Reading, Genesis 49:29-50:14, 22-26.
Image, Migration Series No.55: The migrants, having moved suddenly into a crowded and unhealthy environment, soon contracted tuberculosis. The death rate rose. JACOB LAWRENCE, 1940 – 1941
At the end of their long and complex lives, after all the trickery and woe, the longing and triumph, the humiliation and exaltation, Jacob and Joseph long simply to be buried in the land of their ancestors. Despite the success Joseph has found in Egypt, despite the refuge and safety the land has provided Jacob, both believe they should rest elsewhere. Both believe they belong to another land, to another nation and its story.
The story of this series began when God came to Abraham and said, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show to you…’ From then until now, Abraham and his offspring have done an awful lot of forced migrating. Sometimes living in their own lands, other times relying on the land and hospitality of others.
And now, at the end of the book of Genesis, with the death of Jacob (the third generation) and Joseph (the fourth) there is no closure, no triumphal return. Jacob is carried to the tomb of his ancestors, while Joseph is embalmed in Egypt, awaiting the day when the Lord shall bring them up out of this land to the land God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The book of Genesis is not the only book in the Bible to end with yearning rather than closure; with eyes turned in hope toward what God will do. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is buried on the edge of the Promised Land, and the nation gathers in hope of finally arriving at that which was promised to them when the Lord heard their groaning under the yoke of slavery. Many of the books of the Prophets end with an eye toward the restoration of the nation out of exile, the hope of return after seasons of desolation and death. The Gospel of Luke ends with a reminder to the disciples to wait in Jerusalem, looking to the coming of the Spirit. And the book of Revelation, which brings our Scriptures to a close, ends with the words, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
It is of little surprise that yearning pervades scripture. So much was written by communities of Jews and Christians facing exile, occupation, and even elimination. For these people hope was a supremely valuable commodity. As it has remained in those communities turning to the scriptures in their own times of trouble. Time and again, the scriptures end, as Genesis ends, on the edges of the promise with an eye toward their future, expected fulfilment. A recognition that everything is seasonal, save for the steadfast and unbending love of God.
The Church – so our Basis of Union confesses - lives between the time of Christ's death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.
Our lives as disciples of Christ do not occur at the end of the story, do not occur within the new creation, do not occur in the age to come where teaching, faith, and hope will be no more. No, we live on the edges, we live between the resurrection and consummation, we live on the way, seeking the city to come. We are a people of faith and hope, who hasten and wait with an end in view. Despite the many foretastes of the kingdom of God we experience, despite the ways in which we see in the in-breaking of the new creation, we know, as Paul knew that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. While we wait, that is, like Joseph and kin, for the day in which the Lord will bring us up from this, to what has been promised.
And just as Scripture is honest about the ways in which yearning shapes our lives, the ways in which we live between and before, the ways in which our stories do not always get the closure and consummation we might wish, it is also honest about the perils that accompany such pilgrim people. Particularly the perils that so regularly befall communities whose lack of earthly security makes their hope in divine deliverance all the more acute.
Because as Genesis ends with hope, Exodus begins with threat. At the close of Genesis, the descendants of Jacob are a newly arrived, but already thriving migrant community in Egypt. Buoyed by Joseph’s success and stature, they are welcomed into the nation and partake of its wealth, and yet, they still face all the risks faced by migrant, and minority communities today… for despite what we heard in today’s reading, despite the great mourning and respect that the whole land of Egypt pay not only to Joseph, but his father as well, despite the pivotal role Joseph has played in the preservation of Egypt in these years of famine, despite all that we have seen and heard, if we turn our Bible’s just one page – just one page from the end of Genesis to the beginning of Exodus we will read,
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they oppressed them with forced labour.
The nation born of Abraham, brought into being by the wondrous work of God, may indeed be prospering, but they remain precarious; like many migrant communities after them they are vulnerable to the fears and prejudices of their hosts. They remain a nation waiting to be brought up out of this land to the land God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But thankfully, just as we confess that we are a pilgrim people, living between the times without a permanent city, the Basis of Union also reminds us that we are able to survive such times because of God’s faithful provision, because God has never left us alone. And so, even as Joseph dies and is forgotten in Egypt, Joseph’s people are not forgotten by God, who will raise up Midwives to preserve the nation, and raise up Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, to lead them out of Egypt. So too, in later times, will God raise up Samuel, raise up Deborah, raise up Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Esther, Mary and John the Baptist, all of whom answer the call and point to the promise of God, point to the horizon that lies before the people, point to the hope that we have. That hope that despite the elusiveness of closure in our life, despite the delay in consummation of all things, despite the ways in which we find ourselves waiting to be brought up from this to that, and despite all the perils that come with it, God goes with us and before us, God holds all things in their beauty and fragility. And so even if these stories do not end at the end, even if they end with an eye to what remains as yet only hope and promise, they do not hang like loose threads. No, they are woven (like all our lives and stories are woven) into the story of God, God who is the beginning and end of all things. These stories, these lives, from Abraham to Joseph, from you to me, are all of them held by God until the great and glorious day when all that remains is love.
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