Scriptures: Genesis 50:15-26; Jeremiah 29:4-14
I wonder how many of you remember an old 1960s television show called Lost in Space. Or maybe you have seen reruns of it. Its most memorable character was a robot that went around waving its arms saying, “Danger, Will Robinson!” If you’ve never seen it, you are not missing anything. It had bad acting, stupid plots, and ridiculous special effects, but my 10 year old friends and I watched it every week because of the way it ended. Each week this family marooned on a distant planet faced some new crisis: lack of food or water, attack by aliens, or a disastrous mistake by one of the crew members, and each week the crisis was solved or averted. But that was never the end of the episode. Each week after the crisis passed, the show went on for another 2 or 3 minutes, and suddenly a new crisis enveloped the family. Then the action froze, and a caption appeared on the screen that said, “To be continued,” and we were left hanging for another week.
The ending of Genesis has written over it “To Be Continued.” We see this first in the story of Joseph. When the brothers sold Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed to Egypt, they assumed that the story of Joseph was over, that they were rid of Joseph once and for all. So you can imagine their consternation when decades later they go to Egypt to buy food during a famine and discover that the Egyptian official selling them the food is none other than Joseph. They thought the story of Joseph was over, but it wasn’t. It had a sequel.
Some of you have told me about some painful experiences in your past, times when you experienced neglect, abuse, harassment, or grossly unfair treatment. In the news recently this has taken the form of sexual harassment and assault against women and in some cases against men, perpetrated by people in positions of power. Maybe that has happened to you. Or maybe you have had other experiences of mistreatment that have left a scar on your life. Like Joseph you know how injustice feels.
For you the ending of Genesis has good news. Because injustice, abuse, and suffering do not have the last word in Joseph’s life, nor in yours. Others may have intended you harm, but God has a plan for your good that will not be thwarted.
But now at the end of Genesis, after their father Jacob dies, the brothers think that maybe their story is over, that their past is about to catch up to them. They say to one another, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
But Joseph says, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 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. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
When Joseph discovered that injustice and abuse did not have the last word over his life, he was empowered to forgive his brothers. And when his brothers discovered that guilt did not have the last word over their lives, they were empowered to face the future with hope.
As I said, some of you have shared with me painful experiences of mistreatment and abuse in your past; but some of you have also shared with me painful memories of being the one who did the mistreating, the one who did things for which you now feel shame, remorse, and guilt. And even if you don’t have some dark deed in your past, I’ll bet all of you have felt guilt over something, if not something you did then something you didn’t do—the time you didn’t help when someone needed it, the time you did not speak up when someone was being mistreated, the time your silence or inaction contributed to someone’s downfall. There are all kinds of ways for us to feel guilty.
But for us, too, the story of Joseph is good news. Just as the wrongs done to us are not the end of the story, neither are the wrongs we have done to others. Just as God brought good out of the injustice done to Joseph, so also God brought forgiveness and blessing into the lives of his guilty brothers. Guilt is not the end of the story. There is a “To Be Continued” written by God into the script of our lives, a sequel where God can still work to make us a blessing, if we only give God the chance.
But there is one more “To Be Continued” at the end of Genesis. As he approaches his own death, Joseph says to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Interestingly, when Joseph delivers this promise, the people of Israel were not yet slaves in Egypt. That would not happen for several generations. At the time Joseph spoke these words, his brothers and their families were quite prosperous. They were living in one of the most fertile places in the land of Egypt. Their population was growing. Eventually they would become so numerous and prosperous that the king of Egypt would fear them. When Joseph said to his brothers, “God will surely bring you up out of this land,” they did not yet know how bad things would get. They did not yet know that they would become slaves. They did not yet know that Pharaoh would take their male babies and throw them in the Nile River. That was still years away. But Joseph knows that whatever happens in the future, God still has a future for his people. And not even death, neither Joseph’s death nor ours, can thwart God’s purpose for us or derail the future God wants for God’s people.
While I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, I got to know a retired mill-worker named Fritz. Fritz was not a member of our church, but I visited him because I heard his wife Alice was seriously ill. Fritz was terrified at the prospect of losing Alice. They were so close and did so many things together, he couldn't imagine life without her, and when Alice died, he was devastated. He looked and acted like someone whose life was over.
Fritz had never been a churchgoer, but after Alice died he was so lonely, he started coming to our church. He always got there about 45 minutes hour early. He said he didn't want to be late, but he lived only five minutes away. I think he got there early because it meant less time being alone. Since he was always there early, I put him in charge of folding the bulletins. In Potlatch we did not have a church secretary; we didn’t even have a folding machine. So I had Fritz fold the bulletins while he was waiting for church to start. And while he was at it, we had him recruit ushers to take up the offering. That made him the he ad usher. Since he was the head usher, he thought he should join the church, which he did, and eventually he was elected to the session.
Meanwhile, Fritz discovered the Boy Scout troop our church sponsored. Since he had always been an avid outdoorsman, Fritz got involved with the troop on a regular basis helping some of the boys with their requirements. Soon he was going to every meeting, and he became such an important part of the program he was given a distinguished service award by the Lewis and Clark Council of the Boy Scouts of America. All of which happened in the six years following Alice’s death.
I won't say that these were the happiest years of Fritz's life. They weren’t. Fritz still missed Alice and was terribly lonely. But Fritz discovered that after Alice’s death there was a “To Be Continued” written over his life. After Alice’s death Fritz discovered a new life he had not experienced before, and in the process he became a blessing to people in ways he never would have imagined.
Six years after Alice’s death Fritz died, and we had a funeral service for him at the church. The church was filled to overflowing with people, many of whom were there because they had gotten to know Fritz in the last six years of his life. Included in the service that day were a whole row of Boy Scouts in full uniform who spontaneously stood at attention and saluted as Fritz's coffin was carried out of the church.
There is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, even after we have lost a job, even after we have been passed over for a promotion, even after we or a loved one has been diagnosed with a fatal disease. Even after the loved one dies, even after we die, there is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, a work of God yet to be completed that no past injustice, no present guilt, and no future tragedy can ever thwart.