into the world.
Three generations later, Joseph and his many brothers keep up the family tradition: out of jealousy, his brothers secretly seize him, and sell Joseph as a slave. He ends up in Egypt, as a household servant, and just when he starts to find some measure of stability and security again, he’s falsely accused of assaulting his master’s wife, and thrown into prison to rot.
Yet all the time, through all those betrayals, and injustices, and isolation, God was with Joseph. God blessed him and brought His blessings through him, even as he suffered. And in time, God brings about an amazing change: from the depths of prison, God raises up Joseph to the right hand of the Pharaoh, where he receives all authority and honour in the land of Egypt… just in time to prepare the land for the worst famine they’d ever seen: seven abundant years, followed by seven years of nothing. Through Joseph’s dramatic story, God saved a whole nation from disaster.
But all through those long years in slavery, and then in prison, Joseph didn’t know how his story would end. He never received angelic visitors telling him: “Cheer up, Joe. This is all part of God’s plan. Soon you’ll be up in the palace. It’ll all turn out fine.” No, Joseph was left in the dark. His whole life had been stolen from him. And yet Joseph trusted God, and he remained faithful to Him. And when he was set free and raised up from rags to glory, he could look back on all of his truly tragic story, and see how God’s merciful love had been with him and at work all along.
And this in turn helped him to do the truly unthinkable: to also offer merciful love to those who had betrayed and abandoned him… forgiving his brothers, and sharing his new blessed life with them. Genesis 45:5-7,
Joseph said to them, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” And later on, Joseph again reassured his brothers of his forgiveness with these words: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph’s words invite us to look back on the messed up story of him and his whole family, and see the Living God at work, turning disasters and even outright evil acts into a surprising source of His blessing and new life. He is not the cause of evil, nor does He condone it, but He can and does work through it, counter it, and conquer it again and again.
In the face of disaster, Joseph trusted in the Living God, and God’s merciful love transformed His life, and transformed so many others through His life.
Many centuries later, we pick up the story in Matthew’s Gospel of an encounter between Jesus Christ, and a desperate Canaanite mother.
All through St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is consistently identified with the family of Abraham, the Israelites. In fact, his Gospel opens with these words: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1). The picture the Apostle is painting for us is that Jesus is God’s own Son, sent to be the truly faithful one, who will fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, that through his descendants, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3).
And in Chapter 15, we’re told He runs into one of those other families of the earth: a Gentile, Canaanite mother, a descendant of Israel’s historic enemies, begging Jesus to deliver her daughter from the forces of darkness. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;” she says, “my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22). It is a request He’s answered many times before… bringing freedom and healing, and hope to all sorts of people, again and again.
But this time, He remains silent. He does not respond to her pleas. But the mother doesn’t give up. She persists, to the point that His disciples start begging Him to send her away… to just say no to her, and be done with this Gentile.
But Jesus doesn’t say “no” to her. Instead, He highlights the major obstacle standing between them: She was not an Israelite. She was a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies.
Jesus breaks His silence: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24). But wait… wasn’t it God’s plan all along to bless all the families of the earth? To bring them all His New Life? Does Jesus not care about what happened beyond the borders of Israel? What kind of response is this from the One who’s supposed to be the Saviour of the world?
There’s no way to fully unpack those questions this morning… not without a much longer service… and someone a whole lot wiser than I am leading the way. But as a start, I think we need to highlight the difference between an overall mission, and the first steps along the way. Maybe this analogy will help:
The overall goal of those planning the assault of D-Day during World War II was to end the conflict in Europe with the Allied Forces victorious. But the necessary first step was to take the beaches of Normandy… so that the rest could follow.
From the start, the Living God has sought human partners to bring about His good purposes on earth. And He promised Abraham that through him and His descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus was not a descendant of Abraham by accident… but as the culmination of God at work through the stories of Israel, to bless everyone.
Because God loves the world, and longed to rescue it, He sent His Son to be Israel’s Messiah… as a beachhead in order to bring God’s blessed New Life to all the earth. But this first step really mattered! He had a clear calling to follow: to take up Israel’s broken story, and bear that brokenness Himself… to be the faithful Israelite, who suffers for the sins of His people. To be the truly innocent one falsely accused, and betrayed by His family… abandoned to the pit, and the powers of death… only to be raised again to glory to the right hand of the Father... to bring God’s New Life to the world.
This was His path. This was the first steps He must take. He could not forsake it, and wander endlessly across the Roman world... doing good, but leaving the crucial battle of the cross unfought.
And yet… He doesn’t say 'no' to her. The obstacle remains, He makes it plain, but He doesn’t say no.
And this desperate Canaanite mother does not give up.
Matthew 15:25 “she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
Again, Jesus doesn’t say no, but He does drive home the point that His mission is first and foremost directed to Israel, using an image that makes us cringe today, but highlights the deep and widespread divisions in their days between Jews and Gentiles: “It is not fair” He said, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Immediately, she responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:26-28).
What an incredible example of faith under pressure! Faith in the face of silence… resistance, and even apparent rejection. She could have given up. She was given every reason to give up. Like Joseph in prison, she didn’t know how this meeting with Jesus would end. She didn’t know all the in’s and out’s of His mission… she was just a mother, doing whatever she could to save her daughter from disaster. She believed Jesus could help her. She believed Jesus would help her! She put it all in His hands, and Jesus responded to her faith with merciful love. There’s far more we could say about this story, but it’s enough for now to make this point:
Across every obstacle and boundary we humans can construct or imagine, those who look to Jesus Christ in faith will find God’s mercy and love. Heavenly silence is not rejection, but an invitation to draw nearer with faith. We may find when we do, that there are real obstacles that still stand in our way… but God’s merciful, saving love in Jesus Christ can overcome them all.
These two stories from the Holy Scriptures have much to say to us about what it looks like to trust in the Living God in the face of disaster: first of all, faith isn’t a guarantee to avoid all suffering… or a way to manipulate our circumstances, or the LORD to get what we want. Faith is the determination to hold on, even when we don’t know how things will turn out in the end, because we believe that the One we are holding on to will not let us go.
And we can believe that because time and again, the Living God has shown us that He is committed not just to holding on to a few ‘good’ people who seem to deserve it… but of reaching out to the ends of the earth, as the merciful Saviour of this world… bringing His freedom, forgiveness, and His own blessed New Life to all who trust in Him.
We can believe this because this is what we’ve seen in Jesus: stretching out His hands in suffering at the cross to take on Himself the burden of sin for all people, Israelite and Gentile alike… reconciling humanity to God through His own shed blood… bringing His betrayers full forgiveness… breaking the powers of sin and death… and setting us free to share in the goodness and glory of His blessed resurrection life.
Jesus did not shy away from disaster, but at the cross, He endured it for you and I… and for all. And through the life-giving, merciful love of God, He rose again from the dead, paving the way for us all.
We don’t know exactly how each of our stories will turn out, but we can trust that Jesus our Risen Lord, the Saviour of the world will not leave us to face it all on our own. We can trust Him to be with us, through it all. To share our sorrows, and bear our concerns and cares… and to raise us up from whatever pit we may find ourselves in to reign with Him forever.
So, in the face of our struggles today… in our moments of fear, of loneliness, desperation... or disaster, let us draw near in faith to the Living God through Jesus His Son. Let us look to Him, and hold on. Let us look to Him, and not give up. Let us look to Him, and let those around us know where they can find the courage and strength to carry on… where they can find the merciful, saving love of God that will never give up. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School