God, the God of the 'despite'
A key moment in the Party at the Palace was when the full glory of Joseph's technicolour dreamcoat was displayed, the highlight of the performance by a Jason Donovan, some 30 years after playing the role in the iconic Tim Rice / Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
What the audience may not have realised is that his performance was based on a somewhat controversial interpretation by the Septuagint, the 3rd century BC Greek translation of the much older Hebrew Bible.
You will know that the latter part of the book of Genesis, the opening book of the Old Testament, is given to the much-loved story of Joseph, some six chapters written in Hebrew, often going into detail unusual for scripture.
So when we are given a description of the garment that Joseph owned, which was given to him by his father, Jacob, clearly this is in some way significant. So in the NRSV translation, which I use: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.” (Genesis 37:3).
There’s a problem, it seems, understanding the Hebrew text. A literal translation would be “a coat of palms,” palm as in hand rather than tree. That in turn could mean a coat of spreading, referring to size or length.
Whatever, the key point is that such a coat would be entirely unsuitable for working in the fields, a visual opt-out for Jacob’s favourite son. No wonder his brothers were consumed with jealousy and their jealousy was the trigger for the whole story of how through the most convoluted of routes Joseph was able to engineer the survival of his family through tumultuous times.
Towards the end of the narrative Joseph is able to reflect and tell his brothers: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20).
Not that this was obvious to Joseph at the time. The very opposite. From his perspective he was simply swept along by events entirely out of his control, and yet. And yet God was involved every step of the way, ensuring his promise to Abraham would be honoured.
Last week Jacqui and I travelled down to London for a special church service, the celebration of 60 years of ministry in the UK of Operation Mobilisation. Jacqui served with OM for a year in France in the late 1960’s. From a small beginning and through many setbacks, it’s an amazing story of God’s faithfulness.
It was great to hear the founder of OM, George Verwer, a larger-than-life personality with an alarming energy level. Wonderfully, George continues to have a passion for mission, despite all that he has gone through over the decades. Not least the failings of colleagues along with his own foolhardiness. That has to be a key word in Christian ministry: despite.
In fact, George has developed a theology of mission which he calls messiology, a deliberate play on the word missiology, that is the theological study of the mission of the church. Very simply, as George observes: “Where two or three of the Lord’s people are gathered together, sooner or later there will be a mess.”
For as George has discovered that ministry is usually messy but even so God’s grace abounds. Our failures don’t seem to faze him.
And this has huge implications in the way we live and would serve God. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.
The apostle Paul knew this, of course. He had no illusions as to our capacity for doing the wrong thing in the wrong way and for the wrong reason: Paul was familiar with mess. In fact, the church at Corinth was one mess after another. So he writes to them: “We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that.” (2 Corinthians 4:7, Message translation)
There are two huge implications for us. First, we refuse to be discouraged. “Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Nothing we do in Christ’s name will ever be in vain. As George observes: “I believe history will show that God was doing way more in the midst of our messes than we realized at the time.”
And secondly, we refuse to be disparaging of our fellow disciples. So George cautions us from becoming critical. He urges us toward love, patience, affection, and grace. For as we can accept the failings of our fellow Christians, so we can the more easily accept our own. God is a God of the despite.
So this influential Christian leader urges us to work together through the failings and complexities of life. He understands only too well that we need to forgive one another. It’s so easy to judge, to blame and to dismiss other members of God’s family. Once we realise we are all failures, we can start to live in God’s wonderful grace. We may know the deep conviction that it is God’s mission and not ours.
For the good news is that our loving heavenly Father – who, after all, knows us through and through and is not taken in by our pretensions of holiness – has given us a new item of clothing.
As the apostle writes: “Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it.” (Colossians 3:9f, the Message translation)
Our amazing technicolour dreamcoat.