"When The King Forgets Joseph"
July 4, 1993 Message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Exodus 1:6-14
"A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." (Exodus 1:8) What an interesting statement that is! Just like the story of the Exodus, it is a sentence which transcends its particular time and place. On this day (July 4th), our nation remembers its Declaration of Independence, which came into being 217 years ago because "a new king arose over" the British commonwealth "who did not know Joseph;" that is, a ruler (or rulers) arose who failed to recognize that a colony was more than a resource to be exploited, that these people in this new land of Goshen were British citizens and not slaves.
One could say that this document our nation's founders signed so long ago on this day, was an application of this verse from the story of Exodus: "A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." That we see ourselves as a new Israel is evident in how we teach the story. The American Revolution, officially declared by the signatures of such men as John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, is retold as if it were Moses, himself, standing before Pharaoh, saying: "Let my people go!" Never mind that this is not how British history records it.
How appropriate it is to remember the biblical story of Exodus on a day such as today. More than some in our secular society today might be willing to admit, this exodus story heavily influenced our own nation's history, just as it continues to inspire and empower the ongoing story of others. Let me refresh our memory, as we go back not 217 years, but over 3,000 years.
The story begins in Egypt with a great grandson of Abraham who, with God's help, made the best of a bad situation. Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he eventually made himself invaluable to the rulers of Egypt, encouraging them to store up grain for a coming time of drought. The rain which did not fall led Josephís family (the children of Jacob/Israel) to Egypt, where they were welcomed as valuable immigrants. As long as Joseph lived, the Israelites had a place in Goshen, some of the most fertile land in Egypt.
There is, however, a dark side to this story, which is rarely told. Joseph was such a good administrator that he used the drought to strengthen the hand of Pharaoh. To survive, the people of Egypt sold their land to the King, who provided them what they needed, but also, in effect, turned them into slaves. Meanwhile, the Israelites prospered. Such a situation was fine for the children of Israel, as long as Joseph lived. But the day came after his death, when a new King arose, and the tables were turned. These outsiders, these immigrants (the children of Israel) were viewed with suspicion. Rather than an asset, they were seen as a liability. And out of fear, this Pharaoh imposed stronger and stronger methods of bending them to his will.
Strangely enough, the more ruthlessly their masters enslaved them, the more the Israelites grew in number. The more they increased in size, the more fearful the Egyptians became. Anxiety led to greater oppression: a vicious cycle, which has been repeated over and over again in human history. So great was their bondage that they groaned under the weight and cried out to no one in particular. All because "a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph."
Of course, this is not the end of the story, just like the Declaration of Independence is but the beginning of a longer tale. This cry for help was heard by someone in particular. God took notice, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And a new page was turned in the life of a people. With our children and a song this morning, we recited the story once again.
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This day provides us a time to sit back and reflect on our story as a nation. To be honest, as a Brethren preacher I tend to be overly cautious about talking politics. I recognize how easily we can connect God and country into an un-Godly mix, worshiping "America" instead of the "God who shed his grace on thee," believing that our country is the promised land, our people the chosen ones. I step as cautiously as my Brethren forebearers, who did not jump to the battle cry of the revolution, but instead followed King Jesus who said "blessed are the peacemakers."
Still, this is my land, even though I claim a different homeland: God's coming kingdom. And as a sojourner citizen of this land, it is important to pause and think about where we are as a nation. I wonder if this statement from long ago doesn't describe our current situation. "A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." (note: a new President, Bill Clinton, was inaugurated in January of the year this sermon was preached) No, I'm not talking about the new President in the white house; though some Christians might disagree. This "new king" has more to do with the other "powers and principalities" (cf. Ephesians 6:12) that seem to run our nation.
Our society is currently facing some rather significant changes. Much of our present discomfort is due to the fact that we don't really know which way things will end up. "A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph." How do we behave now that the cold war is over? We canít afford to think about the world in the same old way, can we? "A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph." How do we handle diversity? Is it something to celebrate or mourn? How inclusive is inclusive? Is the native American, the black, the Hispanic, the Oriental, the Arab, the homosexual ... my neighbor?
"A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph." How can we agree upon our story, when all these different people tell it, each from their own different perspective? "His"story, "her"story, "their"story. "A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph." A land built on frugality and risk-taking is heavily in debt and fearful of venturing a chance (except when it comes to the lottery). "A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph." What really are our values, or have they been lost? Have the kids who shoot one another over a pair of Addidas rejected our values, or have they accepted them more than we are willing to admit? "You are what you can buy." ... "A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph." These are "bay of fundy" times, when it seems like the tide is constantly changing, alternately leaving us soaked or parched. "A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph."
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It's good to be able to sit back and celebrate the birthday of our country. Beneath the "rockets red glare" and the fireworks "bursting in air," the fracture lines in our society are not as evident. Perhaps thatís why we have such national holidays. As the parade marches by we remember Joseph, or at least we try. That is, we seek to recall the founding principles, the story, the values of our nation. Some folks believe that this is exactly what we need, the medicine to cure our nation's ills. If only we would remember Joseph.
You know, there is a lot to this "conservative" approach that I appreciate, much to which I subscribe. It sometimes scares me to see how much like my father I'm becoming. It is important that we remember Joseph, that we recall the values and the story which helped shape our nation. At the same time, though, we also need to remember the darker side of the story, how what Joseph did helped create the present trouble. We dare not forget that part of our story which placed blacks on plantations and later in ghettos, locked native Americans onto reservations, and presently turns away immigrants to this land which was built by immigrants. The list of injustices goes on, of course. We may grow weary of hearing it, but our weariness doesn't make it go away. There is a dark side to our July 4th story. "A new king has arisen, who does not know Joseph." And that king is us!
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It is vitally important that we remember Joseph, that we re-touch the founding principles, the values, the story which has shaped one of the greatest nations in the history of this earth, something we celebrate on this day. But, you know, "remembering Joseph" is not really the way it happens in the Bible. Look at the Exodus story, and you find the pattern which is repeated over and over again in the pages of this book. The deliverance of the children of Israel did not come about because the king was somehow reacquainted with Joseph. No, the cry of the people was heard, not by Pharaoh, but by God. That's what the Exodus story is all about. God sees, God hears, God knows, God delivers, and God brings into being something new.
The winds of change blew a papyrus basket, carrying the threatened son of a Hebrew couple, through the bulrushes to the daughter of Pharaoh. This child she named Moses. And it was he who God chose to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land. Likewise, it was another child, whose birth we will celebrate next week in a "Christmas in July" service, who led Godís people out of another Egypt, where Joseph was forgotten, into the promised land. "Behold I make all things new," he said, and continues to say.
In two weeks, in our bread and cup communion, we will "remember" his death for our sake, his crucifixion that made way for the resurrection, the new beginning. In a way this is like "remembering Joseph." But in a way it isn't. In our remembrance, we recognize the Exodus pattern. The Pharaoh in us dies as we are led through the sea of change by our real king - Jesus.
A new king is risen in Egypt. Perhaps on this birthday celebration of our nation, this should be our cry. The words to the hymn, "Lead on, O King Eternal" (#419), may have been altered in our new hymnal, but that doesnít really change the song of our hearts. For on this Independence day we declare, along with this hymn, that he (Christ) is our freedom, he is our fiery pillar, he is our cloud of presence. Lead on, king Jesus!
©1993 Peter L. Haynes
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