How Will You Be Remembered?
Genesis 50 & Hebrews 11
December 12, 2013
One of the first prayers I learned to pray was my bedtime prayer. I do not remember how old I was when I first learned it, but I know I was just a young boy. Over the years it has helped millions of children get ready for bed. You probably know it by heart:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.
It is the third line that always struck me as unusual: “If I should die before I wake.” It seems odd that little children in the springtime of life should mention death in their bedtime prayer. But if you think about it, it’s not odd at all. Death comes to all of us sooner or later. Sometimes to children. And sometimes in the night before we wake.
There is an art to dying well. The Puritans spoke of “dying grace,” which is the special help God gives his children as they prepare to cross the final river. I suppose all of us are planning to live a long time, but these days you can never be sure. The stray bullet, the out-of-control driver, the renegade gang member, the sudden heart attack, the unexpected tumor, who knows what will happen next? Any of us could be struck down at any moment.
“Man does not know his time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). No one know what tomorrow may bring. As I sit here typing late at night, I have my own list of things I need to do. Perhaps I will get them done. Perhaps God has other plans for me. There are no guarantees that I will even be alive 24 hours from now.
How long do you expect to live?
How much longer do you expect to live?
Everyone has an answer to that question even if we don’t want to say it aloud. If you are in your 20s, you probably expect to live at least 50 more years. If you are 50, you probably expect another 20-30 years. And if you are over 65, you certainly know that the sands of time are slipping away very quickly.
Here is one mark of genuine Christianity. When you come to the end of your life, you still hold on to what you believe. When someone dies suddenly, we all want to know: What were his final words? What was on his mind as he was exiting this world? Did he leave any messages? Did he give any final instructions?
What were his final words?
We come now to the final moments of Joseph’s life. In order to set the scene, we need to know one crucial fact. Fifty years have passed since Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). That half-century is covered in just one sentence, “Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father’s family” (Genesis 50:22). Joseph’s final words are recorded in two places: Genesis 50 and Hebrews 11. From looking at these two passages, we discover how faith shows itself at the end of life.
I. Genesis 50: God Will Take You to the Promised Land
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (Gen 50:24-26).
Twice Joseph says, “God will visit you.” This is faith at the very end of life. Though he was old and dying, Joseph saw past Egypt into the distant future. He knew that God would one day keep his promise and deliver the Israelites from Egypt and would give them a homeland of their own. Because he believed so firmly in that promise, he instructed the Israelites not to leave his bones in Egypt but to make sure and carry his bones with them and bury them in the Promised Land.
There was no earthly reason to expect this. From the outside, it appeared that the Jews would stay in Egypt forever. And that is how it seemed for many generations. Over time Egypt grew comfortable to them, and the Jews grew wealthy in Egypt. But Joseph looked into the distant future and said, “This is not the end of the story.”
Egypt was not the end of the story
Was Egypt good for them? Yes, it saved them from destruction.
Was Egypt good for them? No, not if they stayed there forever.
How could Joseph be so sure about the future? First, he knew what God had promised his great-grandfather Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Second, his own life proved that God keeps his promises. He knew that Israel didn’t belong in Egypt, and he didn’t want his bones staying in Egypt when the Jews left for Canaan. On the outside he looked like an Egyptian; on the inside he was an Israelite. He never forgot who he was or where he came from. The Bible tells us that Moses took the bones with him when the Jews left Egypt (Exodus 13:19) and years later Joshua buried them at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). There his bones rest in the dust of the earth to this day.
II. Hebrews 11: Take Me With You!
“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).
We might think it unusual that the writer of Hebrews should highlight this moment out of all that Joseph experienced. We might say it some other way:
“By faith Joseph, when he was betrayed, did not become bitter.”
“By faith Joseph, when he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife, did not yield to temptation.”
“By faith Joseph, when he was forgotten in prison, did not turn away from God.”
“By faith Joseph, when he met his brothers, did not seek revenge.”
His faith shone brightest in his final moments
When we think of Joseph, these are the things we remember. But God saw his faith shining brightest in his final moments. As great as his past exploits were, he rose to the highest pinnacle of faith just before he died. In a sense, he was given a peek behind the curtain and he saw what others could not see. He knew God would keep his promises.
When he died, he was embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt so that his bones would be a testimony to the coming generations.
His children and grandchildren knew what sort of man he was.
His descendants knew where he stood and what he stood for.
“Bound for Canaan”
So let’s run the clock ahead 100 years. Joseph has been dead for a long time. Here is a little Hebrew boy who hears all the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. As he takes it all in, he asks the one question most on his heart. “Mother, will we be in Egypt forever?” Taking a moment to compose herself, she brushes a tear away and says, “Honey, look over there. See that box?” “I see it. What is it?” “It contains the bones of your great-grandfather Joseph.” The little boy walks over and eyes the box from top to bottom. Then his mother says, “Sweetheart, what does it say?” He looks at the side of the box and peers intently at the Hebrew letters. Then he reads it out loud:
“Bound for Canaan.”
“Mother, what does that mean?”
“It means we won’t be here forever. We’re going home to Canaan someday, and we’re taking those bones with us. Your great-grandfather told us not to leave him behind. He wants to be buried in the Promised Land.”
And so the bones of Joseph testified to coming generations that the people of God didn’t belong in Egypt. They were there temporarily, but their real home was in Canaan.
You do the math.
He was 17 when he was sold to the Midianites and taken to Egypt.
He died when he was 110 years old.
How long was he in Egypt? 93 years.
Despite the fact that he spent almost a century in Egypt, he never forgot who he was or where he came from. Joseph is saying,
“I may be dying but I believe that one day God will keep his promises. I want to be there when it happens so don’t leave me down here in Egypt. Bury me in the Promised Land.”
We die, but the promises of God live on
What does this mean for us today?
Nothing of God dies when a man of God dies. We die, but the promises of God live on. They bury us, but they don’t bury God’s promises with us. Your death cannot nullify God’s faithfulness. Our God is the God of the future. He is the God of the generations to come.
A servant whose master was dying was asked, “How is your master?” “He is dying full of life,” came the reply. It is a grand thing to die “full of life.” That’s exactly how Joseph died–full of life and full of faith.
Three Lessons for Today
Let’s wrap up this message with three lessons for today.
1) The greatest thing you can do is to pass your faith along to your children and grandchildren.
Abraham passed his faith to Isaac, Isaac gave it to Jacob, Jacob gave it to Joseph, and Joseph gave his faith to the whole nation of Israel.
The Christian faith is not a sprint and it’s not really a marathon. It’s a relay race, and I am but one member of a team that stretches across the generations. I have faith because someone gave it to me. And someone gave it to the person who gave it to me. On and on the line goes, stretching back 2000 years. I must make sure I pass my faith along to my own family. Not only that. I must do all I can to make sure that the faith I pass on to my sons is passed on to my grandchildren. I must not fail here. The baton of faith must be passed on to the next generation.
As the years quickly pass I now understand that passing my faith along is the work of a lifetime. It’s never finished no matter how old I get. As I write this paragraph, it occurs to me that my # 1 job at this point is to make sure that I finish well. Our boys are grown up and now the older two are raising families of their own. I owe it to them and to our four grandchildren to leave them an example of what it means to finish well. I don’t want to run the race and them stumble and fall as I am about to cross the finish line.
How tragic to grow bitter in your old age
Joseph finished well.
I pray to do the same.
2) The saddest thing that can happen is to become bitter in your old age.
We’ve all seen it happen to people we know. Sometimes we’ve seen it happen to people very close to us. As they grow old, they become bitter, angry, and filled with resentment because life didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. Abraham had a promise from God but he never saw it completely fulfilled. Isaac had the same promise but he died without seeing it fulfilled. Jacob had the same promise and he died in Egypt. Joseph had the same promise but died in Egypt too. If ever any one had the right to become bitter it was these three men—Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They lived and died with the promise unfulfilled but to their credit they never gave up hope. They never became bitter because they didn’t see everything God promised come to pass before they died.
3) The happiest way to live is to realize that God’s work is bigger than you are.
I may live for 70 or 80 years and never see all that I dream about. I may pray for things that never come to pass. I may trust God for things that do not appear. I may struggle against great difficulty for many years. The way may be hard, the road steep, the path lonely. I may climb and climb and still never reach the summit of all that I set out to do. It may not be given to me to see everything I would like to see, but it is given to me to live faithfully day after day so that after I am gone, others may stand on my shoulders and see things I never saw. Here is a great goal: To have dreams so big they can’t possibly be fulfilled in my lifetime.
God’s plans are bigger than mine
God’s plans are bigger than mine. My part is to live for God and to pass my faith along to my children and then to my grandchildren. I must live so that those things for which I am praying and those things I dream about may happen some day after I am gone.
In recent years Psalm 100:5 has become very precious to me because it ends with a wonderful promise:
“His faithfulness continues through all generations.”
Suppose we line up a grandfather, a son, a grandson, and a great-grandson on the platform. This text tells us that what God was to the grandfather, he will be to the son. What he is to the son, he will be to the grandson. What he is to the grandson, he will be to the great-grandson. And so it goes across the centuries. Generations come and go, one after the other. Only God remains forever. This is our hope at the edge of death. This is why we rejoice as we bury our dead. We need not fear death because a Christian is immortal until his work on earth is done. You cannot die and you will not die until God’s appointed time for you finally arrives. Until then, you are immortal.
The workers are buried but the work goes on.
The sower may die but the seed remains.
I do not know how far we have to go until we reach the end of our earthly road. But this I know—that road is paved with God’s love and faithfulness. Therefore we need not be afraid.
We serve a trans-generational God
I am so glad that God’s faithfulness transcends the generations. I am 61 years old heading for . . . what? 65? 70? 75? Maybe 80 or even 90 years old if God blesses me with long life. But I won’t live forever. As the years roll by, I find myself realizing how much of my life is wrapped up in my three boys. Yesterday they were teenagers, today they are young men, tomorrow they will be grandfathers.
Will God still take care of them? What about their children? And their grandchildren? Will God still be there for them? The answer is yes because we serve a trans-generational God. That means I don’t have to stay alive to ensure that my boys will be okay. God will see to that. After I am gone from this earth, and even if all my prayers have not been answered, I can trust God to take care of my sons and my grandchildren. What a comfort this is. I do my best to help my boys while I’m here, and after I’m gone God’s faithfulness will continue for them and for their children and their grandchildren, and even for their great-grandchildren.
We are links in the chain of God’s purposes
We are just links in the great chain of God’s purposes. When we show up, God hooks us up with what comes before and what comes after. Joseph knew that. We are wise if we see that too. We all have a role to play in the unfolding of God’s eternal plan. Like Joseph, most of us don’t discover that role until later in life. Then we look back say, “No matter what happened to me, even the parts I still don’t understand, God meant it all for good.”
We’re Going to Make It!
I end where Joseph’s journey ended, with this great certainty:
Death cannot exhaust the promises of God.
That’s why Paul could say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). Years ago I heard Stanley Collins, then director of Forest Home Conference Center in California, tell a story from his days with the British Army in World War II. One day he and another soldier came upon an unexploded land mine. Later that night he nearly passed out when he walked into the barracks and found his buddy resting his head on the same mine. Then he discovered that his buddy had removed the firing pin, rendering the land mine harmless. What had been an instrument of destruction had become a pillow for a weary soldier. Jesus has taken the sting out of death and given us victory over the grave.
No wonder Joseph said, “Don’t leave me down in Egypt! Take my bones with you.” He knew that a better day was coming for all the people of God, and that’s why he didn’t want to be left behind in Egypt. It would be a fine burial spot for a few centuries, but it was not meant to be Joseph’s final resting place.
Let’s be clear about what this means for us. We need not fear death because we know that death is not the end but the beginning for the children of God.
Brothers and sisters, we’re going to make it! God has willed it so.
God has willed it so
We will all eventually go through the valley of the shadow of death.
We need a guide who can help us on that treacherous journey.
We need someone who’s been there before.
Who can we get? Where can we find a guide like that? His name is Jesus! He’s been there before. He knows the way through. He’s been to the light on the other side and he’ll come for us. Thank God, we don’t walk through that valley alone. Jesus will walk with us. He’ll lead us through to the other side.
The saints of God have nothing to fear in the moment of death. Though it may not be pleasant or painless, though it come after long suffering or in a fiery crash, the moment itself will be filled with joy as the Lord himself escorts God’s children through the darkest valley of all. At that moment, all other guides must turn back. Only the Lord Jesus Christ can help us through. And he does.
Cheer up, child of God. Smile through your tears. Death is the worst that can happen to us. The best is yet to come.