In the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, the American women's 4 x 100 relay race team was favored to win the gold medal. The team featured Marion Jones, a sprinter who had won four gold medals at the previous games in Sydney. The American team was already off to a strong start when Jones took the baton for the second leg of the race. She gained ground as she ran her 100 meters and approached Lauryn Williams, a young speedster who would run the third leg.
Williams began running as Jones drew near, but when she reached back to receive the baton, they couldn't complete the handoff. Once, twice, three times Jones thrust the baton forward, but each time it missed William's hand—she couldn't seem to wrap her fingers around it. Finally, on the fourth try, they made the connection. But by that time, they had crossed out of the 20-yard exchange zone and were disqualified. Everyone knew they were the fastest team on the track. The night before, they'd had the fastest qualifying time. But when they couldn't complete the handoff, their race was over.
That handoff isn't as easy as it looks. It isn't automatic. It's the result of thousands and thousands of practice runs. When we think about the great relay of faith, we must consider the effectiveness of our own handoffs. How are we passing on the story of our faith so that the next generation, and even the generation after the next generation will be blessed? For several weeks now we’ve been following the story of Joseph as we’ve considered our own stories, looking at his life and our own life through God’s eyes. Today, as we finish Joseph’s, we’ll see how his father Jacob makes a handoff to Joseph’s sons, passing on his own blessings to the generation after the next generation.
Hear now God’s Word for us today from Genesis 48:1-16.
After this Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 2 When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” he summoned his strength and sat up in bed. 3 And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and he blessed me, 4 and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.’ 5 Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are. 6 As for the offspring born to you after them, they shall be yours. They shall be recorded under the names of their brothers with regard to their inheritance. 7 For when I came from Paddan, Rachel, alas, died in the land of Canaan on the way, while there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem).
8 When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” 9 Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, and he could not see well. So Joseph brought them near him; and he kissed them and embraced them. 11 Israel said to Joseph, “I did not expect to see your face; and here God has let me see your children also.” 12 Then Joseph removed them from his father’s knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13 Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them near him. 14 But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn. 15 He blessed Joseph, and said,
“The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys;
and in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude on the earth.”
Today, I want you to be thinking of ways in which you may be called – as an individual or as part of this church – to pass on your blessings, your faith, so that the generation after the next generation may be blessed. I’m going to give you a moment to begin to reflect on that, and then I’ll lead us in a prayer.
God of all our moments and all our days, guide our hearts and minds as we consider your Word for us today. May all we say and do here be acceptable to you, our Shepherd and our Redeemer. Amen.
As we’ve followed the story of Joseph, we’ve seen how God has been present with him throughout many twists and turns in his life. From the beginning, when Joseph’s older brothers gave in to their jealousy and fears by throwing him into a pit, then selling him into slavery, God worked through these situations to call Joseph to a greater adventure; and Joseph seems to have sensed God’s presence in his life, and was willing not only to let God take control of his own story, but to become part of God’s story for greater good. Through many plot twists, Joseph endured betrayal, slavery, sexual harassment, and wrongful incarceration; but Joseph trusted the dreams of his youth, he remembered the promises God made to his ancestors, and he had experienced time and again that when a difficult situation arose in his life, that God was able to transform it and use it for good.
Through these experiences, Joseph has discovered who he is meant to be. As we consider the number of chapters in Genesis devoted to telling Joseph’s story – 12 in all – I believe there is much for us as God’s people today to learn from him. I believe that Joseph’s story is lifted up as a representation of what it means to be the people of God, of what it means to live in a faithful relationship with God and God’s people.
Joseph came to understand that he was sent by God to be part of God’s greater story of salvation. In a way, Joseph became a missionary to the very people among whom he had been a slave! Remember that through the ability God gave him to interpret dreams, he was ultimate placed in a position to manage the food supply for all of Egypt throughout 7 years of abundance and 7 years of famine. With God’s help, Joseph devised a plan to store up grain during the time of abundance so that when the famine came, he was in a position to feed thousands of starving people. That reminds me of the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with just a few loves of bread and some fish. Jesus was drawn with compassion to those who had physical as well as spiritual hunger and thirst. Many times, he used the analogy of hunger and thirst to teach us what it means to be loved by God, and to love others. In John 35:6 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Today is World Communion Sunday – it is a day when Christians all over the world come together at God’s table to remember our shared story of faith; to remember that like Joseph, we have been rescued and sent; that as we have been fed by the Bread of Life, we, too, have a part in God’s story to continue to find the hungry, the thirsty, the betrayed, the harassed and abused, the incarcerated, and those who suffer anywhere, and to offer God’s story of love and healing. How are we being called and sent today?
Joseph’s story also reminds us that our own personal stories must be part of God’s bigger story. Joseph was placed in a situation to bless others precisely because of his job. It wasn’t through his worship, or Bible study group, it was while he was doing his very secular job. All of us, whether or not we have secular jobs, have secular lives that we live outside of these walls. Where are the places that God is putting you out there in the ‘world’ so that you can be part of God’s mission to seek and save the lost? To pass on your own story of faith? And to be part of God’s bigger story of salvation? And where are the secular places in our community that God might be calling us as a church? People of this community of faith have prayed for years that God would bless our future – that we would not close our doors, but that we would become something new in order to be an effective witness for God in a community that is growing all around us. How, then, will we expand our ministry into this community? Are we ready, willing, to let God write the next chapter of our church’s story? Are we ready, willing, to support new ministries for new people, maybe even letting go of some the things we’ve “always done that way” in order to let God place us in new settings? Or in order to join God’s mission ourselves, and not leave it up to someone else?
One of the most poignant parts of Joseph’s story is seeing the healing and reconciliation that came after Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. This is also part of what it means to be in a faithful relationship with God and with all of God’s people. Letting go of resentment, letting go of bitterness, letting go of grudges; not dividing the world into “us vs. them;” not seeing those who believe differently from you as an enemy; and as Jesus taught us, to love others as you love yourself – even to love your enemies. Last week we talked about how difficult this is in our country today, when we are more polarized than ever over issues of politics. But being part of God’s story means living in such a way that seeks restoration and reconciliation. How is God calling us as individuals and as a church to let go of the past in order to walk into a future with hope? How are we being called to bless instead of punish?
On World Communion Sunday, consider that Christians from many different countries and cultures around the world are all seeking peace and healing and reconciliation today. We are part of a global church, part of a Kingdom that is not bound by politics, or race, or country. After Joseph and his brothers reconciled, he told them to go and bring their father and all of their family, and they would settle in the land of Goshen, part of Egypt. Joseph himself had married an Egyptian woman, and had two sons who were also Egyptian. Some 17 years after Joseph’s family had been living in Egypt, Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, was dying. He called for Joseph, and Joseph brought his two sons. Remember in chapter 41:51-52, we learn that “Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’ The second he named Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.’” Jacob, at the end of his life, wants to ensure that the promises God made to him and to his ancestors will be passed on, not just to the next generation, but to the generation after the next generation. So he asks Joseph to let him bless his two sons as his own.
As we come to the end of this story, consider that Jacob and his family have had to flee the land that God promised them because of the famine. They are now living in Egypt as aliens, as strangers in a strange land. But he still clings to God’s promises to make a great nation from his ancestry. So here is Jacob, making these two Egyptian boys his very own! And at the end of his life, he is still looking forward to that future hope God has promised, so he blesses. He wants to do everything in his power to ensure that God’s promises are remembered by his children and his children’s children. Even as Jacob lay dying, his thoughts are about passing on the story; passing on the faith; and he sees an opportunity to increase his odds, so to speak, by widening the circle of his family, and increasing the blessings of those around him.
Next week, we will be consecrating, or setting apart, this new building. It is our opportunity to allow God’s blessings to reach the generation after the next generation. And it is OK to admit that for these blessings to go forward, in a way, there is a part of our story that is ending. But would we hold on to the way things used to be, or the way we’ve always done things, and risk not passing on God’s blessings? Are we ready to move forward with God, letting God write the next part of our story? Are we willing to leave behind the land we’ve always known, just as Jacob and his family did, in order to widen the circle of our family of faith, and to reach new people with new ministries? The generation after the next generation is counting on us, to pass the baton, to give them our blessings. It’s time to make the hand-off so that a new generation can take the baton of faith and run with it!