August 24, 2014
Last week we explored the story of Joseph and his brothers. We looked at how God had used Joseph in a mighty way to save the lives of many people in Egypt during a seven-year drought. This included saving his own family who had faked his death and sold him into slavery. Joseph was well known and revered as the second in command to the Pharaoh.
But today’s scripture begins with an interesting twist. Time had passed and those in leadership of the current time had no knowledge or recollection of Joseph. They had no realization of how God blessed the Israelites as a part of a covenant that allowed the people of God to worship the one true God. But time passed. As the people of Israel continued to prosper, the Egyptian rulers became more and more leery. Within a relatively short period of time the people of Israel went from being in community with the Egyptians to becoming slaves. Yet the people of Israel continued to prosper because God was with them just as God had been with Joseph during his time as a slave and a prisoner and ultimately second in command to Pharaoh.
The situation continued to heat up as the Egyptians looked for ways to oppress the Israelite people who were greater in number and stood as a possible threat to Egypt. I am reminded of the movie, “It’s a Bug’s Life” where a large colony of ants is oppressed by a few grasshoppers who required the ants to collect food for the grasshoppers in order to stay alive. There is one scene where the grasshoppers are discussing the ants’ situation and eventually the ants do realize that they are stronger in number and are quite capable of standing up to the evil grasshoppers.
We as Christians may at times feel like the oppressed. It seems we have freedom of religion in the country for all religions except Christianity. There is a popular movie out now called “God’s Not Dead” where a college freshman finds himself in a classroom led by an atheist philosophy instructor who forces all students to sign a page noting that God is dead. This student chooses to defend his faith in spite of the overwhelming pressure to deny God. What amazed me the most was the number of cases noted in the movie credits where lawsuits have come about with this very scenario where students are persecuted for their belief in God. Maybe at times we feel like the ants facing the giant grasshoppers of non-believers. Maybe we can empathize with the Israelites in the plight to exist as a people serving the one true God. Those in Egypt had forgotten Joseph and therefore had forgotten God.
When we explored our sermon series on those ‘Why’ questions, we talked about how God brings good out of bad situations. Clearly bad things were happening to the Israelites. Midwives were being told to kill all male children and when they refused the rulers began killing all the boys in the community. A desperate mother hides her son for 3 months and finally floats him down the river hoping to give him a chance at life even if it was not with her. This was a time of great sorrow for the people of Israel.
When faced with those committing evil it is natural to assume that all persons of a specific religion or country or creed are all evil. It is not hard for us to make that leap of assumption. Consider the treatment of Japanese Americans after WWII or the treatment of Muslims in this country after the 9/11 attack. We could probably assume that all the people of Egypt had contempt for the Israelites. Yet the Pharaoh’s own daughter took pity on the baby found floating in a basket. She even unknowingly reunited Moses with his mother as she brought Moses’ mother into her household to raise Moses as the Pharaoh’s daughter’s own child. Humble beginnings cannot even begin to explain or describe the early years of one of the greatest leaders of Israel.
Coming from humble beginnings is not that uncommon. Many churches have started with just a few dedicated folks, a passion for ministry and a love for Christ. Many famous people have turned their lives around from abject poverty to successful careers. Jim Carey and the singer Jewel both lived in their cars for a while. Opra Winfrey was a teenage mom. J.K. Rawlings was a single mom on the verge of poverty until a little idea of a young wizard took hold. Others were raised by single moms or step parents. Some of you can probably recall some pretty lean times in your lives as well. I know when I was in first grade we lived in a house that did not have running water – no I am not that old! Heartache and hard times are fairly common for most of us at some time or another, yet God brings good out of the difficulties of life. God strengthens us to continue looking forward with hope and endurance and the ultimate promise of eternal life.
We see some very distinct similarities to Moses’ beginning when compared with Jesus’ beginning to life on earth. Jesus’ parents were not well off – we know this because when Jesus is dedicated in the Temple, his parents brought two turtledoves for a sacrifice, the poor persons’ alternative to a lamb. We also know that Herod wanted to eliminate any threat to his rule. Recall that after the wise men came to find the baby Jesus, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and instead traveled another way to get back home. Herod then proceeded to kill every male child under the age of two in the area around Bethlehem.
Humble beginnings – often our past helps define who we are. Perhaps at times we can better appreciate where we are when we remember where we came from. I will always remember that famous line from Gone with the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara holds up a piece of food and says, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” The original Mayo Church building only held 60 people at capacity. The first worship service at Parkwood UMC included 24 persons, 12 of whom were immediately welcomed as church members. Perhaps our humble beginnings help to keep us grounded as a congregation. Perhaps remembering our past helps us to see a greater hope for the future. Perhaps.
One of the biggest challenges to the Christian church in general has been times of prosperity. That seems a bit odd, but when things are going well, many people see no need to turn to God for anything. Churches can easily fall into the trap of sitting on our laurels and reminiscing in the glory days and the accomplishments of the past. With a focus on nostalgia comes a tendency to turn inward as a church. Ministry takes a back seat to working to please ourselves. The message of service to others can get lost in the shuffle of church busyness.
Please do not get me wrong here. There are things that need to be done in order for the church to function. Trustees and Finance committees are led by faithful folks of the congregation dedicated to maintaining our buildings and grounds, and attending to our church finances, so that worship and ministry can thrive in this location. But everything we do must be guided toward ministry. Everything we do must hold the purpose of glorifying God and serving our neighbors. Even adding coats of paint to the walls or enhancing our visuals in the sanctuary must support the overall mission of the church which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
So Mayo United Methodist Church – what’s next? If you remember the two questions every sermon must answer, the first is ‘What’s the point?’ The second is – ‘So what?’ Here’s the ‘So what?’ What are the reasons for us to remember and embrace our humble beginnings in order to function as a community of believers today? Maybe it’s to rededicate ourselves to life in community. Maybe it is to state with a passion that no children in our community will go hungry over the weekends. Maybe it is to finally take charge of our personal finances in order to become the givers God sees in all of us. Maybe it is to support our young people as they embark on the confirmation process. Maybe it is to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the hurts of those around us and actively support ministries that help to change lives for Jesus Christ. Maybe out of the heartaches and trials we have endured as a church we can renew our faith in God and stand as a voice against the wind of indifference and state without a doubt – GOD’S NOT DEAD!!! Amen.