Let’s talk for a moment about invitations. We associate them these days with weddings and with children’s birthday parties in particular, but there are all sorts of invitations. I recently, well, back six months ago, received an invitation to a wedding in Calgary. It was for my cousin’s son’s wedding, someone who I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years, he must have been in kindergarten back then, don’t think I’d recognize him on the street unless he was holding a sign that read “Hey Marko, my mom is your cousin”, and even then, it might take a minute. I was not expecting to be invited to his wedding.
When it came, I assumed it was just a courtesy invite, they were inviting all the relatives, and they were not expecting us to travel out to Alberta on the Canada Day weekend. I promptly forgot to actually RVSP. At least until I got a message from my cousin in April wondering if we’d be able to make it. Apparently it was a real invitation, and they were quite prepared to have us, kids and all. Not that it was viable to go, mind you, but the invitation was real.
Genesis 46:27b-34. . . all the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were threescore and ten. 28 And he sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to direct his face unto Goshen; and they came into the land of Goshen. 29 And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen, and presented himself unto him; and he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. 30 And Israel said unto Joseph, Now let me die, since I have seen thy face, because thou art yet alive. 31 And Joseph said unto his brethren, and unto his father’s house, I will go up, and shew Pharaoh, and say unto him, My brethren, and my father’s house, which were in the land of Canaan, are come unto me; 32 And the men are shepherds, for their trade hath been to feed cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have. 33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say, What is your occupation? 34 That ye shall say, Thy servants’ trade hath been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers: that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.
Invitations can be a tricky sort of thing. Some times you want to be invited somewhere, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes an invitation takes you by surprise, as in my example. Sometimes the lack of an invitation is the cause for surprise. But have you ever been invited to an event where you didn’t really want to go, but you felt obligated, because of the invitation? Ever see that sort of invitation coming, and decide that you’d like to avoid getting the invitation in the first place? You can’t get in trouble for not going if you aren’t invited.
That’s what’s Joseph was doing in this passage. He wanted to make sure that his dear old father Jacob was not invited to come and live as an honoured guest in Pharaoh’s palace. That sounds like a really nice place, probably a whole lot more comfortable than the tent where he had lived for most of his life. And he was 130 years old at this point, if you ever wanted to pick a time to retire, well, I think that 130 is probably old enough to say that it’s time to hang up the shepherd’s crook and call it a day. But instead of telling Jacob “Hey dad, if you play your cards right you can come live in the palace,” Joseph instead steers things completely the other way. The Egyptians are not big on shepherds, on those who keep flocks? Well, let’s be sure to point out that we’ve been keeping sheep since we were kids; it’s kind of our entire family business. Make sure that Pharaoh is up to speed on this.
Generally, it is expected that children will take care of their parents in old age. In our way of thinking it looks like Joseph was doing the exact opposite, by taking steps to ensure that Jacob did not have a cushy retirement. Our standards say that Joseph was being a bad son. But in reality, he was doing the best thing that he could for Jacob, and for his entire family. Jacob might have been fine living out his golden years in easy decadence at the height of ancient civilization. He might have done well. Jacob had lived long, he had learned many things, had learned most of them the hard way. This was a man who had wrestled with God, both figuratively and literally. He knew what he believed. But was that the case for Joseph’s brothers? For their children, and indeed, for their grandchildren? Egypt may have been the pinnacle of the ancient world, but it was a hotbed of idolatry. And that’s only what we know offhand. As far as the actual moral state of the people, how they actually conducted their day-to-day lives, I wouldn’t want to wager too much of a guess, but any civilization with a couple million people, any city of many thousands, perhaps as many as 100,000 people, is going to have a certain amount of unsavoury and corrupting influences. That should be obvious.
Jacob may have had little to fear of bad influences from living in the Egyptian capital. But the rest of the family, and keep in mind, there were seventy of them, as we read earlier, who knows how they would have fared? How quickly might they have been corrupted by the sinfulness that would surround them? How soon would they have drifted into the worship of idols? It’s not as if idols would have been foreign to them, in fact in chapter 31 of Genesis we read how when Jacob had left Padanaram, when he moved away from his father-in-law Laban’s house, his wife Rachel had stolen the household idols, and had taken them with her. This was a sore point with Laban, he was annoyed enough that Jacob had left, but he said “Wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?’ as this was adding insult to injury. Those were certainly not the only idols that they had, because in chapter 35 Jacob has everyone in the camp surrender all the strange gods, all the idols they had among them, and buried them. Idolatry was a legitimate concern for Jacob’s family.
Even if they buried the idols they brought from Padanaram, for years that they lived among the Canaanites, and surely associated with them. We know this from reading elsewhere in Genesis, in fact, if we were to go and read from earlier in the chapter where we read to start, at verse 10, it specifically mentions that one of Jacob’s sons, Simeon, had a son who was the child of a Canaanite woman. We don’t know the specifics, but the fact that it is mentioned suggests that it might have been a sore point, probably something needlessly complicated. We see something similar with Judah, he had a Canaanite wife, we could read chapter 38 to see the entire complex and rather sordid story of Judah’s family life. We could read chapter 34, the incident with Schechem, if we would like further evidence that Jacob’s sons were not the most morally upstanding bunch to begin with. And that’s ignoring the fact that they sold their own brother Joseph into slavery because they found him to be an annoying tattletale.
If Jacob and his sons, and all their children and grandchildren, had settled in the Egyptian capital, they would have been steeped in the Egyptian culture. They would have been inundated with the idolatry, with the sinful lifestyle, with the corrupting and decadent ways. In a generation or three they would have been so immersed in Egyptian ways that they would have been entirely assimilated. The people of Israel would have become indistinguishable from the people of Egypt.
That’s why Joseph wanted to make sure his father, his family, did not end up near the palace. Why he took steps to set them up in Goshen, which was on the outskirts of Egyptian territory, on the eastern edge of the Nile delta. The word Goshen itself means to draw near, or to approach. This was on the way into Egypt if you were coming from the East. And obviously, if it was on the way in, it was also on the way out. It’s a lot easier to leave a place from the outer edge than it is from the middle. Going back to my mention of invitations from earlier, and how Joseph planned to avoid an unwanted invitation for his family to live in the capital, if you want to leave an event, it’s a lot easier if you are sitting in the back row. You can slip away quietly from there, and with less disturbance, when compared to being front row center.
The land of Canaan had been promised to Abraham, and the promise had been renewed to Isaac and to Jacob. If they had been content to live in Egypt, to become intermingled with the local people, to become comfortable there, then why would they ever want to leave? If they became entwined with the Egyptians, if their sons had married Egyptian daughters and their daughters Egyptian sons, then they would cease to be a distinct people, and who would there be to return to the promised land? By choosing to live in Goshen, by remaining on the periphery, the Israelites would remain Israelites, instead of becoming just another group of foreigners who had migrated into Egypt and assimilated with the local culture.
That was I believe a primary reason Joseph instructed his brethren to indicate that they were shepherds, in order to avoid any invitation to live in the capital, and so they might remain separate and distinct. It’s not the only reason, however. We are told at the end of chapter 46 that the Egyptians found shepherds, or perhaps those who kept livestock in general to be offensive. That’s another good reason to maintain some distance there.
We’re not entirely sure why the Egyptians might find these Hebrew herdsmen to be so offensive. It might have been a cultural thing, that the Egyptians did not eat sheep, and the idea of keeping livestock as a food source was troublesome, much as Hindus today in India might be offended by cattle farmers, or Jews and Muslims by hog farmers. It might have been that they were foreign, and therefore unwelcome as outsiders often are in many cultures. It might have been that simple, unsophisticated shepherds would have been considered too low-class by the elite of Egypt, of which of course the Pharaoh was the top, and which Joseph himself had married into. But whatever the particular reason, the Hebrews would be seen as an abomination, as a source of offense to the Egyptian people. By keeping them away from the larger population centers the opportunity for anyone to take offense would be minimized. It’s harder to be troubled and bothered by someone when you have to travel perhaps several days journey even to get to where they live. In our modern world people take offense quite easily at people who live thousands of miles away, but in the ancient world, that would not have been so easy to do. The Israelites would have been spared from reprisals and strife at the hands of Egyptians who were troubled by their presence.
Of course, we know that only lasted for so long. In Exodus 1 we read about a new king that arose, who knew not Joseph, and he saw the Hebrews and their great numbers as a threat. He knew that their loyalty did not lie with him, and so they might be dangerous. He feared that if there should be a foreign invader, the Israelites might side against Egypt. He also saw an opportunity for free labour, so he oppressed them and enslaved the Israelites. He had them build cities for him. Separation from mainstream Egypt may have delayed the persecution of the Israelites, but in the long term it did not prevent it.
In fact, it was only by remaining separate, and distinct, and one has to assume, by remaining offensive, persecution did eventually come. If the Israelites had united and merged with the Egyptians, if they had lost their distinctiveness, they would not have been oppressed and enslaved. Why would they have been? It’s not so easy to oppress a people group when they don’t look or act any different from you. Not that it’s an absolute guarantee, mind you, people will try to find a way to come after anyone who is even slightly different, for even the slightest cause. We’ve probably all seen that happen. By living in Goshen, by staying on the outside and maintaining their way of life, instead of integrating, the Israelites delayed persecution, but I believe they also made it inevitable. By refusing to conform, instead they created the conditions where trouble would come to them.
Not that the Israelites went looking for trouble. They had lived in Goshen, on the outskirts of Egypt for generations, and so far as we know things generally went smoothly for many years. I don’t know if there were any obvious signs that persecution was around the corner, or if it arose quickly and without warning, but it did come, first with the idea that the Hebrews might be a threat, then with putting them to work as slaves, then with ethnic cleansing by eliminating male newborns by throwing them into the Nile. This is where we would get to Moses, of course, and how he was saved from death by Pharaoh’s daughter.
You might be wondering that does any of this have to do with us today. This is a sermon, after all, not a history lesson. However, the history of Israel in Egypt illustrates perfectly what I would like to get across to you today. The Israelites lived in Egypt, but they were not part of Egypt. They were separate. And so we, as believers, are called to be separate today.
There are a number of passages in scripture that instruct those who would follow Christ to be separate from the world. Of those there is none better known than the last part of 2 Corinthians chapter 6.
14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? 15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? 16 And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, 18 And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.
Interesting, when I was preparing my sermon notes, I recalled using these verses earlier this year in another sermon. I checked my previous notes, and back then I had said, as I’ve said on many occasions, that this passage would easily support a sermon on its own. Well, looks like I’m going to follow through on at least part of that today.
The idea of being unequally yoked in a familiar one for most of us. In classical agricultural terms, that only makes sense, you don’t yoke a horse and an ox together to plow a field. The two animals operate at different speeds, they are probably different heights with different temperaments, and you drive them differently. Putting one of each together is not going to work well. This isn’t rocket science, it’s not surprising when two very different things don’t make a good team. While we like to think that opposites attract, that’s a stereotypical romantic notion that we have in our society. It’s not true. That only really works with magnets. In reality, quite often opposites instead are primed, not to attract, but to conflict. That is what this passage teaches. What fellowship does light have with darkness? What fellowship does belief have with unbelief? When things are diametrically opposed, they do not cooperate.
We see this illustrated clearly in our day to day lives. We see it at work when two people have radically different agendas or contrasting approaches in how to solve problem. We see it in families when the kids can’t agree on who gets to use a particular toy or what game should be played next. We see it in politics when our various political parties fight like cats and dogs instead of trying to work together. What do we see happening in each of those instances? In most cases, one side wins and the other side loses. Someone gets what they want, and someone else does not. Group A ends up happy, while Group B does not.
We live in a world filled with people who are opposed to God. We live in a world system that is stacked against the Creator, that has long since ignored and minimized the importance of His laws, and it seems increasingly so every year. We live in a society that is built to oppose righteousness, and to promote so-called tolerance of all manner of wickedness. If we work closely with this world, it is inevitable that we are going come into conflict with this world. When that happens, how often do you think that we will be able to impose our values, our will, our truth upon the world? How often are we going to win in that fight? Yes, I know that scripture teaches us that if God be for us, who can be against us, but that does not mean that we should expect to run roughshod over a world that is opposed to Christ, and is opposed to those who would follow Him. Being right, having the truth on our side, does not mean that the world will fall in line. In fact, when we try to do that, does it ever work out well? If we try to push Christian values on an un-Christian world, well, how does that go? When we have seen that happen elsewhere, we have seen believers quickly labelled as hateful and bigoted. While that might be wrong, and a misrepresentation, it’s still the label that the world applies when truth is shoved down its throat. How likely is that going to lead to anyone turning to Christ?
When conflict happens, generally one side wins and one side loses. Even when we might win against the world, more often than not the end result is not going to serve our mission. Christ sent the disciples into the world to spread the gospel. That is our goal, to see sinners saved out of this world. Making a sinful world behave a little bit better might sound nice, but that’s not actually our job. Christ came to save us from our sins, not to simply get us to play nice.
If we can’t win against the world very often, and we lose by winning, then what is the best-case result in most of these scenarios? That the two sides work out a compromise, and ultimately no one gets entirely what they want, no one ends up completely happy. That’s what the world would say is the best result of this sort of conflict.
When you are talking about ultimately inconsequential issues, compromise is okay. The kids can’t chose between playing tag or playing hide-and-seek, so they settle on hopscotch. No one gets what they want, but hopefully no one goes away angry. That’s fine when it isn’t an important issue. If we compromise on truth with the world, guess what? The world wins. Even when we give just an inch, we’ve let go of the truth. Anything less than truth is no longer truth. The world is happy with compromise, that’s still a win. It can always come back for another kick at us next time, get another inch. Wash, rinse, repeat. The world is not going to let us win.
If we can’t win against the world, and we can’t compromise with it, then how do we work with the world? Quite simply, we don’t. This world has rejected Christ, it has rejected the cross, it has rejected salvation paid for by His blood. If we are partners with this world, we aren’t going to fix it. We aren’t going to steer it in the right direction. If we join with it, as would have happened with the Hebrews in Egypt, if we join with the world, we will be swallowed up.
That is why Paul instructed the Corinthian believers to separate themselves from the world. Much as the Israelites physically separated themselves from Egypt, so those who follow Christ are to be separate from the world. It’s not in exactly the same sense, it’s not a physical distancing from the world. That’s not possible, we live in the world. We don’t have the option of going to live elsewhere, we don’t have a literal Goshen where we can relocate.
In some ways, in a lot of ways, that might be simpler. Completely avoiding the corrupting influences of the world would make it easier to not fall prey to them. Many people have attempted this in the past, they have gone to live in monasteries or convents, or as hermits alone in the woods, or in more recent years, as a part of a group holed away in a compound somewhere. And yes, many of the temptations of the world are not so prevalent in such places. When you are not surrounded by sin, when you are not inundated by it, hopefully you will be less likely to fall into sin yourself.
Of course, Adam and Eve were not surrounded by sin when they chose to sample the forbidden fruit. Cain was not influenced by a disobedient and violent world when he ignored God’s requirements for a blood sacrifice, nor when he decided to murder his own brother. Even when all the evil influences of this world are removed from our presence we are still quite capable of finding evil all on our own.
No, being separate from the world is not about keeping your distance. It’s a spiritual separation, not a physical one. We live in this world. But we are not of it. In John chapter 17, Christ prayed for His disciples, and addressed this very point. If you’d like to turn there, we’ll read a few verses, jumping in at verse 14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. 18 As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. 20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
While this was directed originally to the disciples, we can see clearly at verse 20 that it extends to all who believe. Sometimes people might suggest that things we read in scripture are not intended for us, or that certain things are cultural and only applicable to a certain time and place. That’s another topic for another day, but we can say with absolute certainty that these verses apply just as much to us today as they did to the disciples twenty centuries ago.
The world hated Christ, because His perfect life and His words of truth clearly shone the light into the darkness and revealed the sin in man’s deeds, words, and indeed in the very heart of every person. You don’t know there’s a problem in the dark until a light reveals it, and Christ is that light. If we follow Him, then hopefully at least a little of that light reflects off of us. If it does, then the world will hate us as well, because we carry the image of our master. Even a dim and unclear image of Christ is enough for the world to find us offensive.
We may not want to be an offense, but we are in this world to be a light. That is why there are those call on the name of the Lord in every corner of this world, because no matter where we go there is someone there who needs the light. There is someone there who Jesus died for, someone who will only turn from their sins and repent when confronted with the truth. Just as it hurts when you turn on a bright light after your eyes have been closed, when you are used to the darkness, just as that hurts, so also the truth hurts when it reveals a problem. That is why the world will and should take offense to those who profess the name of Christ. Much as the Egyptians found the Hebrews to be an abomination, so does this world find us to be an unwelcome reminder of their sinfulness.
If, however, we strive to be a part of this world, if our goal is to fit in, to become seamlessly integrated, then the world will probably not hate us very much at all. If we blend in, then why would it? The world would be happy to accept us, just so long as we are content to fit in. There are all manner of ways in which the world would conform us, all manner of corrupting influences. We may not have so many literal idols of stone, wood, or metal, but we have so many things which distract us, which seek to pull our attention away from God. There is no time to go through them in any order, I think we could all think of a dozen different ways in which the world would sand us down so we sit smooth and level and unnoticeable.
God leaves those who follow Him in the world, but He would keep us from the evil around us. That was Christ’s prayer for His disciples, and if you trust in Him, then it is His prayer for you as well. He could well bring us out, and some day He will, but we are needed here to shine His light. The world at large hates Christ, but every day there are those who see the light, who recognize the horror of sin and the futility of going their own way, and turn to Him. If there was no one here to shine that light, then it becomes far more challenging for anyone to find the Saviour. Even with a light, it is hard enough to get across a darkened room filled with obstacles. Without the light, it becomes all but impossible.
It is vital that we remain separate and distinct from the world, in our words, in our deeds, in our entire manner of life. If we are indistinguishable from the darkness around us, how can we be a light?
Earlier we read from 2 Corinthians chapter 6. In the previous chapter, at verse 20, the apostle Paul referred to believers as ambassadors. That’s an excellent way to think of it, of the idea of being in the world, but not of it. An ambassador is sent from one country to another, but he remains loyal to his place of origin. He represents the government who sent him. He might live in another land for many years, but he remains an official representative of his home. If he, however, were to completely assimilate, then he’s no longer an ambassador, he’s an immigrant.
As Christ was sent into the world to save sinners, so likewise he sends us into the world, as his representatives, as his ambassadors. That’s why we don’t live at a far removed distance from the world around us, because we are not as useful witness if we are not present. And that is also why we need to remain loyal to our saviour, because we are not a useful witness if we have no light to shine, if we look no different from the world. It’s a matter of loyalty, rather than location.
The Egyptians feared and persecuted the Israelites because they saw them as a threat. They knew that their loyalty was not with Egypt. The world will likewise fear us and persecute us if it sees our loyalty is elsewhere. It is not our goal to seek trouble, but it is also not our mission to avoid it at all costs. Representing Christ, and doing so effectively, is not easy, and it is not safe. If we are to be useful ambassadors, if we are to shine any light at all, we cannot be a carbon copy of this world. We need to be different. The people around us should know that our loyalty is elsewhere.