The Shaping Power of Family
For better or worse, our families have tremendous shaping power on our lives. Most of us would agree that our families are this strange combination of messy and sacred with a large dose of God’s grace mixed in. But regardless of the mess, God has given families a special place and mission. We don’t have to read too far into the Bible to get to the first recording of a family lineage. This repeated practice of recording and tracing family lineages in the Bible reminds me that family matters deeply to God. Even our wounded victor, the one who comes to redeem our brokenness, Jesus, was part of a family. It’s no wonder that the rebellious serpent slithered His lies deep into the heart of Eve and started the downward spiral of the first biblical family.
We are talking about Joseph this weekend but in order to fully understand the end of Joseph's story, we are going to look at the beginnings of his messy family. We need to read and understand the biblical narrative because the Bible blows all preconceived notions, cultural influences, and edited Instagram pictures of having the perfect family out of the water.
Gen: 1-11 tells the story of creation, both its rise and fall. God creates life, beauty and order out of a dark and formless nothing. His final creation is humanity. God carefully designs humans to be a reflection of His character, representatives of His rule and commissions humans to create more life, more beauty and more order. Don’t miss this next part. The very first set of humans God entrusted His work to were a family, a husband and wife, not a church, not a business, not a school...but a family. Together, they had a mission from God. However, God gave them the dignity of choice in how they would choose to go about this work of creating, building and living in the world He created. Sadly, Adam and Eve chose to define good and evil for themselves and set about on their own mission. And this is where the mess begins.
After the disobedience of Adam and Eve, Genesis goes on to tell stories of the murder of their son Abel by his brother Cain, of Cain’s offspring building cities filled with violence and evil, like the story of Lamech in Genesis 4 and the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6. Finally, we get to the story of Noah, a man who was given special favor because Noah’s heart was turned towards God. But even Noah finds himself in a in a messy family situation after passing out drunk in his tent. (chapter 9)
Finally, Abraham enters the scene in Genesis 15. God enters into a covenant relationship with Abraham and promises to save all of humanity through this very imperfect, messy family. But it was not just sunshine and roses for Abraham’s family. Abraham had one illegitimate son with the servant girl Hagar. After Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, some nasty competition ensued between the two women but finally Sarah gave birth to the long-awaited son of promise, Isaac. Isaac goes on to have the twins Jacob and Esau, Jacob is quite the schemer and manipulates himself right out of town as he flees from Esau’s rage after stealing his blessing by tricking his old, blind father. Jacob ends up connecting with some extended family and works for good ole uncle Laban (Sarah’s brother). Jacob works for 7 years in order to marry the beautiful Rachel but Uncle Laban tricks Jacob and gives him the undesirable Leah instead. Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. The deceiver is now the deceived. So, Jacob has to work another 7 years for Rachel. (How about we just don’t marry our cousins? That might help the dysfunction a bit.) Leah starts having all of these kids for Jacob while Rachel is struggling with infertility. The sisters begin this twisted mommy war by competing with each other to bear the most children for their husband Jacob by giving him their servant women (this family is so messed up!) Finally, Rachel has a son, Joseph. Jacob has 12 sons (and some daughters), 10 sons with Leah and 2 with Rachel but Joseph is his favorite son.
All of Jacob’s sons were painfully aware that Joseph was the favorite. As a result of Joseph’s brothers growing jealousy and hatred, they sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph spent years in slavery and prison but he eventually became second in command in all of Egypt, saving many lives during the famine, including his own family. In the end, Joseph receives his brothers with love and forgiveness. How can this be? How could Joseph receive his brothers with such love and forgiveness? Because Joseph chose to give the abuse and betrayal to God in faith that He would use it for something good. In the darkest moments of his life, Joseph allowed God to shape his character, filling him with love and grace until he was to the point of overflowing, even flowing out to his family of abusers and betrayers.
After writing out this R-rated sequence of events, I question how anything good can come from a family this messy (and partly feel like I just watched a Jerry Springer episode)? But I know this answer. Grace. Time and time again, we see the pattern of people defining how to live in this world apart from God, the consequences of the mess they make, followed by God’s grace as he turns it into something good and useful.
While we may be thousands of years removed from these stories, they are still our stories. The biblical stories of family convince us that if we are to follow Christ it must translate into our family life, we must continually do the difficult work of forming our character or the messes of our families will only continue to grow. Families are a gift from God and are intended to be places of support, strength, encouragement, unconditional love and acceptance. However, we take this very good, God given gift and taint it with sin. At times selfish motives reign, tongues lash out leaving deep wounds, covenants are broken, bitter jealousy leads to division and the list goes on. But the mess is not the end of the story. Last week, a wise woman reminded me that we often put an exclamation point in the spaces of our stories where God intends to put a comma. In the mess of our families, we know that God can take our self-imposed exclamation points and replace them with a comma as he continues to write our family story by taking what was meant for evil and turning it into something very good. If you are in the middle of a hard family situation remember Joseph’s words to his brothers. “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today.” (Gen 50:19) Learn from Joseph’s story, dear friends, read it, meditate on it, chew on the feast that is hidden in those words and continue to pray for that messy situation, believing that the same God who was with Joseph, is with you. He will take whatever is broken and turn it into something good.