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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Waving or drowning?

These are two very familiar stories we've heard read this morning, aren't they? The story of Joseph and his – I was going to say his technicolour dreamcoat, but that's Andrew Lloyd Webber, not the Bible! And the story of Jesus walking on the water, which is the one episode that people who know nothing of Jesus seem to know about.

So anyway, Joseph. Talk about dysfunctional families – his was the very worst. His father had been a liar and a cheat, as had his maternal grandfather. And Joseph himself was the spoilt favourite – his father had two wives, you may remember, Rachel, whom he loved, and Leah, whom he didn't but was tricked into marrying anyway. He also had a couple of kids by Leah's and Rachel's maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, but Rachel, the beloved wife, had had trouble conceiving, so Joseph and his full brother Benjamin were very precious, especially as Rachel had died having Benjamin. He, it seems, was still too young to take much part in the story at this stage, but Joseph was well old enough to help his brothers – and, we are told, to spy on them and sneak on them to his father. And stupid enough to boast of self-important dreams.

It's not too surprising that his brothers hated him, is it? Obviously, he didn't deserve to be killed, but human nature is what it is, and the brothers were a long way from home and saw an opportunity to be rid of him. At least Reuben didn't go along with having him killed, although he did sell him to the Ishmaelites who were coming along.

Joseph has a lot of growing up to do, and we all know the story of what happened and how, in the end, he was able to forgive his brothers and help save them from famine.

Let's leave him for the minute, though, and go on to this story of Jesus walking on the water. This is the thing that everybody knows about Jesus, that he walked on water, and even those who don't realise that the Jesus who walked on water is the same Jesus whose birth is celebrated at Christmas know “walking on water” as some kind of metaphor for the divine.

But there's more to the story than that, just as there is more to Jesus than someone walking on water! Jesus didn't go much for spectacular displays of his divine power – that wasn't what he was about at all. In fact, you may remember that he refused to be tempted in that way when he was being tempted in the wilderness. He mostly kept who he was to himself, until the right time came.

And now it was the right time to join the disciples. He had told them to go on ahead while he stayed behind to pray, and at some time in the wee small hours he was ready to join them. They should have been at the far side of the lake by now, but they were up against a contrary wind. I've never been to the Sea of Galilee, but I'm told by those who have that the storms can blow up very suddenly, and the disciples, although experienced fishermen, were struggling slightly.

And then, here is Jesus, walking towards them on the water. Most of them are terrified, except for Peter, who says, “Lord, if that's really you, order me to come out on the water to you!”

And Jesus tells him to come, and he comes, and then he finds he really is walking on the water, and panics. Peter is a strong swimmer, he didn't really need to panic, but in the dark and the cold and the confusion.... well, Jesus grabs him and they get into the boat – and then suddenly it's calm and quiet.

Now, I don't know any more than you do whether this is a true story or not. It almost sounds as though it was a dream; or perhaps it was a legend that got into the story of Jesus at an early stage. Or perhaps it really did happen. At this distance, it doesn't matter; what does matter is that the story got into our Bibles, and so God means us to learn from it!

But what? What can we learn from either this story or the story of Joseph? In a way, the Joseph story is easier.

I am very blessed; I belong to a wonderful and close family. Last Sunday, I had the privilege of witnessing my grandson's baptism – he has a wonderfully close family on both sides, and, as his other grandmother said, a fairly uncomplicated one – only one branch where people have married more than once and had more than one family.

But I know how lucky and blessed we are. It's very unusual – all too many families these days aren't close, don't enjoy spending time with each other, and are what might be classed as dysfunctional. Sadly, even within our church family. We do like to put on a happy face when we come to church, pretend everything is lovely, even when it isn't.

But God sees behind the happy faces to the heartbreak behind. God knows that not all families are happy ones; not all parents can be kind and loving, no matter how much they might want to be. Not all husbands and wives can get along together. And so it goes on.

But when we look at the story of Joseph and his family, we can see that this doesn't actually matter to God. These people became God's chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel. God used them in spite of how dysfunctional, how disorganised, how downright cruel they were.

The story of Jesus walking on the water is, I think, more about Peter than it is about Jesus. If Jesus is who he says he is, then suspending the laws of nature is reasonable. But for Peter, fallible Peter – the one who, if he could get it wrong, did get it wrong – for Peter to walk on water is not reasonable. And Peter panicked and nearly drowned, and Jesus had to rescue him.

I was going to say that Peter is the most human of the disciples; I think, perhaps, it is that he is the one we read most about. We know when he puts his foot in it and says the wrong thing. We know when his faith fails him. We know when he panics and nearly drowns – or, indeed, when he panics and denies Jesus.

And yet: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

God chose Peter long before Peter chose God! Jesus knew that Peter was the one chosen to carry on the work after he, Jesus, had been raised to glory, even perhaps at at time when Jesus had only the faintest inkling of what lay before him.

God used Peter, even though Peter was so human and fallible. And God used Joseph and his family, even though they were so awful. And God can use you, and God can use me.

But.

And there always is a “But”, isn't there?

God couldn't use either Joseph or Peter as they were. Joseph had to grow up and stop being an immature brat. As you probably remember, we're told that he was accused of rape and left to languish in prison for several years, during which time he did grow up, and became an invaluable administrator and was thus able to help organise famine relief when it became clear that there was to be a massive famine. He matured enough to forgive his family, and to help them all settle in Egypt where, for several generations, they were happy and comfortable.

And God couldn't really use Peter the way he was, either. Peter was transformed, of course by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Not that he would claim to be perfect, even then, but he became someone God could use.

And you and I, we need to be transformed before God can use us. We need to allow God to work in us, to renew us, to make us into the person he intended us to be.

But the good news is, of course, that we don't have to be perfect! It doesn't matter what our family background is. It doesn't matter how chaotic our lives are just now. What does matter is our openness to God, and our willingness to be transformed.

I'm not sure how much, if anything, Joseph knew of God, other than as the sender of dreams. His transformation was a slow and painful process. Ours may be, too – but I'm sure of one thing, and that is that the more we are open to God, the more we commit ourselves to being God's person, the more honest we can be with ourselves and with God about how chaotic our lives are and how badly we get things wrong, then the easier it is for God to transform us.

And, of course, we don't have to wait for that transformation to have fully happened before God can use us! We can still be used, ready or not. And God does use us, sometimes, often even, without our knowledge. But never, I think, without our consent. Amen.

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