"Gold Without Glitter"#87-23
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on February 2, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 42
"Not all that is gold glitters," wrote J. R. R. Tolkien. However, everything that would be as gold must be refined. Did you know that your smartphone is a veritable gold mine? In 2015, Apple recycled our used iPhones and recovered 2,204 pounds of gold. That's over a ton of gold. $40 million worth of gold. There is more gold in a ton of dead smartphones than in a ton of gold ore. That's because to get the gold out of the ore, it requires a lot of work. The gold in the smartphone is refined, pure, 24-karat gold. But not so with the gold in the ore. It has to be crushed and smashed and pulverized and sifted and smelted and agitated and conditioned. It has to be refined.
You ever think of your life in those terms? That life is a refinement, a process of being refined like gold? I know there's a lot of ways to think about life. Life is a box of chocolates. Life is a bowl of cherries. It's a marathon, not a sprint. But let's consider this image of refinement, that life, this mortal life, is about being refined. And now you've experienced some of this in shorter seasons when you were tested in school, when you were drilled in the military, when you were apprenticed in some profession. You were being refined. You experienced that as a season of refinement.
Now, could you see though your whole life as a process and experience of being refined like gold? Honestly, I'm not thrilled to think of my life in these terms, and maybe you're not either. I would much rather think of my life in terms of achievement and accomplishment, progress, even if it's slow, steady progress. And I think we've been conditioned by our culture to see our lives on those terms as achievement and accomplishment.
After all, is it said when people look at your gravestone, you want them to know that you did something with your dash. But if Jesus tarries another 100 years, really who's going to remember what you did or what I did? Few, if any. So with this long view, it seems laughable to think of this mortal life as accomplishment or achievement. And because of this, some people see this life as bereavement, as a string of losses intermixed with some cherries along the way. If life is only bereavement, then I suppose the best thing that you and I could do is to put off the pain as long as possible. Enjoy it while you can, while it lasts, and then numb the pain with activity or alcohol or binge watching.
Those are all ways to endure this mortal life with its highs and its lows and its long stretches of tedium. But let's try this one out. Life is refinement—the experience of being refined. the Bible narrates life on these terms. The biblical narrative would have us see God as the Refiner and God's chosen people and, by extension, all people, as the treasure that is being refined. And the sprawling narrative of Genesis is the gold standard for this view of life as refinement, including Genesis 42, which is a little chapter nestled right in the middle of this account of Jacob, who was later called Israel, and his 12 sons.
Joseph, if you remember, he was the 11th son and the favorite of his father Jacob, which, of course, made his 10 older brothers jealous of him. And so what did they do? They sold him as a slave, and he ended up in Egypt. And now it's 15 years later, give or take. And through a series of uncanny occurrences, Joseph has found himself in charge of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. And then there's a famine. And so Joseph's 10 older brothers come down to Egypt looking for food, and they find Joseph in the last place they were expecting. And here's how it happened.
"Now Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt and Jacob said to his sons, 'Why are you looking at each other? Look, I've heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us there, and we will live. We will not die.' So Joseph's brothers, 10 of them went down to Egypt to buy grain. But Joseph's brother Benjamin, Jacob did not send with them because he said, 'So that no mischief happens to him.' Now, the sons of Israel, that is the sons of Jacob were among those who went down to buy grain because the famine in the land of Canaan, too.
"Now Joseph was governor of the land, the one who sold grain to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers arrived, and they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them. But he pretended to be a stranger, and he spoke to them harshly. He said to them, 'Where have you come from?' And they answered him, 'From the land of Canaan to buy food.' Now, Joseph recognized his brothers, but his brothers did not recognize him. And he remembered his dreams about them. And he said to them, 'No, you are spies. And you have come to see where our land is unprotected.' And they answered him, 'My Lord, your servants, we've come to buy food. We're all sons of one man and your servants. We're honest people. We're not spies.'
"But he said to them, 'No, you have come to see where our land is unprotected.' And again, they answered him. 'Your servants, we are all 12 brothers and sons of one man from the land of Canaan. And look today, our youngest brother, he is with our father and the other, he is no more.' And Joseph said to them, 'It is as I have said, you are spies. But by this you will be tested. You will be refined. As Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one from your number to go and get your brother, and the rest of you will be kept in prison. And your words will be tested to see whether there is truthfulness in you. And if not, as Pharaoh lives, you are spies.' And Joseph held them in custody for three days. Three days. He held him in custody.
"On the third day he said to them, 'Do this and you will live, because I fear God. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison while the rest of you go and bring back grain to your starving households. But you must bring your youngest brother back to me so that your words will be proved true and you will not die.' And this, they proceeded to do. But each man said to his brother, 'In truth, we are guilty because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we did not listen.' And Reuben answered them, 'Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy, but you wouldn't listen. And now look, there comes a reckoning for his blood.' They did not know that Joseph could understand them. They didn't know because he was using an interpreter. And he turned away from them, and he began to weep. And he turned back and spoke to them. And he took Simeon, the second oldest brother, and bound him before their eyes. And then he gave orders, orders to fill their bags with grain and to return each man's money to him in his sack and to give them provisions for the journey.
"All this was done for them, and they loaded up their donkeys with grain and left. When they came to the place where they stopped for the night, one of them opened up his sack to get feed for his donkey. And he saw that his pouch of silver had been returned to him. It was there in the mouth of his sack. And he said to his brothers, 'My silver has been returned. Here it is in the mouth of my sack.' And their hearts sank and trembling with fear. Each man said to his brother, 'What is this that God has done to us? What is this that God has done?'
"They came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, and they reported to him all that had happened to them. And they were saying to him, 'The man who is the lord over the land, he said to us, "This is how I will know whether you are honest men. Leave one of your brothers here with me and take food back to your starving households, and go! But you must bring your youngest brother back to me so that I will know that you are not spies, but honest men, and then I'll give your brother back to you, and you can trade in the land."'
"And then it happened when they were emptying their bags. Look in each man's sack was his pouch of silver. And when they and their fathers saw the money pouches, they were frightened. And their father Jacob said to them, 'You have bereaved me of my children. Joseph has gone. Simeon is gone. And now you want to take Benjamin as well. All this has come against me.' And Reuben said to his father, 'You can put my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him into my care, and I will bring him back to you.' But Jacob said to him, 'My son will not go down there with you. His brother is dead. And he is the only one left. If some mischief happens to him on this journey that you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow, down to the grave in sorrow.'" The Word of the Lord, Genesis 42.
Why is gold so valuable? In part, because it's so useful. Did you know that an ounce of gold can be stretched into a wire? An ounce of gold, it's worth about $1,500, and it can be stretched into a wire 50 miles long. That's how pliable gold is. An ounce of gold can be hammered into a sheet of metal that covers 80 square feet. Gold doesn't tarnish like other metals. It resists corrosion and conducts electricity. It's used not only in jewelry, but also in medicine, in the space industry, in aviation, and in those electronics that power your precious smartphone.
In the words of the poet Thomas Hood, "Gold, molten, graven, hammered and rolled. Heavy to get and light to hold. Hoarded, bartered, bought and sold." Gold, it continues to be of great value to humanity. And humankind is of even greater value to God—so much so that He sacrificed His Son. That He bought us not with gold or silver, but with His Holy and precious blood so that we might be His own and live under Him and His kingdom. And just as we refine our treasure, God refines His. "The crucible is for silver. The furnace is for gold. And the Lord tests—the Lord refines, the human heart" (Proverbs 17:3).
In our present state, the ore of humanity needs to be refined. And Job would know this better than most. In chapter 23, verse 10 of the book that bears his name, Job says, "When God has tested me, when God has refined me, I will come out as gold." And the word that Job used is the same word that Joseph used describing to his brothers what was happening to them, that God would test them. Joseph is arranging the test, but his brothers know who holds the refiner's fire. And that's why they ask that question in the midst of this crucible, what is this that God has done to us?
It's an appropriate question. It's a relevant question. It's relevant because the testing and the refining that God is doing to the sons of Israel in Genesis 42, it's just a moment in the greater refinement that God is working in all humankind. What God is doing to Joseph's brothers is the same thing that He did to Joseph during his time of enslavement and imprisonment in Egypt. What God is doing to Joseph's brothers is the same thing that God did to Abraham when He commanded him to sacrifice his only son. What God is doing to them is the same as what God did to all humankind in the incarnation of His Son, in His fellowship with us in this mortal life, in the crucible of His cross. It's the same thing that God is doing to you, through faith in Jesus, through Baptism into His death and resurrection, so that when this mortal life ceases and the King is revealed, you and I will be able to say with Job, "When God is tested me, I will come out as gold."
The Old Testament has three words that speak to God's work of refinement on us, and all three words are brought together in a prayer recorded in Psalm 26:2. David wrote, "Test me, Oh Lord, try me, refine my heart. Test me and try me, oh Lord, refine me."
What if you adopted this prayer as your own? What would become of me if I made this my standing request to God? We would be set free. We would no longer be doomed to see this mortal life as achievement or as bereavement, but as refinement in Jesus. You don't have to cling to mortal life like it's all that you have.
See for a moment, Jacob thought that mortal life was only bereavement. "All this has come against me," he said, paralyzed by fear of losing the ones that he loved. He could not yet see what God was doing. And for a moment, Joseph's brothers thought that life was only about achievement, eliminating their rivals and making some money along the way. They could not yet see what God was doing to them, how He was refining them.
And you might not be able to see it where you're standing in the story. Yet Jesus has risen from the dead, and that means that this mortal life is not all there is. There is more. This, it is only the wandering in the wilderness before the Promised Land. This is only the season of exile before the homecoming. This is only the cross before the resurrection. This is only the hour of darkness, already infused with the light and the glory of the risen and returning King.
But in this moment you might not be able to see it. So hold onto this. Joseph spoke harshly to his brothers in that moment, but he also wept for them. His heart was breaking for them, longing to be restored to them, ready to forgive them for all that they had done, and even more, behind the harsh test that is this mortal life.
You have a God who weeps for you, who gave up His Son for you, whose heart breaks for you until you are restored to Him. He's refining you—not so you can have a shot at earning His favor. He's refining you not to meet some arbitrary standard of purity. He's refining you because He loves you. Even in your unrefined state, He loves you. He is refining you because He wants to be with you, because you are better than gold to Him.
And that's why I invite you to pray with me. The words of this hymn and the words of that Psalm. "Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me, test me, try me. Oh, Lord. Refine me for Jesus' sake. Amen."
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Reflections for February 2, 2020
Title: Gold Without Glitter
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, now heard over more than 1,700 radio stations throughout North America, and worldwide through our mobile app. To learn more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Once more, I have joining me, my professor, my pastor, now. You're serving as an interim pastor at my congregation.
Joel Biermann: Yeah, it's a great pleasure, actually.
Mike Zeigler: It's been a delight, and I want to talk about that
Joel Biermann: I'm glad you think so.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. Well, it's the people. There's nothing like a congregation when you see the people that God has brought there. We didn't pick any of them, but they're there and they have so much to give.
Joel Biermann: Yes.
Mike Zeigler: In your book, A Case for Character, you talk about the Christian parish, the church, the congregation, being a place of character formation.
Joel Biermann: Right.
Mike Zeigler: So, before we talk more about that, real quickly, how do you define character for the listener?
Joel Biermann: Yeah. Character is the reality of who you are. It's your habits, your traits, just the way you operate, your disposition. Whether people see it or not, it's just who you are.
Mike Zeigler: So, if churches, in your mind, are to be a place of character formation for their people, what would you say is the most significant barrier?
Joel Biermann: People simply don't always want to invest the time that it takes to do the work of character formation, because it's not something that happens by reading a book or listening to a podcast or attending a lecture. That's not going to cut it. And even going away on a fantastic weekend retreat is not going to form character. What forms character is the long process of habituation and doing of things. Worship is a great example of this. Worship shapes our character profoundly. It teaches us who God is, who we are, how we think about God, how we operate, what's appropriate to do.
And then you'll learn character in your home, in your habits, mealtime, responsibilities, chores around the house when you're a kid, fulfilling your responsibilities at work. All these things shape and form our habit. So, for a congregation to be really successful at character formation, it means people are going to spend time together. And that means worship on a regular basis, weekly, staying for Bible class, getting back together during the week for a common meal and maybe some more time of worship and for catechesis. So, we're going to learn some more; we're going to dig a little more deeply. And what can't be helped in all these interactions are just the times of fellowship, just hanging out together. We used to joke, standard kind of joke about, well, potlucks are really important to the life of the church, and we kind of laugh, like yeah, potlucks. But I've learned to say no, they're actually profoundly important.
It's Christians together, sharing life together, and they share stories about child rearing, and about their work situations, and they learn from each other. Because see, they're always trying to be on their best behavior, acting like Christians, which is exactly the whole point. This is iron sharpening iron, without being deliberate. We don't have to have a set time. "Okay, now we're going to have an argument about this, or now we're going to shape you this way." It just happens organically by living life together, and the more we're together, the more it can happen.
Mike Zeigler: You led the Christmas program that we had last month, and it was simply retelling the biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus. We hear the story every year. What's the value of retelling these biblical narratives for character?
Joel Biermann: This is part of the beauty of the church here is we're compelled to just kind of relive the story every year, which is really a great strength. Because we go through Advent and Christmas and then Epiphany, and then we get into Lent and Easter, and we're just telling the story, again and again. And so at Christmas time, when the children come up and do the Christmas pageant or just the Christmas story, to have them just tell the story again, and we all hear it again from new voices, and yet it's the same story, and yet it's new people discovering it for the first time and children delighting in it for the first time. And you see the freshness of it, and yet it's the same old story. That's how formation goes on. It encapsulates the power of it and the beauty of it. That's what communities do. That's what the church does. We have our common stories, our common hymns, our common ways of worship. These are powerful markers and formative influences that shape our character, shape us to being who we are.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much. Thank you for your service to the Lord's church, and I pray God's blessings on all your ministry.
Joel Biermann: Thank you very much. My great pleasure.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Son of God, Eternal Savior" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)