I’m, sure we’ve all encountered the story of Joseph and his brothers. It’s a family story, so it’s about misunderstanding, envy, and violence. Young Joseph antagonized his older brothers, and was daddy’s favourite. And those dreams! To cut a long story short, the brother’s faked Joseph’s death, and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Then a famine comes, and the brothers end up as hungry slaves in Egypt, where Joseph has made it big. Joseph reveals himself to the brothers, and they tremble – after all, they’ve got good reason to be afraid after what they’ve done.
But Joseph says something to his brothers that reassures them, and the point of reminding you of all this is that it’s about “Your will be done.” In the part of the story that we heard reads tonight, Joseph says to the brothers, several times “God sent me”. God sent me.
That’s a very strange thing for Joseph to say, given all he’s been through. What seemed like a family matter, a rather typical story of rivalry and struggle within a troubled family, turns out to be part of a larger story of God’s purposes for the world: “You meant it for evil – God meant it for good.” A story that began with resentment and betrayal turns out to be a story about the preservation of God’s people. “You did not send me here,” Joseph tells his brothers. They thought they were in control as they sold their own brother into slavery. But there’s something, someone, some deep, loving presence behind the story, some hand greater than the brothers’ guilt and evil deeds, some author greater than the actors.
God hasn’t been stumped or thwarted by the brothers, and Joseph isn’t the hero, because the hero is surely God. The Bible doesn’t explain how, but suggests that God is actively at work. It was Martin Luther, who said that, “God can shoot with the warped bow and ride the lame horse.”
So many of our generation are accustomed to thinking of life as choice or chance: what I do and decide, or a roulette wheel of sheer luck. I wonder if that’s why we often feel so helpless and hopeless? If life is all up to us, then we know enough about ourselves and everyone else to know we’re doomed. If the fate of the world is solely of my doing, then a few moments considering the history of Western civilization should convince us that we are without hope. No wonder so many feel frail and fearful before nuclear weapons, AIDS, climate change, world poverty, and so on. But Joseph, at the end of the story, is able to look back on all the twists and turns of the plot, and say, ”you meant it for evil, God meant it for good.”
I’m not talking about the utterly ridiculous notion that everything that happens, everything we do, occurs because God planned it that way. What I am saying is that God’s purposes are amazingly resilient. God’s intent for the world isn’t stumped by our plans. God’s will will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Not everything that happens in this world happens because God wants it that way, there are still too many murderous brothers and sisters to believe that, yet sometimes looking back on our life, the twists and turns, it’s amazing to see how well it all fits, as if there were a hand, an overriding purpose, a divine intent. As God means it to be so.
I think that’s what Paul was talking about in our reading from the letter to the Romans, when he said that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”. God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. When we pray, ”Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s a declaration of what God is doing before it implies anything that we ought to do; it’s an earnest longing for God’s will to appear in all fullness before us, for God’s dealings with the world to appear in convincing clarity and power. That’s one reason why we gather on Sunday and tell stories to one another, stories like the story of Joseph and his brothers. The world is busy telling us stories that say that everything is in our hands, all of it is left up to us. These false stories can blind us to God at work in the world, so we gather on a weekly basis and tell stories, pray, and sing, in order that we might better perceive what’s really going on in the world, namely, that God is at work.
When we pray, “Your will be done,” we aren’t specifying a completion date. The world doesn’t have to come right tomorrow. And sometimes the most important thing we can do is to pray for patience. When we pray, “Your will be done,” we aren’t asking that things become what we want things to be, but that God’s will be done. Too often, we’re conditioned to think of prayer as asking God for what we want, but by praying that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we’re learning to school ourselves to want what God wants.
In our culture, everything seems to be about getting what our hearts desire, a vast supermarket of desire, in which we’re encouraged constantly to consume, the more we get, the more we want, so we are never satisfied. So, it’s absolutely essential, as the Lord’s Prayer moves towards asking God for things, that we begin by asking God that God’s will might appear to us, might be made manifest to our eyes in all of its terrible and wonderful distance from what we want. Like Joseph and his brothers, our lives are actually caught up in something bigger and better than our lives, which is the adventure of what God is doing in the world.
When we pray for God’s will we also pray “on earth as in heaven.” Heaven isn’t somewhere “up there.” Heaven is that place where God is, and where we are totally with God. Even though the war between God and the forces of evil continues: in cancer wards, in Syria, in the East African famine, at the Pentagon, in our words and actions every day, that is in the context of the cross, where we saw God’s love whole and complete, for the world. No corner of creation has been abandoned by God, and our worship shows the world that there is no corner of creation where God’s will is not being done, even in those areas where God is not acknowledged as God. The world, with all its problems, is still God’s world, where God’s will is being done.
There can never be any question of whether or not Christians ought to withdraw from the world. By praying, ”Your will be done on earth as in heaven”, we’re being thrust into the world, because there’s nowhere else that we will be able to see God’s will appearing other than in the world. If we hope to find some sort of escape hatch from the struggles of the world, our prayer in fact thrusts us, reinforced, back into the heart of the fray.
To pray “Your will be done” is to recognize that prayer is about achieving God’s will, not our will. Jesus fervently prayed to be delivered from arrest and death in the Garden of Gethsemane, and got “no” for an answer to his prayer. Paul prayed to be delivered from the “thorn in the flesh.” Paul was delivered only in death. The ending of all truly Christian prayer is the same that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane: not my will but yours be done. It’s a lifelong training in trying to take God’s will a little more seriously, and our own will a little less so.
I end with some words from Rubem Alves:
Lord, help us to see in the groaning of creation,
not death throes but birth pangs;
help us to see in suffering a promise for the future,
because it is a cry against the inhumanity of the present.
Help us to glimpse in protest, the dawn of justice,
in the cross, the pathway to resurrection,
and in suffering, the seeds of joy.