The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Do we have any long-term vision for our own lives, for our family, for our church, for our city, for our country?
The life of Joseph is one of the most remarkable histories in the Bible. The story of the boy sold into slavery by the spite of his step-brothers, put into prison on the false accusations of a lecherous woman when he was just beginning to put his life together again, then lifted in the space of an hour from prison to being the second ruler of Egypt, has captivated generations of children and adults. It is so gripping that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber chose it for their very first musical to be performed in public: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, which has now been playing all over the world for almost 50 years.
Nearly 2,000 years before Rice and Lloyd Webber set the story of Joseph to music, the (anonymous) writer of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament looked over Joseph’s life to see where he would fit in to the catalogue of heroes of faith from Jewish history. He had so much material available to him, but in the end he did not pick out any of the well-known events which Rice and Lloyd Webber have included. Instead, as he had done with Joseph’s father Jacob, the writer picked out one apparently small incident right at the end of his life.
This is what he chose: By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones (Hebrews 11:22). Nothing more. It is the very last story in the book of Genesis, the last recorded event of Joseph’s 110-year life. He gathers all his brothers together, tells them that the Israelites will definitely go back to the land which God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and makes them swear on oath that when they go they will take his bones with them. What was so special about this event in Joseph’s life?
Firstly, it shows that Joseph saw way beyond his immediate short-term circumstances. At that time the Israelites were very comfortable in Egypt, but he knew that they did not belong there. One day they would leave, but they would need God’s help to do so. It would be another 400 years before this happened, but Joseph was confident that it would. When Moses finally led them out (another favourite subject of film makers: The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings – both made within the past 20 years), he remembered the oath that Joseph’s brothers had made and took the bones of Joseph with him (Exodus 13:19).
In the West we are governed by democracies; but one of the problems of democracies is short-termism. Whether at national, local or regional level, the primary focus of those in power tends to be winning the next election, in four or five years’ time, and policies are framed in the light of this. This short-termism carries over into many other parts of life. In sport, for example, the vastly experienced football manager Harry Redknapp has just been sacked by Birmingham City after only 11 games in charge because short-term results were not satisfactory to the owners of the club.
We can even take this short-termism into our relationship with God, expecting immediate answers to our prayers, being disappointed when we do not experience the immediate breakthrough that we have been anticipating, whereas God may have been asking us to take a more long-term view. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I love the confidence of the Catholic Church, that Christ is her Lord, so whatever happens in the world around, she will continue to be strong, as she has been for the past 2,000 years, without having to adapt herself to every passing change in society – in stark contrast to some other Christian denominations.
Secondly, we see that Joseph took careful note of what God had revealed in the past to other key people (in his case this was his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob); he believed it and acted on it. What has God said about your country or your city in the past? Are there reliable men of God who have given prophetic words, that may almost have become lost in the mists of time? Do we need to rediscover them and act on them? For the word of God never goes out of fashion.
Thirdly, Joseph knew that, although he was about to die, that was not the end of his story. The carrying of his embalmed body back to the land of Canaan would be a highly symbolic gesture. Not one of his 11 brothers saw what he did. They all died and were buried in Egypt; but not him. He saw, by faith, that God was going to do something special for Israel, and he wanted to be part of it, even if he had departed from this earth. Over the next 400 years, most of it in dire slavery, Joseph’s bones were a constant encouragement to the Israelites, saying, ‘God will take you out of this horrible situation, and when he does, these bones will go with you.’
How much time do we spend thinking about the future? Not in the sense, ‘I wish today would end because I’ve had enough of it’; but positively. Do we have any long-term vision for our own lives, for our family, for our church, for our city, for our country? Is there anything that we recognise that God has spoken regarding the future? Are we asking him for input, so that we can shape our present actions in line with his future plans, as Joseph did? And are our thoughts of the future limited to our time on this earth? We will leave an inheritance behind us that is much more than the money in our will. Are we starting to prepare that inheritance now?