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The Importance of Punctuation

August 21, 2017

“The Importance of Punctuation” Genesis 45:1-15; 50:15-21 © 8.20.17 Ordinary 20A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a poster and meme easily found with Google that reminds us of the importance of punctuation. The pictures and drawings vary, but the first line always reads: “Let’s eat Grandma.” The next says: “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The final sentence proclaims: “Punctuation saves lives.”

That’s funny and true, but for me it’s been Susan who has taught me that proper punctuation is vital. For most of our thirty-six years of marriage, she’s been an editor and communications specialist and has helped me improve my writing and speaking, while coaching me on the use of everything from an apostrophe to a virgule. Sometimes she and I lament the sad state of grammar and usage in papers and magazines we read.

But even if we know a pretty good bit about commas and em dashes and so on, there’s something else more substantive about punctuation I hope Susan and I are both continuing to learn, and I trust you are as well. It’s this: sometimes when life appears to put a full stop, a hard break—a period—in a sentence of our story, there is an overruling divine hand that wields a pen with ink red as the blood of Jesus, replacing the period with a comma. Life goes on. The end is not yet. Or as the common saying goes: “This too shall pass,” though the passage may be through many sorrows, toils, and tears. God, who stands beyond and above time, sees past, present, and future all at once—our big picture—and invites us to trust that even our suffering or that of our families, friends, and neighbors is not in vain, but somehow is a life-saving comma, a brief pause, a transition, in the larger scheme of things.

The story of Joseph is a fine example of how God edits the story of his people. At seventeen, the favored son of Jacob is on his way to Egypt, bound for slavery. His jealous brothers had sold him to some traders after throwing him in a pit when he came to check on them for their father. They think Joseph’s servitude in a foreign land will end their story with him. Father Jacob believes the lie he is told that his son is dead, killed by some wild beast. He grieves greatly, but the brothers steel themselves against his pain. It’s a small price to pay to be rid of hated Joseph. If we imagined their story as the manuscript of a novel or a screenplay, and we were editing it, we would no doubt put a period at this point in their lives. Fade to black. Cue the credits. The end. In their mind, good riddance. Nothing to see here; move on.

For his part, Joseph probably would have agreed with our judgment. From dreams of ruling over others, he was now reduced to being ruled over, ordered about, dominated by a master. On the other hand, what he thought was a sure sentence of death as he lay in that dry well surely now had a comma placed in it by the divine Editor. The young man did well in Potiphar’s house, rising to the trusted position of household steward, in other words, the butler.

But Joseph was a handsome boy, and Potiphar’s wife, lonely and bored, ignored by her husband as he went about his duties, repeatedly asked Joseph to be her lover. He resisted every time she sought to seduce him, citing not only his responsibility to his master but also the moral code he followed. Finally, in frustration, the woman accuses Joseph of making inappropriate advances toward her. In a rage, Potiphar throws his servant into prison. Surely now there is a period placed in Joseph’s life.

But the end is not yet. There’s another comma in the story. Yahweh’s dream for this young man is still alive, though Joseph is unaware of God’s purpose for him. Soon the dreamer is interpreting the dreams of other, quite important prisoners. And doing so correctly. The king’s cupbearer is restored to service, while his baker is executed. Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him, but the royal servant does not do so. Certainly this now is the end.

Again not so. Pharaoh has some dreams not even his best sages can interpret. To refresh your memory, his visions concerned fat and skinny cows and plump and blighted ears of corn. The skinny cows gobble up the fat ones, but still manage to stay skinny. The puny ears of corn mimic a scene from that old movie Little Shop of Horrors and grow mouths. Then they eat the plump ears.

Finally, the chief cupbearer remembers the Hebrew who had interpreted dreams for him two years before. Joseph is summoned, and tells the king that his dreams foretell seven years of plenty followed by the same period of famine. And not only that, Joseph has a plan to deal with the threat! Not one to let a sharp mind and administrative skill go to waste in a dungeon, Pharaoh makes Joseph prime minister of all Egypt. Everyone bows to him now wherever he goes. Shades of a dream from long ago!

The famine comes as predicted, but the Egyptians are prepared, thanks to Joseph. Surplus grain from the bountiful years has been stored in every city. Other lands are not so fortunate. We discover that there is no food in Canaan and in Jacob’s house. He must send his sons to Egypt to buy grain.

When they get to Cairo, they find that they must speak with someone named Zaphenath-paneah, the prime minister, the son-in-law of the Egyptian high priest. The man treats the Hebrews harshly, accuses them of spying, and jails them for three days. Finally, he relents and lets all but one of them go. That brother is held as insurance that they will come back, bringing Benjamin, the youngest, with them.

It’s then we discover that the specter of guilt still haunts these ten men, even after all these years. All the old blame, all the resentment, all the unspoken fears suddenly come out in the open again. The anguish of Joseph as he pleaded for his life is now their anguish as they face bringing Benjamin back to Egypt, probably for a life of servitude. Reuben has been harboring resentment against the rest for lo these twenty years for doing violence to Joseph against his warnings. What goes around comes around. Not exactly instant karma, but karma nonetheless.

We don’t know Joseph’s intentions. Will he take revenge, despite his continued love for his siblings? Is his plan simply to teach his brothers a lesson and scare them out of their wits? Will he lord it over them, grind them into the dust, break their spirits, make them regret ever harming him?

The brothers leave Simeon as Joseph’s hostage and do not return until their food runs out. Forced now to go back to Egypt again in desperation, they take Benjamin along. Sure enough, after a big dinner and celebration, the youngest brother gets in trouble, the victim of a ruse devised by Joseph. It seems there will now be a period placed in Benjamin’s life, since he’s accused of the theft of a prized goblet from Joseph’s home. Conviction means a life of slavery.

Judah pleads for his brother, and Joseph can contain himself no longer. He reveals his true identity to his siblings. And there, in the morning’s text, the tale finally comes to a climax. Suddenly there is a new reality with which the brothers must deal, a reality at once frightening and freeing. This one they thought was gone forever is alive. And not only is he alive and well, he is in authority over them. What will he do now?

But if there is fear here, there is also freedom. What Joseph says and does opens up a new possibility for his family. It has finally dawned on Joseph that all the pain, all the twists and turns of his life, the people he has met, the skills he has acquired, all of it, somehow fits into a larger scheme. There can be no period at the end of the sentence until God puts it there, until God has done all he intends. And the time was not yet. In all the choices, even those for evil, God had somehow been at work behind the scenes, carrying out his plans through and despite human actions. Joseph voices it in one of the final scenes of Genesis: “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” It is this newly-found sense of purpose that frees Joseph to speak kindly to those who have wronged him, to assuage their guilt, to assure them that they need not fear his revenge. And now may the grief of their father be resolved as well. The son whom Jacob believed killed in a horrible way is alive again, restored to him. There is newness for which Joseph has opened the door through his risky, amazing self-disclosure. It occurs to me that his revelation is not unlike that of another in whom his followers would find the risky, amazing, self-disclosure of God, the Word become flesh.

Indeed, we do hear in this text what becomes the theme of the story God is both editing and authoring. Over and over again, in Scripture and since, God’s people have discovered that the purpose of God is for good and for life. They have heard time and time again the Gospel word that proclaims and celebrates the power of God to accomplish his plan, to see the dream through to its end. They have done it in the face of the reality of the same sort of evil Joseph experienced, have said that God is a sustaining and providing God against all evidence to the contrary. And they have been struck by a deep sense that bad news is never the last word, though suffering is real. It’s not simply that things work out for the best or whatever will be, will be, and we just need to get over it and adapt. That’s an impersonal notion. Rather, Joseph believed, we confess, that there is One who stands within and above and behind our lives, to oversee and sometimes overrule, to provide and protect, to save and to sustain. One who has in fact become human himself, vulnerable to harm, subject to hurt and death.

“You intended it for evil, but God planned it for good.” I dare say all of us can cite situations in which we found Joseph’s words to be true. The insight may only come in hindsight, but we realize nevertheless that in good and bad, our lives have been guided by an unseen hand, commas placed where we thought there were periods.

Having said that, there may be right now for you and me unresolved pain and guilt, sorrow and remorse, trouble and hurt and horror that linger with us. It hasn’t become clear whether or how God is working in our lives right now. Or if our uncertainty and despair are not for ourselves, then they are for our neighbors, our nation, our world. We’re more in the pit than the palace.

Yet the dream persists. The assertion of the story still stands. God is able to create newness out of even the worst humans can do, whether to each other, to the planet or to God himself. As someone once said, the judgment on every situation must ultimately and always be provisional (Paul Tillich?). What feels like an end may in fact be a new beginning. We simply don’t know how things will turn out in the end. And how we see such things, whether we believe that our life story at a particular point has been punctuated by a comma or a period, can affect our emotional and spiritual state as well as our physical health. A comma is a symbol of hope, of movement to the next chapter or at least the next sentence or word of our story. That’s the importance of punctuation.

I once heard the tale of a farmer and his son who lived in a village in a faraway land. The older man had little formal education, but was wise from the experiences of life and from his observations of others. He managed to acquire a magnificent stallion from a good line, which he intended to put out to stud. Sure enough, it wasn’t very long before there were a number of colts romping about the fields, sired by this wonderful animal. The farmer’s neighbors all said to him: “What marvelous luck you have, to own such a horse!” “Good luck, bad luck,” came the reply. “Who’s to say?” A month or so later, the son was riding the horse in the pasture, and a snake spooked the animal. The young man was thrown to the ground, and the stallion ran off. “What bad fortune you have,” the neighbors said. “To have your son injured and your horse lost.” “Good luck, bad luck; who’s to say?” said the farmer again. During the son’s recuperation from his injuries, an enemy invaded the country, and all the young men were drafted. Also, every available horse was commandeered for the military. The son was not conscripted, though, because of his wounds, and of course, there was no stallion to be taken. Many of the young men of the village were killed, and the horses were never returned by the army. “What great luck you have!” the neighbors exclaimed. “Your son is alive, and your horse may yet be found.” “Good luck, bad luck; who’s to say?” answered the farmer.

That wise man knew what the text for today also affirms, namely, that the story of our lives is never quite done and that the construction we now put on events may in the long run prove to be in error. But the biblical storyteller will not let the farmer’s question go unanswered. There is someone who will say. It is God, whose intention for us and all creation is good and life. That’s the bold assertion of the biblical writer. It’s the proclamation of the prophet, who told people in exile that God had plans for good and not evil (Jeremiah 29:10). It’s the great good news of the gospel, for even the cruel punishment of the cross and a stone rolled across the mouth of a tomb could not put a period where God had put a comma. For love is stronger than death, and the passion of God for his creation fiercer than the grave. No human scheming, no evil action, no hateful speech, no terror, no grief, no pain or suffering can thwart the loving and determined purpose of God for you, for me, for any place or any people in all God’s creation.

Well-known speaker and author Rob Bell concludes his reflection on Job in the Nooma DVD series like this: “…your story is not over. The last word has not been spoken. And there may be way more going on here than any of us realize” (Rob Bell, “Whirlwind,” Nooma 24).

Indeed there is more, so much more. When God, the sovereign God, is your Editor, even the last word on the last page of your story is followed not by a period, but a comma.

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