The Believing Mummy
Bethany looked over at me and she said, “I wish we had something like this in American culture.” Our kids were watching a show on Disney Jr., I think on Disney Jr., its a new show called Elena of Avalor, maybe you parents with younger kids are familiar with Elena of Avalor. It’s the very first Latino Disney princess now. So they are excited. Disney is pushing that one hard. Our kids are watching it and this particular episode is about the Mexican Holiday, Dia de los Muertos. Besides my Spanish days at Lamphere High School, Spanish 1 – 3, and my visits to the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT, I really did not know anything about Dia de los Muertos. So, I did some research. Turns out, every year in Mexico, family and friends gather to pray for and remember loved ones who have passed away. It is a national, where they gather annually to remember, to mourn, and to celebrate, along with pray for their dead together. Now, we might question, as good reformed Protestants, the benefits of praying for the dead, but there does seem to be some benefit to a national holiday where we remember those who have gone before us. Now sure we all remember our loved ones on the anniversary of their death or on certain holidays where we miss them, but here in the USA we do not have a national holiday where we all mourn and remember together. We mourn and remember together, all of those who have passed. Not just those who passed away on September 11th, that’s appropriate. But we don’t have a day that’s given to all of our death, to all who have gone before us. And I’m betting that we never will.
Because Americans hate to think about death, don’t we? We do everything we can to avoid thinking about our impending fate. Out of sight, out of mind. We would much rather bury our heads in the sand than think about those whom we’ve buried. Or the fact that we ourselves will one day be buried. A prime example of this is the commercialization of cemeteries. You may or may not know this, but in days past cemeteries used to share real estate with churches. In fact, you can even go down South now in certain rural areas and see churches that share the same plot of land as a cemetery. Now we think that’s weird, its eerie, its gross, and we want nothing to do with that. But there was a theological reason why churches and cemeteries used to share real estate. The reason is because Orthodox, confessional Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead on the last day. We believe that when Christ returns, he is going to raise the dead, judge the world, and make all things new. That’s why we want to be physically buried, and we used to want to be buried with each other. We believe that the church is the true family of God. We sojourn through this life together, so we want to be buried together. Because, or at least we used to, want to be resurrected together! The church in days past would used to anticipate the New Creation that was coming. They didn’t just believe that when they died their soul was going to Heaven and that they were getting a mansion in glory and that was the end of the story. They firmly believed and were committed to the truth, the doctrinal truth, the historic, Orthodox Christian truth, that Jesus Christ is going to physically return to the planet earth. And he is going to resurrect everyone who has ever lived, and he is going to recreate the earth and we are going to live forever on the earth; the new earth with Jesus at his Second Advent. The church was resolved that, after they had been resurrected and after they had seen Jesus as he is, the very next people that wanted to see was their church family resurrected to new life. We don’t think that way anymore though. We want the dead out of sight and out of mind. We hate funerals; we want memorial services that “celebrate” the life lived, because we hate thinking about death.
Isn’t it strange that the Holy Spirit, here in Hebrew’s chapter 11, when writing about the faith of Joseph, speaks specifically about his death? Indeed, the Holy Spirit is using the bones of Joseph to encourage your faith this morning. In this biblical theology of faith, as we move forward in the story of redemption, Joseph falls in line after his father Jacob. We looked at Jacob last week with Abraham and Isaac. And there are so many things that the author of this epistle could have used, could have said about the life of Joseph to demonstrate the faith of Joseph. The Holy Spirit could’ve noted that by faith, Joseph had a dream, he had a dream that his parents and his brothers would bow down to him. And Joseph believed that dream, in spite of his family, even when it made his family angry with him. Joseph had faith in the word of God even when it was unpopular among his family. The text could have said that about Joseph, but it doesn’t, does it?
The Bible could’ve reminded us that it was by faith that Joseph, though he was beaten by his brothers and sold into slavery, did not give up hope. He still followed YHWH even as an Egyptian slave. His own family hated him so much that they beat him and sold him into foreign slavery. Even in the midst of that pain, Joseph had faith in YHWH, but Hebrews 11 doesn’t say anything about that. Does it? The text could’ve said that by faith, Joseph ran when he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife. She was laying in the bed inviting him to join her. No one else was home. He could have committed adultery, but he didn’t because he believed that marriage was a picture of the gospel, and that God was faithful, so he must be faithful as well. But Hebrews doesn’t say anything about that, does it? It doesn’t say a word about Joseph’s purity. It certainly wouldn’t be wrong, if the bible had noted that Joseph by faith suffered for 13 years in prison. The baker had forgotten about him, but YHWH had not forgotten about him. And so God raised Joseph in the ranks of the prison, so that he was 2nd in command. Joseph had faith through years of personal darkness – wrongful imprisonment. But the book of Hebrews doesn’t say anything about that.
The Spirit could have mentioned that it was by faith Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream when the baker finally did remember him. Joseph didn’t take the glory for himself, but he gave all the glory back to YHWH. Hebrews 11 doesn’t mention a word about Joseph’s gift of interpretation. It was also by faith that Joseph preserved food for the coming famine. You remember, for 7 years he stored up food, so that he could provide for the nation during the 7 years of desolation. He believed God’s word, through Pharaoh’s dream, which led to the salvation of the known world and the preservation of the gospel, but the text doesn’t make a peep about his administrative skills. It was certainly by faith that Joseph was escalated to the right hand of Pharaoh to rule in Egypt as second as command (second in command, excuse me). But there’s nothing about that in Hebrews chapter 11, is there?
We certainly wouldn’t have been surprised if this pericope had argued that by faith Joseph forgave his brother of their sins. And by faith he brought his father Israel to the land of Egypt, so that Israel would not die during the famine, thus protecting the primeval promise of Genesis 3:15. That wouldn’t have been surprising. Would it? In fact, that’s the kind of narrative that we’d expect. Isn’t it? I dare say that if any one of us were commissioned to write a biblical theology of faith, we would have said any – if not all – of those things about the faith of Joseph. But that’s not what the Holy Spirit says, is it?
No. In Hebrews 11:22, the Holy Spirit says, by faith Joseph, when he completed his life, remembered the Exodus of the sons of Israel, and commanded them concerning his bones. Out of the entire Joseph saga – 13 chapters of the book of Genesis, that’s more chapters than Adam gets, that’s more chapters than Noah gets, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Out of that entire life lived by faith – and the Holy Spirit says of Joseph that by faith he commanded the Jews to return his bones to Canaan. Hebrews 11 doesn’t commend Joseph’s sexual purity, it does not commend his hard work, it does not commend his forgiveness, but it commends his funeral arrangements. The Holy Spirit doesn’t seem as concerned with the journey of Joseph’s life, as he does with the journey of his funeral procession. What’s interesting about Joseph’s command that we read in Genesis 50 and then reread in Hebrews 11 – the command to take his bones back to Canaan – is that Joseph’s life, and Joseph’s command, and Josephs faith here, is a picture of what faith looks like when life is going really well. When Joseph gave these orders, in Genesis 50, he was second in command of the nation of Egypt. He was the right hand man to the king of the most powerful nation that the world had ever seen to that point in history. His authority would have made VP Pence look insignificant. He had legitimate power, but the Spirit tells us that while Joseph may be decked out in the royal purple Egyptian garb, he was thinking about his bones. And that, brothers and sisters, is what faith looks like.
Last week we talked about faith in the storm, we talked about what faith looks like even when it feels like the promises are not true. But faith is believing the gospel even when it hurts, and that was a good word for all of us, but faith is also believing the promises when life seems to be going really well. Last week we talked about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how they had faith even in difficulty. That’s a good word. But sometimes the even harder message to hear is how to have faith, during the calm, when life is going well. Faith is assurance and conviction that God rewards those who seek him, and that this will not be completed until the 2nd advent of Jesus Christ. The danger for Joseph was that he would be satisfied in Egypt. But he wasn’t and he knew that God had something better for him. Joseph wasn’t looking for his “best life now,” Joseph was looking for a better country.
Let me ask you this morning, let’s be honest with each other church: are you in a really comfortable spot? Are your finances exactly where you want them? Do you have that nest egg that you’ve planned and saved for? Is your 401k, or your IRA right where it needs to be? Is your career on the best track? Do you have the exact amount of kids that you deem proper? Do you have the car that you want, and the house of your dreams? These things are not wrong in and of themselves, but we must ask ourselves, from time to time, are we too comfortable in Egypt? Does Babylon feel like home? Are we more comfortable living the American dream than we are living in the Kingdom of Christ? Let me ask you this morning, if someone were to ask you what do you need to be happy? What is the ultimate? What are the things, what is the status, what is the financial security, what is the family like, what do you need to be genuinely happy? Could you answer that question with all of the stuff that you currently have? If someone asked you what your perfect life included, would you respond: graduate from college, get a good job, buy my starter house, have 2 kids, get a new car every 2 or 3 years, buy my dream house, retire early & move to Florida? Would that fit your answer? Would your answer even include Jesus at all? Could you describe happiness without including the name Jesus of Nazareth? Are we too comfortable in Egypt?
Joseph’s faith was bigger than the comfort and success that he had in Egypt. And that’s why he made his children swear to him that they would take his bones and bury them in Canaan. And the interesting thing is that the Bible goes out of the way to guarantee to us that the promise to Joseph was kept by the sons of Israel. You see 400 years after Joseph died; a man named Moses led the sons of Israel out of slavery of Egypt in the Exodus. In the chaos of running around to get everything they needed, can you picture this in your mind? Okay, you’ve been a slave all your life, freedom has finally come, and now you are running to gather everything that you need to bring. Because let’s face it, Pharaoh has changed his mind 9 times before. I’m not betting he is sticking to his word this time, right? So you are running, you are scrambling, you are getting your kids, you are getting your clothes, you’re getting your money, and you are getting your stuff. Everything you need to move your life to the Promised Land and in the midst of that Chaos there is an Egyptian army breathing down their neck. Moses makes it a point to tell us that they went and they gathered up Joseph’s pile of bones. Listen to Exodus 13: 18 & 19:
18 But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. (Listen to how absurd this is) 19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” (Exod 13:18-19)
They were on the run from the Egyptian army, and Moses is like, “Hold up guys, I got to go get the Mummy.” He swore to them, to Joseph, 400 years earlier. I think I would have been like, “You know what? No one is going to remember, right? Joseph’s already dead.” There are sometimes when you are in a hurry and you just have to leave stuff, I probably would have done that, if it were me. It’s a little more important than these dry bones. But they didn’t did they? They carried these dry bones; they made sure to bring the decaying bones of Joseph with them as they sojourned to the Promised Land. This wasn’t a four-hour car drive, guys they were wandering out there for 40 years, with this dead guy. They brought him all the way to the Promised Land and as Joshua led the conquest into Canaan, the Holy Spirit tells us this in the book of Joshua:
32 As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.
Joseph’s post-mortem journey from the palace of Egypt to a cave in Canaan was complete. The Holy Spirit makes sure that you know in the book of Joshua that those bones got there, safe and sound. Why? Why does the Scripture make such a big deal about the transfer of some dead guy’s bones? Why in the world did Joseph make that request? Why did Moses make sure to bring the bones with him at the Exodus? And why in the world did Joshua, after Moses had died, keep the bones to bury them in Canaan? Of all of the great acts of faith that Joseph performed through his epic life, why does the author of the Hebrews simply state that Joseph wanted to be buried in Canaan?
The answer, church, is that this is what faith looks like. Faith is the assurance and conviction that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Faith is convicted and assured that God is there and that he keeps his promises. Joseph believed that God had promised Abraham a land. He believed that God’s promise was worth more than the greatest tomb that Egypt had to offer. Joseph also believed in the resurrection of the dead, and that’s why he wanted to be with his fathers in the land of Canaan. Hebrews 11 told us, just a few verses ago, that Abraham believes that if God needed to, he could raise Isaac from the dead. You don’t think he taught that to Isaac? You don’t think Isaac taught that to Jacob? You don’t think Jacob taught that to Joseph? The father’s of the faith believed in the resurrection of the dead in the last day. And Joseph wanted to wake up and after he saw Jesus, he wanted to see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, right there with him. It was worth so much, that truth was worth so much to them, that they risked carrying those dead bones for 40 years in the wilderness. They brought them to war in the conquest of Canaan. Joseph believed that God’s promises and his future were worth more than the success and the security that he experienced in the far country. He believed in a better country. He believed in an unshakeable kingdom, and he believed in a serpent-crushing son of Eve. Joseph’s funeral arrangements preached the gospel.
It’s interesting, I don’t know if you noticed when Pastor Kevin read from Genesis 50, I mean he read the last verses of the book, and you read in Genesis 50 at the end, it’s amazing how it just kind of, how it ends in such an anticlimactic way, doesn’t it? The very last verse of the book of Genesis, “So Joseph died being 110 years old. They embalmed him and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” Well talk about an anticlimax. What a contrast from how the book of Genesis opens. How does the book of Genesis open? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Boom! How does it end? Joseph died and he was buried. What? What an anticlimax? Or so it seems, doesn’t it? You know there’s another book of the bible that was written to mirror the book of Genesis. The gospel of John opens up and it says, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Just like the book of Genesis, the gospel of John opens up with a declaration of the creator. Except this time he is not merely YHWH in an abstract sense, but he is the personal God, Lord, Christ, Jesus. But unlike the book of Genesis, which ends with Joseph lying in a tomb, the book of John ends with an empty tomb. You see, when the time was right, there was another son of Abraham and he too would die just like Joseph. But unlike Joseph, this son of Abraham did not have a cave in which he could be buried, he had to borrow one from a ruler named Joseph. This son of Abraham is the serpent-crushing son of Eve that Joseph had been waiting for, and his name is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the fulfillment of the faith of Joseph. The assurance and the conviction that Joseph had reached its climax in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The hope of resurrection that Joseph had has already been experienced by Jesus. On Easter Sunday over 2,000 years ago, Christ Jesus rose from the dead, in accordance with the Scriptures. Jesus is the first born of the new creation. He has blazed the trail through the valley of the shadow of death, and the word tells us, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will raise Joseph from the dead, and he will raise you and I from the dead too.
The gospel according to Joseph forces us to contemplate our own lives this morning in light of the gospel. Are we comfortably avoiding death? Are we so satisfied with the “little Egypts” that we’ve built. Do we long for the New Jerusalem? Church, your home is not this parody that the world has to offer, but your home is the heavenly city, the better country, the New Creation. Let us this morning, allow the rhythms of grace that Jesus has left us – the water, the bread, the wine, the word – let these rhythms of grace foster longing in our hearts for Jesus and his kingdom.
You know, I don’t think that we’ll ever see an American version of the holiday dia de los Muertos. Because people they just aren’t fond of remembering the dead. They are not fond of contemplating their own mortality either. Yet, while Americans may never have a day of remembrance for the dead, I know why those Latino cultures do that, I know why they celebrate Dia de los muertos in Mexico. Because Dia de los Meurtos is a shadow of something that we practice every week in the holy nation – and I’m not talking about America, I’m talking about the church. It’s a shadow of something that we’ve done for 2 millennia. For Church, every Sunday we gather at the Lord’s Table, we remember a death. We remember the death of the true and better Joseph, whose bones aren’t laying in a cave in Palestine, but have been resurrected, and are now ruling at the right hand of God the Father. We have communion with him as we take Holy Communion. We give thanks to him as we come to the Eucharist. He gives us grace through the sacrament. Church, this morning, don’t run from Jesus’ death, remember it. For through it, you too will live, by faith.