Exodus 37 – 50 / The Joseph Saga
There are really only two types of people in the world: people who like roller coasters and people who don’t. Who likes roller coasters? (Online worshippers, chime in too!) Who doesn’t like roller coasters? You are my people. I don’t like roller coasters. But every summer, for a few days after our family reunion on my mom’s side, some of the family go to Cedar Point for a few days and they ride roller coasters. I never go. Mostly because for 12 years I’ve been employed by a church and tried not to miss Sunday mornings. However, in 2017, just before I became your pastor, I wasn’t working for a church and I decided to join my family at Cedar Point. And for a couple days, I rode roller coasters. I rode roller coasters as a spiritual discipline. I wore this bracelet that my Aunt Peggy gave me, that says “Brave” – see I have it on this morning – and I undertook the spiritual discipline of doing things that scared me.
This morning we are going to talk about a story in Genesis that may be very familiar to you. It’s the life saga of Joseph, the guy with the coat of many colors. Joseph’s life was a roller coaster. And although his rises and drops and loops and turns, might be more dramatic than some of ours, his story is a reminder to us that our lives are roller coasters too. We often find the most rewarding spiritual growth when we practice the spiritual discipline of doing something that scares us.
Joseph’s story is 13 chapters long, and because I love you all, we are not going to read all 13 chapters today. Instead I want to just tell you the story and point out some things you may want to ponder later.
Joseph was the great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and his story begins like all roller coasters begin: with a long, slow climb up. His father Israel loved Joseph, the youngest, more than any of his other sons. He made an ornate robe for Joseph. His brothers were hatefully jealous of their father’s affection for Joseph. They hated him more when Joseph told them about two dreams he had, saying, “We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered and bowed down to it.” He told them another dream, that the sun, moon, and stars bowed to him. Even Joseph’s father was bothered by that dream.
Favorite of his father, at this point only son of his mother, given special presents, excused from the hard and boring job of tending the sheep, and having dreams of grandeur, that his family will bow down to him: Joseph’s life is heading up and up. But what is always on the other side of the long slow climb on a roller coaster? A huge drop.
When his brothers went to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, Israel sent Joseph to them. When they saw him in the distance, they said to each other, “Here comes the master of dreams! Come on now! Let’s kill him and throw him into one of those pits, so we can say that an evil animal devoured him. Then let’s see what becomes of his dreams.” Joseph arrived, and they stripped him of his special robe and threw him into a dry well. When a caravan of merchants came by, they sold him to the merchants, who in turn sold him in Egypt. Then the brothers soaked Joseph’s robe in goat’s blood and took it to their father. “It is my son’s robe!” Israel wailed. “Some ferocious animal devoured him.” Israel tore his clothing and put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters tried to console him, but he refused to be comforted. Meanwhile the merchants sold Joseph into slavery to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials.
This is the first huge drop in the story. In less that 24 hours, Joseph drops from a safe, secure, pampered life into a pit. His own brothers sell him into slavery and he’s carried off to a country he doesn’t know, a language he probably doesn’t speak, and sold again as a household slave. No family, no friends, looked down on as an outsider, the young man who had everything he wanted now has nothing. Nobody is bowing to him; he’s the one bowing down.
One thing I want to point out is that this section doesn’t say anything about God. There is nothing good about what Joseph’s brothers do. Because of their jealousy, they sell their own brother into slavery in a foreign country. Now you may think it wasn’t very smart of him to be bragging about his dreams, but if we got rid of every teenage boy who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, we’d be a country full of women. No matter what Joseph had done, no one deserves to have their life taken in this way, to be sold into slavery. For all the brothers knew, they really were responsible for his death.
I point this out because one thing this story asserts is that evil is real. The brothers didn’t make a mistake. This isn’t a little white lie. This was a deliberate malicious desire to do evil. And part of recognizing that we are fallen people in a fallen world is recognizing that we all have this potential in us. Each one of us. Now if you’ve listened to me preach for very long at all, you know I don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people how bad they are. I think society does a pretty good job beating us down. However, I am not saying this to stomp on your self-esteem. I’m saying it because if we don’t recognize the depth of the darkness that lurks in ourselves, we will inevitably assume that we are better than other people, and we will not understand the depth of God’s grace and redemption. We need to be rescued from the captivity of our own anger and desire for revenge, healed of the wounds that come from wounding others, and victorious over our ugliest impulses. That’s what it means to be saved. Those are the images of what God offers us: rescue, healing, and victory. And if we don’t think we need it, we aren’t being fully honest with ourselves.
Because of what Joseph’s brother did to him, his roller coaster has raced to the bottom of the drop. But roller coasters don’t just go up once and down once. And Joseph’s ride is just getting started. Genesis 39 tells the story of what happens to Joseph as he goes to work for Potiphar.
God was with Joseph. So he became a successful man in the house of his master, the Egyptian. His master saw that God was with him and that God made everything he set his hand to successful. Joseph found favor in Potiphar’s eyes, so the Egyptian made Joseph an overseer over his household; entrusting everything to him. The master’s wife noticed how handsome Joseph was and tried many times to seduce him. Each time he refused her, until finally she grabbed at his him. In an effort to get away, he left his cloak in her hand. She used it as evidence to accuse him of assaulting her. Joseph was thrown in prison. But God was with Joseph and extended kindness to him and gave him favor in the eyes of the commander of the prison.
This is one of my favorite section’s of Joseph’s roller coaster ride because the Bible says very clearly that when Joseph was favored with a good job, God was with him. And when Joseph was thrown in prison, God was with him. Regardless of what happens on this roller coaster ride, God is strapped in next to you. Or perhaps we should say, you are strapped in next to God. Joseph was falsely accused, wrongly convicted and unjustly imprisoned and God was right there with him. We should not expect that nothing bad will happen to us just because we are Christians. Bad stuff happens to Christians all the time, and it doesn’t mean that we’ve done anything wrong, that God is mad at us, that God is punishing us, or that God has left us. This story seems to indicate that it’s not God’s job to stop bad things from happening to us. We got a seat on this roller coaster at the moment of our birth, and we should not expect it to be a smooth ride. But whether we are in the mansion or in the jail cell, God is still with us.
Joseph’s ride continues. He doesn’t have any more of his own dreams, but God allows him to interpret the dreams of others. Eventually this earns him an audience with Pharaoh, who has had two dreams that none of his magicians can interpret. Joseph tells him that his dreams of seven fat cows being eaten by seven thin cows, and seven fat ears of corn being swallowed up by seven shriveled ears of corn – these dreams mean that a famine is coming. Egypt will have seven years of bounty followed by seven years of desperate famine that will plague not only Egypt but all the surrounding countries. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of all preparations for the famine. When it comes, the shortage of food in Canaan forces Israel to send his sons to buy grain from the Egyptians. When Joseph encounters his brothers again, he at first conceals his identity and tricks them into bringing his youngest brother to see him. More trickery ensues, but Joseph finally reveals to all of them that he is their long-lost brother. Joseph and his brothers are reconciled to one another and the whole family moves from Canaan to Egypt.
When you read this story for yourself, you’ll see that this section is the part of the roller coaster with all the upside down twists and hairpin turns and loops. I summarized a lot so you should read it, because it’s a really great story. What we see in this section is that when Joseph can act, he does act. There’s a lot that happens TO Joseph in this story, that he has no control over. But when he sees an opportunity, he takes it. He doesn’t just sit back and watch it sail by. He doesn’t let his anger and discouragement keep him from moving forward. He doesn’t assume that just because bad things have happened to him in the past, only bad things will always happen to him. He doesn’t allow his past to dictate his future.
This story ends with true forgiveness and a reminder of God’s promise. When Israel died, his brothers worry that Joseph might still bear a grudge and might not pay them back for all the wrongs they did to him. His brothers bow down before him, saying, “We are your slaves.” (Remember his original dreams?) But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to do evil against me, but God intended good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives with this stored grain. So don’t be afraid. I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” When Joseph was one hundred and ten years old, he said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of Egypt to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Joseph tells his brothers that they intended to harm him, but God intended good, to save many lives. The big takeaway from this story is that God is at work in and through what we do, and God is also at work despite what we do. This calls to mind a familiar verse from Romans that affirms “In all things, God is working for good, together with those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” I don’t think this is the same as saying everything happens for a reason. I don’t think God causes everything to happen, although you might come to a different conclusion. I think what this story shows us is that when God has a purpose to accomplish, God will bring it about. Not by forcing things to happen in God’s way, but through some kind of divine jujitsu, where God absorbs the energy and momentum of every activity and redirects it towards God’s purpose. It’s like playing chess with a master. She’s not controlling your moves, but whatever you do, she’s got a countermove that keeps the game headed towards a win for her. God was and still is playing the long game, writing a very long story. God intended to bless the whole world through Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, so all those descendants couldn’t die of starvation in a famine. So through Joseph’s obedient actions and even against the brother’s evil actions, God accomplished God’s purpose.
What does this mean for us? Well first of all, if you believe that God has promised something specific to you, you should trust it. If you have heard from God in whatever way you hear from God about something that God wants to accomplish in your life, you can trust that God will do it. You should respond to that promise by being as faithful and obedient as you can, following God closely, but if something happens outside your control, don’t be discouraged. God’s purpose will not be thwarted.
On a larger scale, this means that all of us should trust that God will accomplish the reconciliation and new creation that is described in the Bible. It can be hard to believe that’s really going to happen when we look at the world today. Some things seem to be getting better, but a lot of things seem to be getting worse. We don’t even agree about who is being obedient to God and who is intending evil! And I personally do not know what all the steps are along the way to new creation. I haven’t heard from God about who is going to win this election. But I trust that whoever it is, God’s ultimate purpose will not be thwarted. That doesn’t mean that bad stuff won’t happen in the meantime. It will. Because some people, including us sometimes, are intending evil, and that can prolong the chess game, or the jujitsu match. But we can trust that whatever happens, God will work either with it or against it to accomplish new creation. We may not see it in our lifetimes. But we are called to work for it anyway. We will need to do things that scare us, trusting that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in us to bring about to bring about wholeness, reconciliation, and the healing of the world. Amen.