Thursday, December 17, 2015

Out of the Ashes – Genesis 50:14-21, Isaiah 61:1-3

This sermon was preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Galveston TX, on December 8, 2015, six days after an arson fire in our sanctuary.

I had a dream last night that you all bowed down to me. Ok, so I didn’t really have that dream--Joseph did.  How did that make you feel?  Just think how crazy that must have sounded to his older brothers, some of them probably twice his age.  Us bow down to you?  Never going to happen.

And yet what are they doing in our reading today?  They threw themselves down in front of him and said, “We are your servants.” How did this happen?  God was at work.

As you might imagine, Joseph’s brothers were very angry about that dream Joseph had, so they decided to solve the problem by getting rid of him.  Some thought they should just kill him.  But one of them suggested they throw him down a well instead.  That’s just about as bad as killing him, because if they left him down there he’d die eventually.  But they pulled him back out because they saw a better opportunity.  They sold him to some passing traders.  Might as well make some money off him.  They told their father that Joseph was dead, and they figured he was as good as dead because they’d never see him again.

Fast forward twenty years.  Joseph has, through a complicated series of events that you can read about in Genesis 39 and 40, risen from being a slave to becoming governor of Egypt.  He’s got just about as much power as a man can have who isn’t pharaoh.  There’s a really bad drought, and because of wise management that Joseph got from God, he’s got grain stored up to feed everybody who now can’t grow anything because of the drought.  And his brothers come to get some of this grain so their families can survive, and they meet Joseph.  They don’t realize it’s Joseph at first, because they think he’s dead, but after testing them a bit, Joseph finally reveals his identity and they have a great tearful reunion. And Joseph arranges for all the brothers and their families and their father to move to Egypt.  He sets them up with land for their herds of sheep and cattle, everybody’s going to live happily ever after.

But when their father dies, the brothers start to be afraid.  Maybe Joseph was just being nice to us to please our father.  We’d better double check where we stand.

That’s what’s happening in the verses we read from Genesis 50.  The brothers should have known better by now, but apparently they don’t.  And they are still acting like little kids.  Do you recognize this trick they’re trying out?  Dad said you’ve got to forgive us, so since Dad said it, you gotta do it.  Did Dad really say that?  Probably not[1], because Joseph had already forgiven them, and had told them so, and Joseph had basically proved his forgiveness by taking care of them.  But the brothers just can’t believe it because they know they did something unforgivable.  They sold their brother into slavery.

Joseph has forgiven them, not because what they did wasn’t so bad, but because he saw that God has used their actions to do something good.  Joseph was led by God to have the vision and wisdom to manage their resources in such a way that people could survive the drought.  Through the evil actions of his brothers, many people were saved from death by starvation.  They meant it for evil, but God used it for good.
God’s kinda cool like that.  He takes our messes and makes them into masterpieces.  I like how Isaiah puts it: he brings beauty from ashes.

We know quite well what ashes are like.   We smelled them as we walked across the parking lot.  If you walked through the sanctuary after the fire, the ashes got stuck to your shoes.  The smell of them sticks in your clothes and your hair.  Deloris Stanforth, whose husband Paul was the fire chief here in Galveston for many years, tells me that smell is pretty hard to get rid of.

Ashes remind us of death.  We have this week experienced a kind of death.  We’ve lost some things that were connected to our memories, our experiences, our lives here at Westminster. 

 At our prayer vigil Thursday night, Janice Longoria told us that there are some plants that only grow after there’s been a forest fire.  I knew that was true, but I had to Google that and find out more.  In the process, I learned about a plant that we call Fireweed.  It’s one of the first plants to grow after a fire.[2]  It was the first plant to grow after Mt. St. Helens erupted and decimated the countryside around that mountain.  It was also quick to grow in Europe in areas that had been burned from all the bombing.  It grows quickly after a fire because there’s nothing to get in its way.  It spreads across the ground, filling the area with bright flowers, and securing the soil.[3]  It’s the first sign that despite all the destruction, life goes on.  Beauty from ashes.
Something else happens after a forest fire.  Scientists have watched and studied what happens to forests and found that there is a tremendous burst of biodiversity after a forest fire.  There is a greater variety of types of plants than there was before.[4]  New plants, like the fireweed, grow.  Plants that needed more light can now grow.  And the trees also grow back and new kinds of trees grow.  Beauty from ashes.

God takes something awful and makes a way for it to be good.

Back in the beginning when God was creating the world, he called it good.  He looked at what he had made, and he said it was good.  And he’s constantly working to restore the goodness.

That’s why he sent us Jesus.

Jesus’ disciples were devastated when Jesus was killed.  They’d followed him for three years certain that he was the messiah, certain that God was using Jesus to restore Israel to its former glory.  They didn’t quite see what God was doing, even though Jesus tried to explain.  They thought his death was the end, until they saw him resurrected on Easter morning.

The Apostle Peter gives an awesome sermon to the crowd that was gathered 50 days later at Pentecost.  He says, “You killed Jesus by nailing him to a cross, but God raised him back to life, because it was impossible for death to hold him…God made him Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:22-24) Doesn’t that sound like what Joseph said?  “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”

Out of the ashes of a disaster, God brings beauty and new life.

Because of Jesus death and resurrection, we are all children of God.

He’s working in us even now to comfort us, bring us healing, and bring new things to life.

We’ve had a rough week, no question.  But we’re already seeing God’s amazing work of comfort and healing.  I haven’t had a chance to tell most of you about something that happened Thursday night.  Susan Kennard, the pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church, came to our prayer vigil.  That all by itself was a blessing.  She brought with her a check for $5000.  That is an amazing blessing.  But it gets even better.  They had a disaster that many of you also experienced—Hurricane Ike.  They had a Tiffany stained glass window that had been commissioned by the Sealy family back in 1902 and that had covered almost the entire wall behind their altar.  Ike blew out that window.  They hired a company to restore the window, but it turned out that the pieces were too shattered to be reassembled, and they had to make a new window from scratch.  The company gave the shards back to Trinity, and Trinity had them made into jewelry which they sold, and the money went into a recovery fund.[5]  The check they gave us came from that recovery fund.  From a disaster, a blessing.  Out of ashes, beauty.

But we’ve already begun to see beauty in those ashes.  We’ve been able to pull together, to cry together.  Our community has come to cry with us.  People have offered help.  People we don’t even know. 

·        The fire department brought toys to replace the ones burned. 
·        Children’s Coalition brought food and toys.
·        Other collections are still in process! 
·        We’ve met people why might never have met.  People have heard about us who might never have heard of us otherwise.

Out of the ashes comes beauty. And who knows what tomorrow might bring?

We’ve had some dark moments this week – the shock of getting a phone call very early in the morning and hearing that the church was on fire, the anger and disillusionment from learning that it was set on purpose, the despair at seeing the walls blackened and things melted or reduced to ashes.

But that darkness cannot overwhelm the light we have through Jesus Christ.  Though it seemed dim for a bit, I’ve seen it growing stronger among us this week.  And it’s shining strong in the people around us, too.  Now more than ever we have the opportunity to show how God’s light cannot be extinguished by an arson fire.  It may have been meant for evil, but God is already using it for good.

We can count on God, and we can look for him to bring us beauty out of the ashes.

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