Here’s the first part of a message I preached at Flagstaff Community Church on Sunday morning.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the day when we remember that this season is about hope. However, I think hope is a little slippery. You see, I find myself hoping for all sorts of things. Whenever I see an ad for Big Wednesday, I find myself hoping that somehow I will win 27 million dollars, which is an optimistic hope, since I never actually purchase a ticket. Is this the hope of Advent? It doesn’t feel like it.
There are other, less farfetched hopes that I have. I have hopes for my son, hopes that many parents will share – that he won’t get sick from the other kids at day-care, that he won’t fall out of the tree in our front yard. Is this the hope of Advent?
Its hope for sure, but is it Advent hope? And if it isn’t, what’s the difference?
I want to tell you two stories this morning, and see what they might tell us about the shape of the hope that God invites us into during Advent. It occurred to me that perhaps this first Sunday of Advent is somehow about grasping God’s hope for the world, which may be altogether different from our own. Maybe these stories can help to cultivate God’s hope in us, until it becomes our own.
Joseph Sold by His Brothers
Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”
“Very well,” he replied.
So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”
“They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’”
So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
I know, not your average Advent story, but perhaps it will help us come at Christmas in such a way that will animate it in a fresh way for us. Take a moment and think, what does this story have to do with Christmas?
This is what I see in this story. I see a Father who is worried about his children. A few chapters earlier, there was a bloody dispute between Jacob’s sons and the people of Shechem, and it would have been dangerous for them to have returned to that place. They must have been desperate, or foolish, or both. It was also 80 kms away from where Jacob was based, in the Valley of Hebron. So a Father is worried about his children, who have wandered a long way from home, and have ventured into dangerous territory, the site of past hurt and pain.
So this Father decides to send his remaining Son, his beloved Son to go and seek out these other sons who have wandered off so close to peril. He wants to know they are ok. This action speaks of love. This Father is a devoted one.
So the beloved son goes on this long and difficult journey, probably 5 days of travel. When he gets there, there is no sign of his brothers. They are not where they should be. A stranger tells this beloved son that they have gone even further away to a place hardly heard of, another 20 kms from home, another big day’s journey for this Son to track down his lost brothers.
Then things get quite interesting. Verse 18 caught my attention when it says,
‘But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.’
Does that sound familiar to anyone? What about the first part of that sentence, ‘But they saw him in the distance?’ Where have we heard something like that before?
While he was still a long way off… can anyone finish that sentence?
You see this story seems to be the lost prequel to the Prodigal Son. Joseph is seen from afar, and his family rush to destroy him. The Prodigal is seen from a long way off, and his Father rushes to embrace him. One wears a cloak and has it torn from him, the other wears rags which are then covered by a rich cloak. One is a son who gets sold as a slave, the other is a slave and is rescued and restored to belonging and dignity. In these stories we see that the Father is one who both sends his beloved son out after his wayward children, and one who rushes out to welcome the wayward in when they make it anywhere close to home. This is a worrying Father, a loving Father, a waiting Father, a running Father. A dancing, embracing, delighted Father.
And this is the shape of hope Advent invites us to hold, the ending we are encouraged to hold out for. The story of Joseph is of course a foreshadowing of the story of Jesus. The story of ‘Our Father in heaven’ who was worried with how distant and dangerously his children were living. They were not living where or how he wanted them to live. So he sends his beloved out to find them, to be sure they are safe, and to bring them home. But these wayward children really have lost their way, for though he is one of them, they do away with him. Yet, for Joseph and for Jesus, these cruel tragedies, in the mysterious ways of God, become the salvation of countless people. Both stories open the way for the homecoming of the wayward, violent, foolish children. Both stories set the scene for the Prodigals arrival and his welcome and restoration into the family.
Our Advent hope is that God will send his beloved one out after his wayward ones. And that no matter how badly that might seem to go for God and for his beloved one, God will somehow win the salvation of many through it.