Essential 100 – the story of Joseph

Sermon Date: 
7 Oct 2012
Bible Base: 
Genesis 45:4-11; Matt 6:25-34

David Jeans

Those of you who have ever been to Sunday School will be very familiar with the story of Joseph. It’s a great story, and one which would belong in many of today’s soaps. It’s a story full of human weaknesses, and even of human wickedness, and yet it’s a story that God is at work in. We need to think carefully about how God is at work in it. We need also to be aware that this is a story with huge implications in the big story that the Bible tells.
In case you have forgotten the story let’s sketch it out. But first in the best soap tradition – the story so far! Two weeks ago we looked at the amazing creation that God had made and the mess that human beings have made of it. Last week we looked at the beginning of God’s rescue plan to put all this right and to bring about his good purposes for the creation and for us.
This week we move on a couple of generations from Abraham, the friend of God. We look at the family of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham through whose descendants God intends to bless all people. God calls Jacob Israel, which means the one who wrestles with God. It’s interesting that God chooses to bless the world through someone who wrestled with God. That may give some of you some encouragement in your times of wrestling with God! At the centre of the story this week are Jacob’s 12 sons. And as we look at this story, we quickly realise that  this family is not promising material. Quite the opposite. It’s full of jealousy, rivalry, favouritism, resentment and even hatred. Jacob had married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. He really loved the younger sister Rachel, but was tricked by his father-in-law into marrying the older sister Leah. And of course Rachel is his favourite, but Rachel seems unable to produce children. No such problems for Leah – she produces 6 sons (and some daughters). So Rachel gets jealous and gets Jacob to sleep with her maid and she produces 2 more sons. Then when Leah can no longer have children she gets Jacob to sleep with her maid and 2 more sons arrive. And then in Jacob’s old age Rachel finally produces a son who is Joseph. She then gives birth to Benjamin but dies in childbirth. Would you choose to bless the world through this lot?
Joseph is the son of Jacob’s old age; he is the son of the love of his life who has now died. So Jacob is his favourite son. Understandable, but dangerous for family stability. And made worse by the behaviour of both Joseph and Jacob. Joseph sneaks on his brothers to his father. And his father rewards Joseph by giving him a flashy new coat.  And I bet he wore it all the time just to show his older brothers who was dad’s favourite! And Genesis says “When his brothers saw that their father loved him (Joseph) more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.”
And then Joseph had his dreams about the rest of the family bowing down to him. By the way, the Bible does not say whether or not they were from God. They may well have come out of Joseph’s own pride at being the favourite and his resentment of being the youngest. The story goes on to show how the dreams were fulfilled, but that still does not necessarily mean they were from God.
Now you are the next to youngest of 12 sons. You’ve sneaked on your brothers, and dad’s given you a flashy new coat. Then you get this dream about everyone else bowing down to you. So what do you do? If you’ve any sense you stop wearing the flashy coat and you don’t under any circumstances tell your brothers about this dream. Not Joseph. He tells them! (And again Genesis says ‘and they hated him all the more for it’.) This is really serious sibling rivalry.
So soon the brothers get an opportunity. They are with the family’s flocks way out in the desert, and Joseph comes looking for them. They talk about killing but one of them says let’s just leave him in this well – intending to go back later and rescue him. But then they see a caravan of merchants on their way to Egypt and one of the older brothers (who should giving the right lead to the others) says with the utmost hypocrisy ‘ What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood. Let’s sell him to these traders and not lat a hand on him –after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood’ – as if selling him into slavery was generous of them! And they return home to convince their father that his best-loved son is dead.
So Joseph becomes a slave. He serves his master so well that he runs the entire house. Joseph is conscientious; Joseph is wise; Joseph is gifted; he’s also well built and handsome. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him – when he honourably resists she accuses him of attempted rape and he gets thrown into prison. At this point Joseph might have been thinking that life wasn’t very fair. He’s been sold into slavery by his brothers and now unjustly imprisoned. If he still believed in God he must have been wondering what God was doing; he may thought that God was on holiday. But just as Genesis says that God was with Joseph in Potiphar’s house, God is still with him in prison. His wisdom and his gifts are recognised, and Joseph is put in charge of the whole prison.
While in prison Joseph interprets other prisoner’s dreams in ways that came true. One of them is released and goes back to work for Pharaoh – but doesn’t put in a word for Joseph – then. Again Joseph would have thought this very unfair.
The Pharoah gets a dream – the famous dream about 7 fat cows followed by 7 thin cows. No-one can interpret it until Joseph is remembered by the former prisoner. Joseph interprets the dream as 7 years of plentiful harvest followed by 7 years of famine. He then goes beyond the interpretation of the dream and advises Pharaoh to store up food from the 7 years of plenty so there is enough for everyone in Egypt to survive the 7 years of famine. Great idea, says Pharaoh, and appoints Joseph to do it and effectively makes him prime minister. Again Joseph’s gifts and his wisdom are recognised.
When the famine comes, it affects the whole of the Middle East, and not just Egypt. But because of the wisdom of Joseph, Egypt has food to spare. And now the big story of the Bible comes into play again. God intends to bless the whole earth through the descendants of Jacob. If they do not survive the famine, that’s the end of the story. So even though Joseph and Jacob had provoked the hatred of Joseph’s brothers; even though the brothers’ hatred had betrayed Joseph into slavery; even though the wickedness of Potiphar’s wife (and the feebleness of Potiphar himself) had unjustly sent him to prison – God is able to make use of all of this mess and weave it into serving his purposes of preserving Israel SO THAT THROUGH ISRAEL’S DESCENDANTS (AND ESPECIALLY JESUS) HE MAY BLESS ALL THE PEOPLES OF THE EARTH – you and me included.
So what do we learn from this story? Clearly there are lessons to be learned about how not to behave as a family – beware of favouritism, jealousy, resentments which can build up into hatred.
Admire the example of Joseph in terms of his conscientiousness, wisdom, gifts and integrity. Especially admire his willingness to forgive his brothers, to be reconciled to them and ultimately to save them from death through famine. of great famine. (But his wisdom and desire to serve his master Pharaoh do have unforeseen consequences at the end of the story as he makes the Egyptians give their land to Pharaoh in return for food, which leads in the short-term to them becoming serfs and Pharaoh becoming even more powerful. Ultimately, perhaps, Joseph’s actions in the best interests of Pharaoh lead to slavery for the people of Israel – see next week.)
At the heart of this story, however, is God. God actually is not mentioned much. He is not said to be the sender of dreams. The arrogance of the boy Joseph, the favouritism of his father Jacob, the wicked actions of Joseph’s brothers, of the slave traders, and of Potiphar and his wife are actions they themselves carry responsibility for. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that God made them do it. Yet the Bible does implicitly suggest that God’s purposes are achieved in terms of preserving Israel from death by famine. The caravan of slave traders happens to appear; Joseph’s co-prisoners happen to have dreams which Joseph interprets – and one of them happens to work for Pharaoh; Pharaoh happens to have a dream about plenty and famine which Joseph can interpret.
And through all these ‘happenstances’ God’s people (and many others) are saved from famine; and God’s purposes of blessing the whole world can continue.
The family at the heart of this story are very dysfunctional. They get lots of things wrong. They are sometimes wicked, they often mess up. God doesn’t make them mess up, but he is brilliant at picking up the pieces when they do mess up. Not just picking up the pieces, but bringing about good. Joseph is the first example in scripture of Romans 8:28:-
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
For Joseph, he might have preferred not to go through all the things he went through. But others were blessed through them. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane expresses his preference not to go through what he was facing – but he did, and others including us were blessed through them.
So what about you and me? Firstly, you don’t have to be perfect for God to work through you. Secondly, try to have the integrity that Joseph showed; and thirdly, try not to mess up – but when you do, know that God can always turn it round and bring good out of it. But that good will be for others, not just you, because God is always thinking of the big story.