"THE HIDDENNESS OF GOD" - Series: The Gospel According to Joseph - 1/4 

Pastor Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyterians Church, NYC - June 2003 

Genesis 37 - transcribed by Pastor Bumble

 

People frequently say, “If God really in charge of things, he must really be incompetent! Look at my life: of all things are happening, at all disappointments. If God in charge of things, he must be incompetent!”

 

Now this passage, and this part of the end of the book of Genesis, is probably the very best place anywhere in the Bible that addresses directly that thought: "God is incompetent or otherwise why are these things happening to me?"

 

What you have here in the book of Genesis is not a series of propositions, not a series of principles. You have a story; you have a narrative: it’s the narrative of the life of Joseph. We will be looking at the life of Joseph through the month of June.  And if you are willing to come in, if you're willing to let the narrative draw you in, really get involved in the story, really understand the narrative. When you come out, you’ll look at your own life differently.  You’ll have a new perspective on your own life, a new understanding of your own life.  I guarantee it.  

 

So if you want to begin to get that understanding. And if you want to really begin to get that perspective on your life - especially on the bad things that happen to you in your life - you need to notice three things in Joseph's life:  And the three thing for us in this first chapter which draws forth are 1) THE HIDDEN DEPTH OF SIN, 2) HIDDEN PURPOSES OF GOD and 3) THE HIDDEN PATTERN OF GRACE.

 

1) THE HIDDEN DEPTH OF SIN (5:43)

 

First, “the hidden depths of sin”.  What I mean by it is this.  If you ever seen a picture (as I've seen recently) of Mount Saint Helens before May of 1980.  It is a beautiful mountain, snowcapped!  And I tell you that there's nothing that looks more permanent than a mountain.  There is nothing that looks more stable than a mountain.  But then you should take a look at what's the “after” picture, after May 1980.  You see, as permanent as great as that mountain we've looked, inside there was brewing something that was about to blow the top off the mountain.  

 

And it’s the same thing with this family, this family of Jacob: large, prosperous, and established.  There was something inside - that was about to blow the top off - down deep.  Now what was it?  The first thing we see is in verse 3:  “Now Israel (that’s Jacob, the father of the family) Jacob loved Joseph more than any other, more than any of his other sons.”  (Now the story behind that, is a bit convoluted, and long.  Actually the year before last, we have a series of sermons, in which we looked into that history.)  But here it is in a nutshell: Jacob grew up desperately lacking the love and affirmation of his father, because his father Isaac overtly and clearly preferred his brother Esau to him.

 

And the resulting in his inner neediness, and the resulting in his inner lack of affirmation, drove Jacob in many ways.  And one of the things that drove him to, was to utterly fix his heart on Rachel.  Rachel was a beautiful woman.  And Jacob looked at Rachel and says something like this in his heart. “If I had her, then finally that would fix my life!”  And he did marry her, and he did fix his heart on her, and she had two sons (though they are the youngest of his children), and she had Joseph and Benjamin, and she died in giving birth to Benjamin.  But what we can see here, what the narrator telling us here, is therefore the oldest child of Rachel - Joseph - became the new emotional center of Jacob's life.

 

And Jacob gave him - the text says - “a richly ornamented robe”.  That is what it’d been called in older translations: “many colored”, “a coat of many colors”.  Actually the Hebrews word was kind of hard to translate.  It might mean “many colors”, or it might mean “richly ornamented”.  But the key thing is the word “rich”.   Jacob lavished money on Joseph in a way he didn't give any of the other children.  And “where your treasure is there is your heart.”  In other words, Joseph had become the idol of Jacob's life.  The idol of Jacob's life!  A “god” with small “g” in Jacob’s life: The Source, the central source of joy and love in his life.  And the result of that is: it poisoned his entire family system.  It poisoned his whole family system!  

 

First, look what happened to Joseph.  Even Joseph was a young man, a 17 years old here. Even though he's young, look at what's happened to him.  Look at where he is going.  We see in verse 2 it says, “He brought their father a bad report about them”.  And commentators tell you that the word “bad report” - this Hebrew word for bad report - is a word always means a “false report”, a lie, or at least a misrepresentation of some kind. Here you have a kid that is turned into a liar.  

 

But even more than that was these dreams. Look, the first time he tells his brother the dream - and it's pretty obvious the meaning of the dream - his brothers are furious, as “they hated him!”  So he gets another dream, and what did he do?  He went right back.  And what is that mean?  He tells it to them again!  It means at the very least he's a sociopath.  At the very least he's pathologically insensitive to the impact of his own behavior on the other people.  But the very worst is he's becoming an evil person.  He’s becoming an arrogant person. He’s becoming a cruel person.  And you see Jacob himself - and the Jacob you should remember as someone who adores Joseph - Jacob had to “rebuke him” (it’s a very strong word).  And what it means is that Joseph's way (in which he was telling people these dreams) must have been incredibly hubristic, incredibly arrogant, and incredibly overweening, that even his father, even Jacob had to call him down.  

 

So that’s Joseph's life:  He was on a path to becoming a schoolyard bully.  He was spoiled, selfish, insensitive, arrogant, shallow, maybe even evil person. And then the brothers.  Hebrew narrative is pretty spare.  It doesn't say things unnecessarily, doesn't give unnecessary details.  But three times (verse 4, 5, 8) – what it says: “Hate!”  “Hate” is growing in them. And therefore that’s the lava. It's going to blow the top off their lives, and the whole family.  So, what do we see? Underneath what looks like a really nice, big, prosperous family: hidden brokenness, hidden depth of brokenness and sins that are going to destroy the family, if somebody doesn't deal with them.

 

Now, before moving on let me suggest we can learn two things - two of somewhat practical things - before going over to the other two points.  The first thing is - would you please notice here - that there is not a page in the Bible, which doesn't give us the contrast between traditional religion and the Gospel.  

 

Traditional religion and the Gospel are two different things, and the Bible is constantly showing us that, it is not a book that talking about traditional religion - but the Gospel.  What do I mean? Well for example, what is traditional religion?  Here it is, it is saying, “Here are the rules for right living, and here are the exemplars of right living, the heroes of the faith, and stories of their lives. Now live like them, and God will bless you!  Here’re the rules of right living. Here’re the exemplars, the stories of right ‘livers’. Live like that and God will bless you!”  Okay, go to it!  Look at all the great examples. Look at all the heroes of faith.  There isn’t any; there's nobody!  Nobody is wearing a white hat.  They’re all - according to the book of Proverbs’ definition – “wicked fools”.  There is no good guy in here.  There is just brokenness upon brokenness; there’s hate; there’s bitterness, there’s prides everywhere.  What does it mean?  What, what are we supposed to make with these stories?  What kind of story is this?  How is it supposed to help me to live a good life?  

 

Traditional religion and the Gospel are two different things.  The Bible is not mainly tried to show you how to live a good life.  Frankly if it was, why would we be reading this story?  Now of course negatively (by way of negation) you can find some pretty good ways not to raise children in here; and therefore you can find some ways (by inference) how to raise children.  But do you think that the author of this passage wrote it down so we can know how to raise our children better?  No.  The Bible's purpose is not so much to show you how to live good lives.  The Bible's purpose is to show you how grace - God's grace - breaks into your life, against your will, and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome.  The purpose of these Bible stories is not so much to show you how to live a good life.  The purpose of the stories in the Bible - every page - is to show you how God's grace breaks into your life against your will, and rescues you from the sins and brokenness, which you would never see, would never be able to overcome.  That’s what you see on every page of the Bible.  And that's not religion; that's the Gospel!  

 

Religion is “if you obey then you'll be accepted”, and the Gospel is “if you are absolutely accepted, and sure you're accepted - then and only then - would you ever begin to obey”.  These are two utterly different things.  Every page the Bible tells me about it.  Every page the Bible shows us the difference.  That’s number one.

 

The second thing just to notice about this particular point: Western people don't want to hear this.  Modern Western people don't.  They first screen this message out.  You know what the message is here: “Sin and grace tends to run in families”.  Or let me put it like this.  You know that your parents’ sins, and flaws, and character flaws; you know they bothered you.  You didn't like them growing up, just didn't like them.  Guess where they are now?  They are in you.  Or even you have excessively done everything you could possibly can; to be utterly different than your parents because of that.  Either case you are not the product of your own choices, as an individual.  You are not a self-made person.  The things that have been done to you are every bit as important as the things have been done by you, to make you what you are.  What does this mean?  Here’s what it means: you did not get into your troubles through individual choices.  You got into your problems - the problems in your life, the flaws and the bad habits, the things that are wrong with you – they didn’t get there through individual choices.  You got them there through bad relationships.  You got there through relationships, and you can only getting out of it through relationships.  You got problems; you know you do.  You got things in your life, you got fears, and you got prides, and selfishness and you got resentments, and you got all these problems, and what you're doing about it? 

 

I know what you are doing as New Yorkers.  You are buying self-help books, and you're doing the exercises in the back. [Laughter] And the exercise in the back says, “Now you identify what's wrong with you, and then you make up an action plan, and you do it.”  OK, “identify what's wrong with you?”  Your flaws did not happen through an individual action, it happened through relationship.  You'll never even see your flaws except through relationships: The people around you can see you much better than you can.  You don't know what's wrong with you.  You don't know what's wrong with you.  You didn’t even get into what's wrong with you through individual choices alone, and you are not going to get out through individual choices alone.  You need parties acting into your life, with remarkable love and grace.  That’s what going to heal you.  You got to put yourself in communities where that happens. But most of all, you need to be in relation with God. You got to have His power ricochet around in your life, showing you what's wrong with you (because you don't know), leading you on a journey (to deal with what's wrong with you).  You didn't get into your troubles through individual choices but mainly through relationships, and you are not going to get out any other way, okay?  So, that’s “the hidden depth of sin”

 

2) HIDDEN PURPOSES OF GOD (17:00)

 

The second thing you need to see in Joseph's life if you're going understand your own life better - is to see the hidden purposes of God here.  Under the surface is sin, and also under the surface, God’s at work.  Now first of all let's notice the dreams, and then the accidents.

 

First of all the dreams - these two dreams are pretty interesting. And the more interesting that you might know, you have to put it in a historical context.  Remember that we're talking of these people here, who are living in ancient societies, which were incredibly hierarchical and patriarchal, extremely hierarchical and patriarchal. And the basic iron law of the social structure of the day was this: the younger always bows to the older.  The younger always bows to the older!  The older never bows to the younger.  On the one hand it means the children always bow to the parents.  No matter how old you get, you always bows to your parents.  So, children always bow to the parents; and the younger children always bow of the older children. And especially the oldest - the oldest was always got the lion's share of the estate and the wealth.  That was the iron law of primogeniture. That was the iron law of that hierarchical society.

 

These dreams therefore, are radically, socially subversive.  These dreams are words from God that says, “I'm going to bring into this family a salvation, that absolutely turns on its head the values of the world.”  This is the reason why the dream got there.  God had a dream for the salvation of His family from famine, and from sin; but the dream utterly was different - completely, radically different - than what the society believe was possible.  So one of the reasons why the brothers, even the father Jacob was so absolutely outraged by the dreams, is that it is impossible.  This couldn't happen; it’s ridiculous; it’s outrageous; it’s maddening; it’s impossible; it could never happen!  

 

But it begins to happen.  Through a series of accidents.

 

Now why do I call it “accidents”?  (As you notice it was a pretty long passage and I had to cut out about the middle of the chapter just to make it fit the reading.  If I had made it any longer, Ritchie would have been in a one-man play doing the reading, so I couldn't). [Laughter]

 

It's a long chapter, and a let me tell you what I cut out.  The narrator shows us a series of coincidences.  Now the coincidences are - on the surface - looking like chance happenings.  Jacob decided to send Joseph to see his brothers, who were grazing herds at Sechem.  But the brothers decided – just happened to decide - not to stay in Sechem but to go to Dothan, which is a very remote place, where whatever happened there no one would know.  Joseph just happened to come to a place where they had been, and just happened to run into a stranger, who just happened to going by some days before, and heard a group of people saying they're going to Dothan.  So in another word, a guy or some stranger just happened to overhear that the brothers were going to Dothan, and then Joseph was just happened to run right in the stranger.  And then of course when Joseph came, and they grabbed hold of him, and Ruben happened to be there to save him from being killed, but happened not to be there to save him from being sold… So the whole series of things all happened in a certain way.  

 

But get this everybody: If Joseph had not been killed, but also not been sold; or if Joseph had been killed, but not sold; if Joseph had not been killed or sold… Unless everything happened exactly the way it happened, just in that order, everybody dies.  Because the famine is going to come, and Joseph is got to get himself to a place… unless he is put in a place where he has power.  (Some of you know the whole story anyway, or you will see as the month goes on).  The point is every single little tiny details; every one of these coincidences couldn't have been a coincidence.  Because if any one of them didn't happen - if any of them didn't happen – not only the whole family die, but ten-thousands other people will die by famine, and entire line of the messianic line (the one of God saving the whole world) would die too.

 

What does it means?  It means that even though we look carefully, and there’s no mention of God anywhere here.  God never speaks.  God doesn’t do any thing.  God’s never even referred to.  God seems to be utterly, absolutely, completely absent.  You’re going to have trouble finding in these chapters of the book of Genesis in which God seems to be completely absent. But that's the artistry of the author.  Because though God seems to be completely absent on the surface, He must've been managing down to the minutest details every little thing that happened: all the chaotic things, all the awful things, all the terrible things, all the things that seems to make no sense.  But every single one of them had to happen.  He was arranging things for the salvation of His family.  

 

Now what do we learn under this point?  We learn at this point – let me put to you this proposition: God's wise redeeming love - God's wise redeeming love is completely compatible with terrible things happening in the lives of those He loves.  God's wise redeeming love for you is compatible with terrible disappointments, and terrible things happening to you. 

 

This compatibility (we see that in verse 23 and 24) tells us the brutal thing that happened to Joseph.  Verse 23 says, as “Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, they took him and threw him in the cistern”.  Now the words “stripped” is a word that means to skin an animal.  It means they were violently rip off his clothes, and he was probably thrown naked into that cistern.  And the word “threw”, “they took him and threw him”, even there is not a generic word. It is a word that means to dump a dead body into a grave.  And if this Hebrew word is ever used with a lived person, it means to abandon them to death.  And we also know – although it doesn’t tell us here, but in chapter 42 when the brothers reminiscing - Joseph cried.  He screamed.  He cried out.  He asked someone to save him, “Don’t keep me in here! Help me! Get me out of here!”  He cried to God.  He cried to his brothers.  He cried to the darkness, “Why, why?”

 

Look at how violent this is; look at how a brutal this is!  They seized him.  They stripped him.  They thrown him in naked; they abandoned him to die.  He cries out, he screams; nothing happens.  

 

And if this hadn't happened, and if it didn’t happen just like this, everybody would’ve been lost.  Not only would they’ve been lost physically because the famines were coming, and all of them would’ve been wiped out. But they would’ve been lost spiritually because - as we are going to see - only because Joseph was rejected, only because Joseph was sold in slavery, only because all these awful things happened: will Joseph himself be saved from his pride that was turning him into a wicked person; only will the brothers be saved from the hate which was turning them into a violent person, and even Jacob.  If all of these awful things that hadn’t happened, there wouldn’t have been salvation.

 

Now, somebody would say, “Why? Wait a minute, wait a minute!”  I know this is New York.  There always are people out there who have contrary thoughts with what the preacher is saying.  And some of you are saying, “Why is this have to be so brutal? I have another way God could have done this: some effulgent angelic being could have suddenly appeared!  And who could've looked at everyone, and everyone would have smitten to the ground.  He says, ‘I come from the Lord.  And you, you are a spoiled brat!  [Laughter]  And you, you’ve become bitter and resentful, and a murder is about to happen here.  I'm here to stop it.  And you, you old man, you’ve become an idolater, and you've ruin everybody's life, and don’t you see what are you doing?”  And it would have been just like “Touch by An Angel”, because everybody at the end was saying, “I see”.  And then they hug each other, [Laughter] saying, “I'm so sorry” [Laughter]. You see.

 

I know some of you don't believe this, but this is the Bible (which means this is true). This is reality; it's not “Touch by An Angel”.  And the fact of matter is, if an angel shows up and tells you about your faults, it won’t work.  Nobody ever learned about their faults by being told, they have to be shown.  Life has to show you.  And I want you to know that nobody actually learns that "God loves you" by being told.  They have to be shown.

 

See, do you know that centuries later another remarkably similar thing happened in Dothan?  Dothan at this time, when this happened, was a remote place.  Centuries later in the time of the prophet Elisha, Dothan was a city.  And Elisha the prophet and a servant were in the city, but the city was surrounded by an enemy army.  And the army was going to come in and wipe out the city, and kill everyone.  So Elisha and his servant were about to die.  But Elisha called out.  He cried out from the pit as it were.  And he cried to God, and you know what the result is? (You can read about it in II Kings Chapter 6).  God sent chariots of fire - heavenly angelic army - that came and smoked the offending army and everyone was saved.  

 

If you are a reader and you're reading that story, you would say, “That's the kind of God I want! Now that's the power of prayer!  That’s my ideas of how prayer ought to work: You cry out from the pit: ‘please save me!’  Then chariots of fire, incredible angels spring into immediate action!”  

 

But wait a minute: same Bible, same God, same place, two people crying out “Save me, I’m about to die!”  In one case: nobody comes, no chariots of fire, nobody!  In the other case: chariots of fire!  Wait a minute; what’s the matter here?

 

Here's the answer: Elisha’s salvation was a simple salvation. All Elisha needs was physical salvation.  Okay?  Joseph’s salvation was a complex salvation.  And if he had been saved, in the thing he wanted to be saved from, he would have been lost in more profound way.  He had to actually be lost to be saved, and if he’d been saved he’d been lost. He had a go on a journey.  

 

In other words, God was caring as much for Joseph in His silence and hiddenness, as He was caring for Elisha with all that immediate dramatic action.  Do you understand that?  God was caring as much for Joseph; He was working as much in Joseph’s life.  His love was active in Joseph's life - in His hiddenness and in His absence, and in His silence, His apparent absence - as He was in Elisha's life of dramatic action.  Do you know that?

 

Do you believe that?  Do you believe that?  Sometimes you know, Peter gets put into prison and everyone prays and angel comes and opens the prison door, and John the Baptist gets put into prison and all his disciple prays and he is beheaded.  Do you believe that God is still working in both kinds of situations?

  

If you knew that, if you really knew that, think how strong you would be?  In other words, if you believe that sometimes God doesn't seem to be answering prayer, but He actually working out some other way, how strong you would be?

 

There is a hymn that we sang on Easter Sunday, which starts like this, “Make like him, and like him we rise…” And the last line is, “Ours, the cross, the grave, the skies.”  If you believed and knew in the depth of your being what I'm telling you here, that God was just as much lovingly working in Joseph's life as he was in the Elisha's life; just as much working in his hiddenness as working in His dramatic intervention.  If you believe that, you could really sing that verse, and you know. When you say, “Ours, the cross, the grave, the skies”, that is weird.  The singers sang, "the crosses and the graves: they are mine.  All they do is to help me; they’re not my enemies anymore". In other words, the singers sang “Come on cross! Come on graves!  The lower you laid me, the higher you will raise me!  Suffering, come on!  There're two things you can do to me: one is you just hurt me, and because I know what God is doing, because I am going to trust in Him, all you (suffering), all you going to do is to make me richer, deeper, better, wiser, ultimately happier person.  Or the worst thing you can do is to kill me, take off my head, and you will make me happier than before. Because I have a God who turns all deaths into resurrections - literally as well as figuratively!  I have a God, who doesn't create the pride, and the evil, and the cruelty you see in here, but he arranges it, and he overwhelms it, and he overrules it, so that all the evil in this passage eventually destroys itself.  I have a God, who doesn't create evils, but He overrules it, so it destroys itself.  I have a God, who turns all deaths in the resurrections!  Come on, graves!  Come on crosses!”

 

Can you do that?  Can you do that?  Think of how strong you can be if you could.  Or put it this way, God has a dream for His people.  God has a vision for your glory, just like a dream for their salvation.  The fact is until it's all over; it looks stupid.  I mean here's Joseph, who got the dreams and was told by everybody “that's ridiculous”.  And of course here we are in the middle of God’s program for Joseph, and it still looks ridiculous.  It looks ridiculous to Joseph. It looks ridiculous to everybody. God has a dream for your future glory. God has a dream for his people.  And when you're in the midst of it, you never can figure out what is He doing.  But I can tell you this, that He will not let anything kill the dream for your future glory, not even you.  Do you believe that?  Do you believe you really can’t mess up your life?  Do you believe He works very often most when He seems the most hidden?  Do you believe that He “works together for the good of those who loves God” (Romans 8:28)? Do you believe it?

 

If you really believe it, then think how strong you would be.  Well someone says, “I'm having trouble, could you help me?  How can I know that?  How can I really know that?”   

 

3) THE HIDDEN PATTERN OF GRACE (32:28)

 

Here, let’s look at the third thing.  The third thing we see in Joseph's life is not just the hidden depths of sins and hidden purpose of God, but the hidden patterns of grace.

 

Let me tell you how one very brilliant Christian - years ago - applied the story of Joseph's coat to his own life practically.  You know how he did it?  This man is George Herbert, he was one of the great poets - 17th century - and he wrote a poem called “Joseph's Coat”.  (Now please do not turn to it so, I put it in your bulletins so later on this week you can look at it.  The trouble of poetry is you can’t read it in the middle of a sermon, because it takes so long to think about and ponder, and we don’t have the time.) But let me tell you the essence of what he says in that poem, because it’s so germane to us.  In the poem he talks about suffering, and he says that he realizes that suffering can ruin his life. There is a place in the poem where it says, “If one grief, among my many, had its full career; it would carry with it, even my heart.” And what he means by that is any suffering comes to your life, any disappointment, any trouble can really destroy you spiritually. It can turn you hard, it can turn you bitter, untrusting, kill your joy.  I mean it can really make you a very bad person. So he says "almost every grief, every suffering that comes in my heart has the potential to completely ruin me, and completely ruined my heart."  

 

But, he says, when suffering comes into my life, I get something else. And here's the story, he says, “but God has spoiled suffering, and given to my anguish joyous coat enticing it with relief”.  In other words he says, “I'm suffering and it could make me a really bad person, but along with it God has given me a coat”.  Now what does he mean? He's referring to the whole narrative of Joseph, and here Joseph's coat was a token of how much his father loved him.  Joseph's coat was proof that his father adored him. And George Herbert says, “in the midst of my suffering God gave me a coat, a coat of His love.  God gave me a token assurance of certainty, that he utterly loves me.  And what was the result?  If you read the whole poem he says, “Grief can ruin me but I got this coat!  God gave me this coat, His assurance of love.” And you know what the result is?  “Wounded I sing, tormented I write.” Now what he sang there was that: when you mix one part suffering with one part deep assurance of the Father's love, you get a wiser, deeper, happier person.  You get a person who understands people better, who can help people better, and who understands their own hearts better. 

 

Suffering all by itself can ruin you, but suffering plus an absolute assurance of love of God can turn you into something great, absolutely great.  Well some of us say, “That's nice, except that's not what happens is it?”  Because when bad things come in your life, you know what happens: Even if you say “I'm not a Christian”, even if you say “I don’t believe in God”; when suffering come into your life, almost immediately you struggle with this, you say “May be I am not living right.  May be I am not doing right.” When suffering come into your life, you have less assurance that God loves you.  You feel like "God had abandoned me," so how the heck this is going to work?  It didn’t make sense.  

 

If George Herbert is right in saying, "If I had joyous coat, if I had the coat of the Father on me, then suffering I can handle it."  How do you get it? Here’s how you get it. The pattern of salvation in Joseph's life was so weird to his brothers.  It’s so against the world's thinking, but because it points to the ultimate pattern of salvation.  

 

You see, centuries later another one came to his brethren, “to his own and they received him not”.  Another one was sold for silver, and betrayed by the people closest to him.  It was another one who was stripped naked, and abandoned to die, and who cried out in the dark, “Why?” And nobody hear. Nobody came. That was Jesus.

 

But here's the difference: Joseph is being turned into a savior, the only way God’s salvation would have worked; Jesus was being turned into a savior through weakness in suffering and rejection. You see that?  Joseph can only save the community because unless being rejected by the community, he could never be their savior - though eventually he was - unless he was first lost, unless he was humbled, unless he was rejected, unless he was sold.  Joseph was being turned involuntarily into the savior for one human family.  But Jesus Christ came, and the pit he fell into was vastly deeper.  And the cry of his dereliction was vastly greater.  And his nakedness and his sense of abandonment was infinitely beyond anything that Joseph went through.  In other words, Jesus came voluntarily to be the savior of us all. Because when Jesus on the cross, He wasn't just physically naked.  He was stripped of His Father's love.  Do you know why? He was being punished for our sin.  

 

When suffering hits you, you will always get back in touch with the subliminal deep profound sense - that every human being has - and that is "I really deserve some punishment for the way in which I've lived".  No human being can get rid of that. I don’t care how much therapy you go to. It's there. It's cosmic. It is part of "the image of God", part of who you are as human being. And when suffering comes, you will lose any sense of God's love unless you see: here is The One who lost the Father's coat, so you can be assured that you have it.  Here is The One who lost the Father's love, paying our penalty so we could know - in spite of our imperfect life - God loves us. When I ask God to accept me because of what Jesus has done, I get the coat. I know He loves me. And if you know that, that means if right now today you're in the pit and you're crying out in dereliction, you cry out "Why I'm complete alone?" You're not.  Because Christianity is the only religion that even claims that God has suffered, that God has gone into that pit.  That God is there. God has also gone in there in the dark besides you. He knows what it's like! He's suffered with you. God suffered for you! He did! So you're not alone. You can know, even in the midst of your suffering, that He loves you. And that's what you actually need.

 

Frankly, you don't need answers. Years ago when I was a new minister out of seminary. I had my Bible, and I had my seminary notebooks, and I used to visit these people who are sick and in tragedy, who had just lost loved ones, and who are facing death. And you know what I did? Like all good seminarians, I gave them answers. And I told them things. And there was a pastor in town, who was a little older and wiser. He said, "What you say will not amount to a hill of beans, unless they know you love them. They don't need your answers. They need you. They don't need your talking, they need your presence at times of tragedy."

 

And you know what you really need from God? Answers? It would be pretty tough to even know why things were happening in your life. You say, "I want to know why?" Try to explain to a three-and-a-half-years-old what would take for her to get in college. Now you can save your breath. Probably it's the reason why God didn't tell us half the things we asked. How could we know? It would be too much for us to take in! You don't need the intellectual answer anyway. It wouldn't help you. You need to know He's with you!

 

You don't need to know an answer. You need to know His presence. You need to know He is with you. And the cross proves that He is. He's The One. He is the ultimate Joseph: "He came to his own, his own received him not", sold for silver, stripped naked, crying out in the dark, lost so we could be saved.

 

I'd like to end with three things: 

 

#1. Know, and not know what God is doing. You noticed how Jacob in verse 11 has the only balanced approach to this?  Joseph said, "I know what God is doing. God is turning me into the prince." Having no idea exactly how hard it is going to be, he's filled with naïveté. On the other hand, the brothers said, "no way, this is stupid. It will never happen." In other words, Joseph represents the people who said, "I know exactly what God is doing in my life", and the brothers represent the people who said, "God isn't doing a thing. He has abandoned me.  Everything is over." 

 

If you think you know what God is doing in your life, just put it on hold - because as soon as you say, "I think He's doing this, so that eventually I will be able to do this, and eventually I will do this." And when that scenario falls apart, then you would say God is not working. Know that He is working - just don't think you know exactly what is He up to.  Know, and not know.  Do you see what I mean? Know that He is working. Know that He is there. Know that his arms are under you. But don't you dare jump to conclusions about exactly what He's doing - that's the balance! Don't be naive, don't be so cynical. Know, and not know.

 

#2. Go get the coat. It takes bible study; it takes prayer; it takes a decent discipline life - life of prayer; life of contemplation. You'll never get that incredible sense of God's love all the time. You get it in periods. You get it in episodes. But even the memory sustains you. And that's what you need. Go get the coat! Know and not know! And don't be afraid for your family!

 

#3. Every so often my wife and I (my children are not here today so they couldn't hear this). Every so often my wife and I, we looked at each other and say "My gosh, we just didn't do that right earlier. And now they are grown men. And they got the flaws in them, from me and from you. Mainly from you [laughter]." It is never too late for God's redemption. Look at them: this is the family through which God will save the world. Look at it. They are all men; they are all grown up; and they are killing in each other!  It's never too late.  It's never too late. 

 

His silence is not absence. If you know - through the cross - that he is beside you, and he suffered with you, and for you; you'll be able to live life like George Herbert. The last two lines of his poem goes like this, "I lived to show His power, who once did bring; first my joy to weep, but now even my grieves to sing." "I lived to show His power, who once did bring; first my joy to weep, but now even my grieves to sing." Even my grieves! 

 

Let's pray. Father shows us how we can have - in our life - this coat: The assurance of Gods love; the assurance of Your love, Father; the assurance of your adoration and delight of us. And we pray that if we have that, we'll be able to turn even suffering into joy. We will turn even our troubles into wisdom and holiness. And we ask that you show us how to do that. Here, as we take the Lord's Supper, make yourself real to us. In Jesus name, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note:

 

My Christian brother-in-law was accused and thrown in jail for almost FOUR year now (since Sep.2006). Not only his wife and babies were torn apart, the incident also inflicts much pain and suffering to our family since we have to take care of everything for all of them, from the medical issues to the legal matters. 

 

But in the midst of the circumstance, I learned a lot from God. Especially via Tim Keller and his particular sermon above.  The sermon was so helpful to me.  I have been listening to it a dozen times so far.  It is so helpful that I took the last twenty hours to type it up words-for-words for others (especially my brother-in-law, since he cannot listen to the sermon). 

 

Please also keep us in your prayers so that God will help us to continue to trust in Him - Thanks.

 

Sep.2010 update:

 

Praise God for His faithfulness! After four years, the trial for my brother-in-law finally took place, and God moved and vindicated him with a NOT guilty verdict on all counts.  I kept a journal on this at http://i12know.xanga.com/tags/trial  - He is now in the process of fighting the Family Court to re-unite with his family, and eventually will need to adjust to life again after prison...  Please keep praying for him & family.