Epiphany 7, Luke 6:27-38
Today’s reading from Genesis features some of the culminating moments of one of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Bible, the very compelling tale of Joseph and his brothers.
Long story short, Joseph’s brothers were quite jealous of him – as we know, a very common tendency in human families – and in reaction the brothers betrayed Joseph by throwing him into a pit to be left for dead. Then they thought better of that and ended up selling Joseph into slavery. Joseph was taken to Egypt where he ended up becoming a leader among the Egyptians because of his power accurately to interpret dreams. Famine struck the land and Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking aid only to discover their brother, Joseph, in a position to help them.
Today’s first reading is the moment of reuniting between Joseph and his brothers who were dismayed at recognizing that they were in the presence of the one whom they threw into the pit and sold into slavery.
In a lovely moment in the narrative, Joseph beckoned to his siblings, “Come closer.” And in the intimacy of that closer presence said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (cf. Genesis 45:4-8)
This exchange ended in this further intimate moment: “And Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them…” (Genesis 45:15a) I love that image which is evocative to me of our sharing of the Peace in worship, back when we could actually physically embrace each other in reconciling ways.
It’s a wonderful moment of grace. Especially poignant if you think the Old Testament is only about a God of wrath. No, the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew scriptures also reveal a God of mercy, of grace, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of grace-filled endings to stories.
It’s a story that conveys what I like to call the radical sovereignty of God’s love. Humans intend evil. God intervenes, intending good. God prevails. It all becomes fulfillment of Paul’s conclusion in Romans 8 – “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Which is to say, the God of the Hebrew people is the God of Jesus, and the God whom we as Christians worship as well. Thus, Christian people, perhaps especially Lutherans, who confess that all of the scriptures ultimately serve to point us to Jesus Christ, can understand Joseph as a type of Christ, a Christ-like figure, who was betrayed by those closest to him, and thrown into a pit and left for dead.
Jesus, too, knew such betrayal by his most intimate followers, and was in fact, killed, and was thrown into the pit of a tomb, only to be raised up by God to new life, even as Joseph, too, was taken from the pit of slavery for a new life of leadership in the land of Egypt.
In short, God uses human brokenness and sinfulness ultimately in redemptive, life-giving ways. And loving life has the last word. That’s the radical sovereignty of God’s love which is possible because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Paul reflects on this divine dynamic in today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies…. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.” (1 Corinthians 15:36, 42-43)
Paul, here, is talking about the resurrection and its capacity to bring life from death, and likewise, glory from dishonor, power from weakness (of the cross), salvation from sin – and quite significantly for us Lutherans, the gospel from the burdens of the law.
What Joseph’s brothers did was sown in dishonor and weakness. But God used such dishonorable sowing for glory and power. So, too, with Christ. Human beings and institutions sowed their deeds in dishonor and weakness, but God raised Jesus in glory and power.
And, according to Paul, we all have a share in this glory and power. “Just as we have borne the image of the one of dust, we will also bear the image of the one of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49), namely, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.
We come to bear that heavenly image when we are baptized in the name of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when after the water bath, the deal is sealed with oil on our foreheads with the image of the cross, a restoration of our having been created in the image of God. Thus it is that we bear the image of the one of heaven. It’s on our foreheads.
Only then can we even attempt to undertake the work that God has called us to do, for we can only engage that work in the power and cruciform glory of God.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel reading, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, a series of seemingly impossible teachings of Jesus.
Listen again to what Jesus expects of us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” And more: turn the other cheek, giving it up to be smitten, too. “Give to everyone who begs from you.”
This is all summed up in Luke’s telling of the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Moreover, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Pause to think for a moment about just how counter-cultural this teaching of Jesus was and is. The hearers in Jesus’ day would have been taught the ethic of retribution, of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. What Jesus teaches is an ethic that is a radical departure from retribution and revenge.
Jesus’ teaching is no less difficult for us in our day when popular culture and many leaders across the spectrum of viewpoints seem to practice a bastardized version of the Golden Rule: “Do to others as they do to you.”
Jesus’ revolutionary ethic to love enemies runs counter to human nature. Our stressed-out days, soon entering a third year of a global pandemic accompanied by all kinds of social upheaval, are bringing out the worst in the human spirit, as there is so much spite and anger and seeking vengeful justice these days.
Folks, captive as we are to the sinful, old Adam in us, we cannot do on our own steam what Jesus beckons us to do. We can try in fits and starts, but there’s generally no consistency. We simply can’t do this kind of stuff on our own! We need help. And we have help.
Here’s what Luke reports that Jesus said, drawing on an image of the marketplace: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into [our] lap.” All the good stuff is put into a container and it’s pressed down and shaken so the container is completely full, and it’s running over, all the blessings, the gifts.
So it is with God’s love, with God’s grace in Christ Jesus. So it is in the means of grace. In our assemblies, when we gather in this place, we are given gifts – the word, the sacraments, forgiveness, the communal experience of the fullness of Christ’s presence. All of this adds up to the “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” – and yes, it is put into our laps, our bosoms, the folds of our garments where we carry the good gifts back into the world.
Thus fed and fortified, we can attempt to do what Luke tells us Jesus commands.
Thus, operating in the power and cruciform glory of Christ with the Holy Spirit working in the means of grace, we can seek to engage with our neighbors the loving work extolled in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain – a huge countercultural gift in our current social climate which seeks retribution and revenge.
God in Christ help us for the healing of the nations. Amen.